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The Highly Gifted (2)

by Kathi Kearney

The Highly Gifted columns appeared in Understanding Our Gifted from Volume 1, Issue 1, September 1988 through Volume 3, Issue 1, September-October, 1990.  These articles are divided across several web pages; click for specific topics:

bullet(first column) September 1988
bulletSchool Placement November 1988 - January 1989
bulletThe Early College Option March 1989 - September-October, 1989
bulletHighly Gifted Children And Their Families: Suggestions For Educators November-December, 1989 - January-February, 1990
bulletFinding Highly Gifted Children March-April, 1990 - July-August, 1990
bulletHighly Gifted Children and Changing Conceptions of Giftedness September-October, 1990
bulletCooperative Learning November-December, 1990
bulletHighly Gifted and the Press March-April, 1991 - May-June, 1991
bulletHighly Gifted Children In Isolated Rural Areas July-August, 1991 - September-October, 1991
bulletA Quiet Crisis November-December, 1991 - January-February, 1992
bulletEducating Highly Gifted Children In an Age of Recession May-June, 1992 - July-August, 1992
bulletHomeschooling Highly Gifted Children September-October, 1992
bulletWhen Promising Practices Go Wrong November-December, 1992
bulletAdvocating for Highly Gifted Children January-February, 1993
bulletThe Highly Gifted Baby March-April, 1993
bulletThe Age-Grade Lockstep May-June, 1993 and September-October, 1993
bulletDiscrimination Against Excellence November-December, 1993
bulletNetworking: Essential Tools, Essential Skills January-February, 1994
bulletTalent Searches and the Highly Gifted March-April, 1994

November - December 1989  Highly Gifted Children And Their Families:
Suggestions For Educators (Part I)

It is no secret that highly gifted children are often a challenge to work with, as well as a joy.  Educating these children and effectively working with their families at times seem puzzling to even the most conscientious educator.  More than sixty years ago, Leta Hollingworth observed that of these very high IQ children,

...nearly all have been school problems.  They do not fit into the routine of school.  In many cases, neither they nor their teachers understand the reason for the misfit (Hollingworth, 1925, p. 265).

Understanding why these children and their families react the way they do, and why the school setting can be one of the most problematic for them, is a key element in knowing how to assist these children in making positive educational and social adjustments.  In this column and the next, guidelines are provided to help educators increase their ability to work effectively with these children and their families.

Learn all you can about the needs of highly gifted children.  Highly gifted children have a unique set of intellectual and social / emotional needs.  Working with them in educational and counseling settings is often very from working with children of average ability, or even moderately gifted children (Silverman, 1989).  It is ironic that despite a growing research literature about giftedness, the most gifted children tend to have been the least studied (Feldman, 1979).  The inevitable result for educators and parents is that there are still very few comprehensive sources of information about this population.  Three sources recommended to educators, counselors, and parents are:

1. Hollingworth, Leta S. (1942)  Children Above 180 IQ, Stanford Binet: Origins and Development.  New York: World Book Company. Full text of Children Above 180 IQ is now available from Project Gutenberg in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats.

2. Feldman, D.H. (1979).  The mysterious case of extreme giftedness.  In A. Harry Passow, (Ed.), The gifted and the talented: Their education and development, 78th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I, (pp. 335-351) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3. Silverman, L.K. (1989). The highly gifted. In J. Feldhusen, J. VanTassel-Baska, & K. Seeley (Eds.), Excellence in educating the gifted (pp. 71-83). Denver: Love.

Listen to the child's parents, and understand the family's perspective.  Families of highly gifted children usually have a better sense of their child's needs than the school or any other agency.  This is due to several factors: extremely gifted children, especially girls, may hide their true abilities from their teachers and peers; knowing that they are perceived as "different," some children only confide their feelings about school in a "safe" environment such as the home; and if there is frustration about the pace and content of the schoolwork, parents are much more likely to hear about it first.

Families often react to the news that their child is highly gifted in one of two ways -- they either enter a process of denial, or they attempt to learn all they can about the child's exceptionality.  As they work through this process, they usually come to perceive their parenting role as both a great responsibility and a deep joy.  And finally, if they seem demanding at times, it is probably because they have encountered frustrating experiences in trying to meet their child's unusual needs.  Schools and curricula are not generally organized to meet the needs of these children; relatives and neighbors may be less than understanding about the six-year-old who has the vocabulary of an 11-year-old and wants to learn algebra; and the support systems in place for the parents of other exceptional children are almost nonexistent for the families of the exceptionally gifted.

These families need support and encouragement, as well as a flexible educational environment for their child.  Understanding the special needs of the family that nurtures the highly gifted child is extremely important.

In the next issue, this series of suggestions for educators who work with families of the highly gifted continues, with a focus on flexibility, support systems, and educational services.


Hollingworth, Leta S. (1926)  Gifted children: Their nature and nurture.  New York: The Macmillan Company.

Feldman, D.H. (1979).  The mysterious case of extreme giftedness.  In A. Harry Passow, (Ed.), The gifted and the talented: Their education and development, 78th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I, (pp. 335-351) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silverman, L.K. (1989). The highly gifted. In J. Feldhusen, J. VanTassel-Baska, & K. Seeley (Eds.), Excellence in educating the gifted (pp. 71-83). Denver: Love.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

January - February 1990  Highly Gifted Children And Their Families:
Suggestions For Educators (Part II)

Educators who work with highly gifted children and their families often find themselves in uncharted territory.  What are these children really like?  Why are the families of these children so concerned?  And how can the classroom teacher help?  In the last issue, we focused on ideas for educators as they work with the families of these children.  Several additional suggestions follow:

Don't believe the myths about the highly gifted.  Myths concerning this population abound.  Some of the most common -- and most erroneous -- are that acceleration causes social problems; that these children are social isolates; that they should spend all their time with chronological-age peers; and that they will not become achieving adults.  On the contrary, research shows that acceleration is often beneficial, both academically and socially (Janos & Robinson, 1985); preference for social interaction depends on personality style; many highly gifted children require several sets of peers, some for intellectual activities and others for activities such as sports (Roedell, 1988); and, given appropriate educational intervention and personal support, many highly gifted children go on to make major contributions as adults.

Be flexible.  Flexibility is a key ingredient for the teachers and administrators who work with extremely gifted children.  It is very common to have to make major adjustments and interventions as the child professes through school; a flexible school system is able to accommodate the necessary adjustments easily.  In practical, concrete terms, flexibility means observing and responding to the child's advanced development as it emerges.  This almost always requires a variety of educational options for the child as she progresses through school.  It may also mean that bureaucratic but time-honored local or state educational policies (such as compulsory attendance requirements, the grade in which a child is allowed to study algebra, or when a child may receive high school credit) may occasionally need to be adapted or waived.  The teacher and the school can do much to help highly gifted children and their families by remembering that flexibility in programming is an absolute necessity.

Be a support system for these families.  It is very difficult for many families of highly gifted children to find the support that they need.  Few organizations and parent groups work with this special population.  The federal legislation that guarantees a free and appropriate education to other exceptional children does not apply to the gifted, even though their exceptionality may be every bit as great.  The extra financial costs of raising an extremely gifted child start earlier and last longer (Silverman & Kearney, 1989), yet few scholarship funds are available.  If the child enters college early, he or she may not even qualify for federal financial aid.  And many families find, to their sadness, that they are not able to share with friends or relatives the achievements of their children, as other parents do, because the achievements are so different from the norm.  Therefore, the support the school is able to offer is a critical element.  Be available to talk with these families, be flexible, share articles and conference information, and be a friend.

Provide the services the child needs.  Of course, every school district has budgetary limits.  But as much as is within your power, try to provide the child with the services he or she needs.  Many appropriate services for such children require more creativity and flexibility than money; even the most economically disadvantaged school district can allow a child to join a class of older children for instruction, or can provide alternate assignments when appropriate.

Establish a good working relationship, and keep the lines of communications open.  Then you and the family can work together as a team to help these children fulfill their potential. Ω


Janos, P.M. & Robinson, N.M. (1985). Psychological development in intellectually gifted children.  In F.D. Horowitz & M. O'Brien (Eds.), The gifted and talented: Developmental perspectives.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Roedell, W.C. (1988).  I just want my child to be happy: Social development and young gifted children.  Understanding Our Gifted, 1(1), 1, 7, 9-12.

Silverman, L.K. & Kearney, K. (1989).  Parents of the extraordinarily gifted.  Advanced Development, 1, 41-56.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

March - April 1990  Finding Highly Gifted Children (Part I)

What does it mean to have no test which can identify a child such as Leta Hollingworth's 1800 IQ subjects?  What kinds of emotional risks do these children face if the full extent of their abilities is not understood, and the normal developmental patterns of the extraordinarily gifted child are viewed, instead, as abnormal maladjustment to society?

Hollingworth (1942) identified such issues as difficulty in finding congenial friends, discrepancies in development, very early interest in origins and destinies, problems of conformity, problems in playing with age-peers, and the difficulty of finding enough academic challenge at school as part of the normal, expected development of children in the very highest ranges of intelligence.  A child displaying these difficulties in a contemporary classroom might be automatically labeled as immature, a behavior problem, or worse.

Although there are other ways of identifying extraordinary giftedness besides the use of test scores, for many families and schools this is an important component in beginning to understand the extent of a highly gifted child's exceptionality, and providing appropriate educational and social/emotional intervention.  It is ironic, therefore, that two major developments in the allied fields of psychology and gifted education -- the revision of a major test of intelligence, and an emphasis on expanding conceptions of giftedness -- should combine to inadvertently penalize those children who have been viewed historically as most in need of special education programs for the gifted.  Yet, in practice, this is exactly what has happened.

When the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition was issues in 1986, many administrators and educators of the gifted simply assumed that the newer norms were more valid than the old ones, not realizing that the new test itself "represents a considerable departure from earlier editions" (Keith, Cool, Novak, White, and Pottebaum, 1988, p. 253) and "appears to be a very different instrument from its predecessor" (Rothlisbert, 1987, p. 193).  Gone is the entire concept of mental age, as well as many of the verbal and abstract reasoning items which allowed highly intellectually gifted children to more fully demonstrate the range of their abilities.  Vernon (1987) noted that neither the Wechsler intelligence scales nor the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition "give as much opportunity as the L-M for gifted children to display their fluency, imagination, unusual or advanced concepts, and complex linguistic usage" (p. 256).  One study, reported in the Fourth Edition Technical Manual, showed scores of gifted children on the Fourth Edition to be "substantially lower" than Form L-M scores -- 13.7 points, almost a full standard deviation (Sattler, 1988, p. 252).

It is important to note that the original 1916 Stanford-Binet, as well as the 1937 (Forms L and M) and 1960 (Form L-M) revision have all played a major research role in our understanding of intellectually gifted children, and particularly the highly gifted.  Lewis Terman's longitudinal study of gifted children, still continuing today, used the 1916 version of the test.  Leta Hollingworth (1942) used both the 1916 test and the 1937 revision in her study of children above 180 IQ.

Perhaps even more important than the potential lose of a 70-year research history are the human issues involved for highly gifted children who would have received extrapolated scores of 160 to 200 IQ on the "old Binet" (Form L-M and earlier revisions), and for their families.

In my next column, I will discuss the impact of the underestimation of one's giftedness and present a method for finding students who test beyond the norms of current instruments. Ω


Hollingworth, Leta S. (1942).  Children Above 180 IQ, Stanford Binet: Origins and Development.  New York: World Book Company. Full text of Children Above 180 IQ is now available from Project Gutenberg in HTML, EPUB and Kindle formats.

Keith, T.Z., Cool, V.A., Novak, C.G., White, L.J. and Pettebaum, S.M. (1988). Confirmatory factor analysis of the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition: Testing the theory-test match.  Journal of School Psychology, 26, 253-274.

Rothlisberg, B.A. (1987).  Comparing the Stanford-Binet, Fourth Edition to the WISC-R: A concurrent validity study.  Journal of School Psychology, 25, 193-196.

Sattler, J.M. (1988).  Assessment of children. (3rd ed.) San Diego: Author.

Vernon, P.E. (1987). The demise of the Stanford-Binet scale.  Canadian Psychology, 28(3), 251-258.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

May - June 1990  Finding Highly Gifted Children (Part II)

Seven-year-old Joshua, who had demonstrated many of the early signs of advanced development common in highly gifted children, was taken by his parents to a private psychologist for an evaluation.  Using the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, Form L-M, the psychologist estimated his IQ at above 180, and said that in her ten years of practice, Joshua was the brightest child she had ever tested.  But three years later, when Joshua's school instituted a program for gifted children, Joshua was not selected.  The reason?  Bored in school, Joshua had become a troublemaker in class and refused to complete his homework.  His teacher had not given him a strong recommendation.  However, based on his group achievement test scores, the gifted program's screening committee referred him to the school psychologist for individual testing, since they were unsure whether or not he should be included in the program.  Using the Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition, Joshua's IQ score was 128, six points below the cutoff score for inclusion into the program, and almost sixty points below his score on the Stanford-Binet Form L-M.

Joshua's parent, who had not shared the earlier test results with the school until now, brought a copy of the test report with them to a meeting with the school psychologist and the coordinator of the gifted program.  But they were told that the earlier test used norms that were now outdated, that the Fourth Edition's latest norms were the most accurate, and that Joshua did not qualify for the gifted program.

Joshua's case is less unusual than it might seem.  Highly gifted children, especially those who in former years would have been identified as very high-IQ children, are difficult to identify, for two reasons: Many current programs for the gifted are based on conceptions of giftedness requiring a strong element of achievement motivation, and current test instruments (including the WISC-R, Stanford-Binet Fourth Edition, and K-ABC) consistently underestimate the abilities of this group (Silverman, 1989).  Vernon (1987) states that for gifted children, "...the L-M is often preferable to the Wechsler scale..." (p. 256).

How can the demands for the use of the newest test norms be balanced with a need for appropriate identification of very highly gifted children?  First, Richert (1982) notes in the National Report on Intelligence that

"... new instruments and methods need to be developed for identification of gifted students in specific populations, such as disadvantaged, ethnic minorities, students with limited English-speaking ability, exceptionally gifted students and handicapped students" (pp. 77-78, emphasis added).

If alternate methods of identification are acceptable for other special populations of gifted children, certainly the use of the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M), a valid instrument with the added plus of a distinctive research history with this particular special population, should be acceptable as one method of identifying the highly gifted.  Second, the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M) can be used as a supplementary identification and diagnostic measure "when a child obtains three [or more] subtest scores at or near the ceiling of any current instrument" (Silverman and Kearney, 1989, p. 48).  Such a strategy insures that highly gifted children with extraordinary strengths in verbal and abstract reasoning will have an additional opportunity to be identified and intervention provided in the critical early childhood years, without having to wait for the talent searches commonly conducted at the junior high level.

However we may feel about the use of IQ tests or expanded definitions of giftedness, it is worth noting that when a child does score as high as 160, 170, or 180 on the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M) we are looking at an extraordinary performance.  If we are committed to the use of inclusionary measure to identify the gifted, we cannot exclude children who demonstrate their giftedness in this way, especially when the concomitants of extraordinary giftedness sometimes work, paradoxically, to prevent these children from receiving appropriate educational services (See Brown, 1984). Ω


Brown, [Morelock] M.M. (1984).  The needs and potential of the highly gifted: Toward a model of responsiveness.  Roeper Review, 6(3), 123-127.

Richert, E.S. with Alvino, J.J. & McDonnel, R.C. (1982).  National report on identification: Assessment and recommendations for comprehensive identification of gifted and talented youth.  Sewell, NJ: Educational Improvement Center -- South.

Silverman, L.K. (1989, November).  Lost: one IQ point per year for the gifted.  Paper presented at the 36th National Association for Gifted Children Annual Convention, Cincinnati, OH.

Silverman, L.K. & Kearney, K. (1989).  Parents of the extraordinarily gifted.  Advanced Development, 1, 41-56.

Vernon, P.E. (1987). The demise of the Stanford-Binet scale.  Canadian Psychology, 28(3), 251-258.

Kathi Kearney is Director of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, a resource teacher, and editor of Highly Gifted Children.

July - August 1990  Finding Highly Gifted Children (Part III)

Highly Gifted Children in Special Populations 

bulletJoanna, age seven, was dramatic, artistic, extroverted, and had a power for abstract thought far beyond many of her classmates.  yet despite two years in school, she could not read a single word.  She was eventually referred for an evaluation through her school district.  The identification of a specific learning disability was no surprise, but use of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children (K-ABC) also indicated extremely high simultaneous processing abilities.
bulletDavid lived in a tiny farming community of 400 people.  He was an excellent student, but his first priority was helping his parents and his five brothers and sisters to keep the family farm financially afloat.  His entire graduating class consisted of a dozen students; most intended to stay in the same community after graduation.  Although he had no plans for college, David took the SATs as a senior, and to his surprise scored 800 in math and 740 on the verbal section.  When his uncle encouraged him to apply to an Ivy League school, David's response was that perhaps he could consider attending one year at the state university, 80 miles away -- located in a city that David himself had never visited.
bulletElizabeth, a kindergartener, has been reading A Wrinkle in Time and the Little House books at home.  But when she goes to school in the morning, she participates quietly and cooperatively in the reading readiness activities of her kindergarten class, never letting on to anyone that she already knows how to read.
bulletMaria's family spoke a mixture of both Spanish and English at home, with Spanish predominating.  And Maria, age six, was a whiz in math.  She completed the first and second grade math texts in two and a half months.  By Christmas break, she was halfway through the third grade text when she ran into difficulty.  Able to decode but not able to understand what English words such as "spent" meant, she could not do the word problems.  A frustrated Maria cried and threw the textbook down in disgust; her teacher suggested that perhaps Maria was "not so smart after all" and had simply "plateaued."

Joanna, David, Elizabeth, and Maria are all highly gifted children, yet they represent populations who are at risk of not even being identified as gifted.  Joanna's handicap, David's rural isolation, Elizabeth's social awareness as a gifted girl, and Maria's bilingualism are factors which compound and complicate the identification process.  How can we find and serve the highly gifted among special populations?  The following suggestions will help.

1. Look for these children.  It may sound obvious, but unless we look for these children we will not find them.  Identification processes in schools should specifically target special populations of students.  In addition, informed parents, friends, neighbors, and relatives sometimes perceive patterns of advanced development in these children which are obscured, unintentionally, by the culture of the school.  Following up on such observations can lead to the early identification, intervention, and support essential for optimum development.

2. Use a combination of appropriate assessment instruments and qualitative data for identification.  Selecting appropriate test instruments to identify these children us extremely important.  For instance, David and Elizabeth could probably have been identified as highly gifted using an instrument such as the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M).  David's rural community, however, had no resources for early testing and identification, and no program options for gifted children.  Only a belated discovery of the extent of his talents and the encouragement of his uncle led him to consider college as a possibly at all.

Elizabeth should be tested in early childhood; already she is showing signs of hiding her abilities.  Joanna's learning disability made her an unlikely candidate to ever be referred for the gifted program, but the K-ABS uncovered unusual strengths.  Maria may need to be individually tested using a Spanish translation of one of the major intelligence tests.

In addition, the use of the qualitative data such as detailed parent interviews, developmental questionnaires, work samples, and a case study of the child can provide important insights.  We are aware of many unique characteristics of highly gifted children.  Qualitative data allows us to look for these characteristics and for patterns indicating extraordinarily advanced development, when test scores do not tell the entire story.

3. Understand the interaction between extraordinary giftedness and the unique experience of being from a special population.  Children who are highly gifted and also culturally different, handicapped, economically disadvantaged, or bilingual are at risk of not being discovered.  Also, highly gifted girls may go into hiding, growing up in a society which still gives powerful but subtle messages about its expectations for women.  These children must simultaneously deal with the intellectual, social, and emotional issues of extreme intellectual giftedness combined with the additional issues which arise as a result of belonging to a special population.  In these cases, especially, the traditional achievement orientation of many public school gifted programs may really not fit.  "Achievement" often means something entirely different to the child in such a situation than it does to the school, as the child works to integrate two major life influences.

Highly gifted children come from many different backgrounds and life circumstances.  Extraordinary intellectual giftedness cannot be nurtured if it is not recognized.  It is imperative, therefore, that we find these children, wherever they may be. Ω

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

September - October 1990  Highly Gifted Children and Changing Conceptions of Giftedness

Melissa, age 8, read Les Miserables in English.  Then she went to the library, obtained a copy of the book in the original French as well as a French-English dictionary, and translated parts of the French version into English, "just for fun -- to see how close my translation would be."  With such interest and motivation, a Stanford-Binet L-M IQ above 170, and a WISC-R score above 145, Melissa would seem an obvious candidate for any school district's program for the gifted.  Yet, when children were selected for a newly-developed program in her district, Melissa did not complete required homework or show much interest in academic projects at her grade level.  Her teacher would not recommend her for the program, despite the individual IQ scores.  The district had adopted the programming approach recommended by Treffinger (1988).  In a laudable attempt to be "non-elitist" and include children who might not be selected for gifted programming using traditional criteria, such as high test scores, Melissa was systematically excluded.  The school concurred with Treffinger's position:

Does this view of gifted programming dilute the services offered to a small group of 'highly gifted' students, whose needs are presumed to be greatest?  I believe not.  Such concerns are often based on antiquated conceptions of giftedness which decree students to be more highly gifted -- and therefore in greater need or at greater risk -- primarily on the basis of IQ scores.  Under a more progressive and contemporary view, test scores in themselves do not provide any student an 'entitlement' to service. (Treffinger, 1988, p. 56).

Melissa's story is true, and illustrates an important concern.  Melissa was the unexpected casualty of an otherwise positive goal -- that of expanding our definitions of giftedness to include children who might not be identified using traditional measures, and continuing to explore our concept of what intelligence is and what it means to be gifted.

Throughout the 20th century, various conceptions of giftedness have been explored and promoted by psychologists and educators, and occasionally by politicians and the general public as well.  Recently developed concepts of giftedness, such as those of Renzulli, Sternberg, Gardner, and Feldman (discussed in detail in Sternberg and Davidson, 1986), focus less on tested ability and more on concrete, creative production and performance.  What could be wrong with that?  How could such definitions possibly cause a problem for a highly gifted child?

As in many areas of education, the problem lies not so much with theory itself as with how theory is implemented in real schools with real children.  Highly gifted children do not always show their abilities in school.  Faced with a curriculum that often does not meet their needs, few intellectual peers, and wide discrepancies in development, their response may not be creative products, but behavior problems, depression, or hiding their abilities so that they will be more like the other children.  For some of these children, the only hint they will ever give their schools of their extraordinary intellectual ability may be their extremely high test scores.

As part of the difficult transition of theory in practice, it is likely that school personnel have spent time and effort researching theories of giftedness, as well as program models.  They may be committed to a particular theory or philosophy -- sometimes overcommitted.  Modern myths such as "It doesn't really mean anything anyway" or "You're only gifted if you produce" can be every bit as damaging as the old myth that you are only gifted if you have a high test score.  Yet such modern myths abound, inexplicably enough, in many programs that are attempting to expand our concepts of giftedness.  Children who test extremely high and are also experiencing difficult academic and personal adjustments are particularly at risk.  We must make sure that these children are not left out, and that our new definitions of giftedness are indeed expanded and inclusive, and do not simply replace one form of "acceptable" giftedness with another. Ω


Treffinger, D.J. (1988).  Cultivating potential -- beyond "The Gifted Program." Teaching Pre-K to 8, 18(7), 54-57.

Sternbert, R.J. and Davidson, J.E. (1986).  Conceptions of Giftedness.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

November - December 1990  Cooperative Learning

The twentieth century has seen numerous attempts at educational reform, including the development of new educational methods.  The junior high school concept and the project method dating form the century's first two decades are early examples; the open classroom of the 1970s, mastery learning of the 1980s, the middle school concept, and the currently popular whole language and cooperative learning approaches represent modern attempts.  Used with trained teachers, in the right setting, and with an appropriate student population, each of these methods can be beneficial.  But when such methods are utilized improperly as a means of social control, ignore research findings regarding their use, or slight the individual needs of children, problems arise.

Highly gifted children are particularly vulnerable in such situations for several reasons.  First, they do not have the same legal right to a "free and appropriate public education" as handicapped children do, even though their exceptionally may be just as great.  Second, the dual specters of "elitism" and the slashed budge haunt the hallways of so many schools today that services for gifted students may be diluted or cut entirely.  Finally, although most highly gifted children spend a good portion of their time in the regular classroom, new methods and approaches used in general education usually are not researched to specifically determine their effectiveness with this population.

The cooperative learning approach si an excellent example.  Children of varying abilities are placed together in small working groups to practice specific tasks or to complete a joint project.  Two essential features of such groups include:

...group goals, or positive interdependence: the cooperative groups must work together to earn recognition, grades, rewards and other indicators of group success... The second essential feature is individual accountability: the group's success must depend on the individual learning of all group members (Slavin, 1989/1990a, p. 52).

This extremely popular instruction method "has a vastly better research base than most innovations" (Slavin 1989/1990a, p.3).  However, Slavin, an outspoken proponent of the method, admits of two dangers "inherent in the success of cooperative learning... that large numbers of teachers with half-knowledge may use ineffective forms of the approach" and "that the methods will be oversold and undertrained" (p.3).  For highly gifted children, a third danger might be added -- that because of the emphasis of this particular method on heterogeneous grouping, those who implement cooperative learning in the classroom will overlook the unique educational and social/emotional needs these children face.  Not only do highly gifted children need access to intellectual peers, they also need the opportunity to test out of material that they already know well, and to engage in challenging and developmentally appropriate learning experiences that match their abilities.

Corinne, a highly gifted 12-year-old eighth grader, described her experience with cooperative learning in a letter to her superintendent.  Her letter was written only after she had attempted, tactfully but without success, to communicate her feelings to her teachers.

The... method that is unsatisfactory is the cooperative learning program in my social studies class... I understand that this is a controversial issues and I believe that the students' point of view is the most important.  We are the ones who are being taught so we should know what worked for us and what doesn't.  In cooperative learning groups the person with the strongest personality and highest academic ability usually takes control of the group immediately.  Teachers tend to put the faster learners with the slower ones to help them along.  That is the exact purpose and problem with cooperative learning.  The faster kids are suddenly responsible for everyone else... Sure, on paper cooperative learning  looks wonderful because not as many people fail.  I believe that the advanced students are being slower down drastically by this learning method.  Not all kids want to learn, and I feel that cooperative learning puts the responsibility of making those people learn on advanced students.

I understand that school systems try not to put students in homogeneous groups for social reasons, butt there are many other places and times for gifted and talented students to socialize with these people.  Our important education should not be compromised for social reasons...

Gifted and talented children are often stuck in science and social studies classes that are geared towards average learners.  We are shoved aside and ignored.  Would this happen to a slower child?  I don't believe so... I feel that if effort was put into it, a good program for us could be provided.  We suffer equally in an average classroom and need alternative programs as well.  Just because there aren't many of us doesn't mean we don't have a right to learn.

What can concerned parents, teachers, and administrators do to help a child like Corinne?

bulletAcknowledge her feelings.  No one educational method is right for every child; a 12 year old who can articulate her thoughts as well as Corinne deserves to be heard.
bulletReview the child's educational program and intervene if necessary.
bulletRecognize the limitations as well as the strengths of popular educational methods.  Cooperative learning, with its emphasis on heterogeneous grouping (Augustine, Gruber, & Hanson, 1989/1990), diminishes the chances that a highly gifted child will have regular opportunities to work with intellectual peers.  This can be a particularly problematic situation for highly gifted girls, whose tendency to hide their abilities and to "disappear" (Silverman, 1986, p. 43) may only receive more encouragement in such an environment.
bulletAdapt popular educational methods to reflect the characteristics and needs of the highly gifted child.  While cooperative learning groups in a heterogeneous classroom with extreme variations in ability may produce the kind of frustration Corinne describes, the principles of cooperative learning have been used very successfully with homogeneously grouped gifted students for many years.  Cooperative group projects specifically designed for gifted students, such as the study of "The Evolution of Common Things" developed by Leta Hollingworth in the 1920s and 1930s (Hollingworth 1926) and the contemporary Odyssey of the Mind creative thinking competitions are only two examples.
bulletFinally, recognize that highly gifted students exist and that they do indeed have a right to learn in a manner commensurate with their ability.  If adjustments need to be made in curriculum or teacher methods in order for this to happen, find the courage to make the necessary changes.


Corinne, by the way, got another lesson in cooperative learning.  When nothing changed in the classroom as a result of her letter, she organized the other gifted students in her middle school and together they wrote and signed a petition describing their concerns, which they presented to school officials.  She also drafted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.


Augustine, D.K., Gruber, K.D., & Hanson, L.H. (1989.1990).  Cooperation works!  Education Leadership, 47(4), 4-7.

Hollingworth, Leta S. (1926)  Gifted children: Their nature and nurture.  New York: The Macmillan Company.

Silverman, L.K. (1986).  What happens to the gifted girl?  In C.J. Maker (Ed.), critical issues in gifted education: Defensible programs for the gifted (pp. 43-89).  Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Slavin, R.E. (1989/1990a).  Research on cooperative learning: Consensus and controversy.  Education Leadership, 47(4), 52-54.

Slavin, R.E. (1989/1990b).  Here to stay -- or gone tomorrow?  Education Leadership, 47(4), 3.

Kathi Kearney is Founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in Auburn, Maine, and is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

1988-1994 Kathi Kearney, reprinted with permission of the author.

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