ERIC Identifier: ED262519
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: McClellan, Elizabeth
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
WHAT IS GIFTEDNESS?
Historically, giftedness has been closely linked with the concept of genius. This
association began around the turn of the century when psychologists developed tests
that were designed to measure intelligence (Termam 1925); people who scored on the
low end of the scale were labeled retarded, and those who scored on the high end were
The use of intelligence tests as the single measure of giftedness has been greatly
criticized in recent years, primarily because the tests are often biased in favor of the
white middle class and because they penalize children with differing linguistic styles.
Also, many researchers and educators have come to believe that giftedness is more
than high intellectual ability; it also includes creativity, memory, motivation, physical
dexterity, social adeptness, and aesthetic sensitivity.
Dissatisfaction with a limited perspective has led researchers and educators to develop
"broadened" definitions. One of the first educators to write about such an expansion
was Hollingsworth. Although her research focused on children with IQ's above 170,
Hollingsworth believed that children can have other types of gifts, such as mechanical
aptitude or artistic ability (Pritchard 1951).
During the 1840s, the conception of giftedness was expanded further when the federal
government began to take an interest in the education of gifted and talented children.
This federal interest was sparked during and after World War II when policy makers
perceived a need for technological advancement in order to maintain the nation's
military and political superiority.
By 1950, Congress had passed the National Science Foundation Act which marked the
first time the federal government provided funds specifically for the gifted and talented
(Zettel 1982). By providing funds for encouraging students to develop their abilities in
mathematics and the physical sciences, the Act led, in essence, to the designation of
specific academic aptitude as a type of giftedness.
Another significant development in defining giftedness was the publication of Guilford's
(1959) studies of the structure of the intellect. As early as 1950, Guilford had urged
psychologists to explore the area of creativity, or divergent thinking, but it was his
structural model of the 120 theoretical components of intelligence that led to the
development of tests to measure intellectual abilties other than those measured by
conventional IQ tests.
The development of creativity tests and the results of many studies of the relationship
between intelligence and creativity (Getzels and Jackson 1962) have led many
educators to include creativity in their definitions. Renzulli (1976), for example,
considers giftedness to be a combination of above average ability, creativity, and task
In 1969, Congress mandated a study by the U.S. Commissioner of Education to
determine the extent to which the needs of gifted and talented children were being met
(Sisk 1980). The ensuing document, known as the Marland Report (1972), contains a
definition of giftedness that has been and continues to be the one most widely adopted
or adapted by state and local education agencies. The Report states:
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 differential educational programs and/or services beyond those provided by
the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and the society.
Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement
and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination:
Although the definition has been criticized as being limiting (Reis and Renzulli 1982)
and of promoting elitism (Feldman 1979), more than 80% of the 204 experts polled for
their reactions to the Marland definition agreed with the selection of the categories of
high intellectual ability, creative or productive thinking, specific academic aptitude, and
ability in visual or performing arts. Approximately half of the experts agreed that social
adeptness and psychomotor ability should be included (Martinson 1975).
- General intellectual ability
- Specific academic aptitude
- Creative or productive thinking
- Leadership ability
- Visual and performing arts
- Psychomotor ability
The federal government has included five broad areas in the definition found in the
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. In this act, block grants for education have
been provided to the states; some of these funds may be used for:
special programs to identify, encourage, and meet the special educational needs of
children who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual,
creative, artistic, leadership capacity, or specific academic fields, and who require
services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such
More recently, the Regulations for the Educational Security Act of 1984, which provides
grants for strengthening the skills of teachers and instruction in mathematics, science,
foreign languages, and computer learning have defined the term "gifted student" as a
"student, identified by various measures, who demonstrates actual or potential high
performance capability in the fields of mathematics, science, foreign languages, or
computer learning." Gifted students may come from "historically underrepresented and
underserved groups, including females, minorities, handicapped persons, persons of
limited English-speaking proficiency, and migrants.
By placing an emphasis on math, science, foreign languages, and computer learning,
this latest federal definition highlights the fact that the ways in which schools
operationally define giftedness are often based on the needs of society. Definitions are
also influenced by cultural and socioeconomic factors.
As Bernal points out, "what is clever and creative for a child in the barrio or on the
reservation, where different value systems are in operation, will not be the same as for
the child who grows up in the suburbs" (1974). For economically disadvantaged
populations that place a heavy emphasis on preparing students for employment rather
than college, a definition might recognize that students can be gifted in areas that are
generally nonacademic in nature, such as carpentry or mechanics (McClellan 1984).
WHY DO WE NEED TO DEFINE GIFTEDNESS?
A definition of giftedness is the foundation upon which an educational program for gifted
children is built. The specific abilities included in a definition determine the kinds of
identification criteria that are used to select children for a program and the kinds of
educational services that are provided to those children. The selection of abilities to be
included in a definition is, therefore, very important to educators who must determine
which children are designated as gifted and what kinds of educational services are
provided to them.
For example, a definition that incorporates creativity as a category suggests that
schools provide experiences aimed at developing the potential of children who have
been identified as being creative; a definition that includes leadership ability suggests
other types of identification criteria and educational experiences.
Educators who are charged with the reponsibility of creating or maintaining programs for
gifted children and youth face a different task when they must decide what giftedness is,
how gifted children can be identified, and what services schools should provide. The
following points are a guide for helping them make those decisions:
- The concept of giftedness is not limited to high intellectual ability. It also comprises
creativity, ability in specific academic areas, ability in visual or performing arts, social
adeptness, and physical dexterity.
- A program for gifted children should be based on the way in which the school system
operationally defines giftedness. A definition should be the basis of decision regarding
the selection of identification procedures as well as the provision of educational services
for gifted children.
- Definitions of giftedness are influenced by social, political, economic, and cultural
- Giftedness is found among all groups, including females, minorities, handicapped
persons, persons with limited English-speaking proficiency, and migrants.
This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or
the Department of Education.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bernal, E. M. "Gifted Mexican American Children: An Ethnoscientific Perspective."
CALIFORNIA JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 25 (1974):261-273.
Feldman, D. "Toward a Nonelitist Conception of Giftedness." PHI DELTA KAPPAN
Getzels, J. W. and P. W. Jackson. CREATIVITY AND INTELLIGENCE. London: John
Wiley and Sons, 1962.
Guilford. J. P. "Three Faces of Intellect." AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST 14
Marland, S. P. EDUCATION OF THE GIFTED AND TALENTED. Report to the
Congress of the United States by the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Washington,
DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972.
Martinson, R. A. THE IDENTIFICATION OF THE GIFTED AND TALENTED. Reston,
VA: The Council for Exceptional Children, 1975.
McClellan, E. DEFINING GIFTEDNESS: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC APPROACH. Paper
presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, New
Orleans, LA, 1974.
OMNIBUS BUDGET RECONCILIATION ACT OF 1981, Section 582, 42 USC 3842.
Pritchard, M. C. "The Contribution of Leta Hollingsworth to the Study of Gifted Children."
In THE GIFTED CHILD, edited by P. Witty. New York: D.C. Heath, 1951.
REGULATIONS FOR THE EDUCATION FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY ACT OF 1984.
Part 208, Section 208.3
Reis, S. M. J. S. Renzulli. "A Case for a Broadened Conception of Giftedness." PHI
DELTA KAPPAN 63 (1982):619-620.
Renzulli, J. "What Makes Giftedness?" PHI DELTA KAPPAN 60 (1978):180-184.
Terman, L. GENETIC STUDIES OF GENIUS: VOLUME 1, MENTAL AND PHYSICAL
TRAITS OF A THOUSAND GIFTED CHILDREN. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Zettal, J. J. "The Education of Gifted and Talented Children from a Federal
Perspective." In SPECIAL EDUCATION IN AMERICA: ITS LEGAL AND
GOVERNMENTAL FOUNDATIONS, edited by J. Ballard, and others. Reston, VA: The
Council for Exceptional Children, 1982.
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