Giftedness and the Gifted:
What's It All About?
ERIC Identifier: ED321481
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
WHAT DOES GIFTEDNESS MEAN?
Many parents say, "I know what giftedness is, but I can't put it into words." This
generally is followed by reference to a particular child who seems to manifest gifted
behaviors. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions of the term, all of which
become deterrents to understanding and catering to the needs of children identified as
gifted. Let's study the following statement:
"Giftedness is that precious endowment of potentially outstanding abilities which allows
a person to interact with the environment with remarkably high levels of achievement
This statement is the product of a small neighborhood group of parents who took a
comprehensive view of the concept of giftedness before focusing on any attempt to
define the gifted child. They thought,
Therefore, they reasoned that the "remarkably high levels of achievement and creativity" result from a
continuous and functional interaction between a person's inherent and acquired abilities
- first, that within giftedness is a quality of innateness (or, as they said, "a gift conferred by nature"), and
- second, that one's environment is the arena in which the gifts come into play and develop.
We often hear statements such as "She's a born artist," or "He's a natural athlete," or
conversely, "Success never came easy for me; I had to learn the hard way," or "He's a
self-made man." Those who manifest giftedness obviously have some inherent or
inborn factors plus the motivation and stamina to learn from and cope with the rigors of
We suggest that you wrestle with the term in your own way, looking at giftedness as a
concept that demands the investment of time, money, and energy. This will help you
discuss giftedness more meaningfully with other parents, school administrators, school
board members, or anyone who needs to understand the dynamics of the term.
WHO ARE GIFTED CHILDREN?
Former U. S. Commissioner of Education Sidney P. Marland, Jr., in his August 1971
report to Congress, stated,
"Gifted and talented children are those identified by professionally qualified persons who
by virtue of outstanding abilities are capable of high performance. These are children
who require differentiated educational programs and/or services beyond those normally
provided by the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and
society" (Marland, 1972).
The same report continued, Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement
and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination:
Using a broad definition of giftedness, a school system could expect to identify 10% to
15% or more of its student population as gifted and talented. A brief description of each
area of giftedness or talent as defined by the Office of Gifted and Talented will help you
understand this definition.
- general intellectual ability
- specific academic aptitude
- creative or productive thinking
- leadership ability
- visual or performing arts
- psychomotor ability.
- General intellectual ability or talent.
Laypersons and educators alike usually define this
in terms of a high intelligence test score--usually two standard deviations above the
mean--on individual or group measures. Parents and teachers often recognize students
with general intellectual talent by their wide-ranging fund of general information and high
levels of vocabulary, memory, abstract word knowledge, and abstract reasoning.
- Specific academic aptitude or talent.
Students with specific academic aptitudes are
identified by their outstanding performance on an achievement or aptitude test in one
area such as mathematics or language arts. The organizers of talent searches
sponsored by a number of universities and colleges identify students with specific
academic aptitude who score at the 97th percentile or higher on standard achievement
tests and then give these students the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Remarkably
large numbers of students score at these high levels.
- Creative and productive thinking.
This is the ability to produce new ideas by bringing
together elements usually thought of as independent or dissimilar and the aptitude for
developing new meanings that have social value. Characteristics of creative and
productive students include openness to experience, setting personal standards for
evaluation, ability to play with ideas, willingness to take risks, preference for complexity,
tolerance for ambiguity, positive self-image, and the ability to become submerged in a
task. Creative and productive students are identified through the use of tests such as
the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking or through demonstrated creative performance.
- Leadership Ability.
Leadership can be defined as the ability to direct individuals or
groups to a common decision or action. Students who demonstrate giftedness in
leadership ability use group skills and negotiate in difficult situations. Many teachers
recognize leadership through a student's keen interest and skill in problem solving.
Leadership characteristics include self-confidence, responsibility, cooperation, a
tendency to dominate, and the ability to adapt readily to new situations. These students
can be identified through instruments such as the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations
Orientation Behavior (FIRO-B).
- Visual and Performing Arts.
Gifted students with talent in the arts demonstrate special
talents in visual art, music, dance, drama, or other related studies. These students can
be identified by using task descriptions such as the Creative Products Scales, which
were developed for the Detroit Public Schools by Patrick Byrons and Beverly Ness
Parke of Wayne State University.
- Psychomotor Ability.
This involves kinesthetic motor abilities such as practical, spatial,
mechanical, and physical skills. It is seldom used as a criterion in gifted programs.
Robert Sternberg and Robert Wagner (1982) have suggested that giftedness is a kind
of mental self-management. The mental management of one's life in a constructive,
purposeful way has three basic elements:
According to Sternberg and Wagner, the key
psychological basis of intellectual giftedness resides in insight skills that include three
- adapting to environments,
- selecting new environments, and
- shaping environments.
Sternberg and Wagner emphasized problem-solving abilities and viewed the gifted
student as one who processes information rapidly and uses insight abilities.
- separating relevant from irrelevant information,
- combining isolated pieces of information into a unified whole, and
- relating newly acquired information to information acquired in the past.
Howard Gardner (1983) also suggested a concept of multiple intelligences, stating that there are
several ways of viewing the world:
Joseph Renzulli (1986) stated that gifted behavior reflects an interaction among three
basic clusters of human traits:
- interpersonal, and
- intrapersonal intelligence.
According to Renzulli, gifted and talented children are those who possess or are capable of
developing this composite of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of
- above-average general and/or specific abilities,
- high levels of task commitment (motivation), and
- high levels of creativity.
A good source for pursuing the characteristics of giftedness in depth is Barbara Clark's
informative book, GROWING UP GIFTED (1988), which presents an exhaustive list of
characteristics under five major headings:
No one child manifests all of the attributes described by researchers and the Office of
Gifted and Talented. Nevertheless, it is important for parents to be fully aware of the
ways in which giftedness can be recognized. Often, certain behaviors such as
constantly having unique solutions to problems, asking endless, probing questions, or
even the masterful manipulation of others are regarded by parents as unnatural, unlike
other children, and trying to parental patience. Therefore, our recommendation is to
study the characteristics of gifted children with an open mind. Do not use the list as a
scorecard; simply discuss and appreciate the characteristics and let common sense,
coupled with love, take over.
- Cognitive (thinking),
- Affective (feeling),
- Intuitive, and
SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
(These are typical factors stressed by educational authorities as being indicative of
giftedness. Obviously, no child is outstanding in all characteristics.)
A QUICK LOOK AT INTELLIGENCE
- Shows superior reasoning powers and marked ability to handle ideas; can generalize
readily from specific facts and can see subtle relationships; has outstanding
- Shows persistent intellectual curiosity; asks searching questions; shows exceptional
interest in the nature of man and the universe.
- Has a wide range of interests, often of an intellectual kind; develops one or more
interests to considerable depth.
- Is markedly superior in quality and quantity of written and/or spoken vocabulary; is
interested in the subtleties of words and their uses.
- Reads avidly and absorbs books well beyond his or her years.
- Learns quickly and easily and retains what is learned; recalls important details,
concepts and principles; comprehends readily.
- Shows insight into arithmetical problems that require careful reasoning and grasps
mathematical concepts readily.
- Shows creative ability or imaginative expression in such things as music, art, dance,
drama; shows sensitivity and finesse in rhythm, movement, and bodily control.
- Sustains concentration for lengthy periods and shows outstanding responsibility and
independence in classroom work.
- Sets realistically high standards for self; is self-critical in evaluating and correcting
his or her own efforts.
- Shows initiative and originality in intellectual work; shows flexibility in thinking and
considers problems from a number of viewpoints.
- Observes keenly and is responsive to new ideas.
- Shows social poise and an ability to communicate with adults in a mature way.
- Gets excitement and pleasure from intellectual challenge; shows an alert and subtle
sense of humor.
The attempts to define giftedness refer in one way or another to so-called "inborn"
attributes, which, for lack of a better term, are called intelligence.
Significant efforts have been made to measure intelligence, but, because the concept is
elusive, test constructors simply aim at testing what they feel are typical manifestations
of intelligence in behaviors. Perhaps a little rhyme used for years by kindergarten
teachers will help to describe this elusiveness:
"Nobody sees the wind; neither you, nor I. But when
the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by."
Just as we cannot see the wind, we cannot find, operate on, or transplant intelligence.
Yet we see the working or manifestations of intelligence in the behaviors of people.
The man-made computation of an intelligence quotient, or IQ, is probably the best
general indicator of intelligence, but in no way is it infallible. All too often, a child's IQ is
misunderstood and becomes a lifelong "handle." However, given our present
knowledge, the results of a standardized intelligence test administered by a competent
examiner provide as reliable an indication as possible of a person's potential ability to
learn and cope. Until some scientific breakthrough is developed, we will rely on the IQ
score to approximate how mentally gifted a person may be.
The nature of intelligence was once explained in this way: If intelligence were something
you could see, touch, and weigh, it would be something like a can of paint. The genius
would have a gallon, the person who has severe retardation, only half a pint. The rest of
us would have varying amounts between these extremes, with the majority possessing
about two quarts. This is clear enough, but it is only half the story.
Each can of paint contains the same five or six ingredients in varying amounts. One can
may be "long" on oil, another on pigment, a third on turpentine, the fourth on gloss or
drying agent. So, although two cans contain the same amount of paint, the paint may be
of vastly different consistency, color, or character.
Good painters want to know the elements in the paint with which they are working.
Parents and teachers want to know the kinds of intelligence with which they are
working. What are the special qualities of this intelligence? In what proportions are
these elements present? Most important, how can these elements be used?
We recommend that you do not become bogged down in probing into the concept of
intelligence. Its intricacies and mysteries are fascinating, but it must not become a
convenient synonym for giftedness. An excellent coverage of the concept of intelligence
is provided by Barbara Clark in GROWING UP GIFTED.
The exciting advances in research on brain functioning, coupled with the realization that
a child's intelligence is only one key to understanding giftedness, have underscored the
importance of studying all characteristics of the gifted child.
THE GIFTED CHILD IS CALLED MANY THINGS
Often parents are confused by the many terms used in referring to the gifted child. Many
parents hear these terms used--sometimes adopting them in their own
conversations--without knowing whether they are synonymous with "gifted" or are just
words that help to explain the concept.
The term "genius" used to be widely employed but now it is reserved for reference only
to the phenomenally gifted person. "Talented" tends to be used when referring to a
particular strength or ability of a person. Thought should be given to whether the talent
is truly a gift or is, rather, an ability that has become a highly developed skill through
practice. It is safe to say that generally the person identified as gifted is one who has
multiple talents of a high order.
The terms "prodigy" and "precocious" are most commonly used when a child evidences
a decidedly advanced degree of skill in a particular endeavor at a very early age, as well
as a very disciplined type of motivation. It is interesting to note that the derivation of the
words precocious or precocity comes from the ancient Greek word for "precooked" and
connotes the idea of early ripening.
"Superior" is a comparative term. When a child is classified as "superior," we would like
to know to whom, or what group, he or she is superior, and to what degree. A child may
be markedly superior to the majority of children in a specific mental ability such as
verbal comprehension and at the same time be equally inferior in spatial relations or
memory. The looseness of the term limits its usage in most cases to broad
generalization. A "high IQ" may be anything, depending on what it is higher than.
"Rapid learner" is a helpful term in understanding giftedness, because it is a distinct
characteristic manifested by the identified gifted child.
The term "exceptional" is appropriate when referring to the gifted child as being different
in the characteristics listed earlier.
At this point it is important to bring into focus a term that continues to be tossed around
altogether too loosely in reference to education of the gifted. That term is "elitism".
By derivation, elite means the choice, or best, or superior part of a body or class of
persons. However, time and an overemphasis on egalitarianism have imparted a
negative connotation to the word, implying snobbishness, selectivity, and unfair special
But in fact, gifted children are elite in the same way that anyone becomes a champion, a
record-holder, a soloist, an inventor, or a leader in important realms of human endeavor.
Therefore, their parents have a distinct responsibility to challenge those who cry
"elitism" and explain to them the true meaning of the term.
The only reason for mentioning these terms--and there are many more--is to caution
parents that semantics and language usage can be tricky and confusing. Thus, your
personal understanding and application of the term gifted becomes doubly important.
Adapted from D. W. Russell, D. G. Hayes, & L. B. Dockery, "MY CHILD IS GIFTED!
NOW WHAT DO I DO?" (2nd ed. 1988), North Carolina Association for the Gifted and
Talented, Inc., P. O. Box 5394, Winston-Salem, NC 27113-5394; and D. Sisk, "The
State of Gifted Education: Toward a Bright Future", MUSIC EDUCATORS JOURNAL,
(March 1990), pp. 35-39. Adapted by permission.
ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated.
This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education,
Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no. RI88062007. The
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of
OERI or the Department of Education.
Clark, B. (1988). GROWING UP GIFTED (3rd ed.). Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.
Gardner, H. (1983). FRAMES OF MIND. New York: Bantam Books.
Marland, S. (1972). "Education of the Gifted and Talented." Report to Congress.
Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.
Renzulli, J. (1986). "The three ring conception of giftedness: A developmental model for
creative productivity." In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), CONCEPTIONS OF
GIFTEDNESS (pp.53-92). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, R., & Wagner, R. (1982). "A revolutionary look at intelligence." GIFTED
CHILDREN NEWSLETTER, 3, 11.
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