P.O. BOX 1586







Dr. James Delisle -- Professor and Co-Director of SENG, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Dr. Jerry Flack --Univ. Of Colorado-Colorado Springs

Dr. Howard Gardner -- Professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ms. Diane D. Grybek -- Supervisor of Secondary Gifted Programs (Retired), Hillsborough County Schools, Tampa, Florida

Ms. Dorothy Knopper -- Publisher, Open Space Communications, Boulder, Colorado

Mr. James LoGiudice -- Director, Program and Staff Development, Bucks County, Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit No. 22 and Past President of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education

Dr. Mary Meeker -- President of SOI Systems, Vida, Oregon

Dr. Adrienne O'Neill - Chief Education Officer, Timken Regional Campus, Canton, Ohio

Dr. Stephen Schroeder-Davis -- Coordinator of Gifted Programs, Elk River, Minnesota Schools and Past President of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented

Dr. Bruce Shore -- Professor and Director, Giftedness Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Ms. Joan Smutny -- Professor and Director, Center for Gifted, National-Louis University, Evanston, Illinois

Dr. Virgil S. Ward -- Emeritus Professor of Gifted Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia

Ms. Susan Winebrenner -- Consultant, Brooklyn, Michigan

Dr. Ellen Winner - Professor, Boston College

In the spring of 1989, I published an article in GCT magazine entitled The Future of the Gifted in the Year 2000 (March/April 1989 issue) which emphasized that: (1) the gifted field must develop strategies for identifying a broader range of giftedness; and (2) a "core knowledge-based" humanities, mathematics and science curriculum is needed in our schools to meet the intellectual needs of the gifted. I also stated that many of the authors who wrote for GEPQ ". . .must be heeded at a more serious level than is apparent in the last decades of the twentieth century. These authors are very much concerned with the lack of national direction in developing a rigorous and appropriate curriculum for the gifted." Although the gifted field has made progress in organizing various research programs in identification and curriculum development during the last ten years, there is still much to be done in broadening the definition of giftedness, improving identification procedures and designing a comprehensive differentiated curriculum.

Since we started GEPQ in 1987, this periodical has included many articles by authors who strongly support improved identification procedures and a rigorous curriculum for the gifted. Some of the articles that appeared in the early 90's were as follows:  Let's Invest More in the 'Life of the Mind' by Norman Cousins (Winter 1990), Identifying Giftedness and Academic Ability Through Performance by Paul Brandwein (Summer 1990), Illinois Investment in the Future: Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy by Stephanie Pace Marshall (Fall 1990), Designing the Curriculum for a Residential High School for Students Gifted in Arts and Science by A. Harry Passow (Summer 1991), and Identifying and Programming for Minority Gifted Students: Structure of Intellect Research by Mary Meeker (Fall 1991). During the early '90's, Michael Walters wrote humanities articles on such individuals as Thomas Wolfe, Shakespeare, Carl Sandburg, Jack London and James Michener.

We will continue publishing articles of similar high quality and interest during the coming years. In the current issue, Susan Winebrenner discusses the types of training and information that teachers, parents and administrators should receive about gifted education. She is well-known by teachers across the nation for her informative workshops and consulting work with school districts. A revised edition of her widely read book, Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom (1992, Free Spirit Publishing, Inc.), will be published during the fall of 2000. Robert Schultz, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University, has written an interesting article on perfectionism and science education. This issue also includes a review of Ben Carson's biography, and an essay by Michael Walters on the poet and author, Sidney Lanier.

                                                                                Maurice D. Fisher, Ph.D., Publisher

                                                                                Gifted Education Press




As I travel around the country on speaking engagements, I observe the  significant changes regarding programming for gifted students. Pullout programs have virtually disappeared in many states.  Any program for gifted children that is associated with the word special is rejected as elitist, a word that appears to have the power in and of itself to bring an end to a gifted program. Programs for gifted students are sacrificed in the name of budget crunches, at the same time as the appropriated funds for other students with exceptional educational needs are greatly expanded.

In my opinion, the most significant explanation for the disappearance of gifted programs is our democratic country’s devotion to the concept of egalitarianism. This term is unfortunately interpreted to mean that everyone should get exactly the same educational experiences, instead of everyone should have an equal opportunity to actualize their learning  potential.  Before making  crucial decisions regarding the place of gifted education in 21st century schools, educators’ vocabulary, beliefs and practices should be reviewed.  


The term gifted has rightfully been expanded to include students with exceptional abilities beyond the academic areas into the areas of the fine arts, leadership, and bodily-kinesthetic skills. Of course, in many schools, there already are ample opportunities for students with gifted ability in non-academic areas to express their gifts in special programs and competitive opportunities. Students whose gifts are in the academic areas have just as much need to experience learning opportunities that are more complex and abstract than those appropriate for age peers. We need to be less concerned with the label of gifted and more willing to advocate that all children regularly experience challenging learning opportunities.

There is a call in education for equity and excellence.  If we define equity as equal opportunity for all students to learn at their challenge level, and excellence as opportunities for all students to reach their own learning potential, maintaining  appropriate programs for gifted children is certainly compatible with school and district goals.

It may seem politically incorrect to expect something special for children who already  seem  over-blessed.  The  prevailing be- lief is that all students can learn.  However, the prevailing practice is to focus on the learning needs of those students who are not working up to grade level standards, thereby giving much less emphasis to the learning needs of those students who will lead their classes in scores on state or standardized tests.

Gifted children are not special. All children are special.  But gifted children do need different educational opportunities so that  they can actually learn in classes that are geared for age appropriate learners. If we accept the concept of learning as forward progress from one’s entry point into a learning curve, it becomes obvious that those students who already know what is about to be taught will not be learning as much as those students who are novices in that same content.

The final vocabulary issue surrounds the idea of enrichment, acceleration, and/or extensions.  For many years, activities for gifted students were labeled enrichment. The accompanying assumption was that only gifted learners could benefit from an enriched curriculum or program. Of course, we now realize that  all students deserve an enriched curriculum. Only gifted children who are already able to handle material too advanced for their age peers consistently need extensions of the regular curriculum or acceleration into a higher level of  content.  


Whether or not separate special programs for gifted students exist at a school, gifted students have the right to experience what all other students experience regularly: challenging learning opportunities that move eager minds beyond what they already know to experiences that require effort and energy to understand and master. When parents  advocate for what their gifted children need in school, it is important not to ask for anything special.  Rather, they should ask any teacher regarding any student, “What evidence do you have that this child is working at his or her challenge level in your classroom?”

Your school or district has made promises, as stated in your philosophy or mission statements, that include phrases such as:

“All students will be challenged in their learning situations.”

“All our students will be expected to  actualize their learning potential.”

“All students will enjoy high self esteem as an integral part of their schooling experience.”

All parents have a right to ask this question of all their children’s teachers. “What evidence do you have that my child is working at her challenge level in your class?”  All teachers have an obligation to answer that question. This means that teachers must know how to provide learning experiences that stretch students’ existing capacities.  To offer  a one size fits all curriculum is inadequate.

Actualizing one’s learning potential is not as easy as it sounds. It cannot be done until the teacher knows the value of challenging all students to move into uncharted waters. Gifted students often don’t come close to their learning potential, especially when they are given high grades for work they know took little to no effort.

Including those with academic learning abilities that exceed those of their age peers will provide gifted students with equal opportunities  to receive the benefits of the  promises made to all students. Therefore, nothing special is expected, even though something different may be needed.  


There are at least three assumptions we can make to begin a plan to re-enfranchise gifted students in contemporary education.

1)  Most classroom teachers and school administrators  have very little training in meeting the learning needs of gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms.

2) Most teachers are currently drowning in a flood of expectations for accountability regarding progress for students who are working significantly below expectations.

3) Appropriate staff development methods can significantly increase teachers’ ability and willingness to differentiate curriculum and expectations for gifted students.


First, it continues to be a matter of fact that most teachers enter the field with absolutely no course work in how to recognize and teach gifted students.  This reality reflects the general lack of awareness and concern with the topic of gifted education at most teacher training centers in this country. We could also infer that this topic does not have much attention from lawmakers and other politicians as well. Whereas new and experienced teachers are highly likely to have had at least one college level course in teaching special education students, very few of those same teachers are even remotely knowledgeable about the exceptional capabilities and learning behaviors of gifted students.

Gifted students actually learn differently from age peers in three important ways: (1) they learn new material in much less time than age peers; (2) they tend to remember forever what they have already learned; and (3) they perceive ideas and concepts at more abstract and complex levels than age peers.  

Since so few teachers are aware of these realities, their behaviors toward gifted students are likely to reflect stereotypical beliefs.

The first belief is that gifted children are highly productive students who should always get high grades.  They will make it on their own without much assistance from teachers. This belief is related to another:  that students who are not productive in school cannot be gifted.  If I could characterize a single issue that frustrates gifted children, their teachers and their parents, it is this issue of whether the student will do his work. This frustration arises from what I call, “the confusion of pronoun syndrome. I have rarely met gifted children who won’t do their work.  What they usually resist doing is the teacher’s (his or her) work. Gifted children would actually be thrilled to be allowed to use school time to do their work, which I define as learning something they don’t already know!  

This is the first issue I try to clarify with teachers I train.  The concept is somewhat shocking since most educators have never considered the notion of “Whose work is this, anyway?”  Content and pacing differentiation are vitally necessary if gifted children are going to be able to get what they need to actually learn  new material on a regular basis.

The second belief is that gifted students’ work should always be exemplary, neat, beautiful, and excellent.  Great frustration is experienced by all gifted students, their parents and teachers  when the children sometimes do messy, careless work.  Many teachers find it difficult to juxtapose the notions of highly intelligent with highly messy and completely disorganized.  Professionals in gifted education have slowly come to realize that such profiles may actually describe the existence of a learner who is twice exceptional. These children are gifted with a learning disability, ADD, or some other type of learning challenge. The student is often described as an absent-minded professor;  a student who can verbalize magnificently, but who refuses to write anything down.  And even if such a student is not twice exceptional, sloppy, messy work is often a sign of frustration over being expected to do tasks that hold no challenge for the learner.

The third belief is that gifted children should always want to go for the gold; be excited about going above and beyond the expectations for age appropriate learners. Many teachers offer work for extra credit and are perplexed and frustrated when some gifted children don’t take advantage of that opportunity.  Parents often encourage this practice by asking teachers to give their children more to do at home in the evenings, weekends, or over the summer months. No rational person, at any age, willingly does more than others are doing simply because more is better.  I don’t support the notion of extra credit.  I don’t ever suggest activities teachers can offer for extra credit. What gifted children need is something different that extends the regular curriculum into areas or levels which they can find challenging.


There is no doubt that in the decade of the 1990’s, the attention in education shifted to low-achieving students.  As many states insisted that these students would be accountable for taking the same tests as students who were average or high achievers, the cry has gone out, “Get those test scores up for the lowest achievers.” Most educational decisions that were made in that decade were focused on achieving that goal.  Low-achieving students don’t do so well in same ability classes – place them in heterogeneous classes. If mixed ability classes are better for struggling students, they must also be better for gifted children – let’s put them all back into heterogeneous classes.  And as long as they’re there, let’s use them to help the less capable students raise their achievement levels.  And let’s teach the entire class as one group, making sure the curriculum is the same for everyone.  All these decisions may be helping the low achievers, but they have been the source of intense frustration for gifted children and their parents. With the advent of alternative schooling methods, such as home schooling and charter schools, many of our most capable students have left public education.  If we don’t do something to keep them with us, the top 5% of the students will no longer come from the 95th-99th percentiles!  

These differences make compacting imperative. Compacting is the practice of condensing the regular curriculum for advanced learners  to allow them, at the beginning of any unit of work, to demonstrate previous mastery, or their ability to learn the required material at a faster pace than age peers. In order for compacting to work, teachers need to learn how to develop and use appropriate differentiation activities that stretch gifted children’ minds into more abstract and complex types of thinking.  That’s actually my definition of gifted; being able to handle learning tasks that are more appropriate for students 2-3 years older than those at a given grade level or course level.

The second point of this article is to make sure readers are aware of the incredible pressures that are being exerted on teachers across our country to demonstrate the buzzwords of accountability and the reaching of standards.  Every group I encounter feels this pressure, which may actually lead them to pay even less attention to their gifted students. The push is on to be able to have all students demonstrate they can achieve grade level expectations or standards. In some states, teachers’ job  evaluations are tied to this expectation. At first glance, that seems like a laudable expectation. After all, we have standards that we are expected to attain in our own jobs and responsibilities.  However, the numbers of children who start school with woefully inadequate readiness from their first five years of life has increased dramatically in recent years.  Significant numbers of children come to school daily with such heavy emotional baggage that it is nearly impossible for them to concentrate on cognitive learning tasks.  Expectations for achieving grade level standards extend to these children as well.  If you are a classroom teacher facing this situation, the needs of students who are working at or beyond the top end of expectations will not appear very important to you because they will not bring your class test scores down. This is reality for most classroom teachers today.

Many teachers acknowledge the reality that highly capable learners need challenging learning opportunities.  Their fear, however, is that once they pre-test and find some students who already know the material they are planning to teach, there will be additional demands on their planning time to locate and set up extended learning experiences.  Many teachers worry that there is simply not enough time available for them to accommodate gifted students’ needs for compacting and differentiating the curriculum.  However, there is often a fear in some teachers’ minds that they won’t know what to have the eligible students work on in the time that is created by compacting. For teachers already feeling overworked and stressed out, this prospect may not be very pleasant.  

This situation provides an opportunity for parents to help.  You might suggest topics related to your child’s interests, and indicate your approval that part of the time the youngster spends on differentiated activities in school be related to the areas of interest. This would be an example of a differentiation method called enrichment or extensions.  I believe it is also appropriate for such students to spend part of their homework time working on a specified section of the project at home.  This arrangement helps the teacher extend classroom differentiations into a differentiated homework opportunity. Again here, the key is to not ask the teacher for more work for your youngster, but for different work that will interest and challenge her.

However, when students need acceleration of content in addition to or in place of extension, such as in subjects that are very sequential like reading or math, a different type of intervention is indicated.  A student might be allowed to work with a group of students from a higher grade for the subject areas in which he is significantly advanced.  In rare cases, where a youngster’s entire learning level is significantly advanced from age peers, radical acceleration or double promotion is another option.


The third focus of this article is in regard to staff development.  There is an enormous range of staff development opportunities between districts and states for helping teachers learn how to become as effective as possible with all types of students. Remembering from my first point that very few teachers or administrators have experienced any gifted education training before entering the field, much training is needed while teachers receive in-service courses. And that brings us to the really good news: once teachers learn how to challenge their gifted students in ways that do not bring unmanageable burdens to the teacher, joy and excitement abound. Teachers say things like, “I wish I had known about these things earlier in my career” or “I just can’t wait to get back to my students to try some of these things with them.”  I’ve even heard the second comment during summer training, when one would not expect teachers to be anxious for school to start!  The training I do contains several sections which are all designed to make appropriate interventions for gifted students totally teacher-friendly.

The first concept I deliver is that it’s OK to differentiate for gifted students because they are as divergent from normal or average as are children in special education.  We talk about all of the help and funding that are easily accessible to make differentiation available to students who have trouble learning.  Teachers come to understand that accommodations for gifted children must be made for the same reason – that what is appropriate for age peers is simply not appropriate for them in their areas of strength. Not because they are special, not because they are tomorrow’s leaders, not because their parents know how to make wheels squeak, but simply because of their differences in readiness for learning.  I have seen teachers and administrators alike experience the proverbial “Aha!” as this understanding occurs.  

The second idea we discuss is that traditional identification methods are far from perfect.  Sometimes, they identify gifted students. Sometimes they identify high achievers as gifted.  Sometimes they miss highly gifted students whose deficiencies appear to give silent testimony that giftedness could not possibly co-exist in this youngster.  Therefore, from my perspective, the only fair way to identify gifted children in any classroom is to let the gifted identify themselves by their actual learning behaviors.  The simple method that allows this to happen is for the teacher to describe, to the entire class, the manner in which students are invited to demonstrate they either already know the upcoming content, or can learn it in a much shorter time than will be needed by age peers. At that point, any students who can demonstrate they meet the expected criteria are indeed eligible for differentiation activities pertaining to the specifically designated content.  What always happens is that some gifted children aren’t able to meet the criteria, some children meet it who aren’t usually perceived as gifted, and everyone wins.

In teaching teachers, it is very important to allow adequate time during training workshops for them to plan the actual activities they will offer to their students. Therefore, I suggest that teachers, working in job-alike groups, plan learning activities to increase the interest, meaningfulness and relevancy of the work for all students. When all students perceive their work as exciting, there is little or no resentment toward children who are doing the differentiated activities.  

A matter of intense concern is classroom management.  In order to try something different with their students, teachers need to know that the technique will flow smoothly in the classroom and will be relatively easy to manage.  I spend considerable time demonstrating methods that help students understand exactly what they are supposed to do on a given day in class.  Methods are demonstrated to help teachers keep records of which students need which option on any given day.  We discuss ways to help students improve their own organizational skills and take more responsibility for managing their independent working time. I demonstrate ways in which teachers can spend time with those students who are working on differentiated tasks, so those students don’t feel abandoned by the teacher and so they know help will be available for them when they need it.  Behavioral guidelines for students working more independently are suggested, and we talk about the consequences for students who are unable to follow those guidelines. By the time teachers leave the workshop, they have concrete plans about which strategies they will use, and how they will manage those options.   

Finally, we talk about ways in which teachers can continue to support each other as they work to implement compacting and differentiation opportunities in their classrooms.  The research on staff development concludes that lasting change is more likely to happen when teachers have peer support during the entire implementation process. I strongly encourage the formation of school-based study groups, led by teachers in the workshop and open to all interested teachers in their building.  Meeting together at regular intervals during the school year, teachers select methods to try, help each other with implementation, and have group discussions on the pros and cons of each method. Without such a support system at a school, teachers who attempt to use methods they have learned in a workshop are likely to abandon that method as soon as they encounter any barriers to success.  With the study group members available to each other, the likelihood of being able to work out glitches as they occur is very good. Therefore, the likelihood of lasting, effective changes coming from teacher training methods is also greatly enhanced.  

Educators will often state their belief  that all students should have their self esteem needs met as part of their learning experience. But self esteem actually is enhanced when success is attained with something a person perceived would be difficult or challenging. (Rimm, 1987).  Development of high self esteem requires that students  be allowed to challenge themselves in an environment in which their mistakes and struggles, as well as their successes, will be allowed and appreciated.

When students get high grades and other kudos for products they know required little or no effort, their self confidence is undermined, and they learn to always find the easiest way out, postponing their exposure to challenge in many creative ways. Many really fear that if they try something challenging and are not instantly perfect at it with little or no effort, others might conclude that they are not really very smart after all.

Another consideration linked to self esteem is that youngsters have to feel acceptable just the way they are -- that one doesn’t have to change to become more normal.  Gifted children, especially as they enter adolescence, often go into hiding regarding their intellectual abilities because they perceive messages from others in school that they would be better off if they were more like other children, and less different.  Classes need to provide safe havens for gifted students to demonstrate their exceptional learning ability without feeling weird or unacceptable.

Regular grouping practices do not automatically provide for the needs of gifted students. Although totally heterogeneous grouping appears to be a beneficial arrangement for most students, gifted children do not thrive well if they are purposefully separated from each other, so that one or two can be placed in each class as role models or leaders. When gifted children are grouped together for part of each school day with learning peers, they are much more likely to demonstrate their capabilities because they have others like themselves who can validate they are OK just the way they are.  As Dr. Ellen Winner of Boston College writes, “Gifted children are often socially isolated and unhappy, unless they are fortunate enough to find others like themselves.”

The practice of cluster grouping can provide for this grouping option without returning to the former practice called  tracking. Tracking is the practice of grouping all students together with students of similar ability.  Cluster grouping, on the other hand, only groups together students who can benefit from such grouping. I am recommending the practice of purposefully  clustering academically gifted students together in groups of 4-6, and placing them in an otherwise heterogeneous group.

 There are several benefits from this type of arrangement.  Teachers are more likely to offer the types of curricular modifications gifted children need, and all children in the class

are equally eligible for those modifications, if it can be demonstrated that previous mastery has been attained or that exceptional talent with a particular topic is observed.  Gifted children are more likely to take advantage of those opportunities because they will not have to work alone when they do.

For further information about cluster grouping, contact the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education at 1-800-382-0272. The e-mail address is and the Internet site is -- ask for ERIC Digest EDO-EC-95-1.  For a list of districts using cluster grouping successfully, send a fax request to me at (517) 592-3436 and I will fax or mail you the list.  


The programs we should seek for gifted learners are those that deliver the promise made by most schools:  to provide consistent daily opportunities for challenging learning experiences for all students. This goal automatically requires providing differ-entiation of content, pacing, and grouping practices for the most capable students.  These differentiation opportunities are always available for students who struggle to learn.  The precedent for differentiation is in place. Since gifted learners are just as atypical from average as are children with learning problems, the differentiation they need is highly defensible.  Let’s be sure this concept is understood in our children’s schools.


Rimm, Sylvia (1987). From a statement made in a course taught by S. Rimm. Stop Underachievement Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Winebrenner, Susan and Devlin, Barbara (1996). Cluster Grouping of Gifted Students: How to Provide Full-time Services on a Part-Time Budget. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

Winner, Ellen (1996). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. New York: Basic Books.

1This article is based on a shorter version that was originally published in the Oct. 1999 issue of The School Administrator magazine.


"But I want first of all—in fact, as an end to these other desires—to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints— to live “in grace” as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. . . ."  Anne Morrow Lindburgh, 1906-   (author). From Gifted From The Sea, 1955.





  It is the spring semester. Kathy and Bill are talking about their move from the middle school to the high school next year.

“Why are you so worried about scheduling classes, Bill?,” says Kathy. “I don’t understand it. We are going to be ninth graders at the high school. But you’re worried about what courses to take all the way until graduation?”

“It’s really important to me and my dad that I get into a good law school like Brown when I’m done with college,” pleads Bill; “I want to make sure I get all the courses that will give me a head start on college. I have to make the best grades in the hardest classes, or I’m nothing.”

“But Bill, what about clubs and sports? And we get to learn how to drive next year too?!”, says Kathy.

“I know, Kathy. But all that stuff is secondary to me,” states Bill;  “I have to worry about classes. You see…Oh, never mind. I can do all the fun stuff in high school, too. Watch and see.”

This conversation takes place in many schools across the country. Most of us, with the best of intentions, recognize high ability—even giftedness—and do our part to encourage these tendencies. Unwittingly, we may be promoting perfectionism and misguiding gifted children into career paths we think are successful rather than allowing personal interests and experiences to guide children’s decisions.

In this article, the difference between excellence and perfectionism is discussed to help teachers and parents identify these tendencies in gifted individuals. Then, discussion turns to science as it typically exists in the curriculum of American schools, and a vision of how it could be used to battle perfectionism is presented. Finally, problem based learning is discussed as a promising method of teaching science and shaping curriculum appropriate to the individual needs of gifted students in K-12 settings.

Excellence versus Perfectionism

Children displaying unusual abilities tend to stand out in the classroom or home environment. As adults notice their high abilities, expectations rise and children are often perceived as capable of lofty achievements. When adults praise remarkable achievement, the emotional stakes for youngsters increase, often leading to perfectionism. “This characteristic has been identified as a strong drive to achieve that results in striving students who are content only with A grades and top test scores” (Whitmore, 1980, p. 146).

Some individuals view perfectionism as a positive psychological tendency. The qualities of resiliency or “stick-with-it-ness”, continual self-reflection, and self-correction contribute to the positive assessment of the perfectionist in this scenario. Individuals displaying these tendencies often take pride in their work, meeting deadlines, and thoroughly completing projects. High self-esteem provides motivation and confidence to tackle uncertain and broadly described goals. In my view, however, this set of tendencies describes striving for excellence rather than perfectionism.

Perfectionism involves one or many of the tendencies listed below. Individuals displaying these tendencies, either separately or in combination, are inhibited from taking part in even non-challenging activities for fear of failure; in student language this often means earning an A- or B, or having a GPA lower than 4.0!

People with perfectionist tendencies:

●   are set in their ways and often hyper-critical.

●   often feel dissatisfied with or even guilty about good work.

●  argue about one or two points on a test, even when they don’t affect the grade.

●  are resentful of critiques of their work.

●  work alone, because no one is as good as they are.

●  compulsively compare scores with those of other good students.

●  are critical of, and refuse to associate with non-straight A students.

●  procrastinate (each new project contains the threat of failure, and so starting is put off). Procrastination also presents an ego-saving insurance policy—if I don’t have enough time, I can’t do perfect work!

●  get upset if something started cannot be finished.

●  avoid new experiences because they pose a threat of making mistakes or failing.

(Adapted from Adderholt-Elliott, 1987)

Perfectionists rely on quantity rather than quality to feel a sense of accomplishment. “Ten awards is (sic) better than one award; Who’s Who Among High School Students, National Merit Scholar, President of the Student Council, President of the Band, and President of the Sorority is (sic) better than being just one of these and doing the job well” (Piirto, 1999, p. 485).

These tendencies and perceptions of what they believe others expect of them, cause gifted children to strive unrealistically for perfection in all areas of their lives. This is the scenario that Bill was facing at the outset of this article. Self-identify and self-worth are at stake and must be protected by living up to the expectations of others, while constantly agonizing over how to be best at everything. The perfectionist often perceives living as a series of coping strategies aimed at protecting a fragile self-identity. Perfectionism by this definition is unhealthy.

How can gifted individuals fight off the plight of perfectionism? Much of the answer lies in the training of teachers and provisions for a supportive classroom environment. Individuals trained to identify perfectionist tendencies can begin to include options that foster and nurture healthy risk-taking activities.

Science as a content area provides a unique opportunity for teachers and students to safely explore and take risks during the elementary and secondary school years. Science can be a means of battling perfectionism. In the following section, some pitfalls to student risk-taking are described from pre- to secondary school. However, I do not assume to have solutions to all obstacles that could be encountered.

The Withering Spirit of Exploration

“It has always seemed to me that ability to think critically and creatively is the prime cause for every important discovery that man has made.”  Albert Einstein

Toddlers freely explore their world causing much angst for many parents; fortunately toddlers are cute and that goes a long way toward appeasing an aggravated adult! As the child’s understanding of cautionary language grows (e.g., Hot!, Ouch!, No!), the child’s tendency to explore freely is tempered by parents concerned about safety and well-being. Children learn that risk-taking has either physical (pain) or emotional (punishment) consequences. When children reach school, they typically have elementary teachers with built-in aversions to math and science; as a result, their playful, imaginative, exploratory spirit withers further. At the secondary school level, science instills fear and anxiety in the minds and hearts of students as the world is examined through abstract vocabulary words, often poorly written tests, and fill-in-the-blank laboratory workbooks. Memorization and college preparation are primary focal points, with little emphasis on understanding and creative insight.

Textbook or Encyclopedia?

The process of doing science is grounded by an innate tendency to explore and take risks. Unfortunately, this spirit of exploration is not encouraged by textbooks or many classroom teachers.

Texts have a limited amount of space to present a vast quantity of material. Rarely is the overall process of discovery included with details of the tremendous number of mistakes made while researchers experiment. For example, Alexander Graham Bell worked on several ideas from 1872 until 1876 that ultimately led to a patent on the telephone –

 (see for additional information). Yet, school texts, regardless of grade level, present two paragraphs or less describing the discovery of the telephone.

This is but one example of the encyclopedic method publishers employ when preparing science texts used in schools. Their goal or theory is to provide broad resources for teachers who may choose specific topics to explore in detail. Unfortunately, teachers do not seem to be privy to this design plan. Textbooks often account for the entire curriculum presented to students.

In a similar manner, classroom teachers typically provide detailed laboratory experiences (copied from the accompanying laboratory manual), often grading students’ on their responses to structured guidelines and fill-in-the-blank questions. Students learn there are correct answers that must be found to earn credit. Making mistakes or exploring alternative possibilities during the laboratory activity, decreases or eliminates a student’s ability to earn credit.

Mistakes are Learning

This is not an appropriate way to present the process of science to students. We make many mistakes on a daily basis that help clarify our understanding of ideas and events. With practice we can pare away superfluous possibilities in order to gain an accurate understanding about a phenomenon, or to find direction for additional exploration. In other words, mistakes are much more prevalent and productive than “correct” answers. Why isn’t this process approach used in schools?

Many teachers  are not comfortable teaching science, especially in the elementary and middle grades. Science instruction requires special content competencies that are not part of most elementary teachers’ training. They often take only the minimum science requirement for graduation—frequently limited to a single course. They tend not to take courses in each science content area because of time limitations or personally perceived weaknesses in science knowledge and understanding.

Interestingly, most elementary science texts present material in a cross disciplinary manner, integrating biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics. But, since this is not the way the content areas were taught to them in their teacher preparations courses, most elementary teachers lack confidence in teaching science, even if they have had science courses from all content areas. Additionally, teachers are burdened with the requirement of accountability. In typical classrooms, especially at the secondary level, credit is earned through testing. Science areas are separated from one another into specific curricular offerings with little or no integration, and taught by content specialist teachers. Gifted students may have a deep interest or passion in one area of science that can be nurtured by further study; but traditional sequencing of courses (i.e., earth science, biology, chemistry, then physics) preclude this option for most.

In this system, students are often physically moved in an assembly-line manner through science offerings. Each course is highly restricted in content and students are evaluated on the basis of what they do not know compared to others, rather than how they can apply what they do know. This is very disheartening to gifted learners who exhibit creative or perfectionist tendencies.

On A Positive Note

The study of science provides ways for individuals to explore the world around them and wonder at the mysteries yet to be uncovered. Science provides the opportunity to play around and make grand mistakes, while at the same time developing critical thinking (and tinkering) skills through the processes of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Science is semi-structured risk-taking. When science is presented as an uncertain way of exploring, a parent or  teach- er can discourage perfectionist tendencies in children. “An environment where risk taking is valued, in which trust is developed, and where mistakes are seen as cues to aid learning relieves students of the need to be perfect” (Clark, 1997, p. 147).

Science is the process of mucking around—identifying problems, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions. To do science is to make mistakes, document the outcomes, learn from them, and then try again. Students gain understanding by following a trial-and-error scheme. Successful scientists revel in their mistakes, gaining conceptual understanding and applying this in interesting and novel ways to new explorations. If children recognize that much of the work in science involves making mistakes and then trying again, they will be less likely to become paralyzed perfectionists.

Science Standards and Gifted Education

The science education standards (National Research Council, 1996) provide a unified view regarding the teaching of science in K-12 schools. Representatives from all areas of science and science teaching contributed to and refined the standards based on outcomes necessary for entry level success in science occupations.

Examining one set of standards, parents and teachers of the gifted can observe that “best practices” in science teaching aligns very well with “best practices” in gifted education. The argument that gifted education is elitist loses all credibility when this alignment is pointed out.

The National Science Education Standards envision change throughout the system. The program standards encompass the following changes in emphases:

Less Emphasis On:

Developing science programs at different grade levels independently of one another.     

Using assessments unrelated to curriculum and teaching.     

Maintaining current resource allocations for books.      

Textbook- and lecture-driven curriculum.        

Broad coverage of unconnected factual information.      

Treating science as a subject isolated from other school subjects.      

Science learning opportunities that favor one group of students.        

More Emphasis On:

Coordinating the development of the K-12 science program across grade levels.

Aligning curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

Allocating resources necessary for hands-on inquiry teaching.

Curriculum that includes a variety of components, such as laboratories emphasizing inquiry and field trips.

Curriculum that includes natural phenomena and science-related social issues that students encounter in everyday life.

Connecting science to other school subjects, such as mathematics and social studies.

Providing challenging opportunities for all students to learn science.

            (Source: National Research Council, 1996, p. 224.)

Is Change Possible?

The information presented thus far makes a strong case for changing practices in teaching science in schools. Many programs have been developed that address issues of change. Several involve federally funded grant monies providing support and expertise to elementary teachers wanting to include science more appropriately in their classrooms. However, the benefits of most of these programs are temporary. Once the funding period is over, classroom practices tend to drift back to textbook and worksheet focus.

Curriculum must be developed that considers the varied needs of students and teachers in the science classroom. It must be diversified to include all broad areas of science in an integrated manner, while also enabling students to take responsibility for their learning. Moreover, the material must be developed with an open-architecture to allow all students (including the gifted) to self-pace their learning.

We must encourage teachers to develop a different philosophy of teaching than the one held by most of those currently practicing. We need to focus on placing responsibility for learning, assessment, and evaluation into the hands of the learners themselves. The teacher in this setting acts sometimes as an expert mentor; other times, as a communicator and negotiator finding expert mentors for students. Classroom management becomes classroom leadership in this setting; and control evolves into a sense of community spirit and fairness for all involved in learning.

Can this frame of thinking be put into practice? Yes. Education programs at institutions across the country have adopted the National Science Education Standards (1996) as guidelines for teacher preparation. In addition, training in the special needs of gifted learners is an emphasis area for many of my colleagues in the teacher education field at both the preservice and in-service level. As educators become more aware of the individual needs of students in their classrooms, and professional development aligns with best practices articulated in the professional literature, teaching practices will change.

In Practice: Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Is there any type of curriculum that currently exists that can be used to help guide this evolutionary process? Yes. An interesting approach to science teaching has been adopted from the training programs for physicians. It involves clinical exploration and diagnosis of a patient’s malady based on information that is not provided in complete detail. The approach places responsibility for attempts to solve the problem directly into the hands of students; thereby, increasing the need for risk-taking tendencies and learning through a series of mistakes. This approach holds much promise as a means of battling perfectionism in gifted students in the science classroom.

One of the newest teaching approaches in science education uses unclearly defined problems. Students are provided the task of deducing what components are missing from the original information and then attempting to solve a problem. This framework was developed in the medical education community to train doctors to include both the patient’s experience and the doctor’s diagnostic abilities in identifying and treating a sickness.

PBL provides students challenging opportunities to explore an issue, with an open-ended architecture. Rather than providing a discrete set of procedures to be followed, PBL provides possibilities as open as the imaginations of the students for dealing with an issue. Students generate procedures to test various aspects of the unclear problem. Mistakes are encouraged as a way of limiting possibilities, and clearly articulating the problem at-hand.

Assessment involves multiple layers of achievement, including: the process used to develop and articulate the problem; procedures developed and their use in defining the problem, ongoing documentation of understanding and thinking processes, and plausibility of the final outcome as well as report generation based on the entire process. In this model, the student is placed in the realm of the scientist. Prior experiences, as well as beliefs, are challenged as the student dabbles with the information provided in search of a plausible solution to the dilemma.

Note that solutions to the problem are only one aspect of assessment and evaluation. This is where PBL used in the science classroom differs from that used in the medical training field. In medicine, the outcome (identifying and treating the “disease”) is of paramount concern. Treatment provided that does not match the disease can be harmful or fatal to the patient.

In the science classroom, the student in relation to the process used to reach it weighs the outcome (even if incorrect). The goal in K-12 classrooms should be plausibility in relation to the process used to reach the outcome. PBL offers one example of curriculum that promotes the exploration and process of science rather than discovery of correct answers. Additional work must be done to adequately adopt PBL for K-12 school settings and meet the needs of varied ability learners in these settings. After all, there are no quick fixes to education—a process that continually changes based on the interactions of all stakeholders involved.

This may not sound very “scientific”; since most of what is taught in K-12 schools revolves around correct and incorrect answers. Nevertheless, this open-endedness is pivotal to fostering thinking skills in students. Again, few of the discoveries made in science were developed on the first trial of the experiment. Most, if not all, discoveries came about during a process of trial-and-error that lasted months or years, in many different laboratories. In scientific research, the one constant is that multiple failures lead to clearer understanding about a phenomenon. This should be the goal of science teaching in K-12 schools. Yes, answers are important. However, consistently producing correct responses teaches little, and more likely increases perfectionism.

Teacher Resources

Jones, C.F. (1994). Mistakes that worked. New York, NY: Doubleday & Co. For grades 4-6, this book provides an introduction to the idea that scientists often stumble on discoveries while working in their laboratories in search of very different answers.

“The Great Idea Finder” available on-line at:  Invention facts and myths are explored through web-pages describing mistakes that led to discovery of very familiar products.

“Inventure Place” in Akron, Ohio. Home of the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. A wealth of information is available for teachers, including histories of inventions and a searchable database. Visit their website at:  c


Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What’s bad about being too good? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.

Clark, B. (1997). Growing up gifted (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Piirto, J. (1999). Talented children and adults: Their development and education (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Whitmore, J.R. (1980). Giftedness, conflict, and underachievement. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.         


Robert Arthur Schultz, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at Texas Tech University where he is an educational generalist and teacher with emphases in Gifted Education, Science Education, and Curriculum Theory. He can be reached by e-mail at:, or by phone at 806-742-1997  Ext. 301.



Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (1996) by Ben Carson with Cecil Murphey. Zondervan House Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI.– As a world renowned neurosurgeon, Ben Carson is known for his leadership in conducting difficult brain operations on children.  His most notable accomplishment occurred when he led a team of 70 individuals in successfully completing the separation of seven month old babies joined at the head. This autobiography would be particularly inspiring for minority children because the author grew up in the Black ghettos of Detroit and Boston.  (Most of his public schooling occurred in Detroit except for two years in Boston's schools.) Carson describes difficult years in elementary school until the school nurse identified his vision problems in the middle of the fifth grade. After being fitted with glasses, his performance in the upper elementary grades improved until he progressed to the top of his class in junior high and high school.

The major positive forces in his young life were his mother and older brother, Curtis, who later became an engineer. Mrs. Carson was determined that her sons would perform well in public school, attend college and be successful in life. In addition, she instilled ethical principles in Ben and Curtis through her religious teachings and involvement in church activities. She organized their life outside of school so that study and reading took precedence over everything including television. As a single parent, she was under serious economic and psychological pressures. In this regard, Carson says that she would leave home (after placing her children in the care of reliable neighbors) for weeks at a time to "visit friends." But years later he discovered that she voluntarily entered a mental institution during these periods to receive psychiatric treatment. Mrs. Carson did not want to expose the children to her mental problems -- instead, she provided them with a stable home environment which eventually involved reclaiming a small house that she had rented to another family in order to pay the mortgage.

This combination of a strong-willed mother, bright children, and concerned educators produced amazing results. Ben became a high academic performer in junior high and high school. He graduated near the top of his class and became colonel of the Detroit ROTC high school brigade. At the final ROTC ceremony during his senior year, General William Westmoreland and two Congressional Medal of Honor winners attended and talked with Ben.  Later he was offered a full scholarship to West Point. But he was not interested in a military career -- instead, he set his sights on attending medical school and becoming a psychiatrist. Yale University offered him a 90 percent academic scholarship where he successfully competed against some of the best pre-med students in the country. After finishing his undergraduate work at Yale, he was accepted at the University of Michigan Medical School.  His interests turned to neurosurgery and upon completion of his four years of medical school, he went to Johns Hopkins University for his internship and five years of residency as a neurosurgeon. He is currently director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and has a worldwide reputation in this field.

Teachers, students and counselors should read this book and use it as an inspirational resource for study in the medical sciences. Besides providing details of the operation that separated the Siamese twins, the book contains the stories of many other surgical patients. Carson ends with the "Think Big" keys to success which emphasize talent development, learning the importance of time, hope, honesty, insight, being nice to people, knowledge, books, in-depth learning and God.    l l l l


Sidney Lanier (1842-81) and the Tales of King Arthur

by Michael E. Walters   

Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

In 1880, the American poet Sidney Lanier retold the Tales of King Arthur in a way that was specifically for young males. This book, The Boy's King Arthur (1880), was for almost fifty years a popular literary staple for adolescents which influenced the social values of several generations of American males.  For example, individuals such as General Pershing (W.W. I) and General Patton (W.W. II) were impressed with this book as teenagers. To understand the qualities that appealed to young male readers, it is helpful to briefly describe the life of Sidney Lanier.

He was born in Macon Georgia in 1842. As a child he organized military types of activities, and he perceived White Southerners as knights who continued the values of chivalry established in England in the Middle Ages. During the American Civil War he and his brother fought in the Confederate Army. Sidney was at first a calvary officer in Virginia but was transferred to a blockade runner as a signal officer. He was captured and spent four months in a cruel prisoner-of-war encampment at Point Lookout, Maryland.

After the war, Lanier returned to his home in Macon, Georgia as a penniless and sick Civil War veteran who suffered from tuberculosis for the rest of his life. For a short while he practiced law but the lure of writing and literature attracted him to Baltimore in 1873. There he was associated with two institutions that had national reputations -- the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Johns Hopkins University. At Peabody he became a renowned flutist despite his tuberculosis. In addition, he taught comparative literature at Johns Hopkins, and was considered to be one of the leading poets in the United States, e.g., "The Marshes of Glynn" (1898). Near the end of his life, he edited children's books and wrote popular poems for children and adolescents. His last literary achievement was The Boy's King Arthur (1880).

The values expressed in Lanier's King Arthur book were derived from his personal experiences in Georgia and during his participation in the Civil War. The first value was a sense of duty -- although one might be defending a losing cause. What mattered was the courageous expression of one's duty for a higher ideal rather than winning. For Lanier, Confederate soldiers were like the knights of King Arthur's roundtable. The second value was concerned with defining manhood by using physical courage to express ideals, e.g., the Southern cause was not primarily driven by slavery, but by the desire to maintain a culture which included chivalry and the ideals of Arthurian romance.

Lanier sought through his book on King Arthur to: (1) present the Confederate value system to the entire younger generation of Americans; and (2)  justify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It would be interesting for gifted students to study the degree to which Arthurian romances still influence American culture. For example, is Star Wars the Arthurian romance of today's adolescent generation?  Perhaps the values that Lanier perceived in the Arthurian romance have a wider universal appeal than we are aware of.