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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The nurture of potential

All over the country and I dare say the entire world, parents, psychologists, teachers, scientists, policy makers and professionals across all disciplines are re-examining and re-defining the ideas of giftedness and gifted education. In a relatively young nation such as the United States, real and occasionally romanticized portraits of gifted individuals abound -- the lives of politicians such as the framers of our Constitution, entrepreneurs such as railroad and automobile magnates or technology gurus such as the recently departed Steve Jobs are scrutinized in an effort to learn more about giftedness. I suppose the thinking is that if we understand their lives by tracing their childhoods and their educations, investigating their support systems such as family and relationships with others, or studying their character traits, we may be able to stumble across a few commonalities that somehow can lay the basis to unlocking the gates to giftedness and thus lay the foundation to a model of...gifted education.

Three prominent gifted education scholars recently published a lengthy report entitiled "Rehinking Giftedness and Gifted Education-- A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science." The authors, Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell and their comprehensive report do not disappoint, and for a pre-school - 8th grade school such as Quest Academy,  a portion of their proposed definition of giftedness holds particular promise in that it gives a school such as ours significant food for thought but also (re-)affirmation of how the faculty and staff of Quest Academy carry out their work in educating young gifted children.  

The authors state that "...giftedness can be viewed as developmental in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted."

As with most developmental processes, we seek an outcome. Although eminence is fluid in that eminence demands ever increasing degrees of innovation (e.g. eminence begets eminence), the authors in a way view eminence as the ultimate destination in giftedness or the ultimate pursuit of gifted education. Somewhere along this climb to the mountaintop, the authors suggest that achievement is the component by which eminence may be achieved. Achievements are validated by results in a variety of assessments such as performances or products. Implied is the notion that achievments are to be judged, presumably by those who are considered eminent or at least those who have "passed" or preferably "surpassed" the agreed-upon measures of achievement.

And thus, the authors steer us toward a starting point -- a point at which potential is to be developed, nurtured, and nudged toward achievement and ultimately toward eminence. Potential is the ground level. In examining potential in a scientific context, specifically in the scientific domain of physics, we view potential as "energy that is stored in a body or a system due to its position in a force field or due to its configuration." (Mahesh C. Jain - author of Textbook of Engineering Physics). The position within a force field speaks to environmetal factors (i.e. nurture), while the configuration rests in nature. In my opinion, the nature versus nurture debate is especially relevant when we speak about the development of potential.

Our work with young gifted minds is indeed about optimizing potential to prepare them for a culture and system of achievement. The fundamentally most important discovery here is that an initial and sole focus on achievement may be misguided -- learning at a younger age is much more than performing or producing. I recently asked one of the authors, Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (whom many Quest Academy teachers know as the main professor in the Northwestern University graduate-level gifted education certificate program), at what point we might switch our teaching perspective from a potential to achievement focus. She responded that each domain or field (e.g. the arts, philosophy, literature, gymnastics, mathematics, engineering) have varying switch points. I suspect that it is also different for each individual student.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius suggested as a general rule of thumb, it may be advantageous to develop a child's familiarity and comfort level with achievement by the time they enter high school. Thus, our work at Quest Academy was re-affirmed in that our faculty beginning at pre-school and through 8th grade start out with a focus on potential and each and every year offer carefully orchestrated and increasing degrees of achievement, never losing sight of the fundamental task of fostering and nurturing potential.