Accidental Research Giftedness and Helplessness Response

In the last blog entry I mentioned an accidental study that we did in the gifted program in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the 1980s. I still find it interesting because to those of us teaching in the program it was a fairly stark exposition of the levels of underachievement among potentially gifted and talented students.

In Kenosha, we ran a pull-out program for gifted and talented kindergartners but didn’t begin working with these students until the second semester. The primary reason for this was the identification process. Kindergarten teachers would get to know the kids during the first semester, and then recommend those whom they believed might be gifted for testing. The students who met the gifted program’s fairly stringent criteria, a combination of an IQ and a creativity test, were placed in the program the second semester. Parents could request testing for their students as well and these requests were almost always honored.

One year in the early 1980s, the University of Wisconsin was doing a research study that included all of the entering kindergarten students in the district. I don’t remember the details of the study, except for how we used it for baseline data collection. One element of that data collection was to give an individual IQ test to every student. One of the district administrators at the time suggested that we teachers use the profile being developed of each student as our identification base, which we did. As a result, we were able to begin programming for these students in the fall, instead of waiting until the second semester. And we found that we had identified many more students as gifted than through the traditional process. Teachers in the program did not see any lesser levels of “giftedness” in this expanded population.

Fast forward three years. We began to get an increasing number of complaints from teachers in the home schools of these students that many of them could not possibly be “gifted.” In fact many of these students were “C” students according to the grades and academic achievement data gathered through the regular program. Given the assurances we had of the quality of the data collected by the UW staff, we were left with one amazing conclusion. Approximately 40% of the students that we had identified as “gifted” in kindergarten were now underachieving at significant levels.

I’d like to report that this led to a landmark program to reverse patterns of underachievement, but back in the 1980s research on motivation and self-regulation was in its infancy. We did make efforts to work with the most troubling of these cases: highly talented kids who were doing essentially nothing. But, as we know now, almost everything we did was wrong.

Relying on the literature of the day, we started a program based almost entirely on adult control. Students were asked to keep assignment notebooks every day. These notebooks were signed by the classroom teacher as the student left class, and by the parents upon completion of the homework. As I mentioned in another blog post , we now know that interventions reliant on adult control are believed to trigger a “helplessness response” in students. This causes them to avoid challenges, and that can make them appear less “gifted.” At any rate, the interventions were fairly consistently unsuccessful.

One of the reasons that I am so excited about the explosion of theory and serious research related to motivation and self-regulation is that early research has suggested that the strategies being developed to improve self-regulation in all students are particularly effective for underachieving gifted students. I know from experience the pain and frustration that everyone feels in the face of underachievement when the potential is so great: parents, teachers and especially the students.

One of our missions here at Metiri is to get this research in the hands of educators, as well as the strategies for implementing the findings in classrooms. Keep your eye out for our book on self-directed learning, due out in the coming weeks.


[Ed Coughlin, Senior VP]