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Gifted Education: A Dilemma
May 1, 2012

The education of gifted individuals has long been ignored, for several reasons. Some have argued that gifted individuals are already faring well even without receiving specialized services. While others have objected to the idea of differentiated education, citing egalitarian concerns. Interestingly, the underlying motive of the first ever intelligence test, Binet-Simon, was to classify students according to their levels of intelligence. In this way, the students could be tracked in different classes in order to receive education at their own level and pace. The prevalence of such tests, which are still in use for the identification of gifted students, owes this popularity, in part to students with abilities below average in France in the 1900's. The success of the Binet-Simon test and its usefulness has encouraged many in the educational field to improve this testing technique, and expand on the variety of testing available. In spite of these endeavors, there was still no good reason to educate gifted individuals in the United States until the Cold War. The disappointment of Americans with the Russian's Sputnik triumph triggered the education of gifted and creative students in the United States. As a matter of fact, numerous examples have indicated that educational policies are directly influenced by countries' political projections for the future and their political changeovers. Education of gifted and creative children was no different, as it was seen as a way out, to sustain the political competition and national pride. In parallel with that, more resources and investments have been devoted to the education of the gifted to improve the nation's welfare and successful competition while the gifted individuals as human beings have been ignored. Some problems in the education of gifted individuals seem to be related to this historical background. A particular problem is related to the moral development of the gifted individuals. The question is to what extent gifted programs can foster humility in gifted minds. To understand this problem, one should be familiar with the basics of gifted education.

Gifted education involves several procedures such as testing, identification and tracking students to challenge their potential to the fullest. Initially, students take several tests including tests of intelligence, creativity, and motivation and must perform well enough to get into a gifted program. Following this testing, they have a label that they and others know quite well, gifted. Frequently, this means grouping them separately from their non-gifted peers. Accordingly, they follow a different curriculum, and attend different programs that are not available to others. Also, some practices that often occur when teaching or interacting with gifted students, such as a teacher's or parent's praise, convey direct and hidden messages. These messages, in essence, consistently remind them of how superior they are. Ultimately, they are taught to enjoy their superiority with a minimal or no clue about being virtuous. Most educators pay a great attention to increase their self-esteem while they were indifferent for the possibility of arrogance and conceit. Nevertheless, the "privilege" of being in the top 5 or smaller percent dramatically shapes the identity of the gifted individual from early ages. With the self–esteem enhancement movements in 80's, the importance of humility as a significant virtue has been ignored among educators. They mostly perceived lack of self-esteem as a big problem whereas lack of humility was rather acceptable. However, potential of the gifted individuals, like any other person, deserves a more gracious treatment that regards them as human beings rather than better human resources for the nation and economy.

Corollary to the deficits in educators' approaches to the gifted individuals, their emotional and moral development have been omitted. When one searches the studies on the development of positive moral characteristics of the gifted, such as, humility, there is almost no study on those issues. Humility in itself is a crucial virtue for several reasons. First, humility allows gifted individuals to recognize that they cannot control everything in every situation. Their superior abilities compared to their peers become a huge burden because others and their own expectations about themselves are mostly quite high. Failures and unexpected academic performance are less tolerable for the gifted. Crucially, humble gifted individuals can successfully handle challenging situations because their moral development valuing humility functions as a buffer zone and make them more resilient against challenges of life. People can have a more realistic view of themselves as long as they are well aware of their real inadequacies.

Vera and Rodriguez-Lopez (2004) pointed to the positive role of humility on competition in the organizations. They argued that fear of failure impedes people from taking initiative and humility helps people to reduce their fear of failure with the premise that people with no experience of failure are unlikely to try again. Secondly, humility helps gifted individuals to have a better and more realistic understanding about one's self. Humble gifted people can realize their own weaknesses. This is also important for the gifted because very few people criticize them while many others praise their ability. In such a social climate, a true understanding of oneself is not an easy task. Thirdly, humble people can empathize with others easily. Gifted individuals mostly have concerns for others and have a keen moral sensitivity. However, feeling of superiority can hurt their healthy relationships with others; thus, other people become less likely to enjoy being together with them. Humble people have an increased valuation of others without a decrease in their valuation of themselves (Means & Wilson, 1990), and, thus, the need for humility is even more important for the gifted individuals.

Humility represents a major dilemma of gifted education: Although several procedures, facilities and resources are developed and implemented for the gifted, they inherently trigger a grandiosity effect. As a result of that, usual practices in the gifted education seem to nurture a less realistic view of self which is not less dangerous than the lack of self-esteem. Unfortunately, educators tend to ignore the presence of the dilemma and insist on particular practices without pondering upon the potential damages. What kinds of precautions can be taken to raise humble gifted individuals? What other messages should be given to them? Among many possible methods to overcome this problem, the following recommendations can be taken into consideration in educational and psychological practices.

1. Giftedness as a responsibility

Conceptualization of the giftedness needs fine-tuning. Traditional perspectives that seek the differences between gifted and non-gifted individuals have created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Gifted individuals have been marginalized and alienated. So-called unrealistic perception of giftedness has led to a perception of "superiority" over others. Remarkably, giftedness, as a concept, implies being the one who was awarded with some qualities which other people do not have. The concept also implies the passivity of the gifted because he was given, not necessarily because he deserves it. Corollary to this, gifted individuals should be taught about the responsibilities along with the gifts. Unlike the current practices, educators should emphasize the individual and social responsibilities corresponding to giftedness.

Individual responsibilities of the gifted individuals are related to the importance of realizing their personal strengths and skills and investing for their potential appropriately. In educational context, many gifted students tend to take the classes easy and pay attention to other "more interesting" things. They tend to make no effort beyond what the classes require, and their potential is not challenged. Individual responsibility defined as fulfillment of one's own potential should replace externally defined responsibilities which are neither challenging nor motivating for the gifted.

Social responsibilities are critical for the gifted individuals because their potential can lead to both positive and negative changes at the societal level. Many scientific innovations facilitating our lives today are the gifted minds' contributions to human beings. On the other hand, they could have devoted their potential to harmful innovations, too. The gifted individuals, therefore, are those who can build the civilizations with all advanced systems of technology, transportation and communication, and destroy them with mass destruction weapons, such as atom bombs. Employing the strengths and capacities to the benefit of human beings should be set as a basic goal for the gifted individuals.

2. Importance of effort over ability

Overemphasis on abilities and consideration of abilities as fixed traits tend to block gifted individuals. If people think that they possess a superior capacity and this is more or less stable, they may have difficulty in making for their goals. They often compromise their high ability with less effort that may result in underachievement and dropouts. The importance of effort and struggle over ability and performance should be integrated to the educational system.

Valuation of effort can be achieved through differentiating the curriculum for the gifted students. For example, the research indicate that easy learning materials and having a better standing in the class with respect to school achievement lead to ability attributions while mental effort and task commitment induce effort attributions (Dweck, 2006, Nicholls, 1978; Schunk, 1994). That means students tend to attribute the achievements to their abilities in easy tasks while they tend to attribute their performance in hard tasks to their hard work. Preparing the curriculum at an appropriate level of difficulty, by which students can be challenged but still can comprehend the content with some effort, should be a major task for the educators. In this way, the frame of reference for the gifted becomes the degree to which they struggle toward their goals rather than the gifts, capacities and strengths they possess.

3. Learning goals instead of performance goals

Goal setting is a crucial aspect of the education of the gifted people. Goal setting is influenced by the way educators assess student performances. There has been a tendency to evaluate school performance through objective, psychometric measures. Even though those measures are more reliable, the information gained from those measures are restricted, comparing the gifted with their counterparts instead of indicating the level at which the gifted fulfill their potential. Learning goals which can be set through individual projects should be the focus of evaluation rather than performance goals which tend to reduce the evaluation to the numbers. Learning goals also seem to be safer for the gifted since it focuses on the discovery of strategies that lead to desired outcomes whereas performance goals tend to have deleterious effects as people are preoccupied with the end result. Therefore, a third task for the educators is to preserve the gifted students from the detrimental effects of mechanical measurement of the performance. In this way, students have criterion set at their own pace for their success rather than external criteria set by others.

The above suggestions, which can be the basic steps of the fundamental changes in the system, can be further enumerated. The dilemma with the gifted education mentioned above is institutionally induced; therefore, the solutions should be addressed at the institutional level. By virtue of those changes in the educational settings, the programs for gifted education can become more individual-based and less mechanical, ultimately caring more about the critical human virtues such as humility. The political developments helped the gifted education programs to blossom, but it brought some side-effects. Educators must see those gaps and generate solutions that care about the gifted individuals.


  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
  • Nicholls, J. G. (1978). The development of the concepts of effort and ability, perception of academic attainment, and the understanding that difficult tasks require more ability. Child Development, 49, 800-814.
  • Schunk, D. H. (1994). Self-regulation of self-efficacy and attribution in academic settings. In D. H. Schunk & B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Self-regulation of learning and performance: Issues and educational applications (pp. 75-99). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Vera, D. & Rodriguez-Lopez, A. 2004. Strategic virtues: Humility as a source of competitive advantage. Organizational Dynamics, 33, 4: 393-408.