Is there a mindset misconception with giftedness?

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The buzz about mindsets, what we believe about our intelligence, has captivated parents and educators in recent years. Its message is powerful—if you believe your intelligence can grow, you will embrace challenges and achieve more. Yet, even as noted by Carol Dweck herself, this mighty notion of mindset can be misinterpreted. In discussions about giftedness and mindsets, there may also be misconceptions.

Research about praise tells us that when we praise students for their intelligence, they are likely to develop fixed mindset beliefs—the belief that your abilities do not change—and so, they are more likely to avoid challenges in order to maintain a smart identity. Using this premise, it has been argued that the gifted label itself is a form of intelligent praise that can influence challenge-avoidance. The very label provides the context that their strong abilities were “gifted” to them as innate, unchanging qualities.

These discussions and the popularity of Dweck’s work have influenced educators, blog-writers, and authors of books to assert that gifted students are especially fragile to developing fixed mindsets and miss the mark on achieving their potential. Others have also argued that students who are not qualified to be identified as “gifted” may also be vulnerable to developing the belief that a person is born with a fixed amount of intelligence and it doesn’t change.

These assertions have led some to make sweeping conclusions to dismantle gifted programs and eliminate separate gifted classes, formal identification, and ability grouping, though these practices are considered highly beneficial for gifted students.

Are gifted students more vulnerable to developing fixed mindset beliefs?

In a recent study, we aimed to learn more about what gifted students believe about their abilities. We compared three groups of middle school students (identified gifted students, advanced students, and typical students) and found no differences between groups regarding their fixed mindset beliefs about intelligence. In fact, gifted students had slightly higher growth mindset scores. This is consistent with other research that shows that gifted students believe that intelligence can grow, they enjoy academic challenges, and they value hard work. If anything, these findings affirm that gifted students need to be appropriately challenged so that they experience productive struggle in the learning process. Gifted programming can actually provide the challenging work as an opportunity to develop growth mindset beliefs like positive attitudes toward effort and making mistakes. In fact, when their needs are not being met and they are not challenged, this could set the stage for fixed mindset beliefs to develop; students are not used to hard work, and they may avoid persevering through difficult tasks and intellectual risk-taking when they are finally faced with such challenges.

We want to emphasize, however, that gifted students do not fall into one single pattern and that mindsets relate to different domains (e.g., you can have a fixed mindset belief about math, but a growth mindset belief about creativity). We must remember that some gifted students do adopt fixed mindset beliefs about their abilities—especially those with maladaptive, perfectionistic tendencies or those who like to stay in their comfort zone. And, while one child’s comfort zone may be above grade level and appear “challenging,” based on what the student is actually capable of, it may not be “challenging” enough for that individual to make continual progress.

Our study also compared groups on perfectionism and achievement attitudes. Gifted and advanced students scored higher on positive aspects of perfectionism and academic self-perception. A small association was noted with gifted students being more concerned about making mistakes when compared to typical peers, but, overall gifted students showed positive attitudes towards challenges and hard work. Future comparative research should explore mindset beliefs through different domains of ability and include more diverse samples.

The misconception can mask giftedness

The take-away is this—when you hear arguments against gifted programming because being named “gifted” causes gifted students to avoid difficult tasks and believe their innate intelligence is set in stone, then know that our findings suggest that gifted students are not as fragile or vulnerable to this belief as we might think. Such arguments about their fixed mindset vulnerabilities are likely based on assumptions and biases and are being erroneously used to shape policy. Our findings, along with others, may prepare you to advocate for appropriate services for all students—every child has the right to learn, be challenged, and make continual progress. When gifted students are provided with appropriate challenges that require sustained effort, they can have a genuine opportunity to develop a growth mindset and move towards reaching their potential.

With the mindset buzz, educators may be afraid to tell a gifted child he or she is smart, yet we don’t need to skirt around explaining what giftedness really means. When we explain giftedness as a malleable quality while also praising hard work, we can help prevent a fixed mindset. We can guide a student to embrace challenges as opportunities to grow and develop their abilities further. It’s still important to recognize talent and also recognize how talent comes to fruition. Mindsets certainly matter in making strides towards achievement, but when its oversimplification is used to deny the uniqueness of being gifted, its misconception could unfortunately mask the gift.

Editor’s note: This post is based on a study first published online by Gifted Child Quarterly in March 2018.

Emily Mofield is an assistant professor in the Doctor of Education Program at Lipscomb University and has fifteen years’ experience teaching gifted students and leading gifted programs. Megan Parker Peters is an associate professor and director of teacher assessment at Lipscomb University, as well as a licensed psychologist specializing in the needs of gifted and twice-exceptional learners. Drs. Mofield and Parker Peters have recently co-authored Teaching Tenacity, Resilience, and a Drive for Excellence: Lessons for Social-Emotional Learning and have been recognized with the NAGC Hollingworth Award for Excellence in Research in Gifted Education.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.