This post is my response to the “check your understanding” section of Chapter 2 of “Growing up Gifted” by Barbara Clark.
The chapter focused on concepts of intelligence, giftedness, talent and talent development. I chose to read this chapter as my son has recently been identified as a gifted child. The school he was working with were unable to meet his needs and, as such, I will be home schooling him until a place becomes available at the local Gifted School. My aim, when reading this chapter was to understand the identified learning need he has and to gain an understanding of what this might mean for my planning and teaching in the next 9 weeks.
For the Check my Understanding task, I have chosen to write as if I am addressing parents with gifted children.
Intelligence and Giftedness.
As you may have experienced, as soon as you use the term “Gifted” in association with your child, you find that people automatically assume that your child is a high achiever. One who always gets top marks academically and, perhaps, as a result, someone we don’t need to worry about in that regard. The reality is, however, that the tale of giftedness is far more complex than this simple idea.
There are actually some significant physical differences between the brain of a gifted child and that of a non-gifted one. Research shows that a gifted brain contains more neural connections, branches and pathways. That these connections and pathways mean that they are able to process complex information far more quickly. They do this with their whole brain, not just the areas designed for cognitive processing.
If you’d like to better understand these differences, we should explore the brain a little. Paul Mclean (1978) came up with a very ‘handy’ way of understanding the structure of the human brain. Make a fist with each of your hands so that you can see the fingernails, and then place your hands together with the fingernails touching. Tah-dah! An effective model of the human brain. By wiggling your little fingers you’ll locate he occipital lobe (where vision enters your brain). The middle fingers represent the parietal lobe (the bit that helps you move). The place where language comes from is just below your middle knuckle on the right hand (left hemisphere) and the two hemispheres are connected with your nails (which represent the corpus collosum – the bit that joins the left and right brain together).
Now, you might have heard that the two sides of the brain (left and right) function a little differently. However, it’s important to think a little more in detail than that. Especially with a gifted brain. Although our children have been tested and identified as gifted through phycological testing of cognitive function, their brain makeup, with all those extra pathways and connections between all sections of the brain, mean that they are usually high functioning in most areas of the brain. Like anything, if we only exercise the cognitive areas (which his the largest part of the brain by the way), we risk loosing the skills they have developed in sensory, movement, emotional, social and intuition.
In fact, gifted children often value physical learning far less than they do academic learning. Clark (2008) states that, as a result, “it is common for gifted learners to develop a Cartesian split (i.e a mental separation between mind and body). ” If this occurs then our children are at risk of limiting the way the process information (their cognitive growth) too. We need to make sure that we work on their understanding of the how their bodies and mind work together in harmony – not as separate entities. In short, we need to keep exercising the whole brain, not just the academic bits.
“we now understand that ‘gifted’ brains have more integrated, effective uses of the function of the brain, in all areas” (Clark 2008)
If we don’t keep stimulating and exercising all part of the brain then they are likely to loose their ability to make these new pathways through which they process information so efficiently. It is vital that we work with emotional centers of the brain as gifted learners are shown to have a “heightened ability to bring information from their environment and process it in ways which expand their reality” The environment our children work and relate to is, therefore very important and needs to be well thought out.
Better Understanding the parts of the brain that form the pathways and how they might be different in a gifted brain:
The most interesting part, I think, of the gifted brain comes in the way in which the information our brain processes is passed around. Through the connections and pathways that the brain forms. Have a look at the image below.
Every brain sends information to cells through the same type of neural pathway. You can see here the nucleus of the cell surrounded by dendrites and an axon. The Dendrites are branched extensions of that cell. They’re used to transmit information into the cell body itself. The Axon, is like a transmitter. The dendrites and axon don’t actually touch. Instead information passes chemically from cell to cell. This reaction is called a synapse.
I like to imagine the branch of a tree (the dendrites) waving next to another tree, as it’s branches get closer to the trunk of it’s neighbour (axon) a small electric pulse (synapse) travels from the branch to the neighbouring trunk. Transmitting information from the brain. The more dendrites there are available to send information, the more capacity our brains have to process that information. In a gifted brain, we tend to see more dendrites on cells than we might on a non-gifted brain. Gifted brains are biologically wired to send and receive data faster. If we were to think about this in terms of a simple internet connection and download we might compare the average brain to a dial-up modem. Downloading and processing an MP3 might have taken 3 hours in 1997 on this network and 2minutes on the high speed internet of today. The gifted brain simply has extra pathways that help it to process far faster.
This isn’t the only advanced biological feature of a gifted brain. Around every neuron in our brain we have cells called “Glia”. These cells provide our brains with nourishment, they get rid of waste products and act like sticky packing material to glue the brain together. They also have the job of insulating the Axon that you see in the picture above. When it’s operating in this way it creates something called a “myelin sheath”. The sheath’s job is to act as an amplifier. It makes the signal leaving the cell via the dendrites much stronger. The speed and power of that signal or charge as it passes from one cell to another is amplified by this sheath. The more Glia we have working in this way, the more efficiently the pathways can work.
To create more Glia cells in our brains, we need to make sure that we have a rich environment around us for the brain to work with. “the more glia there are, the more accelerated will be the synaptic activity” (Clark, 2008) – the message sending will speed up. The more we use these connections, the faster they will get. A little like a super highway for cars. The more we practice something, the more the brain knows what to do, the faster it will work to send the appropriate information. It’s this biological process that causes gifted children to need acceleration in their learning. They simply work at a faster rate.
It’s important to note then, that simply practicing the same information over and over again is not going to constitute acceleration or engagement for a child with a brain like this. They will process the information the first time around and will need very little repetition. In their case repetition of activities they’ve already done or shown they know, can actually be damaging to their development. Instead, gifted brains need to chance to delve deeper, to look at the information they are processing from different angles, to evaluate what went well and where they can grow and to work to the new challenges this goal setting presents them with.
If our children continue to be in an “enriched environment”, the chemical structure of these nerve cells will get stronger and stronger and their processing abilities will, in turn, get faster and faster.
“Constant feedback, vast experience in a rich environment are the keys to powerful learning and memory” (Clark 2008)
Are you Born Gifted?
That’s a very interesting question. The research suggests that “children are not born gifted, but they are born with a unique and nearly unlimited potential”. It would seem that, although in the past the idea of being born gifted has been floated, the reality is that it’s far more complicated than that. We are all born with the potential to be gifted. Our brains are ripe with possibility and the their are many cells, neural pathways and more that are ready to connect and develop in the earliest year of life. In fact, it is common that gifted children received more stimulation in their first year of life than (Clark 2008) Of course, genes have something to do with brain structure too but they can’t guarantee a child with be gifted.
“An infant is born with a genetically programmed excess in neurons, and both genes and experience determine the postnatal establishment of synaptic connections. Genes contain the information for the general organisation of the brain’s structure, but experience determines which genes become expressed, how and when” (Siegal 1999)
Brains develop these biological differences because they are experiencing stimulus to create them. These difference occur as a result of ” using and developing the wonderous, complex structure with which they are born”. This very reasoning is the basis of the importance for our children to remain in an environment that helps them to continue this process. “if gifted individuals are to continue their intellectual development, they must be emerged in learning opportunities that challenge… or they will regress” If a child inherits genetic traits of giftedness but these parts of their brain remain un stimulated and under used, they will simply loose the ability to process information as they might have done.
Take Aways for my practice
The idea that “no child is born gifted, only with the potential for giftedness” was a bit of a shock to me. I still find it hard to come to terms with. It implies that, if we had more knowledge about the optimal environment for development for children we would have far more “gifted” brains around the place. It certainly supports my long held belief in the importance of the role of early childhood educators!
Clearly, the key here has to be that in understanding more about the physical and intellectual development of gifted children we can select appropriate teaching strategies. Strategies that will promote the growth of more and more dendrites and glial cells. I look forward to reading more about pedagogies that will work in this regard. Currently, I can see a need for more explicit teaching round assessment for learning. Allowing the child to see where their growth spots are and to have more control about where they take their learning next. I obviously need to test frequently for understanding and then perhaps move around Blooms to give them the opportunity to see the information from different perspectives, to play with that knowledge, to use it and analyse it.