Special Education

‘Gifted’ Label Said to Miss Dynamic Nature of Talent

By Christina A. Samuels — October 14, 2008 6 min read
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For years, academically gifted children were thought to fit neatly into a category. If they took a test and landed above a predetermined score, a menu of enrichment activities and accelerated classes would open up to them.

But developmental psychologists are learning that people who are gifted are not categorized quite so neatly.

Academic talents can wax and wane, the latest thinking goes, meaning that a child who clearly outpaces his or her peers academically at age 8 can end up solidly in the middle of the pack by the end of high school. Instead of being innate and immutable, giftedness can be nurtured and even taught—and if ignored, it can also be lost.

That complex perspective on giftedness is the focus of a new book, slated for release in January by the American Psychological Association, called The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span.

In the book, several researchers explore pieces of the mosaic that makes up giftedness and talent, from the social aspects that lead to the development of talent, to an exploration of the emergence of giftedness in adulthood.

The concept that giftedness is fluid shows in the very language that the volume uses to describe children and adults with talents. No longer are there references to “the gifted,” which implies a permanent state. Instead, the authors of the various chapters refer to giftedness and talents.

“The essence of this book, and the reason I found it so exciting, is that it is moving away from this idea of talent as something that some people have and some people don’t. It’s showing talent as something developable,” said Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of the new book’s foreword.

Focus on Development

The new structure surrounding giftedness does not deny that there are some children who are clearly more advanced than their peers, said Ms. Dweck. But such giftedness still must be developed, she said.

In addition to academic giftedness, the book explores giftedness in other domains, including spatial understanding, music, or art. Controversy still exists among researchers about what cutoff score on an IQ test should be used to designate an academically advanced student. In other domains, measuring giftedness is even less clear, and the researchers suggest more exploration is needed.

The book also explores the psychology of giftedness. For example, praising talented children for their “natural” gifts or aptitudes can ultimately lead them to withdraw from activities that are difficult for them because they lie outside their area of expertise.

Ms. Dweck refers to that type of praise as reflecting a “fixed-intelligence mind-set,” as opposed to a “growth mind-set.” Even in sports, there’s the myth of “the natural,” she said. Students who hit a roadblock “worry that suddenly they’re reduced to being the kids who always work hard, and working hard makes them feel dumb,” Ms. Dweck said. “Or they work and maybe are still struggling, which is really the worst ‘ungifted’ thing that could happen.”

If teachers and parents instill a belief, even in advanced children, that talent can grow over time through hard work, they tend not to face such dilemmas, she said.

The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span is a follow-up to a 1985 book that explored giftedness based on what researchers knew at that time. Frances Degen Horowitz, a university professor and president emerita at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was a co-editor of both the 1985 volume and the newer work.

The understanding of the dynamic nature of giftedness is one of the biggest changes that Ms. Horowitz has seen since the publication of the 1985 book, The Gifted and Talented: Developmental Perspectives.

Disconnect With Schools

Eighth graders sit in the hallway during a free class period at Hunter College Schools in New York. The students are not monitored and are allowed to leave the school during their free periods if they wish.

The structure of schools doesn’t always support the more recent perspective on academic talent, Ms. Horowitz said.

If schools were to view giftedness as more of a developmental process than an immutable attribute, they would likely need to test children more often. And children might move in and out of “gifted” programs more frequently, based on their individual needs.

“We don’t really have the policy tools or the strategies for doing that,” Ms. Horowitz said.

Instead, many schools test children once for academic advancement, and students tend to retain that classification for the rest of their school careers.

The Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School in New York City, which are among the oldest and most selective public schools for academically advanced students, have thousands of students taking their entrance exams each year for only 48 spots in the kindergarten class and around 175 slots in the 7th grade class. Once students are accepted, they can remain as long as they meet academic standards.

The schools often tussle with the idea of adopting a different entrance procedure. “It’s probably addressed once or twice a day by someone,” said Randy Collins, the director of the schools.

“Third grade is probably a better place to admit someone,” he said, than the current practice of testing children at age 4 for admission to the elementary school. Assessments are more reliable at that age, he said.

But the Hunter College schools have been using their enrollment methods for decades, Mr. Collins said. “There’s a structure that has been established,” he said.

Meeting a Need

The other co-editors of the new volume are Rena F. Subotnik, the director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association, and Dona J. Matthews, a veteran expert on gifted education who was the director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Education at Hunter College, of the City University of New York, from 2003 until last year.

Though structural issues may make it hard for schools to adapt to a changing model of giftedness, educators are intensely interested in the topic, Ms. Matthews said in an interview.

And, done well, a shift to a more dynamic view of giftedness would strengthen gifted school programs, by making sure that they are offering programs that are truly advanced, not just generalized “enrichment” programs, she said.

“Gifted education is very often used as a way to remediate general education,” Ms. Matthews said. “It gives parents a happier place to park their kids. But the gifted program should be meeting a defined need.”

Daniel Keating, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development, in Ann Arbor, explores the topic further in a chapter he contributed to the book.

Mr. Keating said in an interview that schools have developed fairly precise grade-level goals. But pullout-style “enrichment” programs don’t really meet the needs of students who are working far above their grade levels, he said. In fact, Mr. Keating argued, such enrichment is probably better aimed at struggling students.

“Why don’t you take the least-engaged kids and get them to like school more?” he said. “It’s being aimed at the wrong kids.”

Precocious students should be allowed to take academic courses at a higher level, Mr. Keating said.

The volume also offers suggestions for continued research, on such topics as how giftedness is nurtured, and the importance of motivation in developing and sustaining giftedness.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Gifted’ Label Said to Miss Dynamic Nature of Talent


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