Giftedness: Do We Need the Label or Not?

Recently, I have been bothered by some emails I received from Dr. Jo Boaler who is a Math Professor at Stanford University in California and founder of You Cubed, a math website for teachers of mathematics and the families they serve. Do not get me wrong, I do not know Jo Boaler, but from reading educational journals and having students with a propensity for mathematics, I signed up to get a newsletter from her “You Cubed” organization. Dr. Boaler has many really great ideas when it comes to mathematics education but her most recent focus seems to be on giftedness – or rather the labelling of gifted students. It is that of which I am not so sure.

Exactly three times in the last two weeks, I have received an email from Dr. Boaler and her organization touting a recent video they made about the labelling of gifted children and how it has been a disservice to them to have been labelled as such. I watched the video after receiving the first email.  You can watch it here: Rethinking Giftedness. Dr. Boaler wants people to view the video, so I feel that sharing it is the best way to allow you to know to what I am referring.

At face value, I do think the video has a point. We do put undo pressure on students. However, many other thoughts surfaced for me after I viewed the video.  These are some of my thoughts:

  • Was Dr. Boaler labelled as a child?
  • Was she labelled as gifted? Talented?
  • Did she receive special services as a child?
  • How does the U.S. system of identifying, signifying, and servicing gifted students differ from that of the UK system, from where Dr. Boaler originates?
  • What would she identify as key to her rise to being a pre-eminant mathematics professor at a highly esteemed institituion?
  • How does she think of herself? Does she have a label?

Upon further thought, I am curious to know why she is pushing for the removal of gifted labels. Personally, while I understand that labels are not always helpful or healthy, they do serve to identify students and what services they might be in need of to maximize their learning potential.  I am not sure that removal of the label of “gifted” is the answer. It might be for some – such as those featured in the video – but what of those students who feel that the label actually helped them to “get what they needed” or helped motivate them to strive for more?  I think that only one side of the story is told by the video. This is what distributed me and I am left unsure as to why it is even being addressed at all by this particular organization.  Why the push back against giftedness from such a visible, generally proactive, revolutionary thinker and mathematician such as Dr. Boaler?  It concerns me that she is advocating for the deletion of labels for the gifted population.

One of my own thoughts kept resonating with me and it is this: student labels will happen whether we want them or not.  This became apparent earlier this year when my sophomore came home and told me that he is now known as “The Art Kid” at our high school due to his extraordinary talent in hyperrealistic drawings. He did not look for this label, nor do I think he really wants the label anymore than he would want to be labelled gifted for the fact he is taking AP Calculus as a sophomore. It just happens. Students notice. They will continue to notice and label whether we think it is a good thing or not.

Time might be better spent educating teachers on how to individualize learning to fit the needs of each student, understanding the complexity of gifted individuals, and providing support for their needs rather than using name and status to undermine an entire group of students by calling for them to “just be like everyone else”.  Because, that is the key to understanding – label or not – gifted students are not the same as other groups of students – who, by the way, also have labels.


I asked a respected friend who teaches TAG students what she thought about the video by Dr. Boaler. She responded with a great insight in that rather than fighting the labels, we should be teaching TAG students (and all students, really) to be resilient and continue to work to have their needs met – label or not.  We all need to realize that lablels exist in life beyond school – again, whether we want them or not. We want all students to be true to themselves despite what they are labelled. Giftedness is not a just label, it is far more complex – it describes “who” and “how”  someone is – and maybe that is what I see missing in the video, too.

I have a great deal of respect and even admiration for Dr. Boaler who is trying to revolutionize the teaching of mathematics, but I think she is off-base here. I would like to tell her not to waste time fighting the labels, her time is better spent on the mathematics education, itself.  The video and especially, the repeated emails with instructions to view it, have left me disappointed in what I thought was a new direction of educational leadership from an esteemed professional and institution.  I expected better. I expected more. And so do the TAG students…..sometimes, their label gets them there.



9 thoughts

  1. I am a seasoned teacher and a newly found advocate for the TAG community. I am the director of my own after school program for gifted students. I find myself in uncomfortable converstations, often in regards to gifted students and gifted education. The bottom line is that gifted education is good for all. When we identify the gifted students, we begin to understand them better as individuals and not just another kid in the class. This is the same for any student that is in your class whether they be neurotypical, or have learning challenges. Why would we not want the label?
    You said it beautifully here: “they do serve to identify students and what services they might be in need of to maximize their learning potential. I am not sure that removal of the label of “gifted” is the answer.”
    I don’t love the term “gifted” because I see all children’s gifts… but that’s the label. And trust me as a mother of gifted children and a teacher, the gifted child isn’t always a gift! LOL – It is hard to advocate for their needs. Too many times we are told, by third grade the rest will catch up and then they will have a peer group. Or they are fine because they can teach and explore on their own. BUT guess what? Many gifted students don’t see it that way. They feel like outcasts, they feel like they WANT the teacher to explore with them.
    We need the label AND I challenge more people to say to their child, you are gifted. I tell my oldest, you are bright and self motivating. I tell my middle child you are highly gifted and I tell my youngest you are gifted with exceptionaliites. We actually call the youngest Rocky Road gifted and my middle, Vanilla Gifted. LOL. All three of my kids are smart, but they aren’t all gifted. And even with the two, their giftedness falls on a vast spectrum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I will have to go back and re-read my post before I respond further with any detail. I am curious to know the ages of your children, if you do not mind sharing them with me. I could not agree more about giftedness falling on a spectrum and that spectrum falling on the larger spectrum of all students with the gifted students being at one end. Yes, they deserve service and understanding just as much as any other child in the classroom. Yes! Yes, they definitely, do! Thank you, again!


  2. As my (fake) name implies, I am a rising PhD student in math who has a strong interest in math education. As someone who recently dug deeper into Jo Boaler’s ideas of math education, I think you’re giving her more credit than she really deserves. Gifted education isn’t the only place Boaler’s been under fire for. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists, for instance, are unhappy with how she cites research, and feels that she has advocated for things in the name of research that aren’t actually backed up by research. In addition, she’s not in any way a “mathematician,” not in the sense that she has done any work in mathematical research, nor in the sense that she has studied any mathematics beyond intro college level calculus (in particular, she has no backgrounds in proof background, almost equivalent to having no background in labs in science). Rather, she has a PhD in math EDUCATION, and teaching math just happens to be (supposedly) her specialty. When I took a look at her various tasks, it makes me wonder whether she even understood the concepts she wants the tasks to teach or just thinks the tasks are cool (one task in math and art being a good example). If you were wondering why a “revolutionary mathematician” like Jo Boaler is advocating for questionable things, it’s probably because of her ideology. She believes in equality of outcomes, and she sees any programs identifying, and involving gifted children as a threat that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. You have “inside” experience with mathematics from which to make astute observations. I guess I did not want to come right out and say what you had the courage to say at the end of your response. I thoroughly agree that Ms. Boaler sees gifted programs, as well as the identification and labelling of gifted students, as a threat. I worked for many years as a volunteer student advocate for gifted students – mainly because there was a need that I saw based on my own sons. My oldest son is now is a PhD student in Stats with a co-major in the Environmental Sciences. His experience with math (he has an undergrad degree in it) holds up what you are saying about how what is being taught needs to be better understood by those teaching – not just that it is a “cool” “new” and “different” way to do things. In addition, I have to apologize for my use of the word revolutionary to describe Ms. Boaler – at the time I wrote the post I was influenced by local math educators and also intrigued with some of what she was doing. Calling her revolutionary was an error on my part. I no longer follow her work. Thanks again for the comments.


  3. I have so many thoughts on this. I’ll sum up =)

    As a gifted kid, I wound up opposing the label because I didn’t think that my labeling had a net positive for the way I grew and developed.

    I didn’t realize until well into my teaching career that my poor experience wasn’t because of the label itself. It’s because I never had an opportunity to explore who I was, or what that label MEANT. Once I made that discovery, it’s allowed me to make self-awareness and self-discovery a critical part of the gifted education I provide.

    Haven’t. Looked. Back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your students are so lucky to be the beneficiaries of your own experience! KUDOS to you for providing the chance for them to find their passions. My youngest son had the greatest TAG teacher – she encouraged him and the other students she saw to dig into what they were interested in doing. This is not to say they didn’t have to do “certain” things for her, but she was excellent at individualizing. She was a great influence on all three of my boys.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I suppose that many of us strive to be the teacher we wish we could have had for ourselves, or the one we wish our own children could have.

        I’m glad to hear that your guys had such a positive experience with their TAG teacher. It really can make all the difference.


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