Kevin Washburn (@kdwashburn on Twitter) brings us the fifth post in our series on gifted education. Kevin is Executive Director of Clerestory Learning and author of The Architecture of Learning. He is also a member of the International Mind, Brain & Education Society, the Learning & the Brain Society, and is a contributor to The Edurati Review.


First the necessary disclosures. I am not a gifted ed. teacher. In fact, my only direct experience with gifted education occurred in elementary school. As a fifth grader, I was admitted to my school’s gifted program and got to attend one session. My conservative mother, however, believed that anything that took a child out of the regular classroom must be part of the “hippie agenda.” I was removed from the program at her request.

Since then I’ve observed gifted education and its students, but always as someone at least one step removed from the process. I’ve been consulted on student selection for such programs, served as an educational leader in schools that had such programs, and watched as various nephews and nieces had the experience I missed. So, I only offer the following thoughts as an observer. There is no research base for my thoughts; they are merely a combination of what I’ve seen and what I know.

Have you ever looked beneath the bridge that carries you across the canyons in your commute? Sure, the elevated roadway is what you rely on to get from Point A to Point B, but under that roadway is a carefully constructed cacophony of support. Girders and struts make the main thing, the roadway across, possible.

Learning is like that; it has its own cacophony of supporting pillars. Of these, one that can be easily overlooked with gifted students is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to consciously suppress or delay responses in order to work for a higher goal. (You’ve probably heard of the famous “marshmallow test.” Here are some of its subjects in action during a recent replication of the original study.)

If there is anything often (but, importantly, not always!) lacking in the gifted students I’ve observed, it’s a lack of self-regulation, specifically the ability to persevere when encountering challenge. For example, several years ago I led the development of an instructional reading program. The program emphasized thinking as the means to comprehension and trained students in various skills related to cognition. As schools implemented this program, I began receiving interesting phone calls and emails. “We love the new program and our usually struggling students are excelling,” the messages began. “But we’re concerned about our gifted students. They seem disoriented by the program’s emphasis on deep thought rather than the typically easy answers. In fact, many of them are earning grades lower than an A for the first time in their lives.”

As the year progressed, these schools saw these students rise to the challenge, but not until the students recognized that greater thinking, and therefore effort, was expected. The students were not singled out; they were failing to meet the expectations of the regular classroom because the challenge increased, and many were not accustomed to having to work to learn.

No one is born knowing everything, though sometimes it can seem that way with gifted students. Learning always requires effort. What often distinguishes gifted students is the ease with which they appear to learn in the typical school structure. If they are not challenged at a level that requires effort, they can develop misconceptions about intelligence, and they can fail to develop critical self-regulation capacities.

Self-regulation is much like a muscle. It can be developed and strengthened. By engaging students in activities that require delayed gratification or perseverance, we provide a self-regulation workout. Just like exercising yields slow but steady results, gradually increasing the amount of self-regulation required for tasks slowly builds capacity. It is just such experiences that gifted students often lack due to their remarkable abilities.

I was recently talking to a student who is currently participating in his school’s gifted program. We were discussing how easy school was for him, and I asked him if he thought there were any drawbacks to almost effortless learning. “Yes,” he remarked. “I’m pretty good at running 50-yard dashes, but I don’t have the perseverance to run something like cross country.” From the mouths of perceptive gifted students…

All students need to develop supporting capacities, such as self-regulation. Without it, even gifted students will never reach their potential—a real loss because the solutions to many problems lie beyond the 50-yard finish line.