Gifted, Talented, or Just Hardworking?

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Gifted, Talented, or Just Hardworking?I took a very interesting route to teaching. My first degree was in theater. After graduation, I had a difficult time finding employment that paid well. So after years of working in retail and restaurants, I decided to return to school to get a post-baccalaureate degree in education. I landed in a wonderful magnet school for gifted and talented students. I thought I was being hired for the talent portion of the program—as a trained actor, where else was I going to get a captive audience? However, I learned very quickly that gifted students are much smarter than I am—and they were not that interested in my classroom shenanigans. So, I again returned to school to learn more about gifted and talented students.

What I learned is that significant differences exist between a gifted student, a talented student, and a generally hardworking student. Here are some brief guidelines for what your students need based on their academic differences.

The term “gifted” is highly charged and is often misused in education. I often hear people say that all kids are gifted. This simply is not true. Saying all students are gifted is like saying that all kids are six feet tall. Giftedness is an innate ability that goes well beyond what other kids of a similar age and experience level can do. In classic terms, giftedness is typically identified through a student’s IQ (Intelligence Quotient): A gifted individual has an IQ of (approximately) 130 or greater. Gifted people represent less than 2 percent of the human population.

Gifted students can have many positive academic attributes, such as inquisitiveness and an insatiable curiosity. They can also exhibit a lot of more challenging behaviors, such as producing inferior work, impertinence, disruptiveness, failure to follow directions, underachievement, and an inability to deal with failure. Many of these undesirable characteristics stem from the strain of being different from others and many come from having a fixed mindset based on previous experiences of never being challenged enough.

Therefore, gifted students need challenges early. They need to understand the value and worth of the materials they are working with and how learning fundamental skills can lead to greater accomplishments in the content area. They need exposure to deep and complex information and more authentic learning experiences. Gifted students should also be connecting with experts in the content areas that students are passionate about. Often, grade-level materials are too simple. Sometimes gifted students should be accelerated in school so they reach more challenging materials sooner.

All students have a talent worth developing. A talent is something you work at and is often not fully realized until adulthood—whereas giftedness is often recognized early in life. Talented students have a passion for learning content. They are the “teacher pleasers” in your classroom. They work hard, do their homework, and seek additional challenges. Typically, they want to do more than what is required. Talented students answer questions while gifted kids ask questions. Talented students’ interests, attentions, and work habits run deep.

These students need opportunities to develop their talent areas, to be challenged to think differently, and to expand on their achievements. Sometimes talented students can be very competitive with one another—therefore, they need to learn how to measure personal growth rather than comparing their growth against others’. For these students, keeping a journal or self-assessment log to measure their own growth can help them realize how hard they have worked toward their accomplishments. Support talented students by encouraging their self-efficacy and efforts as ways to success.

Hard Workers
While giftedness is innate and talent flourishes with experience, hard workers know the value of effort in the achievement equation. One can be gifted (have innate abilities), talented (develop abilities over time), and a really hard worker. What a great combination!

Those kids who have learned the lessons of perseverance, persistence, and patience are the ones who find the most success in school. Hard work is a critical factor in developing a growth mindset. Earlier, I mentioned fixed mindsets (the belief that abilities are set and not likely to change). Kids who have a growth mindset understand the value of hard work and stick-to-it-ness. Achievement is benefited by how much effort you put toward the learning.

To help all kids learn to be hard workers, teach them the value and worth of learning the content. Connect the lessons to the lives of the students you teach. Provide them with problems that are actually worth solving, such as real-world problems. Also, teach students how to think—not what to think—by engaging them in the practices of thinking every single day.

Additionally, use the philosophy of “yet” in your classroom. Whenever a student says “I’m not good at math,” complete the statement with yet! (“I’m not good at math . . . yet.”) Turn negative comments around to focus on what the student has yet to achieve and has yet to learn. No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. Same idea: No one is born being good at math; you practice math until you are good at it.

For more ideas on working with gifted and talented students, check out my book with Dr. Diane Heacox, Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. For great ideas on developing students’ passions and talents, take a look at Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. My recent publication, Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn, can give you some great ideas for developing students’ growth mindsets for greater success.

Advancing Differentiation Self-regulation




Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

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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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1 Response to Gifted, Talented, or Just Hardworking?

  1. Norah says:

    Interesting distinctions. I’m not sure about the description of talented though.

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