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 Vol 10|No5|June |2014

This image is © J. McKenzie 2013

Thinking Gifted Thinking Gifted Thinking Gifted
Gifted Thinking
Gifted Thinking Gifted Thinking

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

We do not read or hear much about gifted education these days.

Many governments have swallowed the high stakes testing Kool-aid so that policy has swerved to focus on the middle ground and the mundane; yet all schools should be asking how they might best nurture the imagination, creativity and inquiry skills of all students.

The situation in the USA is quite discouraging since funding for gifted education has died off completely under the Obama administration as reported by the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children):

The federal government does not provide funding directly to local school districts for programs and services for gifted and talented students.

The only federal program for gifted children is the  Jacob K. Davits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, which funded the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented and  grants that focused on identifying and serving students who are traditionally under-represented in gifted and talented programs-students from culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse backgrounds--to help reduce gaps in achievement and to encourage the establishment of equal educational opportunities for all U.S. students. This program was defunded by Congress at the suggestion of the Obama administration in 2011 and has not received funding since.


Why does it matter?

A nation that neglects the education of its most talented young people endangers its future.

Instead of promoting innovation, invention and exceptional performance, most public systems will focus on basic performance. Some schools in the private sector and affluent suburbs might still be encouraged by ambitious parents to provide students with something more challenging, but there is a dramatic difference between rigorous school work and creative performance, though it is possible that both might occur at the same time.

poppiesThis image is copyrighted by Mauro Cociglio and used with permission here. The original is on Flickr at

There are some schools, thankfully, that resist the trend toward mediocrity, proclaiming in one case in New Zealand, "We specialize in tall poppies." In both Australia and New Zealand, the Tall Poppy Syndrome refers to a tendency of the crowd to resent and cut down those who excel - who stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Broadly defined, gifted education can serve all students, as the notion of talent is seen to embrace such things as empathy, caring, imagination and a host of traits not always recognized or nurtured by school programs. Thinking broadly, we expect that all students will become tall poppies.

Growing Tall Poppies - University of Melbourne School of Physics & CSIRO from Video and Media Production on Vimeo.

Why are high standards insufficient?

In the U.S.A. the CCS (Common Core Standards) ask that students perform at a high level on demanding tasks, but jumpthere is little about these tasks that inspires or requires ingenuity, innovation, creativity or boldly original thought. For the most part, the assessment instruments are focussed on interpretation and analysis. The items mostly require convergent rather than divergent thought.

This image is from

Exceptional performance should be a priority

What are the prime characteristics or traits of gifted performance, and how can schools best grow these behaviors and attitudes?

What is meant by virtuosity and how can schools develop that level of prowess?


The thesaurus lists skillfulness, mastery, expertise, prowess, proficiency, ability, aptitude; excellence, brilliance, talent, genius, artistry, flair, panache, finesse, wizardry; informal know-how, and chops as related words.

Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus 3rd edition © 2012 by Oxford University Press

The first step, of course, for a school to make exceptional performance a priority is goal-setting. The school staff and leaders must concur that the creativity, originality and inventiveness of all students will be a prime focus of the school program.

This goal must be clearly stated throughout the school in words and images. It should appear in all school publications. Students and parents must know along with the staff that imagination and exceptional performance are expected. In their work and their creative production students will know they are expected to reach past conventional wisdom and performance.

Reach for the sky!

Students in this school are clever, curious, dedicated, original, imaginative, perceptive, inventive, astute, sagacious, and enterprising!

For these words to have meaning in the lives and work of students, they should be discussed and explored throughout the early years of schooling.


clownsIn some schools, the art work on the walls provides dramatic evidence of originality, as each child may be creating an image of a clown but each clown is unique in shape, color, character and mood. There are no templates being used. Perhaps the teacher had students enjoy a dozen or more images from the Internet before they began work on their own clowns, but this was no exercise in mere copying or imitation. The images on view sprang from the imagination of each child.

The image on the left is used here with permission from Catharine Wilson an art teacher in Florida whose online galleries are well worth a visit.

The prominent role of synthesis

Success in achieving originality will require a blend of attitude with skill. Students must be inclined toward freshness. They must thrill to the challenge of producing a clown drawing unlike any other drawing in the room. But attitude will not suffice. The inclination must be well supported by skills. At the top of the list for the clown exercise would be various drawing skills, but synthesis would rank high as a thinking skill at the heart of most creative endeavors - the capacity to play around with the elements of any thing so as to transform it into something new and original. The artist may begin with a blank piece of paper, but she or he has a mind filled with images wanting to leap onto that page. Taking colored pencil, crayon or brush in hand, the artist may entertain dozens of variations on color, line and mood before completing the work.

While synthesis is central to almost all creative efforts, few teachers have received formal instruction in how to do synthesis or how to equip students with synthesis skills. For several years I polled teacher audiences and found that fewer than one in a hundred audience members reported training in synthesis. Even though most curriculum documents around the world call for synthesis, there has been little professional development equipping teachers to stress synthesis and invention in their work with students. This finding led to a series of workshops to address the gap.

Engaging Students in the Making of Good New Ideas
An exciting day of hands-on learning activities
devoted to the concepts of synthesis, invention,
imagination and novelty.

For an overview of the synthesis challenge and resources to build synthesis skills, take note of "Bettering: A Synthesis Primer."


Authentic learning tasks that challenge students
to come up with something new

In addition to expecting exceptional performance and production in the arts, we would hope to see students pursuing challenging research tasks in ways that will produce good new ideas.

Meaningful inquiry requires students to wrestle with mysteries, puzzles, conundrums and difficult questions as well as issues that deserve thought and consideration. We expect students to weigh the thinking of experts and elders but then come up with their own positions, decisions and suggestions.

Research should take students beyond the mere gathering of information to the construction of new understandings. They will need a firm grounding in synthesis skills in order to combine the information in ways that may resolve puzzles and mysteries.

We expect that their work will qualify for placement at the top of the Taxonomy
of Synthetic Thought and Production
shown below:


This Taxonomy, outlined in some detail online at, helps students to judge the originality of their thinking so they can avoid mere copying, gathering and smushing.

Creating new ideas and possibilities
through lateral thinking
and wandering purposefully

Little attention is devoted in most schools to what Edward DeBono has called "lateral thinking" - the exploration of unusual possibilities, yet it is precisely this kind of thinking that fuels innovation and invention. Sometimes called "thinking outside of the box," lateral thinking is the engine that powers divergent thought.

Purposeful wandering requires both inclination and skill, as I outlined in some depth in my recent book, Lost and Found - a guide to discovery learning through purposeful wandering

It is sad that school improvement strategies pay little attention to the development of creative and original thought and production.







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