Interviewer: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers and communities. On our last episode of Critical Window we sat down with Dr. Yvette Jackson to learn about her work on the pedagogy of confidence, which is teaching with the transformative belief that all students have the potential to achieve at high levels.
Today, we are back with Dr. Jackson to learn about gifted and talented programs, what they tell us about how we structure our education system and what we can learn from these programs.
Dr. Yvette Jackson is an international renowned individual, recognized for her work in assessing the learning potential of disenfranchised urban students. He applies her experience in neuroscience, gifted education literacy and the cognitive mediation theory to develop integrative processes that engage and elicit high intellectual performances from underachieving students. She is the author of many books including a book we spoke about previously, The Pedagogy of Confidence. Welcome back to the show, Dr. Jackson.
Yvette Jackson: Thank you.
Interviewer: You talk about, in your work, the importance of terms and how terms have been used to control and categorize students. Before we get into the term gifted, what are some terms that have been used to categorize students in the US education system?
Yvette Jackson: One, like you said, is gifted. The other term would be low achieving, the other term would be subgroup, the other term would be minority, disabled, we can go on and on, culturally different. I think those are enough, though, because immediately you get an image of you’re either talking about those who have intellectual capacity when you label them as gifted, or those who, when you say low achieving, the expectation is there is nothing about them that could be termed in a high achievement world because they’re low achieving.
In other words, it’s more like when you think about muscles. If you say that you have weak muscles, that’s very different than saying you have underdeveloped muscles. Underdeveloped means if you just worked out with the right program, right strategies, and that’s what I’m saying also for these terms. That children are not low achievers, they could be underachieving. They could be in situations where there are cognitive misfirings because of what they’re in but they’re not low achieving because that then puts the onus on the child. The issue is the onus is on us as the pedagogues to bring forward what the child innately has to offer.
Interviewer: So the term we’re focusing on today is gifted and you use this term gifted land, which is one of my favorite terms of yours. Could you describe to folks, and you did this in our last conversation, describe what gifted land is.
Yvette Jackson: Gifted land is where students are identified because they have high scores academically. Now, I’m gonna put that parenthetically because when the government started creating gifted programs – and I shouldn’t say – they didn’t create the programs, they were giving funding sources that then could be used for gifted programs. They really weren’t just talking about academic. They said you could be academically gifted, intellectually gifted, you could be creatively gifted, you could be gifted in the performing arts. They even had a line originally for gifted in physical ability, like sports.
And what started happening when districts started applying for money for their Little League baseball team because there was giftedness associated with this physical sports ability, that’s when the government said, uh-oh, wait a second, we’ve got to bring that definition out. They even had gifted in leadership as one of the terms. But then they were saying how do we really show that? That’s more a developmental kind of a situation.
But I said that to say that based on these categories of gifted it really got narrowed down to academically or intellectually gifted, and I even put that in air quotes. You couldn’t see me but that’s what I was doing. Because if you’re saying intellectually gifted, are you saying you’re just basing that on a Stanford Binet IQ test? If that’s what you’re saying there’s so much more that goes into intellectual development or that can be seen about intellectual development that a Stanford Binet test just doesn’t even catch.
So, in the, I guess, evolution of gifted programs in the country, originally they were thought to be important because this was back in the 1950s when we were competing with Russia around Sputnik and the space program, and there was a time where it looked like Russia was going to beat us and that’s when people were saying – the feds were saying, wait a second, let’s start identifying those minds that look like, based on test scores, that they had the possibility of making contributions to our program in some way or that we’d be getting them ready to make contributions. That was when they came out with this whole funding stream that was called gifted funding.
Then they started saying, well, so what, now you have the money, what are some examples of the kinds of strategies or practices that we believe cultivate, build on the strengths of an individual. Things like enrichment, things like – we even call them now project-based learning, but investigating real-life problems. Putting students very early on in internships. Getting them out there in terms of being in laboratory situations.
In other words, how do you enrich the experience so much that they start manifesting even more of their strength. That became the goal of gifted education. And yet when you look at that – and they were saying, well, the gifted child is going to be the child who is going to make the contribution to society and everybody else is going to be a consumer. They said wait a second, but if you are saying only 3 percent of population are gifted those are the only ones – and by the way, I have to add, there was no science that was done connecting 3 to 5 percent as these are the numbers we come up with that really stand for how much we can expect gifted. No, that was – they came up with those numbers for funding, that you could only ask for 3 to 5 percent of the budget to be allocated for that kind of focus, so.
Interviewer: That was gonna be one of my questions that I was gonna ask, is how do we even decide who is in these programs, who is gifted? And it sounds like in some sense, it’s arbitrary.
Yvette Jackson: It is, and the interesting thing about it is, first of all, people originally looked at two different kinds of testing, as I said, a Stanford Binet IQ test, which, when they were originally developed that was not – Binet did not develop that for gifted programs. It was really to look at the kind of thinking but also where needs could be.
But then what wound up happening is because the emphasis was on trying to look at the high end of this, they said, okay, Stanford Binet is something we have in our fingertips. This was in the 1940s and that became the testing of choice. The issue becomes if you are on the other hand saying that you’re going to have gifted programs that focus on creativity, performing arts, leadership, a Stanford Binet is never going to give you data about that. That’s why it becomes arbitrary.
And many people will say their gifted program does just that, it looks at all different kinds of facets of giftedness, and yet, in actuality, it’s really about academic gifted, or the term meaning who is at the top end of a Standardized Achievement Test, becomes arbitrary when there is a misalignment between the testing they’re using and what you’re saying the goal is for the program.
Then the other thing that became an issue was people realized, wait a second, the kind of testing questions that are on something like the Stanford Binet are very cultural. They are normed against a particular cultural group. Now, if that’s the case you are leaving out a lot of a population. So that’s when people started saying, well, wait, you need to have more than a test as the way we’re going to identify. So that became arbitrary.
Do we say now we’re going to look at the top 10 percent? Do we say, well, we have to make sure that we have a second language learners in there? We have to make sure whatever it is to reflect the population. Now, that’s obviously a really important consideration. Who is your population? But when you go around the country and still see in a particular – in districts that there are certain children who are in the gifted program and those who are not in the gifted program and you can look at it ethnically, easily. So it does become arbitrary.
Interviewer: You were a teacher of gifted – in gifted programs, correct?
Yvette Jackson: Not really.
Yvette Jackson: I was a teacher – well, let me say it this way. The answer is technically yes, because the principal of the school I was in, for one year, wanted to start what she was calling a gifted program. What I was, though, was I had students, as I mentioned earlier, that I labeled as all of them being gifted, so these are gifted classes. This is my words to them in how I believed in it. But then I did study gifted education and became the director of Gifted Programs for New York City Board of Education.
So it was really more about how I took initially that one year of gifted land and said, wait, philosophically, how do we change it? Which was a surprise to many in New York City ’cause they had some very traditional gifted programs that eliminated or didn’t reflect the demographics of New York City and I was saying, wait a second, we can come in and talk about gifted education for all and then start identifying based on the way students respond to access.
Interviewer: So what is the difference for those who may not be familiar with how teachers are instructing and assessing students when they’re in a gifted program versus a traditional classroom environment?
Yvette Jackson: Right. Well, here you have, if you start identifying students and you say, well, they’re in a top 5 percent, right, they are 95th percentile or whatever. Teachers immediately believe what goes with that then are the kind of engaging activities that are going to get them to be more creative as a result of it. That are going to get them to feel like they’re challenged. That are going to get them to feel that their particular strengths are really being addressed.
So the strategies teachers use are reflective of a belief in high levels of potential. So the kinds of things students then get exposed to beside the enrichment is even more expansive curriculum that’s more reflective of what’s going on in the world now. How that can be connected to different kinds of career opportunities. How we can look at these students as having more agency within a school. That’s what’s happening when you’re labeled as gifted.
And what we are saying is, in fact, those things should be for everybody. Will you then see once students have exposure – and that’s why my work was very much affiliated with Joe Renzulli’s school-wide enrichment, because his whole premise was when you enrich a child’s experience, give them high levels of exposure, you are going to find more and more strengths develop, which means you should constantly be assessing to see how students are responding to new levels of exposure. That does not happen, it happens in gifted land but it doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s really the choices that are made to keep these students highly engaged.
Interviewer: I can imagine some people listening might say that only – the students that are being selected have the academic foundation to be able to – the reading, the writing, the communication, the mathematic skills to successfully engage in the rigorous coursework you’re talking about. And they might say that a student first needs to be remediated before they can partake in such a program. Is there a level of truth to that statement in your opinion?
Yvette Jackson: The answer is no, and I say that because we’re talking about high levels of thinking. Reading and writing are tools. Yes, they’re important tools but the levels of thinking, being able to synthesize, evaluate, think creatively, think in terms of analogies, think in terms of syllogisms, all children can do that. Babies do analogies. This is like this, just like that’s like that. They’re constantly doing –. Even if they don’t have the language yet or the reading background.
There is a real difference of, you know, thinking at high levels, plus you can think at high levels and show your high level thinking pictorially, you could – symbolically, you can show it graphically. And that’s why when I talked about Reuven Feuerstein, his assessment process looked at using other than just verbal kinds of assessment. Because you can think, like I said, at these high levels without having all of the language that reading really requires.
Now, are there levels of higher levels of thinking and reading that are important? Sure, I just went through some of them that are really important, but the point is don’t think that children are not thinking at high levels just because they’re not reading at high levels. So given that, how do we assess how they’re thinking using these different modalities, and then how do we, at the same time, introduce the kind of content in reading that’s going to engage them so much that they will take to the reading and read more and more?
Because what makes a reader a good reader is what kind of exposure, their background knowledge that connects them in terms of making meaning. But the other is the desire to read. The more you read, and I don’t care what you’re reading about, if you’re reading about baseball, if you’re reading about dance, the more you read, you’re building the skills that are reading skills. So don’t compare them as the same thing. There is an overlap but don’t think because the child’s not reading at high level they are not thinking also at really high levels.
Interviewer: And let me just add to that comment. We were talking earlier about Dr. James Paul Gee, and he has some excellent work around, in video games in literacy, and he talks about how video games engage students in a way to read at a higher level than they would necessarily in a classroom environment. So there’s other research in different areas that speaks to what you were talking about.
Yvette Jackson: Absolutely. And the other thing, going back to James Gee’s work is, when you say, well, what is it that students really need to engage their learning? One is they want to be awakened. They want to be woke, you know. They want to be so turned on that they then get engaged. After they get engaged, they want challenge. They want real challenge but they want to feel that the challenge they’re being presented with, they already have some of the background tools. They want feedback and they want time to reflect. That is the recipe that video games are built on, exactly that. And there are students who wiz through those because that is the recipe that they get put through.
So my question back to teachers, when they say, well, we don’t have – you know, some of our students just aren’t motivated. I say, what do you do to engage them? See, because we are all born with the desire to be engaged, that’s how you come out of the womb. That’s why when you are in a crib somebody puts all those different toys around you and on top of you. That’s why when a baby is 2 years old and gets out of the crib you better plug up everything.
Because the baby wants to be engaged and so do adolescents, they all do. The issue is when you hold that engagement back and you are just doing things that are disconnected or saying you’ve got to do this ’cause it’s being on the test, that’s not engaging.
Interviewer: So then back to school and learning environments, what does the research show when you engage previously underachieving students in gifted program coursework without having any type of prior remediation? What starts to happen?
Yvette Jackson: Well, let’s, again, distinguish between a gifted program and gifted education, ’cause a gifted program can mean that there are certain expectations that these students have had access to before they got into that program. So just taking students into a gifted program that requires that student had had some kind of immersion, certain kinds of background experiences, and you put them in those programs but then don’t give them the support, the immersion to catch up with that, then it looks like, see, they couldn’t do it.
But if you’re talking about gifted education that says we are going to give them exposure, we’re going to give them high levels of thinking, we are going to give them many opportunities to apply their thinking to real-life experiences, which is Joe Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad model, then what you’re saying is you will see students develop into that.
Jean Piaget was a cognitive psychologist and he always used to say two things, one is high level thinking requires high level activities. When you are remediating, which again is a misnomer because that means that students were exposed to begin with and then didn’t get it, many of the students were not exposed to it so when you are mediating the experiences through that kind of exposure, high levels of work, the opportunity, you see a warp drive in the kind of growth that they have, even when the students are coming from an underperforming level. Because what happens? They walk into an experience where they’re being totally engaged, that they’re given the kinds of supports needed.
And let me just say this, as having been the director of Gifted Programs, there are many students who are put into schools that have traditionally been considered really high level. I’m talking specifically now, even about private schools or some of the specialized schools in New York or other places, but especially private schools. Where it is assumed that the student got into that school because they’re high functioning, and yet it’s in those same schools where they have enormous kinds of support programs. They have after-school programs for kids to build their skills Those are some of the same schools that go to some of these private after-school organizations to build –.
These are kids who often also get extended time in taking a test because their parents have been able to say, oh, if they got more time and they go to a psychologist that says yeah, they have a little learning issue. Well, that’s interesting that they’re in this school that has been broadcasted as this is for exceptionally high learning functioning students.
Interviewer: So we talk about it in the other conversation you joined us with around The Pedagogy of Confidence. What is it that gifted programs then are doing – we talked about how they’re structured. What is it that they’re doing around The Pedagogy of Confidence, around these ideas that you talk about in that book, around neuroscience to really engage students and make them learn in a better way than we traditionally do in normal classroom environments?
Yvette Jackson: I’m glad you asked that because the first thing I want to say is, for those in gifted land, who are in gifted programs, don’t think that I am talking badly about a gifted program because I’m not. I’m saying there are so many things we can learn about the pedagogy that always elicits high levels of thinking. That’s what we can learn from those gifted programs.
So what I’m saying is these are the kinds of programs that are pushing forward this idea of strength building, but believing when the students walk in that they have particular strengths, that’s one of the best parts about a gifted program, is that people believe in the potential of the students. So when you go around and you see some of these programs you say I can believe not only in what they’re doing but how do I transport what they’re doing in these programs to make it more accessible for others.
And there is a place for students who are thinking on the same levels exactly to have time to be able to commune that way. But what we’re also saying that the bigger picture is, how do you make sure that you’re giving the same kinds of offerings, not the same exact offering but types, exposure, like I was talking about before, all the things that come under enrichment, opportunities, those kinds of things to all students. And as they are going through that, as we learned in gifted land, students go into gifted programs and get dumber. They keep getting intensely active and engaged and that’s what we want for all students.
Interviewer: And as we talked about, there is not just the results but also the neuroscientific background that says this works.
Yvette Jackson: Right, exactly. It says it’s worked which is why they do work, and you can go and see some of the most stimulating things happen in these programs. And all I am saying is how do you offer that same kind of pedagogy to everybody and then start identifying student responses to that pedagogy so that then you can build on the strengths that they are then manifesting.
Interviewer: All of this work really reminds me of a quote that I saw the other day, and I’m paraphrasing from Michelle Obama, and she was talking about speaking to a counselor at her high school about wanting to apply to Princeton and how this counselor said she essentially wasn’t Princeton material. And she has a quote in her new memoire Becoming, where she says failure is a feeling before failure is an outcome. And again, I’m paraphrasing. But this idea that – and she resisted what this counselor said and still applied to Princeton and got in. That quote really stood out to me as we were discussing today everything about gifted programs and our lens around certain students.
Yvette Jackson: Three things come to my mind right now. What it makes me think of is, first of all, all parents, whomever they are, whatever socioeconomic level they’re from, send their children to school, to kindergarten, telling them you’re gonna go to school to learn. They believe that. They believe they’re going to learn. And then for so many students, because of the kind of testing that goes on, certain expectations, by first grade they don’t believe they’re going to learn anymore. They’ve had this feeling of failure. It hasn’t been that pronounced yet, like Michelle was saying in her book, but they have a feeling.
There is a malaise that goes into them that then they feel I can’t – I am not a good learner. Then the outcome comes where it’s self-fulfilling. They’re not learning as well. They think it’s them but it really becomes what they get exposed to.
The other is that idea that she talks about in terms of fear. There is a quote that we talk about that fear could be the acronym that stands for false evidence appearing real. Now, there are all ways to look at that. You could look at somebody’s test scores and at a particular time they don’t seem to be doing as well. Does that mean that they are not good learners? You can look at it like people have these misconceptions about students of color, especially when you’re talking about the achievement gap, and the false evidence is, ah, we have these students of color, they must be “gap kids.” That is false evidence that all of the sudden you get this remedial attitude about these students and it’s not real. It isn’t based on something real.
So what is real? What is real is when you are assessing students in the middle of learning experiences when they have been exposed. When they have been given the kinds of cognitive tools, strategies, to help them think at different levels. And then you see how they grow using those cognitive tools. That’s real. The other pieces, the data points that don’t have a child behind them or people don’t see the child behind them have no idea what’s going on and are very restricted is false evidence.
Interviewer: What do gifted programs tell us about how we’ve built our education system and how we view different types of students, particularly historically underserved students?
Yvette Jackson: Great question. Gifted programs, and let me say it this way. The experience or I should say access to gifted programs is what we have learned that it’s exclusionary. That what we’re believing is that a very small part of the population is equipped to move into higher levels of work. That’s one of the things that gifted programs are showing us, we have to be exclusionary, that’s just to prove the point that there is exceptionality here. That is false.
But the other thing that gifted programs are showing us, that when you get the kinds of things that engage students, they learn more profoundly, the develop new strengths that didn’t even have anything to do with the academic test scores. That these are students who are then saying I am going to be expected to go the next level. I’m expected to go to college. I’m just – this is the expectation. We’re learning that from gifted education, gifted programs.
And so now, again, how do we take that and say it shouldn’t be exclusionary. If you’re really talking about differentiation then we believe that you expose kids, give them support and you should see different strengths coming up and then you group kids by those strengths based on when they come in. But that’s what we have learned. We have learned that right now in this country it’s still considered exclusionary and second, that when you do have the kinds of program or I should say the content and the exposure that’s in it, you get very deep application and the students are engaged in learning more profoundly.
Interviewer: So then let’s finish up talking about how do we expand these programs to other students to expand and bring them to gifted land? Everybody comes to gifted land now.
Yvette Jackson: One way we expand it is by doing professional development where you have teachers who are not considered to be teachers in the gifted program, learning from teachers who are in the gifted program. What are those strategies? What’s the kind of pedagogy you use? What are the kinds of experience that we can, like I said, transport from there? So one is in teacher professional development.
The other is to really look from the district level and say the kinds of experiences that we’re going to offer, we’re going to make available for everybody in different ways. Again, what does that mean? If we’re saying high levels of exposure, the exposure doesn’t have to be identical but it has to be where schema, where frames of references are expanding and students are getting excited about being in school. So you have the professional development, you have the opportunities that go across the district.
You also engage the community more, and what do I mean by that? In the community there are all kinds of business resources, science resources. I don’t care what the community is, there are resources, museums, after-school opportunities, all kinds of things that can be brought into or connected to the schools so that students get more exposure.
Another thing, though, that I would say, especially on the secondary level, a way to expand the kind of thinking where we’re trying to elicit high levels of performance in application within, let’s say, the disciplines is in having teachers who are secondary teachers go through their own internships. Meaning so many teachers who are teachers of a discipline, mathematics, have never really worked in that discipline. They got a degree in the discipline and then they became a teacher but a math teacher maybe never worked with an architect or didn’t do something for a tax firm or something like that.
And so what I’m saying is, within the community there are those opportunities to have these teachers, who then would understand or be exposed much more to the kinds of activities, project-based learning that’s real-life because they’re used within a career that they could then bring back that kind of – the things that they’ve learned through that internship for everybody.
I am really into that and you know, there was a man who, for a short while, was super intent and in Seattle and he had been a general in the Army, and he came in saying what we’re going to do as part of PD is have all of our secondary teachers go through different kind of internships. Unfortunately, he died pretty quickly, but my point is that kind of thinking, having teachers more exposed to the applications of high level thinking within the domain, then you have teachers working and thinking like experts within the field and you bring that back and you – it permeates throughout a program.
Interviewer: Well, I want to thank you again for joining us for a second conversation on this topic. It’s a pleasure having you here with us. Again, our guest is Dr. Yvette Jackson. She is currently an adjunct professor at Teachers College at Columbia University and a senior scholar at National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. She is the author of many books including Pedagogy of Confidence and her upcoming book, Mindfulness Practices.
Yvette Jackson: Thank you.
Interviewer: Thank you.
Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.