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It's a Learning Difference


Wow… Thank you to everyone for such a great response to my first post on this blog ("My Yard is Gifted"). I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to get everyone talking about the issue of gifted education and – most importantly – the gifted kids in our classrooms and how to best meet their needs. While I already had many ideas for future posts before you all responded, I now have doubled my list just based on your comments/requests thus far. I shouldn’t have any trouble filling a year’s worth of blogging ;o)

In an ideal world, I would respond to each comment posted, but given that I have two jobs beyond this one and – hopefully – another life beyond “work,” it will not always be possible for me to do so. I will be able to cover many requests for information/ideas in future posts (for example: gifted programs on Indian Reservations, boredom, LD/Gifted, elitism, alternative schooling options for gifted kids, differentiation, etc.) So if you made a request (intentionally or unintentionally!) that I think many others would also be interested in reading and thinking about, stay tuned because I will do my best to get to those topics (and many others) this year.

But first, it’s pretty clear that I need to cover that loaded word “gifted!”

When it comes to “labeling” some kids as “gifted,” a variety of emotions, viewpoints, past baggage, interpretations, and misinterpretations get stirred up. Just reading everyone’s comments to my first post can give a pretty good picture of this variety. Having been in the field of gifted education for many years now, I’ve seen and heard it all. So, for the sake of clarifying just what I mean when I use that term here (and of course to get y’all thinking!), this post is dedicated to semantics.

The term “gifted” has been in use in the education field since Leta Hollingworth wrote “Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture” in 1926. Prior to that, it was a term used in a somewhat similar context by Francis Galton in 1869. Over the years, it has become the word we most commonly use to refer to those individuals who are, in some way, markedly different (advanced) in their abilities in a particular area. Maybe it’s not the best word to use (due to the misinterpretations and angst that come with it), but, like it or not, that is the term that has risen to the surface. Some schools do use alternative terms, like “highly capable,” “advanced,” “accelerated,” or “high ability” (among others). But really, even with those, the same issues still exist. (Some people object to “high ability,” for example, because they say it implies that other kids are “low ability.”) Whatever the term used is, we’re all referring to an individual with a rare set of abilities. [“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare] I don’t have any problems using the term “gifted” because of the context in which I (and most in my field) use it and think of it. Knowing that I’m venturing into potentially hostile territory, I hope to outline my thinking on the term here…

“Gifted” does not equal “special.” Yet that is how many people interpret and use the term. [i.e. “all kids are gifted”] Every child ever born (and not born) is special. Every child brought into our world has something special to offer the world. Even after billions and billions of people have stepped foot on Earth, we each remain unique from one another (amazing, isn’t it?!). Specialness is inherent in our humanness. Let’s marvel in and celebrate the specialness of every child and of each other. [Yes, I know “specialness” is not really a word, but it fits what I mean and I like to invent words :o) ]

When I, and others, use the term “gifted,” we are not trying to imply that some children are more special than others are. We are not saying that “my students” or “my children” are “more special than yours.” They’re not more special. Everyone is special in his or her own way. All children are special.

But giftedness is not specialness.

And all children are not gifted. Beyond my specialness argument, perhaps this will help:

Are all children tall? Are all children short? Are all children hearing impaired? [thanks for the example, Jill Carroll] Are all children blind? Are all children athletic? Are all children musical? Are all children artistic? Are all children brown-eyed? Are all children ten-fingered?


Are all children marvelous? Are all children beautiful? Are all children amazing? Are all children special? Are all children inspiring? Are all children unique? Are all children full of potential and possibilities?

Yes. Of course!

The term “gifted” as used in the field of gifted education belongs in the same group as the terms in the first set of questions. We do not mean, intend, or use it in the context that would place it as belonging with the second group of questions.

Perhaps this underlies the misinterpretation that has haunted the word for all these years. Perhaps we in the field haven’t done a good enough job of clarifying to which group the word belongs.

“Gifted” belongs in the first set because it is the term used to acknowledge that there are some among us who are markedly different intellectually. Are there some among us who are significantly taller than the rest of us? Are there some among us who are significantly shorter than the rest of us? Are there some among us who are markedly more athletic, markedly more musical, markedly more artistic than the rest of us? We can relatively easily acknowledge that yes, there are. But when it comes to acknowledging that some among us are markedly different intellectually, we stammer and “well, but” and hedge. Because we’re still stuck on “special.” [There’s a great post here (“Failing Our Geniuses”) that talks about our struggle with egalitarianism and giftedness.]

Giftedness is a learning difference. “Gifted,” as used in the field of gifted education, does not mean “having a gift.” Rather, it means that there’s a significant learning difference present in that individual. Everyone has gifts – that something special we each can offer the world - but not everyone learns as a gifted child learns. [Those of you who are really into this will tell me that that’s technically what Galton meant – having a gift – and that giftedness is the presence of a gift, and I do see that point, but for the sake of those who are still stuck on special, can you see the distinction I’m trying to lay out for them? Thank you :o) ]

For those who need a specific example: All children can learn their multiplication tables. Most learn them around third grade and master them by 4th or 5th or 6th grade (hopefully!) But it is the gifted child, who at age 3 or 4 or 5, intuitively develops an understanding of multiples and “discovers” (or figures out) multiplication all on her own. All children can learn to read. Most learn their letters in Kindergarten and begin reading simple books in 1st grade, progressing from there. But it is the gifted child, who at age 3 or 4 or 5, somehow just begins reading without having ever really been “taught” how to do so.

(Disclaimer: Those examples do not apply to all gifted children all of the time! I use them here to help make my point.)

“Gifted” is the term we use to refer to those children whose learning is dramatically different. Yes, if you get right down to it, we all do learn a bit differently from each other, gifted or not (“learning styles,” if you will). But we’re talking here about the significant differences that set these kids apart. They can learn two (or more!) years’ worth of Math in one year. They can read as well as children eight years older than they are. They have built their own science laboratories in the basements of their homes. They use words most adults have to look up in the dictionary. They can spell words most adults have never even heard of! These kids are out there… possibly in your classroom… And they ARE different! The word we use to refer to them just happens to be “gifted.”

[Another side note for those of you who are really into this: I know “giftedness” is more complex than just being a learning difference. But stick with me! I can’t write the whole book in one post ;o) Hopefully, through the course of this year, the complexities will become more apparent for those who are coming here to learn them.]

A final note: I think it’s VERY important that we have this discussion with our kids, too… the gifted ones and the non-gifted ones. And certainly with all of the special ones ;o) As a matter of fact, I discuss this very issue with my students beginning when they are very young. [I tell them, “You know how some kids go to work with Mrs. Zupinsky? And other kids go to work with Mr. Holt? Well, those teachers know special ways to teach and help those kids because they learn differently. And it’s the same here. You learn differently (usually faster), and I know special ways to help and to challenge kids who learn like that.” (The discussion evolves as they get older).] They WANT to talk about this. “Why am I in here?” “What does gifted mean?” They sense the elitism [will cover that topic in more depth in a future post] that many seem to assign to the term “gifted”… this term that has been applied to them. The perspective outlined in this post is a refreshing one for them. It helps them to accept and explain themselves. It helps them to realize that “gifted” isn’t elitism or “more special,” it’s just a different way of learning, it’s just a piece of who they are.


One more topic to add to your list...please address the needs of highly+ verbally gifted children. It seems that precocious math ability is readily recognized, accommodated, and even rewarded, but verbal ability is not. There is always a "but." "Yes Susie is reading four grades above level, and has an amazing vocabulary, but..." So Susie continues to trudge along with her agemates "because you can learn something in every class." Verbal ability is always "there" every time these kids open their mouths...and it can be an alienating experience starting at a young age when peers literally don't understand them.

In response to A parent, I would have said exactly the opposite. Teachers generally find it easy enough to substitute different books for a second grader reading at a 5th grade level. They have a much harder time figuring out what to do with a kid ready for algebra when the rest of the class is struggling with fractions.

I think both types are challenging to get recognized in the classroom - and it seems like such a struggle sometimes to get the children what they need to work at the level they are ready for.

As a future teacher and the mother of a "gifted" child I can assure you each and every "gifted" child is unique. To make a long, often challenging experience short, my son was in Catholic school from Kindergarten-2nd grade. He was reading by age 4, so reading in Kindergarten came as no surprise to us. What was a surprise was when we were told he "wasn't allowed to read" in class because he was "showing off and making the other children feel inadequate". This made him feel ashamed of his abilities. This continued through first grade, when teacher insisted her first graders write a list of 20 spelling words 5 times each at home and 3 times each in class. Once my son knew the words he didn't want to have to write and rewrite so I asked the teacher to test him at the end of the first day. He scored 100 on every test and was exempt from the "5 times at home" portion. I was forced to feel as if something was "wrong" with my son and told he needed to be evaluated because he acted out. This evaluation showed that he was highly intelligent and very bored. He was beyond a 6th grade reading level by the end of first grade. When I placed him in the gifted program in public school in third grade he felt challenged and somewhat comfortable around children of his academic ability, but each of those children had his/her own strengths and weaknesses. Throughout the years he excelled and is now a "normal" average college sophomore, not gifted, advanced, bright, or bored. There is no cookie cutter solution to working with children like my son. As a parent I just ask that teachers (and I will do so when I teach) simply work with those children to make them feel confident and comfortable...Best of luck to those of you blessed enough to have these unique children in your classrooms.

Penny's comments remind me why so many of us wrestle with "giftedness" and "elitism" in terms of assigning programs or labels. Her underchallenged primary schooler developed into a "normal" appropriately challenged college student, because, in part, intellectual or academic growth, just like physical, social and emotional growth, follows unique developmental spurts and plateaus for every kid. Yes, some kids start learning rapidly at a young age and never look back (I just read an article about a local 17-year-old "brilliant" college junior who skipped high school and holds a promising academic future), but plenty of "gifted" kids are simply early learners, heavily supported by academically-oriented families, who begin to be more "average" in time, as their peers catch up. I struggle with the idea that we need to separate out those early rapid learners (as my school district does)to prevent them from ever experiencing boredom (as everybody does at some point), rather than acknowledging their academic growth as among a range of natural developmental trajectories and allowing them to be "gifted" in the context of the diverse spectrum of kids. We don't separate out tall kids (early rapid growers) for special height-oriented activities, the American sports machine aside. That said, there are plenty of teachers still, who don't embrace the developmental peaks and valleys of childhood and strive for a cookie cutter approach. That's a problem we can solve. As a former teacher, I know how difficult differentiated instruction can be, but as the mother of academically "gifted" but otherwise "normal" young children, I don't want anything else. In life, my kids will be surrounded by the tall, the artistic, the academically uninterested, the brilliant, the diffident, the common-sense-challenged, and everything else. They should be around them in school as well.

Isn't it all really about differentiated learning?

In 2nd grade, my daughter was placed in the gifted program but we almost pulled her out. Her classroom teacher was so gifted herself and able to keep a wide group of students active and involved. My daughter would complain that she was always having to interupt what she was doing to go to "gifted."

The next year, however, she stopped complaining - because "gifted" became a reprieve from the monoculture of the classroom, where everyone sat and learned at the same pace. Her 3rd grade teacher complained that she was always drifting off, not paying attention to where they were. She still didn't like leaving her friends behind though. I'm waiting to see about this year!

My problem with the gifted program (at least the way it's run in our district) is that it isolates kids, marking them off as "different" without really solving the big problem, which is the uneven access to a creative, differentiated, self-directed classroom experience.

I have to disagree with Penny, if a child is truly gifted he doesn't "end up" average (normal)--we call that underachieving. Early readers are not always gifted and gifted kids are not always early, or for that matter, gifted readers.

I also have to disagree with Stephanie. While I agree kiddos have "unique developmental spurts and plateaus", gifted kids do not have periods of ungiftedness and they don't become ungifted over time. Average students will not catch up with the gifted students, just won't happen. There are thousands of gifted people who did not come from enriched households and lots of musically talent kids and athletic kids who start training very early, training gifted kids is no different than a musical prodigy have a piano teacher.

See if this makes sense--there are different levels of thinking (6) as pointed out by Bloom's taxonomy. The low levels are knowledge, comprehension and application (the skills schools focus on) and the higher levels are synthesis, analysis, and evaluation. Students with IQs below 130 spend 80% of their time thinking in the three lower levels; students with IQs above 130 spend 80% thinking in the higher levels. They think differently.

Example: When ask on an intelligence test what the difference was between a fish and a submarine one student responded, "You put tartar sauce on a fish and mustard on a submarine." Now that's a gifted response!

I could discuss this all night but I won't blather on... but I know from where I speak--I've taught gifted kids for 23 years and have three gifted sons of my own.

Tamara, I do have a suggestion for you. You should see if edweek would set you up with a social networking site (or at least a threaded discussion) as you plow through the gifted issues, then responders could comment on individual posts. Check out http://giftededucation.ning.com or http://classroom20.ning.com

I'll be passing your posts on to others and checking back often, keep up this meaningful dialog. N.

In volunteering time with gifted high school students I found that most do not know what it means to be gifted, beyond "being smart or good" at something. Many have no real appreciation for their talents and worse, have no interests either!

I highly recommend three books to help understand giftedness:

The Gifted Adult - Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

Gifted Grownups - Marylou Streznewski

and my all time favorite for parents and teachers: "Gifted is not a dirty word" by Nancy Alvarado Stone (a few still available at Amazon)

"plenty of "gifted" kids are simply early learners, heavily supported by academically-oriented families, who begin to be more "average" in time, as their peers catch up."

You've lost me right there. The idea that gifted kids "plateau" is bogus. If their performance is "plateauing" it is because their learning needs aren't being met...these kids are starting to tune out.


As a parent of a supposedly "highly gifted" child I was very troubled by tracking and after several years chose to homeschool my child rather than participate in a system that labels children. Fortunately for us, my daughter now attends a public high school funded by the Gates Foundation. This is a small high school with a very diverse student body and no tracking.

I feel like words are very powerful. I see all children at promise rather than a certain group of children "at-risk" and another group as "gifted". I have always loved the story of one of the first students at Ms. Marva Collins school who had been identified as educable mentally handicapped in her previous school, yet in Ms. Collin's school proved quite capable and educable and went on to get a master's degree.

I have a couple of questions that are of interest to me, and may be of interest to the readers of this blog. I am wondering if you teach for a tribally run school or for a Bureau of Indian Affairs School? How does the concept of "giftedness" fit in to the culture of the tribe(s) living on the reservation where you teach?

Thanks for your willingness to commit to blogging with all the other things you have on your plate!! I have great hope that the internet can become a "learning community" that allows us to have open conversations that are often avoided in the political context of public education.

Thanks, Tamara, for your well reasoned and respectful reply to the old, "all children are gifted" comment.

I'm hoping that someday in the not so distant future, individualized education will catch on in the schools as it has with homeschooling. One size fits all education is truly a ridiculous notion. Does every six year old wear the same size clothing? Of course not, and they should not be forced to try. Why do people cling to the myth that every first grader should be reading "The Cat in the Hat"? Some kids are not developmentally ready to read until seven or eight. Others may have taught themselves to read before age three. This doesn't make one child better than another, but it does give them different educational needs.

Please feel free to stop in at my site:


One day when I was in kindergarten a teacher I had never seen before came into the classroom and had us all sit in a circle on a big rug. While we all sat cross-legged and squirmy, she passed around a Quaker oatmeal box covered in cute paper and each one of us got the opportunity to shake it. We each were allowed to ask one question, either about the object inside or a guess of what we thought it was.

"Does it smell?" one student would ask. "Why isn't it making a sound?" another one would chirp in. "I know, it's a stuffed animal," said another. The whole time I sat there silently. After one shake it was obvious to me what it was, but I was too shy to say anything. Finally, when it came to my "guessing" turn I asked, "Is it air?" Other kids started snickering and laughing. Of course, I felt like a fool the moment the words came out of my lips. (Obviously it made me feel like an idiot because I still remember it!)

As it turns out, there was air in that Quaker oat box. The teacher was a gifted and talented teacher who began to come in once a month. And, for the first time I began to see that I thought about things differently than other kids.

I wanted to share this story because I think it illustrates how kids who think differently can sometimes feel like a fool for "going against the flow." One thing that was given to me in my gifted and talented classes was the opportunity to go against the flow, and be celebrated for it. I feel this mindset and training is the reason I've accomplished what I have to date. It's proof that "gifted" is a learning difference.

I wouldn't say I am as gifted as many adults, but I, too, tend to think differently. I find that adults in authority are unnerved by my "innocent" observations and questions about the world around all of us. Now I have decided to have great fun and "ask" the questions that are unanswerable.

In case you need some unanswerable questions....check out the book "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" edited by John Brockman. Much too much fun!

AND in case you are a classroom teacher and the children like to stump you, incorporate "Stump the Resourcerer (or Resourcereress)" question asking moments each day. Then go to the Mad Scientist Network at Washington University OR just cruise the Internet for answers!!! Curiosity needs some nudges sometimes and the questions students ask will inspire other students to think outside of the box.

AND the best part of that is that precious teaching/teachable moments are NOT lost! :)

You really have to experience what it's like to have your highly intelligent kid deal with a class that's 30% special ed kids to understand what it can mean to be "gifted" today. In Baltimore, the moniker seems cruel. Unless Hopkins CTY opens a school here, homeschooling may be our best hope right now.

This is just a quick comment, but "gifted" can mean so many different things depending on the context. I was identified as such early in life, but I had many peers who were just as academically capable. Based on the system, I learned to explain it as "thinking differently" rather than ahead of my peers in certain subjects. Of course, my lack of opening a book may have contributed to my grades...Who knows?

What I came away with is the understanding that all people are unique and need to learn in their own way.

The term precocious refers to early development and prodigy refers to unusually intelligent. I wonder why "gifted" needs to be used in the context of this discussion when we have better words. Or at least why not say "intellectually gifted" rather than just gifted since that is what you mean? I do believe we are all gifted, perhaps not in the way this article is defining it.

Some children learn in a "markedly" different way than "most". But there is not a vacuum between "most" and "markedly different" - there is a continuous spectrum of "moderately gifted". As long as there's a label, the cutoff for the label will translate into a cutoff for better educational opportunities. While all children are not gifted, ALL CHILDREN DESERVE THE BEST EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES AVAILABLE. But those opportunities only come with the label.

I recommend a fantastic book by Dr. Deborah Ruf called "Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind". She breaks down what she calls "levels" of giftedness, but what I like best is that she exposes how gifted students at all ages and levels process the experience of being 'left behind', and how this can lead (at all levels) to underachievement.

Tamara, love your blog. I agree with the other posters that the notion that gifted kids can become normal is just plain wrong. Gifted kids can and will dumb themselves down as soon as they realize other kids their age don't "get" them. There's more than one way to eliminate the achievement gap. Lowering the ceiling (keeping the top students down at normal achievement levels) is a lot easier than raising the floor.

My oldest son went from reading picture books to chapter books in two weeks. Two months later, after he started kindergarten, he insisted he did not know how to read because he was only a kindergartener. And he no longer even tried to play with toys or games meant for older kids (because he could read the suggested age range on the box, whether he admitted it or not.) Did he suddenly become ungifted? Of course not! He was parroting his very gifted-unfriendly K teacher, who was an adult and so must know better than a 6yo what he can and can't understand.

Similarly, a parent who wants her gifted children just to be normal and fit in (because it's easier on everyone) will get exactly what she wants. A gifted child can fake normal much more easily than a normal child can fake being gifted. It doesn't change the children's abilities, just their behavior.

Where were you when I was a child? I remember going into the school lunch room with a bunch of kids and taking the "funnest" (I make up words, too) test I had ever taken. Full of "if this flat object were folded into a box, which of these boxes would it look like?" and "please add to the lines drawn here to create a picture and describe your picture"... little did I know it was a test to join the Talented and Gifted (TaG) program at my school. When I was given the invitation to come to the classes, I didn't understand why I was going, why I was different, or why my friends seemed odd about it. Though the classes were engaging, fun, and interesting to me. For the first time in years, I was having fun in school again rather than sitting at the table listening to lessons on math and language that I already understood just from looking at the book.

It took me many many years to come to terms with the fact that I have ideas and I learn fast. It is just who I am. Give me a theme, a topic, anything and I will give you a hundred ideas for activities, tests, lessons, etc. Give me a book about a new topic and I will know that topic inside and out within a week or so. I can't help it, I find new things to learn and I jump into them 200%. But nobody took time to explain to the child me what I was doing, why I was different, why my friends seemed to bristle when I raised my hand yet again in class with a question, comment, or answer. (Sometimes even with a correction to the teacher, I didn't understand that what I was doing was rude to some.)

So for those out there who think that kids don't need to know that being gifted just means they learn different or think different, please think again. I hid my talents in high school, gave other people credit for my original thoughts in my first years of college, and was terrified of losing friends throughout my teen years... it took a good college professor to help me come to terms with my differences and to tell me that it was okay to be myself, to think my way and to speak up with my ideas and share my knowledge.

To all the teachers out there, don't let the kids of today go on with their lives hiding what they have. Teach them that they are different, but still part of the whole of society. Teach them to embrace their gifts (yes, I will say it, it is a gift) and to stand tall. Imagine how far they will go when they are free of the baggage of fear!

While I appreciate the distinction you make between "special" and "gifted", I still dislike the label "gifted" as it is currently used in many school districts. In particular, students are often identified as "gifted" on the basis of standardized test scores. While the scores may correctly identify those students who are in need of more challenging work, they don't necessarily indicate anything about learning style.

Also, I worry about those students who are told that they are gifted at one point, yet are later found ineligible for GT services. In my school district, that could happen simply because of limited resources. I can just imagine trying to explain the situation to my own child, I feel that the use of the label "gifted" gives overtones that are not needed. (Why, oh why, can't they just say "You have qualified for X" instead of "You have been identified as X"?)

I teach at a CT. university and have 2 profoundly gifted children. It is wonderful not to feel alone in my frustration. Please keep writing. Our local superintendent, after my kids tested off the charts in a school-administered IQ test, told me to take them out of school for 2 years to let the others catch up! We can't be quiet about the dumbing down that occurs in our classrooms.

Things will change if enough educators, adminstrators and parents stop fearing charges of "elitism." A slow learner gets attention because he/she learns "differently" and at a "different rate." Don't gifted children face the same issues?

Thank you for this wonderful article! The "g" word can be so misleading.

I sometimes tell people my children have learning disabilities. They are unable to learn in the regular classroom-- because they already know the material being covered. =)

My son is in a congregated gifted program for profoundly, gifted kids. He's both verbally and mathematically, profoundly gifted. In response to an Aug 23rd post (2007,) I wanted to say that precocious math ability is readily "recognized" but not easily dealt with.

By age 5, among many other math skills, he could recognize numbers into the decillions; was fascinated by googolplex; could mentally add / subtract numbers in the millions (probably much higher); "played" with square & cubed roots until it bored him; loved to work out numbers to the 5th, 6th degree and beyond. Even within the congregated gifted class, there is a wall placed at "grade" level - this is a child who has no need/desire to learn double digit adding with more "depth & breadth" (which is the focus of the gifted program). The reality is that a grade 1 or 2 teacher is not equipped or even allowed to teach the kind of math that mathematically precocious primary kids need. Nor are there any programs out there for kids this young, who have an "obsession" with numbers.

It is also true that verbal ability can be alienating, but within a congregated class, the kids have more opportunity to discuss and "release" their idea's among other kids who understand them. With reading, kids can choose books that meet ability. A Mathematically precocious child has no outlet for expression among school systems that are designed to teach kids math at grade level. We don't force a child who can read Harry Potter to sit and read "See Spot Run" so why are mathematically, profoundly gifted kids forced to wait until the proper "grade" to explore new concepts?

Just adding onto what Brenda said, it's not just in math that kids who already know and understand the material are forced to wait--at my school you can test into a higher math class, but you're still stuck in bio 1 even if you learned mendelian genetics 3 years ago.

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