Problematizing Gifted Education, Part II:  Why Do We Exist as a Field?



Misconceptions about the reason the field of gifted education exists are common. The field's goal should not be conceived of as the creation and preservation of gifted programs.

In my previous post, I argued for the importance of problematizing the field of gifted education.  By this, I meant that, as a field, we would benefit from analyzing our core beliefs and practices, bringing to the surface the assumptions that undergird them, casting a critical eye on them and asking whether they really make sense.  If they do, then all is well and good.  If they do not, as I believe is the case, then we will have taken a step toward reforming the field by exposing faulty ways of thinking and doing.

I have been arguing for this for a few years, and I continue to be amazed and, frankly, disheartened by the resistance this engenders among certain people in the field of gifted education who feel threatened by the idea that we might expose our cherished beliefs and practices to critical scrutiny.  Such individuals remind me of religious fundamentalists who oppose teaching critical thinking in the schools because it might encourage children to think about their beliefs and whether they make sense and are morally tenable.

Are we really so feeble as a field of practice that we cannot withstand having some of the critical thinking we advocate for gifted students directed at ourselves?  Are our beliefs and practices so fragile that they have to be shielded from any type of analysis?  What conceivable good could come from our devolving into a herd of passive, ovine true believers who stick their fingers into their ears whenever someone suggests that we might want to actually think about things instead of repeating the catechism?

A number of years ago, I wrote about our field’s “fear of the big questions” (Borland, 1996).  By this, I meant that we tend to shy away from important fundamental questions that we find threatening, thus ceding them to others outside the field.  Big questions such as whether the construct of the gifted student makes sense are not going to go away, however much some of us might want them to.  We can either embrace them as part of our intellectual heritage and grapple with them openly and honestly, claiming them as ours, or we can leave it to others to take them up.  I believe that the latter course would vitiate us as a field and, to the extent that we have shied away from the big questions, already has.

I recently wrote a chapter about dogmatism in gifted education in an anthology devoted to that topic (Ambrose, Sternberg, & Sriraman, 2012).  In my chapter, I quoted Milton Rokeach’s classic work on dogmatism, The Open and Closed Mind (1960), in which dogmatism, or “the closed mind,” is defined as “resistance to change of a total system of beliefs” (p. 22) even when one is confronted with patent “inherent contradictions” in those beliefs (p. 24).  I fear that too many in the field of gifted education exhibit symptoms of the closed mind and that this threatens to render the field irrelevant.

Let me be clear that I am not claiming that disagreeing with my conclusions regarding gifted education, gifted programs, and gifted students is evidence of dogmatic thinking.  I am offering my ideas, not just to try to persuade others to adopt my way of viewing things, but also to stimulate some thinking and debate about the substance of my arguments, and that presupposes the necessity of disagreement and disputation.  However, I do believe that a refusal even to consider rethinking our belief and practices, that is, a refusal to problematize the field, is proof positive of dogmatism and intellectual timidity.  We serve gifted students poorly by adopting such a struthious stance.

In this second post in this series, I want to begin the process of problematizing gifted education by examining a belief that goes to the heart of what we are about as a professional field.  This is the belief that the field of gifted education exists in order to create and maintain gifted programs.  I suspect that many, if not most, people working in the field would agree that that is, indeed, our raison d’être.  I do not, because I think that this represents a confusion of means with ends. 

It is the proper education of gifted students, not the creation of gifted programs, that is, or should be, our field’s ultimate goal.  If we view our purpose as a field as advocating for and working toward appropriate education for capable students, which is consistent with the larger goal of providing every student with an appropriate education, it becomes clear that creating and operating gifted programs is a means, only one means, and conceivably not the best means, toward achieving the larger goal. 

One of the keys to effective problem solving is effective problem finding, that is, identifying what the real problem is.  A classic example is that of a man whose house is infested by mice assuming that his problem is how to trap the mice.  If he were to rethink (i.e., problematize) his who assumes, he might reframe the problem as how to rid his house of the mice, which opens up a larger realm of possibilities beyond just trapping the critters and increases the probability of effectively solving the problem.

The same with gifted education.  If we think that our mission is simply to advocate for the creation and preservation of gifted programs, we limit ourselves to a significant degree.  However, if we broaden our mission to advocating for appropriate and effective education for able students, we can consider means to this end other than gifted programs.  This is both liberating and possibly generative of new, potentially powerful, ideas. 

I think we have to do this because I am not convinced that gifted programs, in their most typical manifestation, have been shown to be effective.  But that will be the topic of my next post.  I want to conclude this one by discussing two misconceptions about what gifted education is all about that I have frequently encountered in my work with gifted programs in the public schools.

The first often arises when I conduct a program evaluation in a school district.  One of the first questions I ask when I do an evaluation is why the gifted program exists.  I rarely get a satisfactory answer—typically, people hem and haw or trot out platitudes and generalities.  When all is said and done, what I almost invariably learn is that the reason the district has a gifted program is in order to have a gifted program. 

This, obviously, is unsupportable.  Like any other educational enterprise, a gifted program should exist only if there is an educational reason for it.  Such a program is justified if, without it, the regular curriculum does not adequately serve certain students, students who have clear educational needs.  The program should be a systematic attempt to meet these identified educational needs, and the goals of the program should all relate to these needs.

This may seem obvious, but far too many educators cling dogmatically to the idea that a gifted program is its own reason for being.  This is reflected in the paucity of programs, at least pull-out enrichment programs, that have a scope and sequence, that is, a systematic, well-thought-out plan for differentiating the curriculum in a way that addresses identified educational needs (instead of providing a hodge-podge of enrichment activities).  In every other aspect of education in this country, educators have developed a prescriptive, carefully planned sequence of knowledge, dispositions, and skills that serve as the backbone of a subject area or program.  Gifted programs seem to be sadly unique with respect to the laissez faire attitude administrators have toward what is taught and learned in them.

If educators were to think through the reasons they have gifted programs in the first place, we might end up either with better gifted programs or with better gifted education, perhaps without gifted programs.

A second misconception I frequently encounter in the field is confusion over whether a gifted program is an honor society or a form of special education.  Too many educators tend to view programs as the former, whereas I think of them as the latter.  Gifted programs do not, or should not, exist simply to honor or reward students for exemplary school work.  Rather, they should exist to meet the educational needs of students, needs that are engendered by high ability or potential and are not met by the regular curriculum. 

When I hear a teacher say that a certain student does not “deserve” to be in the gifted program, usually because of his or her behavior or performance in the regular classroom, I know that the speaker thinks of the gifted program as a reward, as an honor society.  We do not speak of students “deserving” to be in a resource room; we speak of their needing to be there.  We should regard the gifted program in the same manner.

A failure to problematize why we have gifted programs on the school-district level or to problematize why we have gifted education in the first place is just that, a failure, a failure of intellect and of nerve.  A reluctance to question, to ask why, to go to the root of things is not healthy for our, or any, field.   We have nothing to lose by thinking critically about what we believe and what we do except our complacency.  A field that refuses to problematize itself inevitably becomes sclerotic, boring, and irrelevant.


Ambrose, D, Sternberg, R. J., & Sriraman, B. (Eds.).  (2012).  Confronting dogmatism in gifted education.  New York: Routledge.

Borland, J. H.  (1996).  Gifted education and the threat of irrelevance.  Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 19, 129-147.

Borland, J. H.  (2012).  You Can’t Teach an Old Dogmatist New Tricks:  Dogmatism and Gifted Education.  In D. Ambrose, R. J. Sternberg, and B. Sriraman (Eds.)  Confronting dogmatism in gifted education (pp. 11-24).  New York: Routledge.

Rokeach, M.  (1960).  The open and closed mind.  New York:  Basic Books.

Tags: gifted education, gifted programs, gifted students, giftedness

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