Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What is a Gifted Student?

As another round of parent conferences fast approaches, I anticipate at some point being asked if various students should be looking for opportunities to participate in ‘gifted’ programs at universities, online or in other venues. And it is just a matter of time before the next article on ‘giftedness’ makes an appearance in one of the education journals, or one hears other teachers talk about ‘gifted’ students who get A’s on all their tests throughout the school year. But what is “giftedness?” Is there a single definition that can work for the masses? Or is this term one of the most misused, overused and exaggerated terms in the educational vocabulary?

I personally think talk of ‘gifted’ students is entirely overused and misinterpreted. I don’t think one can come up with a single definition, either, largely because of my belief and support for Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (although perhaps a replacement for ‘intelligence’ is ‘competence’). Whatever the language, a truly gifted person in any particular field or activity is, in my mind, someone whose skill, intellect, or ability is off the charts and at a different level than someone who is merely competent, consistent, or accelerated in that field. As an example, I know many teachers and parents who refer to their straight A students as gifted. Because of my long involvement with the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, I know countless parents who place their kids in programs run through universities because their kids are ‘gifted’ and need new challenges that are not available at their respective schools. Having worked with top-tier students for over ten years, it has been more than obvious to me that ‘gifted’ is a term that is as overused and abused in education as ‘genius’ is in the popular media. Terms like 'gifted' and 'genius' are meant to be used for the rare individual whose talents, knowledge, ability, and performance is so far beyond even the most competent in a field that there is not another term that would properly describe them.

Let me stick to my area of expertise and experience to give examples of what gifted might look like in science education. I know many who might consider the typical student in AP classes to be categorized as gifted. After all, students in AP classes are working perhaps one, two or three years ahead of their age-group. These students tend to be motivated, do their homework, listen in class, and have a decent amount of curiosity for the subject. These students are about as ideal for a teacher to work with as you can imagine. But in my ten years working with many hundreds of AP caliber students, there may be a handful who I would classify as ‘gifted’ in science. In my definition of gifted, grades are not part of it. Motivation is not necessarily part of it. Rather, insight and the ability to understand a subject at such a deep level as to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics is part of it. Ability and understanding at such high levels that make me wonder how the student came up with an idea or conclusion that the typical accelerated student would not be able to make fits into the definition. That rare student whose abilities can only be related to others through anecdotes rather than single words fits into the definition.

One example that may sum it up happened a number of years back. After introducing the concept of electromagnetic induction in class, a student who is truly gifted immediately came to me with a comment. This student rarely appeared to ever pay attention in class, because he would be scribbling things on his paper, or have the ‘day dream’ look on his face most of the time. But after knowing him only a few days I knew he was doing something else. He paid attention the first few minutes of class to get the topic, but then took it to new levels on a daily basis in his own mind. Concepts were understood immediately, as soon as he saw where I was headed and what the topic at hand was related to. His day dreaming was normally him deriving in his head or on paper things I was going to do for the class over a week’s worth of time; he knew where it was headed because he intuitively understood at a deep level where it should go. This is hard to put into words, which is why ‘giftedness’ is so difficult to define.

Going back to the electromagnetic induction story, one day he came up to me with a calculation scribbled on a piece of paper. In his mind, he was able to take the concept of time varying electric fields producing (i.e. inducing) magnetic fields and time varying magnetic fields inducing electric fields and apply it in a way that made complete sense to him: a similar thing should be seen with gravitational fields. In fact, he ‘saw’ mathematical similarities between electromagnetic theory and gravitational theory, and deduced a similar phenomenon should exist in an entirely different realm. He came up with gravitomagnetism on his own, which is a prediction Einstein (who, I think we could argue, was somewhat ‘gifted’ in physics) made with general relativity. This sort of intuition or insight is absolutely not the norm, even for knowledgeable, hard working AP level students, who I would classify almost entirely as accelerated students. ‘Gifted’ is a whole other level of understanding that few ever attain, and, at least in science, is based on the deep level of processing and understanding of concepts that allow students to step beyond simply being competent with applying the concept, and rather make connections well beyond the norm. It is the kind of thing as a teacher you recognize and know when you see it.

In sports, one may talk of a Michael Jordan being a gifted basketball player. What separated him from all other players? Others could jump as high and run as fast and dribble as well, but Jordan had ‘instincts’ that no one else did. Some have described it as if he could ‘see’ the play happen and predict what other players would do before it ever happened. It cannot be put into words, and the gifted individuals typically cannot explain how they do it. My student could never explain how he came up with his thoughts or ideas or conclusions…they just ‘appeared’ and ‘made sense.’ Jordan always said he just ‘felt’ where he should go and what he should do on a basketball court, and never thought of it consciously; he just did it. The masters of music simply ‘know’ how to play the notes just right to overwhelm an audience; many others can play the same notes, but there is a quality that separates the truly gifted musician from the masses, and you know it when you hear it. There is not a single definition or word that does it justice.

Addendum: For more comments and observations on this topic, check out Zenpundit.


jo_jo said...

My intepretation of what you are seeing here is that there are different levels of giftedness, and as Gardner points out, different ways to express it. To use vast generalizations to make a small point, a kid with an IQ of 130 (sounds like the "accelerated student" profile you describe, 2 standard deviations above norm) is as different from a kid with IQ 160 (sounds like the talented physicist you mentioned, 3+ SDs above norm) as he/she is from a kid with IQ 100. And of course, the more gifed you are, the more ways you can concieve of to be various.

At least there is some place the IQ 160 and above kids (PG - profoundly gifted) can go, even if it's mainly targeted at the IQ 130 kids (MG - moderately gifted). I am not saying that IQ is the only way to define people, but it's one tool with a long history of pointing to probable gifted kids.

There isn't a definition of "gifted" or "genius" that all the experts can agree on, and I have to say I'm glad about that. Because as soon as academics try to define it, they are excluding someone who may have incredible sensitivity, huge processing power, uncanny ability to connect disparate ideas creatively, or some other talent. It's a dynamic concept easily crushed by forcing it into language.

Hope this gives you another perspective. Would love to hear your thoughts!
Best wishes,

vonny said...

Thanks for the comments, Joanna.

I think you're right about the levels of giftedness, although that, too, doesn't really have any true definition since 'giftedness' doesn't have a good definition. IQ is about the only way I know of that can quantify the term, but IQ can be misleading as well. If we separate academic from non-academic (artistic, musical, athletic, etc) along the lines laid out by Gardner, then IQ is only relevant for one portion of the spectrum. I think the nature/nurture phenomena also can be relevant, at least in exploring if and when someone with gifted potential actually makes use of the 'gift.'

I also entirely agree with your observation that academics need to stay away from creating definitions for giftedness. I know too many who get wrapped up in a 'blinders' way of looking at things based on definitions. Each person is different, and keeping a more open mind to giftedness seems to me, at least, to allow each individual to grow within their life's parameters. In any case, it is a fascinating and complicated concept.

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts, as well!


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