Interview with Dona Matthews - Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University

Co-editor of the Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education (Routledge, 2009) Edited by Tom Balchin, Barry Hymer, & Dona Matthews

1) You have just co-edited the Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education. How did this book come about?

In spite of big differences in our geographical locations and professional experience, my co-editors and I shared a desire to create a challenging and informative sourcebook on gifted development and education around the world. We wanted to include both current international practices, and constructive critiques of those practices, so we looked for experts with dynamic conceptions both of human development and of the field of gifted education, people who might share their experiences with innovative practice in their country, and provide suggestions for implementing better practice over time.

Motivated by curiosity about how the field is changing, and how it should change, we also asked each author to provide a concise comment of 150 words or fewer, highlighting suggested priorities and predictions for gifted education in their own countries over the next decade. In his foreword to the book, Jim Borland very kindly described this feature as 'a masterstroke of editorial genius that has resulted in some pithy and provocative apercus'. According to early reviews, the 'Future Perspectives' sections have indeed proven to be one of the most interesting features of the book to many of our readers.

2) What is the general theme or 'gist' of the book?

We wanted to review, to synthesize, and to challenge current understandings and practices in gifted education around the world. In addition to requesting chapters from recognized authorities, we looked for experts who might challenge existing perceptions, and perhaps identify prevailing myths, assumptions, and misconceptions that apply to understandings of gifted development and education.

We begin the Introduction to the book by pointing out that gifted education is a worldwide concern, observing that 'although there is as yet no internationally accepted definition of giftedness, and in fact, no two experts in the field will agree entirely on what giftedness means or what one ought to do about it, there is almost certainly a wide range of students with gifted learning needs in any given school or country, as well as many others who might be helped to develop gifted-level abilities with the right kinds of support and opportunities to learn.' We present both what is occurring in actual practice around the world, and our authors' perspectives on evolving directions, challenges, and solutions that new practices and technological innovations bring to gifted education.

3) I understand that Carol Dweck wrote a chapter for the book. What were her most salient points?

Carol Dweck's chapter for the Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education is an adaptation of an interview that she did with you, Mike, and published in Gifted Education International in 2004.

In response to questions like those you are asking us in this interview, she considers topics like attention and learning, women and mathematics, the roles of hard work and motivation in gifted development, labeling children as gifted, problems with praising children for their intelligence or giftedness, the roles of intelligence tests and high stakes testing, and more.

In her 'Future Perspectives' section, Dweck concludes that gifted education must move toward evidence-based practice: 'Past perspectives simply categorised people as gifted or not gifted, erroneously portrayed giftedness as a stable thing, and sought more to measure and reward giftedness and talent than to develop it…The most important task facing us today is how to develop and sustain talent by fostering a love of learning, a zest for challenge, and resilience in the face of setbacks.' Ideas like this run through many of the other chapters in the book, with several of our authors referring specifically to Dweck's recent work on mindsets as a guiding principle in their own evolving understandings of giftedness.

4) Nicholas Colangelo is best known for his work on acceleration. I believe he contributed a chapter to this text. What is he currently working on?

In his chapter for our book, written with Susan Assouline, Nick Colangelo continues his emphasis on acceleration. Summarizing and synthesizing findings from their recent book, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students, they discuss the mismatch between the proven efficacy of acceleration as an educational intervention, and its relatively infrequent application in educational settings. Their chapter covers much familiar but essential ground (e.g., the nature and types of acceleration, and the differential effects of acceleration on academic and social development), as well as promising future directions, including the recently-founded Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration, which David Lohman is heading up.

5) I have had lunch with Joan Freeman on occasion and visited her in Great Britain. She is a remarkable woman. What was her chapter about?

Ever provocative and thoughtful, Joan Freeman addressed the relationship between morality and giftedness. She argues that although advanced academic ability may be correlated with higher scores on tests of moral reasoning, it does not necessarily lead to more moral behaviour. She explains that morality is inextricably bound up with wisdom, which is not an entirely intellectual attribute. In order to find clues to possible connections between giftedness and morality, she examines the history of the field from Galton all the way to the present. She observes wryly that if gifted-level achievement and morality are positively correlated, boys are morally superior to girls in the U.S. because they outstrip them in the 'hard' academic subjects, and girls are morally superior in the UK. She ends by concluding that morality is independent of academic achievement, and thus probably of IQ too.

6) I understand that they honored Joe Renzulli in Tampa recently at the National Association for Gifted Children conference. What was his chapter about?

Yes, Joe Renzulli has been, and continues to be a source of invention, inspiration, and renewal in our field, and once again, he does not disappoint. Joe Renzulli's chapter in our book, co-authored with Sally Reis, focuses on Renzulli Learning Systems, a web-based and CD-enhanced system to foster and support gifted development in children everywhere a computer can be found and put into service. It has important applications in remote locations where gifted programming is severely limited, but it is equally useful in inner-city schools where few teachers have the time and the training that they need to differentiate programming for the highly diverse gifted learning needs they encounter in their classes. We are delighted that he shared his inventive perspectives on this with us and our readers, and it adds an important technological emphasis to the volume as a whole.

7) Joyce Van Tassel-Baska's name is inextricably linked with curriculum. What was her chapter about?

Indeed, Joyce VanTassel-Baska has established a strong reputation for herself and the College of William and Mary, where she heads the Center for Gifted Education, for content-based and integrated curriculum that supports gifted development. She has recently been investigating larger issues of social justice and diversity, however, and in her chapter in this book, she addresses the charges of elitism that are so frequently leveled at the field as a whole, and considers the role of gifted education in promoting cultural diversity. She describes evidence of progress that is underway, and provides recommendations concerning teacher preparation, curriculum design, instructional tools, and assessment techniques. Her observations are specific to the United States, and emerge from her experience as an American educator, but her recommendations for system-wide reforms apply globally.

8) This book seems to be taking gifted education in a different direction. How did this reconceptualization come about?

People like Julian Stanley, Jim Borland, Nancy Robinson, Bob Sternberg, and Joe Renzulli have been calling for a paradigm shift for at least thirty years, and it appears that this shift is finally happening on an international scale. The essence of the reconceptualization is a shift from a categorical model such that some children are "gifted" (and all others therefore are "not-gifted"), toward a developmental model, such that intelligence and giftedness develop over time, with appropriately challenging and supportive opportunities to learn, following highly individual pathways, and reflecting individual and cultural differences. One way of thinking about this, as coined by Rena Subotnik several years ago, is that conceptions of giftedness are moving from 'being' gifted to 'doing' gifted-level things, from something that is innate and fixed, to something that is achieved through hard work and persistence over time, in a context of engagement and motivation.

One of the seminal ideas along the way was Nancy and Hal Robinson's 'Optimal Match' concept that advocated provision of a range of learning options including various kinds of acceleration and enrichment. Julian Stanley's work with the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth continues to be an inspiration and to provide some of the best longitudinal data supporting this shift. Michael Howe's exploration of the development of intelligence and genius has been another turning-point influence in the changing paradigm. Jim Borland, Bob Sternberg, and Joe Renzulli have been working in this direction for many years now, originally from very different points of view, but merging now in their shared emphasis on developmental rather than categorical perspectives. The emphasis on talent development, as seen in the work of Rena Subotnik and others, has been a critical force in this shift.

Most recently, I have been writing about this with several colleagues, including in my two chapters for this volume, one with Christy Folsom, and the other with Ian Warwick. Similarly, Marie Huxtable and Barry Hymer are challenging traditional perspectives in their chapters, discussing living educational theory, and making recommendations for an inclusional, fluid, and non-normative understanding of giftedness. In his chapter in this book, Bob Sternberg describes the WICS (wisdom, intelligence, creativity, synthesized) model, discussing how the underlying principles come together in gifted development. In harmony with many of the other chapters in this volume, but challenging traditional practice in gifted education, Sternberg argues that wisdom, intelligence, creativity are all fluid and modifiable, and can be learned.

9) If you could summarize the book in a few sentences, what would you say?

In a remarkable act of prescience, Sally Reis already did this for us. Without having read the other chapters in the book, she identified the major themes that run through its chapters. We placed her chapter last in the book as it makes an excellent summary. She addresses major turning points for the next decade in gifted education globally, including expanding our conceptions of giftedness and talent development; ensuring domain-specific challenge for exceptionally advanced students; making a difference for underserved populations; changing our focus from ways to identify gifted students to the ways we develop gifts and talents; and applying gifted education pedagogy to talent development, with a focus on strengths rather than deficits. We hope that her prescience is as spot-on a description of coming changes in gifted educational policies and practices around the world as it is of the themes that run through the chapters in this volume.

Published November 17, 2008


November 17th, 2008

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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