Susan Baum

SUSAN BAUM

Dr. Susan Baum. I’m a professor at the Graduate School of the College of New Rochelle right outside of New York City.

Some people wonder what’s the difference between gifted and talented and how does it—how do we identify them. I don’t like that distinction. I think that when people have special abilities with special aptitudes, you can call them talents or you can call them gifts. I don’t like to distinguish among uh different labels that really mean the same thing. And I don’t like to put values on different kinds of gifts. So that to call some things gifts and other things talents seems to me that we are making a value statement and that does not—I don’t think that’s appropriate. Uh, what’s important to me is that we’ve—when we’re talking about giftedness or talents, I think we need to be very specific as to what children are talented in. I think in gifted education we’ve made a really big mistake. We identify some children as gifted by some score on a test, give them a curriculum that may have nothing to do with their gifts or talents or their passions. So that in my more recent work and the kinds of work that I’ve done in the last five, six years, I’m looking for specific talents. We—if we want to look for young scientists that—or young engineers, or young performing artists, we really need to know what we’re looking for and um—and for me to find it, we need to use more authentic identification. I think we could audition children in any domain to see where their talents lie. Uh, we were in several grants, but we were looking for uh gifts in engineering and science, visual arts and performing arts and we actually put children through a variety of activities and we had checklists developed by professionals in those domains and they came and did activities with the children and we watched for certain behaviors to emerge. The behaviors were somewhat indicative of uh Resillies Three Ring Sign. So we’re looking for kids who were above average ability in a particular domain and seemed to be really interested in it, and seemed to be able to ask good questions when doing the activity and were somewhat creative as ways to at least tell us that there was potential there.

Well, I think it very much adds to the notion of giftedness. I think people make the mistake that multiple intelligence implies that everyone is gifted. But I think what it really does is allow you to look for gifts in a wide variety of domains because the young artist does not necessarily have the same underlying set of abilities as the poet. And so that the poet may have linguistic intelligence and be—that’s really a promise, but the artist may have more spatial intelligences that is at promise. And so that it really allows us to focus on what are those particular intellectual abilities that are expressed to specific domains?

I think there are benefits of both pullout models and mainstreaming. I think if you’re going to really develop talent, children must be with other children who have similar talents. We can’t develop good tennis players if they aren’t playing with other good tennis players. And I think that in an environment where children are with peers of similar interests and similar abilities, they then can be themselves. They don’t have to hide their gifts. They can ask uh intellectual questions and no one will laugh at them. They can allow their curiosity to motivate their uh behavior. But the problem is that many of these children are gifted all day long. I mean they’re not just gifted in their pullout program time, so that when they’re in the mainstream, or in with their age mates, we really need to attend to what is special about them. And so that if we’re—if we’re going to be working with children in the mainstream, I think it’s really important that teachers understand how to offer choices, how to differentiate the curriculum, how to understand that all these kids need to be taught at their instructional level. We do that in special ed. We don’t tend to do it with children who are academically advanced.

Key features for me of successful programs understand how to take children from novice levels to ex—levels of expertise. They understand that developmentally appropriate is a complex issue and that if I’m going to deal with a very gifted 8-year-old, I have to remember that she might be eight years old and so—socially and emotionally, but on the other hand she needs complexity in the curriculum. So the secret for a good program is to understand how you present challenging materials in a way that enhances a child’s level of understanding at that given moment and allows them the space to grow. I’m much in favor of programs that are more talent specific. I’d much rather pull kids out, multi-age group of young writers, then to have all the 5th graders come to me and for me to come up with some curriculum about Egypt. You know, to me it makes more sense to figure out what are the talent areas, what interests do the children have at this particular time and be very focused about what it is we’re trying to develop in those children.

Well, if using a gifted education in the elementary school, it should be much more broad based. I mean children have the potential to be great in so many, many things. And the secret is that we need to expose them to many, many things. And—and also research has told us that at novice levels of talent development, we need to be warm and friendly, we need to give children exciting experiences, we need not to be pushy, and we need to allow them to explore. They need this period of explorations where there’s—which allows them to see where are their interests, where are their potentials. By the time they get to high school, these things are more set and that is more of the time when we need to have much more rigor and we need to be really focused on talent development in a particular domain. And some of these children may need experiences outside of the school. They may be ready for um college level courses, they need—maybe better off in honors courses where they can go in greater depth into a particular area. Or, they may really want to go to a magnate high school where half of the day is spent on the arts, which is their talent area, and the rest of the day is spent on academics.

Interdisciplinary collaboration has been something that gifted education has embraced for a long time. But what I’m worried about and what a lot of writers are saying write now is that we can’t do interdisciplinary until we really do disciplinary. If children really don’t understand the major concepts and principles within a discipline and the methods and materials that we use in that discipline, the kinds of inquiry that takes place in a discipline, then interdisciplinary is not as rigorous as it need be in gifted education. I rather like the concept that we look at particular principles and concepts across disciplines, which is—I don’t know, Howard Gardner talks about that as being multidisciplinary or, you know, beginning to visit these same ideas to enrich them, to teach for a deeper understanding if you’re looking at a particular concept across disciplines. So I think that’s a very good thing to do, to collaborate around themes and concepts as they apply to particular disciplines so that we begin to get this order and more in depth understanding of the discipline.

I wish we had more of it. I wish we had a lot more policy in legislation in gifted education. Unlike special education, we are not protected in our field. Um (clears throat) I’m—I live in New York State and we are finally going to have an extension on our initial teaching certificate that uh allows people to teach gifted children. And finally we’re going to have um legislation that says if you teach gifted children more then 50 percent of the time; you must have this extension on your certificate and pass a state exam. And I think this is very, very exciting. I haven’t had the opportunity to um be in a state where they’ve paid any attention to gifted education. I’m really looking forward to it.

Well, my ongoing interest over time has been on children who are both learning disabled and gifted. Uh, today that’s extended to other twice exceptional labeled as well, ADHD, and it’s relationship to giftedness. Um, children who have labels of behavior disordered and gifted, I’m beginning to call many of those children the alphabet children because they seem to have more letters after their names then I do with my advanced degrees. It really troubles me because these children are not often appropriately identified and don’t receive the kinds of services they need. In a sense, they need what we call dual differentiation. We need to accommodate their gift and we need to attend to some of the more problematic weaknesses. The problem is, sometimes when we’re not attending to the gift, the problematic weaknesses or their behavior disorders, or the ADHD-like behavior is really an effect of not paying attention to the gift. Now that has—so I’m very, very much concerned about not having this comprehensive view of children and have people who are from different disciplines talk about these children through a variety of lenses because I don’t think we do that in schools today. The other area of research that I’ve done more recently is looking at stress in adolescent youngsters, especially high ability youngsters. We’ve been doing that in this country and in international schools um in Eastern Europe and Africa. And we’re finding that, you know, these bright kids have so many demands on them that they experience high levels of stress. And because they’re getting all ‘A’s, no one is asking them about this. And it really troubles me that we view how well our gifted adolescents more by their grades then we do by how they’re dealing—you know, what—at what cost are they getting these grades?

When I’m talking to parents about raising a gifted child, I try to get them to focus on what is the passion of your child? You know, from early childhood you can tell. I have three children. My daughter never played school. I played school growing up. I ended up in education. She never played school. She was always being the actor. Even with playing with her dolls, organizing community plays, entertaining at family outings. If you pay attention to what your children are doing when they’re young, you have a pretty good idea of where their passions and talents lie and to encourage them to pay attention to these passions. Looking at the—the children when they’re at their personal best, when are they in flow? Flow means, when are they totally engaged in an activity where they’re bringing their creativity, their motivation, their all blending into the moment? And the children are accomplishing great things. Parents need to pay attention to that and to support that and to encourage their children to look for careers that bring them to flow and, you know—and not to be so concerned whether they’re getting an ‘A’ or they’re getting a ‘B’. And to me, just to encourage their creativity and try to bring—point out to the children uh—let me stop here. Got confused here. I’m going to go get a drink. I’ll back up a little bit. Um (clears throat) And parents should encourage their children to pay attention to when they are happy and when they are excited about some project that they are doing and to point out the opportunities that are available if they choose to go that route.

My feelings about under achievement are focused in probably two ways. Number one, what is under achievement? How poorly does a child have to be doing to call this child an under achiever? Um, so I am concerned about the idea that children may not every year work up to their potential. I don’t think that’s terrible if they seem to be productive in other areas of their lives. I think it’s—to think that children have to always work hard at redundant material is not appropriate. I think children should have the permission to underachieve for a year if they want to, for a semester. One thing about this—our education system is that we can always get back in the loop. And so I don’t worry so much about under achievement unless the child is failing, the child is despondent at home, has no interest, then I am much more concerned. However, I think there are things we can do for children who are not motivated to do their schoolwork. I find that many of these children need to be recognized for who they are, not for what they can do. And when we can find adults to pay attention to what these children have to say to us, even if they’re not achieving, they’ll find their way. Give them an opportunity as—to find their way and to set goals for themselves. On under achievement projects in which I’ve worked, we’ve found that paying attention to the child’s passion, what the child might be interested in the moment and supporting that often turns them around. If they can accomplish something, they are excited about and that’s rigorous. That has a real world audience. Many, many exciting things happen and uh I guess the bottom line is, accentuate the positive and rule out other causes for the under achievement. I worry that their might be an undiagnosed learning disability. We need to rule that out. I worry that their might be stress at home. Parents might be going through a divorce. There might be emotional reasons why the child is under achieving. And last, we do want to make sure that the—the children are being challenged in the classroom. Why do work that’s redundant? So rule out those possibilities. Make sure that they have some um—that they’re—they have the appropriate peer group and I think that things will fall back into place.

I respond to people who say gifted education is elitist by saying, “Doesn’t every child have a right to learn something new every single day?” I think that we can be accused of educational abuse if we don’t teach children at their instructional level. If we honor diversity of gifts and talents, no one would claim that gifted education is elitist. If we instead believe that only 5 percent of our population has gifts and talents, maybe we are being elitist? I also feel that all children should be offered enrichment. All children go on field trips. All children should be offered interesting curriculum. It should not just go to children we are calling gifted and talented because then we become elitist. So I—I think that calling gifted education elitist means that we ought to be improving regular education, not taking these programs away from these children.

I think that if we really wanted to improve gifted education, we should offer more options for these students. The prescribed curriculum is often so deadly it—to me curriculum should be like a trampoline in which we provide that bouncy platform that allows the children to jump as high as they can under their own energy. Unlike a swing where we push them, unlike a playpen where we pen them in, we should begin to provide this environment that has no ceilings. I think then we would find many, many more children turning their promise into wonderful, wonderful self-actualized um beings.

No. I’m sorry. (laugh) Well, maybe—the one thing that bothers me is that too often we see that children are only gifted when they reach 4th grade. I don’t—the primary years are so important in making sure children don’t get turned off to school. And somehow early childhood education has given the idea that we just shouldn’t put—oh, give children challenging curriculum and inadvertently, we really have created a terrible environment for some of these youngsters. It doesn’t take four years for a child who is really talented in mathematics to cover that K-through-3 curriculum. Somehow we’re so afraid of acceleration in schools, we think it’s such a dirty word or even challenging children a little bit beyond what they’re doing in early childhood that, you know, that—my own students think it’s a dirty word when I say to them, “Why don’t we accelerate the—the process here? Bring the children to the next level.” And they just look at me, “Why would we want to do that?” So I do worry about what happens in primary years and we didn’t talk too much about that today.