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It A CHeetah?
Is It A Cheetah?
By Stephanie S.
Copyright © 1996
by Stephanie S. Tolan, Used by Permission.
It's a tough time to raise, teach or
BE a highly gifted child. As the term "gifted" and
the unusual intellectual capacity to which that term refers
become more and more politically incorrect, the educational
establishment changes terminology and focus.
Giftedness, a global, integrative mental
capacity, may be dismissed, replaced by fragmented "talents"
which seem less threatening and theoretically easier for schools
to deal with. Instead of an internal developmental reality
that affects every aspect of a child's life, "intellectual
talent" is more and more perceived as synonymous with
(AND LIMITED TO) academic achievement.
The child who does well in school,
gets good grades, wins awards, and performs" beyond
the norms for his or her age, is considered talented. The
child who does not, no matter what his innate intellectual
capacities or developmental level, is less and less likely
be identified, less and less likely to be served.
A cheetah metaphor can help us see
the problem with achievement-oriented thinking. The cheetah
is the fastest animal on earth. When we think of cheetahs
we are likely to think first of their speed. It's flashy.
Its impressive. It's unique. And it makes identification
incredibly easy. Since cheetahs are the only animals that
can run 70 mph, if you clock an animal running 70 mph, IT'S
But cheetahs are not always running.
In fact, they are able to maintain top speed only for a limited
time, after which they need a considerable period of rest.
It's not difficult to identify a cheetah
when it isn't running, provided we know its other characteristics.
It is gold with black spots, like a leopard, but it also has
unique black "tear marks" beneath its eyes. Its
head is small, its body lean, its legs unusually long -- all
bodily characteristics critical to a runner. And the cheetah
is the only member of the cat family that has non-retractable
claws. Other cats retract their claws to keep them sharp,
like carving knives kept in a sheath --the cheetah's claws
are designed not for cutting but for traction. This is an
animal biologically designed to run.
Its chief food is the antelope, itself
a prodigious runner. The antelope is not large or heavy, so
the cheetah does not need strength and bulk to overpower it.
Only speed. On the open plains of its natural habitat the
cheetah is capable of catching an antelope simply by running
While body design in nature is utilitarian,
it also creates a powerful internal drive. The cheetah needs
Despite design and need however, certain
conditions are necessary if it is to attain its famous 70
mph top speed. It must be fully grown. It must be healthy,
fit and rested. It must have plenty of room to run. Besides
that, it is best motivated to run all out when it is hungry
and there are antelope to chase.
If a cheetah is confined to a 10 X
12 foot cage, though it may pace or fling itself against the
bars in restless frustration, it won't run70 mph.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah has only 20 mph rabbits
to chase for food, it won't run 70 mph while hunting. If it
did, it would flash past its prey and go hungry! Though it
might well run on its own for exercise, recreation, fulfilment
of its internal drive, when given only rabbits to eat the
hunting cheetah will run only fast enough to catch a rabbit.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah is fed Zoo Chow it may
not run at all.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
If a cheetah is sick or if its legs
have been broken, it won't even walk.
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
And finally, if the cheetah is only
six weeks old, it can't yet run70 mph.
IS IT, THEN, ONLY A *POTENTIAL* CHEETAH?
A school system that defines giftedness
(or talent) as behaviour, achievement and performance is as
compromised in its ability to recognise its highly gifted
students and to give them what they need as a zoo would be
to recognised and provide for its cheetahs if it looked only
for speed. When a cheetah does run 70 mph it isn't a particularly
"achieving" cheetah. Though it is doing what no
other cat can do, it is behaving normally for a cheetah.
To lions, tigers, leopards -- to any
of the other big cats -- the cheetahs biological attributes
would seem to be deformities. Far from the "best cat,"
the cheetah would seem to be barely a cat at all. It is not
heavy enough to bring down a wildebeest; its non-retractable
claws cannot be kept sharp enough to tear the wildebeest's
thick hide. Given the cheetahs tendency to activity,
cats who spend most of their time sleeping in the sun might
well label the cheetah hyperactive.
Like cheetahs, highly gifted children
can be easy to identify. If a child teaches herself Greek
at age five, reads at the eighth grade level at age six or
does algebra in second grade we can safely assume that child
is a highly gifted child. Though the world may see these activities
as achievements, she is not an "achieving"
child so much as a child who is operating normally according
to her own biological design, her innate mental capacity.
Such a child has clearly been given room to run"
and something to run for. She is healthy and fit and has not
had her capacities crippled. It doesn't take great knowledge
about the characteristics of highly gifted children to recognise
However, schools are to extraordinarily
intelligent children what zoos are to cheetahs. Many schools
provide a 10 x 12 foot cage, giving the unusual mind no room
to get up to speed. Many highly gifted children sit in the
classroom the way big cats sit in their cages, dull-eyed and
silent. Some, unable to resist the urge from inside even though
they can't exercise it, pace the bars, snarl and lash out
at their keepers, or throw themselves against the bars until
they do themselves damage.
Even open and enlightened schools are
likely to create an environment that, like the cheetah enclosures
in enlightened zoos, allow some moderate running, but no room
for the growing cheetah to develop the necessary muscles and
stamina to become a 70 mph runner. Children in cages or enclosures,
no matter how bright, are unlikely to appear highly gifted;
kept from exercising their minds for too long, these children
may never be able to reach the level of mental functioning
they were designed for.
A zoo, however much room it provides
for its cheetahs, does not feed them antelope, challenging
them either to run full out or go hungry. Schools similarly
provide too little challenge for the development of extraordinary
minds. Even a gifted program may provide only the intellectual
equivalent of 20 mph rabbits (while sometimes labelling children
suspected of extreme intelligence "underachievers"
for NOT putting on top speed to catch those rabbits!) Without
special programming, schools provide the academic equivalent
of Zoo Chow, food that requires no effort whatsoever. Some
children refuse to take in such uninteresting, dead nourishment
To develop not just the physical ability
but also the strategy to catch antelope in the wild, a cheetah
must have antelopes to chase, room to chase them and a cheetah
role model to show them how to do it. Without instruction
and practice they are unlikely to be able to learn essential
A recent nature documentary about cheetahs
in lion country showed a curious fact of life in the wild.
Lions kill cheetah cubs. They don't eat them, they just kill
them. In fact, they appear to work rather hard to find them
in order to kill them (though cheetahs can't possibly threaten
the continued survival of lions). Is this maliciousness? Recreation?
No one knows. We only know that lions do it. Cheetah mothers
must hide their dens and go to great efforts to protect their
cubs, coming and going from the den under deep cover or only
in the dead of night or when lions are far away. Highly gifted
children and their families often feel like cheetahs in lion
In some schools brilliant children
are asked to do what they were never designed to do (like
cheetahs asked to tear open a wildebeest hide with their claws
-- after all, the lions can do it!) while the attributes that
are a natural aspect of unusual mental capacity -- intensity,
passion, high energy, independence, moral reasoning, curiosity,
humour, unusual interests and insistence on truth and accuracy
-- are considered problems that need fixing.
Brilliant children may feel surrounded
by lions who make fun of or shun them for their differences,
who may even break their legs or drug them to keep them moving
more slowly, in time with the lions' pace. Is it any wonder
they would try to escape; would put on a lion suit to keep
form being noticed; would fight back?
This metaphor, like any metaphor, eventually
breaks down. Highly gifted children don't have body markings
and non-retractable claws by which to be identified when not
performing. Furthermore, the cheetah's ability to run 70 mph
is a single trait readily measured. Highly gifted children
are very different from each other so there is no single ability
to look for even when they are performing; besides that, a
child's greatest gifts could be outside the academic world's
definition of achievement and so go unrecognised altogether.
While this truth can save some children from being wantonly
killed by marauding lions, it also keeps them from being recognised
for what they are -- children with deep and powerful innate
differences as all-encompassing as the differences between
cheetahs and other big cats.
That they may not be instantly recognisable
does not mean that there is no means of identifying them.
It means that more time and effort are required to do it.
Educators can learn the attributes of unusual intelligence
and observe closely enough to see those attributes in individual
children. They can recognise not only that highly gifted children
can do many things other children cannot, but that there are
tasks other children can do that the highly gifted cannot.
Every organism has an internal drive
to fulfil its biological design. The same is true for unusually
bright children. From time to time the bars need be removed,
the enclosures broadened. Zoo Chow, easy and cheap as it is,
must give way, at least some of the time, to lively, challenging
More than this, schools need to believe
that it is important to make the effort, that these children
not only have the needs of all other children to be protected
and properly cared for, but that they have as much RIGHT as
others to have their needs met.
Biodiversity is a fundamental principle
of life on our planet. It allows life to adapt to change.
In our culture highly gifted children, like cheetahs, are
endangered. Like cheetahs, they are here for a reason; they
fill a particular niche in the design of life. Zoos, whatever
their limitations, may be critical to the continued survival
of cheetahs; many are doing their best to offer their captives
what they will need eventually to survive in the wild. Schools
can do the same for their highly gifted children.
Unless we make a commitment to saving
these children, we will continue to lose them and whatever
unique benefit their existence might provide for the human
species of which they are an essential part.
Please disseminate this widely if you
find it useful. However, proper attribution would be appreciated
-- Stephanie S. Tolan