The Mythology of Learning, Part 1
Abandoning Deficit Models: A Paradigm Shift

By Carl Sabatino 

January, 2009

When James walked into the Bridges Academy admissions office, he told us he disliked school, his classmates, and himself. Although his records showed that James possessed a superior intelligence, he was often in trouble at school. He did not complete his homework, his handwriting was illegible, he blurted out comments in class, and he failed to read social cues with peers and teachers. His parents were perplexed that their son was unable to function in his sixth-grade class, despite his ability to recite every battle in World War II, read voraciously, and talk intelligently about the most arcane animals. When we met him, James had begun refusing to attend his current school where, at a recent IEP meeting, his program was modified to include classes designed to remediate his writing and teach social skills.

Many of the features of this student’s profile may resonate with the 2e Newsletter readership. This profile is certainly familiar to the faculty at Bridges Academy. What led James to refuse to go to school? It was the common myth that addressing gifts and talents must wait until weaknesses are remediated. Those who view 2e students from this perspective believe that remediation should be the top priority of programs for these students; and they believe that the primary goal in educating these students is to have them demonstrate grade-level proficiencies by passing standardized tests. Those who embrace this myth would have us believe that we need to “fix” 2e students’  problems before focusing on the individual strengths, talents, and interests of these children.

The reality, however, is that approaches that prioritize and focus on remediating weaknesses are likely to block development. Furthermore, these approaches may take a toll on 2e students’ feelings of esteem and self-worth, as we saw with James. These children learn quickly that they are different as soon as they start formal schooling. Their sensitivity and acute awareness inform them early on that their peers often out-perform them on simple tasks. Doubts of their abilities begin to creep in, resulting in deteriorating feelings of self-efficacy (students’ belief in their own ability to successfully organize and carry out a particular behavior). Parents and teachers who focus on remediation further reinforce negative feelings. The baggage the child begins to carry can seriously impede academic, social, and emotional progress.

Attention to the gifts, talents, and interests of 2e students, on the other hand, results in resiliency and self-actualization. When teachers and parents focus on assets, the youngsters experience success and begin to find their “island of competence” (a term coined by author and lecturer Robert Brooks, Ph.D., to describe areas of interest/talent that have been or have the potential to be sources of pride and accomplishment). These children also tend to find peers with similar interests and expertise. By providing opportunities to develop talents, 2e youngsters develop a positive image of who they are and a vision of what they might become.  

Working in the area of the gift is motivational for students. Some of the skills students lack show dramatic development when practiced within the context of assignments and projects within the gift area. Furthermore, students are more likely to accept instruction and feedback on their deficits, and to push themselves through the practice of a difficult skill when the effort is related to a project they want to finish. For those who lack social skills and understanding, we have found that working with others in the same interest/talent area greatly expands opportunities for positive and productive interaction. Many deficits can and must be addressed; but they should be addressed creatively, and preferably in the context of the strength, not at the expense of the development of the gift.

Talent development has become central to the educational philosophy at Bridges Academy, where we offer diverse talent development opportunities. First and foremost, we develop curriculum units and create experiences that are worthy of our students’ bright minds and curiosity. Within the daily curriculum, we do the following:

  • Differentiate along the lines of individual gifts and provide choices of products that align to gifts, talents, and interests. For example, we might give children who are gifted architecturally the option of building a city and presenting on how the city’s design reflects the socio-economic, religious, and/or political realities of the time.                       

  • Allow qualified students to take specific classes in the areas of their gifts at higher grade levels.

  • Develop talent development classes in particular areas for students who show a readiness for serious work in their domains of strength such as art, writing, and music.

  • Create special talent development opportunities, such as mentorships or independent investigations, for students who need curricula that motivate and challenge their minds and circumvent other stressors in their lives. For instance, we encourage our students with passions in computer networks and security to pursue professional-level certification. For those advanced in animation, we encourage an internship in an animation studio. Our students’ academic school schedules are adjusted to accommodate these real-life professional experiences.

 Our student James benefitted from this flexible approach. He was fascinated with history and was allowed to turn some of his projects, reading assignments, and written assignments across the disciplines into work related to this passion. In addition, James was able to take an additional history class. We also modified James’ homework and reduced his written work. He was required to take oral examinations and to present to classmates more often, following a presentation rubric that included image management. We found that after James went through the presentation process, he was able to put the content into written form a little more easily. Because faculty and peers recognized him for his advanced knowledge in history, James became more confident and began to make social connections with others who shared his interests. Ultimately, a stimulating dual-differentiated modified curriculum; a respectful encouraging environment; a little TLC; and, of course, time have helped to turn James around, making him available for learning and wanting to get up each day and come to school. We, and he, can build on that!

2e students are well served when they are guided to develop their interests and talents outside of school as well as within. Mini-courses, advanced classes, online courses, museum experiences, contests, technology camps, drama clubs, and sports are all ways to engage 2e students in talent development. Sometimes considered “extra” curricular, these opportunities, wherever appropriate and possible, are a good start and central to effectively engaging the 2e student. We also suggest that summer programs be primarily strength-based experiences in which 2e students can thrive and feel exhilarated rather than focus solely on remediation.

Twice-exceptional students are complex. While there are commonalities that make it possible to define them as a class, there are as many traits unique to each that necessitate focusing on the individual. Creative and flexible programming in the context of a talent-based philosophy makes this possible.

Carl Sabatino is the Head of School at Bridges Academy (www.bridges.edu), Studio City, California. Bridges is a college preparatory school dedicated to educating 2e students in grades 6 through 12.

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