Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education

Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education

Education November 25, 2011 / By Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell
Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education

For nearly a century, scholars have sought to understand, measure, and explain giftedness.

Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science

For nearly a century, scholars have sought to understand, measure, and explain giftedness. Succeeding theories and empirical investigations have often built on earlier work, complementing or sometimes clashing over conceptions of talent or contesting the mechanisms of talent development. Some have even suggested that giftedness itself is a misnomer, mistaken for the results of endless practice or social advantage. In surveying the landscape of current knowledge about giftedness and gifted education, this monograph will advance a set of interrelated arguments: The abilities of individuals do matter, particularly their abilities in specific talent domains; different talent domains have different developmental trajectories that vary as to when they start, peak, and end; and opportunities provided by society are crucial at every point in the talent-development process. We argue that society must strive to promote these opportunities but that individuals with talent also have some responsibility for their own growth and development. Furthermore, the research knowledge base indicates that psychosocial variables are determining influences in the successful development of talent. Finally, outstanding achievement or eminence ought to be the chief goal of gifted education. We assert that aspiring to fulfill one’s talents and abilities in the form of transcendent creative contributions will lead to high levels of personal satisfaction and self-actualization as well as produce yet unimaginable scientific, aesthetic, and practical benefits to society.

To frame our discussion, we propose a definition of giftedness that we intend to be comprehensive. Giftedness is the manifestation of performance that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to other high-functioning individuals in that domain. Further, giftedness can be viewed as developmental in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted. Psychosocial variables play an essential role in the manifestation of giftedness at every developmental stage. Both cognitive and psychosocial variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated.

Our goal here is to provide a definition that is useful across all domains of endeavor and acknowledges several perspectives about giftedness on which there is a fairly broad scientific consensus. Giftedness (a) reflects the values of society; (b) is typically manifested in actual outcomes, especially in adulthood; (c) is specific to domains of endeavor; (d) is the result of the coalescing of biological, pedagogical, psychological, and psychosocial factors; and (e) is relative not just to the ordinary (e.g., a child with exceptional art ability compared to peers) but to the extraordinary (e.g., an artist who revolutionizes a field of art).

In this monograph, our goal is to review and summarize what we have learned about giftedness from the literature in psychological science and suggest some directions for the field of gifted education. We begin with a discussion of how giftedness is defined (see above). In the second section, we review the reasons why giftedness is often excluded from major conversations on educational policy, and then offer rebuttals to these arguments. In spite of concerns for the future of innovation in the United States, the education research and policy communities have been generally resistant to addressing academic giftedness in research, policy, and practice. The resistance is derived from the assumption that academically gifted children will be successful no matter what educational environment they are placed in, and because their families are believed to be more highly educated and hold above-average access to human capital wealth. These arguments run counter to psychological science indicating the need for all students to be challenged in their schoolwork and that effort and appropriate educational programing, training and support are required to develop a student’s talents and abilities. In fact, high-ability students in the United States are not faring well on international comparisons. The scores of advanced students in the United States with at least one college-educated parent were lower than the scores of students in 16 other developed countries regardless of parental education level.

In the third section, we summarize areas of consensus and controversy in gifted education, using the extant psychological literature to evaluate these positions. Psychological science points to several variables associated with outstanding achievement. The most important of these include general and domain-specific ability, creativity, motivation and mindset, task commitment, passion, interest, opportunity, and chance. Consensus has not been achieved in the field however in four main areas: What are the most important factors that contribute to the acuities or propensities that can serve as signs of potential talent? What are potential barriers to acquiring the “gifted” label? What are the expected outcomes of gifted education? And how should gifted students be educated?

In the fourth section, we provide an overview of the major models of giftedness from the giftedness literature. Four models have served as the foundation for programs used in schools in the United States and in other countries. Most of the research associated with these models focuses on the precollegiate and early university years. Other talent-development models described are designed to explain the evolution of talent over time, going beyond the school years into adult eminence (but these have been applied only by out-of-school programs as the basis for educating gifted students).

In the fifth section we present methodological challenges to conducting research on gifted populations, including definitions of giftedness and talent that are not standardized, test ceilings that are too low to measure progress or growth, comparison groups that are hard to find for extraordinary individuals, and insufficient training in the use of statistical methods that can address some of these challenges.

In the sixth section, we propose a comprehensive model of trajectories of gifted performance from novice to eminence using examples from several domains. This model takes into account when a domain can first be expressed meaningfully—whether in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. It also takes into account what we currently know about the acuities or propensities that can serve as signs of potential talent. Budding talents are usually recognized, developed, and supported by parents, teachers, and mentors. Those individuals may or may not offer guidance for the talented individual in the psychological strengths and social skills needed to move from one stage of development to the next. We developed the model with the following principles in mind: Abilities matter, domains of talent have varying developmental trajectories, opportunities need to be provided to young people and taken by them as well, psychosocial variables are determining factors in the successful development of talent, and eminence is the aspired outcome of gifted education.

In the seventh section, we outline a research agenda for the field. This agenda, presented in the form of research questions, focuses on two central variables associated with the development of talent—opportunity and motivation—and is organized according to the degree to which access to talent development is high or low and whether an individual is highly motivated or not.

Finally, in the eighth section, we summarize implications for the field in undertaking our proposed perspectives. These include a shift toward identification of talent within domains, the creation of identification processes based on the developmental trajectories of talent domains, the provision of opportunities along with monitoring for response and commitment on the part of participants, provision of coaching in psychosocial skills, and organization of programs around the tools needed to reach the highest possible levels of creative performance or productivity.

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