The Brain & Gifted Learners



spring 2008 the brain and gifted learners


Editor’s Note* It is my pleasure to present Barbara Clark as the guest editor for this special issue on The Brain and Gifted Learners. Brain research has long been a special focus in Dr. Clark’s writing and speaking and we are fortunate to have her expertise in preparing this issue.

Barbara Clark is a Professor Emeritus of California State University, Los Angeles and the author of the widely used text, Growing up Gifted, now in its seventh edition. She has published in professional journals and has chapters in a number of books. She has served as the Editor of World Gifted, the newsletter of the World Council for Gifted and Talent Children, and as review editor for the Gifted Child Quarterly and The Journal of Gifted Education. Dr. Clark is a Past President of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, a Past President of the National Association for Gifted Children, and is on the Board of Directors and a Past President of the California Association for the Gifted. She is a recognized international scholar and has presented major addresses and workshops throughout the United States and in countries around the world. As Advising Editor of the Gifted Education Communicator she contributes to the planning and development of the journal.


It is with professional pride and personal joy that, as guest editor, I present to you the first journal in the field of gifted education to devote an entire issue to informing educators about the current contributions of brain research and its application to teaching and learning. Your understanding of how far this research has come and the impact it can have on the development of giftedness, as the highest expression of each person, is critically important to the field, but even more important to the children whose lives you guide. The advancements in this field of neuroscience have the ability to change what we as teachers in the home and in the school can provide for children. As you discover the impact you can have on their growth and the development of their abilities, the importance of the environments you create, and the extent to which you can affect their future through your understanding and resulting actions, you will be in awe and, I hope, deeply energized. The opportunities are boundless. In these pages you will find a review of what we know about the brain, some ideas on how the information can transform education, and reflections on a further reach into the development of wisdom and thoughts about the future.


We begin with an introduction to the form and function of the brain itself. We look closely at a neuron as the basic cell of the brain and the process it uses to communicate among the hundreds of billions of cells within the brain. Immediately we are overwhelmed by the vast multitude of constant activity that comprises our acts of thinking, learning, and remembering. We discover the uniqueness and changeability of our own processes and the unlimited impact we can have on these processes by the experiences and environment that we provide. The interactive functioning of the brain provides a  model that can be replicated to create powerful learning and teaching. Understanding
a bit about form and function allows us to better understand the importance of our role in the development of the brain and mind and how dynamic the process is with heredity providing the possibilities and the environment actualizing the potential. This introduction leads us to a quick review of how we have conceptualized intelligence in the past and now in light of the  new information.


Neuro-psychologist Nadia Webb adds to our understanding of the workings of the brain with her view of functional zones and core organizing principles. Her discussion of the brain’s connectivity, plasticity, and redundancy brings a new dimension to how the brain functions and shows us other important ways that we affect brain development. In a discussion of what we know about the gifted brain, we encounter the issues of neural speed, expansiveness, efficiency, and flexibility. In her conclusions regarding how we can affect development, Webb makes a plea for helping our students tolerate challenge. Mastery and higher levels of development can only be realized and sustained when the student finds the balance between the “rage to learn” and the lack of skill and knowledge of the novice learner From the work of pioneer researcher Marian Cleeves Diamond comes a review of the early findings from The University of California, Berkeley, one of the first research laboratories to study the interaction between the environment and the developing brain. Diamond discusses the significance of enrichment from the results of work contributed by her and the team of scientists who first asked the question, “Does the environment physiologically change the form and function of the
brain?” The answer was a history-making, “Yes, significantly!”


After being replicated in laboratories worldwide these unexpected data began what was to become an earnest exploration of brain function that has lead to our current ability to use the principles of enriching heredity in the home and in the classroom. In her discussion she draws our attention again to the plasticity of the brain and the importance of the environment to optimal development.


In “The Gift of Reflection and the Development of Wisdom,” Daniel Siegel and Beth Seraydarian imagine a world in which we value wisdom and compassion as much as we do intelligence and logic. In so doing they allow us to round out our inquiry into the functions of the brain by showing us how to include—and the importance of including—the development of wisdom. They make the case that traditional education has been pressured into focusing on linguistic and logical skills rather than on the basic elements of wisdom with the result that our children lack the essential emotional intelligence they need to live fully. With their guidance we now look at the brain through a new lens. Siegel and Seraydarian reiterate the premise that the mind can be considered to have infinite potential.


They suggest that four major factors enhance the actual synaptic change within the brain: novelty, focus of attention, aerobic exercise, and emotional arousal. Again we are reminded of the need to integrate these four major functions. Their discussion of mindful awareness and reflection introduces the promise of cultivating wisdom in our children, an important gift to the next generation.


With the article, “Teaching Our Students About the Brain,” Susan Ryan takes us into her world of children and learning. She shares some of her experiences and the strategies she has used successfully with her students as they explored the form and functions of their brains. Using the very principles that research has found to support learning, she allows us to participate in a session and experience the lesson with her students. She provides both a guide and some seasoned principles for using these ideas at home or the classroom with gifted learners.


Another source for guidance in bringing well-thought-out learning experiences into the classroom is the “Hands-on Curriculum” department. Intuition is a most sophisticated, complex, and fascinating area of human ability. Ann MacDonald and Jim Riley present you with a plethora of ideas for how you can expose your students to the concept of intuition, a function of the prefrontal cortex, and give them the opportunity to develop their own intuitive abilities.


Throughout this issue you will find notes from elementary, middle, and high school classroom environments that relate to providing support for the developing brain. A reference list in addition to those at the end of each article will direct you to further reading that can extend your understanding of the brain and developing powerful learning experiences. Two book reviews are offered giving you an overview of quite disparate, but highly informative books from these references.  Change is always a bit intimidating. It is the hope of all who have contributed to this edition of the Gifted Education Communicator that you will find within these pages the information, the understanding, and the motivation to bring the necessary changes into your home or classroom that will allow more children to develop their gifts and talents and to create for yourself the curiosity and interest to continue to follow the area of neuroscience as it informs education and the learning process. The exploration of the brain and mind can only aid our children in the growth of their special abilities if we take the information into our homes and classrooms, translating these ideas and findings into strategies and environments that allow each child to become the very most he or she can be.


From this beginning, let us now continue this exciting and most important journey.

—Barbara Clark, Guest Editor