First published in Dutch on the 26th of May 2013
Students that come to me generally do not consider themselves “high potentials” or “outstanding” students. To the contrary, they often consider themselves dumb and incompetent. Of course, this is an unfair self-chastising judgment with which I contend passionately. My resistance, however, does not stem from the moral viewpoint that everyone is valuable and has its own “talents”. Of course there are differences. Some outstanding students are capable of incredible achievements that others cannot even aim to simulate. I take issue with the hasty conclusions about the (in)competence of individuals based on their achievements. Too quickly, do low achievements lead the study/teacher to publicly doubt whether the student “can cope”, and they lead to forced attempts of the students to prove that they can cope. Everyone focusses too much on this.
A culture of rejection
“Being able to cope”, apparently, is seen as a property that is concrete, static, and calculable. One can observe this conviction in the many “assessments” that students are exposed to. These are not considered to be snapshots in a process of development, but as an assessment of what the child is capable of. It all begins with the final Cito toets (the Dutch National Curriculum assessment in the final grade of primary school; comparable to the English SATs). Despite denials by several parties, this assessment is definitely used as an IQ test. Subsequently, secondary schools too quickly threaten, after continuous bad results, to send the student to a lower level, because they think the student probably cannot handle the current level. Besides, the final exams in secondary schools are given more and more importance. Their status becomes comparable to the Cito toets in determining their possible tertiary education. Having finally arrived at their undergraduate study the student is still not safe. Very early on in the first year, the student is given a binding study recommendation which can result in the proclamation that the student is not good enough and therefore has to leave. It is a culture of rejection that truly saddens me as educational psychologist.
Giftedness is not static
Achievements in themselves are insufficient to proclaim something about somebody’s capabilities because our intellectual capacities are not so easily measured. In my previous essay, “Disabilities and Aiding Devices”, I have explained that knowledge is dynamic and goal-oriented. It is context dependent, mutable and qualitative. I am convinced this means that giftedness is determined by the interplay between our goals, the available knowledge, and the way we use it in the situations we find ourselves. These variables continuously change and are intertwined in such a way that a stable and objective calculation of our giftedness is very difficult indeed. I see students, labelled as highly gifted and who indeed excel in specific situations, but who, without guidance, are unable to make and follow a schedule, communicate very incoherently, and are immobilized by stress on the moments they need to perform. Their “giftedness” varies strongly per situation. This, more or less, is the case for all of us.
What do we measure?
We use the term “intelligence” ubiquitously to describe the difference of giftedness in people, but scientists are very far from agreeing on what the concrete content of that concept is. Regardless of this, students are frequently tested and measured and all sorts of things are being proclaimed about somebody’s capacities. But what is it that they actually measure and is it a measurement of a static property? The IQ test is seen as the most important tool for measuring intelligence. Every ten years the score of every IQ test taken increases by an average of three points (This is called the Flynn effect after James R. Flynn). In short, the same cohort that scored an average of 110 in 2007, now scores 113. In other words, IQ is inflating. This effect is suppressed by altering the test in such a way that the average of society stays at 100. This alteration is already quite remarkable if the idea of the test is to measure a static property. But aside from this, if the tests truly measure the property of giftedness then this means that a hundred years ago, we were 30 points “dumber”, and it becomes mind-blowing to think that Plato could even write his name!
A test score, or any other achievement, is only relevant within the context in which account is being taken of other variables. Take the example of sight that I dealt with in “Disabilities and Aiding Devices”. Everyone over seventy-five years old must retake their driving test in order to retain their driving license. This includes an eye test that carefully measures one’s eyesight. But what does the measurement of this “achievement” say about one’s visual capacities? Does it say something about the capacity to estimate speeds, distances, and sizes? These capacities align much better to the interplay of which the goal of sight is part. Our visual giftedness is, simply, integral to our capacity to go from A to B while avoiding danger. A certain level of clear eyesight is necessary for this, but not all-decisive. In fact, someone who sees less clearly might be better at focusing on speed, distance, and size, making him or her a more “gifted” driver than someone who has a perfectly clear sight. Tests in education are often nothing more than such “eye tests”.
Let me reiterate that I have no quarrel with the fact that achievements are being measured, quantified and compared. I take issue with the interpretation of these results as decisive in the assessment of someone’s static intellectual capacities. That this happens, to me, is a given. I see educational institutions and students make wrong assessments on the basis of this misconception. Cito results, for example, are given more weight than is justifiable. Momentarily, I counsel a student who has worked her way through vwo and her university bachelor in history all the way up to her master thesis, even though she had a Cito results of 532 (significantly below average)! Her school had recommended gymnasium (the highest level of secondary education; comparable to grammar schools or sixth form colleges, or the US preparatory high schools), but due to her Cito results she was barely allowed to enter her first year of havo/vwo (a level higher than her Cito results would recommend and one level lower than gymnasium). Many students make a similar assessment error by thinking that receiving a 4 (comparable to an D-) is the same as being a 4, with all the stress and fear that follows. They have convictions such as: “I am dumb if I do not understand something”, “It must come naturally without help”, “I am not here to learn, but to show what I am capable of”, “I just am no good at …”. These are all convictions that follow from a misconception of giftedness. Moreover, they are disastrous for a healthy learning process.
I see many victims of this view on giftedness. An acquaintance recently came up to me about his daughter who kept struggling in school. Most of the people around her (especially herself) thought she was not that clever. I cannot make any claims on her intelligence, but I do know that her idea of learning is not very clever. She immediately disengages if she does not understand something. She seems to be having only two experiences: either you understand something or you don’t. To her, there is no possibility of going from incomprehension to comprehension. With such convictions, I do not think any proclamation can be made about her general giftedness. The student who scored 532 for her Cito test has dealt with serious fear of failure throughout her educational career. She continually feels the need to prove that her Cito results were wrong. Every test is an ordeal, because she feels she could be unmasked at any moment as someone who cannot do it. This is wrecking her. I know tens if not hundreds of students with similar problems.
Movement in convictions and behaviour
It is very difficult to help these people. There is no point in imitating Dr Phil or Oprah Winfrey and to emphasise that everyone is special and valuable. They simply do not experience it in that way because they feel boxed in by the affirmation of the statement: “Either you can do it or you can’t”. Teachers and counsellors must not ignore this. We must recognise it as a widely spread, influential way of seeing. Subsequently, we must challenge it, as I attempt to do in this essay. Students must not be overly concerned with being able to do it and not being able to do it. They must stay moving, both in their convictions and their concrete behaviour. Research on the difference between good and less good math students shows that the good students do not make less mistakes. But when they make mistakes they take this as an inducement to go for it again, while the weaker students view the mistakes as a prove of their incapacity, causing them to disengage. We must help the students not to disengage.
A gifted gait
When the reader accepts my description of knowledge and giftedness then they also have to realise that the “movement” deserves our attention rather than what the student can and cannot do. Goals change and are sharpened through which the relevance of the information shifts. Besides, the situation is in constant flux. Giftedness is the capacity to move effectively under these circumstances. My biggest problem with the idea of “being able and not being able” is that it is taken to be static and thus puts the brakes on movement. Giftedness is no static property; it is movement. In our gait resides our giftedness.