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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Motivating the Gifted Learner

I admire the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck on the subject of motivation. It has been about a year since Dr. Dweck spoke at Quest Academy. There has not been a day since that talk that I have not thought about how best to motivate gifted students.

Fixed Mindset versus Growth Mindset

At the very core of Dr. Dweck’s work is the idea that intelligence is not a fixed trait. She quotes Alfred Binet, the inventor of IQ testing: “A few modern philosophers…assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism…With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally become more intelligent than we were before.” Indeed, with years of her research, Dr. Dweck has expanded on Dr. Binet’s assertion by referring to two different mindsets.
The fixed mindset -- rooted in the belief that one’s qualities are carved in stone – leads to behavior and actions that are risk-averse in that kids experience the first sign of failure as an indicator of their abilities or rather lack of abilities. The growth mindset, on the other hand, is attributable to an approach that one’s qualities and abilities can always improve or grow as a result of one’s efforts. In essence, Dr. Dweck advocates that the development of a growth mindset is key in fostering a child’s motivation. One such way to instill a growth mindset is to focus less on the results but rather the processes of learning, primarily among them the effort a child invests on any given task. Praising a child’s final grade or cumulative score on a standardized test may reinforce the fixed mindset, while praising a child’s effort, innovative and creative thinking, or passion invested in the task is more likely to signal to the child that the process of working (well) is highly valued.  I have always maintained that as a function of good and hard work, the results will be just fine.

“Do I want to do this?” and “Can I do this?”

At the very core of a student’s sense of motivation, we are most likely to encounter two fundamental questions: “Do I want to do it?” and “Can I do it?” The first question points to the need to assign students tasks that are meaningful, valuable, and relevant, while the second question points to creating tasks that correspond to a child’s ability. At our school, we root each learning-specific topic in a conceptual context (see previous blog on this topic). Similarly, at our school we invest time to determine what students already know or what they do not yet know in advance of a new learning unit. This way, teachers can differentiate for student ability, preferably at a level that is just above their demonstrated level.  

Practical Strategies to Motivate Gifted Students:

Deliberate attempts to engage students, including elementary school-aged children in the higher cognitive thinking levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are sure ways to motivate gifted students. I offer a few practical strategies to motivate gifted students:

·         Inquiry leads to curiosity: Taking time out during the day and simply meeting with students to contemplate intriguing questions is a good practice. Using natural or authentic moments is an added bonus. On the season’s first snowfall, have students generate questions about snow. Investigate together.

·         Compare, Contrast, Contradict, and Create Controversy: Imagine the teacher walking into a third grade classroom, asserting that “learning other languages leads to a poorer command of one’s own native language.” Soon, students will be working in teams investigating this controversial statement.

·         Encouraging students to make hypotheses: This should not only happen in the science classroom, but in every classroom. Encouraging student guesses is good practice as long as timely feedback is provided.

Other Ways to Encourage Students:

·         The sense of accomplishment: Students benefit by the experience of authentic accomplishment. One initial accomplishment sets the stage for further accomplishment. Students need to be able to recognize their own competence by experiencing the feeling of accomplishing a task or solving a problem. An ideal outcome is a sense of meta-cognition, whereby students can think about their own thinking.

·         The teacher’s confidence in students: Students perform better when they know that their teacher wishes them conspicuous daily success.

·         The teacher’s passion: Enthusiasm is infectious.

·         Variety of Instructional Strategies: A classroom that always features rows of student desks is a recipe for…boredom. The classroom must be fluid.

·         The teacher’s genuine care for students: This is self-explanatory. When we feel that someone cares to get to know us, we do better.

·         Student Autonomy in the Classroom: Differentiating to student ability is great -- as is differentiating to student interest. Giving students choices is a sure recipe to increase their ownership in the learning.
Please take some time and share with me and others who read this blog your thoughts and strategies to motivate gifted students.


  1. I honestly believe that if we could figure out how to motivate our 2e son while working around his executive function issues we would be in a better place. So now we homeschool and juggle the best we can.

  2. Jen: Check out this web-site and discuss some of these items with your sonny-boy. Here you go:

  3. In our family situation it was important to get out of my daughters way and let her study what she wanted. One thing lead to another and she realized all the different subjects she needed to get through that related to what she wanted to do. Now she studies non-stop because she has internal motivation. No more prodding needed from me and I've never been more proud of her. Win-win, I'd say.

  4. Intrinsic motivation is far superior to extrinsic. Excessive meddling or rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I try to show my son regularly that I am listening to his feedback. Currently, we are crafting schedules and curriculum for next year and discussing it together. As much as possible, I try to point out when I have taken into account what he has asked for (more art, less writing as assessment, more focus on specific subjects, etc.) I used to assume he saw it and understood this was my way of giving him ownership of his education. Now, I'm realizing that was far too much to expect of anyone, let alone a highly gifted 7 year old who still is figuring out all the personal, political, emotional parts of life. It seems to help with the idea of showing him how much homeschooling is about his learning, rather than just saying it. The work has become something he has asked for and not an extrinsicly imposed hoop to jump through.

  6. There is a difference between "gifted" and "academically talented." Just because a child is "gifted" doesn't necessarily mean the child is ready to try new things or will naturally do well in school. Gifted children can be difficult to educate--and it can be frustrating! You know the potential of the child yet sometimes that potential is hard to achieve. It can sometimes be "leading the horse to water...." The enthusiastic learner is easily taught, but the hesitant learner is a more difficult case. Thanks Ben for the insights!

  7. I appreciate your thoughts and strategies to motivate gifted students. I don't agree with the previous comment that gifted children can be difficult to educate--and it can be frustrating. Read more here.

  8. No matter how many times I read this, I will never get bored of it.

  9. Intrinsic motivation is far superior to extrinsic. Excessive meddling or rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. If you want to write more about motivation, just visit this . Professional writers can help you.

  10. gifted children are very much children with special needs. Parents, teachers, and administrators often have to work together to help gifted students achieve their potential and prevent boredom by recognizing those characteristics and taking steps to fully engage gifted students. If you suspect your child may be showing signs of giftedness, take some time to discuss it with his teacher, so you can make any necessary changes.
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