Recently, I have been bothered by some emails I received from Dr. Jo Boaler who is a Math Professor at Stanford University in California and founder of You Cubed, a math website for teachers of mathematics and the families they serve. Do not get me wrong, I do not know Jo Boaler, but from reading educational journals and having students with a propensity for mathematics, I signed up to get a newsletter from her “You Cubed” organization. Dr. Boaler has many really great ideas when it comes to mathematics education but her most recent focus seems to be on giftedness – or rather the labelling of gifted students. It is that of which I am not so sure.
Exactly three times in the last two weeks, I have received an email from Dr. Boaler and her organization touting a recent video they made about the labelling of gifted children and how it has been a disservice to them to have been labelled as such. I watched the video after receiving the first email. You can watch it here: Rethinking Giftedness. Dr. Boaler wants people to view the video, so I feel that sharing it is the best way to allow you to know to what I am referring.
At face value, I do think the video has a point. We do put undo pressure on students. However, many other thoughts surfaced for me after I viewed the video. These are some of my thoughts:
- Was Dr. Boaler labelled as a child?
- Was she labelled as gifted? Talented?
- Did she receive special services as a child?
- How does the U.S. system of identifying, signifying, and servicing gifted students differ from that of the UK system, from where Dr. Boaler originates?
- What would she identify as key to her rise to being a pre-eminant mathematics professor at a highly esteemed institituion?
- How does she think of herself? Does she have a label?
Upon further thought, I am curious to know why she is pushing for the removal of gifted labels. Personally, while I understand that labels are not always helpful or healthy, they do serve to identify students and what services they might be in need of to maximize their learning potential. I am not sure that removal of the label of “gifted” is the answer. It might be for some – such as those featured in the video – but what of those students who feel that the label actually helped them to “get what they needed” or helped motivate them to strive for more? I think that only one side of the story is told by the video. This is what distributed me and I am left unsure as to why it is even being addressed at all by this particular organization. Why the push back against giftedness from such a visible, generally proactive, revolutionary thinker and mathematician such as Dr. Boaler? It concerns me that she is advocating for the deletion of labels for the gifted population.
One of my own thoughts kept resonating with me and it is this: student labels will happen whether we want them or not. This became apparent earlier this year when my sophomore came home and told me that he is now known as “The Art Kid” at our high school due to his extraordinary talent in hyperrealistic drawings. He did not look for this label, nor do I think he really wants the label anymore than he would want to be labelled gifted for the fact he is taking AP Calculus as a sophomore. It just happens. Students notice. They will continue to notice and label whether we think it is a good thing or not.
Time might be better spent educating teachers on how to individualize learning to fit the needs of each student, understanding the complexity of gifted individuals, and providing support for their needs rather than using name and status to undermine an entire group of students by calling for them to “just be like everyone else”. Because, that is the key to understanding – label or not – gifted students are not the same as other groups of students – who, by the way, also have labels.
I asked a respected friend who teaches TAG students what she thought about the video by Dr. Boaler. She responded with a great insight in that rather than fighting the labels, we should be teaching TAG students (and all students, really) to be resilient and continue to work to have their needs met – label or not. We all need to realize that lablels exist in life beyond school – again, whether we want them or not. We want all students to be true to themselves despite what they are labelled. Giftedness is not a just label, it is far more complex – it describes “who” and “how” someone is – and maybe that is what I see missing in the video, too.
I have a great deal of respect and even admiration for Dr. Boaler who is trying to revolutionize the teaching of mathematics, but I think she is off-base here. I would like to tell her not to waste time fighting the labels, her time is better spent on the mathematics education, itself. The video and especially, the repeated emails with instructions to view it, have left me disappointed in what I thought was a new direction of educational leadership from an esteemed professional and institution. I expected better. I expected more. And so do the TAG students…..sometimes, their label gets them there.