This article appears in an edited book which has many interesting articles on middle school education.

Piirto, J., Cassone, G., & Wilkes, P. (1999). Talent development in the middle school. In C. Walley & G. Gerrick (Eds.), Affirming middle school education. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

 

TALENT DEVELOPMENT IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL

by

Jane Piirto, Geri Cassone, and Paula Wilkes

 

 

There is a "quiet crisis" in education, according to Secretary of Education Richard Riley (as cited in Ross, 1993). The crisis is quiet because the students are often quiet, nice kids, struggling to be good, not making waves, trying to teach themselves, to learn by themselves, to study for tests without the benefit of direct teaching matched to their abilities. These are our academically talented students. These students are silenced by a society and education establishment tht tells them that it is unfair, or somehow un-American to want to learn at a faster rate than most of their peers. Their peers tell them that being interested in learning is odd, that they are geeks, nerds, bookworms, and the like.

The muzzle is also applied to the teachers of these students. They are told to "teach to the middle," or that "these kids will teach themselves," or, worse yet, "the bright students learn a lot by teaching the other kids." For these teachers, some of whom have special training for teaching the talented, the restraints placed on them by administrative fiat and the expectations of colleagues is frustrating. They realize that talented students have the same rights to learn appropriate material, receive instructional attention, and have their intellectual needs met as the other students "included" in the middle school classroom.

The following paper will explore issues related to methods currently used in middle school to teach talented students, provide a reaction from researchers about methods for grouping students in the middle school, and present two examples of middle school programming for academically talented students. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Pyramid of Talent Development that may provide insight into appropriate planning for students in the middle grades.

 

The Middle School Revolution

The successful middle school revolution that has happened in many cities in the United States has numerous advocates and few detractors. When class size is reduced and when teachers have common planning time, much can happen that is developmentally appropriate for young adolescents. But what about the academically talented? Are their intellectual needs being met in the restructured middle school? Along with the excitement generated by the new structures and new ways of doing things, the question remains: are all students’ needs being met?

Several studies have indicated that the goal of success for all students may give short shrift to the goal for "all" if the "all" includes academically talented students. Tomlinson (1994) said, "Gifted middle school learners are at special risk in the absence of appropriately challenging instruction" (p. 178). She noted three "boomerangs" in curriculum for these students. These are (1) the conclusion that concrete learning is what middle school students need. Tomlinson noted that many academically talented middle school students are able to think at highly complex and abstract levels. When all the instruction is targeted for the concrete and the hands-on, these students may suffer the very apathy and disengagement that is common for at risk learners. Self-esteem is tied to accomplishment, and when accomplishment is easy or not struggled for, apathy can result.

Vars and Rakow (1993) advocated an integrative curriculum. Other terms that seem synonymous with integrative are interdisciplinary, correlated, unified, fused, holistic, and core curriculum. The purpose of such approaches to teaching content is to enable the students to make connections between knowledges common to the separate domains. This is often done through scheduling innovations such as block schedules or other ways of viewing school time and through manipulating sequence so that, for example, students in social studies may read literature that is applicable to the topic being studied in social studies. Such integrative curriculum requires common planning time and deep subject matter knowledge on the part of the teachers, as well as a compatability of personality and philosophy. Teachers should "use of judicious mix of heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings" so that the students can have the experience of working with others of unlike ability and interest as well as the experience of working with intellectual peers.

However, Tomlinson (1994) said that the thematic approach common to middle school curricula falsely assumes that the academically talented learners will have their needs taken care of because higher level thinking skills, creativity skills, and critical thinking skills will be folded into the thematic units. That all students need to do higher level thinking is a given, but the question of pace and depth is still not answered, and academically talented middle school students are fast learners who can master the knowledge (if that is, indeed, the goal of the school) in much less time than it takes most middle school students.

The following vignette gives a glimpse into a middle grades classroom where the teacher, Mr. Barnes, is required to structure his classroom by the principle of differentiating curriculum according to ability. This sample illustrates Mr. Bryan’s frustration about what and how to best teach all his middle school students.

A vignette

I was visiting friends in a large U.S. city. Their eighth grade daughter, Mandy, so excitedly described her school that I asked whether I could visit it. I asked Mandy why she loved her school so much. "They care about us," she said. "There’s kids from all races and backgrounds. I love the projects we do in the classes. We’re all just excited about our school." I got permission to shadow her for a day. The Academic Middle school is based on the Coalition for Essential Schools principles. Mandy was in eighth grade, in a "house" of 100 students and 4 teachers. The teachers had common planning time. The kids were multi-ethnic. It's an inner city school. There were 19 to 24 students in the classes I observed. I observed Mandy’s math class of 19 students, with Mr. Bryan. At 8:50 he began with roll call. One of the girls asked whether she could go to the counseling office. He said, "If you leave the room I'll have to put you on time track." It turns out that she and he have a conflict and the girl asked to leave class every day. On the board are written,

"Mini Extra-Credit"

"Due Wednesday/Thursday."

1. "Place parentheses so as to make this equation true. 36/4 +5 -2+2.3+12/3 +1=6.

2. What is the ones digit in 7 1000 ?

The algebra assignment was also written on the board.

p. 49 #31-36.

p. 52 # 7-12, 29-32, 49-44.

Students were in six rows three or four deep, with the seven algebra students, one third of the class, in the back of the first three rows, in a circle. They were talking among themselves and the noise was distracting. It seemed to me that they could be moved farther back.

In the next few minutes, Mr. Bryan made statements such as these.

"Correct your own paper." [to the group in front.]

"Algebra students? [to the group in back.] I don't know if I can count on you doing that, but keep it down, will you?"

He called out answers. There were posters of problems up on the walls. "How many cheeseburgers were sold? What percent of items sold were multicore burgers? Which form closed boxes when folded? Give the volume and the surface area."

While the students were figuring out the problem, he came over to me. "We're not allowed to teach algebra anymore."

"Why?" I asked.

"We don’t have separate classes for academically talented students anymore. It’s against the rules. I’m certified in gifted and talented but I can’t teach the advanced classes I used to teach."

There was a problem on the board. "While I was doing my own problem-solving last night, playing with math, I ran into this problem. Who can solve it?"

10526315789472684 with a 2 at the end is always that # multipled by 2.

More questions. A student asked, "Why do we need to do this?" He replied, "Oh, philosophical questions. I don't know. I don't answer philosophical questions." "No calculators. Spread out."

He came to talk with me and said that the teachers have two hours of planning per week: one for curriculum, one for at-risk students. This happened on Monday and Tuesday during electives. They don’t consider academically talented students "at risk."

He asked the students: "Write this fraction as a decimal: 3/4." He demonstrated how. Then he says, "You try one." 1/4. He walked around giving encouragement. "Very good."

"Is $0.20 the same as $0.2?" he asked, and most of the students said yes.

They began a discussion of infinity. "How do you show infinity?" He asked them by name: Geraldo. Jennifer. Dante. Jaime. Juan. Eric. Heather. Chris.

"Let me see your book with your name in it."

"May I sharpen my pencil?" Juan asked.

Mr. Bryan talked about repeating decimals. All this time the seven algebra students had been talking softly in the back of the room, not a part of the discussion of decimals and percents. Mr. Bryan then walked over to the kids working on algebra while the other kids worked on p. 104 in pairs. The algebra kids had questions about absolute value and the commutative property. There were 5 boys and 2 girls in the algebra group. They grouped around him as he leaned over the back table and explained negative and positive numbers with a graph. He wrotes) -4/5 + (-3.8 and helped them work it out. One of the students said, "Isn’t the commutative property very similar to the associative property." He shook his head, then nodded his head, and said, "yes." They are going to take a test on Chapters 1 and 2 of the Algebra 1 book tomorrow. They have been teaching themselves algebra for two weeks, and last semester, they had taught themselves pre-algebra, taking tests to move along in the book.

Then he turned to me, telling me that the next class will even more kids ready for algebra--13 of 20. "Is this any way to deal with the advanced students?" he asked. "I wouldn’t do it at all if I hadn’t been trained in gifted and talented education."

I asked him how much time he can spend with these advanced students. He said he spends 5 or 10 minutes total with them during a typical day. Later, over dinner, I asked Mandy whether he spent only this much time with them every day. She thought for awhile (she was in the percents and decimals drill group), and said, "Yes. Sometimes he doesn’t get a chance to work with them at all. He has to work with us to help us get the basic math so we can go to high school math."

I wondered how this was "essential" education; that is, what is "essential" is that the slower students get most of the time of the teacher and the faster students get less time and less instruction. As Mr. Bryan put it, "I'm not going to do another preparation for them. It's too much work." He used to coach Math Counts [ a national competition] and have teams participate in math contests but no more. The teachers prepare together for thematic and interdisciplinary education, and he can teach decimal points in his sleep. He would like to teach a class of advanced students together, but the organizational principle essential to the middle school model they had adopted did not allow for such grouping, as it was considered elitist at worst and unnecessary at best. Why should eighth graders even have algebra when high schools will teach it next year?

I wonder if the parents of the bright math students care that their children are teaching themselves, get to ask only one or two questions a day, and are chastised for being too loud when the group they are in gets interested in the topic and begins to fervently discuss the commutative property.

 

Tomlinson (1994) also noted that there is "a pervasive uncertainty in the middle school movement regarding what constitutes appropriate curriculum for the middle school" (p. 179) and this ambiguity bodes ill for all students. What to teach? How to teach it? What is the middle school curriculum? The math teacher, Mr. Bryan, planned in common with other members of his team and designed lessons that would fold mathematics into social science for sixth graders. For a thematic unit on oceanography he had made a series of number problems that included math facts about the ocean. Was this appropriate? Common thought would say yes. But if most of the students couldn’t do percents, as was demonstrated in the math class for eighth graders, what good were the math facts when they couldn’t understand them, when they hadn’t the basic entry level knowledge to appreciate the math facts in their oceanographic context? And what of the academically talented students, chomping at the bit to learn algebra in the eighth grade, for whom these percentages on the math facts sheet were appropriate in the sixth grade but for whom the instruction in the eighth grade was so watered down, dumbed-down, that they had to teach themselves?

Tomlinson (1994) made several recommendations for middle schools in including instruction for their academically talented students.

1. Acknowledge that there are academically talented learners in the middle school, and note that they do have cognitive and affective differences.

2. Plan for the learning needs of these students; consider a coaching model.

3. Include flexible grouping; do not insist on heterogeneous grouping for all learning tasks.

4. Prepare the teachers to be able to work with students in groups.

5. Define the curriculum that is suitable for these learners.

6. Utilize many learning strategies to encourage higher level thinking in all students, but don’t assume that because these are included that academically talented students’ needs are taken care of.

7. Help teachers to plan for diverse needs of all students, including the academically talented.

8. Conduct staff development and encourage college courses in curriculum differentiation for academically talented learners.

The literature on the needs of the academically talented in the middle schools has focused on three main issues: (1) the appropriate use of cooperative learning groups (Gallagher, Coleman, and Nelson, 1995; Coleman, Gallagher, and Howard, 1993; Coleman, Gallagher, and Nelson, 1993; Gallagher, Coleman, and Nelson, 1993; Joyce, 1991; Nelson, Gallagher, and Coleman, 1993; Robinson, 1990); (2) the differentiation of instruction for students who are able to think in highly abstract ways; and (3) the heterogeneous grouping that is deemed to be the best way to deal with the social development of middle school students. Nelson, Gallather, and Coleman (1993) conducted a survey of 420 educators, from the Coperative Learning Network of ASCD, the International Association for the Study of Cooperative Learning, the National Association for Gifted Children, and The Association for the Gifted. With 314 responses, they arranged the responses thematically, differentiating between the opinions of those from the cooperative learning organizations and those from the organizations for the education of the gifted and talented. The results showed "a wide chasm between the two camps on the issue of heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping for cooperative learning" (p. 120). Most agreed that there should be more staff development about the needs and characteristics of gifted and talented students, as most teachers have only had one or two clock hours during their undergraduate training about this heterogeneous population of academically talented students.

Grouping and the American middle school

A spate of literature (Oakes, 1985; Wells & Serna, 1996) has said that putting students into groups according to ability is discriminatory against minority youth, especially African Americans and Hispanics. This appeal to equity has led to a response that equality is not just treating everyone the same, but educating everyone according to their ability. The means for "detracking" have been (a) to encourage heterogeneous grouping and (2) to advocate cooperative learning. The technique of cooperative learning has permeated pedagogy in schools and has evolved to the point where students who don’t like to work in groups are considered antisocial and not helpful. Many bright students have voiced the opinion that they don’t like to do the work for the other students, yet they feel their own perfectionistic standards force them to do so, as they don’t want to hand in or complete work that is substandard. They fear speaking up and voicing this opinion because of disdain for their opinion from the teacher and from other students.

When the first author gave a group of adademically talented high school freshmen the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a career planning strategy, many of the students turned out to be Extraverted (E). The stock interpretation for "E" students is to say that they prefer to work in groups, to gather energy from others, rather than from within, from oneself. To a person, the academically talented students said, no, they hate to work in groups. When asked why, they said, they hate to do the work for the others. When asked whether they like to work in groups of people who like to share the work equally, and to discuss the problem at hand, they said, "Oh, yes. I like to work in those kind of groups. But in school I never get a chance."

Ability grouping

Several types of ability grouping are available as discussed in the following sections:

XYZ Grouping

XYZ grouping is done according to high, middle, and low ability based on test scores or other performance indicators. This is the grouping the de-tracking advocates don’t like, as often students remain in the same group for years. Detroit had such a plan as early as 1919. Students had the same curricula and the same textbooks; the only differences were in pace of instruction and depth of enrichment. The top 20% in achievement were in the "X" classes, the next 60% were in the "Y" classes, and the lowest 20% were in "Z" classes. A meta-analysis (a study of all the studies) by Kulik and Kulik (1982) of 51 studies of the effectiveness of XYZ grouping showed that high-aptitude learners gained about 1/10 of a year with such grouping and curricula ( Kulik, 1992a). Similar studies by Slavin (1987, 1991) showed no difference in the achievement gains among students in XYZ groups. Likewise, self-esteem of students in XYZ groups was studied by Kulik and Kulik (1984a, 1984b, 1987, 1990, 1991; Kulik, 1992a; Kulik & Kulik, 1997), and their studies showed that students in the lower group, the "Z" groups, had slightly higher self-esteem in such a configuration, but that students in the higher group, the "X" students, had slightly lower self-esteem.

In commenting on why the achievement and self-esteem effects were so small in XYZ groups, James Kulik (1992b) said that "curricular uniformity" was probably the main reason, for they were placements of "differential placement but not differential treatment" He said, "For example, children in the high group in a Grade 5 program may be ready for work at the sixth grade level; children in the middle group are ready for work at the fifth grade level; and children in the low group may need remedial help" but all had the same curricula (p. 4).

Another name for "XYZ" grouping is " tracking." Critics such as Jeanie Oakes have called for an elimination of all grouping-not only XYZ grouping- after studying the results of XYZ grouping on achievement. A call to "detrack America" has been raised by many educators. Kulik (1992b) said that "Meta-analytic evidence suggests that this proposed reform could greatly damage American education. Teachers , counselors, administrators, and parents should be aware that student achievement would suffer with the total elimination of all school programs that group students by aptitude" (p. 6). He said that achievement results from schools replacing all XYZ classes with heterogeneous classes would show that students of higher aptitude would "fall slightly," while the level of achievement of the rest of the students would stay about the same. He cautioned, "If schools eliminated grouping programs in which all groups follow curricula adjusted to their ability, the damage would be greater, and it would be felt more broadly (p. 6). It seems that Kulik's advice is being followed, and many districts are deciding to continue with honors classes, especially in academic subjects such as science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts, with all other students not in the honors classes grouped together for instruction. Qualification for honors classes is being broadened in many districts to include more criteria than aptitude or achievement test scores from tests given at very young ages. Such criteria often include self-nomination by students for honors classes.

Within-class grouping

A second type of ability grouping is within-class grouping, in which students within the same class are grouped for instruction according to their achievement. Common types of within class grouping are (1) mastery learning and (2) individualized instruction. In the most common form of within-class grouping, (3) regrouping by subject, students are generally grouped into three or more levels, and they study material from different textbooks at different levels. Meta-analytic studies from the University of Michigan ( Kulik and Kulik 1984a, 1984b, 1987, 1990, 1992; Kulik, 1992a, 1992b) and from Johns Hopkins University ( Slavin, 1987, 1991) found that this type of ability grouping had positive results, with gains for low- middle- and high-ability students averaging 1.2 to 1.2 years in a school year.

Cluster grouping

A type of within-class grouping is cluster grouping. This is where several talented students are placed with a teacher who will treat them as talented and differentiate their instruction accordingly. Four to six talented students usually make up a cluster; with this size group, the teacher will be able to differentiate for their instruction and the work load will not be horrendous. The advantage of this type of grouping is that it fits, philosophically, with the special educational practice of inclusion, and it still provides the students with a peer group. Teachers have found that cluster grouping helps the achievement of the other students as well. Cluster grouping should be used as a complement to pullout programming, and not as an end in itself.

Cross-grade grouping

Cross-grade grouping is another type of ability grouping. This was first tried in the Joplin Plan in Missouri in the 1950s. In this model, students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades were broken into nine groups reading from the second-grade to the ninth-grade level. Students went to reading class at the same hour, but to the level of instruction at which they were achieving. Other types of cross-grade grouping are (1) ability-grouped class assignment; (2) ability grouping for selected subjects; (3) nongraded plans, and (4) special classes ( Mills and Durden, 1992). Meta-analysis showed that cross-grade grouping is an effective means of delivering instruction, and achievement gains similar to those of within-grade grouping were found. The key element, it seems, is that students study different curricula for different ability levels. Kulik and Kulik (1997) in discussing the complete removal of all ability grouping, warned:

The damage would be truly profound if, in the name of de-tracking, schools eliminated enriched and accelerated classes for their brightest learners. The achievement level of such students would fall dramatically if they were required to move at the common pace. No one can be certain that there would be a way to repair the harm that would have been done. (p. 241)

The middle school movement has its great strengths, and the above discussion has pointed out possible weaknesses, or challenges, as we are so fond of saying in the field of education. Two school districts have coped with the situation of dealing with talented students at the middle school level, and their case examples follow.

 


Case Example 1:

Using Q-Sort Methodology to Define a School Program for the Talented

By Geri Cassone

The District

This is a case study of the formation of a middle school program for the academically talented and gifted in a suburban district of 34,000 people. The school system serves approximately 5,000 students. There is one middle school serving about 1,200 students in grades 6 through 8.

The Program for the Academically Talented

Students are identified and placed in the Advanced Study Program based on the Rule for School Foundation Units in the State of Ohio, Rule 3301-51-15. Via this Rule, which is somewhat outdated in its philosophy, having not been revised since 1984, the eligibility criteria for talented students have been determined in the areas of (1) superior cognitive ability (or high-IQ); (2)specific academic ability; (3) creative thinking abiity; and (4) visual and/or performing arts ability.

The district has self-contained classooms for students in area (1) above, superior cognitive ability, in grades three through six. Another part of the district’s service to the academically talented is in the Advanced Study Program (ASP), which has a cluster-grouped classroom in first grade. This classroom is housed in an elementary school that serves as a magnet school for the other four elementaries in the district. The middle school recently shifted from the junior high school to a middle school orientation. A committee of teachers and administrators began to assess how this change in philosophy would impact the talented and gifted program.

Needs Assessment

Needs assessments were conducted with four populations: the teachers, the parents, the students, and the committee. Armstrong (1994) had proposed a Q-sort method based on research on recommended practices in gifted education (Shore, Cornell, Robinson, and Ward, 1991). Their study was a meta-analysis of the research into the education of the gifted and talented, highlighting best practices. The committee decided to use the Armstrong Q-sort method (Armstrong, 1995 a;b) with both the students and their parents to get their perceptions as to how an ideal program for the gifted and talented would be structured in this district. See Figure 1. The Classroom Cues Adapt Form.

 

Place Figure 1: The Classroom Cues Adapt Form about here

Data Analysis

The survey results indicated that there were three major areas that must be included in the program for the academically and intellectually talented in the middle school: (1) strong academic focus; (2) high quality expectations; and (3) a continuation of grouping by ability. The parent preferences from the Q-sort they completed showed (1) a strong desire for emphasis on academics and (2) a preference that their children be in classes with children of similar ability. Parents least preferred a program focus on (1) metacognition or on (2) the affective domain. Student results from the Q-sort indicated that the students wanted to be active participants in their learning by focusing on (1) field trips and (2) on areas of interest. Students, like parents, indicated that the program should (3) strongly focus on academics. Like the parents, students least preferred a program focus on (1) metacognition or (2) on the affective domain.

The results of the teacher survey indicated a great difference between what they felt was most important and what the district had implemented.

Program Design

Based on the results, the committee suggested program features that included the following:

1. Providing a program with a strong academic focus

2. Having high expectations for students, with an intervention assistance team to meet the needs of underachieving or nonperforming students.

3. Grouping by ability where the class size is too large to permit differentiating for the academically talented students.

4. Providing regular classroom teachers with adequate support services so that enrichment is available to able learners in the regular classroom. This led to the request for the hiring of an additional resource teacher.

5. Developing the most appropriate teaching strategies to maximize achievement.

6. Providing adequate staff development opportunities in providing for able learners.

7. Constructing an assessment guide for placement in classes and levels.

Based on administrative concerns and needs, the committee listed what the program must include.

1. The resource teacher must have Ohio certification in talented and gifted education. For counseling and coaching, the team members must have the skills necessary in place or must be agreeable to obtain training.

2. The teacher for Advanced Study should have Ohio reading specialist certification. Other academic areas such as mathematics, social studies, and science would be added in the future.

3. The teacher for Advanced Study should be willing to take on a leadership role in the implementation of the newly adopted language arts curriculum and be used as a resource for all teachers. An in-house language arts and reading specialist would aid and assist all teachers in the implementation process, which would include all students.

Contextual framework of the program

The committee recommended that the sixth grade would continue to include the option of the self-contained classroom, with enrichment in the regular classrooms for other academically talented students who did not meet IQ cutoff scores. At the end of sixth grade, all students who qualify for the Advanced Study Program in specific content areas would be identified. The top thirty students would be placed in the ASP program. For language arts talented students, the language arts block would focus on advanced literature and writing using units built around themes. Teams would focus on both student adjustment needs and on the development of interdisciplinary curriculum. The teacher hired for the enrichment position would aid in designing and weaving the themes into specific content areas for the team. This special new teacher would then be used as an intervention specialist to assist teachers in the regular classroom with academically talented students with needs on other academic areas.

Because the program development was data driven, by both the Q- sort and the surveys, the parents of the academically talented students were receptive and supportive of the work of the committee, as were members of the community, teachers in the district, and administrators. The committee acted based on surveyed needs of the constituents. All stake-holding populations were part of the decision-making process and the program was designed in consonance with their input.

 

The Pyramid of Talent Development Model in the Middle School Setting

Educators have been trying to escape the tyranny of the IQ score since 1925 when Terman began his longitudinal study of high-IQ students in California. The advent of Gardner’s (1983) designation of talents as "intelligences" and of Sternberg’s (1988) pointing out that intelligence includes the practical, the creative, and the executive, spoke to the hearts of many educators; this was preceded by attempts to modify Guilford’s model of the intellect for school purposes (Meeker, 1977). I have worked for many years trying to minimize the influence of the IQ score in identification of the gifted and talented, as have many of my colleagues, using several models (e.g. the SOI model, the Taylor Talents Unlimited model, the Renzulli Triad model, etc.). New interpretations of the giftedness construct have recently arisen, in models focusing on talent development and not on IQ level (Feldhusen, 1995; Piirto, 1995). My sketch of the human being and the developmental influences on that person is called the Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development.

The Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development

I. The Emotional.

Many studies have emphasized that successful creators in all domains have certain personality attributes in common. These make up the base of the model. These are the affective, or emotional intelligence aspects of what a person needs to succeed. These rest on the foundation of genes.

Among the personality attributes are aggressiveness (Simonton 1984, 1992, 1994); androgyny (Barron 1968; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathune, and Whalen 1993; Piirto and Fraas, 1995); creativity (Piirto, 1992/1998; Renzulli, 1978; Tannenbaum 1983);imagination (Piirto, 1992); insight (Sternberg and Davidson, 1996; Davidson 1992); intuition (Myers and McCaulley 1985); the presence of overexcitabilities, called OEs (Piechowski 1979; Silverman 1993); passion for work in a domain (Benbow 1992; Bloom 1985; Piirto 1992); perceptiveness (Myers and McCaulley 1985); perfectionism (Silverman 1993); persistence (Renzulli 1978); resilience (Jenkins-Friedman 1992; Block & Kremen,1996); risk-taking (MacKinnon 1978; Torrance 1987); self-discipline (Renzulli 1978); self-efficacy (Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons 1992); Sternberg and Lubart 1992); tolerance for ambiguity (Barron, 1968; 1995); and volition, or will (Corno and Kanfer, 1993).

This list is by no means discrete or complete, but indicates some of the good work that has been done on the personalities of effective people and indicates that this work has converged to show that effective adults have achieved effectiveness by force of personality. Talented adults who achieve success possess many of these attributes. Winner (1996) in her synthesis of research has listed among the nine myths about giftedness that IQ level as a determiner of who should receive special programming should be set to rest as being inefficient, and that personality factors should be looked at. Csikzsentmihalyi, Rathune, and Whalen (1993) said such personality attributes make up the autotelic personality, where "flow," or the ability to tap into optimal experiences is accessible. These aspects of personality are present in some way in highly effective people. One could call these the foundation, and one could go further and say that these may be innate but they can also be developed and directly taught.

2. The Cognitive.

The cognitive dimension in the form of an IQ score has been over-emphasized. If there were no IQ tests, we would still be able to find and to serve talented children, for the IQ test is often an abstract, "out there," screen that served to obfuscate our efforts, and so the IQ was designated as a minimum criterion, mortar and paste, with a certain level necessary for functioning in the world, but studies have repeatedly shown that having a high IQ is not necessary for the realization of most talents (e.g. Baird, 1985). Rather, college graduation seems to be necessary (except for professional basketball players, actors, and entertainers), and most college graduates have above average IQS but not stratospheric IQS (Simonton, 1995).

3. Talent in domains.

The talent itself--inborn, innate, mysterious--should be the focus. Each school has experts in most of the talent domains that students will enter. Talent is the tip of the Pyramid. When a child can draw so well he is designated the class artist, or throw a ball 85 miles an hour, when a student is accused of cheating on her short story assignment because it sounds so adult, talent is present. Most talents are recognized through certain predictive behaviors, for example voracious reading for linguistically talented students, and preferring to be class treasurer (not president) for mathematically talented students (Piirto 1994). These talents are demonstrated within domains that are socially recognized and valued within the society.

However, although absolutely necessary, the presence of talent is not sufficient. Many people have more than one talent, and wonder what to do with them. What is the impetus, what is the reason, for one talent taking over and capturing the passion and commitment of the person who has the talent? A useful explanation comes from Socrates, who described the inspiration of the Muse (Plato, Ion). [I have written elsewhere of the history of the concept of inspiration by the Muse as described by Plato and by creators in many domains (Piirto 1992/1998).] Carl Jung (1965) described the passion that engrosses; Csikszentmihalyi (1991) described the process of flow, and depth psychologist James Hillman (1996), described the presence of the daimon in creative lives. All these give clue to what talent a person will choose to develop.

Hillman (1996) described the difference between talent and giftedness in a way similar to Plato’s and Jung’s: "The talent is only a piece of the image; many are born with musical, mathematical, and mechanical talent, but only when the talent serves the fuller image and is carried by its character do we recognize exceptionality" (p. 251) Hillman’s idea is similar to the notion of "vocation" or "call." I would call it inspiration or passion for the domain. Philosophers would call it "soul." Thus I have put an asterisk, or "thorn" on the pyramid to exemplify that talent is not enough for the realization of a life of commitment. Without going into the classical topics of Desire, Emotion, Art, Poetry, Beauty, Wisdom, or Soul (Adler, 1952), suffice it to say that the entire picture of talent development ensues when a person is pierced or bothered by a thorn, the daimon, that leads to commitment.

Feldman was close when he described the crystallizing experience (Feldman, 1982), but the thorn is more than crystallizing; it is fortifying. One of the definitions of "gift" comes from Old French for "poison" (see OED) and this is what the talent that bothers may become to a person if the person doesn’t pay attention to it. As well as a joy it is a burden. As well as a pleasure it is a pain. However, the person who possesses the talent also must possess the will and fortitude to pursue the talent down whatever labyrinth it may lead. Teachers in the middle school are uniquely positioned to view the budding of the branch that will contain the thorn.

Environmental "suns"

These four levels of the Piirto Pyramid could theoretically be called the individual person. In addition, everyone is influenced by five "suns." These suns may be likened to certain factors in the environment,. Many teachers feel that they are merely putting their finger into the dike because the students have so many outside-of- school influences that bear upon their school performance, and even upon whether or not the students can be taught. These have been called "suns." The three major suns refer to a child's being (1) in a positive and nurturing home environment, and (2) in a community and culture that conveys values compatible with the educational institution, and that provides support for the home and the school. The (3) school is a key factor, especially for those children whose other "suns" may have clouds in front of them. gender, and (5) what chance can provide. The presence or absence of all or several of these make the difference between whether a talent is developed or whether it atrophies.

Unfortunately, it could be said that when a student emerges into adulthood with his or her talent nurtured and developed it is a miracle, because there are so many influences that encroach on talent development. We all know or remember people with outstanding talent who did not or were not able to use or develop that talent because of circumstances such as represented by these "suns." For example, a student whose home life contains trauma such as divorce or poverty may be so involved in that trauma that the talent cannot be emphasized. The school's role becomes to recognize the talent and to encourage lessons, mentors or special experiences that the parents would otherwise have provided had their situation been better. The "suns" that shine on the pyramid may be hidden by clouds, and in that case, the school plays a key role in the child’s environment.

As another example, in a racist society, the genes that produce one’s race are acted upon environmentally; a person of a certain race may be treated differently in different environments. The school and the community and culture are important in developing or enhancing this genetic inheritance. Retired general Colin Powell has said that he entered the army because he saw the military as the only place in racist society where he would be treated fairly, where his genetic inheritance of African American would not be discriminated against, where he could develop his talents fully.

I have elsewhere explicated my ideas about the influences on talent and talent development with more detail (Piirto, 1992/1998; 1994; 1995a; 1995b; Piirto & Fraas, 1995). This sketch was developed with a view that students, teachers, and parents should find it understandable and usable, and yet that it be research-based and powerful, simple and elegant. Perhaps the situation that students often do not make use of their talents, can be helped when they are directly taught about the factors that lead to optimum development conditions; when we do not do things to children ("surprise, surprise; you’re gifted and talented because we got the results of that IQ test! Now sit back and we’ll put you into a program"), but instead we work with students as they are empowered to work with themselves. Perhaps the model here discussed can help. See Figure 2.

Place Figure 2: The Pyramid of Talent Development about here

 


Case Example 2:

Using the Pyramid of Talent Development in the Middle School

by Paula Wilkes, Ph.D.

Using The Pyramid of Talent Development

During the past five years, I have been trying new strategies that have helped increase the effort and quality of work by my students. I have taught them to use mind-mapping, multiple intelligences, portfolios, self-assessment rubrics, and project-based learning. I do a lot of consulting and speaking to other teachers, and I have also used these strategies with them. However, the real break-through came to me in January, 1995, when a colleague who knew I was interested in Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory and the misuse of IQ as intelligence told me of Jane Piirto's "Pyramid of Talent Development" and gave me an article that had been published in Europe (Piirto, 1995).

After reading Piirto's explanation of the Pyramid, which had been written as part of a textbook called Talented Children and Adults: Their Development and Education (1994), I knew with a little modification and work I could make it a model for my classroom, a full-inclusion classroom of 34 fourth and fifth graders. That classroom was comprised of five students on special education IEPs (two with behavior plans) and twelve identified talented and gifted students, so it would be a challenge to find any model that would have meaning for such a diverse group of students. I used the Piirto Pyramid model because all students need to develop the aspects of their personality that lead to classroom success, not only the academically talented, but the academically talented would also benefit from the individualization the model intends.

The only change I made to the model, so that 9 and 10 year olds could understand, was to relate the top third to the seven multiple intelligences, which they already knew. Thus I linked talent in writing to linguistic intelligence; talent in mathematics and science to logical-mathematical and spatial intelligence; athletic talent to bodily-kinesthetic intelligence; acting talent to bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, and the personal intelligences, etc. Piirto has linked these in her book Understanding Those Who Create (1992) as well as in the textbook, and I felt using multiple intelligences clarified the top of the pyramid for the students. At the bottom of the pyramid I deleted personality attributes that the students might not understand, such as "androgyny," which Piirto said means flexibility and lack of rigidness in sex role stereotyping (personal communication, April 1996). I chose key words that the students could relate to such as "self-discipline," "drive," "persistence," "passion, "resilience," "leadership," and "imagination." Each student was given a copy of the pyramid and the "suns" were colored as I gave concrete examples, and that copy was put under the "self smart" section (i.e. "intrapersonal" and "interpersonal" intelligences) of their portfolios.

During the 1995-96 school year, I taught 28 fifth graders, 12 of whom I had had the previous year, and who were familiar with the Pyramid. I decided to start off the first day with an overview of The Pyramid of Talent Development. It was wonderful to have students who were able to give "kid examples" of the meaning the Pyramid held for them. Two students built a 3-D poster of the Pyramid and it became a year-long bulletin board. When students or I would find articles in magazines or the newspapers that typified an aspect of the Pyramid, we would discuss it and add it to our growing collection.

For example, we found articles about the motivational speaker, Les Brown, who, because of his personality attributes and the shining sun of his adoptive mother was able to overcome great hardship (Terry, 1996). We talked about a local high school senior who was among 40 students nationwide in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. In an article in our local paper, this high school student said that she didn't consider herself that much brighter than anyone else. She said, "I work hard. I love to do it. That's what makes the most difference. Perhaps it's not a matter of innate ability as much as knowing what you love to do" (Bishop, 1995). We talked about her personality attributes and the fact that the "suns" of home and school had been shining on her by providing her with challenging learning experiences.

We also read articles about a teenager trying to escape three generations of poverty by being the first member of her family to attend college. We read about and later met, a 15 year old tuba player whose innate talent and self-discipline had won him a prestigious scholarship to a music academy. We also talked about a dyslexic college student whose hard work earned him an international mathematics award. It seemed as though nearly every week we were able to find examples about how the personality attributes of individuals, and/or the suns that were shining on them had made a significant difference in helping them realize their talents.

The Pyramid made its way into "Back to School Curriculum Nights," parent conferences, and newsletters to families. It became an important framework for the way I taught and the way students worked. At the end of major projects, the students were asked to assess their effort, their persistence, and/or the quality of their work. By the end of the year, most of the students had realized that they were in control of the amount they learned and the projects that demonstrated that learning. For students who did not have the "sun" of home shining down on them, I made an effort to get them to reach out to others when they needed assistance rather than using that "cloud" as an excuse.

Not only were students aware of the progress they had made, but so were many of the parents. "Carolyn" was a student who had felt that she wasn't "smart," and her mother had spoken with the school psychologist several times the previous year about her negative self-image. Carolyn was really taken with the idea of the PYRAMID and discussed examples with me. During fall term, she and her classmates were asked to read an historical novel about which six of the sixteen chapters needed to be illustrated and summarized. Carolyn made an outstanding illustration and summary for all sixteen chapters! She realized that she was in charge of the base of the Pyramid, and there was no stopping her. In May, she entered her portfolio in a county-wide competition and earned a medal.

"Maggie" was the only student I've ever had who had gifted abilities in all seven intelligences. She took the SAT in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Talent Search program and scored "high honors" in both the verbal and mathematical categories. At a district track meet, she won the 100-yard dash, and was an outstanding soccer and basketball player. Her musical skills included not only singing and playing the piano and recorder, but she was also able to put a poem to music. Perhaps her greatest talents were in the "personal intelligences." She was quite reflective about her work and her relationships, and she was chosen as a peer conflict manager. This was a student whose personality attributes headed her for success while keeping her relatively free of stress. She displayed great emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). I came to realize that directly teaching about personality attributes and encouraging students to develop these attributes was what Goleman had been talking about in his recent book, which fit right in with the Pyramid and the multiple intelligences focus I had been using.

"Simon" was a boy who had experienced the loss of two significant male relationships due to divorce, and he appeared to lack self-esteem in most areas of his academic life. During his fifth grade year, his first project was of very poor quality, so I asked him to redo the assignment. Rather than doing it on his own, he was rescued by his mother, who did most of the work. When he presented it to his peers they asked who had done the drawing and he said his mom had. There wasn't a real sense of ownership. I sat down with Simon and talked with him about how it would be his personality attributes that would determine whether he would realize his talents. At the end of last school year, after a year-and-a-half of focusing on what the Pyramid was showing, Simon submitted a wonderful portfolio of learning. He told his classmates, in a final class meeting that he had learned how important it was to work hard and produce quality work, and that he was proud of himself for the effort he was now putting into his learning.

Is every one of my students realizing their talents? Definitely not! But the Pyramid gave us a good place to focus our attention. At the end of the year I gave my students a blank pyramid and asked them to color the suns that were shining on them, identify the talents they possess, and list personality attributes they were "currently using," in one column, and in another column, list the personality attributes they were "still learning about." Although all the students had made progress toward becoming independent learners, the three students I continued to worry about had listed "drive" and "self-discipline" as areas still needing to be developed. Perhaps their middle school teachers will see the applications of the Pyramid of Talent Development.

In Emotional Intelligence (1995), Goleman cites several psychologists who suggest that being able to get into "flow" while doing work is the difference between students who do well in school and those who do not. It is not a matter of IQ or other measure of "intelligence," but of being challenged by and getting satisfaction from the work we do. I believe that understanding the Pyramid of Talent Development gave my students the impetus to work harder, and the result of that effort was a sense of accomplishment and a willingness to continue to strive to be the best that they can be. The Pyramid of Talent Development, with its strong visual presentation, and ideas that can be understood by parents and students alike, is a powerful tool that should be shared with students.

Summary

In summary, this chapter has focused on three main points: (1) that the middle school concept as currently implemented often short changes the needs of academically talented students; (2) that current research can be utilized in designing optimal middle school programs that meet the needs of talented students; and (3) that the Pyramid of Talent Development can serve as a framework for meeting the needs of all youth in an inclusionary setting.

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Figure 1: Armstrong Classroom Cues Adapt Form:

Ways I Think This Student Learns Best

 

Developed by Dorothy Armstrong, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI © 1994

Used with permission

 

 

 

 

STUDENT’S NAME_________________________________________________DATE_________________________

GRADE_____________________________________________ BOY GIRL (circle one)

PERSON COMPLETING THIS FORM________________________________________________________________

RELATIONSHIP TO STUDENT_____________________________________________________________________

Students like to learn in different wans. Sort the statements to show the ways that you think this student prefers to learn. Your responses an be compared to those of the student and the results can be used to plan appropriate learning experiences for that student.

You will need the statement cards, summary sheet, a pen or pencil, a desk or table at which to work. You may need scissors to cut the statement cards apart. This should take you about twenty minutes.

1. If the statement cards are not already in a deck, cut apart each of the cards. You should have a deck of 40 statement cards.

2. Read the cards. Each card describes a way that one might like to learn.

3. Sort the cards into three piles:

Pile 1: YES: These are ways that I think this student would really like to learn.

Pile 2: MAYBE: These ways would be OK but not as appealing as those in the "yes" pile.

Pile 3: NO: These are ways I think the student would rather not learn.

4. Record the numbers of your choices on the Summary Sheet.

Look at the cards in your piles each card has a number. Put a Y (Yes) in the space after the number of each card in your YES pile. Put a N (No) after the number of each card in your NO pile. (You do not need to record the MAYBE pile.)

PRACTICE EXAMPLES:

1. __M______ I should be expected to do high quality work using real products as models.

2. __Y_____ I would like to learn a lot about fewer topics instead of learning a little about a lot of topics.

3. __N______ I would like to do independent study with the guidance of the teacher.

 

 

FIGURE 1, contd.: STATEMENT AND SUMMARY FORM:

ARMSTRONG CLASSROOM CUE ADAPT FORM

Note: These are to be made into Q-sort cards and into a summary form.

 

 

1. I should be expected to do high quality work.

2. I would like to learn a lot about fewer topics instead of learning a little about a lot of topics.

3. I would like to do independent studies with some guidance.

4. I would like to learn how to be an independent learner.

5. I would like to learn how to feel good about myself.

6. I would like to be in special classes or programs that are especially right for me.

7. I would like to understand what my special classes or programs are trying to each me and why that is important.

8. My creative abilities should not be ignored/abused.

9. I would like to broaden my interests.

10. I should not be forced to agree with others.

11. I would like to be able to learn things in an earlier grade or at a younger age than I normally would.

12. I would like to spend some of my time working with the rest of the class, but I would also like opportunities to work independently.

13. It would be fine with me to work with other children who are not my age if we have similar interests and abilities.

14. I would like to study some interesting things tha are not already part of my regular classes.

15. For at least some of the time, it is important to me to be in classes whose ability matches mine.

16. I would like to study things that are of particular interest to me.

17. I would like to work with people who really know a lot about the subjects they teach.

18. I would like to be actively involved in learning; I like to be in classes where we do more than listen to the teacher.

19. I would like to combine study in several subject areas at the same time.

20. I would like to understand more about my feeling and opinions.

21. I would like to learn about different careers.

22. I would like to do more art.

23. I would like to be asked to read things that make me think, not simple things that expect me just to give answers memorized from the book.

24. I would like to learn with computers.

25. I would like to learn more about what things might be like in the future.

26. I would like to learn about famous people.

27. I would like to learn in ways that take into account the ways I learn best.

28. I would like to learn research skills.

29. I would like to learn how to communicate more effectively.

30. I would like to learn to think in both organized and creative ways.

31. I would like to learn ways to work better with others.

32. I would like to learn by going on field trips.

33. I would like to learn how to plan better by learning how to set goals.

34. I would like to learn about how I learn.

35. I would like to learn by asking questions, doing experiments, and solving problems.

36. I would like to learn how to find solutions to real problems.

37. Teaching other children is a good way for me to learn.

38. I would like to learn at my own rate, even if it is faster than the other students in the class.

39. I would like to be taught skills that will help me so that my achievement matches my ability.

40. I would like to decide whether or not I take part in a special project, class, or program.

 

Fig. 2: The Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development