Education Opinion

It’s a Learning Difference

By Tamara Fisher — August 22, 2007 7 min read
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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.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted 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.