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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An evolutionary perspective on giftedness

By Benjamin Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy

A historical study on the subject of giftedness clearly underscores the notion that our understanding of giftedness is continuously evolving. This evolution is congruent with the very idea that we teach our students in school – continued study and research lead to better and more comprehensive understandings.

In examining this evolution of our understanding of giftedness, it is evident that a broad analysis of the past 100 years of the study of giftedness has offered several periods or movements of understandings of giftedness. It is only logical that these movements also have shaped our ideas about best practices in identifying and teaching gifted students.

It is my view that the evolution of these movements has resulted in a broader, more multi-faceted view of giftedness – appropriate, in my opinion, given the fact that I believe that a) giftedness to some degree can be nurtured; and b) that gifted learners deserve to be assessed and taught in multiple dimensions. In my opinion, this historical evolution of the conception of giftedness has made the field of gifted education enriched by a diversity of opinions. There may also be those who believe that the ideas of giftedness have become diluted and thus have lost focus as a result of ever-broadening conceptions of giftedness.

In the Handbook of Gifted Education, edited by Steven I. Pfeiffer, cognitive scientists Scott Barry Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg have identified four “waves” of conceptions of giftedness. The following is a brief summary of these four waves:

·         1) Domain-General Models

This wave essentially conforms to the idea that it is one’s general intelligence that is indicative of giftedness. Giftedness is viewed as “a single entity.” Most often, this view espouses the idea that giftedness can be measured in a single test such as an IQ test. This particular wave of thought may best be represented by English psychologist Charles Spearman, who in 1904 termed pervasive ability as general intelligence (the “g” factor), while he termed a specific ability as “s.” He recognized and determined that a “wide variety of cognitive tests tend to positively correlate with each other.”

·         2) Domain-Specific Models

This wave – as its name implies – holds to the notion that abilities may be domain-specific. In 1938, Louis Thurstone identified “seven different mental abilities that he claimed were statistically independent of each other.” These seven abilities related to both verbal comprehension and fluency, number computation, perception speed, inductive reasoning, spatial visualization, and also memory – some of these components are now included in the most recent editions of intelligence tests. This wave also includes Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory that divides into linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Another major contributor to this wave of thought is the work of J.B. Carroll, who in 1993 outlined three strata of intelligence of a) “highly specialized skills;” b) “somewhat specialized abilities” such as fluid intelligence (depends on the functioning of the central nervous system); crystallized intelligence (based on prior experiences and cultural context); general memory and learning; broad visual and auditory perceptions; broad retrieval ability; broad cognitive speediness; and processing speed; and c) one ability such as the “g” factor which “underlies all aspects of intellectual activity.”

·         3) System Models

As the name implies, this wave espouses the view that giftedness is an interrelated system “which is dependent on a confluence of psychological processes operating together." A widely- -applied model that fits this idea of an interconnected system is Joseph Renzulli’s “three-ring definition,” first introduced in 1978. His three characteristics are a) well-above-average ability; b) creativity; and c) task commitment. Renzulli’s system brings to light the idea that giftedness is defined in more "active" terms – as he states, giftedness should be thought of in terms of “the creative and productive people of the world, the producers rather than consumers of knowledge.” Broadly stated, it's not just what you know, but what you produce and create. Renzulli’s model opens the door to the idea that intelligence alone is not sufficient in defining giftedness;  non-intellective factors need to be considered as well.

·         4) Developmental Models

External or environmental factors such as family, school, or peers are introduced to the idea of intelligence in the sense that these “external factors might interact with the internal factors of the individual to produce gifted behavior.” Francoys Gagne introduced in 2005 the Differentiated Model of Gifted and Talented, which proposes that gifts are transformed into talents. This transformation includes a) environmental impacts such as the home, school, parents, mentors, coaches, activities, encounters, and specific life experiences such as academic competitions; and b) non-intellective factors such as a child’s motivation, temperament, resilience, persistence, and endurance (training).  In my opinion, this wave most closely aligns itself with the idea of teaching to the “whole child.” Kurt Heller’s recent Munich Model of Giftedness views talent factors as predictors that are to be transformed into performance areas (i.e. achievement criteria). During this transformation, moderators come into play in the form of a) non-cognitive personality characteristics (i.e. coping with stress, test anxiety, or achievement motivation); or b) environmental conditions (quality instruction, classroom climate, or critical life events).

In providing this overview of these four waves, it is my aim that gifted education practitioners understand that a child’s giftedness is far more than general test scores – in fact giftedness may be domain-specific or may include one’s creativity and productivity, and may also be greatly influenced by a child’s personality and environment. Please post your thoughts, informing us of your conception of giftedness.


  1. I'm glad to read another fantastic blog entry from Ben. He has a gift for synthesizing some of the best theories and information on gifted education and presenting it in a way that is readily accessible. Collectively, Ben's blogs are becoming a fantastic primer on gifted education for parents and fellow educators. Bravo!

  2. It seems to me that the key signs of giftedness in children are precocity and intensity. They learn things, all sorts of things, sooner and faster - from mimicking facial expressions to adding things up, from talking to reading. This means that they are understanding things they encounter long before they are emotionally ready to handle them. They also approach life with more verve, both positively (tenacity, resilience, spirit, inventiveness) as well as negatively (anxiety, sensitivity). Which means they reacting differently to their environment than those of the same age.

    How do these more emotional aspects of gifted children factor into your history?

  3. Newenka: The more emotional aspects of gifted children (i.e. tenacity, resilience, spirit, etc.) are included in giftedness definitions that fall under the 4th wave of giftedness models -- the Developmental Models. For example, Francoys Gagne speaks of "intrapersonal catalysts" that contribute toward the transformation of gifts into talents. These catalysts can be productive or counter-productive. I agree with you that gifted children react to their environment differently than most chronological peers. It is how gifted students learn to "cope" with their reactions and interactions with the environment that shapes their "journey" from being gifted to being talented.

  4. The gifted children react to their environment differently than most chronological peers. Are you looking for the best paper writer online? If so, let us know!


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