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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2017 / Winter 2018)

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Book Review: Identifying Gifted Learners and Supporting their Full Potential

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University 

Gifted Underachiever:  Education in a Competitive and Globalizing World 
By Roya Klingner 
New York:  Nova Science Publishers 
2017   185 pp. 

Stories of super heroes go something like this:  a young person is exploring himself / herself and the world, and he or she discovers a prior-hidden super power (or undergoes an experience that leads to the creation of a super power).  After crossing this Rubicon, he or she has to decide how to use his / her capabilities—for good or for evil.  The prior narrative trajectory can also be applied to profoundly gifted students, those with IQ scores above 150, or those in the top tenth of 1% of the population, several standard deviations above the norm.  But counter to many superheroes stories, building the gifted individual will require a village.   

Roya Klingner’s “Gifted Underachiever:  Education in a Competitive and Globalizing World” (2017) explores this phenomenon with works from authors hailing from several countries.  

In Western Democracies

The challenge of the “gifted underachiever” goes something like this.  There are children who are born with high intelligence and capabilities that can be harnessed but only if they are identified sufficiently early and supported well in their learning—with the right emotional and psychological supports from families and schools, with adaptive instruction, with access to necessary resources, and with their protection against being harnessed for profit-making ends or other mis-uses.  Young gifted learners may not be recognized as such.  They may be discouraged from exploring their capabilities with rigid school systems.  They may be mishandled by inept parents or guardians.  Their potential is left untapped or only partially tapped, and their talent is lost to posterity.  

At the societal level, the idea is to protect the learning pipeline from essential birth into early adulthood, so that there is not such a severe dropout of human talent.  While the approach sounds straightforward, actualizing the work is not simple.  In the U.S. as in other Western democracies, there is a cultural reluctance to talent-spot and recruit the very young into particular career tracks.  (And this book is not quite about recruiting from youth but about protecting and developing inherent and intrinsic capabilities.) Culturally, free will is important, so people have to self-select into career paths.  And all learners have the so-called “right to fail”—to make their own decisions and to reap their own consequences.  In the Preface, Klingner describes one chapter that articulates the concern of mis-use:  

In scrutinizing research done on underachievement, overachievement, and talent since the 1990s, however, which demonstrates how meanings and their underpinning values have discretely changed, it is reasonable to conclude that it is better for most students and employees to, in fact, remain unexcellent rather than to potentially sacrifice health and sanity by being forcefully assimilated into an ideologically determined culture of excellent.  (Klingner, 2017, p. x)  
That said, from birth to about ages eight or nine are critical years for human development and learning.  In those ages, children are not particularly aware of their intellect and capabilities, and those who are particularly gifted will perceive their “difference” but not understand what that may mean or how to harness it.  And giftedness, if unused or unexplored, may dissipate.  

Harnessing Untapped Talent to Compete?  

This collection begins with a cautionary work.  Roland S. Persson’s “Accountable Talent:  Under and Overachievement as Investible Human Capital” (Ch. 1) suggests that the meta-narrative of “socioeconomic ideology and discourse” may skew the focus on harnessing human talent for the illusion of “unlimited economic growth” (Persson, 2017, pp. 1 – 2).  A professor at Jönköping University in Sweden, Persson suggests that as a social species, people co-evolve based on social practices and make meaning collectively.  The framework of unbridled capitalism may be harmful, particularly in the context of “cultural Narcissism” and “psychopathy as learned behavior in the general population” (Persson, 2017, p. 4).  He writes:  

It is in the light of this extreme reliance on self and individual agency that terms such as underachievement, overachievement, and also talent, need to be considered. The terms are an extension of the cultural phenomenon known world wide as The American Dream: that is, somewhat simplified, doing the impossible with only hard work, grit, and tenacity as sole companions in working towards a fair, blissful, and largely trouble free future.  (Persson, 2017, p. 5)

An appreciation for learning is thought to be native to people and to be especially intrinsically rewarding for the gifted.  Over-achievement may be something that people do for others, as a result of external social pressure.  Education, in a market-oriented framework, may “prioritize production, set targets, benchmarking, quality assurance, and accountability, rather than to necessarily prioritizing individual students’ or employee’s needs, interests, and uniqueness (Ingersoll, 2003; Lundgren, 2011; Puigross, 1997; Ravitch, 2009; Sallis, 2002, as cited in Persson, 2017, p. 9).  

The idea that high performance can be induced through various instructional efforts is belied by facts.  Genetic research shows that expecting all students to be elite performers is “irrational” (Persson, 2017, p. 11).  He points to findings from big data:  

The allure of seeing everyone as overachievers, creative, innovative, and extremely productive, is understandable from a neoliberal economics point of view.  Research has indeed demonstrated quite convincingly, that amongst several domains of production and achievement in society 66 – 83% of all perform less than average in their chosen field of pursuit.  But 10 – 26% of all achievements made or innovations produced were the results of a mere 1 – 5% of the half a million or so participants in O’Boyle and Aguniis’ (2012) extensive study. (Persson, 2017, p. 11)

Overweighting how much influence people may have on others’ capabilities can be detrimental, not only in the West.  In what he calls “Confucian cultures,” school-aged children have been driven to suicide with the over-focus on achievement and performance (Persson, 2017, p. 15).  

Better, faster, stronger…?  It is important to bring some common sense to the issue of giftedness and external performativity.  Why people do not perform at a high level may depend on a number of factors:  “location, discrimination, economy, gender, sub-culture, ethnic culture, organizational culture, disability, family and social context, (and) delinquency” (Peters, Grager-Loidl, & Supplee, 2000, as cited in Persson, 2017, p. 6).  The question is how to balance common sense against false narratives of superhuman capabilities by instruction and inducements.  

Some Indicators of Underachievement

Karen B. Rogers’ “Underachievement and Giftedness:  Fission and / or Fusion?” (Ch. 2)  identifies a list of challenges to gifted individuals to achieve their full potential and suggests ways to overcome those challenges.  

Researchers have taken stock of some indicators of underachieving.  The gifted learner may be over-cautious and reluctant to take risks. They may be so perfectionistic that they cannot get started on work.  Characteristics of underachievement include “forgetfulness, disorganization, carelessness and superficial task completion, non-academic interests, manipulative relationships with parents and teachers, (and) loneliness and social withdrawal” (Rimm, 1986, as cited in Rogers, 2017, p. 36).  Further, there are both “home” and “school” causes for gifted underachievement.  For the latter, these include “perfectionistic teachers, ‘sage on the stage’ teachers, under-challenging curriculum, inconsistent teacher/school expectations for performance, and an anti-intellectual learning climate” (Rogers, 2017, p. 36).  Gifted underachievers may engage in personal behaviors that contribute to the underachieving, including choosing companions “who do not like school” and feeling “hostile toward adult authority figures” and having “low aspirations for future, career” and externalizing “conflicts” (Clark, 2012, as cited in Rogers, 2017, p. 39).    

By contrast, based on a synthesized view from the research, gifted achievers take pride in their own work. They are resilient “when things go bad.” They practice risk-taking. They are self-disciplined.  They set goals and follow through on the work necessary to actualize those goals.  They have specific and intense interests (Heacox, 1991, as cited in Rogers, 2017, pp. 37 - 38).   Rogers is professor emerita at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, USA.  

High Creative Production in Youth and Adulthood

Jessica Potts’ “Underachievement in Profoundly Gifted Students” (Ch. 3) focuses on those students whose IQ scores are in the top tenth of 1% of the population (with IQ scores > 150).  By definition and manifestation, these “profoundly gifted” are extremely rare (above the 99th percentile), and often, their learning needs cannot be met in their respective schools (Potts, 2017, p. 51).  

There are high expectations for such gifted to contribute to society:  

Underachievement in this particular population can be especially deleterious to society as a whole, as studies have found that extremely gifted individuals are more than twice as likely to be successfully engaged in exemplary pursuits than their ‘garden variety’ gifted counterparts, suggesting that extremely gifted students are also more likely to contribute to society than their less-gifted or non-gifted peers.  (Potts, 2017, p. 52)  

Empirical research bears out some of the expectations.  A study of those learners with high SAT scores at age 13 found that these individuals were linked to “high creative production (e.g., the production of patents, peer-reviewed articles, tenure track positions at universities) later in life” (Potts, 2017, pp. 54 – 55).  

That is not to say that gifted learners necessarily achieve.  Of the top 5% of high school graduates, 40% “do not complete their coursework” (DeLeon, 1989, as cited in Potts, 2017, p. 53), and they drop out.   Research suggests that 15% to 40% of gifted students “are at risk for underachievement” (Seeley, 1993, as cited in Potts, 2017, p. 53).  

Identifying extreme precocity is challenging:  

Identifying profoundly gifted underachievers can be especially daunting for a couple of different reasons.  First, students who are extremely gifted are difficult to identify in general, not only because they represent such a tiny percentage of the population, but also because their areas of precocity or interest sometimes lie outside of core academic subjects (von Károlyi & Winner, 2005). Secondly, it is likely that underachievement will not manifest in profoundly gifted students unless these students have been appropriately challenged intellectually.  Underachievement can go unnoticed in this population because these students easily excel at grade level (or even above grade level) school work (Gross, 2004).  While an unfulfilling and unchallenging educational environment is often a cause of underachievement in this population…it can sometimes work to mask the symptoms, further obscuring statistical data (Potts, 2017, p. 54).  

In other words, it may be helpful to challenge learners with work that may bring out their capabilities but not overwhelm them.  Those who are gifted often are attracted to particular “intensities” (Plucker & Stocking, 2001, as cited in Potts, 2017, p. 56), so it may be helpful to encourage their exploration and to expose them to various topics.   

What is the experience of “gifted underachieving”?  For one, such individuals may experience “low self-esteem, avoidance behaviors, rebellion” and also internalize their struggles (Potts, 2017, p. 55). There may be struggles with “personal identity and social connections” (Gross, 2000; Gross, 2002; Silverman, 2013, as cited in Potts, 2017, p. 56).  Some may perform at lower levels to fit in with peers, so it is important for them to find and socialize with intellectual peers.  Many gifted are loners by choice instead of social rejection (Burks, Jensen, & Terman, 1930, as cited in Potts, 2017, p. 62).  

The particular domains of strength for learners may cause the gifted to have high standards in every aspect of their lives and to apply perfectionism—both of which may hinder their learning.  They may be frustrated when they find that their capabilities are not across-the-board.  Some may experience “initiation deficit”:  

The term ‘initiation deficit’ is used here to describe a rather puzzling combination of perfectionism and overexcitability that can manifest in profoundly gifted underachievers, causing them to stall out on a project before they even get started. Students suffering from initiation deficit tend to spend an exorbitant amount of time front-loading their projects, engaging in a plethora of research, even when none is truly required.  (Potts, 2017, p. 58) 

To support the profoundly gifted, it is important to support and affirm them, to encourage their development of self-efficacy, to head off perfectionism, and to provide constructive criticism to help them develop.  

In Developmental Years

Christine Hunt Hjorth’s “Underachievement in Early Childhood Education” (Ch. 4) suggests that underachievement can start in the early education years, which will have implications for the development pipeline as the learners grow up into adulthood.  The failure to acquire certain capabilities in developmental windows may mean permanent developmental challenges and knowledge gaps…and lifelong patterns of underachievement.  “Early childhood gifted education is an area in need of a great deal more attention.  Children who are gifted, are gifted from the beginning,” Hjorth writes (2017, p. 77), referring to both “ability” and “aptitude”.  Some indicators of early giftedness may include early reading and early recognition of shapes and colors (Hjorth, 2017, p. 79).   

Instructors who give “easy As” are not doing gifted underachieving learners any favors because they are boring them, and worse, demotivating them for actual learning and real challenges (Hjorth, 2017, pp. 76 - 77).  For some gifted learners, their underachievement may come to the fore when they fail below grade level because they are not doing their work.  For others, the underachieving may be more covert with learners not pushing themselves to work at their ability level (Hjorth, 2017, p. 77).  For gifted learners in early childhood, there are few programs in the U.S., and regular education teachers may “suffer from misconceptions about gifted learners, and at times even have biases against them” (Cross, 2002; Berger, 2000, as cited in Hjorth, 2017, p. 78).  These are particularly sensitive years:  From birth to age 8, “school practices have the greatest impact on the child’s educational outcomes” (Grisham-Brown, 2009, as cited in Hjorth, 2017, p. 78).  

Intriguingly, while boys and girls are now thought to under-achieve at similar rates, they are seen to underachieve differently: “Girls tend to underachieve in more secretive ways, for example, hiding their intelligence. Whereas boys tend to underachieve in more unconcealed ways, such as acting out or manipulating the system” (Hjorth, 2017, pp. 78 - 79), broadly speaking.  

Gifted learners in their early education years require proper parental support, classroom safety, appropriate curriculum, encouragement for risk-taking, confidence-building, and other supports.  Differentiated learning is a basic necessity for supporting gifted learners at every age, and add-ons “extracurricular enrichment” and mentorship cannot replace the basic importance of in-classroom flexibility (Hjorth, 2017, pp. 80 - 81).  

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as a Necessary Capability

Kate Bachtel’s “The Heart of It:  Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Skill Gaps Contributing to Underachievement” (Ch. 5) focuses on the criticality of those with advanced cognition to have high emotional awareness and skills to engage the world.  Bachtel, who works at SoulSpark Learning in Boulder, Colorado, and Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, in the U.S ., asserts that poor emotional intelligence may be a causal factor in gifted underachievement.  “Achievement” is defined as “an individual’s capacity to be conscientious in their work, honor commitments and realize personal goals and objectives” (2017, p. 95).  

The definition of emotional intelligence here is aligned with Six Seconds’ model:  “The capacity to blend thinking and feeling to make optimal decisions—which is the key to having a successful relationship with yourself and others’ (2016, n.p., as cited in Bachtel, 2017, p. 96).  In addition, skills encapsulated within emotional intelligence include self-awareness (emotional literacy; emotional pattern recognition, such as of habits); self-management (effectively navigating emotions, intrinsic motivation - “gaining energy from personal values and commitments versus being driven by others,” optimism, consequential thinking), and self-direction (empathy, pursuit of noble goals) (Six Seconds, 2016, as cited in Bachtel, 2017, p. 98).    

If identifying giftedness is difficult, it may be harder for teachers to identify emotional intelligence:  

In my experiences serving gifted youth, educators and parents and interpreting emotional development data, I have learned teachers’ perceptions of student emotional development levels are often inaccurate.  Students who are extraverted and / or charismatic are more likely to be perceived has (sic) having high emotional development. Research reinforces people are poor at estimating their own emotional intelligence levels, as well as the ranges of others (Mayer, Salovey & Caruso, 2016, as cited in Bachtel, 2017, p. 95).  

Many mistake high levels of socializing with emotional intelligence and introversion for its absence.  

Emotional intelligence can be developed.  The reference to “six seconds” comes from the fact that emotion-inducing chemicals clear from the human body in six seconds.  Responses after that time (and actually during that time) is learned behavior and controllable.  “ Mindfulness practices support the development of emotional literacy, in accessing the wisdom in each feeling…Navigating emotions is critical to developing consequential thinking as students need to be in a resourced place to evaluate the costs and benefits of potential choices” (Bachtel, 2017, p. 106).  

To close the achievement gap, learners benefit from developing self-awareness, optimism, intrinsic motivations, consequential thinking; they benefit from cultivating positive social relationships.  They benefit from taking on mundane tasks as a necessary part of life (Bachtel, 2017, pp. 109 - 110) and not shutting down from boredom.  

Hidden Underachievement

Gail Post’s “Gifted Underachievers Under-the-Radar” (Ch. 6) points to the difficulty in assessing gifted underachievement.  She writes:  

Assessment of what constitutes underachievement also is complicated, since it may be based on teacher ratings, comparisons between grades and achievement test scores, or changes in grades or test scores over time.  For example, teacher ratings evaluating a students’ (sic) progress over the course of a year may be subjective, and difficult to compare with ratings in different studies. These differences potentially obscure comparisons between studies, and also call into question what, in fact, some of these studies are truly measuring.  Given the range of definitions and research formats, it is evident that many unanswered questions remain. (Post, 2017, p. 123)  

Certainly, measuring an absence or a negative in the short-term may be very difficult.  In this work, the author highlights a list of potential granular indicators for gifted under-performance (pp. 130 – 131).  Intriguingly and astutely, she notes that mental health problems may also be a factor in some under-achieving (p. 124).  (High intellect may mask mental health challenges, counter to public stereotypes of the gifted.)  

Finally, Roya Klingner’s “Solution Oriented Coaching for Gifted Underachievers” (Ch. 7) showcases some of the work of the Munich-based Global Center for Gifted and Talented Children, which Klingner (the editor) leads.  In this work, she introduces the complexity in proper identification of the causes of failure for the gifted to fully actualize—based on a combination of intelligences and a balance between Robert J. Sternberg’s “analytical, creative, and practical components” (1986, as cited in Klingner, 2017, p.p. 164 - 166).  She follows on with sophisticated ideas for constructive problem-solving in order to support gifted learners.  

Underachievement in General Populations, Too...

"Gifted Underachiever..." is an engaging read.  Its insights are useful not only for elite populations but apply to some degree to general populations as well because of the ubiquity of underachievement.  This work is a general reminder of how competitive the world is, how hard it is to innovate and make change, and how little compromises can result in major losses of capability (and the dissipation of initial promise).  It is too easy for people to be distracted by their  challenges in life and to forget earlier ambitions.  It can be hard to set-up and follow through on virtuous cycles of individual and group productivity.  Also, for many, the persistence required to actually achieve may be lacking.  

Future Research
This topic of “gifted underachieving” offers a number of areas of future research.  Jessica Potts suggests more study of those considered “twice exceptional underachievers” such as those who are both “gifted” and “female,” or “gifted” and “minority” (Potts, 2017, p. 53), to better understand their needs.  It may be helpful to have more direct research with the “gifted,” both over-achievers and under-achievers, and their respective experiences.  With the explosion of online learning opportunities and online learning communities, there may be various resources that have yet gone unexplored.  Some “genius” research suggests that too much regimented study by the time learners are in early adulthood may be a barrier to full actualization of the individual.  It would be interesting to know how effective interventions are in the short, medium, and long terms.  Also, are there phases for giftedness over a human life span, and if so, what are they?  And do effective support interventions change depending on the phases?  

Roya Klingner’s Gifted Underachiever:  Education in a Competitive and Globalizing World belatedly focuses on a relevant global issue in this day.  [In the U.S., gifted programs at universities started back in the 1980s and 1990s, and many of these programs exist in high schools.]  The included works provide useful insights for line teachers who work with exceptional learners from pre-school through university.  

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is  

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