Problematizing Gifted Education, Part IV: Gifted Education without Gifted Students



In the final post of this series, I question whether the construct of the gifted student is necessary, or desirable, for the practice of gifted education.

In my previous post, I attempted to make the case that gifted education could, and should, exist without gifted programs.  In this post, the last of this series, I want to go further and argue that the field could very well be better off without its most foundational construct: the gifted student. 

In a couple of my courses at Teachers College, I pose the following question:  How long have there been gifted students?  Typical answers include “Always,” “As long as there have been children,” and “Ever since we emerged as a species from the primordial ooze.”  The answer I give is much more prosaic: 92 years (as of 2012). 

I chose this answer because in 1920, the National Society for the Study of Education published its 19th Yearbook entitled Classroom Problems in the Education of Gifted Children.  This represents, for me, the first recognition by the educational establishment that gifted students exist and that their education is of importance to American educators.  I admit that my selection of the publication of this volume as the fons et origo of gifted students in the United States is, if not arbitrary, at least disputable.  However, I do not wish to quibble over the date.  Rather, I want to make a larger point.

That point is that we have not always had gifted students.  The idea that there exists in our schools a distinct population of students known as gifted students is a social construction, not a fact of nature.  Gifted students were invented, not discovered, early in the twentieth century.

What do I mean when I state that gifted students are a social construction?  Taking the liberty of quoting myself, I offer the following explanation: “To state that [something] is socially constructed is to state that it gains its meaning, even its existence, from people’s interactions, especially their discourse.  Concepts and constructs that are socially constructed thus acquire their properties, and their influence, through the give-and-take of social interaction, not through the slow accretion of empirical facts about a pre-existing entity” (1997).

Gifted students as a distinct school subpopulation only came into existence when certain historical forces in the second decade of the twentieth century (including compulsory education laws, increased immigration, and especially the advent and widespread adoption of mental testing in schools) created a situation in which educators and psychologists felt a need for an organizing principle, a construct, that allowed them to make sense of observed phenomena (e.g., variance in scores on mental tests).  Unlike heavenly bodies or subatomic particles or whatever—things that exist whether humans are aware of them or not—social constructs are human creations that reflect our attempt to make sense of the world around us.

According to this way of thinking, there were no gifted students in our schools in the nineteenth century because the construct had not come into being.  Certainly, there were students who were remarkably precocious, unusually clever, or academically able, but the understanding that they were representative of a group of students with certain defining characteristics that set them apart from other students and defined them as a discrete subpopulation was not widely accepted among educators.  Therefore, gifted students, as we know them today, did not exist.  It was not until educators and psychologists felt the need for the construct that it was created and gifted students came into existence.

To state that giftedness among school students is a social construct is not to, ipso facto, deny the construct’s importance or legitimacy.  Many of the important things we deal with in education and the social sciences are social constructs, such things as intelligence, creativity, disability, depression, and the like.  What it does mean is that, since we created the construct, we are responsible for its consequences.  We therefore need to examine it critically in order to determine the extent to which it has served us well and whether we are better off as a result of its creation.

I believe that a critical analysis of the construct of the gifted student—problematizing if you will—is a healthy and useful undertaking.  This first requires establishing criteria for judging the construct, and I propose three.  The first is a logical criterion—to what extent does the construct of the gifted students make sense?  The second is a pragmatic and utilitarian criterion—to what extent has the existence of the construct led to practices whose outcomes are positive and beneficial?  And the third is a moral criterion—to what extent has the existence of the construct led to practices whose outcomes are morally defensible?  I believe that, with respect to these three criteria, the construct of giftedness has failed us.

The Logical Criterion

For nearly a century, our profession’s response to the fact that children differ in the ways in which they interact with the school curriculum has been to believe that much of this difference is the result of the existence of distinct groups of children, including gifted children, who possess characteristics that separate them from the average.  Once one accepts that there exist separate qualitatively different groups, the inevitable next steps are to try to fashion a workable definition of the populations whose existence has been posited, to develop and implement identification procedures to locate these populations, and then to develop and implement separate educational provisions to meet their needs.  This is the course of action that was adopted and, I would argue, is why we have gifted children today. 

There is an inescapable circularity in the reasoning here, especially with respect to giftedness.  Sapon-Shevin writes, “Participants agree—sometimes explicitly and sometimes tacitly—to a common definition and then act as though that definition represents an objectifiably identifiable category.  In this way, the category assumes a life of its own, and members of the school organization learn common definitions and rules” (1994, p. 121).  In other words, the category was created in advance of the identification of its members, and the identification of the members of the category both is predicated on the belief that the category exists and serves, tautologically, to confirm the category’s existence.

This simplistic dichotomization of humanity into two distinct, mutually exclusive groups, the gifted and the rest (the average? the nongifted? the ungifted?), is so contrary to our experience of life in a variety of other spheres of human endeavor as to cause one to wonder how it has survived so long in this one.  Is anything in human life that simple, that easily dichotomized?  And are these two groups—the gifted and the rest—the discrete, discontinuous, structured wholes this crude taxonomy implies?  That is, is giftedness really its own thing, qualitatively different and apart from “averageness” or normality, making those who possess it markedly different, different in kind, from the rest of humanity?

Even a casual examination of the field of gifted education illustrates how difficult this dichotomy is to put into consistent and defensible practice.  I frequently talk to my students about something I facetiously call “geographical giftedness,” the not-uncommon phenomenon whereby a gifted child, so-labeled by his or her school district, finds himself or herself no longer gifted after moving to another school system that uses a different definition of giftedness.  Prior to a certain date, the student was a gifted child; after that date, he or she is “average.”  If we hold onto the notion of two discrete classes of humans, defined by measurable traits, into which children can be placed through correct educational assessment, we can explain this child’s existential crisis only in terms of measurement error or one school system’s adherence to an “incorrect” definition of giftedness.

But what is a “correct” definition of giftedness?  Our failure, as a field, to answer that question is reflected in the multiplicity of definitions that have been proposed over the years.  Sternberg and Davidson’s (2005) anthology, Conceptions of Giftedness, contains 24 chapters, 23 of which set forth definitions of giftedness, which are remarkable for their variety and divergence.  These 23 conceptions do not begin to exhaust the explicit definitions of giftedness, let alone the implicit ones and the operational definitions used by schools.

Moreover, the confusion over what giftedness is, exactly, and the historical arc of that confusion illustrate the shakiness of the construct and the distinction between social constructs and facts of nature.  Take example of the planet Uranus, which is obviously a fact of nature, something that existed for a long, long time before humans discovered it, not a social construct.   When the great British astronomer William Herschel first observed it in 1781, he believed it to be a comet.  Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal disagreed, and his correspondence with Herschel led the two of them to the conclusion that the body in question was a seventh planet, a conclusion with which the community of astronomers came to agree (see Richard Holmes’s fascinating book, The Age of Wonder, 2008, for a full account of this and other discoveries).  Over time, speculation and disagreement over the nature, composition and so forth of this planet gave way to the scientific consensus that exists today.  This is the typical developmental epistemological trajectory that attends the discovery of something in nature: confusion, uncertainty, and ignorance give way over time to empirical knowledge and consensus.

The history of thinking about giftedness has been quite different. Initially, there was broad consensus about what giftedness was.  With few dissenters, thinkers in the field agreed with Terman’s (e.g., 1925-1959) definition of giftedness as a high level of general intelligence operationally defined as a high score on an IQ test.  Over the past 90 years, this consensus has broken down, as shown by the multiplicity and variety of definitions of giftedness with which we now must contend.

All of this strongly suggests that “the gifted” and “the average,” rather than being pre-existing human genera, are labels for socially constructed groups that are constituted, in both theory and in practice, in ways that are far from consistent and, in many cases, anything but logical, systematic, or scientific.  Giftedness has become, probably always was, a “floating signifier,” a semiotic term referring to a signifier with a vague, variable, signified.  Floating signifiers mean different things to different people and they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean (see Chandler, n.d.). 

The Pragmatic and Utilitarian Criterion

I will give this criterion short shrift because, in my previous post, I developed the argument that the practical application of the construct of giftedness in educational practice, leading to the creation of gifted programs, especially pull-out enrichment programs, the most common form gifted programs take, has not resulted in beneficial educational outcomes.  I refer the reader to that post ( education/problematizing_gifted_education_part_iii_gifted_education_without_gift3).

The Moral Criterion

From the beginning, the practice of gifted education has been criticized on the grounds that it is at odds with education in a democracy and that it violates principles of equity that are, or ought to be, paramount in our society.   Gifted programs and their proponents have been called “elitist” and worse, and advocates of gifted education have been seen as the last-ditch defenders of tracking and other damaging educational practices (Oakes, 1985).  Educators in this field have vigorously countered these charges, denying both that their goals are anti-egalitarian and that gifted programs are necessarily anti-democratic.

If, as I believe, the intentions of educators in the field of gifted education are unexceptionable, I also think it is the case that the results of our efforts far too often betray the purity of our intentions.   Sufficient evidence exists to confirm that the practice of gifted education is rife with inequities that have proven to be extremely difficult to eliminate.   Racial inequalities in the identification of gifted students have been a constant throughout our history (see, for example, Borland & Wright, 1994; Ford, 1996; Ford & Harris, 1999), and they persist today.

With regard to socio-economic inequity, which, of course, in our society is not unrelated to racial and ethnic inequity, The National Educational Longitudinal Study of eighth grade programs for gifted students by the U.S. Department of Education (1991) reveals the extent of the problem rather dramatically.  Data from this study indicate that students whose families' socio-economic status places them in the top quartile of the population are about five times more likely to be in programs for gifted students than are students from families in the bottom quartile.  Despite decades of efforts to eliminate racial and socio-economic imbalances in how gifted students are identified and educated, gifted programs have continued to serve middle- and upper-middle-class children to a degree disproportionate to their numbers in the population while underserving poor children and children of color.  It is worth repeating that this fact has nearly always been seen, within the professional field, as wrong and remediable.  However, the persistence of the problem tempts one to question just how tractable the problem is within the field as it is currently established.

Moreover, there have been instances in which gifted programs have served purposes that few, if any, within the gifted education field could countenance.  According to Sapon-Shevin,

Within large urban districts, particularly those characterized by impoverished, struggling schools and large, ethnically diverse populations, gifted programs (including gifted magnet programs) have served (and sometimes been promoted) as a way of stemming white flight; by providing segregated programming for “gifted students,” some white parents—whose children are in the gifted program—will remain within the district (and the tax assessment area) (1994, p.35).

I have experienced this first-hand in New York City, which has always had problems related to equity in gifted education programs but whose Department of Education has recently exacerbated these problems by instituting a City-wide identification process based solely on standardized tests administered to preschoolers and kindergartners (see Borland, 2009b).  My son attended a program for gifted students from across Manhattan that was housed, as an administratively distinct “school-within-a-school,” in a building that also housed a regular neighborhood school.  At dismissal time, one rarely had any difficulty determining, even at a distance, whether a particular class was part of the gifted program or the “regular school.”  When one spied a group consisting primarily of White and Asian-American children, it was a class from the gifted program; a group of African-American and Latino children was invariably a class from the neighborhood school.  As ACORN’s Secret Apartheid (1998) report shows, this was not an isolated case in New York City.

I think that two things are indisputably true.  The first is that professionals in the field of gifted education, no less than any other group of educators, are opposed to racial and other forms of inequity and are committed to fairness in access to education.  Indeed, most would argue that educational equity is what brought them to the field in the first place.  The second is that, despite the best of intentions, gifted education, as historically and currently practiced, mirrors, and perhaps perpetuates, vicious inequities in our society. 

Gifted Education without Gifted Students

If problematizing the construct of gifted students leads to one degree or another of disenchantment with the construct, even leading to a dismissal of the construct as incoherent and meaningless, does that mean the end of gifted education?  I do not think this has to be the case.  I am willing to entertain the idea that gifted education requires neither gifted programs nor gifted students and may even be more effective without them. 

Differentiated classrooms in which students receive instruction tailored to their needs on a day-by-day, subject-by-subject basis would eliminate the classroom problems that afflict students currently placed in gifted programs without having to label students as gifted or (implicitly) ungifted and placing the former in enrichment programs of dubious quality.  This is a tall order, but so are such things as closing the achievement gap and achieving universal literacy, goals that are dauntingly difficult but morally necessary.  To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy quoting George Bernard Shaw, in addition to looking at things as they are and asking, “Why” (i.e., problematizing), we ought to be dreaming of things that never were and asking, “Why not?”



ACORN.  (1998).  Secret apartheid III:  Follow-up to failure. ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_


Borland, J.  H.  (1997).  The construct of giftedness.  Peabody Journal of Education, 7, 6-20.

Borland, J. H. (2009).  Gifted kids deserve better: Time to fix the city's failed G&T plan.  (February 17).  New York Daily News.  p. 25.

Borland, J. H.  (2012).  Problematizing gifted education, Part II: Gifted education without gifted programs. problematizing _gifted_education_part_iii_gifted_education_without_gift3.

Borland, J. H., & Wright, L.  (1994).  Identifying young, potentially gifted, economically disadvantaged students.  Gifted Child Quarterly. 38, 164-171.

Chandler, D.  (n.d.).  Semiotics for beginners. S4B/semiotic.html.  

Ford, D. Y.  (1996).  Reversing underachievement among gifted Black students.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Ford, D. Y., & Harris J. J. III.  (1999).  Multicultural gifted education.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Henry, T.  S.  (Ed.).  (1920).  Classroom problems in the education of gifted children.  The nineteenth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Part II).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holmes, R.  (2008).  The age of wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.  London:  HarperPress.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track:  How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sapon-Shevin, M.  (1994).  Playing favorites:  Gifted education and the disruption of community.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Sternberg, R. J. & Davidson, J. (Eds.).  (2005).  Conceptions of giftedness (2nd ed.) New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Terman, L. M.  (1925-1959).  Genetic studies of genius.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

United States Department of Education.  (1991).  National educational longitudinal study 88.  Final report:  Gifted and talented education programs for eighth grade public school students.

blog comments powered by Disqus