A Landmark Monograph in Gifted Education, and Why I Disagree with Its Major Conclusion

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Synopsis

In 2011, Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell published a landmark monograph that should be read by anyone interested in gifted education. However, I find their belief that the field ought to be devoted to encouraging eminence troubling.

Last year saw the publication of one of the most important pieces of scholarship in the field of gifted education of recent times, a monograph entitled “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science.”  The authors are Rena F. Subotnik, of the American Psychological Association; Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, of Northwestern University; and Frank C. Worrell, of the University of California, Berkeley.  The monograph can be found at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications /journals/pspi/rethinking-giftedness-and-gifted-education.html, as can a brief video in which the authors set forth some of their ideas.

Anybody with a serious interest in gifted education should read, and reread, this monograph.  The authors have produced some of the best, and freshest, thinking about giftedness that is likely to emerge from this field in this or any year.   Fourteen pages of single-spaced references attest to the sheer amount of material they have read, digested, synthesized, and critiqued.  The authors masterfully summarize much of the major work on giftedness and gifted education and then add to it with compelling ideas of their own.  These include a definition of giftedness, rather too long to quote here, that earns its length by virtue of its breadth and depth.  We spend quite a bit of time in my classes at Teachers College analyzing definitions of giftedness, and this one, newly added to the curriculum, gives my students quite a bit of intellectual meat to chew on.

Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell also propose a “Talent-development Mega-model that integrates “the most compelling components of already-established models, intended to apply to all domains of endeavor” (p. 29).  This somewhat daunting but fascinating model traces the developmental trajectory of talent from potential to achievement to eminence.  If there is any justice in this field, the definition and the model, along with other contributions made by the authors, such as a research agenda for the field, will be thought about and discussed for some time.  This is a worthy addition to the canon and an example of the kind of serious, high-level scholarship that the field needs.  The word magisterial seems quite apposite here.

All of this brings me to my objection to what may be the authors’ central assertion. They explain the rationale for their work by posing and answering a question, as follows:  “Why is a new framework for the study of giftedness needed?  The answer lies in our current inability to accurately identify who will be gifted in the long term” (p. 6, italics in the original).  This is important, they believe, because, as they argue at the end of the monograph, “Eminence should be the goal of gifted education” (p. 40).  This is where the authors and I part ways.

 My disagreement with the authors over what our field ought to be about is not really a matter of right or wrong.  Rather, it is an existential question regarding who we are and why we exist.  Let me try to put this into perspective and then lay out my argument for a different direction for the field.

A number of years ago (Borland, 1989), I made a distinction between two views of gifted students and gifted education and two concomitant rationales for the field’s existence.  One I characterized as the national-resource approach.  In this approach, gifted students are thought of as a vast, largely untapped resource that needs to be identified and developed for the common good.  This is a future-oriented approach; gifted students are thought of as those who have the greatest potential to become creative-productive adults (Renzulli, 1978).  Conceptualizing the field in this manner can make a compelling case for the existence of gifted programs, especially in times of national crisis, such as the post-Sputnik era of the late 1950s, when gifted education was sold to the public in just these terms. 

The other approach is what I call the special-education approach.  Here, the emphasis is on the present, not the future, and the goal is not to produce eminent adults but to make education appropriate for students of high-ability.  In this approach, gifted students are conceived of as exceptional learners who require special-educational provisions if they are to receive the effective education to which they are entitled.

I would characterize the vision Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell have for gifted education as a version of the national-resources approach, since their focus is future eminence.  They write, in the monograph’s final sentence, that a focus on eminence would result in “unimaginable benefits to society” (p. 40), which puts their conception squarely in the national-resources camp.  So why do I find this approach uncongenial to my view of the field?

It is simply a matter of priorities.  I am less concern with developing tomorrow’s eminent adults than with making sure today’s capable students receive an appropriate education.  For me, the major problem with the national-resources approach is that it takes our eye off the ball.  We lose sight of what is happening in today’s classrooms and focus instead on developing future talent. 

Moreover, when the ante is raised and eminence, and not special education, becomes the goal, the number of individuals included in the mix decreases significantly.  We sacrifice the needs of millions of needy high-ability students in an effort to develop eminence in a relatively few.  It is not clear how many of today’s students will achieve eminence in future years—Francis Galton (1869) long ago defined eminence as something achieved by one person in four thousand, that is, 0.25 percent of the population—but the number is of necessity much, much smaller than the three million or so students now in gifted programs.  To focus on developing eminence would result in sacrificing the needs of the many for those of the few.

But what about the “unimaginable benefits to society” (p. 40) that would accrue were we to place our emphasis on eminence, not gifted education as special education?  I would argue that there would be no greater impetus for encouraging future eminence among today’s gifted students than remaking American education so that it effectively addresses the needs of students of high ability.  The more effective their education, the more likely they are to achieve eminence and excellence in adulthood, and the greater the benefit to all of us.

I fear that Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell’s call to arms in the service of eminence would take much of the education out of gifted education.  Talent development of the sort that leads to eminence in a number of fields involves activities, most of which are outside the mission of the schools.  Were our field to devote itself to the production of extremely high-level talent in a range of performance domains, our focus would be less on issues of curriculum and instruction and more on the particulars of performance in those domains.  My preference—and this ultimately boils down to preferences—is to focus on the less glamorous but, I believe, more important nuts and bolts of public schooling in this country.

So I hope that we will continue to think of our field as one that, however imperfectly, tries to make education right for three million or so bright students now in gifted programs (and the many more who would benefit from such programs) and not one that is focused on cultivating the rare talents that might blossom into eminence.  Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell have made an inestimable contribution to our field with their monograph.  I just hope that their vision for the field does not become reality.

References

Borland, J. H.  (1989).  Planning and implementing programs for the gifted.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Galton, F.  (1869). Hereditary genius.  London:  Macmillan.

      Renzulli, J. S.  (1978).  What makes giftedness?  Phi Delta Kappan, 60, 180-184, 261.

Subotnik, R. F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C.  (2011).  “Rethinking giftedness and gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science.”  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12 (1), 3-54.

Tags: education, education reform, gifted education, giftedness, talent

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