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2011 November 30

What is giftedness?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:03
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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:

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 []). I’m one of 164,843 faculty at a PhD-granting university in the US [], 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.


  1. They (the authors of the articles cited) sound to me like the frame they use to define giftedness and to make assumptions and recommendations is influenced by the pressure-cooker environment of Northeast U.S., urban, status-oriented culture. Fortunately, Kevin, you live in a different cultural environment and are able to apply your own astute critical thinking facilities without the limitations they’ve imposed. Some of their notions are irritatingly out of date: that giftedness is judged by its expression, without considering opportunities or interests. (I’ve heard it said that “gifted is as gifted does,” a statement I disagree with entirely–if we judge people by their wrapping paper, we ignore a lot of unopened or unknown gifts, including people with disabilities who were unable to display their gifts before the advent of recent technology). A person may have innate skills that receive no training or exercise, but that doesn’t mean those gifts don’t exist. How many people living in poverty around the world could be eminent pianists, but have never seen a piano? The gift is there, latent and unsupported. At the same time, people with less natural ability may be afforded opportunities and be pushed or interested to put in long hours of practice, becoming decent performers. They may have less of a natural gift, but have benefited from a rich environment. I think a social goal should be to identify and support gifted children without ignoring those living in poverty, who lack opportunities to discover and work with their gifts. A child without books in the home is at a significant disadvantage compared to the child with books, music lessons, dance classes, etc. Focus on “eminence” is just another corrosive celebrity-oriented trait taken from pop culture and used to choke rather than broaden appropriate support and appreciation for gifted folks. It’s short-sighted and counter-productive.

    Comment by Tamara Lichtenstein — 2011 December 9 @ 10:34 | Reply

  2. I find the authors’ assumption that gifted individuals are a commodity to be produced, labeled, and consumed by society distasteful and offensive. The gifted – as indeed everyone else – are human beings. Speeding up the conveyor belt of American education is as disastrous as the candy-wrapper episode of I Love Lucy…without the laughs.
    Their presumptuousness in taking ownership and responsibility for the direction of gifted children is completely out of place. I have yet to see a document published ABOUT the gifted that was actually WRITTEN by a gifted person. The lack of emotional awareness is a dead giveaway.

    Comment by Karen Pfister Nelson — 2011 December 9 @ 12:21 | Reply

  3. Urk. What program are they selling?
    Eminence is a murky objective. In pulling our two PG daughters out of school to homeschool, a family friend who knew their ballpark SB5 FSIQ said “I suppose your aim now is to support their education in order to aim for a Nobel prize, or something of that level of achievement?”
    My reply “We are aiming to raise girls that love to learn and are happy in knowing the truth about themselves”.
    Took me years to come to terms with my own G in a society that expects obsessive practice or stardom as a measure of “intelligence”. Sounds like sports talent really.

    Comment by Tracey Mansted — 2011 December 9 @ 18:14 | Reply

  4. Note the middle author of the terrible paper (Olszewski-Kubilius) is currently president of the National Association for Gifted Children.
    This tells me that I have absolutely no desire to support NAGC.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 December 10 @ 23:28 | Reply

  5. […] What is giftedness? […]

    Pingback by Blog year in review « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 1 @ 14:16 | Reply

  6. To suggest that the authors support abuse as a form of gifted education is just ridiculous. If you have ever met any of these authors, their main goal is to advocate and support the needs of high-ability children. Please be more informed before you write such outlandish things.

    Comment by Lisa Hemmingway — 2012 January 5 @ 15:23 | Reply

    • I have never met any of the authors, and so I have to rely on what they wrote to determine their thoughts. While they probably do not support child abuse, they certainly did not write anything negative in their paper about the technique of withholding emotional support from gifted children—if fact, they seemed to think that it was an ok method, as long as support for children’s achievement was present. I consider this child abuse, but perhaps they do not.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 5 @ 17:15 | Reply

  7. I do not necessarily agree with every point that the authors have made. That’s the great thing about discourse. However, the article discusses self-actualization and well-rounded individuals. It would seem difficult to achieve these goals without emotional support for gifted children.

    I would like to point out that the self-citation to which you refer only accounts for 6% of the references (where authors of this manuscript appear as first authors in the citation list).

    We can agree to disagree about this being a terrible paper. And as far as NAGC is concerned, gifted education remains in large part on the radar of legislators (whether we like them or not) due to the work of NAGC and CEC.

    Comment by Lisa Hemmingway — 2012 January 5 @ 18:26 | Reply

    • I counted 43 self-citations out of about 475 citations, which is 9%, rather than 6%. That is less than my initial impression (though still high for a review article, unless there are only 11 research groups in the field). I’ll fix my post.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 January 5 @ 19:37 | Reply

  8. […] posts by my colleagues Lisa Conrad on the Gifted Parenting Support blog, as well as these on the Gas Station Without Pumps and Asynchronous Scholars’ Fund […]

    Pingback by A Bold Step in Broadly the Right Direction…But There’s a Big But! « Gifted Phoenix's Blog — 2012 May 21 @ 11:45 | Reply

  9. […] What is giftedness?✾ […]

    Pingback by Second Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2012 June 2 @ 18:16 | Reply

  10. […] What is giftedness? […]

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  11. […] What is giftedness? […]

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