The Bright vs. Gifted Comparison: A Distraction from What Matters

The Bright vs. Gifted Comparison: A Distraction from What Matters

The Bright vs. Gifted Comparison: A Distraction from What Matters

Challenge and growth in learning should be the goal. The distinction of whether or not a person is gifted vs. “just bright” is not relevant in the field of K-12 education.

Anyone who is in the field of gifted and talented education has probably come across the “bright vs. gifted” or “bright child vs. gifted learner” form. It appears to have first shown up in a 1989 article in Challenge Magazine by Janice Szabos but was likely around in alternate forms long before that. You can find a few links to it at the end of this article – it’s not hard to find and seems to be one of the most ubiquitous publications related to gifted education. I have seen this form included in formal district gifted education plans and even posted to state department of education websites. The overall suggestion seems to be that as a teacher, educationally useful information comes from knowing if one of your students is “just bright” vs. if she is “truly” gifted. In other words, if two children are otherwise identical in their level of achievement, aptitude, creativity, etc. they should still be treated differently if one is “truly” gifted and one is “just” bright.

The distinction of whether a child is bright vs. gifted is really emblematic of many of the challenges facing the field of gifted education. Let’s imagine for a moment that two identical children walk into your classroom (you playing the role of teacher). Both are very interested in the topic and have already mastered what you were going to teach over the next several weeks. Both ask good, probing questions and draw connections to other topics. Both prefer working with others who are at their academic level and can handle some degree of independent work. You now have two options.

Option #1: you provide them both with a more challenging course of study in-line with the students’ skill area and then check in frequently to make sure they both remain challenged and engaged. 

Option #2: you go home and spend some time trying to decide if one of the kids is gifted whereas the other is just bright.

Now the million dollar question: what is gained by first diagnosing giftedness as opposed to moving straight to the providing of more challenging material? What about the distinction of “bright vs. gifted” is educationally helpful if the students are otherwise the same in what they need from their school or teacher? The “bright vs. gifted” form, while a seemingly easy way to communicate the population of interest in gifted education, also serves to take up time from already-busy educators that could better be focused on developing interventions and providing services. A secondary issue is that many of the characteristics presented of a “gifted” learner are more likely to be observed in students from dominant cultural groups (Peterson, 1999). A tertiary issue is that identifying some students as bright and some as gifted as a trait of their person (as opposed to a temporary state) further reinforces an entity view of ability and the self (Dweck, 2007; Ricci, 2013). Bright or gifted? Who cares? Either way, schools need to make sure both students are being appropriately challenged. Over the last few years I have become increasingly concerned that many gifted education programs and professionals don’t seem to see “bright kids” as part of their purview. I’ve seen students performing seven or eight grade levels above their age peers who are turned away from gifted services because their IQs aren’t above 130 or because they seemed to fall more in the “bright” category than the “gifted” category on the aforementioned form. They are drastically under challenged in school but because they are not considered gifted they are ignored by the very system that should be their champion.

Many people will likely respond to this position with points about the unique social and emotional needs of gifted students – needs that apparently don’t exist for “bright” students. Jim Delisle argued recently that knowing a child is gifted and providing him that label assures access to services. Besides the fact that this statement is blatantly false (for example, Wisconsin legally mandates gifted identification and services in grades K-12 and yet very few schools actually do so), why can’t we proceed directly from Step 1: recognizing the child is unchallenged, to Step 3: providing an intervention that will result in appropriate challenge? See Figure 1 from Peters, McBee, Matthews, & McCoach (2014). Why do we need to go through Step 2 or checking to first make sure the child is really gifted and not just bright?











Figure 1. The gifted education flow chart

Let me be abundantly clear about something. I do believe gifted individuals exist (see McBee, McCoach, Peters, & Matthews (2012) and Peters, Matthews, McBee, & McCoach (2014) for an overview). That is to say that I believe there are people who experience the world in qualitatively different ways and take in greater stimulation from a given amount of environmental stimuli than is typical in a given population. My concern is that focusing on this population in the context of K-12 gifted education really misses the boat when it comes to the purposes of such programs (and the purposes of public education). Some (not all) “gifted” children are under challenged in their learning in schools. Likewise, some under challenged children are also gifted. But these two groups are not inherently the same population of people. Why can’t the field just focus on looking for those who are unchallenged, and have as a goal assuring they become challenged and remain so as much of the time as possible, instead of spending so much time on first diagnosing giftedness?



Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

McBee, M. T., McCoach, D. B., Peters, S. J., & Matthews, M. S. (2012). The case for a schism: Commentary on Subotnik, Olszewki-Kubilius, and Worrell (2011). Gifted Child Quarterly, 56, 210-214.

Peters, S. J., Matthews, M., McCoach, D. B., McBee, M. (2014). Beyond gifted education: Designing and implementing advanced academic programs. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.  

Peters, S. J., McBee, M. T., Matthews, M. S., & McCoach, D. B. (2014, March). Perspectives on the role and relationship between gifted education in research and in K-12 schools. Paper presented at the Eleventh Biennial Henry B. & Jocelyn Wallace National Research & Policy Symposium on Talent Development. Washington, D.C.

Ricci, M. C. (2013). Mindsets in the classroom: Building a culture of success and student achievement in schools. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Szabos, J. (1989). Bright child, gifted learner. Challenge, 34. Good Apple.


Links to the Bright vs. Gifted comparison:

comments powered by Disqus