Discover more from Positive Disintegration
Tribute to Frank and NAGC Preview
NAGC 2023 is coming soon, and I'm missing Frank Falk
First, the tribute
It’s fall, and as usual, I’m preparing for a session at the National Association for Gifted Children’s annual conference.1 But unlike previous years, I don’t have the help of my friend and mentor, Dr. R. Frank Falk, who passed away on April 23, 2023.
In my post on being a student, I mentioned that I met Frank and his wife, Dr. Nancy B. Miller, in 2015. I attended a workshop they gave on scoring the open-ended Overexcitability Questionnaire at the University of Denver that fall. In 2016, I joined the Dąbrowski Study Group, which Frank organized, and we began gathering monthly to discuss the theory of positive disintegration together.
A year later, the week before NAGC 2017, I began working with Frank as a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development. He was the Director of Research, and I was the Director of Qualitative Research. Frank included me in all his tasks connected with overexcitabilities and Dąbrowski’s theory, such as corresponding with academics who inquired about the available instruments. We did a study together examining overexcitability and ADHD. Mostly, we worked together on studying the theory of positive disintegration, which often meant sharing what I was learning with him during our times together.
How can I capture the essence of Frank for readers of this newsletter? He was one of the kindest, most caring, most thoughtful people I’ve had the privilege to know, and I loved having the opportunity to work with him.
When I was first getting to know Frank, we sometimes clashed because my ideas about overexcitability and Dąbrowski’s theory challenged his own. There were times when I wasn’t sure we would get through that phase, but we did because he was so willing to be patient and listen to my reasoning. We spent many hours together reading Dąbrowski’s work and poring over retrieval documents I’d made in my effort to understand the conceptual evolution of the constructs over time.
Our first conference presentation together was at the 2018 Dąbrowski Congress. When Frank died, I listened to the audio recording of our session and remembered how amazing it felt for him to introduce me to our audience and tell them that I’d defended my dissertation two weeks before. It was the work we did for that conference session that solidified our relationship and paved the way for the paper we wrote together called The Origins and Conceptual Evolution of Overexcitability.
The Dąbrowski Center was actually Frank’s idea. In May 2021, he suggested that I create a nonprofit to support my work with the theory and to build it around the archive I had spent years putting together.
I had a good, productive talk with Frank... We discussed a few things, including how I’m going to move forward with the archive. He thinks that I should set up my own nonprofit for it... He encouraged me to start investigating the logistics, and I will. (Journal entry, May 15, 2021)
He was generous, too. Frank was the first Dąbrowski Center donor, and he mailed me a check the day I filed the Articles of Incorporation on February 2, 2022.
I’m very grateful that he joined us as a podcast guest in Episode 5: Researching Overexcitability, and it makes me happy to think of people listening to him talk about his work for many years to come. The Frank Falk Archive will be available on our website when I can afford to hire help with that project.2
I’m not the only person who was blessed with Frank’s support as a friend and mentor. It was incredible to attend the celebration of his life on June 3, 2023, and to hear the impact he made on his family, friends, and colleagues. He was loved by many.
I know that Frank will always be with me as I continue my work, and I’m grateful for the foundation he provided me as a researcher and professional working with Dąbrowski’s theory in practice.
All that being said, I miss having his help preparing for NAGC, and his absence has been keenly felt this month. Frank will be in my heart while I’m presenting next week.
I’m not defending the theory at NAGC this year
This will be my fifth session about the theory of positive disintegration at NAGC since 2017. The title of my session this year is “Overexcitabilities and Dąbrowski’s Theory: Correcting the Course in Gifted Education.”
Here’s what I said I’d talk about:
We will examine the continued relevance of Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and overexcitabilities in the field of gifted education. What myths and misunderstandings persist about overexcitability and giftedness? We will explore at least five areas where common beliefs in the field don’t match up with Dąbrowski’s own words, or the theory’s empirical foundations.
This is the session I’ve hoped to do for years. One where I can talk about what I’ve learned from studying the theory as I do without feeling like the theory—and, thus, my work—is under fire.
I realize that most of our readers here aren’t from the field of gifted education in the US. Even those in the field may not realize there was a whole movement to eliminate overexcitability and positive disintegration as pseudoscience. But it’s true. Two years in a row at NAGC, there were sessions on “Confronting Pseudoscience in Gifted Education,” and OEs were one of the myths they wanted to see eliminated from the literature and practice within the gifted community in favor of openness to experience and the five-factor model.
I’ve had three sessions in a row at NAGC’s annual meeting that directly responded to this issue. Last year, we finally had a breakthrough. I joined two critics, Drs. Anne Rinn and Erin Miller, on a panel at NAGC 2022 called “Overexcitabilities: Important, Irrelevant, or Imaginary?”
The session was moderated by Dr. Lauri Kirsch, now the immediate past president of the organization, and it went well. We submitted questions to guide the session, and we had months to think about them and prepare. I went over them with Frank many times in preparation. Here’s a shot of us all in the moments before it started, including Dr. Shelagh Gallagher, who organized the session and is now the current NAGC president.
It was the first time in my professional career that I’ve participated in a session with so much interest that the audience overflowed from the room.
Here’s a tweet about the session that’s worth sharing:
Of course, my position on the panel was in favor of overexcitability, and I argued it remains relevant for this population. Anne talked about the overlap between the constructs of overexcitability, sensory processing sensitivity, and openness to experience. She has a paper in-press at Gifted Child Quarterly reflecting her view on this issue.3
I appreciate her conclusion because it cuts to the heart of the issue: “Regardless of our paradigmatic lens, our implicit beliefs about giftedness, our backgrounds, or our current positions as researchers and practitioners, we must all have an understanding of the social and emotional experiences of gifted individuals to better serve them.”
Erin was the most critical of OE and TPD and argued that she doesn’t see a place for overexcitability in gifted education because she feels it’s better understood as openness to experience and other constructs from psychology.
I’ll be forever grateful to Shelagh for making this session a reality and giving us the opportunity to have a public conversation about overexcitability. At the end of the session, I felt closer to the critics than I ever had before, and it finally seemed like we might be able to move forward together as a community.
The reality is there’s a good reason why some in the field were calling the theory pseudoscience. I surprised many people when I began my first response by saying that the overexcitability research and our understanding of this construct in gifted education has gone off track. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in retaining the positive disintegration framework in the field. It’s not a black-and-white issue.
While preparing for this year’s session, I plan to share some thoughts about the past presentations I’ve done at NAGC, including:
2021: Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience: Overexcitability in the Gifted (with Frank Falk)
2020: The Origins and Conceptual Evolution of Overexcitability
2017: Honoring Dąbrowski’s Mission: Piechowski’s Contribution to the Theory of Positive Disintegration
It’s worth mentioning that podcast episode 2, “Overexcitabilities and Pseudoscience,” was recorded the weekend after NAGC 2021, and I briefly mentioned some of these issues.
All of my sessions about overexcitability at NAGC have been informed by the research I’ve done, and I have shared volumes of information to go with my sessions. Now, I plan to share some of this here on Positive Disintegration.
What Five Issues Will I Address at NAGC 2023?
There are some common beliefs about OE in the gifted community that should be questioned and challenged. I’ll share more about them over the coming week while preparing for the conference.
I’ve chosen the following five areas to discuss at NAGC 2023. I’m calling them “myths” from the definition of myth as “a widely held but false belief or idea.”
These misunderstandings need to be addressed if we’re ever going to make progress in the field. Thus, the “Correcting the Course” part of my title this year. I hope this session will inspire me to write a paper for the gifted ed literature.
Myth #1: There is little or no empirical foundation or science behind TPD
There is a long history of scientific inquiry and empirical foundation for overexcitabilities and positive disintegration. We need to pull together the past and present if we’re going to move forward.
Myth #2: TPD is a theory of giftedness
It’s not a theory of giftedness. However, it still has enormous value for this population.
Myth #3: Overexcitability can only be studied and understood within the broader theory of positive disintegration
This claim is a significant contributor to why the critics have said the theory is pseudoscience. It is a misconception that’s easily resolved when we examine the theory's origins.
Myth #4: Overexcitability is the same thing as openness to experience
A short answer for now: they are not the same. The five-factor model of personality cannot replace the theory of positive disintegration.
Myth #5: It’s possible to separate overexcitability from “disorders” such as ADHD and autism
The OEs are at the root of other kinds of neurodivergence besides giftedness. We need to address the ableism that led to this misunderstanding and acknowledge that giftedness often coexists with disability.
If you’ve wondered why I’ve put so much effort into writing about my own history here before launching into my work on overexcitability and the theory of positive disintegration, look no further. It’s because I came to this theory believing that I was mentally ill, and studying it has helped me transform myself and my beliefs about what “mental health” means for me and others.
When I came to the overexcitabilities, I was shocked to see these aspects of myself that I’d considered symptoms of mental illness reframed in such a positive light. I don’t want to take too much time at the beginning of this upcoming session sharing my story, and now, I don’t need to worry. Anyone in my session at NAGC or future presentations can read the Overcoming the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness series for a fuller understanding of where I’ve been and why I do this work.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more posts, including at least one relevant Interesting Quotes post before NAGC 2023.
You can access the conference schedule here. I’ll be presenting on Friday, November 10, 2023, at 10:30 am Eastern Time.
Rinn, A.N. (in-press). A critique on the current state of research on the social and emotional experiences of gifted individuals and a framework for moving the field forward. Gifted Child Quarterly.