Over the past two weeks, I’ve read two articles talking about gifted children more from the standpoint of defining what giftedness is than what needs to be done for them educationally:
- From the New York Times: Sorry, Strivers – Talent Matters.
- From Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12(1):3–54, Jan 2011 Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education. doi:10.1177/1529100611418056
In the NYTimes article, David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz argued that the “10,000 hours of practice” documented by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers were not a sufficient recipe for excellence. In their own research “working memory capacity, a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities” One study on sight-reading music by piano players (a similar, but not identical task to the evaluation of musicians in Ericsson’s work), they found that amount of practice had a large effect, but that there was also a “medium-size effect” from working memory. Their claim appears to be that working memory is largely independent of practice time.
Furthermore the “smart enough” meme that Gladwell pushes (that IQ over 120 does not correlate with better performance in the real world) does not hold up to careful study. They cite work by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow that ‘compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile—the profoundly gifted—were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal, or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.’
While Hambrick and Meinz seem to be arguing for the value of innate intelligence as contributing to talent beyond what practice alone can provide, the paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell seems to be arguing for different definitions of giftedness based on age:
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 psycho-social variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated.
“Eminence” seems to me to be a very weird criterion for giftedness in adults, as it usually means “fame or recognized superiority.” Fame and recognition rely more on luck than on talent. Is someone not gifted if they choose to do good work in obscurity? Of course, the authors do not use the standard definition of “eminence”, but they “characterize [it] as contributing in a transcendent way to making societal life better and more beautiful,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
I don’t think of myself as “eminent”, but I’m certainly in the upper 1.6% of my age group for educational attainment (according to the 2010 US census there are about 300,000 people 55–59 years old with a doctoral or professional degree, out of a total of 19,172,000 [http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2010/Table1-01.csv]). I’m one of 164,843 faculty at a PhD-granting university in the US [http://chronicle.com/stats/productivity/], which puts me in the top 0.12% academically of 30–64-year-olds. Does this make me “gifted” by their definition? Probably not, since I’ll never have a Nobel prize (and probably not even a lesser prize). I’ve contributed to society—a couple of patents, dozens of journal papers (some of them well cited), a number of students taught, … —but not in a “transcendent way”.
For the authors, the whole point of gifted education is to produce eminent adults (according to their rather nebulous definition). The authors begin with this production of eminence as a premise, not subject to discussion and certainly not open to scientific testing: “outstanding achievement or eminence—with its attendant benefits to society and to the gifted individual—ought to be the chief goal of gifted education.” This premise seems to argue for a pressure-cooker approach to teaching the gifted—that it is better to burn out dozens of gifted kids if one eminent individual results, rather than getting them all to be productive and happy, but not getting any superstars.
At least they recognize that they are outliers in their insistence that eminence is the only worthy end goal: “Disagreements in the field emerge about what the underlying causes of gifted performance are, where the line between gifted performance and performance that is not so labeled should be drawn, what the best way to turn childhood potential into outstanding accomplishments in adulthood should be, and whether the development of eminence should even be a goal of gifted education.” [italics added]
The paper by Subotnik et al. is very long (51 pages) and full of inflated diction. Who uses “psychological science” rather than “psychology” in normal writing—someone with an inferiority complex about being a psychologist, perhaps?—this is further illustrated in their choice of examples: “it is important to distinguish between those whose talent is expressed by way of (a) creative performance, as exemplified by athletes, musicians, actors, and dancers, and (b) creative producers, such as playwrights, choreographers, historians, biologists, and psychological scientists.” [italics added]
They start by defining giftedness somewhat differently from everyone else. They describe (with what looks to me like fairly accurate summaries) five previous definitions: “high IQ; emotional fragility; creative-productive giftedness; talent development in various domains; unequal opportunities; and practice, practice, practice”, then introduce their own idiosyncratic definition:
Our focus here is on giftedness as a developmental process that is domain specific and malleable. Although the path to outstanding performance may begin with demonstrated potential, giftedness must be developed and sustained by way of training and interventions in domain-specific skills, the acquisition of the psychological and social skills needed to pursue difficult new paths, and the individual’s conscious decision to engage fully in a domain. The goal of this developmental process is to transform potential talent during youth into outstanding performance and innovation in adulthood.
They base the need for a new definition on their claim that children identified as gifted often don’t achieve eminence and that eminent adults were often not identified as gifted when they were children. Since eminence of (some) adults is the only endpoint they care about, all parts of their definition must serve that goal.
Some of the policies they propose make sense:
This process of talent development can be conceptualized as having two stages. First is talent identification: continuous targeting of the precursors of domain-specific talent and the formal and informal processes by which the talent is recognized and identified. Second is talent promotion: how the person demonstrating talent is instructed, guided, and encouraged—a process too often left to chance rather than to strategic and targeted societal effort. This process also involves recognizing that domains of talent have different developmental trajectories and that transitions from one stage to another are influenced by effort; opportunity; and instruction in content, technical, and psycho-social skills.
But the underlying reasoning seems to be circular—they define their terms so that they will support the conclusions they want to reach.
The authors frame the discussion in terms of 4 questions:
- First, what factors contribute to giftedness?
- Second, what are potential barriers to attaining the gifted label?
- Third, what are the expected outcomes of gifted education?
- Fourth, how should gifted students be educated?
I wonder a little about the significance of the second question. Why should the “label” matter, and why should barriers to getting the label matter? Perhaps they meant to ask how gifted children can be identified, but phrasing it as “barriers to attaining the gifted label” seems to presuppose that the gifted label is a thing to strive for. The other questions seem more normally phrased.
In discussing whether or not IQ is innate or environmental, they correctly point out that both genetics and environment are involved, but they use the technical term “epigenetics” incorrectly, and make the somewhat bizarre statement: “General ability or g is derived from both genes and environment. Both are modifiable.” Sorry folks, but gene therapy is certainly not at the point where we can modify genes in order to improve general intelligence.
Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell do address the “smart-enough” meme, which the refer to as the “ability-threshold/creativity hypothesis”. They cite several studies that refute it, pointing out the studies that supported it generally had low ceilings for performance and short time frames, so that differences in adult performance at the high end were not distinguishable.
One rather terrifying aspect of the article is that they serious consider whether emotional trauma is important to achieving eminence and whether parental push to achieve eminence is crucial: “However, encouragement and stimulation were not necessarily accompanied by emotional support. Despite this, and to the extent that outstanding achievement was the goal, the parents seemed to have contributed to their children’s attainment of eminence.” Given the authors’ single-minded insistence on eminence as the only worthy goal of gifted education, this section of the paper sounds remarkably like they suggest child abuse as a form of gifted education!
I eventually finished the 40-page article, though I did not bother with the additional 14 pages of citations (far too many of which were self-citations [Correction: only 43, about 9%, were self-citations]). I found the authors rather narrow-minded about the goals of gifted education, and so their policy and research suggestions seemed rather narrow-minded as well. I hope that Subotnik et al.’s document does not become a guideline for future gifted education policy and research, though that was clearly the intent of the authors.