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Friday, November 30, 2012

Giftedness: Is it based on who you are or what you do?

by Ben Hebebrand, Head of School, Quest Academy

JimDeLisle, author of books such as When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers: How to Meet Their Social and Emotional Needs, believes that a sole focus in defining giftedness through the lens of talent development is “shortsighted” and “rude.” Specifically, Jim DeLisle has pushed hard against a new definition of giftedness being put forward by the National Association of Gifted Children. The new definition is rooted in the idea of “gifted individuals demonstrating outstanding levels of aptitude or competence.”  

In a monograph entitled “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education” by NAGC President PaulaOlszewski-Kubilius, Rena Subotnik, and Frank Worrell, the authors suggest that “we consider making talent development, rather than giftedness, the major unifying concept of our field and, most importantly, the basis of our practice.” Jim DeLisle states -- based on the new definition -- “that giftedness is not a set of personal, innate traits but rather, the expression of particular talents in music, math or any other “structured area of activity.” He concludes that the new definition of giftedness emphasizes doing, producing, or creating at the expense of just being. The new definition, Jim De Lisle writes, leads us to believe that “giftedness lies in something you do as opposed to being someone you are.”


It is a fascinating debate – but also a debate that could go on and on and on…. I suppose in a results-oriented and outcome-focused culture, we do expect that giftedness leads to (measurable) results. Indeed, in advocating for gifted children and funding their educations, a common refrain is how wasted or undeveloped potential may weaken our nation and its economy. To some degree, we expect that gifts bestowed upon individuals will eventually result in gifts being contributed to and shared with the greater community. 

Although I cannot speak for either Jim DeLisle or Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and her colleagues, I am pretty sure that both sides absolutely understand that you cannot separate the two ideas. It is impossible to view giftedness through an exclusive lens of either what someone does or who someone is. It is in Jim DeLisle’s book that child psychologist and gifted education authority Maureen Neihart perfectly sums up the debate: “Giftedness is a way of responding to what goes on around you and within you. There are affective as well as cognitive components. Some people say that giftedness is what you do. I say okay, but isn’t who you are a big part of what you’re capable of doing? I am not sure you can separate the two. There seem to be common personality characteristics among people who achieve at very high levels, but you can have those personality characteristics and not achieve at very high levels, too.” 

In the broader education world, we speak of educating the “whole child.” Educating the whole gifted child is indeed, in my opinion, the proper focus. Frankly, I believe that the recent publication entitled “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education” also supports the development of the whole child. This is evident in the authors’ statement that “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.” As a matter of fact, the authors are quite clear that talent development is indeed a “stage” in a gifted child’s life that is preceded by a “stage,” during which the nurture of a child’s potential is the basis to eventual talent development and subsequent eminence development. “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.” 

In my opinion, there is a need for the gifted education community to reach consensus on putting forth a developmental path that indeed stages the development of a gifted child into periods of nurturing potential, developing talent, and specializing in a domain of eminence. There are numerous developmental models such as Francoys Gagne’s Differentiated Model of Giftedand Talented 

With an abundance and a century of literature and research on motivation and perseverance including the recent work of Carol Dweck’s Mindset or PaulTough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, it is evident that schools can and should pay close attention to “nurturing,” while there appears to be less clarity as to when schools should focus on the development of talent. It may very well be that due to the enormity of research, opinions, and actual practices that reaching consensus is impossible and potentially unnecessary. It may indeed be best for practitioners and gifted education programs to adopt their own philosophy – indeed, the thought of standardizing gifted education is counter-intuitive. But in the interest of advocating for gifted children and their educations, it may be prudent for organizations such as NAGC to lead the way in illuminating the path of transforming gifts into talents and eventually areas of eminence – and I believe the recent publication of “Rethinking Giftedness” is an excellent start – the monograph actually alludes to the possibility of different trajectories depending on the domain being studied and pursued.  

While developmental stages typically are meant as guidelines with full respect given to individual differences, I propose that the gifted education field indeed agree on an acceptable path by which nurture, talent development, and attainment of eminence are delineated. The degree to how psychosocial variables at each stage are balanced in relationship to purposeful instruction of skills and knowledge will yet again differ from individual to individual, but I can’t help but think that general guidelines would be most helpful in this area as well. Frankly, at times I wonder whether the terms of “giftedness” and “gifted education” would serve as distinctive paths to separate the psychosocial and academic learning domains. As such, there may indeed be validity in focusing on “talent development,” while remaining grounded in “giftedness.” 



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