BEYOND EXCELLENCE! with Introduction by Linda Silverman

Beyond Excellence: An Introduction

by Linda Kreger Silverman
When my dear friend, Rosemary Cathcart, in New Zealand, sent me this essay asserting that excellence is an inappropriate goal for gifted education, I immediately knew I wanted to post it as a guest blog. But the timing seemed awkward. How could I be anti-excellence when the Summer Olympics were swiftly approaching?  I couldn’t reconcile my love of the Olympics with my conviction that giftedness is not a competitive concept. 
The Olympics are fierce competitions to determine who is the “best” in the world. The goal of every participant is the gold medal—the symbol of excellence. Are only gold medalists gifted? Are all those who make it to the Olympics gifted? Are awards for excellence proof of giftedness? Do world-class competitions motivate gifted youth to attain higher and higher standards of excellence? I was lost in a morass of questions.
I love the Olympics because once every two years the whole world becomes perfectionistic! Going for the gold is perfectionistic striving. “Oh no,” I am told; “this is striving for excellence, which is different from perfectionism. Perfectionism is crippling and prevents people from achieving excellence.” Really? Then Olympic hopefuls who train seven or more hours a day are not perfectionistic? And judges who take off points for the tiniest imperfection are not perfectionistic either? And those of us sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for a perfect performance aren’t perfectionistic? I’m obviously missing something.
To my way of thinking, only the gifted strive for perfection. This means that all who work toward getting into the Olympics are gifted—the ones who never get there as well as the winners. Gifted individuals set high standards for themselves, sometimes reaching impossible dreams. Sometimes not. Many Olympians, their eyes shining, told reporters that they were proud of doing their personal best—whether or not they won the gold. Yes, I do love watching all those gifted youth come together on the world stage, but the Olympics showcases only a miniscule number of the millions of gifted youth on the planet; it takes talent and drive, but also financial support—not available to everyone. Most of the world’s gifted children are unseen.
Giftedness is not a competition. It is not about winning and losing. It is not about how many awards you accumulate. Olympic champions who became addicted to their medals faced meaningless and depression when they could no longer compete. Who are they when they are not winning? Former winners? Losers? 
When we award gifted children for their accomplishments, the prize can compromise the pure joy of doing what they do well. External rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. We want gifted children to love learning their entire lives, we want them to strive for their personal best for themselves rather than to please others, and we want them to use their abilities to help others. We want them to know that they are cherished for who they are, not for their A’s or their awards. If this resonates, we need to go beyond winning and losing, beyond external recognition, beyond excellence, to really see, support and nurture our gifted young.
Thank you, Rosemary, for stimulating me to wrestle with these thorny issues.
Rosemary Cathcart, Ph.D.
I recently heard yet another statement to the effect that the ultimate aim of gifted education is to have gifted students achieving “excellence.”
That’s a statement that reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to be a gifted individual.
“Excellence” is a perfectly valid objective for the high achiever. Excellence is a concept which has measurable criteria. It’s about mastering to a very high standard what is already known and understood, and that’s what high achievers do – and what we need them to do. Society needs and should value those who can reach such a level of accomplishment. It’s also a concept which is readily comprehended, even by those who cannot themselves achieve excellence.  It gives a practical structure to how children are assessed at school and what their results may mean for decisions about their learning and their later life.
But gifted individuals go beyond excellence. They are driven by their inner vision of what they are seeking to do or accomplish. They set their own criteria for the fulfilment of that vision. They may know despair and failure many times in their journey towards that end. What they are striving to do may not be readily comprehended by those around them, not at that time. Yet what they ultimately bring us sets new parameters for our knowledge and for our insight and understanding of ourselves and of our world.
Even as children, gifted individuals will show evidence of these traits. Gifted children are often not satisfied with merely “getting it right.” They are not always content with doing things the way they have been told. They do not necessarily accept everything the teacher says as absolutely and completely all that can be said.  Instead, they ask why, and what if; like their adult peers, they go off on tangents of their own; they experiment and explore; sometimes they argue: they are inherently conceptual thinkers, seeking a larger reality. Even those gifted children who become perfectionists are going beyond what the rest of us see as realistic standards of performance and demanding more of themselves.
By all means let us encourage gifted children to achieve highly, to reach a standard of excellence, and let’s applaud them when they do. 
But when we set that measurable excellence as the end goal, the boundaries of expectation for gifted education, we fail those children. Just as the ancient Chinese custom of foot-binding stopped the natural growth of girl-children’s feet and left them hobbling all their lives, so we can all too easily hobble the minds and imaginations and spirit of our most gifted youngsters. 
As educators of the gifted, let us seek wisdom and patience in guiding these children as they take us with them beyond the boundaries.