Education Chat

The Evolving Definition of Giftedness

The editors of the upcoming volume The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span discussed the mutability of giftedness and how to cultivate gifted abilities in students.

November 19, 2008

The Evolving Definition of Giftedness

  • Frances Degen Horowitz is a university professor and president emerita at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
  • Rena F. Subotnik is the director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association.
  • Dona J. Matthews is currently a visiting professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, engaged in several writing projects, and working with families and schools on issues relating to gifted education. From 2003 to 2007, she was the director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Education at Hunter College, the City University of New York.

Christina A. Samuels (Moderator):

Hello, and welcome to today’s chat on the evolving nature of giftedness. We’re happy today to welcome the co-editors of an upcoming volume (The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span) that gathers the input of many researchers on topics such as: the development of giftedness, different domains of talent and gifts, and giftedness across the life span. There are many great questions already in the queue, so let’s get started!

Question from Christina A. Samuels:

Dr. Horowitz: in addition to your work on “The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span,” you were also the co-editor of “The Gifted and Talented: Developmental Perspectives,” which was published in 1985. Can you share your insights on current perspectives on giftedness and talents, compared with what was believed 23 years ago?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

Twenty-three years ago we used ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ as categorical attributes which, once declared were considered permanent characteristics. Now, in 2008, the field has moved on so that giftedness and talent are more properly thought of as individual differences that are in dynamic change across the life span. In this perspective gifted and talented behavior can appear at different points in development and once in evidence may or may not continue.

Question from Sue Turner, Gifted Resource Specialist, Sabal Point Elementary:

Will you begin the dialogue with your definition of GIFTED? Would you prefer to use a different label than GIFTED?

Dona J. Matthews:

The definition of ‘gifted’ that I like the best focuses on exceptional learning needs requiring some kind of educational adaptation -- something like “Exceptionally advanced in one subject or another such that accommodations must be made to the educational programming normally given.” And yes, I stay away from calling kids gifted, preferring to think about subject-specific programming options that meet advanced learning needs.

Question from Lauren C. Student, HC Gifted Studies student:

If giftedness can be taught, then are all children potentially gifted?

Rena F. Subotnik:

All children and adults have strengths, but not everyone has abilities that could lead to outstanding performance or the development of great ideas in adulthood.

Abilities are domain specific, that is, one can have abilities in music, chess, language, mathematics etc.

Those abilities need to be developed through good instruction, through persistence on the part of the person with abilities, and support from some important people in the environment (peers, parents, or teachers).

Another factor to keep in mind, is that many of these abilities are hard to detect. One reason is that many domains don’t get explored in school, so if you are potentially gifted in chess and never have access to a chess program, the gift is not likely to be developed. Second, teachers are often not trained/prepared to note giftedness in domains. Third, some domains have traditions where children can perform at very advanced levels (see the work of Feldman and Goldsmith on prodigies). Other domains are too hard to grasp at advanced levels in childhood. Christina A. Samuels (Moderator):

Heather, a teacher in Memphis, asked what laws exist regarding gifted students. Unlike the federal Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, which governs the education of students with diagnosed learning disabilities, there is no federal policy regarding education of gifted students. However, individual states may have policies that would apply their own districts.

Question from Ginny Lauterbach, Teacher of the Gifted, Downers Grove #58:

What is the current thinking on acceleration and if so, what is the earliest age that is should take place?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

There is more solid research on acceleration than any other approach to accommodating gifted learning needs. There are many types of acceleration, including subject-specific (that is, just those subject areas which are advanced, such as mathematical acceleration), whole-grade (grade-skipping), early entrance to kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college, AP courses, and more. When it’s done well, it is a highly cost-effective strategy. For more information on this important tool, see A Nation Deceived:

Question from Laura Frierdich, Gifted Teacher, Sts. Peter and Paul Elementary:

What are your suggestions for developing a meaningful curriculum for a Gifted Education program in which the students only meet for a 45 minute period once or twice a week?

Rena F. Subotnik:

If you only have 45 minutes a week, you might want to look at the Renzulli Triad program that focuses on identifying individual interests, then supporting those interests with skills and knowledge, with the goal of an individual research project. So you would be operating as a resource room of sorts.

Question from Barbara Leonard,Enrichment Teacher, George Washington School:

Some educators feel that a child who is gifted should be given more challenging work academically. They define that as being “harder”, “more advanced”, or at a faster pace then other students. What is your feeling about this?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Certainly students who are gifted, advanced, or high achieving in a particular subject should have more advanced and challenging work served up at a pace sufficient to keep them “hungry” for more.

In those subjects or domains where students perform at a very high level AND are also passionately interested, they can use additional opportunities in the form of clubs, mentorships or apprenticeships, competitions, etc to get more deeply involved.

Question from Pam Musick, VP Instructional Services, Pearson:

What methods have been found the effective to train teachers on the unique needs of gifted students across the grade levels. High schools have AP classes but students in upper elementary and middle seem to be the least likely to have their learning needs met.

Dona J. Matthews:

I agree that teacher education is one of the most critical areas to address if we are to do a better job of meeting gifted learning needs across the years of children’s and adolescents’ education. And yes, the middle school years are probably the worst in terms of having those needs met. The National Association for Gifted Children has worked with the Council for Exceptional Children to develope a set of standards of practice for teacher education that provide an excellent framework for thinking about this. You can see those standards at

Question from J Guo, Graduate Student:

1. How would you place the nature-nurture debate in the context of your developmental theory? Should there be a threshold level of innate ability before “giftedness” can be nurtured? 2. How useful is Gagne’s distinction between giftedness and talent in the developmental theory?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

The developmental theory I put forward is actually an attempt to re-frame the nature-nurture debate into a consideration the interaction of constitutional and environmental variables as they affect development. I do not use the terms ‘innate ability.’ Rather, I prefer to think about individuals as having constitutional pre-dispositions - which may involve genetic components but may also involve constitutional characteristics that are of both genetic and environmental origins. I think these pre-dispositions can certainly be nurtured.

Question from Andrea Rosenblume, Chairperson, Great Neck South Middle School:

Can you explain a little about why gifted children seem to be so disorganized and forgetful, papers all over, losing belongings etc.? Do you have any suggestions to help with this?

Dona J. Matthews:

Yes, sometimes really smart kids are like junior versions of the absent-minded professor. (Of course, others are super-organized and never lose anything, but that’s another story!) The forgetful ones are frequently just engrossed in their thoughts, and not paying a lot of attention to the world of practical details, and so need explicit help acquiring systems and habits of organization. Just like other kids need help learning to read or study effectively, intellectually-oriented kids sometimes need help managing the practical world.

Question from Billie Woodel WCSU and Ridgefield High School:

Many high schools do not have a gifted program. Advanced Placement has been viewed as a subsititute,but is this really the answer? How can public high schools challenge these bright students? How can a creative classroom possibly be part of the solution?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Let’s categorize secondary level students into three categories. One category includes those who are excellent students and high achievers. I would argue that AP and IB courses, specialized honors classes, specialized schools and magnet schools provide challenge and motivated peers as they explore subject, topics and areas they might pursue further in college or beyond.

A second category of students includes those who are already passionately interested in some dimension of a school related sujbect (academics, leadership etc). Those students are best served by apprenticeships/mentorships and other opportunities like writing for the Concord Review, working for a legislator, or working on an Intel Science Talent Search or Engineering Fair project. They need to be in clubs, competitions, summer and after school programs meeting others who share their interests beyond the classroom.

A third group of students are passionately interested in something, but it happens outside of school (or at least their school). These students are best served by going to specialized schools to focus on their talent area. Summer and after school programs can also help here.

In the second and third cases, talented adolescents still need to do at least well enough in their school subjects to keep options open for as many post-secondary opportunities as possible to meet their needs.

Question from Jeanette M. Davis, Special Education Director, Grants/Cibola County Schools:

We are searching for an instrument that may be useful in screening for gifted students. Our state of New Mexico includes gifted under the umbrella of Special Education. Thank you for any information you may provide.

Jeanette M. Davis Special Education Director

Dona J. Matthews:

In my opinion, Special Ed is the right home for Gifted Ed, because it emphasizes the focus on meeting special learning needs. The Special Ed model of assessment makes sense for gifted ed, too: that is, assessing children’s abilities in each subject area, using a combination of standardized and teacher-made measures. In the case of gifted screening (not final identification, but screening to decide who is considered for further assessment), I’d look for something you already have -- students’ scores on state or national assessments, as well as their grades, by subject area -- and supplement it with teacher and parent questionnaires to try to find students who might be advanced in their learning needs but not good test-takers for one reason or another. From there, once you’ve identified the top 10% or so using these measures, I’d suggest administering high-ceiling tests of academic ability like the CogAT, again by subject area, making sure that the programs you offer match the kinds of giftedness you are identifying. In my opinion, David Lohman at the University of Iowa provides the best information on this topic:

Question from Teresa:

What is giftedness? Is this not what we teachers referred to as having a high IQ or expressing qualities of one with an accelerated ability to learn concepts or use critical thinking? How can this be taught?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

Giftedness is usually defined in relation to a reference population as involving behaviors that are exceptional. You are right in noting that intellectual giftedness is often defined as having a very high IQ or having a exceptional ability to learn concepts or use critical thinking. We do not know if all of this can be ‘taught’ but I think it is fair to say that many of these behaviors can be nurtured. In some cases they will not develop without nurturance; in some cases these abilities appear to develop even in some not particularly nurturing contexts.

Question from Joel Slater, Principal, Dallas Elementary School:

Identification of giftedness in minority students and students from poverty is a challenge. This is due in part to indicators which are sometimes masked by possible bias in selection criteria. I would like the panel to give suggestions on ways of overcoming this and other barriers to identifying gifted students from under-represented subgroups.

Dona J. Matthews:

I think the short answer to this very important and thorny question is that we cannot use gifted education to solve societal problems. If we really want to solve this problem, and foster giftedness more broadly in diverse learners, and therefore identify real giftedness more inclusively, we have to pay attention to the root causes of lower academic engagement and achievement in those under-represented subgroups.

The best model for thinking about this is the public health approach that Frank Worrell and others write about. We have to pay better attention to early child development across the population, and provide better community-based resources for health, education and welfare. We have to make sure that all kids are coming to school with the resources they need to be successful at school. Then the playing field begins to be more level, and we can expect to see giftedness more evenly distributed across all groups.

In the meantime, we should be doing everything we can to provide educators with the information and support they need to move beyond status quo expectations, and see the possibilities of gifted development in all children, while at the same time making sure that those who are significantly advanced relative to their age peers get their learning needs met. Question from Barb Minton, psychologist, private practice:

I’m interested in your perspective on the distinction between ability and achievement or potential vs. product.


Frances Degen Horowitz:

This is a hard question to answer. We do not usually make a distinction between product and ability, achievement or potential. This is because ability, achievement, and potential are usually identified as the result of some assessment. The assessment typically that results in a product and it is the product that is used to define the individual’s ability, achievement, or potential in relation to a peer group or to some reference population.

Question from Mary Beth Mueller, Gifted & Talented Program Coordinator, Chester School District, Chester, NJ:

The argument of whether giftedness can be taught or merely ‘discovered’ in an individual is, on a practical level, irrelevant while our educational systems do so little to teach to the strengths of the children we know to be exceptionally able. If gifted children are not the beneficiaries of ‘special’ education we are squandering our resources. How do we correct this imbalance?

Dona J. Matthews:

I don’t know if there is an imbalance or contradiction here, but instead would say that there are two important agendas for gifted education. One is to ensure that children who have advanced learning needs get those needs met, the special ed model. The other is to foster gifted-level development more broadly, in more diverse learners. As I see it, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift, where people are beginning to realize that both are essential, and we don’t have to choose one or the other.

Question from Ned Stapleton, GT Resource Teacher, Fairfax County PS:

“...giftedness can be nurtured and even taught.”

Could someone elaborate on the teaching of giftedness? Not nurtured--in all of its various forms--but truly taught. Any supporting data and research you could provide on this point would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Ned Stapleton Fairfax County Public Schools

cc: Carol Tomlinson, Joseph Renzulli, Joyce VanTassel-Baska

Rena F. Subotnik:

We are arguing that giftedness can be developed rather than taught. Development of giftedness in a domain comes from high quality instruction and curriculum (like the work of those you mention above), mentoring in how to be successful, challenging peers, and personal motivation. The work of Benjamin Bloom in Developing Talent in YOung People is very relevant here. He and his colleagues reported on the development of talent in athletics, arts, and academic domains. In each case, three types of teachers were most effective at different stages. In the first stage, the teacher helps students to fall in love with the topic or area. In the second stage the teacher provides advanced skills and knowledge and shares the values associated with that field. In the third stage individuals get a kind of coaching to help them refine their individual voice and contribution. In this way giftedness is “taught” or developed.

Question from Ray Givler, Parent, Camp Hill School District, Camp Hill, PA:

Based on the book review, I am concerned of about the effect it will have on gifted services. What incentive do schools have top provide services when they can wait until a student *supposedly* becomes ungifted? This wavering giftedness message will do more harm than good.

Dona J. Matthews:

We’re concerned as we look at the reality in most schools that many of those with gifted learning needs never have those needs addressed, whether it is because they have subject-specific needs (e.g., mathematical giftedness), because they don’t test gifted at the time the identification measures are administered, because they don’t fit teachers’ ideas of what giftedness looks like, or because ‘the gifted program’ doesn’t address their giftedness. What we are advocating actually ensures that a lot MORE kids with gifted learning needs will be accommodated, not fewer, and that they will be accommodated in much more targeted ways that do a better job of developing the talent and enthusiasms they have.

Your question suggests that you realize the political nature of gifted education, including the strong bias against it, and the fact that too many educators are negative about it, looking for reasons to cut programming. For that reason alone, you should welcome the approach we are talking about. The paradigm shift that we discuss --away from a categorical perspective on giftedness, and toward a developmental one-- is a lot more palatable and politically acceptable, mostly because it effectively addresses traditional nay-sayers’ misconceptions about giftedness.

Question from Donna Michel, Reading Specialist, Northfield Elementary School:

I have a great concern for the Gifted/Learning Disabled Child. I have watched children at Elementary School, Middle School, and High School levels who are very able in many ways, verbally, artistically, mathematically, a variety of talents, but because there is a problem with written language or math calculation, they are not allowed to develop their skills because of the modifications that are needed. How can parents and teachers address this problem and allow children to meet their full potential?

Dona J. Matthews:

This is indeed a serious problem, and one that results from the traditional categorical perspective on giftedness as general cognitive superiority. Based on the current research that we bring together in The Development of Giftedness and Talent across the Life Span, it makes much better sense to think about children’s gifted learning needs on a domain-specific or subject-specific basis, ensuring that students have gifted accommodations as needed, but also other learning accommodations too, where those are indicated. So, the best thing that parents and teachers can do is advocate for policies and practices that reflect these changing understandings of the nature of giftedness. Sally Reis has done some important good work in this area.

Question from Mark Kinney, Dean of CIS/Tech, Baker College of Cadillac:

Do you feel that the more structured nature of our course curriculum, due to required compliance with standardized tests and industry certifications, has limited our teachers’ ability to encourage the advanced development of our gifted students?

Rena F. Subotnik:

I know it must be difficult to operate under these pressures, but I would view the tests as basic assessments of competency and have students move through them as quickly as they can so they can apply those skills to more advanced work. I wouldn’t dwell on the limits, but view it as something you negotiate with your advanced students. This is something we need to do, like pay our taxes, so we can do other things that we find more interesting.

Question from Christine Peterson, English and TD teacher, Mason City High School:

I currently serve high school students who were formally identified as gifted in elementary school; it’s my anecdotal experience that some of them were simply “early bloomers” who are, at this point, simply good students. There are other identified students who have gifts that clearly go beyond most students. Does new research support that some students are early bloomers, rather than genuinely gifted? Or is it more accurate to consider that their giftedness has been “lost” even when it has been nurtured?

Rena F. Subotnik:

This is where reality and the ideal can clash. Ideally it would be good to have openings in the gifted program available as students bloom and take an interest in what’s being offered. The reality is that most individuals don’t want to leave gifted programs and so there are few slots to accommodate those who blossom later. I would suggest that you focus on those who are performing exceptionally and provide them with guidance not only in your class but also in apprenticeships with outside institutions - hospitals, museums, universities, etc. I would also avoid the terminology of genuinely gifted etc. Whether someone is operating at gifted level is relative to others at different points in life. Unfortunately, as we have learned from Carol Dweck and other psychologists of motivation, if you tell students they just ARE gifted, many won’t challenge themselves.

Question from Frank T. Lyman, Jr. Educational Consultant:

The term gifted has always been part of the problem.It connotes no effort. Can we change the term to advanced? To “advance”, work is required.

Frances Degen Horowitz:

Interesting notion. We tried to not use the term ‘gifted’ but to talk about gifted behavior or giftedness. Some people do use ‘advanced’and some use ‘precocious’ to refer to development ahead of the normal for colloquial purposes.

Question from Cooper Zale, Parent, Los Angeles:

How do you see school gifted programs addressing the needs of kids who are highly gifted but have no interest at all in academics? Should they be pulled out of school and homeschooled if possible or is there a place for them in institutional gifted programs?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Here is a two pronged response. One is that children have jobs to do. One of those jobs, like cleaning one’s room or setting the table, is to do your best with schoolwork, whether or not you like it. That’s especially the case if your child is in a gifted program where the work should be more advanced and his or her peers performing at higher levels academically.

That said, I would provide whatever opportunities you can afford (or get scholarships) to pursue the topics, domains, or subjects the child is interested in through summer or afterschool programs. I would also let the teacher in school know about the child’s interests because that information is always useful to the teacher in designing curriculum and activities.

Home schooling is fine if you can provide what the child needs in the form of instruction, peers, and resources. I would encourage you to explore school first.

Question from Caroline Mullikin, MAED student, University of Phoenix:

Doesn’t the term “giftedness” contribute to the consideration that it’s static? My son is “gifted”, but personally, I do not like using the term. I would rather refer to him as a high flyer. Many of our family friends also have children in the gifted program which makes me believe it is developed and nurtured.

Frances Degen Horowitz:

The change in nomenclature - from ‘gifted’ to ‘giftedness’ - was motivated by wanting to get away from the static implication when using the term ‘gifted’. We agreed that exceptional abilities are developed and often nurtured and that giftedness is not a static characteristic over the life span.

Question from Matt Wilson, Fellow, NSF:

What would you recommend in terms changes to policy and programs at the Federal level to better meet the needs of Gifted students?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Since A Nation At Risk in 1983, the Federal government has funding gifted education and research in barely perceptible trickles. The Javits program in the department of education has been the one regular source and it’s poorly funded. It’s time to invest in why certain interventions (programs or supports) work or don’t in developing talent in various domains such as mathematics, science, language, history etc.).

On a basic research level, we don’t know much about how and why some young children teach themselves to read. How does a prodigy’s brain develop? What happens when he or she has intense instruction or this ability is ignored?

With regard to applied research, I would suggest that we encourage longitudinal studies of talent development in specific domains. There have been some starts, such as the work of Benbow and Lubinski, Robert Tai, and my study of Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners that looks at variables identified in early adolescence that may predict creative work in the science pipeline.

Most important I would encourage intervention studies of effective instructional and programming options in each of those domains.

Question from Barbara Geis, NBCT, English teacher, Facilitator of Gifted @ Central High School, Phoenix:

I work in the inner city where all resources for the nurturance of giftedness are slim. Given your theory, what is the most important thing educators here can do for their gifted students? Keep in mind, many of the gifted students I work with have not been identified until high school. This includes international students as well.

Dona J. Matthews:

For four years, I worked in NYC with educators working in inner city schools, and I found them some of the most imaginative, courageous, and creative educators I’ve ever worked with. Yes, the challenges were enormous and cannot be underestimated, but once they understood the developmental perspective on giftedness that we discuss in The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span, they discovered all kinds of rich and available resources for supporting and fostering gifted development in their students. They used the students’ own richly diverse backgrounds as educational sources in the classroom, devised real and virtual field trips that took advantage of the museums and other cultural goldmines that most American cities still have, and that house some of the best-informed educators who are just waiting to help schools address gifted learning needs. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, is an AMAZING inner city resource. They did NOT accept the apparent limitations of the situation, nor did they wait for a gifted label in order to provide accommodations for gifted-level development.

Question from Ben Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy, Palatine, Illinois:

I want to run this thought by you in terms of considering innate giftedness. Let me know how you would react to this thought?

“If teaching and environment are perfected (I know that is a big if), heredity will account for 100% of the variance of human performance or production.”


Frances Degen Horowitz:

I do not know that the proposition you are putting forward is reasonable. The expression of hereditary variables is not inevitable nor necessarily stable. There is an increasing understanding that some genetic variables can be turned on and off over the course of the life-span - sometimes by environmental factors. I think it might be better to think about the possiblitiy that there may be constitutional predispositions to giftedness in some domains. The expression and development of gifts and talents are dependent upon environmental factors. One example that has been used is no one ever becomes a gifted violinist who does not have access to a violin.

Question from judy goldstein, retired teacher:

I have a grandson that taught himself to read at the age of four. He is in the first grade now, and doesn’t seem to be very challenged. My son wanted him tested for giftedness. I said, “Give it some time first.” But I do think the child is a bit bored. Should his dad be doing extra teaching (he is also a teacher) at home, or should we just leave it alone? Teddy doesn’t come home all fired up about school the way he did in kindergarten. On the other hand, we don’t want the teacher to think Teddy’s parents are pests! Can you help us with this?

Dona J. Matthews:

On balance, I agree with you about waiting on the assessment. Unless there is a gifted program that Teddy requires test scores for, and that his parents think might be a good fit for him, there are lots of ways to make sure he stays intellectually challenged without getting a formal ‘gifted’ label.

We have to be careful about labeling children, as the label can carry some negative consequences (for more on that, go to -- you’ll see a recent article on labeling, published in Understanding Our Gifted). It makes better sense to focus on developing his talents and interests, working with his teacher and at home to keep him engaged in learning. If his parents reach the end of their ability to do that, then it’s probably time to get some testing done. You’re a teacher, and you know more about this than I do, but I wouldn’t worry too much about being perceived as a pest -- as long as his parents approach the teacher respectfully, as a professional, and ask for advice on how they can work together to keep Teddy learning, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Question from Becki Hendrick, talented and gifted teacher, Appleton Area School District:

What effect would this research have on programming that is for the most part, only offered to students who are identified as gifted? And would you recommend screening kids each year to see if programming would be appropriate?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Ideally, all possible subjects, topics, and domains would be offered in school so children and adolescents could explore and show their abilities. But clearly that’s not possible, so we do the best we can with what we can. That said, it would be great to offer opportunities to the whole school to respond to certain subject specific prompts like science fairs, writing contests, art shows etc and see who submits and how they do. Then you can follow up by recommending appropriate services inside or outside of school.

As a gifted specialist, I know you must be on the lookout for expressed abilities in many areas. I also know there are serious constraints on your time and on how much you can affect policy. Howver, perhaps you can spend occasional time in other classrooms or in other venues in the school to look out for students currently not being served and advocate for them to be receiving some attention inside or outside of school. Question from Lynda B. Moore AIG Dixon Elementary:

Would it be fair to say that “giftedness” stems from a combination of both congenital intelligence and also experience and nurture and that in different individuals the extent to which each factor is controlling could vary substantially.

Frances Degen Horowitz:

My answer is a qualified “yes”. I think it would be more accurate to frame this in terms of “constitutional predispositions” rather than “congenital intelligence”. Having said this, however, I need to note that we do not have any good information about constitutional dispositions at the present time. We do know that certain talent areas - like music - can be found in some families over several generations but we do not know if this is because musically active families immerse their children from a very early age in a rich musical environment or whether there is some constitutional predisposition to be responsive to learning opportunities in the domain of music.

Question from Brian Jackson, classroom teacher, Ralph McCall School, Airdrie, Alberta Canada:

OUr district has no gifted ed programs at all. We are currently identifying groups of our more-able students. Any suggestions where we go from here? As a clasroom teacher, what should my first step be as a professional?

Dona J. Matthews:

Good questions! It is wonderful when classroom teachers are encouraged to take the initiative in developing programming that makes sense to their own students.

First step: figure out HOW the more-able students are more able -- math, language, science, what? Next, figure out HOW MUCH more able they are-- how much advancement do they need, in which subject areas? Next, look for close-to-home options to develop their abilities. Can you create subject-specific challenge groups that take all the math-gifted kids across a few classrooms, for example? Is there a teacher in a higher grade (either at your school or a neighboring one) who enjoys working with challenging kids who need more challenge? Look for mentorships, acceleration, enrichment, cultural opportunities, online learning, talent searchers, extracurricular stuff, community engagements...

Question from Linda Levitt, educator ASU:

How can we adjust the conception to the educational institutions that giftedness is not acquired knowledge but the capacity to create and expand knowledge?

Dona J. Matthews:

One of the major perspectives that recurred across contributors in writing The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span addresses the dynamic nature of the learning process. Recent findings on neural plasticity are converging with educational considerations and investigations by developmental psychologists in demonstrating that educators and psychologists ought to be capitalizing more on people’s capacity to create and expand knowledge. We’re seeing that, slowly, practice and perceptions are changing. Two of the leading researchers influencing this effort are Carol Dweck, whose work on Mindsets is compelling in this regard, and who wrote the foreword to our book; and Bob Sternberg, who has written extensively on giftedness and creativity as choices that we make, rather than hard-wired abilities we are born with.

Question from David Doss, retired educator:

Would you agree with the statement that an individual’s possible range of giftedness is bound by genetics and epigenetic effects, particularly on the upper end?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

No, I would not. We do not have any firm evidence of the direct role of genetic variables on gifted behavior nor about epigenetic effects. The range of gifted behavior in a given individual - especially at the upper end - is influenced by many variables, motivation being one of the prime ones, opportunity to learn and practice being another, as well as opportunities for being mentored.

Question from karen green, teacher, researcher, community board education committee member:

what other skills besides academic do children need to master in order to be considered gifted and talented?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

Giftedness and talent are usually assessed by some measure of performance. Skills needed for performance assessment typically involve paying attention, following instructions or prodedures, and responding appropriately. These are not so much skills needed to be considered gifted or talented but skills needed to perform the tasks that help identify gifted and talented behavior.

Question from Bob Clark, SPED coordinator, Topeka Public Schools:

Being in a state where Gifted is one of the SPED categories I might argue against it’s the place where gifted belongs. The emphasis on entitlement precludes any idea that giftedness is “immutable”, “can be nurtured” or even taught. Have you really considered the programming impact on your position that it’s a good place for gifted to be?

Dona J. Matthews:

The reason I like the idea of gifted services being housed with SPED is that it emphasizes the need to adapt instruction to meet exceptional learning needs. As I see it, SPED generally is moving toward a much more dynamic and flexible approach to understanding learning differences, an approach that we need in gifted ed. Ultimately, it’s all about finding a good learning match for every learner, right? And yes, I do see entitlement as part of the story -- kids with demonstrated academic needs (no matter the nature of the exceptionality) really need to have those learning needs met.

Question from Prof. Seth Lichter, Northwestern:

What role does a gifted peer group at school play in maintaining giftedness?

Rena F. Subotnik:

Very very very important. It’s important because you need peers to bounce ideas off of. You need peers to share your enthusiasm for learning about certain topics. You need peers to compare yourself with to see how you’re doing and how you can improve and grow. You need friends who care about what you do to help you through good and bad times as they come up in challenging environments.

Question from Joanne Vance, Teacher of GT program at Lowville Academy and Central School:

When should a student be dropped from a gifted program?My school district’s identification process of Gifted students is based on parent/teacher recommendations, academic achievement, creativity/leadership/learning/motivation characteristics and cognitive ability. Despite my attempts to meet the individual needs of students, a few lack responsiblity to the program and/or their regular classroom expectations.

Dona J. Matthews:

This is a tough one. The problem here is that many educators and parents (and therefore kids) see “gifted” as a designation of cognitive superiority that, once bestowed, lasts forever, so de-classifying children feels like you’re taking something important away from them. In order to drop children from a gifted program, then, without causing all kinds of problems, it’s important that some education happen before they are invited into the program, and along the way.

When a gifted program is conceptualized and explicitly described as one that meets children’s clearly-defined and demonstrated high-level learning needs, preferably by subject area, and there is ongoing assessment of those learning needs, then it is a natural and expected part of the process that when children stop demonstrating advanced learning needs, they no longer participate in the gifted program.

Moving toward that conceptualization can be tough, though, and is bound to be politically challenging. Parents of kids currently in the program, or expecting to be admitted soon, will naturally resist, as will teachers with vested interests in the status quo. The best solution: providing a range of learning options that address gifted learning needs, and working toward labeling programs rather than kids, something that Jim Borland has been advocating for years, and that many other gifted education experts are beginning to advocate.

Question from Katie Salch, Media Specialist:

My masters class just studied giftedness and we were frustrated at the lack of information about research-based programs. Is there any program you would recommend that would lay the framework and foundation for a successful gifted program in a school?

Rena F. Subotnik:

This gets back to the question about funding that was addressed in an earlier query. Until we can conduct rigorous studies of programs using random assignment to experimental and control groups, we won’t really know the answer to how effective programs are? Another important way to find out is through longitudinal studies. Like Randomized Controlled Trials, these studies can be expensive and frustrating. Currently the Javits program is the only one that supports these kinds of studies. None of us is comfortable asking children to serve in control groups in order to test our the effectiveness of our programs.

More specifically, I would look to your goals as a program. If it’s advanced achievement, you can look at the talent search literature and the acceleration literature. These programs are probably the best researched. If it’s in the domains, it’s harder to provide empirical evidence, but there are outcomes to look at like the number of people who have graduated from them and been successful. That’s the best we have right now. I hope that our book in combination with others like Conceptions of Giftedness can be helpful in guiding you.

Question from Paula J. Hillmann, Ph.D., Coordinator Master of Science for Professional Educators (MSPE), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Educational Psychology:

I have questions related to traits and dispositions that “activate” and “operationalize” innate abilities and constructed knowledge. For example, what about creativity, imagination, initiative, self-motivation,resilience, etc. across the lifespan? These are some of the factors that I am presently investigating in creating a new model of talent development across the lifespan. Thank you, Paula

Frances Degen Horowitz:

Theoretically, traits and dispositions can be activated at any point across the life span. This may be more true in some domains than in others. For example, we rarely - if ever - see late first appearing (in old age), exceptional behavior in mathematics or music. This is not the case, for example, in art or in writing where we do have instances of late appearing talents and gifts.

Question from Jessica Thompson, graduate student:

I have heard of a few gifted consultants who administer the grade-level above math curriculum test as a screener for gifted. How valid do you think this practice is for deteremining if a referral for evaluation should occur?

Dona J. Matthews:

If you’re testing for mathematical giftedness, then yes! Above-level testing is a good idea, although most experts suggest it should be a high-ceiling test of reasoning like the CogAT rather than just one grade above the student’s grade.

Question from Jude Wolf, Mgr, Research & Development, Charles Armstrong School:

What are appropriate normed tests for dyslexic students ie: language impaired?

What kinds of metrics can a school use to track effectiveness programs that seek to promote giftedness - identification,articulation,cultivation? Dona J. Matthews:

I’d have to refer this question to experts in dual exceptionality. Sally Reis has done some excellent work in this area.

Question from Valeria Fontanals, educational psychologist:

How would you assess giftedness acording to this new theory?

Frances Degen Horowitz:

The implications of what we are saying is that assessment for gifted and talented behavior should not be a one time evauation that results in labeling a child as gifted or not gifted then and forever after. Since development is a dynamic process, periodic assessment will reveal the appearance of gifted and talented behaviors at different points in development. Some children who are identified at one point in development as having gifted and talented behaviors will continue to perform at exceptional levels; some will not. Conversely, some children not showing gifted and talented behaviors at one point in development may exhibit these abilities at another point in development.

Question from Denise Ahlquist, V-P, Great Books Foundation:

What impact has the work of Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg and others who have identified various types or levels of intelligence had on gifted education? and specifically on classroom curricula that would meet the needs of students who are gifted in areas other than the verbal/linguistic/ logical/ mathematical areas of intelligence?

Dona J. Matthews:

Both Gardner and Sternberg are having an enormous impact on education generally, and so on gifted education. In our book, 2 of our authors (Lynn Liben and Ellen Winner) consider the development of spatial intelligence, and advocate that educators look for ways to develop that in all children, which would lead in time, to gifted-level programming for those who exceptionally good at spatial skills. Sternberg has written about creativity as a choice, which is similar to Carol Dweck’s work showing that mindets play an important role in gifted-level achievement.

Question from John Barone, Director of DeBusk Enrichment Center for Academically Talented Scholars:

I love your focus on ability and development as opposed to labeling youth as “gifted” Whenever we see that bumper sticker, “My child beat up your honor student” it’s a healthy communication of reasonable resentment! Does your book address efforts to address what’s “getting in the way” of the expression of giftedness? (e.g., executive functions, relationship development, self-regulation and awareness?)Sometimes those issues hide the real potential.

Rena F. Subotnik:

So glad to know that our approach resonates with you! Yes, our book talks about at least two important variables that affect functioning. One is ethnic minority status and how such status can be an advantage and disadvantage in talent development. Another is the psychosocial component. As individuals move into the “elite” level in a domain, we can expect that they have mastered the content and skills of that domain. The things that differentiate them from others at that level is how creative they are with that information and how skillfully and passionately they communicate and relate to others. Social skills play a large role in successful expression of talent.

Question from Michele Cade, Parent, Montgomery County School System:

The issue of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping is a hotly debated topic in our community. How should the concept of the fluidity of giftedness be used to inform decisions about classroom grouping? How do you ensure that you meet the developmental needs of students who are currently more advanced than their peers while addressing the needs of those whose talents may emerge with exposure to more challenging instruction?

Dona J. Matthews:

The short answer: a range of options. The more options that are available to support gifted development, the more likely it is that a given child’s learning needs will be met. That includes all the kinds of acceleration discussed in A Nation Deceived (, many kinds of grouping practices, from cluster groups by subject area in age-level classrooms, to fulltime gifted programming, many kinds of enrichment, extracurricular programming, connections to national and international contests and talent searches.

Question from Marjorie Andresen, teacher Andover public schools:

What do you think needs to happen for teachers to be able to address the needs of “gifted” children in the heterogeneous classroom? And do you see this as being realistic in today’s fiscally challenged public school environment?

Dona J. Matthews:

The most important things needed if teachers are to address gifted learning needs in heterogeneous classrooms are (1) much better teacher training around assessing and addressing special learning needs, including giftedness, and (2) much better support for teachers in their attempts to do this, including having available a range of challenging learning options in every school, and someone with the expertise to put it all together.

As I see it, the fiscal challenges are not as limiting as the attitudinal ones. Progress in this area will come as educators’ and parents’ misconceptions about the development of giftedness and talent are addressed, which is why we wrote this book.

Question from Cheri Mastel, Mom of a Gifted Individual:

In your experience, at how young of an age have indicators of profound intelligence been noticed?

Dona J. Matthews:

Exceptional cognitive abilities have been noted in infancy and early childhood. The question, however, is what they mean, and how stable they are. The best perspective on this, I think, is to address whatever gifted learning needs you see developing in your children as they develop, understanding that development is uneven and variable over time,and that there are many important dimensions developing simultaneously, in addition to the cognitive, including emotional, social, and physical.

Question from Dr. Lisa Lombard. Associate Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology:

Do you think it’s useful to distinguish between the moderately gifted and the profoundly gifted? If so, how should identification take place? Also, we are starting a research project on giftedness, overexcitabilties, and asynchronous development; this is a broad topic and we would appreciate guidance on narrowing the question so that our work has relevance to parents and their children. Are there best practices for guiding parents about how to cope with inconsistencies in their children?

Thank you for your time. Dona J. Matthews:

Rather than thinking about distinctions between ‘the moderately gifted’ and ‘the profoundly gifted’ etc. (labels which reflect categorical perspectives), current evidence suggests that it makes better sense to think about different degrees and types of gifted learning needs, depending on individuals’ degree of advancement, by subject area. E.g., some fifth graders have 8th-grade mathematical abilities, and some have 10th-grade math abilities, and some are already working on calculus. David Lohman provides some thoughtful evidence-based perspectives on the best way to identify giftedness from this standpoint:

As for your second question, developmental asynchronies are an important area of investigation. Much is being written about this, but there is not a lot of solid research. My first recommendation is a self-serving one: read our book! We address the conceptual changes concerning the development of giftedness and talent that are supported by the current evidence. One of the areas that I’m finding most interesting at the moment concerns the psychosocial strengths that Rena Subotnik and her colleagues have been investigating.

Question from Tom Greenspon, Minneapolis, psychologist/ marriage and family therapist.:

Given some of the comments people have made about this topic, it seems like a good idea to distinguish between “teaching” giftedness and “nurturing” it. Nurturing is a process of enabling and developing whatever the constitutional predispositions to intellectual prowess turn out to be -- not a process of teaching a specific skill or quality. Thoughts?

Dona J. Matthews:

Nice observation, Tom! It seems to me we’ve got 2 major objectives in gifted education: (1) nurturing the abilities of those students who are exceptionally advanced relative to their age peers, and (2) fostering giftedness more broadly in diverse others. Both of these involve lots of teaching, but it’s not about teaching kids to be gifted, more about LISTENING and RESPONDING, and then nurturing and fostering what we see needing to be developed in the kids.

Question from Patrick Mattimore, Teacher:

In his recent book, “Real Education,” Charles Murray suggests as one of his four “simple truths,” that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Murray’s definition of giftedness (traditional “g”) aside, how would you assess Murray’s “truth” and do you agree with Murray that too many students are currently going to college?

Dona J. Matthews:

I haven’t read this book, but agree with a modified version of the idea that the future of America depends on how we educate the academically gifted. I think the future of each and all global societies depend on how good a job we do in educating all our children, certainly including those who are advanced relative to their age peers. We cannot afford NOT to educate them commensurate with their ability!

Christina A. Samuels (Moderator):

I’d like to thank our guests, and everyone who submitted questions! Unfortunately, we were only able to answer a fraction of the inquiries we received.

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