Christopher Taibbi M.A.T.


"bright child" vs. "gifted learner": what's the difference, a bright child knows the answer; the gifted learner asks the questions..

Posted January 29, 2012 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

A teacher stands before me in the hallway of the school. It's early in the morning, a good 20 minutes before students will come into the rooms, and already she is clearly stressed . She's been telling me, quite animatedly, about a problem she's encountered and she continues now.

"So last night I got that email from the mom and I'm not sure how I should respond. Do you think this is something you can handle for me or at least with me? I mean, it is kind of your area of responsibility, isn't it?" She looks at me with an expression that is a mix of hope—hopeful that I'll agree with her—and mild anger , angry that she's been caught in the middle.

I can't blame her really. A little more than a month ago, she recommended a child in her class for gifted screening. She saw in this child some traits that set him apart from the rest of the class in ways that she felt strongly mimicked those of a gifted learner. Appropriately, she documented what she noticed, contacted me (her school's gifted specialist), and notified the parents that she felt young Alex should be tested for inclusion in the gifted program.

Naturally, the parents were pleasantly surprised and, as soon as I had obtained from them permission to test, we began the screening process. Alex was tested, parent and teacher behavioral checklists were scored, grades and work products were evaluated. Then, a few weeks later, a screening committee met and discussed those who'd been thus reviewed all around the county.

In the end, Alex was not identified. And this is the reason the young teacher before me now feels caught in the middle. She requested putting Alex through the screening process; she told his parents that she felt their child was special in some way; she got the parents intrigued by the idea of their child being "gifted." And now that it hasn't worked out, the parents have questions:

What is the benefit of having gone through all these steps? What, still, can you do to help further challenge him in your classroom? Should we appeal this decision? What made you think Alex was gifted in the first place?

These are the questions that the teacher is asking me to help answer, and I reassure her that I will be glad to join her in a parent conference. There, face to face, I‘ll be able to better explain the screening process and show Alex's mother the results of the information we gathered. This is key, I know, to helping the parent feel less confused.

But the conference will also offer me the chance to do something else equally important. With the parent and the teacher there, I can explain to both how a certain subtle distinction in a student— and a lack of understanding about that distinction —has led to the very stress that both of them, parent and teacher alike, currently feel. A little education is in order.

The topic? Knowing the difference between a child who is bright and one who is truly a gifted learner . ***

First, let's be clear about one thing: there is nothing wrong with being "just" a bright child! Often, in situations such as the one above, parents feel that the distinction is, in some ways, a slight. But some might even argue that having a bright child, rather than one who is gifted, is a wonderful thing because the characteristics often associated with giftedness can be particularly challenging. Often, bright children are the ones who succeed better in a typical school setting. They are the teacher pleasers. They work, perhaps, harder than their gifted counterparts and receive praise for those efforts. They make few waves, get As, and complete their assignments. Parents and teachers alike are happy to have these kinds of students.

Still, though these qualities may be apparent, though the child may seem to sail through what the teacher may offer in the typical classroom, these qualities often are mistaken as signs of giftedness. This distinction is worth discussion. Here, then (and with thanks to Janice Szabos's rather excellent development of this concept) are a few ways to fine tune the differences. Consider the following:

A bright child knows the answer; the gifted learner asks the questions. The bright, above-average student, as previously mentioned, is likely to get As. She memorizes well, comprehends at a high level, absorbs information, and completes her work. A gifted learner, on the other hand, comprehends the nuances of the subject's material in a more complex, in-depth manner. Where the bright child accepts and readily retains information about the topic, the gifted learner manipulates that information in order to draw unique inferences. Sally knows, for example, that animals adapt to their environment. Paul wonders if this is still happening to humans at the same rate as life-saving, live-extending technology becomes more ubiquitous. Paul may initiate projects on his own to explore these ideas while Sally, the bright child, completes the teacher's required assignments in an efficient manner. Certainly, the bright child performs at the top of the group. The gifted learner is beyond the group.

Octopus hiding behind a sea shell,

A bright child works hard to achieve; the gifted learner knows without working hard. For the bright child, the average classroom teacher offers precisely what this student craves: clear expectations, a path to an A, and an environment where this sort of success is rewarded. However, where she may very well earn those As, the gifted learner is far less likely to be motivated at all by grades; where she needs 6-8 repetitions for mastery, he needs only 1-2. She copies the teacher's model response to a question or task accurately, while he is original and continually developing. She learns with ease and generates good ideas, yes, because she is very able —but it is the gifted learner who would, in fact, be the truer intellectual .

A bright child enjoys school; the gifted learner enjoys self directed learning. The bright child is interested and attentive at school; she listens to the material and is receptive; she enjoys her peers. The gifted learner, conversely, is more than merely interested in the way that seasons change: he is highly curious about it. She shows her attentiveness by staying in her seat and keeping her eyes on the teacher. But he is genuinely mentally—and sometimes physically —involved in the topic. He may have a hard time listening to the discussion of the Earth's movement around the sun without actually moving his hands and arms in an elliptical fashion. When the lesson in over, she finds her friends; he prefers the teacher or some other adult in the room. Or perhaps he prefers working alone. She is receptive at school; he can be downright intense at school. She may enjoy the curriculum and its pace; he may tolerate it.

A bright child has a fine imagination ; the gifted learner uses that imagination to experiment with ideas and hunches. Her ideas are clever, but his are original. She can see an alternate route to a solution; he can easily "track" two or more approaches to a similar solution simultaneously. Because she is clever, she can find relationships between loosely connected ideas; but he, perhaps, values the very noncomformity of concepts—and looks for ways to draw even further distinctions between them. She "gets the joke." He uses original and inventive thinking to create humor because he has a more sophisticated understanding of the central reason about why the joke works. *** Teasing out these distinctions for others to see is not easy. What's required, of course, is defining giftedness as something that is beyond just being a high achiever. Often gifted students are high achievers but, perhaps just as often, they are not. This is why being able to draw the fine line is so important.

What will help when we sit down in our conference—the teacher, the parents, and me—is that I will be able to use test data and reflections from the teacher to flesh out what sort of student Alex is. Talking them through these unique characteristics—and coupling those reference points with real-life classroom anecdotes that the teacher might offer—is typically enough to help them see that, in this case, Alex is a very capable, very astute, very bright child.

And even though he wasn't identified as a "gifted" learner in our schools, they'll know that being "bright" is a truly wonderful thing, too.

Reference: Janice Szabos as quoted in Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom by Diane Heacox, Free Spirit Publishing, 2001.

Christopher Taibbi M.A.T.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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  1. "Bright Child" vs. "Gifted Learner": What's the Difference?

    A bright child has a fine imagination; the gifted learner uses that imagination to experiment with ideas and hunches. Her ideas are clever, but his are original. She can see an alternate route to ...