Gifted Education: What is it? Do We Even Need it?

To understand what is required in Gifted Education, we need to explore the idea of “giftedness”. I know… “gifted” – it sounds supercilious. It is unfortunate that the term “gifted” raises such negative connotations for so many people because there is a need to distinguish the kids who have a natural aptitude for academia. It is no different to recognising that some children have a natural flair for sports or a talent for music. I didn’t choose the word “gifted” and I don’t much like it myself, but it is the term that most people are familiar with, so that’s what we’ll use in this post.

What Does it Mean to be Gifted?

Gifted Education - gifted vs bright

The first distinction that should be made is the difference between a bright child and a gifted child:

  • A bright child knows the answer; the gifted learner asks the questions.
  • A bright child works hard to achieve; the gifted learner knows without working hard.
  • A bright child enjoys school; the gifted learner enjoys self-directed learning.
  • A bright child has a fine imagination; the gifted learner uses that imagination to experiment with ideas and hunches.

So when we talk about a gifted child, we’re not talking about a child who is bright.

Top Myths in Gifted Education

The next thing is to dispel the myths and there are plenty. I believed a lot of them myself for quite long time. The following video can provide some clarity. If you don’t really want to watch it all the way through, most of it is distilled following the video below.

Myth 1: Gifted students don’t need help. They’ll do just fine on their own.

Just as you wouldn’t send a star athlete to train for the Olympics without a coach, gifted students also need guidance from well-trained teachers who will challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities.

Myth 2: Teachers Challenge All The Students, So Gifted Kids Will Be Fine In The Regular Classroom.

A study revealed that 58% of teachers have received no professional development focused on teaching academically advanced students in the past few years and 73% of teachers agreed that the brightest students are often bored and under-challenged in school. They are not given a sufficient chance to thrive. Not all teachers are able to recognize and support gifted learners.

Myth 3: Gifted Students Make Everyone Else In The Class Smarter By Providing A Role Model Or A Challenge.

For most of the other kids in the class, watching or relying on someone who is expected to succeed doesn’t really help. On the flip side, gifted students benefit from interactions with peers at similar performance levels. In classrooms with average-ability students, they can become bored, frustrated, and unmotivated.

Myth 4: All Children Are Gifted.

Firstly, we should be clear that every child has strengths and positive attributes, but not all children are gifted in the educational sense of the word. “Gifted” means they have an advanced capacity to learn and apply what is learned in one or more subject areas, or in the performing or fine arts. They need modifications to the regular curriculum to be challenged and to learn new material. Gifted is not good or better; it just means that they have different learning needs.

Myth 5: Acceleration Placement Options Are Socially Harmful to Gifted Students.

Studies support the fact that many students are happier with older students who share their interest than they are with children the same age.

Myth 6: Gifted Education Programs Are Elitist.

Gifted Students Have ‘Special Needs’, Too – “there’s the widespread belief … that “equity” should be solely about income, minority status, handicapping conditions, and historical disenfranchisement. Most of American society does not seem to believe that giftedness constitutes a “special need” or that inattention to it violates some children’s equal rights.”

Myth 7: Students who Receive Poor Grades Can’t Be Gifted.

Gifted students who are bored or frustrated in an unchallenging classroom lose interest, learn bad study habits, or distrust the school environment. Some students mask their abilities to try to fit in socially with their same-age peers. Others have a learning disability that masks their giftedness. Whatever the cause, we need to break the cycle of underachievement to help these children achieve their full potential.

Myth 8: Gifted Students Are Happy, Popular, And Well Adjusted In School.

While some gifted students do flourish in their community and school environment, there are others who do not. The differences in their emotional and moral intensity, sensitivity to expectations and feelings, perfectionism, and deep concerns about societal problems can affect how well they fit into school. Then there are those that do not share interests with their classmates, resulting in isolation or being labeled unfavorably as a “nerd.” These difficulties can make the school experience one to be endured rather than celebrated.

Myth 9: Children with Disabilities Can’t Be Gifted.

Some gifted students also have learning or other disabilities. They are referred to as “twice-exceptional” and are most at risk because their disability and gifts can mask each other, making them appear “average”. Some are identified as having a learning disability and are not considered for gifted support.

Myth 10: Gifted Education Requires An Abundance Of Resources.

A fully developed gifted education program may often appear overwhelming in its scope and complexity. Starting a program requires little more than:

  • the acknowledgment that gifted students need something different
  • a commitment to provide appropriate curriculum and instruction
  • teacher training in identifying gifted students and in gifted education strategies

Gifted Programs – Why Do We Need Them?

Here’s what John Hattie has to say about gifted education:

When kids are struggling in class, teachers have plenty of tools at their disposal. But when the children are doing well, the best tool we have is enrichment, which is essentially pushing the kids sideways.

We need more than enrichment programs if we really want to challenge the gifted child.

Acceleration is the most effective program for above average kids, but hardly any schools allow their students to skip a year. But there are other ways to accelerate. My preferred method of acceleration is to take out half of the curriculum, giving kids a sense of mastery over fewer subjects. This is a much better way of accelerating above average kids.

If we want to challenge our gifted kids, we really need to accelerate them. A common argument I have often heard against this is that we need to let children enjoy their childhood instead of rushing them toward adulthood. Well, I agree with that notion, but I don’t think that equates to holding them back from learning more challenging material just because that material is often associated with the work of older kids. Like other children, gifted kids need opportunities to be challenged, to struggle, and to fail. Without these opportunities, we rob them of vital experiences for growth and development that other children naturally receive.

Take gifted students for example – most gifted students don’t become gifted adults because they’ve never been taught to fail. All learning is based on what you don’t know, so learning how to fail is important. Hence the need to stretch these kids.

The following statistics are from the Australian NAPLAN tests:

  • Between 10 and 50 percent of all gifted school students fail to perform at levels at which they are capable, often leading on to behavioral issues and mental health problems.
  • Between 10 and 40 percent, drop out before completing Year 12.

The failure to stretch the top kids is due to:

  • lack of a framework for gifted education
  • limited gifted programs that are ad hoc and focused mainly on secondary years
  • scarce evaluations to determine the efficacy of the program
  • poor support for families with gifted children
  • teachers not having the training to recognise and to teach to the needs of gifted children
  • misunderstandings about what it means to be gifted

Gifted Programs – What Works?

If we acknowledge that something needs to be done, the question then becomes: what do we do? I can’t say I have any answers, but we will explore some of the options in the next post.