Monday, May 7, 2012

‘Successful’ Gifted Learners versus Autonomous Learners

Successful. It’s a word fraught with many interpretations.  To some it means wealth. To others it may mean quality of life, or meaningful employment or raising a child.  In education, parents might consider that a high achieving student is a successful one.  However, in their conclusions derived from their research, Betts’ and Neihart’s [1] would argue that it is not an achieving gifted learner that we should be helping to develop, but rather an autonomous learner.

If we look at the behavioural characteristics that an individual student might display, we get a clearer picture of the difference between the ‘successful’ or achieving learner and the ‘autonomous’ learner.

By Betts’ and Neihart’s definition, quite a number of our ‘achieving’ gifted learners in schools are actually ‘not there yet’ and are likely to underachieve.   ‘Achieving’ students work to please parents and teachers (they are extrinsically motivated rather than intrinsically motivated). They are accepting and conforming, well-liked by teachers and parents and they get good grades.  But they are complacent, & too easily satisfied.  They do not go beyond the syllabus. They work to prescribed texts and learning activities but do not ‘dive deeper’ to enhance their learning.  They consume knowledge, but do not generate new ideas or perspectives.  They avoid risks and choose ‘safe’ learning activities that they know can get them good marks.  They are most likely to be underachieving as they do not challenge or push themselves to ‘go beyond’.

On the other hand, let’s take a look at some of the types of characteristics that we might have those same students aspire to.

Autonomous learners are self-confident and self-accepting.  They hold an optimistic view of the world, and are intrinsically motivated to achieve in their chosen fields.  They may not be your Honours students, but they are assertive, and have goals and action plans and can work independently.  They set SMART goals.  They know what they want and what they need to do to achieve it. They are ambitious and excited about their choices and options.  They follow through and complete things. They understand that ability increases with the amount of effort and skill development that they put into a specific area and follow strong areas of passion.   They are creative, will stand up for their convictions, and take sensible risks. They are willing to fail and learn from it.   They dive deeper and read and research beyond the syllabus in their quest for knowledge.  They create new understandings and new knowledge and perspectives from their learning.  Autonomous learners are tolerant and respectful of others. Parents see them as capable and responsible.

In my experience, only a very few people have these qualities as children or teens.  Some adults never acquire them!

However, that doesn’t mean that as parents and educators we should not aspire to supporting the development of such characteristics.  We are all the product of our environment. We know the impact that parents and teachers have upon the development of our youth. As models we need to mirror these qualities, support the thirst for knowledge beyond the curriculum, encourage sensible risk-taking,lessen the reliance on grades for parental approval and reward, and instead focus the approval on the types of behaviours we’d like to see emerging.

Note: The descriptors above are adapted from Betts and Neihart (2010) ‘Profiles of Gifted Learners’, available here.

As a lead-in to Gifted Awareness Week, (18th - 24th June), the next several blogs will  focus upon ways in which parents can support their gifted teen at high school.

© Sonia White, Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  

This article is the introduction to a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years. 
To read other current articles on this topic click on the links:

[1] Betts & Neihart (2010).

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