Would we ever consider sending our Olympic athletes to Sochi without a coach? How are the athletes in Sochi similar to intellectually and creatively gifted learners? How are they different? How do we as teachers coach our gifted students toward academic and creative greatness?
According to Renzulli, giftedness occurs when we have above average ability, commitment to task, and high levels of creativity. This definition fits our Olympic athletes, although I wonder how much creativity it takes to ride the luge. I guess I will have to ask Erin Hamlin of the United States.
Athletic ability is one area of giftedness according to the Marland Report of 1973. That proves that our best athletes are highly gifted. But with millions, perhaps billions, of people watching the Olympics from around the world that seems like a given.
According to the Columbus definition, "Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally." I can’t imagine our athletes experiencing asynchrony.
Perhaps when they were young and trying to do difficult “tricks” they saw their heroes performing perfectly that might have caused some feelings of asynchrony. Asynchrony is more common for our intellectually and creatively gifted kids? They have these amazing ideas in their heads but they sometimes cannot get those ideas out onto the paper. The sculptures or models do not come out quite the way they had planned. This can lead to complete emotional breakdowns. Shaun White experienced a failure to medal in this year’s Olympics. Things didn't quite come out the way he wanted them to. But, he showed children everywhere, how to lose with grace. That is a lesson I hope every child brings with into adulthood. Especially our gifted kids because it can sometimes be difficult to deal with failure when you always do things well. It is easier to learn how to fail when you are young, with the help of a wise parent or mentor, than when you are older and haven’t failed until you hit your first difficult class in college or a situation you didn't handle correctly in the workplace. Those kinds of failures can seem far more crippling if you haven’t had instruction or modeling in how to fail gracefully and pick yourself back up. I image Shaun has had many failures along the way and learned lessons that he was able to share with the world.
The Olympics begin with a dream. For most athletes, reaching their dreams requires countless hours of training for both their mind and their bodies. In the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, he says that is takes 10,000 hours to master a topic. That made perfect sense to me until I read an article by Tony Manfred discussing a book called The Sports Gene. If both Shaun White and I began snowboarding at the age of 5 and roughly spent the same number of hours on the half pipe, with the same level of coaching, I cannot imagine that we would be at the same level of mastery in the sport. Our genetic makeup is quite different and I am not so keen about being upside down over hard packed snow.
This seems true for gifted kids as well. It takes gifted kids 1-2 repetitions to master information, where it might take the average student between 8-15 repetitions to understand the same piece of information. This means that a gifted student will need far less practice than the average student. It would also mean that the 10,000 hour rule would be debunked because the number of hours of practice is far different depending on the skills and level of task commitment each person possesses. It stirs up the age old question of nature vs. nurture.
There is a lot of competition to get into gifted programs. Like Olympic athletes, some students are recognized early, while others do not start “training” until they are in Jr. High or even High School. For gifted students, great “training” comes in the form of highly trained gifted teachers and/or intellectual mentors. Ideally a student would train with someone who knows more than they do about topics they are interested in. In some cases, this intimidates teachers. If the student is working beyond the teacher’s level, then together they need to find the best print, digital, and human resources for the gifted learner so they can proceed to the next level.
It would be a crime to keep our best athletes from reaching their dream. If the talent is there and the desire is strong we help them achieve their goals. The same should be true for our best and brightest students. If they are committed to the task, have a high degree of skill and creativity, we should challenge them beyond where they are currently working, and help them take the intellectually journey toward greatness. Not offering gifted students well equipped coaches, would be like the ring malfunction at the opening ceremony in Sochi when the final ring of the Olympic symbol didn't open. It is very noticeable to us and those around us when we do not reach our potential.
Exceptional teacher and coaches come alongside their gifted students as an advocate/ally, adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of each student, creating an architecture that maximizes their potential, aggregates the best resources, and creates an atmosphere that eventually leads to complete autonomy. This model works for coaches and teachers. In education the A+ model creates exceptional gifted teachers who help their students “Go For the Gold.”