The needs of gifted students come from their strengths, not their deficits.
I’m paraphrasing, slightly, what Executive Director of Western Kentucky’s Center for Gifted Studies, Professor Julia Link Roberts, expressed last month during Denver University’s annual Gifted Education Conference. This simple yet elegant statement captures the essence of the Belin-Blank Center’s model for serving gifted and talented students from grade 2 through college. Our strength-based model features various systems for discovering domain-specific talent and then developing that talent. A strength-based model is synonymous with talent development.
Although highly effective, there is one critical group of educators who neither implement nor advocate for a strength-based model in which talents are developed. The group is comprised of the vast majority of faculty in colleges of education across the country; the same individuals who prepare future teachers and counselors.
This was the situation decades ago when I was preparing to be a science teacher, and it remains true today. For example, students with strengths in science reasoning need to be able to do what scientists do – create hypotheses, conduct research, experience success…and fail, and start all over again. It’s the rare science classroom where students with strengths in scientific reasoning have regular opportunities to experience “science” during the school day. The same is true for individuals with talent in mathematics.
To some extent, the lack of emphasis on talent development in schools explains the popularity of university-based summer programs among parents and students. Every summer, tens of thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students across the country take advantage of myriad programs and courses that build on their strengths and nurture the development of their talent. The Belin-Blank Center’s programs are among these. Our students explore their interests and stretch their intellectual muscles in the Blank Summer Institute, the Perry Research Scholars Institute, the Secondary Student Training Program, Summer Art Residency, and Summer Writing Residency and find respite from the lack of challenge during the school year.
Educators who participate in the Belin-Blank Center’s summer professional development can observe talented pre-college students in programming that is uniquely strength-based and talent-development focused. Our hope is that by observing a strength-based classroom, educators will see the importance of taking this model into their own classrooms during the academic year. This is one of the most critical lessons from their professional development experience because for every student who attends a summer program in a university setting, there are several others who are equally talented but don’t have this opportunity.
Education doesn’t have to be strengths vs. deficit. In fact, every program we offer, including outreach programming such as the STEM Excellence program, now in its sixth year of implementation in nine rural schools across Iowa, is an excellent example of a thriving strength-based program that aims to develop the math and science talents of middle-school students.
Our work in twice-exceptionality offers additional evidence that understanding a student’s strengths is as important as understanding their challenges. Individuals with a diagnosed disability or disorder face challenges (deficits) that can – and must – be addressed. However, this should be done in alignment with developing their strengths.
The strength-based approach is the essence of our collaborative twice-exceptional research agenda with our Iowa Neuroscience Institute partners. This work uses an unprecedented amount of data from our Assessment and Counseling Clinic to better understand the relationship between high ability and challenges in learning, social-emotional development, or behavior. Indeed, understanding the role of cognitive strengths within the context of learning and social-emotional difficulties is a critical aspect of the research we are conducting. It is only with a sample of twice-exceptional individuals, who have both intellectual strengths and cognitive challenges, that each of these can be controlled for, allowing researchers to examine their effects both independently and combined.
We are looking forward to bringing together researchers, clinicians, educators, and parents to learn about the research on twice-exceptionality at the Summit on the Neuroscience of Twice-Exceptionality this July. We invite you to join us in discussing new, unprecedented studies of twice-exceptionality, the future of research in this field, and the possibilities available for collaboration among institutions, gifted education organizations, and talent development centers in order to advance our understanding of this unique population and their strengths and challenges.
The needs of gifted students – and the professionals who are involved in their education – come from strengths not deficits. Yet, for the foreseeable future, deficit models in education will likely dominate our thinking – and funding. I recommend that we “lean into” the current deficit model and use it as a platform to reveal the many advantages to including a strength-based approach in gifted education and talent development. We will continue to share our perspective and research findings, and we hope to see you at one of our events or programs soon.