Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to gifted education in Israel. Although gifted programs were first established in the country over 45 years ago, only about a third of Israeli children eligible to attend gifted programs are actually enrolled in such programs. Critics claim that this is one of the reasons for the supposed underachievement of Israeli scientists and quote the following statistics: with five million Jews living in the United States and over six million Jews living in Israel, there are only 7 Israelis vs. 55 American Jews who received the Nobel prize in 1950-2010. Yet, Israel is commonly ranked as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, so let’s dig deeper into what the term “gifted” actually means.
Over the last two decades, the phrase “gifted” has become synonymous with “academically successful.” Unfortunately, while it’s true that some gifted kids are excellent students, this association has led to a great deal of confusion for parents, teachers, and students alike. Contrary to popular belief, giftedness does not predict—let alone guarantee—a child’s level of academic aptitude. Furthermore, many non-gifted kids make exemplary scholars
The idea that giftedness and academic achievement go hand in hand is problematic for a few reasons: One, many gifted children end up being overlooked because they earn average grades. Two, many parents and children erroneously believe that giftedness is required to excel academically (and later, professionally). This can set bright, ambitious kids up to feel like they have failed if tests reveal that they are not in fact gifted. Three, the idea that gifted kids should outperform their peers in every subject places unrealistic expectations on these children.
If giftedness is not universal high intelligence, what is it? While researchers are still developing a complete understanding of the phenomenon of giftedness, it’s best understood as a form of asynchronous development. High achievers, by contrast, develop a bit more quickly than their peers, but their skills develop in sync with one another. Bright (but not gifted) kids are generally somewhat ahead of their peers in all areas of development (physical, social, emotional, and cognitive). Gifted kids, on the other hand, tend to be highly advanced in one or two specific areas of development. A gifted child may be physically clumsy and have average or even sub-par social skills, yet be reading two or three years ahead of his (or her) grade level, for instance.
This pattern of asynchronous development presents as many challenges for gifted children as it does benefits. These kids struggle to truly “fit” anywhere within the school system. A gifted child who writes at an average level, for example, will often be perceived as “normal” within our verbally-oriented school system. Meanwhile, this child will be fully aware that he is different from his peers thanks to his heightened sensitivity and highly developed sense of empathy. This situation often leads to feelings of alienation and self doubt. Furthermore, gifted kids who are recognized as gifted often fare little better. A gifted child who has advanced academic aptitudes may be moved ahead a grade, only to discover that his average social skills and small physical stature make him a target for bullying. Complicating this picture even further, some gifted children also have learning disabilities, meaning that they need special help in some areas while being brilliant in others.
Conversely, high achievers usually flourish within typical academic environments. Their well-developed social skills make them appear mature and responsible in the eyes of teachers and help them get along well with their peers. Their enhanced cognitive abilities allow them to succeed in most subjects; at the same time, these skills are not usually so far advanced that the high achiever gets bored at school. This is why, unlike gifted children, bright kids are not classified as a special population—they don’t usually need special accommodations at school. For this reason, the academic achievement, has only minor effect in the online gifted tests used to prescreen candidates for gifted assessments.
Understanding What Motivates Gifted Kids
Parents of gifted children are sometimes baffled by what looks like a lack of motivation in their children. Gifted kids often range from being completely disinterested in school (while being intensely interested in their own pursuits), to being only selectively interested in certain subjects. While some gifted kids are universal high achievers, this group forms only one part of the wider gifted experience. More often than not, gifted kids—unlike many bright children—exhibit clear and highly individual preferences when it comes to what motivates them.
The reason for this discrepancy is believed to lie in the disconnect between gifted kids’ social development and their cognitive development. A high achiever, with his keen social awareness, will often strive to get good grades in every subject because he thrives on the social affirmation provided by his parents, teachers, and peers. High achievers also tend to take great personal satisfaction in surety: They enjoy knowing all the answers in class and having clear instructions that allow them to perfect each assignment they complete. They are usually detail-oriented and thorough.
Gifted children, on the other hand, are primarily motivated cognitively. When they achieve excellent grades in a certain subject, it’s because their intellectual curiosity was sufficiently fired by the material provided. As such, they value the opportunity to pursue their passions at their own pace. They’re often more interested in developing a deep and multifaceted understanding of the subject at hand than they are in knowing all the “correct” answers. They also typically want creative freedom, rather than clear rules, when completing projects. Unsurprisingly, these children thrive in individualized learning environments.
Gifted Children Have Different Emotional Needs
The emotional world of the gifted child is often complex. These children may have difficulty relating to (and interacting with) their peers, and their strong-willed tendencies can make them a challenge to educate and parent. At the same time, however, they sometimes exhibit an almost preternatural level of maturity; e.g., they can see complex situations from multiple points of view and empathize deeply with others. They also display emotional intensity that’s occasionally difficult to cope with (whereas high achievers have a normal emotional range). These unique emotional attributes often cause gifted children to develop a powerful sense of morality.
The heightened empathy and emotional nature endemic to giftedness can make social environments both distracting and draining for these children. They tend to learn better when they can work alone, rather than in groups—unlike high achievers, who are often energized by social learning. Gifted kids also need more “alone time” than other children; for them, solitary activities are a necessary way of replenishing lost energy.
In summation, both gifted kids and high achievers have a lot to offer. The paths by which they reach success may differ, but with the right accommodations and understanding, both types of child are more than capable of making unique and valuable contributions to society. The attributes that make gifted children truly special cannot, and should not, be measured by grades alone.