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Why Not “Gifted”?

The decision to name this blog “High Ability” and not “A Gifted Fill-In-The-Blank Blog” was a deliberate one. As a communications professional I have long argued that the terms “Gifted and Talented” mislead teachers, parents and students alike. I do not like the terms because they imply privilege. I do not like to use them because they can and often do cause an unnecessarily hostile response from people who do not understand that high ability is a condition – a trait – a cognitive function – and not an undeserved present bestowed upon middle class children whose parents over-stimulate them with Mozart and Legos.

High ability is a measurable cognitive ability to process information more quickly than the average person. It transcends demographics and gender.  It allows some children and adults to master concepts and skills faster than their age or work peers. Brain synapses fire more rapidly. It is considered to be a gift because students with high ability generally perform well on tests and in school with little effort. But the further away from the median IQ of 100 a high ability student is, the more difficult it is for them to learn in the typical American education environment – whether public or private. And the longer a high ability student remains in an unchallenging learning environment, the less likely he or she will be to develop to their true potential.

I believe that if we remove the emotionally charged language from the discussion – we have a better chance of having our voices be heard and these children will stand a better chance of having their needs met in our schools and universities.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2009 7:13 pm

    I have been struggling with this the past few weeks since my visit to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris where they refer to the gifted individual as ‘high potential’. I have looked up all the ways a gifted individual is referred to on the internet. Here are just a few: exceptional potential, high academic ability, intellectual ability, accelerated learner, high abilities, able learners. I’m sure there are more words out there. We can’t change the perception that an individual has when they hear the word ‘gifted’ until we are able to thoroughly and confidently explain to them how these learners are different. You’ve done a great job here.

    Personal experience is the best teacher. When the normal everyday ‘joe blow’ has to find an academic situation to meet the needs of their truly different thinking child, and they research the topic, then they may begin to grasp this concept.

  2. April 23, 2009 10:41 pm

    Hmm….I don’t think “High Ability” is going to work either. Now I agree, “Gifted and Talented” has some serious communications liabilities, for all the reasons you mention. But “high ability” means that others are “low ability”…and who wants to be that? You’ve got the same PR problem.

    Over the years I’ve been in schools that refer to “highly able learners” and “accelerated learners.” In other venues I’ve heard the term “high cognitive ability,” “advanced learners,” asynchronous learners” … at the end of the day I tend to settle back to the familiar “gifted and talented” simply because–as loathed as it may be by some–it is a familiar and internationally recognized term, and also the term used in our state’s education law.

    More worrisome to me is the attempt in my jurisdiction to deny that these students even exist by expunging the term “gifted and talented” (or any equivalent) from what ostensibly is supposed to be its Gifted and Talented Education policy. The term of art is now “accelerated and enriched instruction” and I have heard a school official say that they are transitioning to a stage where there are GT/accelerated and enriched *classes*, not GT students. It’s the content of the courses, not the qualities of the students. To me this simply denies reality, uncomfortable and distasteful to some though it may be.

    I look forward to reading more on your blog! 🙂

  3. April 25, 2009 12:49 am

    The label ‘gifted’ is problematical for many adults as well. That is one of the reasons I named my site HighAbility – in part based on the names of organizations such as The European Council for High Ability.

  4. May 6, 2009 4:12 am

    Great post! Switched on Mom beat me here and already said what I would have said. And she did it more eloquently.

  5. June 1, 2009 3:45 pm

    Love it. Communicated beautifully, thank you! Love, Goddess

  6. June 24, 2009 11:12 am

    When I was 10, I was starting to get bored at school – I could zone out through most of class, only half pay attention to my homework, and still get straight A’s. I was reading and comprehending 4th, 5th, and 6th grade level chapter books when I was in Kindergarten. My parents took me to… I’m not entirely sure – a woman who helped people find out how they and their children learn, and how best to teach them, I guess. She talked with me, had me do some various projects over the course of three or four sessions, and in one session, gave me a test. She didn’t tell me what kind of test it was, I just assumed it was another test to see how I learned.

    It was an IQ test. My parents got the results back a couple of weeks later, and started telling me how “gifted” I was, that I had tested at “genius” level, and I was very smart, and could do whatever I wanted. Because I was a naturally curious kid, I went digging through my parents’ filing cabinet one day not long after then to find my medical files and find that test result – I tested at 182, and the woman who tested me had written “genius!” next to it. This stuck in my head and made my parents’ words carry even more weight.

    The problem was that I was already miserable at school – I had no friends, mostly because I was so smart, and my school had no “Gifted and Talented” curriculum, except a slightly accelerated reading group for the 4th and 5th graders.

    Instead of move me to a school where I would be challenged, and among kids who wouldn’t tease me and refuse to talk to me because I was smart, they kept me at that school, because it was a “good Christian school” (whole other issue THERE, let me tell you), and I grew more and more miserable. And, because I was sick of being “gifted” and because I was sick of being teased for being “teacher’s pet” and so forth… I stopped trying. I would take my tests, and ace them, but starting in about 6th grade, on through when I graduated, I did as little homework as I could to pass, and ended up graduating with a 2.5-3.0ish GPA when I could’ve gotten a 4.0, or close to, and adamantly refused to go to university because I was so burned out on school.

    If I’d been consistently challenged, and actually had the chance to make friends who I could relate to, especially on an intellectual level, before I turned 20 (I only found some fellow highly intelligent friends a few years ago, and it’s actually recently resparked my interest in furthering my education… when I don’t have the resources to do so), I probably wouldn’t have burned out so hard, and I could be making more than a good living, most likely. As is, I’ve got a basic high school education, stellar SAT scores (either 2240 or 2340 of 2400, I forget which, on the new scale – I was one of the first rounds of testees to take the new SAT), and no university classes at all, and am working minimum wage jobs because without a college degree, I can’t get anything better, even though I know I’m smart enough to do them, and I pick up new things very quickly.

    I know that it was my choice to slack off, but my parents put me under such pressure when I was only 10, and they wouldn’t let me switch to a program that would provide adequate challenge. The one time I got the opportunity was the spring before 8th grade, when they let me test to get into the local “G&T” school, which I should’ve been sent to years earlier, even before they got the test results back. The problem was that by then, the gap between what the kids at the G&T school were learning and what I was learning at my school was so wide that I couldn’t test into the 8th grade program – I would’ve had to take a couple 6th grade level summer school classes and then retake 7th grade. And my parents wouldn’t let me. (ironically, 2 years later, I had to repeat 9th grade, because my avoidance of schoolwork had gotten to the point that I’d failed three of my classes)

    …This is an epic comment, but basically… I agree. I don’t think kids should be pressured to perform above average – they should be adequately challenged for their intelligence. There’s a difference, and it’s one that might have made a difference between me working at Walgreen’s and me being at school to get my Master’s degree, or working a good job with a degree from wherever I wanted to go.

  7. March 2, 2011 3:45 am

    I agree that “gifted” is a bad word, though I do not have a word to replace it.

    “Gifted” implies a “gift” that is separate from the person. Giftedness isn’t something you *have* it is something you *are*. You can’t separate the gift from the gifted person without destroying the person inside.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    October 27, 2011 10:21 pm

    Here’s a fun anecdote: Last Spring, an LAUSD psychologist came to my child’s elementary school (a charter school) to test selected children for ‘giftedness’/high ability. A child who was not selected asked her mother, “Am I not gifted?” What, prey tell, is a mother supposed to say to THAT child? No, honey, you’re not? Ha!

  9. November 14, 2011 8:49 pm

    I agree: that the terms “Gifted and Talented” mislead teachers, parents and students alike. I do not like the terms because they imply privilege.

  10. December 15, 2011 2:03 pm

    I like “Idiosyncratic Learner”, myself. Just found your blog and looking forward to more.

  11. Lion Lover permalink
    October 31, 2012 3:19 pm

    A number of years ago a highly respected “guru” in the field of gifted education gave the keynote address at the Ohio Association for Gifted Children. She referred to our students by the acronym, DILFAPs…Different In Learning From Age Peers. This could apply to either end of the ability/achievement spectrum.

  12. Nell Petry permalink
    October 30, 2013 8:29 pm

    If we truly embraced the role of educators we would remember the latin root for education is educare – to lead out. I havealways thought of it as leading out of where any student is to where they show the potential to be. alas that is not the system we have. Until all students are recognized for their potential and educated (led to a higher level of learning) in a meaningful challenging way we will have trouble with whatever descriptor that is used. Think of the child at the center of their own learning and then work out from there with content, processes, products, opportunities, and challenges with the entire educational community owning all the children and committed to the growth of all the children. Think of children moving from learning group to learning group, think of teaching all children how to think well, how to question well and develop habits of mind. As a gifted teacher and currently a coordinator who came back from retirement to work in a district that is looking at these very ideas I am energized. I try not to use the “G” word as it tends to describe something that is a completed state (much like deceased, divorced, deprived, distinguished, etc.), not an indicator of what kinds of learning environments, content, etc that should be offered. This word with which we struggle limits our communication and hinders intentions. Regretably I do not have a word to offer to take its place and this after 40+ years of working with students who are so labeled. 😦


  1. Teach a Gifted Kid » Labeling the Gifted Learner - A Slippery Situation

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