Cash in on Learning: 10 Lessons All Teachers Can Learn from Gifted Education

by Richard Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

In keeping with the theme of my last two blog posts, I now want to emphasize what all teachers can learn from the field of gifted education. At some point in every teacher’s career, she or he will be interacting with a gifted child in some way. From special education (twice-exceptional students) to general education, gifted kids are everywhere.

All teacher training programs should include the significant implications and best practices that have been researched and authenticated for over 60 years in gifted education.

Here are the 10 lessons every teacher can learn from gifted education:

1. Talent development matters.

Just think what every child could accomplish if we focused on what they are good at rather than what they struggle with. In the 1970s, Dr. Joe Renzulli led the way with talent development stating that all students have talents worth developing. This idea opened the doors to more students being served by gifted education departments. His “revolving door” idea exposed students to topics of interest, gave them choices on topics of study, and encouraged them to create real products that were valuable to others. The Renzulli method exposed more teachers to effective learning strategies and opened channels into career possibilities for hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. One of the major reasons students underperform in school is due to a lack of appropriate learning skills. By developing students’ talents we can motivate and engage them to learn how to learn.

2. Differentiate based on students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles.

The art and science of differentiated instruction arose in special education during the 1920s and 1930s as a method to engage learners who were beyond the scope of the regular curriculum. In the 1990s, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leader in the field of gifted education, broadened the scope of differentiation into general education by including the areas of interest, readiness, and learning profiles as avenues to differentiate. Using students’ interests to make connections to the content, finding out where students are in the learning process (readiness), and investigating how they like to learn (learning profiles) are all methods that can create relevance and meaning in learning.

3. Expose all students to enrichment.

One of the main reasons students from poverty or disenfranchised backgrounds struggle in school is the lack of early learning experiences. Students who come prepared for school have had exposure to enriching experiences such as trips to museums, theater, music, and literature. Another leading researcher in the field of gifted education, Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman, created an outstanding program called U-STARS to enrich young students in poverty through math and science in order to prepare them to be successful throughout their schooling career. When we enrich students, we create more neural connections in their brains to connect and coordinate new learning.

4. Teach all students to use higher levels of thinking.

As gifted expert Dr. Sandra Kaplan points out, “All students have the right to think at higher levels.” Higher-level thinking is an essential tool for the 21st century, and many of our students are not going to be prepared for the complexities of thinking required in careers and professions of the future. Teachers should be directly teaching the tools of higher levels within Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as analysis, evaluation, and creative synthesis. Rote recall of information can be laborious. Meanwhile, when students are thinking at higher levels, learning is actually fun. All students can be creative when given the right opportunities and provided with content that is interesting and valuable.

5. Develop all students’ ability to critically reason.

Equally as important as higher-level thinking is critical reasoning. The field of gifted education has a long history in developing the tools of critical reasoning. Critical reasoning is the ability to use data and filter out personal or emotional beliefs to come to a solution or conclusion. Gifted education practitioners (especially at the secondary level) advocated for the use of the Socratic Method in developing advanced levels of thinking and critical reasoning. Again, this capability, an essential for the 21st century, should not be encouraged in just the most advanced learners, but should be developed in all of our learners.

6. Use creative problem finding and problem solving methods in the general classroom.

© Zurijeta | Dreamstime.comAnother remarkable expert in the field of gifted education, Dr. Donald Treffinger, led the way in developing the problem finding and problem solving skills in gifted students. Treffinger’s Creative Problem Solving framework involves making decisions in a fluid and dynamic way. The framework includes finding problems, collecting data to clarify the problem, formulating a problem statement, generating ideas, working toward a solution, and implementing the solution. This framework teaches students not only how to solve problems, but how to persist and use their creativity until they find a solution and implement a plan. All students can benefit from this process.

7. Incorporate authentic production into learning.

Professors of gifted education Marcia Gentry, Joe Renzulli, and Sally Reis created a model for school programming called “enrichment clusters.” A significant component of this model is the creation of an authentic product to solve an authentic problem. Similar to Treffinger’s Creative Problem Solving framework, enrichment clusters require students to find real problems that are meaningful and relevant to them, come up with solutions, and implement the solutions. Students take the lead in this process by learning about the topic, creating plans, and following through with the plans. Enrichment clusters are excellent ways to help students develop self-regulation, motivation, and engagement in worthwhile endeavors.

8. Learn how to work with students who are twice-exceptional.

Twice-exceptional (or “2e”) learners are students with above-average intelligence paired with one or more learning differences or disabilities. These could include any of the various challenges such as ADD/ADHD, emotional or behavioral concerns, autism spectrum disorder, or a learning disability such as dyslexia. Numerous leaders in the field of twice-exceptionality recommend that teachers identify these students’ strengths while working to adjust instruction and materials to compensate for the students’ challenge areas. All students can value from having these simple 2e rules applied in every classroom:

  • Instruction and learning will focus on developing all students’ talents.
  • The classroom environment nurtures and values all learners as individuals.
  • All students will learn compensating strategies for working through areas of weakness.
  • All students will appreciate each other as having both strengths and weaknesses.

9. Infuse affective connections in the curriculum.

Curriculum infused with affective connections considers the learner in the learning process and connects him or her to the human factors in the content. For example, while studying the early colonists, ask students questions such as:

  • How do you think it would feel to travel for over two months at sea on the Mayflower?
  • Why would the early colonists persist through the challenges they encountered rather than just give up and go back to England?
  • Put yourself in the place of one of the early settlers. What would you do differently?

Affective curriculum has been used for many years in the field of gifted education to assist students in developing a greater sense of empathy. All students can benefit from learning to be empathic and finding personal connections in the content.

10. Set high expectations for all.

Finally, all students have the right to work toward high expectations. I call it “removing the ceiling.” So many times we underestimate what our students can do. If we provide the right topics, the right level of challenge, and the right amount of support, our students can do amazing things, no matter their abilities. Gifted educators have always advocated for removing the ceiling for the brightest students. I’m advocating we do this for all students. Set expectations high for all students, provide them with a rich and challenging curriculum, and support them with scaffolds to reach those heights. All students need teachers who believe in them and will:

Walk in front of them when they need leadership
Walk beside them when they need encouragement
Walk behind them when they need a push!

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., is an internationally known educational consultant and author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. Dr. Cash has worked in all levels of education from a classroom teacher to district administrator and post-secondary instructor. Visit his website at

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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