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Rethinking Giftedness by Todd Kettler

January 17, 2012

On Thursday, November 3, 2011 most of the nation’s leaders in gifted education gathered in a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana for the NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) President’s Address by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius. NAGC Presidential Addresses are both opportunity and obligation, and they typically resemble courteous overviews of the workings of the organization or some noteworthy research study. But this one was different. The audience knew it shortly into the speech, and rumblings of the speech continue to this day.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius proposed a rethinking of giftedness, a new definition. She called it a new paradigm, but I’m always leery of the overuse of that term. However, with a month of reflection, I might argue that paradigm is an appropriate term. Anyone who has read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has a distinct sense of the gravity of a paradigm shift, disruption of the field, animosity, new hierarchies. Generally paradigms shift slowly and painfully over time. A paradigm is a philosophical or theoretical framework for a discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations are deduced and experiments are performed. One paradigm fades away when it no longer adequately explains phenomena in the discipline. With that old paradigm generally will go a host of supporters who do not see the promise of a new lens.

The Presidential Address of 2011 was preceded earlier in the year by an article published by Rena Subotnik (American Psychological Association), Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (Northwestern University), and Frank Worrell (University of California-Berkley) in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Volume 12, Number 1, January 2011). The article, “Rethinking Giftedness: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science,” offers evidence that the old paradigm of giftedness does not adequately explain phenomena and proposes a new definition of giftedness.

In her address, Olszewski-Kubilius explained that gifted education is largely marginalized in the landscape of K-12 education policy and reform. In fact, gifted education specialists are rarely even at the table to discuss new directions in education. Gifted education remains in the minds of much of the public an elitist enterprise that is at best a frill for school districts. Gifted education is optional in many states, and even states that mandate gifted services (i.e. Texas) funding and accountability are so negligible that it remains a low priority for educational leaders. The question of why this is the case rings loud and clear. Given the poor performance of even the most talented students in the United States on international comparisons, would it not make sense to address the policies and services to those we call gifted? These questions are not new, but if we take seriously what Olszweski-Kubilius proposed, the answers to the questions could take the field in quite a new direction.

The definition offered by Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell is comprehensive and different from previously accepted definitions delineated in state and federal policy.

Giftedness is the manifestation of performance or production that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain. Further, 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. 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. (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011, p. 7).

Subtle distinctions of this proposed definition will continue to reveal themselves overtime, but some points of departure are obvious. First, there is more focus on performance. As individuals mature and develop, potential must give way to achievement. Previous definitions and conceptions emphasized an ontological giftedness which suggests that gifted students experience the world differently with or without any level of achievement. Ultimately being gifted is being different. I’ve even heard people say, “He’s so different; he must be gifted.” Second, the proposed definition locates talent development within a specific domain. Different domains have different trajectories of development, different milestones. Giftedness is a label of eminent talent across all domains from gymnastics to mathematics to politics, and how and when those talents are developed vary. For instance, it seems that by the age of 25, one could be a potentially gifted politician, but at the same age one could not be a potentially gifted gymnast. Gymnasts have either achieved eminence or not by the age of 25. Third, the proposed definition suggests new emphasis in the research literature of the field. The most common line of research at this point in gifted education is to study characteristics that distinguish high IQ (gifted) children from average IQ peers. This type of information seems much less relevant to the proposed definition. New emphases may include specific developmental models for how expertise and eminence are achieved or recognized in various talent domains. What are key indicators of potential in early years that suggest one may attain significant achievement in subsequent years? What cognitive and psychological variables matter most in developing talent? Which variable transcend domains and which variable are more unique to certain domains?

For better or worse, we have known for years that identified gifted students are no more likely to achieve eminence than non-identified students. Students who have participated in gifted programs are no more likely to achieve eminence than students who did not participate. The education community and the public at large have asked an emphatic why. As a field we have suggested it may be poor identification, or poor programming. Countless efforts have been made to improve both identification and programming. Resulting eminence for the identified gifted students did not change. There seems to be a repeated rumbling that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a gifted guitarist who doesn’t play guitar very well. Is that what we do when we talk about gifted students who don’t do very well in school? I suggest that is a valid but complex question with answers which are just as complex.

The proposed rethinking suggests that to solve the problems that plague the field, we have to completely change the way we think about giftedness, a paradigm change. We do not overcome elitism, marginalization, and educational neglect by improving the identification system, or cluster grouping, or standards-based professional development. At least that is the lesson that our current situation should teach us. Perhaps it is a good time to rethink.

Subotnik, R.F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F. C. (2011). Rethinking giftedness and
gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science.
. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12(1), 1-54.

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