Moving Away from the Gifted Math Label

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I’ve been paging through Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets lately.  I’m finding a few takeaways as I’ve been reading sections over the past few days.  My school has embraced some of the ideas in the book and we’ve been taking small steps each year.  One idea I found interesting relates to gifted students.  Page 94 discusses the “myth of mathematically gifted child.”  I feel like that statement is ripe with controversy as many are for or against the idea.  Most parents, teachers, and students have at some point in their life been told or shown their math identity.  Then that math identity may or may not be adopted and confirmed by the student. That communication can come from a teacher, parent, or somebody else.  Sometimes it comes from a single teacher or constant grades on assessments/assignments. Usually it’s developed early in life and continues with that individual.  People often can’t shake the generalization that they’re “good” or “terrible” at math.  I hear this at parent/teacher conferences, at school meetings and on EduTwitter.  Of course this is a generalization, but I find that this math stigma has lasting consequences.

I believe that the same stigma has the potential to occur with the “gifted” label.   I find that this can happen as early as the elementary level or even before then.  In an effort to address the needs of all students sometimes elementary schools group students by perceived math ability – emphasis on perceived. This often takes students and places them in different math classes during instructional blocks.  Students are moved to these different levels based on standardized test scores, classroom tests, teacher recommendations, or some other data that the team feels is necessary.  The groups can be fluid and change every unit, but sometimes they don’t. In some instances, school also have advanced math classes for students in upper elementary.  These classes might have a gifted label associated with them.   Although they’re labeled “gifted math” the roster doesn’t match the label.  The classroom rosters are often based on a criteria.  Sometimes the criteria is heavily weighted towards one single test-score cutoff, accounting for 40 or more percent.

Many questions come up regarding the actual percentage for students that are identified as gifted.  Most gifted specialists tend to agree that the amount is less than 10%.  Yet, these classes that are labeled as gifted tend to have 1/4 or even 1/3 of the total grade level population.  These classes may be accelerated, but not necessarily be meeting the needs of all the students that are identified.  Moreover, moving students to and from these classes can prove difficult as social/emotional consequences play out.  Often these classes aren’t as fluid and the roster doesn’t change as much since the students are accelerated from day one.

When shopping for school districts I sometimes find that parents are looking for whether schools have gifted classes for their child.  Schools might communicate on their website or through brochures that they have “gifted” classes, but in reality they’re accelerated subject-oriented classes.  Gifted students have academic and social/emotional needs and funding isn’t always available for this need.  It’s up to the local districts to create a system to meet the needs for these students.  I’m assuming positive intentions for the schools and districts in this scenario. In an effort to please the community and potential registrations, districts might used the term gifted to mean that the needs for high-achieveing students will be met.  Also, students that participate in these classes are artificially given the gifted label and they adopt the identity.  For some students they thrive in the class and it’s just what they need.  For others, it’s the opposite. Students struggle and feel contempt for math as they attempt to live up to the label of the class.  Having this happen at the elementary level sets the stage for a student’s math identity into middle school and beyond.

Labeling a class as gifted has consequences.  I want students to be able to create and maintain their own math identities.  Creating engaging math experiences for students with a heavy does of individual reflection can help students decide for themselves how they feel about math.  Regardless of their assigned math identity, I’m hoping my math class provides an appreciation, curiosity, and enthusiasm for mathematics.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

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