Developing an Alternate Consciousness:
A shared-responsibility of teaching and leading for learning
A middle school student ran into my classroom to show me his woodshop project. A handcrafted, delicately designed table was placed before my eyes.
In awe, I exclaimed, “Wow! You made this?”
Quite humbly, he responded, “Yeah, it was easy.”
After he had gone, I realized that there was much more to learn about this student, whom I thought I knew. Up to this point, the school recognized Stephen as an academically struggling student who required many of the district’s special services.
The next day, while speaking with Stephen, I mentioned, “You must really do well in woodshop class.”
Without hesitation, he responded, “Yeah, I get As, just like everybody else.”
Just then, unknowingly, Stephen raised questions for me that continue to burn. Why do schools dare to evaluate students’ academic skills comparatively but their artistic abilities individually? How do we, as educators, earn the power to declare a student disabled or abled? Most specifically, why was this particular child not recognized as gifted?
To fundamentally answer these questions, the definition and criteria of giftedness must be decontextualized and reformulated. Although, sociohistorically, most gifted programs only recognize verbal and mathematical abilities, there are other divisions of gifted youth who are silenced, like Stephen was. According to Rugg (1924), we must broaden the notion of giftedness to include the socially, mechanically, and aesthetically intelligent. If schools are to resemble a democratic, just society, then each individual should be valued for her or his genius, character, and alternate ways of knowing.
In promoting democratic school practices and deconstructing the seemingly stagnant concepts of giftedness, teachers and leaders, alike, must begin to examine the nature of discourse and its relative power in generating and inculcating systems of gifted education. As social constructs, the terms giftedness and gifted education have varied interpretations. Borland (2003) recognizes what he terms “geographic giftedness.” Depending on the location and social composition of an educational community, these terms become malleable, discursive signifiers. Similar to Hall’s (1996) argument involving race, the notion of giftedness floats, gaining prominence within discourses and communities. Once the apparent differences among students have been organized within language, their acquired meanings become factors of culture, conduct, and treatment. Consequently, it is at this point in the meaning-making process, that the language of gifted education gains its ultimate power of generating systems, in which normalization (Gallagher, 1999) and marginalization (Fine, 1998) occurs.
To thwart the perpetuation of the traditional gifted concept, we must look beyond the existing models of gifted education, which include grade advancement, curriculum product differentiation, and a combination of the two. We must recognize the possibility of curriculum design that is centered on students’ strengths and interests. Valuing the subjugated student voice is imperative in redefining the concept of gifted education. However, this model of democratic schooling requires a paradigmatic shift, with a redistribution of power to allow multiple perspectives to be heard and to allow students, like Stephen, to be offered equal opportunities to share skills and talents in order to co-construct learning with peers.
Allowing mechanical or aesthetic students a space to shine within narrow definitions of gifted requires an honoring of otherwise dimmed skills. Although artistic processes and products of knowledge may be seen as merely play to those not used to addressing intellectual problems inherent in an artistic approach, evidence indicates that creative production provides the kind of mental challenge that children need to develop as creative thinkers and is considered best practice in gifted education. Eisner (1979/2002) refers to this idea as stimulating alternative modes of response.
Inspired by Thompson’s (1966) suggestion of turning the dominant discourse on its head and generating a “rival consciousness” (p. 146), this suggestion of rethinking gifted education as democratic education for all will generate alternate systems of meaning and discourse that will inherently hold power. Consequently, it remains the responsibility of the educational community, with school leaders at the helm, to be vigilant of the structures and evaluative processes that may initiate this model’s rise and even its demise.
In 1924, Whipple asked, “Much recognition is given to the subnormal, why not the supernormal?” (p. 6) Today, I ask, with a sharpened focus on individual differences, why not take this opportunity to reconceptualize gifted education for some as democratic education for all? This rethinking, however, does not rest on the shoulders of any one group alone; but rather, developing an alternate consciousness is a responsibility shared by teachers and school leaders for all learners in our care.
Borland, J. H. (2003). The death of giftedness. In J. H. Borland (Ed.), Rethinking gifted education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Eisner, E. W. (1979/2002). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of educational programs. New York: Macmillan.
Fine, M. (1998). Working the hyphens: Reinventing self and other in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The landscape of qualitative research (pp. 130-155). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gallagher, S. (1999). An exchange of gazes. In J. L. Kincheloe, S. R. Steinberg, & L. E.
Villaverde (Eds.), Rethinking intelligence (pp. 69-84). New York: Routledge.
Hall, S. (1996). Race: The floating signifier. Northhampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.
Rugg, H. (1924). The report of the society’s committee on the education of gifted children. In The twenty-third yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I (pp. 91-121).
Thompson, E. P. (1966). Preface from the making of the English working class. In L. M. Alcoff and E. Mendieta (Eds.), Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality (pp. 136-138). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Whipple, G. M. (Ed.). (1924). The report of the society’s committee on the education of gifted children. In The twenty-third yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I (pp. 1-24).