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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Gifted and Talented: We Need a Flexible Mindset

By Joshua Raymond — April 03, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Joshua Raymond, parent of three gifted girls, founder of a local gifted advocacy group, board member for the Michigan Association for Gifted Children, and team leader working with Avondale Schools in Michigan to explore starting a gifted magnet school.

I’m 5'6". On a good day. My friend Sam is 6'5". Growing up, we played basketball together in gym class. Sam was great at basketball; I was not. I’m sure his height and athletic frame had something to do with it. His interest and hours of practice did, too.

I probably could have been a good basketball player if I had put forth the effort. But, with less labor, Sam was excellent. He had some natural advantages and abilities that I didn’t when it came to athletics.

I couldn’t compete with Sam on the court, but the classroom was different. Sam and I usually received similar grades, scoring at the top of the class. I had the edge in natural ability, but Sam worked hard. On the way to school, I would quiz him on his French vocabulary. My Spanish went unstudied. In a physics competition, we tied for the top score. The teacher only had one medal to present; she awarded it to Sam, because he “earned” it. And he had, through his effort.

When I first heard about the growth mindset, I was thrilled. An emphasis on effort, resilience, grit, and recovering from failure? Sounds like what I didn’t get in school but definitely wanted for my daughters.

I had done well in school, particularly in math. I skipped two grades in that subject. I was once second in the state in a math competition. Breezed through high school. Stumbled a bit in AP Calculus because I didn’t study at all. But then I “cracked down” midway and learned it in two weeks, acing both the class and the AP exam. Other subjects were similar. Almost no studying and projects started and completed shortly before they were due. Easy A’s. Thirteen years of cruising, even at great schools.

And then came college. I had no study skills. No grit. Recovering from failure? Failure wasn’t in my vocabulary. My intelligence had never let me down before, but now more was required and I didn’t know how to give it. I was ill prepared. College was rough, to put it mildly. When I graduated, thoughts of pursuing a master’s degree, like my friend Sam was already doing, were not on my mind at all.

But the growth mindset! Effort! Grit! Resilience! That was what I needed! That was what my kids needed!

I soured on it the more I read about it. Don’t tell your kids they are gifted? My dad had tried that and I hadn’t understood why I easily grasped what other students struggled with. Praise effort? An English teacher had tried that, and I dared not let him know that my perfect grades involved no effort at all; I had fooled him. And then I read this quote by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster:

One of the most damaging myths has been that some people are born with more intellectual ability than others, and that they retain this competitive advantage throughout their lives. This belief that some people are inherently smart, and some aren't, reflects a fixed mindset perspective. From a growth mindset perspective, however, intelligence develops over time, with appropriately scaffolded opportunities to learn. Ability is not a static attribute of a person. Instead, it develops actively, with motivation and effort. Looked at this way, basic principles of giftedness and talent development apply to all children, not just a select few.

Wow! They didn’t understand me at all! Motivation and effort? That wasn’t how I succeeded in school. And, from many conversations, I knew that to also be true of other gifted learners.

The fixed mindset purportedly recognizes differences in ability but fails to help gifted students develop the work ethic and resiliency they need. The growth mindset purportedly encourages effort but doesn’t recognize differences in ability. Clearly, both have good points and both are flawed. Something else is needed, particularly for students on each end of the ability curve.

What is needed is the flexible mindset, incorporating both differences in ability and growth through effort. The flexible mindset recognizes that students should know what their gifts and disabilities are and learn skills to expand their intellectual capacity. The flexible mindset recognizes that some students will not become proficient even with great effort and will become frustrated with school if required to put in extra effort but still only obtain a C.

The flexible mindset recognizes:

  • That some students experience a year’s growth with minimal effort and that only an educator who challenges them to two to five years of growth will encourage them to stretch their mind muscles.
  • That there are some students with greater potential but that potential is only a starting point for all students, and all students need to develop grit and resiliency to be successful.
  • How applied effort is changed by a learner’s disabilities and unique talents--and that a student can have both.
  • That student success is a mixture of ability, interest, and effort.

The fixed mindset fails by being centered around a student’s abilities but not encouraging effort or growth. The growth mindset fails by encouraging effort but constraining that effort to a proficiency-based system that moves students along by age and at the same pace. We need the best of both mindsets! The flexible mindset encourages a new system, one centered around the students’ abilities and challenging them to exert effort, overcome obstacles, and recover from failure. It is the mindset to move education forward.

A special thanks to Ann Grahl of KEE Publications for editing.

Joshua blogs at RochesterSAGE.org.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of John Hain.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.