Is giftedness a life sentence?


I often speak with parents who are delighted at their child's early successes in learning. First words spoken almost at birth, full sentences articulated as a toddler, walking without crawling, a natural propensity to read or play a musical instrument from the earliest of ages. I welcome the love, passion and dedication shared with such comments. Yet early precocity is not a guarantee of further stages of success or giftedness. Reciprocally, a failure to hit infant and toddler milestones early is not an automatic predeterminate of a lacklustre future. Equally, ability testing that gives a potential score is just that – potential.  

So, what can we do as parents and educators to assist our children in being the best that they can be? We know well now that through the advent of MRI scans that past beliefs of intelligence and ability being fixed are wrong. This is perhaps the best news yet as it speaks to the fact that our brains are malleable and we are capable of learning, relearning and building capacity well beyond the cradle. Current research points to the fact that great learning and ability is much more correlated with the dispositions we bring to each learning context than a predetermined intelligence quotient. So, what are these dispositions? 

At Abbotsleigh we seek to highlight the approaches to learning and the value sets that are most likely to support our girls to engage deeply and meaningfully. For each girl, an evaluation is made against these learning approaches in her semesterly report. We want to see our girls building skills in creative and critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating, organising and evaluating.  

We know that a growth mindset is essential to overcoming perceived challenges. A child who views an unsolved problem as 'not yet' being able to find a solution and who persists with trialling multiple approaches is more likely to not only solve that problem, but many more difficult ones. Conversely, the child who believes they can only know an answer because they are clever, become completely unstuck when a solution isn't immediately apparent. They don't have the disposition to try again and believe that the solution fails to materialise as they are not 'clever enough'. As so well stated by Dr Gabrielle Oslinton in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend: 
'…a fixed view is unhelpful for a gifted child. By attributing achievement to natural talent, these students have no strategies for managing lack of success. In short, they are denied control over their own destiny.' 

A growth mindset sees children prepared to give further effort, to persist and to engage in trialling when challenges are faced. They become experts at building grit and determination. Such skills and attributes will stand them in great stead in so many yet unknown learning contexts. As children grow, talent development moves through a trajectory from ability, to competence, to achievement and finally to mastery. We also need to recognise that while some skills are evident early on, such as music ability or facility with language, other disciplines like philosophy, politics or psychology only emerge in secondary and tertiary contexts.  

To support our children in understanding that learning is forever, we as caring, wise adults need to allow them to build skills of persistence, grit and determination by experiencing frustration, failure and consequences in manageable, developmentally appropriate doses. Their ability to cope today is the best predictor of their ability to cope tomorrow with even more challenging scenarios.  

Equally important is the ability to empathise, show kindness and recognise that differing viewpoints are to be welcomed as they hone thinking. These once considered 'soft skills' and therefore less essential, are now proving to be imperative if our children are to be able to collaborate, thrive and help build a better, more compassionate future

So, to answer my opening question: Is giftedness a life sentence? I believe the answer is an emphatic NO. We can only be our best selves when we constantly seek to grow, learn and respond in ways that enlighten and enhance our world. A failure to be curious, seek understanding and well regard others is the life sentence we want for no one. 


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