Dr. Carolyn Cooper: I’m Dr. Carolyn Cooper and I’m the specialist for gifted and talented education with the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore, Maryland.
Gifted children are defined differently throughout the country, indeed throughout the world. Um, I happen to subscribe to a uh—to a definition that places giftedness as an action uh rather then as a noun only. I see gifted children as people who are well above average in their ability, but who—for whom that isn’t enough. I see an interaction taking place among clusters of their ability so that, for instance, if a child is all consumed in a passion area, a topic, a problem, something that’s really um troubling or um concerning—might not be troubling, but concerning a child to learn about it and to learn more and more about it alone doesn’t bring giftedness about. I see giftedness as coming about at an advanced level of this engagement in which a child spends an enormous amount of time, energy, resources, um passion is my favorite word when I talk about giftedness. All of these things and his or her creativity all coming together and when that interaction takes place, then something special happens, something magic happens and the action takes place and something results that has—makes an impact on a—a genuine real world audience. Um, that audience may be someone next door, someone in a nursing home, a policy in legislature. It may be um, uh class of students or a group of uh young children who uh could benefit from a book. There’s no telling who that audience is. There’s no prescription to this. But it’s when all of those factors come together, interact, and something magic happens and it happens because all those things have interacted. And that’s when giftedness takes shape.
Uh, identification is probably the biggest red flag we’ve ever had in gifted education because five people can’t agree on what it should be. Um, because—and it goes back to something I said a few minutes ago and that is that we can’t all agree on what giftedness is. So to identify a child with the potential for giftedness is very difficult if we can’t agree on what the next step is. So—but what I try to help parents with, and teachers with, and principals with, and other people who ask um about identification is that what most school districts do is wrong, I think. They go to the second step of the ladder instead of the first step of the later. Once they know what the student—what they want students to gain from special services for their giftedness, that’s what I call the intended outcomes. Once they have that in place, then they know they can go back and—and figure out “What does a child need to know? What does a child need to be like? What are the characteristics we’re looking for that will help that child achieve that outcome?” Now most school districts just jump to identification as soon as they get kids found by some means. It’s completely backwards. And so I say take the first step on the ladder first, which is “Where are we going?” And then the second step is, “Let’s find the children who demonstrate characteristics of the potential at least to achieve that outcome.”
Pullout models are fraught with problems, I think. I’ve been a teacher in a pullout program so I—I speak of that from experience. Um, they have some advantages too. I’ll start with the advantage. Whenever you can get children of a like mind or a similar ability, intellectual peers, or children who share a talent area and who are similarly comparably advanced in that talent area. In other words, kids who are pretty much alike in something um at a particular level. Whenever you can get them together, that’s an advantage because they—they stimulate each other, they learn from each other and they provoke each other’s thinking. That’s ideal. But most pullouts don’t happen that way and therefore come the problems. One of the problems of a pullout is that it’s very sparce, it happens once or twice a week for an hour or two or a half and hour or 40 minutes, some arbitrary time and very little continuity as a result is built up from one time to the next. It may let’s say only for one time during a week and the child could have zillions of things happen to him or her between that—then and the next week. And so um another problem often is that the teacher is—is not advanced in his or her right in the area in which the child is advanced and doesn’t really have the training to go about matching that child with a mentor on the outside of school who is able to coach that child. And advantage of mainstreaming, um I’m not sure there are a whole lot of advantages of um—of mainstreaming. I know that when we have a child, for instance, who’s gifted and learning disabled, that child needs to be—call it mainstreaming, call it whatever you want, I don’t like labels. But that child needs to have an appropriate challenge at an appropriate time and at the appropriate level of his or her ability. And whether it’s—I don’t care what we call it. That’s what has to happen. And very often mainstreaming is more to achieve a political um goal then to really look at what the child needs.
Oh, there are five. There are five key features to every kind of program. I don’t care if it’s for Boy Scouts, for church, for Grange, for any organization at all. If you’re going to have a group of people working toward an end, you have to have five pieces. So here they are. First of all, in the—in the order that they occur. You first of all have to have a philosophy, which is what I said a few minutes ago. You have to know where you’re going. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. And so philosophy is first. That’s step number one. Second thing is once you have the philosophical stance and you know where the group is heading and for what purpose, then you look at how you identify the people who are going to be there. What do they have in common and all the rest of the things that go with identification. So now you have the philosophical statement, you have your beacon, if you will, your direction. You have the people who are going to be involved. The next thing is, “What’s the curriculum?” What’s the program that they’re going to be following? What are they going to be doing? What’s—we know the purpose, we know who, now this is the what. The next thing is who the teacher is who the teacher is or who are the people who are going to act in teacher roles. And finally, the organization, operation, and accountability of what happens um, nitty gritty, every day kinds of things, facilities, budget, administrative leadership, communication, evaluation, all those things. Those are the five pieces of any successful program.
Differentiation is um a canopy as I describe it, a wide, broad canopy. I don’t like umbrellas, a broad canopy under which many different kinds of services can be found. And the canopy, all those things have in common. Uh, and that canopy covers accommodations that are made to challenge students at their level of ability. Their—their performance may not be up to their ability so you have to look at what their ability really is. Uh, Carol Tomlinson talks about readiness. She says if we’re going to differentiate let’s say curriculum and instruction and they’re two sides of the same coin—if we’re going to differentiate for bright children, we have to see where they are with respect to what we’re about to teach them. Same thing for children who are struggling learners for different reasons, but they have—we have to determine where they are and then take it from there. On to differentiation, there is one—there are many different techniques. But one thing I like particularly is curriculum compacting. And that means that every child does not need, if he is ready or she is ready let’s say already knows the subject matter, he or she doesn’t need to sit through all the explanation all over again because he or she already knows it. So we can compact or compress the information that we the teacher are about to give in all of our various steps. We can compress that once we determine that he child already knows that. Why have him or her sit through a repetitive explanation that’s needless for that child if he or she already knows it. That’s one technique. There’s teared learning, there’s lots of other things. But curriculum compacting is something that isn’t done nearly enough and yet it is vital. It’s a—it’s an accommodation for student needs.
I tell them lots of things, but one thing I really like to tell them is um when their children are very young, they need to ask “What if” questions. I have found in my 40 years in this field that we have altogether too many children who are um perfectionists. Can’t help it, that’s how they are, but a lot of it comes from home. Not entirely, but a lot. Um, we have too many children who think that they have to have the right answer all the time. I call it the “Right Answer Syndrome.” I’ve seen children with bleeding ulcers at the age of eight. Can’t be, we need to stop this business. So what I tell the parents is, if—when these children are very young, start playing games with them and say, for instance, let—we’re going to play a game with um “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” story tonight, just for fun. You have to tell them it’s a game, otherwise they’ll think you’re going to pull a fast one on them. So we’re going to play a game with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Let’s say that she went to the house of the three fishes instead of the three bears. How would that story be different? Every little kid takes that long to come up with the differences because they’re not inhibited, their not old enough to know that they’re not suppose to have those answers, they let their creativity flow, and the purpose of all of that is later on when they—when they do start to mature, they are not afraid of real life problems. They can use their creativity to apply—and apply it to problem solving.
Collaboration uh among teachers has to take place if we are going to challenge children appropriately. One teacher can’t do it all. We need to find teachers who have strengths, every teacher does, or most teachers do. Find someone—that teacher may the teacher in the building, it may be a teacher down the hall, upstairs, outside the building, it may be a mentor, but collaboration needs to take place so that we can share teacher strength with student strength. It has another reason, another purpose too. And that is um children need to know and few seniors in high school know this, they need to know the interconnections between and among the principles the—the um conclusions, the uh foundations of knowledge, the big ideas of the world, and many seniors don’t even know this. They see their—all their information, all their knowledge that they have acquired since they first went to school in compartments, in their own little pigeon holes. They have no idea how music and art are connected. No idea how art and science are connected. No idea how humanities and science are connected. They don’t see these connections. And if we’re talking about these children going out into the world and being able to help solve the problems of our society, they can’t think inside boxes. And I think the—the interconnectedness is something that comes about when we collaborate in lots of ways.
If I could make one change in education to improve the lot of gifted students I would make sure that every single person who taught them, who had the degree of teacher, who had that license, would be a person who would respect and honor bright students ability just as they should respect and honor the talents of all students. But we’re talking about gifted and talented students here. I—I have seen too little attention paid to children’s interests. We almost never ask them what they’re interested in because most of us don’t care. And if teachers were honest they would say that. They can’t say it politically, but that’s true. We tend to think as Sternberg talks about—Sternberg from Yale University, an internationally known psychologist, um he says the kinds of intelligence that we talk about in school are analytical in nature. We teach children how to critical—critically think, how to creatively—creatively think, “These are fabulous,” they need to be there. But what we don’t ever do, we do that to the exclusion of looking at the practical intelligence and we don’t ever say, “How would you—how would you solve this?” And ‘this’ doesn’t have to be an esoteric problem. This could be something very simple, but it’s plagued society for years. I would love to see teachers really honor the abilities of students and the abilities of—of kids who don’t always shine. They’re not always the brightest stars in the class, but when we start asking them about their interest and how they would change the world, we’re shocked many times and they’re—they can just knock our socks off with their own ideas that are wonderful.
I believe that one of the—I think the weakest link—not only one of the weakest links, but the weakest link in our whole field of gifted and talented education is undergraduate preparation. Many people come out of teacher’s colleges and universities all over our country with the license to teach and they don’t know the first thing about bright children and how to teach them. I think that’s a gross in service—excuse me, disservice to those children um because they have no one there at the school, the college, ever seem to emphasize that. It didn’t seem to be important enough to place in their curriculum. They, as undergraduates, never really got very much learning, not—not very much knowledge about how to work with these children. So off they come. They come into a classroom and as many times as people have heard in teacher’s colleges, in university settings, we have to take the child where the child—from where the child is. That’s the last time they think about it. They walk into a classroom and imagine a whole bunch of robots who all look alike, smell the same, walk the same, dress the same and I’m exaggerated to make a point. But, this is what’s happened. We test them all the same; we expect them all to get the same kinds of grades, the same kinds of test scores. And that’s absolutely id—that’s absolutely id—idiocy. It really is. I think that we should take a very serious look in this country at who teaches these bright children because in many, many, many cases we have the right people. In many more cases, we don’t.