catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


Developing talents in the Christian school

The field of Talent Development in Education is the only one I know of that has its origin in one of Jesus’ parables. The concept and word “talent” come directly from the parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25: 14-30. You remember the story – a landowner goes on a journey and leaves talents (money) with his servants to be invested, each according to his ability. The servant who receives five talents earns five more and the servant who receives two talents earns two more. But the servant who receives one talent hides it in a hole because he is afraid of losing it. The master praises and rewards the first two, but is angry with the last servant and punishes him. 


Implications of the Parable for Talent Development

The parable has been interpreted to mean that we must faithfully use what God gives us for his kingdom. But what do the talents represent – what does God give us? Some interpret the talents as referring to the material blessings that we are to invest in kingdom causes. Some say they are spiritual gifts that we are responsible for developing. And others refer to the natural abilities we are blessed with and that we must use to further kingdom work. The answer, of course, is all of the above. 

This parable jars adult Christians into self-examination about whether or not they live safe, risk-free lives, or live on the edge and put themselves and whatever God has given them to work for God’s kingdom. It also has implications for what we teach our children and the way we teach them. They, too, need to learn how to recognize what God has given them and how they can learn to use it for His kingdom. 

Christian schools ought to be at the forefront in the field of talent development – but talent development for the sake of service rather than for self-realization.  The mission statements of most Christian schools usually include the aim to fully develop each child’s God-given potential. It is certainly true that God gives all students gifts – musical, academic, athletic, social, spiritual, and artistic gifts. But like the landowner, God gives some students more gifts than others and imparts giftedness in various degrees. 

This article will narrow its focus to academic gifts, since that is the school’s primary sphere of responsibility. The academic gifts of students “in the middle” are generally developed sufficiently by the regular curriculum, and the gifts of those who struggle, by the special education program. But do students who have the most academic potential also have the opportunity in school to fully develop that potential? Or are highly gifted students given exactly the same instruction as the rest of the students in the interest of “fairness”? In most Christian schools that do not have a talent development program, highly gifted students work only occasionally at their ability level. If they happen to have a highly gifted teacher who understands how to appropriately challenge them, it will be a good year or class, but if they do not, they will likely be bored and unhappy, and they may even misbehave.


Results of Not Developing Gifts

Too often Christian school leaders consider special education for gifted students an unaffordable luxury, believing that because of their intelligence highly gifted students will do just fine. But the parable of the talents accurately shows us what happens to those who do not develop their gifts. The first result is a fear of failure. The servant was afraid that he would fail at using the talent and so he hid it. Academically talented students who are not challenged do not learn how to handle failure (or even incomplete success) at something, and so they may become less and less willing to risk. They are perceptive enough to understand the stigma attached to failure, and they may become perfectionists, emotionally driven to never step outside the boxes they and others have drawn around them. 

A second result of not developing one’s gifts is poor management skills. The servant who hid the talent did not need to plan a course of action for what to do with the talent, or monitor how much it was earning and make necessary adjustments. So, too, students who never need to study for a test, who do their homework on the ten-minute bus ride home, and who can write a paper before breakfast the day it is due are not likely to learn the management skills of planning, budgeting time, and persistence in working at difficult tasks. 

A third result is, ironically, low self-esteem. Although they have so much ability, they begin to doubt their own potential because they have never had to withstand a test of it. Success, and the self-esteem that comes along with it, are not achieved by doing well what comes easily but by overcoming obstacles. When their fear of failure, poor management skills, and low self-esteem catch up with them, the “underchallenged” can become the “underachievers,” who may try to blame others for having too high expectations, just as the servant blames his master for expecting too much. 

Eventually their high potential may wither from lack of nurturing, and even what they had seems to be taken away from them. Reaction to this withering becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -  “I guess he wasn’t as smart as we thought he was.” Or, “She was an early bloomer, but then everyone caught up to her.” In the worst scenario, clinical depression sets in – perhaps the modern version of  darkness and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Even with the right amount of challenge and support, the emotional health of highly gifted students can be precarious. Either ignoring or under-serving their needs can be downright dangerous to their mental health, not to mention the wasted potential of God’s good gifts.


Roles of the family and school

By God’s grace, many talented students in Christian schools survive and even thrive – thanks as much to the strength of their families as the excellence of their schools in meeting their needs. Many times their parents, who are often also highly gifted, understand what their children need. They provide emotional support and discipline and find ways to challenge them through camps, classes, and teams. They provide resources for them to pursue their interests and obsessions. They take interesting family trips, go to concerts and plays, and make weekly trips to the library. But they know they cannot meet their children’s needs by themselves. They need the school to be a partner that recognizes their child’s academic potential and works with them to make school a place for developing that potential. If that does not happen in their local Christian school, they are tempted to find another school – or resort to home-school – to provide an appropriate education for their child. 

What should Christian schools do for highly gifted students? There are no “magic bullet” programs or policies that meet the needs of all gifted students because gifted students are different from each other and have different needs. The field of gifted education has moved beyond using a list of characteristics to distinguish gifted from non-gifted students and grouping all gifted students together for a special class. The focus now is on assessing what each student’s gifts are and on making appropriate adjustments in curriculum, classes, and expectations for the nature and level of the gifts. 


Differentiating Instruction

The trend is to ask teachers to differentiate instruction for ability within their classrooms. Instead of relying on whole class instruction followed by identical assignments for each student, the teacher plans instruction with groupings of students and assignments of varying difficulty so that all students are challenged without being overwhelmed. Differentiated instruction can be very effective for meeting the needs of all students, including those with academic gifts. But it takes excellent teachers who have been well trained and who have the time, administrative support, and peer support to develop a differentiated curriculum. This way of teaching is so different from what most of us have experienced ourselves as students and as teachers (unless we learned or taught in a one-room school) that it requires an extensive amount of retraining and summer curriculum development. It also requires non-traditional methods of assessment and good communication with parents about what’s going on and how it’s different from what they are used to.

One way to ease into differentiation is to adopt a differentiated curriculum in certain subject areas. Many of the latest approaches to language arts build differentiation into the curriculum, for example. Reading programs use  assessments, leveled reading groups, literature circles, and leveled independent reading to make sure all students are progressing in their reading development. Language study and spelling curricula structure ways to differentiate language tasks and individualize spelling lists. Writing programs structure students’ development in writing ability according to categories of criteria which challenge even the best writers. 

It is more difficult to find already differentiated curricula in other subject areas. If the texts and teacher guides include anything to challenge bright students, it is usually an added assignment at the end of the lesson. Although much of the content in subjects such as social studies, science, and Bible is new to students, highly gifted students usually absorb the information quickly. A good teacher will involve them in a challenging project or assignment in an area that intrigues them, one that can be presented to the class later. It is relatively easy to enrich a content-area subject in this way, but the teacher must be careful to avoid the perception (or the reality) that the bright students are being punished with more work because of their abilities. It is better to differentiate ways of learning and tasks throughout, differentiating for interest as well as for aptitude.

Perhaps the most difficult subject to differentiate is mathematics, and yet it is one in which gifted students get the most frustrated and bored. In mathematics instruction, pacing is everything. The teacher must pace instruction so that students get enough exposure to a concept and practice in a skill so that they are able to go on to the next concept and skill, which often builds upon the one just learned. But some students need 10 exposures and 20 or 30 practices while others in the same grade catch on with one exposure and five practices. Or, maybe, who knows how, they came into class already knowing the concept and being able to do the skill. 

In a typical math class of mixed ability students, the mathematically gifted students spend much of the time waiting for the rest of the students to catch on. Providing math enrichment activities as a “sponge” is one way good teachers cope with the early finishers. But there are only so many challenging enrichment activities that do not require further instruction from the teacher. To provide appropriate instruction at so many different ability levels simultaneously is a challenge for even the best teachers. Some teachers have the gifted math students “work ahead” on their own, but this is not ideal, as it can lead to misunderstanding concepts and insufficient or inaccurate practice. 

This is why, if any subject is tracked in a school, it is usually math. Tracking math in high school is quite common, and many middle schools do it as well. Tracking narrows the range of ability that a teacher faces and makes it more likely that the pace of instruction will be relatively close to the needs of each student. Tracking does have social consequences. In our competitive society, students will label the slowest track “dummy math” no matter what its official name is, and some may resist being put in it. But most of them, and their parents, appreciate having a class which slows the pace of teaching math to one which matches their pace of learning it. At the other end, academically talented students appreciate the faster pace which allows them to move ahead by taking more enrichment “side trips” with the teacher into fascinating mathematical topics. 


Enrichment Outside the Classroom

Differentiation within the classroom is not the only option for meeting the needs of gifted students at school. Enrichment groups focused on an academic area can be one way to differentiate instruction for academically talented students. Ideally these groups should be taught by a talent- development specialist who has training in and passion for teaching gifted students. At least the teacher should be a staff member who has experience with gifted students and empathy for them, perhaps from his or her own experience as a gifted student or as a parent of a gifted student.  

During these enrichment groups the teacher can push students to their edge, to where they are not sure whether or not they can solve a problem or answer a question. They learn how to be persistent and how to handle it when others are better than they are at something academic. This pushing to the edge rarely happens in the regular classroom because it leaves the rest of the group behind in a heterogeneous or whole-group situation. If the classroom teacher uses homogeneous groups, most of his or her attention will be absorbed by the groups with the least ability. If the highest level group is out of the room with the talent development specialist, the range of ability narrows for the classroom teacher, and he or she is freed to work on information, concepts, or skills that the rest of the class needs. 

Enrichment groups should be targeted to an academic subject, and only those students who have talent in that subject area should be part of the group. So a student could be good in math, but not reading, for example, and attend only the math group. Typically, the groups meet about once a week for one half to one hour. Selection of enrichment group members can be done via standardized testing, as Timothy Christian does (see Ann Bakker’s article on page 12) or via teacher recommendation. High performance on tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills can also be used as a positive indication of high ability. Since there are many reasons for poor performance on tests, poor or average performance on them is not necessarily a negative indication of ability.

Some schools use independent studies as an option for meeting the needs of highly gifted students. These can work very well for students who are already self-disciplined enough to develop and follow a schedule and who can work on their own without getting distracted or overwhelmed. But many highly gifted students do not have those skills. They need a fair amount of the teacher’s time and supervision to accomplish their great ideas, and the “independent” part of the study becomes a misnomer. 

Extra-curricular options at school can provide another way to meet students’ needs for challenge and learning something new. Examples of these are exploratories, clubs, and academic competition teams. (See Sue Lesky’s article about Odyssey of the Mind on page 14). These activities can be open to all interested students, though there may need to be tryouts for teams when space is limited. One of the major benefits to these options is social as well as academic. Talented students find others who are interested in the same things that they are, and they are able to build friendships around common interests. (See the sidebar for a list of typical groups that students can be involved in.) These groups can be led by interested parents or staff who share their passion with students and serve as role models.



One of the least expensive and most effective ways to meet a highly gifted student’s academic needs is acceleration. This can be a whole-grade acceleration, usually done in early elementary school, or acceleration in a single subject. Research on acceleration of all kinds finds few negative effects associated with it, and it finds that it has a higher positive impact on learning than other interventions for gifted students (Colangelo, Assouline, Gross, 2004). If a child is emotionally and socially well adjusted, skipping a grade is often the easiest way to make school more challenging – but it is often not enough. The accelerated student will still likely be at the top of the class and will still need additional enrichment and differentiation. If a student is extremely gifted, radical acceleration (skipping several grades) is also possible, as long as the class the student is entering provides sufficient emotional and social support along with the academic challenge. 

Acceleration in a single subject is another way to provide academic challenge. Joining an older class for just one subject still leaves the student with age peers for most of the day. Some highly gifted students do very well in special fast-paced or highly-enriched classes that they take with their academic peers. Often these students participate in a regional Talent Search program in which they take the ACT or SAT in middle school to see if these classes are appropriate for them. Some regional education centers, colleges, or Intermediate school districts offer programs, usually in Math or English, in which students take a once a week class that replaces their regular class at school. 

Online replacement classes are another option for students who work well independently. The Christian Learning Center now offers on-line replacement classes in mathematics and English for 7th and 8th grade students (See Becci Zwier’s article on page 9 and Cindy Kessel’s article on page 11). Many colleges and universities also offer summer classes designed for high-ability students to challenge them in their areas of talent and interest. 

Because there are so many options for developing talents, each school needs someone whose responsibility it is to lead the staff’s efforts in this area. School administrators typically have so much else to do, that talent development will be far down the priority list. One appropriately compensated go-to staff member should be in charge of seeking out in-services in talent development, coordinating and communicating enrichment opportunities, and shepherding parents and teachers through the school’s procedures for accelerating students.


Results of Appropriate Talent Development

Earlier we looked at what can happen if academically talented students are not challenged. What can we expect if they are appropriately challenged? Some fear that special programs for gifted students will inflate their egos and they will see themselves as elite, as better than the other students. This is a real possibility, and so we must infuse gifted education with teaching humility, knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, and the value of all people as God’s image bearers. God expects them to use the gifts they have been given not for selfish gain but to serve others. They can share what they learn in presentations, they can perform for other’s entertainment, and they can help others learn through tutoring.

We can expect appropriately educated gifted students to take responsibility for leadership, both now and in the future. As self-sustaining, risk-taking learners they will have the drive and the persistence to solve tough problems and tackle what’s wrong with the world. They will multiply what God has given them through using it for his kingdom and they will receive this comment on God’s report card:  “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.” (Matthew 25:23)

It is interesting that the parable concludes with happiness as the reward, because happiness is the most immediately noticeable consequence of appropriate talent development. The students in my group and the groups of my other talent development specialists are so happy to be there. They delight in being challenged, and they love being pushed. We “get” how their minds work and we give them just enough support. They become fully engaged problem solvers and risk takers. What a joyful way to prepare his children to be servants of their master.



Colangelo, N.; Assouline, S.; and Gross, M. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. Iowa City: The Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus