Researchers in the field of giftedness face a major struggle: they can’t agree on a definition of giftedness. If you were to ask 10 giftedness researchers for a definition of giftedness, you’d likely get 11 different answers! This becomes problematic within the field when we try to determine who is gifted and what we should do for them. And from outside the field, this disagreement on things as “simple” as definitions makes us look like we don’t know what are talking about. After all, physicists don’t disagree on the definition of gravity!
Some of the top researchers in the field of giftedness recently took on the Herculean task of synthesizing previous research, and they proposed a new conceptualization in their article, “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education: A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science.” In this article, Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell take an extremely detailed in-depth look into the last 100 years of giftedness research and do an excellent job summarizing various perspectives of giftedness, proposing a new definition of giftedness, and even laying out a new goal for giftedness.
They define giftedness as:
“…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.” (p. 7)
Nestled in this definition is a reference to what the authors propose should be the end goal for gifted education: “eminence,” or outstanding achievement. In another section, the authors expound on this point, stating that “outstanding achievement, or eminence—with its attendant benefits to society and to the gifted individual—ought to be the chief goal of gifted education.” (p. 1)
Their article has garnered so much attention that the editors of the journal Gifted Child Quarterly have dedicated an entire issue to a series of commentaries reacting to the proposals set forth by Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell. The issue includes commentaries on various perspectives about: advocating for gifted students, the goals of gifted education, the equity-excellence balance, education policy, social factors, school factors, and even career development factors.
TIP researchers wrote the commentary on school factors titled, “Teach Students What They Don’t Know but Are Ready to Learn: A Commentary on ‘Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education.’” In the commentary, they wrote that they would, “revise the chief goal of gifted education to be the chief goal of all education: to ensure that all students receive the education appropriate for them at any given time by maximizing the match between individual students’ educational experiences with their individual educational needs.” The title references a goal initially proposed by Julian Stanley, the founder of the talent search model.
Although not necessarily written with parents as the intended audience, the commentaries are all written using the terms initially established by Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell, so readers who may not be as familiar with some of the technical jargon shouldn’t be at too much of a disadvantage.
As a whole, the set of commentaries (as well as the rejoinder written by the original authors responding to them) serve as an excellent window into the conversations happening between the professionals in the thick of trying to uncover and understand the lives of gifted students.
Although the field has yet to agree upon a grand unified definition of giftedness, conversations like the ones explained by the special help explain and clarify where the field is and what needs to be accomplished in the future.