Gifted and Talented Programs Dumb Down Our Students

6 minute read
Matthew Mugo Fields is the Founder of, whose online courses and tutoring services were developed by Stanford University to help more K-12 students become advanced learners. A Harvard-trained educator and entrepreneur, Matthew is committed to improving education through technology and innovation.

In America, we place great value on natural talent. We idolize the sheer genius of Albert Einstein and the creative brilliance of Steve Jobs—framing their success within the idea that geniuses like these are born, not created.

We have a surprisingly antiquated and misguided idea of how real talent comes to be, and this mistaken belief is holding our country back. There is no place where this myth is more destructive than in education.

Since the inception of “Gifted and Talented” programs, we have operated based on the idea that children are either born with rare and exceptional intellectual capacity, or they are not. In other words, being gifted is exactly that—a gift, having little or nothing to do with a child’s effort and everything to do with his or her natural ability.

This pushes parents of bright young children to become hyper focused on proving their child’s giftedness at a young age. And for good reason: the gifted label is a golden ticket in our education system. Once a child has earned it, typically by claiming a spot in the top 10 percent in a given skill or subject area, most often based on standardized test scores, the doors to gifted and talented education programs and resources swing open. These programs offer the accelerated curricula and greater learning resources that propel a small subset of students into top colleges and elite careers.

All of this sounds fine until you consider who we’re leaving out and what’s at stake. We need more innovators, problem solvers, and highly skilled people to tackle the monumental challenges of the 21st century. Unfortunately, in the current education system, exceptional ability is too often an entry point, not a destination. The onus is on parents to prove that their child has extraordinary talent before they can access the most effective learning resources. But a large and growing body of research shows that this may be limiting the quality and quantity of the next generation of thinkers.

More than three decades of research from Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and others support the idea that when students believe they can develop their potential—rather than believing it’s limited by natural intelligence or ability—they begin to approach difficult problems differently. Instead of seeing impossible and frustrating tasks, they see challenges that need to be sweated over and solved. Research shows that these moments of struggle with difficult tasks are critical to higher learning. These struggles build stronger, deeper neural connections and help children become more determined, resilient, and confident when facing challenges.

In this way, intelligence is not fixed. Intellectual capacity expands or contracts based on how we use our brains. The most advanced learners understand this, and they seek out challenges that help them expand their intellectual capacity. On the flip side, misguided belief in fixed intelligence can lead to a variety of negative learning patterns. For example, children labeled “gifted” early on often reach the conclusion that needing to work hard is a sign of low intelligence. They shy away from challenges, fearing that failure or struggle will expose intellectual weakness.

So why, then, is our entire system for gifted and talented education predicated on the notion that intelligence is a fixed trait that can be measured at a young age? Our fixation on giftedness as a threshold for access to superior education is harming our most promising children—both those identified as the smartest of the smart, and those who may have been overlooked.

In my own life, I was very nearly a victim of this broken system. When I moved in fifth grade from Barbados to a working-class neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my school didn’t know what to make of me. I was young, black, and new to this country, so they stuck me in vocational track classes assuming I had neither the interest in nor the potential for college. It took a major intervention from two extraordinary educators to guide me off this predestined path, on to a top college, and eventually to Harvard for graduate school. These women tutored me, mentored me, and taught me that the only limit to my potential was how far I was willing to push myself.

I tell this story to illustrate an important point: we need to change the way we think about developing our smartest kids. Yes, each child is born with his or her own propensity for learning within the traditional classroom. But we need to think about “gifted and talented” as the goal, not the starting point. Unlike Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, I was not initially identified as naturally gifted, but I was able to develop my natural intellect into high levels of academic and real-world success. What all three of us have in common is that our natural abilities were honed and developed into success through hard work, mentorship, and access to the right tools and resources.

For me, access to the right tools and support required two observant teachers to break the mold of educational mislabeling. It’s not realistic to expect this level of intervention for every overlooked student. But the good news is that we finally have the technology to make it possible for every student to get the personal attention they need.

We are no longer solely dependent on the herculean efforts of teachers to make a difference. It’s no longer necessary to make rough approximations of natural potential. Technology can give every student a chance to develop great talent. Both inside and outside the classroom, powerful tools exist that can provide every student with the advanced, personalized instruction that we know characterizes a robust education and a path to success. For example, we now offer courses that mimic the personalized instruction of the best teachers and tutors – technology can adapt to how each student learns best, delivering personalized lessons tailored to each student’s own learning style and pace. What was once reserved for the “gifted and talented” is something that everyone can and should have access to today.

What I propose to educators, parents, and policymakers is this: Let’s rethink gifted and talented altogether and make it possible for more kids to get into the club. Let’s do away with the notion that being gifted should be the price of admission to our country’s most effective and advanced education programs. It’s holding too many of our most promising children back. Instead, let’s use technology and innovation in the classroom and at home to provide all students with the personalized, rigorous, and engaging education that we know creates world-class talent. In this way, not only will we raise the bar in education, we will get more students over it.

It’s time that we stop telling our kids what they can’t do, and start giving them the tools to see what they can do.

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