Many educators work hard to make students feel that the classroom is a place of learning, and that means making mistakes, rethinking strategies, and learning from setbacks. Based on Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, teachers encourage students to see their intelligence as something malleable, that changes and grows, not a fixed asset assigned at birth. Despite the popularity of these ideas in education, there are still systemic practices and requirements that undermine the message at every turn.

Stanford education professor Jo Boaler has been one of the most outspoken advocates of growth mindset, particularly in math education, where students often have fixed mindsets about their abilities. Boaler says she has seen the damage in adults and students who believe they don’t have “math brains” or that they’ll never be good at math. To counteract these negative messages, Boaler encourages teachers to use open-ended, visual math tasks, and to mix content with mindset messages. She’s even created a website, YouCubed, with videos, research, and classroom activities to help teachers get started.

Boaler teaches Stanford students, high achievers who often felt they had to be perfect to get into one of the most selective universities in the country. Through personal conversations with her students, Boaler began to see how being labeled “gifted” or “smart” as children stunted even these bright and successful young people. When growth mindset was still a fairly new concept in the education world, many teachers of gifted children saw its potential with that population, who often feel they’ve gained a special status for being smart. It’s not uncommon for gifted students to fear failure more than other students because they feel they have more to lose.

Boaler made a short video with Citizen Film of Stanford students reflecting on how they were labeled as students. It’s hard to feel sorry for Stanford students, many of whom have had amazing opportunities not offered to peers precisely because someone recognized them as smart, but their experiences do call into question the practice of labeling in the first place.

Rethinking Giftedness from Citizen Film

Students Share The Downside Of Being Labeled ‘Gifted’ 13 November,2017MindShift

  • Robert Clegg

    Video games make failing fun(that’s the holy grail key btw). Video games turn the suspension of disbelief inward and eliminate limiting mindsets.

    • George Kraynak

      Some do, some don’t.

  • Corin Goodwin

    This is a really awful video and very disappointing. You might want to see what gifted kids and their families think of this disturbing video:

    Learn more about giftedness:

    And read an excellent response to the video:

    • Emily Mofield

      I just presented findings at NAGC of gifted students not being vulnerable to fixed mindset beliefs compared to advanced and typical students (to be published in GCQ). They actually had slightly higher growth mindset beliefs…and other research studies show that overall, gifted students enjoy challenges and adopt incremental views of intelligence.

    • Emily Mofield

      Corin, I agree with you!

  • Michele Barkemeyer

    Are you also proposing taking a special education label off of those who need it? Students who are identified as gifted are statistically as far from the mean and special education students. It is unfortunate that the students that were interviewed in the video were not given a social-emotional education in addition to the academic education. If they had been, some (if not all) of the misconceptions these young people grew up with could have been mitigated.

  • Aron Quiter

    As a child who was once labelled as “gifted” who took college honors calculus 2 in 11th grade at the University of Minnesota (in 1994), I’m lost in the point of this article. If you are labelled as gifted as being in the “best of the best” and you can’t make it in the “best of the best” naturally you should fear failure. If you can’t keep up, you aren’t the “best of the best…” I survived in that class with a B-, the only person in the whole class that got an A was 13…. Yeah, he was really smart..

  • Emily Mofield

    My colleague and I just presented our research findings at the National Association for Gifted Conference sharing that gifted students are not vulnerable to fixed mindset beliefs compared to advanced and typical students (to be published in Gifted Child Quarterly). They actually had slightly higher growth mindset beliefs…and other research studies show that overall, gifted students enjoy challenges and adopt incremental views of intelligence. There are studies to show it’s how we present the message about giftedness- giftedness can grow, too, when nurtured and provided with appropriate challenge. It’s about the message. When kids are not identified, this can lead to a lack of challenge that’s NEEDED for mindset beliefs to develop. Implications of Dweck’s studies are taken too far and there is not research to support the assumptions here.

    • channonh

      Is anyone actually suggesting not identifying gifted children? The article here is about labeling them as such so that it becomes a core part of their identity that they fear losing.

  • Jeff Morton

    There is a strong misunderstanding of what giftedness is. Having a “label” doesn’t change the learner. That the author equates high achievers with giftedness is unequivocally erroneous and undermines any credibility. Frankly, stories like these make the lives parents and educators of gifted learners that much harder. Extremely disappointing.

    • channonh

      Actually, having a label does indeed change the learner. That’s what this research is about. The labeled child takes less risk, fearing the loss of the “smart” label that had become a key part of their identity. Stop praising children for something they had no role in doing, and start praising them for their own accomplishments.

      • Jeff Morton

        I understand what you’re saying, but I believe you’re missing a step. Giftedness is a state of being, just like autism, just like dyslexia. It comes with it a range of potential characteristics, one of which is a high aptitude in at least one domain (art, math, language, etc.). Whether a student is identified, and thus labeled, does not change who they are.

        What can change the learner is how they are treated. It is the adults, who misunderstand giftedness and fixed vs. growth mindsets, and their misguided praise that affects the learner. The problem, then, is not one of whether or not to identify a student as gifted or not, but rather of improving understanding of what giftedness is and how those learners should be taught.

        One can also make the argument that we should find a different word to describe these learners, but simply not identifying them is not, in my opinion, the answer.

  • Austina De Bonte

    This video reinforces that these kids were never taught growth mindset, and somehow were allowed to persist believing the idea that everything should be easy if you are smart. If a kid was in a genuinely challenging elementary program, they would not still believe this… If a kid can actually achieve “perfection” in their academics, then by definition the material was not hard enough. So these are gifted kids whose academic needs were not being met.

    And yes, they will have an identity crisis later when something is hard for the very first time – in middle school, high school, or maybe not until they get to Stanford. No kid should be allowed to skate through all of elementary school without experiencing genuine challenge on a regular basis.

    Grit is what predicts long term success, not IQ. We have to give all kids an education that fosters grit – not pressure cooker, but continual stair steps of challenge building over the grade levels. Some kids need dramatically more challenge than others in order to develop grit – well beyond what their “grade level.” We call those kids gifted, and the label helps schools provide services that meet kids where they are at, so they actually develop grit. It’s worth noting that even with the label, the vast majority of schools don’t do a great job with challenging gifted students yet, but I see evidence over the past few years that the tide is slowly turning.

    This video is not about the label. That’s just the surface issue.

    I have a lot of respect for Jo Boaler as a mathematics educator. But she does not understand the gifted population.

  • nitrab

    I think the mitigating factor in whether you develop growth mindset and healthy self esteem after being labelled gifted, is the type of intervention and support you get. I was an immigrant child in a low income neighborhood who was labelled gifted. But my parents and school offered few resources and opportunities for challenge and developing my capacity. I always felt a gnawing sense of wanting more but also fear of failure, anxiety over not being the best because there was no exposure to what it takes to truely cultivate intelligence (experimentation, questioning, dialogue, failure, challenge). I finally went to a high school where the best of the best all went (identified by testing), but the mindset was competitive and grade grubbing, not growth, experimentation and expansion. If I had opportunities that allowed me to move beyond the label of gifted as defined by testing well, to see that I have a capacity creative thinking and dealing with challenge, my intellectual gifts could actually have amounted to something far more meaningful and fulfilling. I also have a child who is the best of her class but I have avoided making too big a deal out of it at the expense of her other qualities. Unlike my parents, I have some resources to encourage her curiosity and intellect though like me, she is in public schools with low income kids (I think both of us would have had different experiences had we gone to schools in tonier neighborhoods). But she is aware that she is the smartest in school and some of the issues that plagued me and these Stanford students, still affect her though she is far more confident and more self assured than I was. What has helped is that her public charter school fosters growth mindset, and has ALL children understand and go through the lengthy process of learning.

    My oldest sister was labelled gifted at a very young age (identified as the smartest kid in the small nation that we were originally from) but without access to an education that fostered a growth mindset and cultivation of socio-emotional development, she languishes as an adult and is plagued by insecurity, despite having the grades to get a PhD from Harvard. Her older daughter is identified as gifted and has been afforded opportunities for private education. However, she too suffers emotionally as she has been channeled into a role of competitive over achiever whose worth is measured by grades and tests. That said, all children-“gifted” or not-should have access to a quality, whole-child, growth centered education.

  • channonh

    It seems that many people miss the point here. Nobody is saying it is damaging to identify gifted children and provide opportunities to them. Rather, LABELING them as such, and praising the child for an implied inherent trait, instead of praising their achievements creates an outsized fear of failure of losing that label.

    • Jessica

      channonh I agree with you on this! I think the video is not trying to take away opportunities for these children to learn and and continue to be challenged. I am currently teaching a “highly capable cluster” second grade class. This means that in my class is there are gifted students and “regular” students. Often, the “gifted” label creates issues among students and parents.

  • Gabriel Corner

    Teachers should promote learning. And do everything possible to develop the talents of those students who have them. And who has not yet been shown to help identify them. We are the other way around if you are intelligent then you are a white crow and teachers do not know how to behave with such special students. Because most do not shine with knowledge and work order on such sites as this . Therefore, it is necessary to change the approach to learning and not follow the standard rules.

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