Why Gifted Students Need School

Recently, I interviewed a truly delightful sixth-grade student. At one point in the conversation, I ended up interrupting regularly scheduled programming to give her a micro-lecture. (You can read that interview here.)

In the course of that, I decided that there was a message in it that more gifted students could benefit from.

It’s also important for teachers because part of being a truly excellent GT teacher is knowing how gifted kids can find meaning in learning. While I’m discussing formal schooling in particular, the lessons apply to homeschoolers as well.

One thing that concerns me is when homeschooling parents say that one of the benefits is that they can study only the things that interest the child. You’ll find out in this article why I think that’s not a good idea.

I’ve written an article about why students need to show their work, and I think you’ll find that article interesting, too, if this topic interests you.

When Will I Use This in My Real Life?

The part of the conversation that sparked this entire article went like this:

Jade: There’s no value in school for me. Like social studies: I was so mad because that class has no value for me. I don’t care, I don’t want to know. If I want to know about this, I’ll read a book about it. There’s nothing in here that I could not learn by myself.

Her thoughts are not unique. Who among us has not thought, “When will I use this in my real life?”

My response to this was so lengthy that I decided to pull it out of the interview and make it a separate article.

Chichen Itza

Why You Need to Study the Maya

The conversation continued with my confronting her statement.

Lisa: I’m going to push back against that a little bit. What’s the topic of your social studies classes?

Jade: There’s a lot, but right now we’re on the Maya.

Lisa: Okay, world civilization. So, your idea of, “I don’t want to know anything about world civilization” is prideful and ignorant and unworthy of you. [Harsh, Lisa!]

You cannot know right now what’s going to interest you all your life. So you can’t shut your mind to an entire field of study because right now you don’t think that you have an interest in it.

You don’t know the value that it will have to you, and that’s going to be true all your life.

I’m 56 years old, and that’s still true. I hear something, and I don’t know if maybe in five years that is going to interest me.

I would really push back against narrowing down your mind until at least college and maybe not even that. Most gifted kids I know change their college major multiple times.

When I was in college, my majors included astronomy, pre-med, English, and Political Science. I officially changed my major five times.

I ended up graduating with degrees in in English and Political Science.

I couldn’t have known when I was 10, 12, or even 16 what I would find interesting. If you’d asked me what I was going to do for a job when I was 16, I would have said, “I’m going to be an international journalist. That’s what I’m going to be.”

I have never been that, or even anything close to it.

I took AP Physics in high school because that’s what all the GT students did. If you’d asked me even while I was in the class if I liked it, I would have replied with an emphatic, “No! Who cares if how much Newton force the stupid car is exerting on the stupid bridge?”

And yet, now, I think of things I learned in that class so often (yes, even that car and the bridge). I remember my teacher, Mr. Worthen, with fondness.

I have been able to do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because I took that class.

So don’t narrow yourself too early.

✅ So the number one reason you need to study the Maya (or whatever else you are resisting) is as a favor to your future self who may find that topic fascinating.

neurons and neural pathways

How the Gifted Mind Finds Joy

My second reason is that part of the value of being gifted is the ability to make connections among disparate learning.

You’re learning about the Maya, and you’re connecting it to algebra and cooking and your dog and…

One of the joys of living in a gifted mind is being able to make these bizarre connections. They’re bizarre to everybody else, but to you it’s not bizarre. It makes total sense, and it’s joyful. There’s a dopamine party going on in your brain as all these neural pathways fire and recognize each other.

When we say, “Oh, I’m not interested in this, so I’m not going to study it,” it’s closing a door to possible enjoyment of your mind. You shut that dopamine party down.

✅The second reason to learn things in school that don’t interest you right now is to keep the dopamine party going in your brain.

girl and boy talking while holding books

Interested People are Interesting

As soon as you say, “I don’t see any reason for this,” that says way more about you than it says about the subject.

That’s the attitude of close-minded people, and close-minded people are really boring.

The more you know, the easier it is to make connections with people you meet. That makes the person him/herself seem more interesting because you had a point of connection.

Sometimes that’s all emotional, but emotion lives in the brain, too, so your mind and your heart aren’t truly separate from each other.

You will find more people interesting if you are interested in lots of things.

And other people will be more likely to find you interesting if you have at least one shared interest.

Don’t make yourself small-minded. It’s an unappealing form of pridefulness. No one likes to develop real relationships with prideful, arrogant people.

✅The third reason school helps you is to make you both more interested and more interesting. It’s a boredom preventer.

children helping parents with chores

Some Things Need to be Done

The third idea I’d share is the idea that, “Well, if I wanted to learn about the Maya, I could,” is like saying, “Well, if I wanted to clean my room, I could. I just don’t want to.”

 Well, that wasn’t the question. The question was, “Does this thing need/deserve to be done?”

And the answer is yes.

In this picture, everyone in the family is smiling. Are they loving all those chores? I’m not sure, but I do know they will be happier living in a home that’s not filthy.

I don’t love doing dishes, but I love having clean dishes on which to eat.

Sometimes we like doing the thing, and sometimes we like having the thing done.

I once read a book called Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.

It was about Benjamin Rush, who was a physician and an important man in the American Revolution.

It was a slog.

The book was so hard to get through, and I’m a strong reader.

I did not enjoy reading it, but I am very glad I read it. I’ve found connections to him over and over again.

If you go through school viewing it like a buffet where you only take the things you think you’re going to want to eat, then you are going to struggle all your life.

If you only do the things you like doing, you will leave very important things undone.

I hear this all the time from parents and teachers. They say something along the lines of, “He/she does great if he/she likes the class.”

That’s not a great quality. It’s self-centered and immature.

It’s a sign that someone does not truly understand what the purpose of education is.

Education doesn’t exist only so you can play with things you already like.

It does that, too, of course, but it also:

  • teaches you how to learn things
  • builds fundamental skills in a broad range of topics so you have the framework to learn whatever you want to learn
  • builds other skills unrelated to the content (see next section)
  • helps you discover things you didn’t know you loved

Just like your body needs a variety of nutrients, so does your mind. This is especially true as you are growing your brain (which you’re doing until your mid-twenties).

✅ Reason four is that some things need to be done, even if we don’t like them right then, and even if we can’t see right now why they should be done.

group of students working on robotics

You May Not Be There for the Content

Think about Jade’s Social Studies class. Some kids are in that class to learn Social Studies. Some kids are in there to learn about the Maya.

You’re absolutely right: you could go read a book about the Maya. And you will probably learn more than you will remember from our textbook or some video that you see in class.

However, there are other things to be learned in school because success in school takes three things.

1. Success in school takes some level of cognitive ability, which gifted kids all have.

2. It also takes emotional intelligence. What do I mean by that?

  • The ability to get along with people.
  • The ability to motivate yourself.
  • The ability to have self-awareness ― to be aware of what emotions you’re feeling, and then the ability to regulate those emotions.
  • The ability to put yourself in other people’s positions (empathy).

3. The third thing you need are some executive functioning skills, which involve managing your time and materials and your feelings.

Other students may struggle with content, and you’re thinking, “Really? How can you not get it the first time?”

But you may be struggling more with other things they have mastered in the areas of emotional intelligence executive functioning.

You may be in that class to learn how to better motivate yourself.

A Note about Motivation

One of the key things about motivation is that a lot of people think, “Oh, I’ll do that thing once I feel motivated to do it.”

  • Once I get in the mood to clean my room then I will clean my room.
  • As soon as I feel like it, I’ll do my homework.
  • I need to be in the groove/right frame of mind to…

But that’s not how it works.

The motivation is found in the doing.

You start cleaning your room, and you realize, “Ohhhhh. It feels better in here. It wasn’t necessarily enjoyable to do it, but now that it’s done and I’m looking around, I’m kind of proud of it. I want somebody to see it right. I want to go get my mom and have her come look at it because I’m proud of it.”

This family cleaning are gaining motivation as they work.

Remember this and your life will be better for it: motivation comes in the doing.

If we sit around waiting for people to create something that will lure us into interest, then we’re surrendering our power to them.

✅Reason number five is that you may be in school to learn things other than the content alone. Being smart is only one part of the equation.

Find the Meaning Yourself

There’s another piece that goes with reason number five, and it has to do with taking ownership of your learning.

If you say, “I’m going to wait until a teacher makes this interesting to me,” you are engaged in very low level thinking. You’re way above that, right? That’s not you (or at least it shouldn’t be). Your thinking should be, “How can I use this?”

Think to yourself, “What am I working on today? Everybody else may be working on Mayan ruins and sacrifice and let’s kill virgins on altars, but I’m working on getting better at organizing my notes.”

Or maybe, “I’m getting better at paying attention to someone who’s boring.”

Or, “You know what I’m going to practice today? My listening skills. I’m going to nod and smile. I’m going to make eye contact with the teacher. I’m going to be her favorite today. I’m just going to say, ‘What would her favorite student look like?’ That’s me today.”

So you can practice different things than everybody else is practicing.

✅ Adding on to reason five is this idea: Not only are there other reasons than content to be in school, but you should take ownership of finding those reasons.

School Has Value to You

If you are someone showing up at school thinking you could learn it all yourself, thinking that it’s stupid, or wondering when you’re going to use this in your “real” life, I think I think you’re selling yourself short.

If you are someone who is sitting around waiting for others to find meaning in education, who resists anything you’re not already interested in, or who waits to feel like doing something to start doing it, I think you would benefit from some growth.

I think there’s a higher path for you, and I believe with all my heart that you can find it.

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