Category Archives: Message from the Director

Message from the Director: Moving the Needle Beyond the Status Quo

For nearly 30 years, my spring semester has begun with the Identification of Giftedness class.  I enjoy the students, the topic, and the opportunity to stay current on the advancements in the broad field of gifted education.  One example of advancement includes the gradual paradigm shift from the generally gifted individual to include a new paradigm of talent development, in which specific talent domains are recognized and developed along a trajectory of novice to excellence and even eminence. A second advancement involves the recognition of twice-exceptionality — that is, high cognitive ability along with a learning disorder or social impairment, such as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that impedes realization of the full academic potential of an individual.  Yet, despite advancements over several decades, both the process for identification of students and the programs for delivery of curriculum and services remain largely the same. How do we move the needle beyond the status quo?  An initial step is increasing awareness of the issues. In this first message of 2019, I will review three issues and recommend an approach.  

Issue #1 Defining Giftedness:  Nearly every textbook addresses this very broad topic first, as do I, probably because we have to arrive at the very critical point that giftedness is a social construct and as such, it defies definition.  True, many educators will label students as gifted, but giftedness is not a “state of being” despite the fact that there is a label. We cannot measure talent or giftedness, but we can measure aspects of cognitive development that are associated with giftedness, including verbal reasoning, nonverbal reasoning, processing of information, and short-term memory.  We can also measure aptitude or potential in specific domains of talent such as math, reading, music, and sports, to name just a few.  As well, we can affirm that there are students in every classroom and in every school who, as described in the current federal definition of giftedness:

“give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”

In class, after we finish the section on the definition vs. non-definition, we move immediately into the areas that relate to the “evidence,” of high achievement, intelligence, creativity, etc. I always start with intelligence – another social construct — and more specifically, cognitive ability, because in most schools the gifted program for elementary students is based on identifying students with high cognitive ability and high achievement.  It is with the words “evidence” and “high,” which imply measurement and comparison or judgment, where we have controversy in the field.  Sometimes that controversy is quiet and simmers just below a surface of collegial cordiality. Other times, vociferous arguments threaten to divide the field.

Issue #2 Use of Tests to Identify Students: One significant area of controversy relates to testing and the use of the tests – intelligence tests in particular – for determining eligibility for programs.  In fact, the words “intelligence,” giftedness,” and “genius,” which are each a social construct, are inextricably intertwined and have been for a century, since Lewis Terman, developer of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, launched in 1921 a longitudinal study that would be published over many decades and volumes.  The first of five volumes of Genetic Studies of Genius appeared in 1926 and the last, by Terman and M.H. Oden, Genetic Studies of Genius: Vol. V.  The Gifted Group at Mid-Life was published in 1959.

But let’s take a step back to the early 1900s when French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon completed a commissioned scale, called the Binet-Simon Scales, to help educators differentiate among individuals who needed specialized interventions to be successful in schools.  Shortly thereafter, Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University, adopted and revised the Binet-Simon Scales for use in the U.S. as the Stanford-Binet Scales. In just a few short years, Terman and his student-turned-colleague, Maud Merrill, co-developed subsequent revisions of the Stanford-Binet.  Around the same time, Leta S. Hollingworth, who reportedly never met Terman, although they shared mutual respect for each other’s work, was conducting her own studies of individuals who achieved exceptional scores on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.  Hollingworth focused on using the information from the test to develop educational strategies for her students.

Terman is sometimes considered the “father” of gifted education and Hollingworth the “mother.” I prefer to think of them as early pioneers in the field. More important than a moniker signifying their contributions to the origin of a field is the observation that these two pioneers diverged with respect to their basic assumptions, specifically with respect to heritability of intelligence.  Hollingworth recognized that heritability is a factor in cognitive ability; however, she was more interested in the environment and educational needs of individuals with extraordinary intelligence as measured by intelligence tests.  Terman’s focus on genetics, made obvious by the title of his five-volume oeuvre, coupled with some very early-career and philosophical decisions — in particular the unacceptable and offensive promotion of eugenics — has resulted in vilification and consideration that anything related to Terman or his work should be censured. 

Issue #3 Is there a contemporary application of lessons from decades past? Historians, educators, and psychologists have written extensively about Terman’s work, especially as it relates to testing and gifted education.  A 2019 publication in Gifted Child Quarterly, v. 63, 5-21by Russell Warne offers an extremely thoughtful perspective on this question.  The title of Warne’s article, “An Evaluation (and Vindication?) of Lewis Terman: What the Father of Gifted Education Can Teach the 21stCentury,” hints at his comprehensive discussion of the criticisms underlying recent condemnations and offers helpful recommendations for today’s researchers and practitioners.

Recommendations to move the needle from the status quo? A relatively simple change is to broaden our conceptualization of the issues.  Understanding the needs of the “generally gifted” as revealed by an intelligence test should include talent development.  There also must be recognition that cognitive development is often uneven, which is an aspect of twice-exceptionality.  Another change is to be intentional in considering criticisms of Terman and his work. I am particularly sensitive to the valid condemnation that relates to Terman’s early-career promotion of the eugenics movement (he later dissociated from this movement).   There is NO equivocation on my part; any connection to eugenics is NEITHER appropriate NOR desirable.   

Taking advantage of 21st-Century scientific advancements, however, is crucial; the collaborative efforts between the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute includes both a neuroimaging and a genomics component.  As we progress in our nascent Neuroscience of Twice-Exceptionality research project, we recognize the importance of carefully analyzing our data prior to postulating a particular stance.  Furthermore, we affirm that both the neuroimaging and genetic components of our project are designed to integrate basic science and education. 

The Neuroscience of Twice-Exceptionality is a big research project, and we are thrilled to announce that we have received a Provost Investment Fund award to develop a better understanding of the neural and genetic mechanisms underlying twice exceptionality. Until now, we have used a singular psychoeducational perspective to prove the concept in educational and clinical settings.  Using a multifocal approach that combines multiple disciplines including psychology, education, genetics, and neuroimaging will help us understand the paradox of twice-exceptionality.  We just might move the status quo needle a little. 

Message from the Director: Reflecting and Looking Ahead

The closing days of the last months of the calendar, along with the waning daylight hours of each day, correspond to the concluding efforts of the fall semester and offer a chance for reflection.  Our efforts led to amazing results in programs and services in 2018.

Belin-Blank Center Staff
Belin-Blank Center Staff

Our annual board meeting and 30th anniversary celebration concluded in October and my message in the previous issue offered an abridged review. 

Belin-Blank Center Advisory Board
Belin-Blank Center Advisory Board

A few weeks after the wonderful 30th anniversary celebration, nearly all of the Belin-Blank Center staff and faculty, along with several graduate students, attended the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Conference in Minneapolis. Over a two and ½-day period, there were 15 different presentations by Center staff and faculty.  Dr. Megan Foley-Nicpon delivered a keynote presentation on twice-exceptionality to a standing-room-only audience of more than 500!  Several other presentations also were standing-room-only, with many conference attendees gathered outside the filled rooms, which seated more than 100 people.  Grounded in the excellence of the Center’s research, service, and programs, we covered professional development of teachers and counselors; twice-exceptionality, including assistive technology for twice-exceptionality, and neuroscience of twice-exceptionality; arts and writing; STEM Excellence; and academic acceleration.  Every single attendee received a hot-off-the-press copy of the new publication, Developing Academic Acceleration Policies:  Whole Grade, Early Entrance, & Single Subject, written by Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, Wendy Behrens, and Susan Assouline, in collaboration with NAGC and CEC-TAG.

Susan Assouline, Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik & Wendy Behrens at NAGC
Susan Assouline, Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik & Wendy Behrens at NAGC

The fall 2018 conference season ended with multiple presentations at the Tennessee State Conference (Dr. Foley-Nicpon) and the Indiana State Conference (Drs. Croft and Assouline).  It is safe to say that between the national and state conferences, including the Iowa Talented and Gifted (ITAG) conference, Belin-Blank Center faculty and staff affected thousands of educators, which harkens back to our mission of empowering the worldwide gifted community.

What is in store for next year? Our programs, services, and research will continue to grow and evolve while we strive to empower the worldwide gifted community.  We will sharpen our focus on the broad and very serious issue of lack of diversity in gifted programs by providing greater emphasis on serving students who are not traditionally identified for programming, whether that be due to cultural, ethnic, economic, gender, or neurodiversity. Stay tuned for updates.

On behalf of my colleagues at the Center, I wish you a good holiday, a happy end to 2018, and a great start to 2019. May it be bright!

Message From the Director: How Did We Get From 1988 to 2018? Phase VI (2013-2018)

This six-part retrospective has been an opportunity for me to reflect not only on the three-decade history of the Belin-Blank Center, but also on my own professional trajectory in the field of gifted education and talent development, which spans the same time frame. Although no educator can pinpoint the exact date when his or her professional career began (was it during student teaching, when you had the class to yourself for the first time; when you signed your first contract; when you tested – by yourself – your first student; or when your defended your dissertation and the committee members refer to you as Dr.?), there is always a period in which you can look back and say that the journey was finally underway.

For me, that was 1988.  With a newly minted University of Iowa PhD in hand, I headed east to Johns Hopkins University to start my post-doctoral fellowship with Professor Julian Stanley.  Just a few weeks before I left Iowa City, the Iowa State Board of Regents had recognized the establishment of the Connie Belin National Center for Gifted Education.  Today’s readers know that the Belin Center was renamed the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.   The expansion of the name (1995) also reflected the expansion of the Center’s services and programs.

In 1990, I applied, and was hired, for the Center’s very first professional position.  I happily joined the small group (one director, one secretary, and a few graduate students) in 1990.  I have been invested in the work of the Center ever since, becoming the Center’s director in December 2012, just as Phase VI commenced.

BBC Staff 1997

The years 2013-2018 were phenomenally productive, the reason being entirely because the Center has a collaborative team of professionals who administer the programs and provide the services.  Every program has been elevated during the past five years and there are many new programs that have started.

Belin-Blank staff 6/2018

Belin-Blank Center faculty and staff

Our oldest programming, for teachers, introduced the Chautauqua Series during the past few summers, infusing a strong sense of community among educators.  Summer student programs now include the Perry Research Scholars Institute for 8th – 10th graders and the Summer Art and Writing Residency Programs for 9th – 11th graders.

The Perry Research Scholars Institute was made possible through an endowment from the Perry Family.  A generous endowment from Mary Bucksbaum Scanlan and her husband, Patrick Scanlan, made possible the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Program that allows selected high school students to skip the last two years of high schools and begin the university as early as 10th grade.

A significant Talent Development Grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation established the STEM Excellence and Leadership Program, an after-school STEM enrichment program, in ten rural districts in Iowa.  The results from that program led to the funding from the National Science Foundation for a deeper investigation of the informal learning environment provided by this program.  The NSF grant was followed by a Javits grant that will allow us to increase the numbers of underrepresented students who are identified for gifted programming and implement a career exploration intervention.

Wallace_Group3.jpgAmong all the growth in programming, we also hosted two Wallace Symposia (2014 and 2018).  The 2014 Symposium was co-hosted with the National Association For Gifted Children in Washington DC and the 2018 was co-hosted with Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins Universities in Baltimore, MD.  We updated A Nation Deceived with a new two-volume publication A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students and developed an online, above-level test for 4th – 6th graders, which can be used in schools and thus allow teachers to benefit from the information available through above-level testing.  We also established a collaboration with the Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI) to further our work with twice-exceptionality.

We celebrated three decades, and especially the past five years of inspiring potential and nurturing excellence, with an open house showcasing our innovative programs and featuring a special presentation by two Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI) colleagues, Dr. Ted Abel, director of the INI, and Dr. Jake Michaelson, director of the UI Spark site.  The collaboration with INI will greatly enhance our work with twice-exceptionality.

The past five years are a testament to the collaborative spirit exemplified by the staff.  The growth over three decades, from a small group of professionals to a fully- functioning center has been phenomenal.

Hear our story in this special commemorative video.

Director’s Message: How Did We Get From 1988 to 2018? Phase V (2008-2013)

It’s August and the start of a new school year in the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve written before, new beginnings are both energizing and daunting.  The first 20 years of the Belin-Blank Center resulted in several programs, services, and events that brought us to this point.  Much has happened; yet, there is more to do.

This sentiment captures the state of the Center as we entered Phase V (2008 – 2013) of our 30-year anniversary retrospective.

Not every year has a theme, but 2008 did, and The Time is Now seemed perfect as we marked our 20th anniversary.  All of our programs were mature and strong and we were able to add new opportunities, services, and student programs.

In 2008, we hosted the 9th Wallace Research Symposium.  It was extra special that year because we brought in 79 international educators from 44 countries Originally, we believed that we were bringing international educators to the University of Iowa to enhance their experience.  We quickly learned that, although they were very enthusiastic about the opportunity, it was we who benefitted the most through the increased diversity and the broadening of our perspectives.  To this day, we have maintained our connections with these international educators, having most recently visited with a few during the August 2018 European Council for High Ability Conference in Dublin, Ireland.

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A few months later, we welcomed our first group of China Scholars, which expanded a few years later to include students from Hong Kong.  From 2008 – 2017, we welcomed multiple cohorts of high school students from China or Hong Kong, several of whom eventually attended and graduated from the University of Iowa.

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The year 2008 also brought devastating floods to Iowa, and the UI campus, in particular, where more than $1 billion dollars in damages were sustained.  Still, the Center – indeed, the entire university — continued to serve students and educators and to strengthen our research agenda throughout this trying time.

The early part of Phase V, saw additional resources added to the Acceleration Institute, which features two seminal reports on academic acceleration (A Nation Deceived and its follow-up report, A Nation Empowered) , access to the Iowa Acceleration Scale (published in 2009) and a free download of Guidelines for Establishing Academic Acceleration Policies (also published in 2009).  Both publications are scheduled for an update in 2019.

Our student programs took on a new dimension in 2011, when we were invited to be the administrative home for the Junior Science Humanities Symposium (JSHS) and the Secondary Student Training Program (SSTP).  In particular, SSTP would become the model for future summer residential pre-college programs that include  UI credit-bearing courses.

In 2012, we co-hosted, with the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), a special summit related to policy on academic acceleration.  This was such a successful event that it precipitated additional co-hosting of events. Specifically, we have since co-hosted the Wallace Symposium with NAGC (2014) and with Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt University (2018).

The final years of Phase V were important transition years with the Center’s founding director, Dr. Nicholas Colangelo, retiring in mid-December 2012.  I was honored to become the second director of the Belin-Blank Center and to continue to build our programs and services with the superb team of professionals who comprise the Center.

Belin-Blank Center Advisory Board Dinner 10/25/2012

Phase VI, the final chapter in this 30-year retrospective, is characterized by additional growth, as always, built upon the foundation established by philanthropists and co-founders, Myron and Jacqueline Blank and David and Connie Belin, and enhanced through the Center’s amazing staff and faculty. Stay tuned for our October newsletter, where I am pleased to be sharing all the recent work we have been doing to move into the next 30 years of nurturing potential and inspiring excellence in talented students.

Message From the Director: How Did We Get From 1988-2018? Phase IV (2003-2008)

Phase IV of this retrospective collection of director’s messages began a mere 15 years ago – halfway into the 30 years we are commemorating – yet the closer we get to “now” the more nostalgic I feel.  This is especially true as I reflect upon this five-year period.

The Belin-Blank Center has always been a part of the College of Education, but our home is in a building named in honor of Myron and Jacqueline Blank, who provided the lead gift for the building.  We had a wonderful ribbon-cutting ceremony in the fall of 2003 and moved into the Blank Honors Center on one of the coldest days in January of 2004.

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It was joy to have Myron Blank participate in this important milestone. Indeed, we honor our founding families each day through our programs and service for young students and their educators.

What an eventful year 2004 was!  In addition to the move into a brand new building, we published the watershed report, A Nation Deceived:  How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, which Time magazine launched with a major story about academic acceleration as the most effective but least used academic intervention.

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The momentum from 2004 resulted in the next several years being similarly active.  However, one of those years, 2005, was also a year of significant loss.  Myron Blank passed away in early 2005.  He and Jacqueline left an indelible imprint on gifted  education through their generosity and vision.

A few months later, Julian Stanley, founder of the Talent Search Model, passed away.  At the 2018 Wallace Research Symposium, we honored Professor Stanley’s legacy.  You can learn more about Dr. Stanley’s seven-decade career and the impact on the center and around the world by watching the video created for the occasion.

The Phase IV years, 2003-2008, flew by with special events for students and teachers.

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By 2008, we were well on our way to Phases V and VI.

Message from the Director: How Did We Get From 1988 to 2018? Phase III (1998-2003)

The inspirational view of the UI campus from my sixth floor office window lends itself to reflecting on the past while concentrating on the important events scheduled over the next two months.

Blank Honors Center

Back in spring 1998, we would have been ensconced in preparations for Invent Iowa, one of the Center’s major spring events.

Invent Iowa

Young Iowans are still inventing and this year’s convention featured innovations from students across the state.

Then, we were also making preparations for our very first Advisory Board Meeting.

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Now, we are focused on the Center’s 30th anniversary, which we will celebrate during the 2018 Annual Advisory Board Meeting.  (We will have more about commemorating 30 years over the next couple of newsletter messages.)

In 1998, we hosted our 4th Wallace Research Symposium; today, we are counting down the days to the 2018 Symposium at the end of this month.  The 2018 Wallace Symposium honors the legacy of Julian C. Stanley, founder of the Talent Search Model and promises to be an amazing opportunity for all who will be able to participate.  Thanks to an agreement with the University of Iowa’s Division of Continuing Education, we will be video-taping all of the plenary sessions so that we can create a course that will be available to current and future educators.

Other highlights of our Phase III time period included welcoming the first class of our early entrance-to-university program, now the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy, along with the development and launch of the Iowa Online Advanced Placement Academy (IOAPA).

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Then, and now, Professional Development is at the core of our programming.  Having grown from just a few courses focused on teacher training in the very early days, to a full-blown professional development program that includes the State of Iowa Talented and Gifted Endorsement and coursework available online, makes our programming accessible around the world.

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The summer of 2003 would be the last summer that we conducted professional development programming or student programming outside of the Blank Honors Center.  Indeed, the year 2003 culminated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the late fall and we moved in to our new home in January 2004.

Our industrious summer program participants created a mural for the protective wall at the Blank Honors Center building site.

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We presented a photo of the mural to Myron Blank, one of our founders, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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Stay tuned for Phase IV in June!

Message From the Director: How Did We Get From 1988 to 2018? Phase II (1993-1998)

I find it uncanny how the latter half (1993-1998) of the center’s first decade forecast the present.  In 1993, we hosted the 2nd H. B. & Jocelyn Wallace Research Symposium, which foretold the 12th Wallace Research Symposium.  By 1993, the Wallace Symposium was established as the premier research conference in gifted education and talent development.  The 2018 Wallace Symposium will be co-hosted by the University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and Vanderbilt University Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth.  The specialized topic for the 12th symposium is honoring the legacy of Julian Stanley, founder of the Talent Search Model.  Indeed, it was my training as a postdoctoral scholar with Dr. Stanley that gave me a psychoeducational foundation for bringing the Talent Search Model to the Belin-Blank Center and securing the early funding that allowed us to experiment with applying the Talent Search Model to elementary students.

By 1993, the Belin-Blank Exceptional Student Talent Search (BESTS) was in full operation.   The Talent Search Model is one of the most effective systems for discovering students who have high academic potential.  Primarily implemented outside of the school setting, the Belin-Blank Center has pioneered the application of the above-level testing model in schools through our online, above-level test, I-Excel.  These pioneering efforts — over 25 years — have demonstrated that we can broaden the talent pool and serve greater numbers of students who otherwise might not be identified for specialized programming.

The first annual Recognition Ceremony was hosted in 1993.  This ceremony does what it says:  recognizes students and their teacher for outstanding accomplishments earned through Belin-Blank Center programming.  Since the first ceremony, we have invited students to nominate a teacher who had the greatest influence on them.  This is always one of the most meaningful opportunities for students to show their appreciation to their teachers.

Fast-forwarding through the years 1994 – 1998 allows us a glimpse at the following highlights:

  • In 1994, we established the Iowa Talent Project, which was developed to find very talented under-represented students as early as grade 7 and support their academic development through graduation from the University of Iowa. This program continued for two decades.
  • In 1995, the Center’s name officially changed from the Connie Belin National Center for Gifted Education to the Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. This new name recognized the generosity of Myron and Jacqueline N. Blank and their enduring friendship with co-founders David and Connie Belin, reflected our growing international connections, and expanded our focus by including talent development.
  • 1996 was a year in which we continued to develop our educator and student programs. We also prepared for the hosting of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children Conference, which occurred in August of 1997 in Seattle, WA.
  • Finally, 1998 gave us the 3rd Wallace Research Symposium as well as the beginning stages of planning for the Belin-Blank Center’s National Advisory Board and the National Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering (which would become the Bucksbaum Academy in 2016).

Stay tuned for Phase III in April!