At the Top

Start at the Top

Gifted learners don’t need teachers.


Before you laugh at my preposterous statement, allow me a clarification. Gifted learners need guides, supporters, and experts; but probably not teachers (at least not in the classic sense). It’s one of the major problems with throwing gifted kids into general education. Gifted kids have a strong need to solve puzzles, discover their own way of doing things, and do it all on their own time.


Before a lesson even begins, teachers have imposed an artificial timetable and have already charted a path for children to follow- all in the name of “authority”. Gifted kids can fake attention (while pursing other ventures), disrupt your timetable (by finishing early, taking too long, or never even starting), and are rarely followers (unless there something in it for them). This is why they need a different approach in the classroom and why they can be so unpredictable for most teachers and even for parents. As a teacher or homeschooling parent, you have to expect them to not follow your ideas. If you can handle that, you’ll be more likely to be successful guiding a gifted child or even a gifted adult.


That being said, how do you teach guide a gifted learner?

You make it all available, stand back, and be ready with a backup plan…… or two….. or three.


If you know anything about Bloom’s Taxonomy (and every teacher does), you know that most kids start with basic knowledge and work their way up along the pyramid of learning. Gifted kids wreck the pyramid. They often start at the top with either evaluation or synthesis/creation instead of at the bottom with the traditional Bloom’s Taxonomy at the knowledge level. It’s probably why a friendly cheat sheet with questions and product ideas using  Bloom’s Taxonomy came into existence and why the symbol for learning has evolved from a pyramid into a circle or matrix; allowing access from any direction.


But, doesn’t everyone start with knowledge and build up to creation? No, not really. Sure, we have pieces of knowledge, but how many of us start something with only a little understanding and fill in the missing pieces along the way? How could kids evaluate or synthesize information that they don’t even know? Well, though it sounds impossible, they do know- without being directly taught. Gifted kids are constantly gathering information, analyzing, and synthesizing all of it. Every observation and any connection is reflected upon and used in the creation of new understandings.


“Build a frame using the perimeter of 12.”

While your typical student is possibly thinking about a picture frame or contemplating the definition of perimeter, a gifted child is thinking about playing the video game where a military perimeter was established, running through a variety of ways to make 12 using all operations, and defining frame using multiple definitions. He’s probably also trying to figure out if you want an actual build or a symbolic one.


You could actually start with that phrase as a way to guide a gifted student to understand and use the idea of perimeter. Starting at the top (or with the ultimate objective in mind), is accessible to a gifted student because it gives him the goal while his brain works to fill in the gaps along the way. Already, whether you hand him a pencil, a manipulative, or a measuring tool, he’s building up ideas, comparing them to former understandings and synthesizing them into an attack plan before you pass out the assignment sheet. He’s running through ideas to be tried, some to be discarded, and even some outlandish ideas of how to implement his thoughts into a 3 dimensional figure. He sees multiple ways to approach, design, and solve the problem. Many will be incorrect, but many will also be on target- if he’s is engaged. Engagement is key.


Starting too slow can shut off the mind of a gifted kid. It can also make for a behavior problem or inspire self-doubt. So, how can you as a parent or teacher help a gifted child learn?


  1. Start at the top.

    Give the child the challenge (ultimate objective) at the beginning. You may even want to present the objective in the form of a problem to solve instead of a more bland textbook-style question by asking how to keep your dog from leaving the yard and keeping him inside the perimeter. Later, you can throw in the dimensions as needed.


  3. Act as a guide.

    Ask what he knows already and help him backfill as he goes or run parallel with his skills. Ask questions. Probe for understandings. If he understands the concept of area, he’ll probably figure out perimeter with little support. If he understands the purpose of a “frame”, he may guess at what you’re expecting without any former knowledge. Concepts can easily relate to seemingly disconnected understandings in ways you might not expect.


  5. Encourage his learning style preference and plan.

    He may choose to make a sketch, manipulate some kind of object, or need access to a piece of quick knowledge that makes it all click. Tell him it’s “interesting” when you’re not sure where he’s headed. That will give him more inspiration to show you what he’s thinking.


  7. Offer support, but don’t give answers.

    He may need to try it out. Don’t step in even if he’s going down the wrong track unless you see frustration begin to set in.  Nothing turns off a gifted kid more than being “handed” answers that he could have gotten with just a little more time. If he needs you, he’ll let you know….or die trying to figure it out on his own. Don’t worry. He enjoys the challenge.


  9. As a last resort, be the expert.

    If there is no way for him to understand and frustration is drawing near, be the expert. Come in and see where he is and try to bridge the gap to get him there. Don’t TELL him the answer. Reinforce with another opportunity or set it aside if he seems mentally exhausted. It may all come to him in the shower that night or the next time he’s given the assignment. The minds of the gifted don’t naturally work on a timetable. Having that expectation can create problems.



So, I hope starting at the top doesn’t seem so daunting after all. How do you know where the top actually is? Choose a level where the child has a chance of accessing the information needed to solve the challenge. Handing a gifted child a ball will help him understand Newton’s Laws of Motion more than having him recite the laws, copy them into a notebook, or memorize a definition. Gifted kids think and learn differently. It’s who they are.

Get your gifted kid to invest in his learning. Start at the top.




5 thoughts on “Start at the Top

  1. I think that in many parts of “math” we should start with the “situation”. Simple example:multplication. I need to tile my kitchen floor. How many tiles will I need? Fancy example: projectiles. What is going on here? what affects the distance travelled? Experiment, and “the real world”.
    This approach should work to some extent with a lot of the kids, not just the gifted. The “normals” (after H G Wells) will need more prodding!
    So much of the approach is how you describe it – “more than having him recite the laws, copy them into a notebook, or memorize a definition.”, and it doesn’t work beyond a test at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. The sad thing is that traditional standardized testing did work well with memorization. Testing is evolving, but instruction lags behind with traditional instruction still in the forefront in most classrooms and in most textbooks. Yes, there are “word problems”, but new concepts still lead with direct instruction instead of discovery learning. Yes, I agree that it should work with all kids, but until the pace is slowed, it won’t work with any kids.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree totally, Howard and yet unfortunately, the rush to implement such an approach was met with such outrage. Most parents see it as frivolous and unnecessary. In turn, many teachers I’ve worked with prefer to hand out a page of numerical problems because exploration “takes too long” and in their minds, memorizing the steps is all that matters for the test and for life.

      Liked by 1 person

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