F Richard Olenchak


F. Richard (Rick) Olenchak: All right. I’m F. Richard (Rick) Olenchak. I’m professor and psychologist at the Urban Talent Research Institute at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas.

Gifted and talented students are people who are first and foremost individuals and it’s critical that people look at them one by one. It is wrong in my mind to look at any group of people around group definitions. And while the field of gifted and talented education and psychology is replete with lists of characteristics and traits and behaviors and so forth, it really is important to move far beyond such lists and to look at individual people and how they interact with the environments where they are.

Gifted students with non-traditional talents are really spanning uh a wide range of abilities that typically in the traditional school setting are not served. And if they are served, it’s rather half-hearted and fleetingly. We’re talking about people who, for example, might flourish in a vocational area that sadly the United States has all but turned its back on. Curiously enough, neighboring nations like Canada have wonderful programs for students who can excel in a wide range of areas, for example, in the vocational arts and recognize such gifts in those domains and develop them. It’s really critical, I believe, that in this country we as well develop a wide perspective really using a wide-angle lens, if you will, to examine people for the ways that they might contribute to not only society, but to develop of themselves. And this would encompass every kind of field you can imagine that might be productive and uh might contribute.

Under achievement, it’s been said by a number of researchers in this field is the most devastating, perhaps the most perplexing issue of all when we work with development of young people because under achievement by definition indicates that we—there is reason to believe—we as adults have reason to believe that the young people can flourish in some way that they aren’t flourishing. So it brings about notions of young people who may be in some way frittering away their God-given talents and often, sadly, may not even realize that they’re frittering away. So one of the things that teachers really need to do first and foremost is to, again—again, really look at individual students in a way that allows us to get a—a some picture of—of who they might be, the array of uh fields in which they might excel, and how we might go about nurturing and developing those fields. That’s really step one. Step two then is once we have some idea about the nature of an individuals interests and—and potential gifts, then it’s critical that schools offer very specific strategies that will cater to developing those specific gifts. One of the things I emphasize frequently is the integration of cognitive and affective development so that young people actually are developing their whole selves, as it were, as opposed simply to focusing on a specific gift. In fact, I think gifted programs focus simply on a array of strategies to develop giftedness according to someone’s textbook definition instead of looking at the individual are more likely to create and nurture under achievement then they are to create and nurture achievement. So I have a rather unusual view I guess on under achievement from most researchers in this field. And it may come as I think an attachment to the kind of work I’ve done with specifically children from what we might view as disadvantaged uh not affluent backgrounds, often in urban settings, where opportunities may with—be within their views but they can’t actually reach out and touch them. For example, I have several students with whom I work in several large cities where they can actually see the gleaming buildings of downtown, but they’ve never even been there, yet they’re less then a mile away. So it sort of gives some idea that under achievement actually can be nurtured just like achievement can be nurtured. So I think it becomes requisite on schools and teachers to focus on helping young people see where they might fit into a particular domain of talent and then offering a wide array of enrichment and accelerated options where young people can begin to experiment and—and see where they might fit. I don’t think our apriory psychometric assessments help us very much in detecting under achievement and I’m certain they do nothing to help us really reinforce achievement.

I think the most critical thing to do to accommodate the affective dimension of able youth, gifted and talented, or students with high potential is to focus on their individuality. What are you about as an individual? What are you about as a person? What can we do to work with you to help you recognize who you are, how you fit in society? And once we help you recognize it, I believe it’s adults obligation to help young people to really discern opportunities for doing so. Social/emotional development, I think, goes hand in hand with fragility. I believe all people are fragile at a root core and I’m very concerned in an environment that over emphasizes “high stakes testing” and often makes such assessments, the sole measure for one’s worth. I—I think it often does damage to the affective dimension. I have several students, for example, with whom I work—and I can think of several at different age levels, uh elementary and middle and high school, but especially elementary and middle where young people already have grown you might say jaundice to the whole educationally system, seeing it as foe, artificial, not really intending to do anything for me as a person. In fact, that’s a direct quote from a 5th grader that “My school doesn’t intend to do anything for me as a person.” Which right there tells me that we’ve already done damage as an educational institution that—that this young person has a uh jaded view—I guess I’m mixing my colors, jaundice and jaded—a jaded view of education and what it might do for her to—to develop her potential. And she actually is a person of incredible potential. She’s already written a novel about um aliens and she’s developing sequels to it. And the whole—her whole premise of the first novel, the plot, is that um people on earth help this alien to determine who the alien is. So I think right there she’s actually telling us a message—giving us a message as educators and as people who care about people—other people that somehow we really need to do more for individuals in helping them figure out who they are, how they fit. Social/emotional issues, affected dimensions to me, to quote Art Costa from Association for Super Vision and Curriculum Development, is simply one-side of the same coin of cognitive development. And schools these days particularly seem to me to be set with cognitive development. I’m not at all indicating that we shouldn’t attend to that. Of course we must. But I believe often we forsake affective development, the social/emotional side, just so we can get better test scores. I can think of another child, for example, in—in uh high school now, though she said this to me last year when she was in 8th grade, she said, “You know, Dr. O. I’m really upset that school really only uses me for my brain.” And I said, “Well, Heather what do you mean?” And she said, “Well, they really only want me hear so I can help beef the schools test scores.” So I think right there is a very tell-tell message that somehow school and—and the whole educational community is not serving her as an individual. She sees school simply as a—a series of hoops and she’s jumping very aptly through them but she doesn’t see that school is reinforcing her development on a personal level that—that as she say, “They’re only after her smarts.”

Gifted students with learning disabilities are probably among my two or three passions. These are people who have immense talent yet often the talent is clouded by some sort of learning problem that impeded traditional learning as we see it in a classroom. And it’s funny, the same individuals who in a traditional classroom may be reeking havoc, not succeeding, uh described by teachers as losers, slackers, every kind of negative pejorative you can think of are outside of school flourishing. I think one student whom I studied for a number of years, exceptionally brilliant uh but also with extreme learning problems, was writ—all but written off by the school. And he was only in 5th grade when he was written off. And his name was Kendall. And Kendall often would say to me, “You know, I know they’ve written me off, but it’s OK.” Well, I didn’t really quite get why it was OK. He seemed to have his fair share of friends—by the way I might add many of them were also exceptionally bright kids with learning problems. Um, but I still couldn’t understand why he saw school as OK because school for Kendall was a very negative experience from eight o’clock in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon. He was constantly badgered by teachers to do his work and often times he really couldn’t do his work. When he would go out of the regular classroom for remedial assistance in—from learning disability support team, he often would sit there and day dream and not follow through. All in all school for him was—was a bummer, frankly. His word. He also once said to me that “School treats me like I’m broken.” You know, like some—when something falls apart. But all in all still, he was happy. Well, as a psychologist this really bugged me because I couldn’t figure out why somebody who spent his day so negatively still would be happy. So I started following him. Yes, I did. I was a stalker. Um, fortunately I got his mom’s permission. And I found out that Kendall was really doing phenomenal things outside of school. He won awards from 4H and some other organizations. But the up shot, the real kicker for me was that he had founded his own business. And he had actually set him self up as a distributor for newspapers. He’d started out with a simple paper route himself and he monopolized, if you will, his whole end of that community so that he became the newspaper distributor and he had all these adult paper route carriers working for him. And in fact, you know, in 5th grade he was already earning and banking a sizable sum of money each month. So I—what I discerned with somebody with learning disabilities, yet immense capabilities who outside of the traditional learning environment where he was made to feel broken, was not broken at all, but in fact, incredibly bright, incredibly able to organize himself as well as other people. So I think gifted people with learning disabilities present a conundrum. On one hand we have people with incredible potential and on the other hand as teachers and—and as parents, we want that potential to be realized and actualized in a traditional way. And quite frankly for—for many gifted people with learning disabilities, especially more extreme cases of learning disabilities, we find that they simply will never, ever excel in the kind of traditional classroom way that we most want for them. So it becomes I think our responsibility, our obligation to steer them toward careers where they can be successful and to show them opportunities where they will excel. Fortunately for Kendall, he found his way to a special college that catered to young people who were extremely bright and also had extreme cases of learning disabilities and he’s now running a business as a—a young business executive. So I—I think there are a lot of positive stories about gifted students with learning disabilities but I—my caution, my ultimate warning to teachers is this, is that we must be wary not to concentrate on the weakness. We must de-emphasize the weakness and focus on the strength. And that’s the only way we will ever develop their immense gifts and that’s the only way we’ll help them really become self-actualized in a school setting.

OK, good question. Um, oh, did it again. I’m sorry. Gifted students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder um are another group of able youth who really interest me. One of—one of the chief concerns I have is that many people in education don’t even term them appropriately. I can’t tell you—I was recently at a—a nationally uh famous bookstore chain and I was pawing through books—and I’m bad about bookstores because I spend lots of time there and my wife goes crazy because she knows I’m going to spend money, but I was pawing through all these books about people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. And I can’t tell you how many brand-new books referred to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD. In fact, beginning in 1994 with the publication from the American Psychiatric Association of the Diagnostic statistical manual for really serving mental disorders, the whole syndrome of Attention Deficit Disorder was changed always to be named Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And the reason that was is that psychiatrists and psychologists alike had discerned that all people who have attentional problems of the magnitude that can be formerly diagnosed tend to have a propensity for hyperkinectic behavior. The hyperkinectic behavior may never be realized. So as a result, though it sounds like double talk, in the diagnostic statistical manual for—that was published in ’94, the syndrome was formerly termed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and you can have it with or without presence of the hyperactivity being played out. So that’s one of my pet peeves and I guess I just had to say that first. But this population interests me because I am convinced that many students who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are, in fact, not students with ADHD at all but are gifted students. They’re high ability young people who are finding it difficult to find a—an environmental home, if you will, within a traditional school classroom. They are often highly creative, they’re often highly inventive, they’re often highly analytical and insightful young people who have trouble with uh a worksheet-driven, textbook-driven, state high-stake tests-driven curriculum. And often find it absolutely critical to flourish um—to have access to a high-quality personalized curriculum and instruction. And in the face of that not being available they end up spacing out, not paying attention, not fitting in, uh not really being part of the fabric of the classroom, not being contributors, not being participant. Sometimes if the hyperkinectic behavior is present that’s also thrown in for good measure. So as a result, we have young people who often look like they’re acting out yet, in fact, they aren’t really acting out like people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder would. In fact, they’re responding to a low stimulus or low challenge environment. There’s a famous researcher, far more the scholar in this field then I, Nem Robert Barkley who’s at Harvard University, and he views such behaviors along a continuum and at one end of the continuum is impulsivity. And if you think of impulsivity being related to high levels of creativity, which in fact we know it is from the years of research on creative people, and also at least related to high levels of giftedness, and why we aren’t assured that it is related to high levels of giftedness, again we have reason to believe because we know that creativity is highly related to giftedness, then you start to develop a picture, if you will, of young people who are highly able and if not properly stimulated, not properly challenged, not offered the kind of instruction and curriculum that really will benefit them start demonstrating behaviors that look like a wide variety of other frankly negative syndromes, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been known to say, so I’ll say it now, that I believe that many schools and many physicians and many parents and many schools have agreed to exchange giftedness and creativity for controlled, compliant classroom behavior by administering medications. That’s certainly not to say that there aren’t people who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Of course, there are. There are people who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and there are people who are gifted and have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. My concern is that we have over diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and under diagnosed, if you will, giftedness and creativity.

Well, my third real passion in gifted and talented education, I guess I’d have to say centers around the battle of the sexes, if you will. It’s the gender issues. It’s what happens to bright girls, it’s what happened to bright—happens to bright boys. Really is a result of their being in a culture that demands certain things of them. Now that’s not to say every culture doesn’t demand things of males and females differently. In fact, every culture in the world does. But my concern, at least for my own culture in the United States as diverse as our culture is in this nation, that we attend to young people in a way that again is very personalized, that allows the young girl, for example, who’s interested in perhaps pursuing physics uh to the max, that we allow—not only allow it, that we encourage it and facilitate it. And—and related to that I’m reflecting on a young man whom I know who actually got all the way to college level at my own university being pushed into the sciences. And it’s true he’s extremely intelligent. He came to college with above a 4.0 grade average—at a 4.0 because it was inflated due to a rigorous collection of advanced placement in international baccalaureate classes he took in high school. Incredibly intelligent. And as he says, had participated in every science fair known to human kind and had always placed 1st or 2nd without a doubt every time because he came from a parent, 1st generation Americans, um who really expected him to be in science and to become a medical doctor. And it was related largely to social and cultural expectations that is a male with a lot of intelligence that he go into such a—a lofty profession as medicine. Truth is, is this young man named Jimmy was most interested in the culinary arts and through a lot of counseling work with me and other people finally developed the—the intestinal fortitude to sit down with his parents and say to them, “I don’t want to be a medical doctor, I want to be the world’s greatest chef.” Well, his parents didn’t deal with that very well initially. Again, a lot of it was culturally laden and again tied to the expectations not only of their native culture, which was Vietnamese, but also to—to our own culture in the United States that says bright, intelligent young men need to enter certain kinds of careers. And cooking, though we rejoice as an aside, television programs like “Emeral”—by the way, I’m an amateur chef. I watch “Emeral” all the time—um, we really don’t allow that to happen in young people. We don’t encourage it, we don’t facilitate it, we discourage it. So he made his way all the way to junior year in college as an under graduate with wonderful grades in school prior to college. Once he got in college he started floundering, grades were rapidly declining. He was becoming all but a hermit. Um, why? Because he really was doing something he did not want to do. I’m happy to report that we finally got his parents to face reality that it was OK for Jimmy to pursue his real passion in life with zeft—zest and allon and he is. He’s enrolled in a culinary arts school and he’s flourishing. Um, he’s put his name in for a scholarship to a—I can’t think of the name—a very lofty cooking school in Paris. And we have every reason to believe he’ll get there. And his goal is truly to become the world’s greatest chef and I believe with his intelligence, he will get there. So again, that—that’s one story related to one young man and how cultural expectations really were all but about to do him in. He often says to his uh counselor that he’s very grateful that we found him because he wonders what would have happened to him if he had—he had gone on and somehow, as he says, squeezed into some third-rate medical school because his grades had—had fallen so during his undergraduate years that that really is probably all he would have gained admittance to a third-rate medical school. And he wonders what would have happened to him there and—and if he had even persisted through that, what ultimately would have happened to him as he entered his career as someone who really didn’t want to do that. So I—I could also tell some stories about young women, but I’d have to say that’s my third passion, the whole interaction of talent and giftedness and creativity with—with the genders and how society expects males to do certain things and females to do certain things.

I did. (interruption) Sure, I could. Um, one of my interests is in the school-wide enrichment model. And certainly people who will look at my uh veto will say, “Well, of course he’s interested in that. He went to the University of Connecticut.” Since the University of Connecticut is the home of the school-wide enrichment model it’s only natural he’d do that. But I am legitimately interested in that model, not only as a way to evoke giftedness from young people, but it’s a way to improve the whole fabric of a—a school house. I actually helped test that model before it had that name. I was principal of a school and at that time we—we were searching for something to improve our school. And this man named Joe Renzooli, whom I had known, called me up and said, “Gee, would you like to test this?” And I said, “Absolutely.” So we organized ourselves and our school and it was a kindergarten through 8th grade school. So we sort of had a nice—nice little setting in which to pilot this. And we really orchestrated a school-wide effort to raise the bar uh for everyone, really enrich everything for everybody in the school and yet at the same time go about the task of helping young people identify their passions and really I guess help nurture gifted behavior um through a variety of outcomes. We focused on the personal level of individuals and not on group labels. We dispensed with uh identifying and serving young people based on labels because that really doesn’t work to develop talent. So what I found over the years in—in my own research about that model either directly or indirectly is that by orchestrating a program that really tries to help young people identify their gifts and talents by having them—those gifts and talents emerge through interactions with—with adults who are passionate about their work through enrichment activities, through a variety of—of events and—and uh training uh programs even in—in skills, problem solving and so forth, that you really end up not only with a very rich setting for all young people, but you do, in fact, end up with gifted and talented people really self-identifying them—themselves—I guess that’s redundant—or self-identifying through their interactions with those activities. I’m reminded of a biblical quote, “Ye shall know them by your deeds.” And I believe that that plays out very much in school-wide enrichment. You don’t really need apriority psychometrics to find who might behave gifted if you offer the kind of high-quality nourishing—nurturing environment where those talents can develop and emerge. So what I’ve found over the years through my research is that young people involved in such schools end up being happier. Um, they end up not only liking school, but they end up being more productive in school. Even students, for example, who have high levels of ability in a domain that isn’t necessarily a high priority in the traditional school culture, end up doing better in the traditional school subjects. Then more than that eve—teachers will love this, we found conclusively that teachers like going to school better themselves. So all in all it’s sort of a win-win-win for everybody, teachers, students, and parents.

I think gifted programs can be elite depending on the way their established. I believe that in some locations because of the identification measures and the use of inappropriate uh really cut off scores that cannot be defended psychometrically, we almost set ourselves up for criticism of being elite. Its—it’s sort of a sad state of affairs because I do believe that such programs, even though they’re misguided do have the best of intentions and that is helping young people who have a great deal of ability ultimately develop and—and nurture that ability. But sadly, I think we have in some cases set ourselves up for charges of elitism. I think attendant to that though is the post-yuppie culture that exists in the United States today. And by that I mean high-powered um executive types who sadly often are self-involved I think may collect trophy children. And by that I—I think such individuals want to rather than parent their children, want to put them up on a mantel and say, “See, here’s my little ralow from my little rawlette, look how gifted they are.” And as an aside, I think such people do a disservice to gifted programs that really are struggling to try and legitimately their children. But I think such parents reinforce a spirit of elitism because all the while in—in setting their children up on the mantel they’re more or less throwing that in other people’s faces. So that’s not helped either.

The—my trip to Salt Lake City was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Now I’d been to Salt Lake City before and I certainly visited the tabernacle before. But I was always down in the audience. Well, I’m a singer—at least a singer want to be. And I sing in my church choir and I play musical instruments and I read music. But I’m certainly not what you would call accomplished. But thanks to a very good friend named Scott Hunsaker at Utah State—sorry BYU, but that’s where he is—and I don’t know why he did this for me. It’s the—truly one of the greatest presents anyone gave me. He set up—up an opportunity for me to join him, because he is a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and I got to sit there with the choir and sing with them during one of their rehearsals. And I’m not kidding you; it was one of my life’s moments. And I know my own family’s sick to death of me going on and on about this, but I can’t help it. It truly is—I mean, if I—I know that when get to my final breathing moment, that will be truly among one of my greatest memories of life on this earth. It—it was just magnificent. I—and I—I have to confess there were times I didn’t sing. I mouthed it because I wanted to listen to the glory around me. And if I was singing, I’d hear myself first. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to hear everybody else. It was truly wonderful. Uplifting, a great moment for an Episcopalian.

Well, Scott’s a baritone and as good luck or the grace of God would have, so am I. So I—I sat in the baritone section which if you are sitting—I believe that—that—you know the choir. But anyway, if you were out in the audience and you’re facing the choir, the baritones at least during this rehearsal sat to the right and in the lower level on the right hand side of the conductor. It was (interruption) oh, it was as my 19-year-old would say, “Way cool.” (laugh) It was fantastic. I’m so indebted to him. I—you know, I don’t even think he knows. And I’ve told him repeatedly, but I don’t think he truly can appreciate how meaningful that was for me. It was just wonderful. (interruption) Oh, it was fabulous. And the choir’s coming to Houston this coming year and we are all set to buy our tickets and be there in the front row. So, I can’t wait. (interruption) Oh, thank you. I’m flattered you asked. I mean it’s sort of nice to get on your soapbox. (interruption) Even though I bored these two guys to tears. Oh, gosh get rid of this guy fast! Where is that? Where’s the hook?