How do we define success for gifted students?

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. — Bill Gates

How do you define success? Is it the accomplishment of one’s goals? Is it the attainment of wealth, position, honors? Is it happiness? Is it all of these, selected from a number of definitions on Wikipedia?

Perhaps more important to teachers of the gifted is this question: How do we view success for our students? Do we see it as an individual entity for each student, determined by the growth in thought and sophistication evident in the work submitted? Or do we have one predetermined definition of success against which each student’s individual efforts are measured? 

On the first day of class with gifted adolescents, do we treat them as successful individuals? Or does the student have to earn success in our class in order to merit such a distinction?   

We all know students who have not been overtly successful. Perhaps they have chosen a less-than-prestigious career and are viewed as not reaching their potential. Counseling psychologist Barbara Kerr attended a prestigious school for the “best and brightest” young people in St. Louis. She was fearful of facing her high school classmates at their ten-year class reunion because she had a Ph.D. in psychology, a “soft” science, and doubted they would view her as a success. As it turned out, she was one of a very few who had earned a doctoral degree. Her fears were allayed—she had succeeded where many others had failed.

I appreciate the teacher who believes that her student is a success from the outset. Researchers Carl Heine, James Gerry, and Laurie Sutherland seized on this idea when they asked, “What if students see technology itself as an opportunity for improvement? Rather than use what is given them, what if they design new technology?” They continue: 

Technologically adept teens not only consume technology voraciously; they create it. Gifted and talented students are attracted to technology for its capacity to transform learners from receptacles of knowledge to active producers who direct their own learning. Beyond the capacity to produce or innovate with technology is the opportunity to conceive and produce innovative technologies.

Indeed, teachers who view their students as innovators teach them differently from those who view their students as vessels to be filled to the brim with knowledge. In all disciplines—not just technology—students bring unique perspectives.  

Open-ended questions posed at the beginning of a unit can engage students in inquiry that directs their pursuit of the entire investigation. Likewise, at unit’s end, teachers can invite reflective thinking by asking pupils a question directly focused on what each one perceived to be essential in the material. Along with a focus on the specific material, the questions asked may spark thinking that resurfaces later in the form of an independent investigation—perhaps even a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. These types of classroom interactions are respectful of student intelligence and communicate the mindset of success.

Having students “think like” historians, scientists, mathematicians, or literary critics prepares them to understand the discipline as an expert would. Students must engage in order to inquire, hypothesize, and learn. They must devise the questions and ask them, not just respond to those handed to them. They are the innovators and creators, not just the responders. And for some—perhaps most—this is not an easy task. Success is not an easy task. As Bill Gates reminds us, success is a lousy teacher; students will learn to work harder only when their understanding demands it. Teachers should understand that no student can be bored when he is wrestling with a tough idea. Further, in creating an opportunity for resilience, they are helping students become more adept in solving problems.

Success in life is not based on how many and how quickly questions are answered—unless you’re a contestant on Jeopardy! It is based instead on success in solving problems when they appear, whether in careers, families, or individual lives. In knowing their academic discipline, teachers recognize what mastery requires. In short, they know what it takes to succeed. They may also know how difficult it is to truly attain expertise. Life seems to be that way as well! Successful education prepares students for productive lives. 

This blog post by Felicia A. Dixon, professor emerita at Ball State University, is an excerpt from Teaching for High Potential (Spring 2015).

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper.