Labeling the Gifted Learner – A Slippery Situation

Is using the word ‘gifted’ the right word for labeling those few individuals that rise to the top? I have been struggling with this question the past few weeks since my visit to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris where they refer to the gifted individual as ‘high potential’ individuals and while doing my own research on homeschooling the gifted. I have also had several discussions with all types of educators and non-educators who have already have an idea of what the term ‘gifted’ means the second you say it.

If you take the time to look up all the different terms to describe the gifted individual you will turn up a whole range of terms: exceptional or high potential, high academic ability, intellectual ability, accelerated learner, high abilities, able learners. I recently read through the different country reports in the WorldGifted newsletter (World Council for Gifted and Talented Children) and found that different countries have different ways of referring to their extra-special students, too. The question has existed for years because I remember active discussions in my graduate classes about labeling a children.

We can’t change the perception that one has when they hear the word ‘gifted’ until we are able to thoroughly and confidently explain how these learners are different. Why Not Gifted has explained their position on the matter (which was the inspiration for this entry). I know that Ohio gifted educators are now struggling with their state government are working out how to describe these students and their needs for funding purposes. Labeling a child is quite a slippery but a necessary thing to do so I offer the following metaphor to help the uninformed relate.

Take a moment to watch the following video from Mythbusters: Mythbusters. Here’s how my metaphor works: You know there are banana peels (different perceptions and emotional responses of what gifted means), you know there should be the objective to educate the students to their full potential (Adam navigating his way through the peels). Gifted educators, some parents and others know the cold hard facts (the floor) that these students have different academic, creative and social/emotional needs which, if not addressed, can negatively impact the child’s perception and confidence in themselves in their future. We’ve slipped several times during the history of defining and educating our cream of the crop but let’s hope that we have increased our understanding along the way.

We, as a responsible, thoughtful and cautious society, might have to hold hands to get across those bananas (come together), we might have to come up with a hover board to get across those bananas (create something new), we might compromise (continue our current path), go around the bananas (ignore the gifted learner all together) or wait for the bananas to decompose (the child grows up and out of the educational world). Whatever we choose, let’s apply the sound scientific principles, logical testing procedures and solid record keeping, just like Jamie and Adam, before we answer this question. We are sure to blow up a few myths along the way. In any case, let’s not forget to have fun!


  1. Russ Goerend said:

    I’m not sure why it matters what we call “them.” As long as these learners have needs that need to be met, we should be focused on meeting those needs.

    I understand that it would be nice if they all had the same label, but the fact remains that the label means something. It means we have work to do!

    I addressed this question similarly in this post:

    April 24, 2009
  2. My day job is as a public relations specialist and I have always been alert to people’s response to the term “gifted” – usually it is negative – I think because it connotes an unearned privilege. Every time someone tries to secure funding for gifted students eyes roll and the laborious task of educating yet another group of people to the necessity of meeting these kid’s needs begins anew. How much further we could go it we didn’t have to expend such effort simply justifying our existence!

    What made me think of changing the label? Our high schools changed their lowest track label to “college prep”. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

    Also, gifted and talented is not very descriptive of high ability. One can be a gifted athlete or artist. One can be a talented performer or chef. (Strangely none of those designations bear a negative connotation).

    April 24, 2009
  3. Nora said:

    I am an Ohio Gifted Intervention Specialist. We are so very frustrated with funding in our district. Next year we will receive $13 per student based on average daily attendance. None of those dollars can be used to purchase testing materials, even though testing is mandated and service is not. I worry about the future of ours and neighboring district’s programs.

    We are in the process of changing our service model – for the better. The new model will give “twice exceptional” students, those identified in both special ed and gifted ed, the opportunity to be served in both areas. We only use two other labels for gifted students – academic specific and superior cognitive.

    Jeanne – One of my buildings has an entire display case full of athletic trophies. My kids have earned over 20 academic awards/trophies in the last 5 years – all of which sit on top of a locker in my classroom. Why? Because the district doesn’t want to cause any hard feelings with other students about my kid’s accomplishments. Oh, and it might cause a fire exit hazard…

    April 27, 2009

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