Dr. Matthew Makel, PhD, the inaugural Research Chair in High Abilities Studies at the Werklund School of Education, wants you to know a few things about “giftedness.”
For starters, Makel, who has spent his career finding ways to help academically talented students to flourish, says giftedness is not necessarily an all-encompassing designation. That is, a student may be exceptional in some areas while appearing relatively typical — or even challenged — in others.
“Students’ learning needs vary across different domains: math, reading, science, social studies, the arts, sports,” he says. “A student doesn't have to be perfect or high achieving across every domain to be gifted.”
Secondly, it is not necessarily a permanent classification, either.
“A student may walk into the first day of school knowing how to read and be in a classroom with students who don't really know what letters are, much less words,” says Makel, who comes to the University of Calgary by way of John Hopkins University. “Then fast forward three years, their classmates may have caught up quite a bit, and now they know how to read too. Will the initially high-achieving student’s learning needs still be above their classmates? Maybe, but maybe not.”
So, what does it mean, then, to be gifted? Academically speaking, the answer is complicated by the fact that the definition may differ from region to region, school board to school board, and even school to school. Makel, however, suggests we consider “whether the child's learning needs are going to be met in the regular classroom. Meaning, are their needs atypical from the rest of their classmates or their schoolmates?”
A dedicated career path
Meeting the needs of this decidedly varied class of young learners has been a major focus of Makel’s research throughout his career. He initially became interested in the subject while still an undergraduate at Duke University. Working with young, gifted learners as a teaching assistant for an organization called the Duke University Talent Identification Program, he was so intrigued by the experience that it inspired him to pursue his master's degree in developmental psychology at Cornell University, and then his doctorate in educational psychology at Indiana University.
Coming full circle, Makel then returned to the Talent Identification Program at Duke, working there in various capacities for over 12 years, including as the director of research and evaluation, before joining the faculty at John Hopkins University.
Not surprisingly, given his history with that program, Makel has advocated for a more proactive approach to seeking out talent in schools.
In their 2020 paper, A Call to Reframe Gifted Education as Maximizing Learning, Makel and his co-authors propose a new model of gifted education that is “locally focused on students’ present needs in specific domains," and in which “teachers and school staff must act as talent scouts."
The authors contend that a new approach is sorely needed within the American education system, arguing that present models are narrow and restrictive, and shut out far too many children who would benefit from support and services.
Serving the needs of students and educators
As he prepares to start the next phase of his career north of the 49th parallel, however, Makel is loath to making any over-generalizations about the state of Canadian education. He says he is looking forward to working with schools here to help them accomplish their goals by providing relevant resources and research.
“It's not up to me to say what educators should be doing,” he says. “I want to learn what their goals are. The question that I always ask is, ‘What does success look like in your school and in your community?'
“My job is to help supply educators with effective tools to help them accomplish their goals, so that they don't end up reinventing strategies that other districts have already tried.”
Makel says this includes making research accessible and understandable This relates to his second research track, which is focused on open scholarship and replication.
“It has to do with the rigour, accountability, accessibility, and trust of scientific research and its process,” he says, explaining that this means everything from de-jargoning academic language and removing paywalls for research papers to incentivizing replication, which he says is discouraged by an academic culture that exclusively rewards original findings.
“If a study is done in a large urban community, and I'm talking to a very small rural school that looks quite different, it’s probably a good idea for them to ask, ‘Should I expect the same result from this intervention or from this practice in my district?’”
Dr. Dianne Gereluk, dean of the Werklund School of Education, says the addition of this research chair with Makel at the helm significantly bolsters the faculty’s profile as a change leader in education.
“The Werklund School holds the conviction that every student should flourish in their learning environment,” says Gereluk, “Providing targeted expertise for children with high abilities will not only furnish an opportunity of challenge for those who excel in a particular area, but also provide the holistic emotional and social supports they require to thrive.”