Oh, The Humanity of Gifted Education

Some students just ooze their intellect. Watch these kiddos for a few minutes and you can usually peg their academic needs pretty easily.

  • A 5-year old who can add 3-digit numbers during the first week of kindergarten can be given the opportunity to move ahead and learn multiplication.

  • A middle school student who wows science fair judges with an elegantly designed experiment that makes a ground-breaking discovery can be paired with a mentor to continue their work in the field.

  • A young musician who quickly masters new scores with finesse and passion can be given more complex music to learn.

But what about the child gifted within the humanities – the one who’s passion is history or philosophy and logic? What opportunities do parents and teachers give these kids to continue to nurture their gifts and talents so they can grow academically?

Too often, well-meaning gifted differentiation amounts to nothing more than a glorified craft project disguised as a pull-out program. One of the top Gifted Hall of Shame Lessons would be the Underground Railroad quilt project. You know the one where kids learn about how slaves would “read” quilts to follow a path to freedom and then the kids sew a quilt to show the quilt code.

Now, I have nothing against learning about the quilt code. And, I actually support all children learning how to sew. But, putting these 2 activities together does little or nothing to support the intellectual needs of a gifted child. Sewing is a life skill – just like making paper mache models is an art skill. If you want to pursue these projects in school, then call it “art”, not “gifted education”.

The breadth and depth of knowledge that some humanities gifted children bring to the elementary or middle school years can be staggering. Just because they already know the basic facts of what you expect them to learn in their 4th grade curriculum doesn’t mean you should throw make-work at them just to keep them busy (and quiet).

Coming up with an engaging academic project that supports critical thinking skills – and won’t leave you needing to invest hours of time – and won’t leave the student struggling to complete the project on their own – needn’t be an impossible task.

The first step in developing a humanities-based differentiated lesson plan is deciding what you want your student to learn. Chances are they already know the basic facts, so focusing on understanding concepts or developing critical thinking skills will, most likely, be your goal.

A man by the name of Frank Williams created an 18-point model that teachers can use with gifted children. Going beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy of Evaluating and Synthesizing, Williams’ model gives you more than just a list of verbs to put into a theoretical learning objective. [Take a look at this comprehensive example of how you can use the Williams model to create 18 different learning goals for kids learning about the Civil War and slavery.]

Once you decide on the focus of your lesson, you’ll need to decide what you’ll change about your regular instructional approach. Will you change up the Content your use? The Process by which you teach? Or the Product you expect your kids to complete at the end of the lesson?


Differentiating instructional material involves more than giving a 3rd grade student a 6th grade textbook and having them read the same basic facts they already know with slightly higher vocabulary. Consider these options when picking books, videos, articles, and websites that you’ll use as your Content guide.

  • Breadth of Knowledge
    Guide your student to exploring side topics that complement the general focus of your unit study. This is a good choice when you’re concerned that a younger student might not have the emotional maturity to handle certain topics too deeply.

  • Depth of Knowledge
    Dig deeper into the topic at hand. Go beyond the basic facts that are generally covered in your grade level curriculum and let your student study the details most people might not know about.

  • Complexity of Thought
    Most elementary and middle school material is pre-digested into testable soundbytes. Some kids, however, are ready to work with primary sources and actual research articles so they can tackle the process of reducing down complex ideas into their essence of thought.

  • Abstract Thinking
    Focus on bigger concepts that tie ideas together. This is especially relevant for your humanities gifted kids who focus on existentialism. These types of learning projects rarely have a solid answer but they build critical thinking when kids are forced to answer question like: What causes some leaders to use their power for evil over good?


More than just the question of do you let a kid self-study and call it differentiation; Process focuses on the interactive “how” of learning.

  • Open Ended Questions
    Yes, multiple choice worksheets are far easier to grade, but they don’t usually help students develop or even demonstrate their critical thinking skills. Open ended questions, on the other hand, focus on thinking about what is being learned versus just regurgitating facts.

  • Inductive Reasoning
    Inductive reasoning is the process where kids wade through numerous examples and try to come up with a “rule” that explains why the “fact” occurs. While it’s a process of learning through discovery, this approach still requires involvement from an adult facilitator.

  • Providing a Rationale
    If you know gifted kids, then you know they can have strong opinions. Teaching them argumentation skills gives them the opportunity to rationalize their opinion or provide justification for why they think a certain answer is correct.

  • Team Problem Solving
    The key to using this technique is to make sure the team is made of up like-minded intellectual peers who are all equally invested in the Process of learning. Socratic discussions, a Problem-based learning experience, or creative problem solving contests are just a few of this type of Process option.


The guiding principle for picking an appropriate differentiated Product is to Keep It Real! Consider the skills and time it will take for a student to complete a particular project and their interest in those required skills.

  • Real-World Problems
    Your humanities gifted student will not be the person who discovers the cure for cancer, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t tackle other real-world problems. Paying attention to current events may spark an idea that your gifted kids can sink their teeth into – such as how do you preserve antiquities in war-torn countries.

  • Real-World Products
    Keep in mind the technology age we live in today. Web 2.0 tools offer you an amazingly rich set of options for how students can package, present, and share their knowledge with others.

  • Self-Selection
    If you’ve got a kiddo who sees sewing as a beloved hobby, then maybe an Underground Railroad quilt project will be a good fit for them. Otherwise, the investment of time in sewing does little to advance critical thinking – unless you do the sewing together as a group and you ensure there is a facilitated, focused discussion that complements what you learned. The better alternative is to give the kids a list of possible choices and let them pick what interests them most.

  • Peer Evaluation
    Learning to give and take constructive criticism is a valuable life skill – and especially important to leadership training. It’s important, however, to make sure the evaluations are coming from individuals who can actually grasp the ideas that are being communicated by your gifted student.

Tell us how you have successfully engaged your humanities’ gifted child into a meaningful learning experience?

This blog post is part of the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum October 2015
Breadth and Depth of Giftedness Blog Hop.
Visit GHF for more great blogs you can read.



Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. homeschooled her children from kindergarten into college. Over the last 15+ years, she has also worked with families in creating individualized learning plans. As a professional curriculum developer, Alessa has created afterschool youth development programs for a Baltimore-based nonprofit, as well as teaching materials for homeschool parents and brick and mortar school teachers.

12 thoughts on “Oh, The Humanity of Gifted Education

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  • October 19, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    Great article. The chart is something we should all probably consult when coming up with different projects or assessments for the students to complete.

  • October 19, 2015 at 10:09 pm

    Alessa, I’ve rarely seen a summary of gifted education so short and yet so complete. What you recommend is exactly what needs to happen.

    About the Underground Railroad quilt project….I fondly (NOT!) remember a headmaster telling my 11 year old that instead of learning calculus (as she wished), she would have the opportunity to spread bedsheets on a sledding hill to learn geometry. Maybe I should call that the “Bedsheet Sledding Hill Project.” Equally stupid for our kids.

    • October 20, 2015 at 8:05 am

      Thank you for your kind words, Wenda. I’ve actually been trying to compile a list of well-intentioned gifted projects for a companion piece on what is done and what could be improved by differentiating the differentiation.

  • October 19, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    What a great compilation of valuable information. My master’s is in humanities and the bulk of my classroom experience has been with gifted learners, so this article really resonates with me. I love how you’ve provided lots of practical application and litmus tests of value. Thank you!

    • October 20, 2015 at 8:09 am

      You’re welcome, Pamela, and thank you for your affirmation on this post. I remember my first attempt at a differentiation project for a group of gifted kids doing a mythology unit. I thought I was so clever with what I came up with, until one parent, very politely but pointedly, asked me what the purpose of learning was. That was an ah-ha moment that has guided a lot of my work since then. I hope some of what I share is helpful to others.

  • October 20, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Very useful!

    Critical thinking is so important, and the humanities are some of the best places for kids to exercise those skills. Yes, yes, yes!

  • October 20, 2015 at 12:38 pm


    What’s even worse is when you try to explain this to gen ed teachers and they think you’re the crazy one trying to rock the boat for no reason. ugh.

    • October 20, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      You’re welcome, Lisa. Be sure to check out the link about the 18 ready-to-use differentiation ideas for a Civil War unit. https://handinhandhomeschool.com/gifted/differentiation/gifted-differentiation-civil-war-ideas.php It’s a list of Initial Questions that can guide the development of a differentiated project for 1 or more students. Even if the teacher is not focusing on the Civil War, it’s a set of examples for how to brainstorm Initial Questions for any humanities topic. Sometimes seeing seeing a practical example inspires teachers to think outside the box.

  • October 20, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Alessa, Thank you for this!!! Your post is something not to be read over quickly, but to be printed out and looked at while we come up with new projects. Now to re-read more slowly.

  • November 22, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    In a sense, I see this post in light of the last, on, ‘Pathologising Lack of Gifted Achievement’.

    Aged eight, I was told by ‘experts’ I was going to be a great scientist. I had had several psychiatric assessments as ‘something was wrong’ with me, which concluded with the result of an IQ test being 162. At that point, I was sent away to private school by the authorities as I had been born into poverty.

    To this day, I don’t know what that IQ score really means, except that it’s apparently clever. I don’t have the least interest in it as, for me, it simply symbolises and reminds me of just yet another painful and destabilising influence in my young life. Even my nick-name in school, was ‘The Mad Professor’. Yet, more than anything else, I wanted to just be ‘normal’, whereas everything – even if supposedly positive – was a stamp of abnormal. (Why do we have to categorise everything that moves into boxes?)

    Even back then, I often wished I was dead (a common experience of the gifted, apparently) as everything seemed meaningless or that I felt completely out of kilter with the world. As a result, I left school with nothing apart from being a completely broken person. A failure academically. I didn’t care about learning at all. It seemed completely pointless, as did everything else.

    But, I also realised pretty quickly once I’d left, I never had had an interest in science at all. I had just been told I had an interest, because I performed like a chimp in tests and people were happy that I could perform these tricks. Yet, as far as I was concerned, the Humanities – as much as anything else – were boring, too.

    Then, by chance almost, I happened across people like Viktor Frankl, Ernest Becker, Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan, Alasdair MacIntyre, and discovered the reason I found Humanities boring was the utterly uninspirational way these subjects were taught, but particularly what seemed to be the lack of the teachers’ understanding of the ‘deep meaning’ of their subject.

    History, for example, goes far deeper than simply regurgitating dates and events, yet teachers never seemed to teach about this, nor how people can perceive history differently and the impact that can have on understanding and its application, say, in a political context. ‘Giftedness’, it seemed, was all about being good at quizzes and puzzles and twinkling like a little star. What’s more, the exam system itself, even at University, seems geared up to this ‘brain dump’ pedagogical methodology. Gradgindian ‘facts’ (first order) rather than deep reflection on the underlying principles (second order).

    From those first steps I moved rapidly into Theology and Philosophy, reading avidly, if not uncontrollably for the first time in my life. My mind, like a freight train running ’24/7′, with hundreds of questions, and trying to understand advanced texts in Philosophy, particularly Metaphysics and Phenomenology.

    As my learning was unstructured and autodidactic, I could study what I liked, and so my focus was always on the inner suffering gifted children experience, based on my own experience. If it wasn’t related to human flourishing or suffering, and understanding them, I skipped over it.

    I now think humanities are crucial to cultural engagement, but that there’s so much more to them than the very biased way in which they are taught ‘academically’. There’s a whole world of ideas out there even Universities exclude, ignore – or if seen charitably – don’t even know about. What’s more, I think these ideas would be really useful in helping all gifted children understand their situation and way of being in the world, not only those gifted in the humanities.

    Humanities can be taught in a ‘facts and figures’/’compare and contrast’ – or from a ‘getting to the guts of it’ – manner, and it seems to me, although no expert, that gifted kids would thrive more on the latter. In fact, I think it might encourage more interest that the over-weighting I perceive currently in Maths and Science.

    If anything, I see therapy as fundamentally patronising and constantly implying abnormality of the gifted. The gifted aren’t sick. In most cases, it seems to me, the problem is their insight into a situation is *too clear*! Even if they can’t articulate it, they constantly see the emperor naked, or that some ‘expert’ is trying to dupe them, fox them, or encouraging them to self-deception, going against their better judgement or hunch.

    The advantage I discovered in the water I learned to swim in, was that it was all about flourishing and purpose. It’s not providing techniques for fitting into what a gifted person in the humanities would probably see as a screwed up one – and therefore have an ambiguous relationship with – but a context and set of meanings which ‘turns the tables’ on their experiences, affirming them as sound rather than crazy.

    As such, it seems to me a Gifted Child, feeling at odds with the world, is far more likely to find resonance in the humanities if taught in a ‘deep’ manner or by using ‘thick descriptions’. This should lead to a sense of ‘being understood’, by the ideas. They are ‘not alone’, other great thinkers have been where they are, and so they will discover their way of thinking is not ‘abnormal’ but actually deeper than the surface structure where most people spend their lives, and complementary to it.

    Gone on too much already. So I’ll stop there.

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