More than a half century ago I began my first serious venture in studying gifted students. We identified students with Stanford Binet IQ test scores over 150 in the elementary schools of a university-town school system. The goal was to discover if the elementary teacher could, with some outside help from counselors and psychologists, provide an effective educational experience for a youngster with such advanced cognitive abilities ( one in 1,000). To our astonishment, instead of the four or five students we expected, we found fifty-four such youngsters in a town of only 50,000; four of them had IQs of over 200.The authors’ consensus of this case study was that the small amount of help provided to the teachers did not change significantly the highly gifted students’ educational experiences, nor provide them with more stimulation or appropriate activities. We have changed our views about the nature of giftedness, where it comes from and how to nurture it, several times over the past five decades.
Gifted Children are Sometimes Made not Born
Our earliest views regarded giftedness as if it was the result of heredity. “Smart parents had smart children,” thus the result of rolling the genetic dice seemed to benefit the well-educated families in a society. Unfortunately, this idea also carried with it the notion that “dull parents produced dull children” and justified the poverty that such families often found themselves in. Like most simplistic ideas about human beings, intellectual growth turns out to be much more complicated.
Recent research on the development of the human brain has revealed that an individual’s experiences early in life can cause the brain to grow and expand in certain areas. This discovery increases the importance of early experience and language development for the young child, since such experiences, or their lack, have a multiplier effect on later development.
Families who are in a position to provide their children with an enriched environment, stimulation, and security can expect their children to profit intellectually. So the current answer to the question as to whether a person is born gifted is only partially correct, it also depends on the richness of the environment interacting with the genetic inheritance.
The concept of giftedness itself has broadened from the earlier emphasis on verbal abilities and mathematical abilities to include perceptual abilities at the heart of artistic and musical talent. Here, too, early identification and stimulation has much to do with the flowering of high ability. When we consider how to stimulate intellectual production, we also add the characteristics of motivation and commitment to learning to the mix.
Rising to the Top
Several studies that followed gifted students over the years have yielded clear results. Once the student is performing at a top level they tend to stay at their top level, not only in school but as they move into society. Gifted students make up a strong proportion of professional leadership positions, scientific accomplishments, artistic performances, etc. Popular myths such as “early ripe, early rot” have been proven to be quite untrue as development studies of these students have shown. Also, gifted students have no more of the social and emotional problems than average students, and perhaps somewhat less.
While we used to believe there were a set number of gifted students in any school (two or three percent), we now remain open to the quantity and percentage of talented students a school might have. After all, if environment influences intellectual development, then improving the environment should result in increasing the number of bright students in a school, as well as increasing the average abilities of the students in a given school population.
We have recently become concerned about students who come to school from disadvantaged economic, social, or family circumstances. This has produced lower rates of talented students coming from minority and low-income populations from such environments. An explanation is that a dearth of positive early experiences has led to potential talent being hidden or undeveloped. Major efforts have been made to find these children and nurture them in our schools—such efforts do seem to result in positive outcomes. For students who do not get early enrichment in the preschool years, getting access to educational excellence during the school years is critical. Earlier efforts at stimulation in the preschool years should result in even more impressive development.
One of the earliest efforts schools used to cope with gifted students was to advance them early or accelerate them to an advanced grade for their age. The thinking was, if nine-year-old children think like twelve-year-old students perhaps they should attend classes with them. The problem often was that the child was not socially or emotionally at the twelve-years-old level even if they were cognitively. This resulted in some unfortunate experiences that have negatively influenced thinking about educational acceleration to this day. Many parents and teachers still believe that children would be placed at risk of poor adjustment by such grade advancement.
The latest summary of the outcomes of educational acceleration, having benefited from that earlier experience, (advanced placement courses, early entrance to college, honors courses, taking three years of middle school in two in a group of rapid learners, etc.) turns out to have highly positive outcomes. Since many gifted students go on to advanced study and professional schools, any strategy that would slice a year or two off of 25-plus years of school would benefit students and their cultures. Well-planned educational acceleration needs more consideration as a policy alternative for gifted students than it currently receives.
How does one change the normal curriculum to meet the needs of these gifted students? Two major methods have been to present more complexity and rigor to subject content, to teach students how to discover knowledge on their own, to problem solve, and to create new ideas for themselves. For example, to include more complexity: patterns of governance over the centuries can be added to the program of gifted students who have mastered the Constitution and Bill of Rights, String theory can be added to Newtonian physics, world-wide climate patterns added to our local weather forecasting, etc.
To get gifted students thinking for themselves, a wide variety of education strategies have been used to fully exercise their abilities. Problem-based learning focuses on a particular problem, such as global warming, and asks the student to collect relevant information to address and analyze various solutions to it. Other efforts have been made to extend the creative abilities of students by asking them for unique answers to mathematical problems or to express emotions through drawing or painting. Some of these thinking strategies were tried out with gifted students and have since proven to be good educational practice for average students as well; so the attention paid to these gifted students have brought benefits to education as a whole.
Conflicts in American Education
American education has been caught between two desirable goals—equity and excellence. We want all children to have an appropriate education and want to reward the highest level of excellence that each student can achieve. When students of many levels of ability and motivation are in the same classroom, the challenge for the classroom teacher to achieve both of these goals is formidable. Classroom teachers need support personnel, if they are to shape the curriculum to the needs of individual students.
Most of the recent emphasis on public policy has been placed on equity. Laws such as No Child Left Behind place an emphasis on low-level accountability, where students are tested on basic knowledge, rather than high-level achievement. Much more resources are poured into programs for students who are behind or have fallen behind, than are allocated to bright students who are bored and need intellectual challenge.
One particular need it preparing teachers specifically to work with gifted students. Funds are available to prepare teachers to work with students with disabilities (equity) but not for the gifted (excellence).
This is a short sighted approach for long-range societal future since the U.S. will need all of its intellectual resources to remain a leader in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, much of our funding goes toward solving immediate problems such as failing students rather than toward long-range benefits to our society. It takes politicians and leaders with foresight to see that we need both equity and excellence to flourish; it takes wise citizens to help leaders attend to the long range needs of creating excellence for the society.
—James J. Gallagher, PhD
James Gallagher is is senior scientist emeritus and former director of Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served on the planning team to develop the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics—the first residential school of its kind focusing on talented students in science and mathematics at the secondary level and has been instrumental in rewriting and updating state law and regulations to better serve gifted students in Illinois and North Carolina.
A Nation Deceived, by Nicholas Colangelo, Susan G. Assouline, and Miraca U.M. Gross. Belin & Blank International Center for Gifted Education, University of Iowa, 2004. Available free of charge at nationdeceived.org.
Handbook of Gifted Education (3rd ed.), by Nicholas Colangelo and Gary A. Davis. Allyn & Bacon, 2003.
Being Gifted in School, by Laurence J. Coleman and Tracy L. Cross, Prufrock Press, 2001.
International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.), by Kurt Heller, Elsevier, 2002.
National Excellence, edited byPat O’Connell Ross. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, 1993.
Curriculum of Gifted and Talented Students, by Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, Corwin, 2004.