It a Cheetah?
© 1996 Stephanie S. Tolan
[Note: please disseminate this widely if you find it useful. Proper
attribution would be appreciated, however -- Stephanie S.Tolan]
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 to 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.
It is 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 A CHEETAH!
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 it
While body design in nature is utilitarian, it also creates a powerful
internal drive. The cheetah needs to run!
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'trun
70 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,
fulfillment of its internal drive, when given only rabbits toeat the
hunting cheetah will run only fast enough to catch a rabbit. IS IT STILL
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
IS IT STILL A CHEETAH?
And finally, if the cheetah is only six weeks old, it can't yet run
IS IT, THEN, ONLY A *POTENTIAL* CHEETAH?
A school system that defines giftedness (or talent) as behavior, achievement
and performance is as compromised in its ability to recognize its highly
gifted students and to give them what they need as a zoo would be to
recognize 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 cheetah's
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
cheetah's 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 recognize this
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, snarland 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 becomea 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 orgo 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 labeling 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 at all.
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 cheetahscan'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 country.
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 mentalcapacity -- intensity, passion,
high energy, independence, moral reasoning, curiosity, humor, unusual
interests and insistenceon 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
from 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 unrecognized altogether. While this truth can save some children
from being wantonly killed by marauding lions, it also keepsthem from
being recognized 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 recognizable 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 recognize 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 fulfill 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 ofthe 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 allother
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.
[Note: please disseminate this widely if you find it useful.
attribution would be appreciated, however -- Stephanie S.Tolan]