Ann Robinson

ANN ROBINSON

Ann Robinson:  OK.  I’m Ann Robinson.  I’m a professor of educational psychology and a director of gifted programs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Little Rock, Arkansas.

I think I’m pretty much influence um by the Talent Development Model of Giftedness which means that I’m extremely interested in how talent develops in specific domains. What makes a student or a learner particularly talented in mathematics, or science, or the arts, or uh—and whether that’s performing arts or the visual arts because it seems to me that talents express themselves in domains. And that way I’m very much influenced by Paul Witty who said that “A person could be talented or gifted in any reasonable area of human endeavor that was constructive in nature.”  And I—I profoundly believe that. Uh, what that means then, how that translates into indicators, are that youngsters who have those talents that develop over their lifetime are characterized by an intense—oh, an intense um identification with that talent area. I recall a wonderful episode on a Nova program years ago in which someone was interviewing Madori, the violist, and she said—she was only maybe about 8 or 9 years old—maybe 10 when this interview was taking place, and she said, “I am my violin.”  That’s, I think, an indicator of—of talent development, that you are so profoundly associated with that area that you become that area.  Um, so the rage to learn, the intense curiosity, the incredible persistence that children or adolescents have in a talent area are all indicators to me of um giftedness in the child.  Obviously also we like to see um potential manifest itself and so children who are uh quick to plunge into a talent area, quick to excel in it, those are all indicators of giftedness to me.

There’s been a great deal of controversy or at least there was controversy 10 years ago about cooperative learning and talented students. And I think uh that debate has come a distance but we could replay it a little bit to kind of understand how it affects teachers, how it affects children, and how it uh gets carried home to the dinner table frankly. About 10 years ago uh Jim Gallagher who was then the editor of the journal for the education of the gifted, asked me to debate in print Bob Slavin who is uh the uh developer of several cooperative learning models and we did engage in that debate in print. Um, and at that time there were several things about cooperative learning that I had questions about. Uh, and I must preface that by saying that I’m a person who used group learning in the classroom both when I was a high school English teacher and now as a college professor, I in fact do use group learning. But 10 years ago when I looked at cooperative learning, I thought there were some downsides to that type of learning with uh talented students and most specifically I thought that the developers of cooperative learning had not really investigated that effects on um our talented learners. Uh, students would express frustration, they would worry about the group product uh because it wasn’t meeting their standards and after all uh it’s—it’s hard to criticize a child for having very high standards. Um, that doesn’t seem to be the way to—to go.  So I felt that all in all they hadn’t really considered those youngsters and they were not well investigated in the research base. I also thought that uh some models of cooperative learning, some of the earlier models uh did not much allow our talented students to move ahead in the curriculum at a pace that was appropriate to their preferred learning style. There was almost a ceiling put on what they could accomplish uh because they needed to wait long enough for everyone to have acquired uh mastery of the task and such like. So I felt that there was a denial of curricular opportunity associated with some of those early cooperative learning models. Subsequently in the last 10 years, I would say that the cooperative learning developers and researchers have kind of shifted a bit and they’ve been more likely to take our talented students into account. Now um be that as it may, I’m not letting them off the hook one little bit, uh believe me I’m not, but I see that some of—one or two of the models are probably more appropriate for talented learners.  For example, the Group Investigation Model developed by the Shorans from Israel because it allows students choice. They can choose from among the things that they want to study.  They can choose and maneuver their own pace a bit more.  They may be working on a group project but they are evaluated on individual achievements, which I consider still to be very important if we want to understand what a learner knows and is able to do. We need to give them an opportunity to demonstrate that individually as well as in a group. So I think the later work on cooperative learning has been friendlier. Having said that, I’ll say there are some—still some very interesting issues and some that are actually, I think, coming out in the more recent work by the cooperative learning developers and advocates themselves. And that is something we ought to have known all along. Um, the parents know it, the teachers know it, uh we ought to know it to, and that is that not all children respond similarly to cooperative learning. Children who are quiet, children who are reticent, children who need quiet in which to think and work, uh children who are less aggressive may not thrive in these environments and they may not be terribly obvious. They may disengage quite quietly and not make a fuss but indeed they have disengaged from the task and that would be a shame. So even the most recent research by some cooperative learning folks uh will demonstrate that youngsters do not respond similarly in all settings and we need to take that into account. Because just as we are fond of saying in gifted education that one-size does not fit all, uh we can tweak that a little bit and say that uh cooperative learning does not fit all, all the time. And I think one needs to be careful. There are basically two kinds of motivational issues associated with cooperative learning that we need to be aware of. Um, one of those is the well-known “Free-rider Affect,” in which youngsters do not participate in the cooperative learning group because they’re looking about and they’re seeing two or three other people who could do the job just as well without them, so they free-ride, they disengage from the learning, and they haven’t gained from the experience. That’s a well-known phenomena and one that’s usually acknowledged by both proponents and opponents of group learning. A lesser known uh phenomena is called the “Sucker Affect.” And the “Sucker Affect” has been mostly investigated with older students.  So, for example, college students and secondary students, but it operates when an individual in a—in a group task says, “You know, I’m carrying this group and I’ve been doing it quite a while.  I’m getting kind of burned out. So rather then being played for a sucker, I will disengage and I will not do.”  And that—what I’m concerned about here is to what degree to our—our talented and motivated and eager learners, how long do they have to be in a non-productive group before they disengage and say, “I don’t want to be played for a sucker”?  It’s also true that most groups will carry youngsters who are school strugglers. They are not um critical or they are empathetic for their age mates who are struggling with the task and they will gladly and cheerfully carry a low performing kiddo in a cooperative learning group and be just quite good about that. But they tend to baulk when they see someone who is just as capable as they are of taking on part of the task load and who—who fails to do that then they—they—they start to uh—their sense of justice is violated. And so I think as we look toward the future one of the most interesting things about cooperative learning in talented students would be—a lot goes on in a small group whether you’re a parent, or a teacher, or a principal, or a college professor, and you think you’re watching a group of four learners learn, there are all kinds of interesting under currents going on there that are difficult to tease out. So we need to keep an eye on making sure those—those groups are working um cheerfully and productively and uh there’s not an under current of resentment going on in them. I guess the other thing I would caution us or think that I—I think is important about cooperative learning is not all tasks are best accomplished that way.  Some tasks are best accomplished is—in group learning settings. Those tasks, which really require more then one person to view them, are the appropriate curriculum and instructional tasks to give to children in that format.  But much of what is given to children as cooperative learning activities is not appropriate. It can be more easily, more profoundly, and essentially more effectively done in another format. Uh, we need to get that straightened out and we need to understand that cooperative learning is one form of group learning; it is not all forms of group learning.  Uh, I—I would just encourage teachers and educators in the central office or curriculum coordinators and parents at home to understand that cooperative learning is a form of group learning. Just if kids lean across the aisle and talk to one another, that doesn’t make it cooperative learning. We need to be clear about those definitions. Um, there’s all different forms. And if what you wanted was a little at—interaction, you can get it done in a number of ways.

When I think about the research support that we have for the things that we do at home and in schools to nurture talents in children, I am fairly hopeful. I think uh one thing to remember is that gifted education, a very young field, in a—in terms of its um history, it’s a very young field. And it takes a long time to build up a research knowledge base in which we have lots of studies, which support what we say we want to do, or what we think is best for children. Gifted education has not been around that long and yet we can find some very nice guideposts that point us toward the things to do at home and the things to do in classrooms and the things to do in schools at large that will help to develop talents in youngsters.  I know that when the U.S. Department of Education was interested in finding out what works with talented youth, they asked a team of folks uh to look at this research base under uh gifted education and we were able to determine that there were about 30 practices that seemed to have fairly solid research support and they ranged in variety from using primary source material in history in order to get kids to really understand how to think and act like historians, uh what to do with early readers, uh how to establish and sustain the mentorships effectively for talented learners who seem to get something slightly different out of the mentorship experience then um other students their age. So there are several things, several very practical things that I think the research tells us we can do.  In that regard I’m fairly hopeful. Um, as a researcher you want to say, “Well, we always could know more, we’d like to know more.”  There should be no—there should be more to know and that’s true, but I believe we have some good indications of what to do in the home and what to do in the classroom to help to nurture the talents of youngsters.

When I think of the most exciting recent developments in the field of gifted education I—there are lots. But one that ex—excites me and inspires me the most has to do with the field’s revisitation of curriculum.  We have been a field, you know, born out of educational psychology and interested very much in describing talents, and finding talents, and identifying talents and those are all worthy things. I would like us to keep doing that because I don’t think we know all there is to know. But I also believe that if you’re going to make a difference in the lives of children, that the focus on curriculum, which is what—after all, we ask children and adolescents to engage in curriculum day after day, hour after hour, week after week, month after month, and if we can focus our efforts on how to make that as exciting, and stimulating, and creative as we possibly can, that—that’s important. And through the Javits legislation, several large-scale curriculum projects have been funded in gifted education.  We have not seen the like of these since the 1960’s, the big curriculum projects that were funded in the 1960’s.  So that’s been over 30 years that we revisited what we should be doing in terms of curriculum for gifted students.  And now we have those. Um, we have language arts curriculum developed uh and investigated at William and Mary.  We have science curriculum also at William and Mary.  We have some social studies curriculum that are coming out of uh at least two Javits projects uh with which I’m familiar. Some in problem-based learning and some also anathematic, integrated curriculum model.  I think that’s incredibly exciting because it means that we’re—we have some folks working in the field who are fearless about getting into the real business of educating children all the way up to their elbows. I mean, uh messing about with curriculum and instruction is uh—is a challenge.  It’s a great challenge and thinking about using the curriculum to develop the talents in children is a wonderful approach for the field and it’s been 30 years since we looked in that direction. And now here we are arriving at the new millennium and we’re going to have these wonderful curriculum projects uh to show for our efforts. So they’re the—the product of more then one researcher and more then one uh group of folks working but taken together they mean that we have been serious about how we can work best in schools and classrooms in order to make instruction as exciting for—for our talented learners as we possibly can. I think that’s—I think that’s neat.  Exciting.

Um, let me be sure that I say it correctly.  Have we had no one talk about the year of the legislation?  My, my.  (interruption)

One of the things that people generally want to know once you’ve shared with them who you think talented youngsters are and how you might—how—how you might describe them, they’re interested in figuring out how you might actually identify them in a school setting.  And we’ve had some legislation that’s helped move us forward in matters of identification. The Jacobs—Jacob K. Javits legislation—I’ll restate that.  Do you want to cut, let me do that again because we can’t have me muffing the name of the legislation, OK? (laugh) Senator Javits just rolled over in his grave. (laugh) Let me come back to that. You ask the question again and I’ll just—just give me—give—give me—give it to me from the top, Sally, and I’ll do it again.

Once people have asked you who they—who you think talented youngsters are and how you would describe them, one of the things folks often want to know is how would you locate such youngsters in the school setting?  Unfortunately we’ve had some legislation nationally that points us in some interesting directions and important directions. Uh, the Jacob K. Javits legislation focused the field on how to find talents among children from low income homes and children from culturally diverse backgrounds, children whose talents might not be as easily recognizable or might not be expressed in ways that are most easily observed in the school setting. And that legislation had several parts but what it served to do was to refocus us on multiple criteria, on using tryout programs so that youngsters had a long time to show us what they knew and were able to do. They had us looking for talents across the entire spectrum of human ability. They had us looking um for youngsters and adolescents in school settings and out of school settings. They have us looking for identification procedures that use multiple indicators, both observation, assessments, um performance venues, all kinds of things that we can use to identify kids whose—who need uh qualitatively different education. And again, I think it helped us focus on some very tough issues for society and that is that uh we have underserved uh cultural groups in our society. We have kiddos who’s uh—who are not as likely to be identified for specialized services and we cannot turn away from that issue. It’s—it’s a passionate one. We have to look to see why that’s the case. And the Javits legislation has led people to that but also demanded that they look and find talents in all children.

You know, there’s a great divide in education and apparently occur—it occurs between elementary school and secondary school. I do not think this is specific to the field of gifted education and indeed we’ve been tinkering all along at trying to divide ourselves into early childhood, middle childhood, and high school, and junior high venues. But in fact when you want to serve talented youngsters either in the elementary school or the secondary school, the issues are different um, and they are different because the youngsters are different.  You have one approach to finding talent in very young children in that uh it must be free and unrestricted. Uh, you must look every—every minute, every day to see what young children are doing. Uh, they need a great deal of freedom in terms of expressing themselves creatively. They need lots of um nurturant, playful experiences for those talents to emerge and because there is generally in that school structure uh an individual, whether that be the classroom teacher or a gifted and talented facilitator or the pairing of both of those individuals uh looking after the best interest of those youngsters, that’s a school structure issue.  Uh, we can afford to be um a bit more general in how we serve gifted children in the elementary setting.  We can uh—we can serve them more broadly.  We can adjust the classroom more profoundly for them, for the individual child located in that classroom.  It can be done more easily at the elementary level.  Now that’s not to say it’s easy, but it can be done because in general there will be one or two educators uh who are watching over those youngsters, either—like I said, the—the combination of the classroom teacher and a G.T. consultant teacher or facilitator.  That’s because the elementary school is generally structured. Um, however, as you start to move up through the school grades, youngsters start to develop and they start to get profiles that look more like mountain ranges then like a wavy ocean. They start to get incredibly intense interests and incredibly deep valleys where they’re not interested in anything. So we start to say that the patterns of interests and abilities of emerging adolescents are crystallized.  They start to have sharp peaks and valleys. And if you’re going to work with that kind of a child, then you have to understand as merging adolescents the school structure has to be different.  It will be more content-based.  It has to be more content-based because once again, those gifts and talents are expressing themselves in things that we recognize as school subjects. I mean it is quite true that at the secondary level the subject matters.  The young adolescent who’s passionate about mathematics may very well be extraordinarily luke warm about history.  And so if you’re going to provide a continuum of services at the secondary school, you have to allow for passionate and deep interest that probably assumes more accelerative nature at the secondary school then you would for most programs at the elementary school. That’s not to say you can’t get individual children in elementary schools who also have those deep and passionate content interests that we’re going to have to deal with in that setting. But the structure of the school makes it more possible because there’s a greater degree of flexibility.  As you move toward secondary schools, the structures of secondary schools, which have not changed much in the last couple of centuries, uh we can either fight that as educators or we can understand that structure of elementary schools and program as best we can for talented adolescents. But the issues will be different. Uh, for example, one of the crucial issues that’s different is the number of educators that will be involved in delivering services to a talented secondary school student in comparison with what we might find with a talented youngster in kindergarten or 1st grade. That talented adolescent is going to need to encounter a whole army of educators uh in order to just get through the school day. And so our programming services at the secondary level will have to involve a great number of people. Uh you—the average adolescents probably—adolescents during the—during a high school day probably encounters 6 to 8 educators.  Well, that’s quite a different issue for someone who’s trying to devise comprehensive services to nurture talents in kids.  That involves battalions of people and that’s very different. Um, it also is the case that as youngsters move on towards secondary school, we have to be attentive to what I call the coin of the realm of the adolescent and that happens to be in high school, Carnegie units. We have to pay attention to the structure of the secondary school which allows our talented adolescents to move through the high school experience and acquire the kinds of Carnegie units that allow them to graduate or to go beyond graduation into accelerative work and understand that sometimes they will be making choices at the secondary level um that are difficult for them. They may have to choose between calculus and band.  Well, we wish they would never have to do that, but in fact they do. And so we’re going to have to get the kinds of services at the secondary level that allows students to make a choice. Um, don’t lock them out of choices, but show them how they’ve got to prioritize.  And some of the things that we tend to do for youngsters in elementary programs now become the purview of the co-curricular programs in the high school and we have to uh—a good metaphor to explain the differences between those two things is you need a lot of variety. You need a lot of variety at the elementary level and you need a lot of variety at the secondary level. But it’s nice to think of the elementary program as a Chinese noodle bowl. There are lots of flavors and lots of interesting things going on in it, but there’s one bowl. Somebody knows what’s happening for that individual, talented youngster all day long.  They may not be delivering it all day, but they know it. It’s all encompassed in one structure. As you move into secondary school, we’re no longer putting all our flavors in one Chinese noodle bowl; we now have a Smorgus Board with lots of different little dishes um, meaning that there are lots of educators and lots of programs and lots of classes that have to be involved.  And students at the secondary level now, instead of tasting of—of the Chinese noodle bowl where everything is mixed together and they can sample uh one big pot, now have to make choices from the Smorgus, load up their plates and move on in a—in a differentiated way.  (interruption)  Well, Smorgus Board is not mine, that’s Julian Stanley, but I tried to think what’s the parallel when you use that.  In the elementary school you have to have all the different flavors there but you can’t—you can’t always separate them out.  That elementary teacher has to be working on all that all the time. That’s what makes it so challenging, I think.

If someone gave me the chance to change one thing to make education better serve the needs of our talented youngsters, I would say that we need to think more eclectically in terms of our programs and services.  Our talented youngsters come in such a variety.  They are—they come in all colors, all shapes, all sizes, uh all deve—developmental trajectories, they’re young, they’re older, they’re—in their own eyes I’m sure ex—exceedingly uh mature, and one simple program model will not do for all. Uh, individual local contexts differ. I think sometimes we think of a program instead a continuum of services and I think uh that is not the way to go. Uh, that we need to be far more eclectic in how we serve talented youngsters and—and at the beginning. At the—in the very beginning understand the importance of that and agree to it.  Um, an eclectic programming model in a school district is not in my mind a sign of conceptual confusion, it’s simply a sign of understanding that one size does not fit all in general education, it does not fit all in gifted education, and it shouldn’t be the way we go. We need to be um quite eclectic about how we program for kids. And if we do that, I think the children, the teachers, the school decision makers, and the community at large will be more likely to embrace what we do for talented youngsters rather then less likely to do so.