disapproving kitty

Thursday, November 9, 2017

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler and All the Growth Mindset Devotees

An Open Letter to Jo Boaler,

I'd like to start by saying I absolutely love you. I love your math problems that are written so our struggling students have a way to engage with the math. I love your insistence that a slow mathematical thinker isn't a bad mathematical thinker. I had the wondrous experience of teaching a girl a couple years ago who thought so profoundly about what she was learning that it would take days for her to process it and then come back to teach us about a way things worked that we hadn't even considered. This is a child who will some day invent new math. 

Because of you and other leaders in growth mindset, my district has been embracing it for all our kids, starting from the moment they walk in the door. Teaching math is a terribly exciting endeavor these days and you have been a big part of it and I am so grateful.

But I would very much appreciate it if you'd stop picking on gifted kids. 

Yes. You pick on the gifted kids by insisting, over and over, that they don't really exist. That really, everybody is equally capable. For example, in your latest missive:

"...labels and ideas of smartness and giftedness carry with them fixed ideas about ability, suggesting to students that they are born with a gift or a special brain."

The truth is that gifted children ARE born with a special brain. They are born with a brain that learns faster than the average brain. Concepts come easier, mastery comes more quickly and by the time they enter kindergarten, gifted children are able to understand ideas that children two grades ahead of them are just starting to learn. They hunger for knowledge at a different pace than the average child. They are different. 

You, and many others, claim that it's the label that does the harm because it separates them from other kids and it teaches them that they don't have to work, they're just "naturally smart." The label doesn't teach them that. Schools do that with or without the label. We do it through our insistence that children must always be with their age peers. They must always learn the same lesson at the same time at the same pace as their age brethren. It can take as little as a couple months for that kindergartner, so eager to learn when she stepped through the door, to learn that it doesn't matter how much she already knows, she has to do the worksheet. She has to complete ALL the problems. She has to chant and sing "B is for Bird! B goes Buh!" even though she's been reading since age 3. 

"You're so smart!" chirp the adults. "You can help Johnny with his letters, since you do them so well, and he needs a little help." And now our gifted child has learned that she is just "smart." And she has learned that her job in school is to teach the slower kids. And she has learned that being smart means never having to struggle like Johnny.

Her label didn't teach her that.

WE did. 

And we teach it over and over and over, every time we make her wait for everyone else to finish. Every time we give her more of the same kind of problem to solve so she will have something to do. Every time we give her a 100% with a big, shiny star on work that she breezed through. We teach her and reinforce the lesson that she is smart and that means never having to try very hard.

Of all students in America, gifted children have traditionally made the fewest gains each year in school. Some gifted children walk in the door the first day of school knowing nearly all the material they are supposed to "learn" that year*. And when gifted children are introduced to a new topic, concept or idea it takes 1 - 2 repetitions for mastery once they truly understand it. That's it. 1 - 2. Other students in the same class, depending on their ability, can take up to 12. Imagine if I made you do the same task 12 times after you'd proven you could do it by the 2nd time? How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Bored? Fed up? 

Now, listen as I tell you that you are no different than any other child in the room and you all have the same capacity to understand everything as long as you try hard enough. Are you going to believe me, especially when you see that half the class has failed on their 6th attempt, while you had it on the 2nd go? When you almost always have it on the 2nd go and the rest do not? Do you think anybody believes that no one is different in that room just because you refused to label them? And how do you think the child who failed it again on the 12th try is going to feel? "Gee, if only I worked hard enough I could have gotten it a week ago." 

Denying that innate abilities exist in mental capacity is like denying that innate athletic abilities exist. I could have practiced basketball every day from age 4 on and done nothing but basketball to the detriment of all else in my life and still never have made it to the varsity team much less the WNBA. Not everybody can be LeBron James. I'm not discounting his hard work and his passion for his sport, but he also had a leg up in the genetics department. 

You accuse the labeling as the culprit, or the acknowledgement that some kids learn things faster than others as the problem. But even as you do this, you speak of the actual problem: "Students who grow up thinking that they have a special brain often drop out of STEM subjects when they struggle." YES! They do! You are absolutely right about this, that when they finally struggle -- after years of NEVER STRUGGLING -- they have no resilience! And whom, do you think, is to blame for them never struggling? It's not the label. It is a school system that NEVER REQUIRED THEM TO STRUGGLE. 

The solution isn't to quit labeling students. The solution is to give students challenges at their level every single day. Gifted children deserve to have material that challenges their brain to grow just like every other student does. You would not give our dear friend LeBron a 5' hoop to practice with and expect it to do him any good, would you? I don't think that LeBron needs a higher hoop because someone labeled him as a gifted player, I'd know he needs more challenge because he demonstrates his abilities every single game he plays! 

And despite the fact that I believe you are 100% wrong about gifted kids not existing (or that everybody is equally capable), I still believe that growth mindset is tremendously beneficial for gifted students. But they cannot develop that growth mindset unless they are given the challenges that will cause them to struggle and grow.

Growth mindset has much to offer, and I do agree with you that the majority of learners can learn to do challenging math or difficult work in any subject successfully. But please stop going overboard and making claims that gifted kids are harmed by being called gifted, or that they don't really exist in the first place. What harms gifted kids is not being challenged. Blaming the label is blaming the wrong thing, and I ask you please to cut it out. 

But please keep on with the fabulous math problems. My gifted kids love them.

*http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10029 has more on this topic, or you can find many articles about it via NAGC.org.


  1. Hi Rachel I am currently taking a graduate course in Managing the student-centered classroom, where growth mindset is a big topic. I shared you article in one of our discussion forums. Here is a question that came up: in an active-learning student- centered environment, wouldn't those gifted kids be able to take whatever subject they are studying as far as their abilities are able to? With or without a label?

    1. No. Gifted is more than cognitive needs. It's a social/emotional need as well.

  2. If you truly have a classroom that is like that, then yes, they could -- if they were motivated to and have developed the executive functioning skills to do it independently. Some of the time some gifted kids (with or without the label) are motivated only by what interests them. This is a catch - 22, though. They'll only learn about what they want to learn but often they don't know what is out there to learn. They're 8. There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy.

    In other cases, the gifted kids have learned to do only the bare minimum because they can. Why work hard when you don't have to? Especially when the consequence of getting work done is getting more piled on top of you. If you don't know that they are gifted, you don't ever realize that there is far more to them than what they are producing.

    There are also the perfectionist children who will not take a risk in their learning because that could mean failing at it. They'll only do work they are positive they can do perfectly.

    In a perfect world and a perfect classroom, all children would be working up to their capacity on work that was tailored to their skill level and interest. It's a worthy goal. Part of getting there is figuring out what your students know before you start teaching. And then, knowing when they've got it and can move on. And then there's getting them to be able to move on independently while you are still working with other students who do not have it yet. It's more difficult than it sounds.

    I don't have an objection to not labeling kids, but I can't tell you the number of times we have found a child who is gifted and the teacher has exclaimed "HER? She doesn't do ANYTHING! She can't POSSIBLY be gifted! She's failing!" The teacher has had zero expectations for this child all year, and even if she is child-centered teacher, she's never expected any more than poor work from the student because, well, the kid doesn't nothing.

    Teacher perceptions matter.

    We are in an age now where we collect data on children incessantly. There is not a single date during the school year when we are not in some kind of data collection window. The gifted label is one more data point. It can help us understand a child better, provide insight into behavior and help predict pitfalls. In our district, it also means that the child will be placed in a classroom with other gifted students. That is huge. Most schools use the "sprinkle" method with 2 gifted kids per classroom. Which means that the teacher never has to create really challenging work for them because there's just not enough reason to make the effort. "So-and-so doesn't have a reading group since no one is reading at her level. She just reads by herself." With clustering and support from a gifted intervention teacher, those kids demand (quite literally) work that will challenge them. When clustering is done right, then classes have a smaller range of abilities in the classroom, too, which makes having a student-centered room more manageable.

    I'm glad your class is thinking about this. Mindset is a useful tool, and a crucial one when it comes to teaching gifted kids. If you don't know they are there, though, you run the risk of not giving them enough challenge so that they have to develop a growth mindset to succeed.

    1. Yes! Yes! And yes! The misunderstanding of the gifted child is perpetuated by the idea that all gifted children are the same and that because they are gifted they will want to learn what we want them to learn. As it is with all learning differences, knowing one gifted child means you know one gifted child. Every gifted child is as different from other children with gifts as they are from every other child. They can be stubborn, wilful, hyperactive, dyslexic, creative and even really dislike school. They can also love school if we are flexible and brave enough to recognise and nourish their often formidable strengths.

  3. Having a growth mindset should not be incompatible with recognizing that some people have gifts others do not have.

    One can become better at music and still never match the great composers throughout the ages. One can become better at sports and still never match the great athletes of the past and present. Why should anyone believe that every student who studies mathematics can suddenly become amongst the greats of the discipline? It defies every sense of perspective and any element of logic.

  4. No one is arguing that gifted students do not have special endowments. We are all born with different gifts, valid and useful gifts. The real problem is how our perception of those gifts may stand in the way of us developing and branching out past the natural gifts we started with. When a teacher sees a student labeled as gifted they immediately make assumptions about the learner and what they should or can do. When a student is told they are gifted they immediately begin trying to confirm or deny that label so it can fit with their self identity. Our gifts make us special and that should not be taken away from anyone, but our labels, especially those imposed from the outside upon us almost always serve to repress and confine us. Instead of opposing an idea like gifted labeling with resentment and push back, try to fully understand the topic first. Your response can serve to validate many people's thinking that needs critical evaluation. As does your own thinking on the subject. Don't be part of the problem, and if you must, avoid speaking your version of truth as a representative for objective truth. It only serves to fool those who are not willing to fact check or think for themselves.

    1. The labels still aren't the problem. It's the assumptions that go with them. Many people see "gifted" and think, "oh! you get to teach all the easy kids who always love to learn, always get everything right and always do what's asked!"
      Educating people on what gifted is and what it isn't is more useful than refusing to label.
      Labels, like many things, are as useful or harmful as we make them.
      It's a little bit like going into your pantry and ripping off all the labels from your canned goods because labels limit your thinking.
      I agree that we can be limited by our labels, but we can also be educated by them.

    2. I would suggest you take your own advice,starting with you conclusion that teachers make immediate assumptions about their students based on their labels. To speak as if all teachers do this is not correct. Can this happen? Yes. Should this continue to happen? No. It does reveal the need for better understanding of the needs of gifted students. I would say it reveals the need for students with any label. Accomplished teachers work to do what is best for that child at that time. They know their students. A label might provide teachers with the starting point, but it is certainly not the end point. Please stop speaking in generalizations, including all teachers in what is obviously an ineffective practice. There are terrific educators who deserve better.

  5. THis article was spot on! I love the growth mindset theory and I have adopted it in my classroom. I do believe, however that this article states the facts clearly that most teachers, schools and districts SPED depts, which in the past included gifted kids have gone by the wayside. Even honors classes in middle school do not challenge a truly gifted student. She is right that the damage starts in elementary. Teachers are ill equipped to challenge truly gifted children, either because they don't have the resources or they are trying to differentiate to so many levels, much lower than the gifted student. I don't have the answer, but I too, would work very hard to meet the needs of the gifted student, first by reaching out to all the math and science dept heads, and possibly the district resources for any ways to help a student reach their true potential.

    1. You are right about the lack of resources and too wide a spread of abilities in the classroom. We use a lot of "low floor - high ceiling" math (that Jo Boaler's work taught me about!) that do work well with that wide ability spread. Gifted kids will still need work that is both differentiated and taught by an adult -- not just work they have to do independently. Most educators are not well trained in how to create or manage such work, and even if they are, if the spread in the classroom is too wide, it's just impossible.
      We're using Brulles' model in our district now for 2nd - 5th, and it's going well. The professional development piece alone has been extraordinarily helpful.

  6. We entered and removed our gifted son from his elementary school so fast all our heads spun. They were so insistent that we didn't need to worry about further academic progress at that stage as he was "learning how to be at school."

    But they teach letters and numbers to new entry children who are at that stage! So if those children, who are slower learners, can learn those AS WELL AS how to go to school, then don't try to convince me that our son's learning cup is full with learning classroom behaviour and listening to repeated basics. I'm not sure which would make me madder - if they actually believed it or if they just use that story because catering to different levels is hard.

  7. I struggle with the concepts posted here which is great because the point is to think. I agree with Jo, and Rachel. I see Jo going after the traditional stigma of gifted classes (grade-level advanced, non-personalized, etc...). However much we want to believe that these setups no longer exist they do, I fear much more than anyone really wants to believe. In a perfect world every child is met at their level and moved forward as far and as fast as they choose while demonstrating a high level of understanding and application. That world is almost impossible to teach in. Not totally impossible but it is a rare bread of teacher who can pull that off annually. If you are one of them, congratulations. It is an art form of its own. Today we call this personalized learning. Fifteen years ago it was differentiated instruction. Regardless I feel that your arguments Jo Boaler would agree with (although I have not talked to her about it directly).

    Everyone needs to get to the point that each child is their own person. How they learn, how they relate, how they communicate is up to them. What does that look like? What is holding us back from doing that now?

    I feel it is a combination of two things.

    The first is our physical structure. 50-minute classes with 30-35+ in a classroom, 5 periods a day, etc... A scenario played out in almost every district in the country.

    The second is the quality of our teachers. Although the desire is there, as you stated, not everyone can be Lebron James.

    I agree with both thoughts. I feel they are discussing different "gifted" structures.

  8. "How they learn, how they relate, how they communicate is up to them." I believe we don't do enough to empower students (especially gifted students who are so far from grade level norms) to self-advocate ... to assess and reflect on their learner profiles, to recognize their rights and responsibilities, to discover options for enrichment and acceleration, and to connect with the advocates who can help make that happen. We need to quit doing education "to" gifted students and continue to find ways of doing it "with" them. They can take charge of their own educations, but we must give them the information, insights, and tools they need.