"Gifted" Re-examined

January, 2012

Physics defines a variety of types of energy — chemical, radiant, mechanical, and so forth — just as there is a variety of types of intelligence.

For mechanical energy, the kinetic energy of an object is the energy which it possesses and demonstrates due to its motion, cites Wikipedia.

Is the giftedness of a child that which the child demonstrates due to his or her high intelligence?

Other sources say that potential energy is that which is stored in an object as a result of its position.

Is the giftedness of a child that of potential achievement as a result of his or her high intelligence?

The concepts of kinetic and potential energy have been around for centuries. The concepts of giftedness and gifted education have been around for a somewhat briefer time, but for at least one hundred years. However, as in physics, sometimes things change.

NAGC Changes Its Definition of Giftedness

Until recently the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) defined giftedness this way:

NAGC defines a gifted person as someone who shows, or has the potential for showing, an exceptional level of performance in one or more areas of expression.

Recently the organization changed its definition:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).

This revised definition seems to emphasize performance and achievement over potential. It also seems to expand the percentage of individuals who may be considered gifted from previous levels (three or five percent) to ten percent of the population.

The revised position, along with an address by NAGC President Paula Olszewski-Kubilius at the NAGC Annual Convention in November of 2011, has generated considerable discussion in gifted and twice-exceptional circles. In the NAGC publication Compass Points, Olszewski-Kubilius took the discussion to a broader audience than those who heard her address at the Convention. Her article, called “Taking a Bold Step,” provided her rationale, noting how 30 years of research have emphasized “giftedness as a state one grows into and acquires as a result of learning and achievement.” She notes, in contrast, that the practice of gifted education has been “largely focused on giftedness as a stable trait of the individual that can be identified through testing and identification.” Her purpose: to bridge the gap between research and practice.

In her Compass Points article Olszewski-Kubilius suggests that “we take a bold step and consider making talent development, rather than giftedness, the major unifying concept of our field and most importantly, the basis for our practice.” It appears from subsequent postings on gifted and 2e-related sites on the Internet that this last suggestion is the one that generated the most controversy.

For example, online postings included the following on the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Forum:

  • “I am very concerned that the NAGC will no longer be representing the interests of gifted students with this new focus and definition of giftedness.”
  • “I am particularly sensitive to focus on functioning highly within the box, though, b/c my 2e kid doesn’t do well with that regardless of the amount of acceleration.”

What comes to mind first in the minds of most of those in the 2e community may be the concern that twice-exceptional children, because of their learning challenges, may have trouble with performance and achievement, thereby becoming excluded from the coveted label of “gifted.” However, NAGC’s position paper takes twice-exceptionality into account. One paragraph of the paper reads:

Barriers to attainment. Some gifted individuals with exceptional aptitude may not demonstrate outstanding levels of achievement due to environmental circumstances such as limited opportunities to learn as a result of poverty, discrimination, or cultural barriers; due to physical or learning disabilities; or due to motivational or emotional problems. Identification of these students will need to emphasize aptitude rather than relying only on demonstrated achievement. Such students will need challenging programs and additional support services if they are to develop their ability and realize optimal levels of performance.

This discussion is likely to continue, and is, we believe, healthy for the gifted and twice-exceptional communities. Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius is Director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy there. Those positions presumably give her a perspective many of us do not have. Further, it was not she alone who promulgated the changes we see in the position statement; it was a “blue-ribbon committee” working over the course of more than a year.

NAGC has continued to engage stakeholders in the conversation. For example, a recent posting [See the last item in the list below.] provides clarification on how the position paper, the presidential address, and a third document on the topic — a scholarly article co-authored by Olszewski-Kubilius — have been “conflated” in the ensuing discussions.

Find the Discussion

We urge readers with an interest in this topic to check the following documents.

  • “Redefining Giftedness for a New Century: Shifting the Paradigm” (www.nagc.org/index2.aspx?id=6404), the new position statement, including the revised definition of giftedness
  • “Taking a Bold Step” (http://goo.gl/dwDjv), a summary of the position in the presidential address and reaction to early comments on the address
  • Reaction on the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Discussion Forum (http://goo.gl/Unm7x)
  • A blog posting at Gifted Parenting Support titled “The NAGC’s Bold Step and What It Means for Your Gifted Child (http://goo.gl/Wm58n). The posting provides context for the discussion and also many comments from the blog’s readers on the issues involved. Another related post on the same blog is at http://goo.gl/zIKlY.
  • Laura Vanderkam, on her blog “Gifted Exchange” (http://goo.gl/tEXz1), also contributes to the discussion.
  • A recent posting on the “conflation” of the presidential address, the NAGC position paper, and the scholarly article co-authored by Olszewski-Kubilius (www.nagc.org/index.aspx?id=8990)

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