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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Potential versus Performance

I recently read a speech by billionaire investor Warren Buffett~ where he spoke about performance versus potential. Im paraphrasing here but he said he would rather hire a person~ who has a 200 horsepower engine and gets maximum output~ than hire a person with 400-horsepower engine but only uses 100-horsepower.

I instantly related it to my gifted students.

Some kids have extremely high IQs and produce poor quality work or hardly any work at all while students with much lower IQs can produce amazing projects throughout the school year. In fact~ studies by the Neag Center Gifted and Talented Education at the University of Connecticut have shown little difference in the quality of work on products between students in the top 5 percent of intellectual ability and that fall slightly below that mark.

It fascinates me to think that students can have so much potential yet never use it or less potential and make the most of it. I continue to study the subject and wonder if we will ever know all the reasons why this is the case.

Studies into underachieving gifted students~ what some call the gifted lazy~ have found a number of possible causes~ ranging from lack of challenging curriculum~ to social pressures~ to lack of opportunities. However~ I believe all teachers can benefit from studying why certain students have all the right stuff but do little with it.

While I certainly do not have all the answers~ my experience working with gifted students has provided some insight~ which Id like to share in this blog. Please feel free to add your suggestions by visiting the Gifted and Enrichment group at http://community.educationworld.comcontent/potential-versus-performance-0?gid=NTEyMQ==


Most kids have some area or topic they want to learn more about. It could be skateboarding~ video games or giraffes~ but theres something that fascinates them. When they spend time on this topic~ learning becomes pleasurable and not such a struggle. The trick is to discover this interest~ and when you do~ make the most of it by tying it to their learning.

In an earlier blog~ I shared the story of how I was able to engage an otherwise unmotivated student by discovering her love of journalism and building a project around that passion.

Thanks to programs like Renzulli~ teachers can develop student learning profiles that provide them with information about student interests~ preferred learning styles~ etc. In addition~ discovering a students area of interest may involve spending more time with them at lunch or during recess or other down times.

I have also found that you can get more out of students when you have developed a strong relationship with them. They feel like they can trust you and let their true selves shine. I have worked with students who appear closed off and unwilling to work hard~ but once a rapport is developed with the teacher~ they suddenly being to make improvements. You have to remember that these students may have had bad experiences with adults in the past and view you as the potential enemy. You have to demonstrate to them that they can rely on you~ and that you are there to help them be successful. At times~ it can be something as simple as finding a common interest. I recall years ago having a middle school student~ who didnt want to pay attention and work. I was able to connect with him by talking baseball (his passion) and giving him a Derek Jeter biography I had lying around the house.


Nothing motivates students like creating a connection to the real world. In my experience~ students perform their best when they believe what they are doing is important and relevant. When teaching language arts in middle school~ I was able to light a fire under my students by tying their writing skills to a fundraising effort to help a girl who lost her mom in a drunk driving accident. Presently~ I have students in my gifted program preparing speeches and presentations for school administrators and other leaders~ entering contests and trying to start programs~ and clubs that will have a positive impact on the school campus. When a real problem or challenge is placed in front of them~ students realize the importance of developing certain skills and obtaining particular knowledge. Learning no longer takes place in a vacuum but becomes another step in the process of reaching a worthy goal.

Performance versus potential~ a very valuable topic to study. Remember that just because a student has a very high IQ or possesses strong ability in a particular subject does not guarantee that this ability will be used productivity. Educators must constantly seek out ways to bring learning alive and to tap into this unused potential. I hope the above suggestions help you to get your students to use a little more of their mental horsepower.