The Right to Struggle

Linda Silverman's picture

Giftedness is not the potential for success. Success depends on opportunity and effort. For children to persist in the face of failure, psychologist Carol Dweck advocates that they be praised for their efforts, not their abilities. True. But Dweck also asserts that Edison, Darwin and Einstein were “ordinary bright children who became obsessed with something.” If you have seen The Imitation Game, about computer inventor Alan Turing, it would be difficult to maintain the belief that we are all born with the same intellectual capabilities. Only in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon are all children above average. 

The terror of not living up to one’s potential is a byproduct of the erroneous equation of giftedness with success. So is misguided pressure on gifted children to succeed. And so is the belief that intelligence is not measurable.  IQ tests do not predict who will be successful; they document which children have learning needs so different from the other students that they require special education. The regular school curriculum is designed for average students. It is not appropriate for those who develop at an irregular pace. Special education requires documentation of learning differences.
Gifted children are students with special learning needs. How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? And how would this student learn to apply effort if the curriculum is so easy that school is effortless? Interestingly, Dweck’s earlier work on gender differences sheds light on this issue.  She found that bright girls who floundered when they encountered middle school math had insufficient experience with challenging work in elementary school. “Continued success on personally easy tasks” failed to produce confidence or persistence. Her solution?  Provide more challenge.
Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn. Dweck reported that when bright girls were continuously rewarded for performing what they already knew, they came to believe that when they did have to put forth effort, it proved they were not capable! I recommend that gifted girls be tested well before middle school so that they do not judge their intelligence by their math grades. 
Advanced children come from all socio-economic circumstances. Without being recognized and supported as gifted in the public schools, these students quickly lose motivation. This stratifies society even more than labeling, because the wealthy have other options, such as private schools. Early identification of gifted children from poverty changes lives and benefits all of society, which is why the Gifted Development Center has a scholarship fund to find economically disadvantaged gifted children.
Thousands of twice exceptional children (both gifted and learning disabled) are invisible without assessment. IQ testing is not an elitist plot; it is a necessary intervention to discover and protect capable children who fail in school. 
When work is sufficiently challenging, effort is likely to follow. Gifted students should have the right to struggle, and the right to learn something new in school every day.
Silverman, L. K. (2015). “Linda Kreger Silverman responds.” The Sun, Issue 476 (August), page 3, Correspondence Section. []   
Stephanie Tolan and Patty Gatto-Walden discussed what it means to be gifted with teens at Camp Yunasa. One camper wrote:
…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12.  She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, “This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012, as quoted in Gallagher, 2013, pp. 87-88).