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Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Socially-Constructive Giftedness and Operation Houndstooth

Several years ago, I had my fifth-grade gifted students stand up, one at a time, and share their dreams for the future. I asked them, “How do you plan to use your gifts and talents when you grow older?” Many answers were the kind a teacher would expect: to play professional baseball, to become a marine biologist, to go into law. Until one boy stood up and proudly announced:

“I want to create a virus that could be used to wipe out half the planet.”

The room went silent, as students realized he was dead serious. I realized it was time to move the lesson along—but I never forgot that moment.

 What causes one child to grow up to become Adolph Hitler and another to become Mother Theresa? What is the difference in life that produces a Saddam Hussein as opposed to a Martin Luther King, Jr.?  While these are obviously extreme examples, the answers to these questions has prompted researchers and educators to consider what roles schools play in the development of social responsible leaders and contributors.  What environments, experiences, and lessons help gifted children develop the traits and characteristics that allow them to blossom into creative, productive, socially responsible adults?

As a teacher of elementary gifted students, I became interested in Operation Houndstooth  while researching Renzulli’s work, however, the above scenario and other similar examples with gifted children in past years have prompted me to delve deeper into the theory and available research in the hopes of finding answers.  What can be more important than teaching intellectually advanced, creative, young people to use their powers for good?  Without instilling the proper sense of values, all the curriculum, content, and technological expertise could go wasted-- or worse, fall into the wrong hands.

Operation Houndstooth Theory

Operation Houndstooth emerged from The Three-Ring Conception Model, which expanded the definition of giftedness by attributing gifted behavior to the intersection of three elements: task commitment (motivation), creativity, and above-average ability. Within the context of the model, Renzulli sought to understand the educational and environmental factors—or background components—that result in socially-constructive giftedness. In other words, why does a student use their talents to help another or contribute to “social capital”?  Renzulli describes social capital as intangible assets that address the collective needs of individuals and communities and notes that this form of capital has sharply declined in recent years as demonstrated by low participation in civic clubs, church groups, service clubs, parent-teacher associations and the like. Inspired by the positive psychology movement championed by Martin Seligman and others and highly interested with the possible scientific components of socially-constructive giftedness, Renzulli embarked on a quest to discover what gives rise to this condition. Through literature review and Delphi technique classification studies, Renzulli arrived at six co-cognitive traits:

1. Optimism: attitudes associated with expectation of a desirable future

2. Courage: the ability to face difficulty while facing physical, psychological or moral fears.

3.Physical/Mental Energy: a high commitment of  energy to a task.

4. Sensitvity to Human Concerns: the ability to comprehend another’s affective world and relate through action

5. Romance with a Discipline: passion about a particular topic or area

6. Vision/Sense of Destiny: interrelated concepts including locus of control, self-efficacy and motivation.

During a recent lecture, researchers from the University of Connecticut provided an update on their work with Operation Houndstooth as well as shared with educators some ways to begin working the theory into classrooms.  Echoing Renzulli’s  sentiments, the presenters admitted that the variables–in this case, the co-cognitive traits that form Houndstooth-are undoubtedly hard to measure in a scientific manner. For example, how does one measure courage and whether there has been an increase? Renzulli has written that “you can’t teach vision or sense of destiny.”

As a teacher, the question becomes “how do I implement Operation Houndstooth in my school or classroom? Where do I begin?” During their UCONN presentation, researchers suggested that teachers consider using the following methods to begin implementing Operation Houndstooth:

  1. Consider the physical space/classroom.  Can the co-cognitive traits be displayed in some manner in the learning environment?
  2. Use literature to teach the traits through biographies and other text. Literature circles and class discussions can be held on literary characters and people throughout history, who demonstrate one of more of the six traits.
  3. Have students journal about the traits or and complete writing tasks such as composing a thank you letter to someone.
  4. Create a romance with a discipline through exposing students through Type 1 activities such as guest speakers.
  5. Allowing students to work on service learning projects.

One idea I had for teaching Operation Houndstooth was the formation of an “Operation Do Good” group, which possibly could meet during lunchtime or afterschool. The group of volunteer students, under the guidance of a teacher or other coach, could design a vision for their school campus, setting optimistic goals in the process. The children could then decide what strengths and talents they could use to reach these goals as they pursue them. The task of pursuing the goals would tap their energy and require them to exercise courage as they tackle new challenges and situations. Through participating in this type of group, under the auspices of a spirit of fun, contribution, and creativity, children could practice the Houndstooth traits in a positive, relaxed environment.  Furthermore, informal discussions could be held over the traits and their application. Perhaps the teacher and students could bring in videos, biographies, and other samples of Houndstooth individuals to share with the group.  Will the idea work? Who knows. Will the idea add more work to a teacher’s already overburdened schedule? Likely.  But when I think of the virtues espoused by Operation Houndstooth and students, like the one who wanted to use his genius for all the wrong reasons, what could be more important?