Conceptions of Giftedness, in light of DVD finding

Life magazine, 31 March 1967The recent finding that infants don’t learn language well from instructional videos — especially the sorts typically bought by enthusiastic grandparents — has received a great deal of coverage in the popular press (e.g., Melbourne Herald Sun, Newsweek, Seatle Post Intelligencer).

One of the more interesting responses I saw was published in The Sunday Times. It’s by a concerned father, wondering what Psychology can do to help parents (and governments) encourage their children to be all they can be. He starts by posing an important question:

what exactly is a gifted child?

To find an answer, our author travelled to the University of Warwick for the biennial conference of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children; he wanted to talk to the experts in the field. Yet he was disappointed by the experience.

Only at a conference full of clever academics would nobody dare make a definition. “There is no single, internationally agreed definition of what a gifted child is,” said conference chair-woman Professor Deborah Eyre. Another professor told me that gifted was nothing more than a “culturally relative term, the Canadian Inuit people have no concept of the gifted”.

“Yeah, well thanks for that,” I said, “I’ll make sure I don’t send my kid to an Inuit school.”

Eventually I managed to piece together a definition of what a gifted child was: they’re the ones who perform at the top end of the ability range – or have the potential to.

This conclusion makes “giftedness” sound a lot like “intelligence.” (Given that there are lots of domains in which one can be “gifted,” the leap to a theory of “multiple intelligences” then becomes rather obvious.) But that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead, let’s first get the notion straight: What has it meant, in the history of psychology, for a child to be gifted?

Once we’ve answered this, we will be much better prepared to contribute to discussions regarding which teaching strategies might enable our children to reach their “full potential.”

General Histories of Giftedness.

  • Carroll, K. L. (1987). History, ideas and the nature of giftedness in the visual arts. Roeper Review, 9(3), 140-143.

Proposes that key ideas that have led more than 50 yrs of research and practice constitute a valid gestalt for thinking about the nature of giftedness and the visual arts. N. C. Meier’s (1939) theory of interlinkage is discussed, along with the evolution of his 6 factors: manual skill, energy output and perseveration, aesthetic intelligence, perceptual facility, creative imagination, and aesthetic judgment.

  • González, F. H. (2005). La obra psicológica de Mercedes Rodrigo en torno a los superdotados. / Mercedes Rodrigo on gifted intelligence. Revista de Historia de la Psicología, 26(4), 139-164.

Intelligence tests began to be elaborated and applied in Spain with different purposes in the 1920’s. We study here some psychotechnical tests created or adapted by Mercedes Rodrigo (1891-1982), the first Spanish woman psychologist, while she was working at the Psychotechnical Institute of Madrid. These tests were conceived for their application in primary and pre-professional schools. The most original of these tests, as well as that endowed with wider possibilities of application, was a test for the gifted that was designed in collaboration with José Germain. The purpose of this test was to select low-class gifted children in order to provide them with higher education. Underlying all this work, a widely shared feeling at the time can be recognized: the feeling of the need of reforming Spanish society and contributing to its democratization and general advancement, while the country’s industrialization was taking place.

  • Grinder, R. E. (1990). Sources of giftedness in nature and nurture: Historical origins of enduring controversies. Gifted Child Quarterly, 34(2), 50-55.

Examines events that influenced the 1928 yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Nature and Nurture: Their influence on intelligence. Probable bases are reviewed for rapprochement among contemporary proponents who argue for the primacy of nature or who call for emphasis on nurture.

  • Hunsaker, S. L. (1995). The gifted metaphor from the perspective of traditional civilizations. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 18(3), 255-268.

Reviews information from ancient and classic cultures (Western and non-Western) relating to beliefs about the sources of giftedness. The author traces the nature of the “gifted” metaphor that implies that exceptionally promising abilities or aptitudes are inherited, acquired, or given from some source. These beliefs are used to discuss the present concept of gifted individuals and the attitudes people have about serving this population in the school setting. Five themes are identified that should be considered by those who deal with problems in gifted education. These themes are (1) diversity of gifts, (2) source of giftedness, (3) development of gifts, (4) distribution of gifts, and (5) attitudes toward giftedness.

  • Kiss, G. (1989). Kokeellisen psykologian alkuvaiheet Unkarissa 1920-1940. / The beginnings of experimental psychology in Hungary. Psykologia, 24(3), 201-204.

Discusses the theoretical bases and early development and practice of experimental psychology in Hungary from 1920 to 1940. The contributions of 3 people are emphasized: P. Ranschburg, who conducted research on memory and perception and was a significant figure in the development of special education in Hungary; G. Revesz, who studied the psychological development of gifted and talented children; and L. Nagy, a founder of child psychology and pedagogical psychology in Hungary.

  • Marcos, F. S. & Tojo, C. P. (2003). Quién es superdotado?. / Who is highly gifted?. EduPsykhé: Revista de Psicología y Psicopedagogía, 2(1), 3-25.

There have been many definitions, across the history, about what means to be gifted. From the first Galton’s definitions, resting on psychometric correlations and concerning with intelligence as measured, to the current global and integral definitions that include many different factors. Nevertheless, it seems that the giftedness field is still spread. In this paper we present a Dimensional Analysis made through a wide review of bibliography and working with a hundred of variables that seem to define giftedness. Our main goal is to establish an evolutional and chronologically hierarchical organization of the factors that play a role in the giftedness definition. The result of the analysis is very interesting not just at theoretical level, but always for its importance for educational practice.

  • Stanley, J. C. (1976). Concern for intellectually talented youths: How it originated and fluctuated. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 5(3), 38-42.

Reviews the history of the study of intellectually talented persons. The work of F. Galton, A. Binet and L. M. Terman and more recent researchers clearly demonstrates the need to reorganize public education systems to provide for those students who are exceptional in one or more areas of ability. A program for mathematically gifted youth illustrates what has been achieved with this type of precocious child.

See also:

  • Fei, Z. (2004). The Past and Present of Studies on Perfectionism. Psychological Science (China), 27(4), 943-945.

Perfectionism, an important diagnostic standard of DSM-III, is viewed as being associated with a variety of psychological problems. However, there has long been a lack of an accurate definition of perfectionism and quantitative studies. From 1980s on, in the fields of clinic psychology and gifted and creative education of Western countries, perfectionism has increasingly been regarded as a personality trait that is closely related to mental health and creativity and has multiple dimensions and aspects. The present article traces back to the origin of the studies on perfectionism, introduces the development and the present situation of this field.

Conceptions of Giftedness in Education.

  • Adderholdt-Elliot, M., Algozzine, K., Algozzine, B., & Haney, K. (1991). Current state practices in educating students who are gifted and talented. Roeper Review, 14(1), 20-23.

Investigated historical perspectives, definitional use, and identification practices reported by 38 state directors of gifted education programs in the US. 58% of the directors indicated that the S. P. Marland (1972) definition was used as a guiding principle in their state’s identification practices. Regular teachers and teachers of gifted students participate in identification practices in more than 90% of the responding states. Parents or guardians participate in about 80% of the states, and school psychologists and principals participate in 60%. Teacher checklists and group achievement tests are used to identify gifted students in more than 80% of the state programs surveyed.

  • Goldberg, M. L. (1986). Issues in the education of gifted and talented children: I. Roeper Review, 8(4), 226-233.

Discusses the problem in dealing with recurrent shifts in American attitudes toward gifted education from the viewpoint of a cognitive psychologist involved in the field since the Talented Youth Project of 1954. Sources of information stem from an invitation by the Australian Schools Commission to assess the state of gifted education in Australia. Focus is on the need to devise an agenda of research and study on 5 major issues: (a) support for research on the gifted/talented, (b) ambivalent attitudes regarding egalitarianism vs excellence, (c) determining talent areas, (d) standards for determining giftedness/talentedness, and (e) criteria for selection on the basis of predicted potential vs achievement. Whether determination should be via a single, universal standard or if the standards should vary according to differences in the population is discussed.

  • Johnsen, S. (1986). Who are the gifted? A dilemma in search of a solution. Education of the Visually Handicapped, 18(2), 54-70.

Reviews the historical development of the concept of giftedness, education for the gifted, and needs/problems in identifying gifted children. In the early 20th century, gifted children were identified primarily by their ability to excel on tasks measured by intelligence tests; in the 1950’s, however, researchers began to recognize the limitations of intelligence tests in identifying the gifted. Recent definitions adopted by the US government and the states center on the concept of ability and its various aspects. Early special programs for the gifted focused on accelerating students through existing academic content. During the 1920’s, enrichment became the preferred practice. In the latter half of this century, programs have focused on general intellectual and academic areas. A 4-step identification process is outlined, and problems concerning talent areas, assessment procedures, subpopulations, and selection standards are discussed.

  • Johnsen, S. K. & Corn, A. L. (1989). The past, present and future of education for gifted children with sensory and/or physical disabilities. Roeper Review, 12(1), 13-23.

Before the 1970s gifted children with sensory and/or physical disabilities (GCDs) were undereducated because they were not identified or served in special programs. Only a few were able to develop their gifted potential. Prevalence and characteristics of GCDs are discussed. Obstacles to the 3 stages of identification (nomination, identification, and selection) include professionals’ lack of knowledge and sensitivity regarding GCDs so that GCDs often are not nominated or considered able to have talents or gifts. Current methods of improving GCDs’ access to appropriate programs include adaptation of formal tests and providing activities in all classrooms to develop potential talents. Several successful programs are discussed, as well as a 10-stage model that uses systematic planning of GCD programs.

  • Marjoram, T. (1997). More able learners: A worm’s eye view of the last 25 years. Support for Learning, 12(2), 51-53.

Provides an overview of the education of able, or gifted, learners during the past 25 yrs. It is concluded that as we approach the millennium and the end of the “Age of Reason” and face the inevitable catastrophic implications of our current materialistic course, the aesthetic mode is critical for future planners and thinkers: the gifted children of today. Moreover, without empathetic thinking we cannot develop ethical criteria and raise standards of moral behavior. The able child today is taught intensively to distinguish between the true and the false but there seems less emphasis and ability in schools to distinguish the good and the bad. Current definitions and identification of gifted children rely largely upon tests of reasoning because these are so much easier to devise and administer than tests of aesthetic and empathetic thinking.

  • Passow, A. H. (1986). Reflections on three decades of education of the gifted. Roeper Review, 8(4), 223-226.

Describes the modifications with regard to education of the gifted that were influenced dramatically by the launching of Sputnik in 1957. The paradox whereby in 3 decades so much has changed and yet so much has remained unchanged is discussed.

  • Poirier, J. (1983). Bref historique de l’éducation des enfants doués et talentueux. / A brief history of the education of gifted and talented children. Apprentissage et Socialisation, 6(3), 137-145.

Describes the history of selecting and educating gifted children. Biblical, Greek, and Roman references to this question were related to the education of the elite. During the Middle Ages, education was primarily Christian, but during the Renaissance, education of gifted students assumed a secular, literary, and philosophic character. 20th-century education of the gifted has become much more systematic, particularly in the US. It is suggested that, contrary to their doctrine, Soviet and Chinese Marxists select and educate their gifted students by methods similar to the Americans (i.e., offering extracurricular enrichment activities and special classes and schools).

  • Rimm, S. B. (1986). Gifted programs and instrument development: A compatible marriage. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 9(4), 277-289.

Reviews the relationship between gifted programming and instrument development in terms of both historical perspective and the personal point of view of a researcher/practitioner. The interdependence and supportive components as well as the productive offspring of the two suggest the analogy of a compatible marriage. Specific tests designed to identify gifted children are reviewed as are the changing definitions of giftedness. New definitions and ways of identifying gifted underachievers using specific instruments are discussed.

  • Roweton, W. E. (1989). Enhancing individual creativity in American business and education. Journal of Creative Behavior, 23(4), 248-257.

Traces popular and professional interest in creativity (CRE) from 1950 to the present. J. P. Guilford’s (1950) factor analytic approach to human intelligence made CRE and innovation a legitimate agenda for educational research. The energy driving CRE investigations (e.g., E. P. Torrance; 1962, 1965) in the 1960s was reinvested in other research agendas in the 1970s (e.g., cognitive development research, thinking skills). By 1980, enthusiasm and programs for CRE resurfaced as gifted education. Two books, In Search of Excellence by T. Peters and R. Waterman (1983) and its sequel A Passion for Excellence by T. Peters and N. Austin (1985) have rekindled national enthusiasm about creative organizations.

  • Sako, Y. & Shimizu, H. (1989). Education for “poor results and subnormal children” in Okayama Prefecture: New educational thought in the Taisho era. Japanese Journal of Special Education, 27(3), 31-43.

Studied educational theories and methods concerning ungifted and subnormal vs gifted children in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and Taisho era (1912-1926) in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. Archival documents and records were analyzed with regard to manifestations of individualism and nationalism, use of IQ tests, recognition of the need for special education, and other educational goals.

  • Tannenbaum, A. J. (1986). Reflection and refraction of light on the gifted. Roeper Review, 8(4), 212-218.

Presents a series of journal articles in the field of gifted education (GE) showcasing the thoughts and recollections of pioneers who have shown continuous leadership in the field over the past 30 yrs. Current problems include the meaning of differential education (DE), how to implement DE, how to locate children who need and can benefit from DE, and how to be sure of DE’s educational impact. The history of GE is traced since the advent of the Talented Youth Project in 1954 at Columbia University. The Leadership Training Institute in the early 1970’s showed that professionals can make a difference by influencing policy makers to implement statewide commitments to special education. The conclusion presents optimism about the future; although the frenzied talent hunt of the post-Sputnik years cannot be duplicated, at least the public fears of elitism that plagued the 1960’s have been pacified.

  • Treffinger, D. J. & Isaksen, S. G. (2005). Creative Problem Solving: The History, Development, and Implications for Gifted Education and Talent Development. Gifted Child Quarterly, 49(4), 342-353.

This article presents a summary of research, development, and applications of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) in educational settings and, more specifically, in gifted education. The CPS framework is widely known and applied as one important goal in contemporary gifted education, as well as in relation to initiatives for “teaching thinking” in the broader context of general education. This article traces the history and evolution of the CPS framework through more than five decades of research, development, and practical application. We describe and discuss the specific changes in the model over time, as well as their rationale and foundations. We discuss the implications of changes within the CPS framework for teaching and learning; our purpose is not to compare or contrast CPS with other perspectives on creativity from psychology, cognitive science, or management. Finally, we present implications of contemporary CPS for instruction and assessment in gifted education.

See also:

  • Fagan, T. K. & Delugach, F. J. (1984). Literary origins of the term, “school psychologist.”. School Psychology Review, 13(2), 216-220.

Examines the early literature related to school psychology to show the earliest uses of the term school psychologist by authors such as A. Gesell (1918, 1919) and W. Stern (1910, 1911, 1912) and to illustrate the early history of the discipline in the personality assessment and mental testing of gifted and handicapped children.

  • Myers, R. S. & Pace, T. M. (1986). Counseling gifted and talented students: Historical perspectives and contemporary issues. Journal of Counseling & Development, 64(9), 548-551.

Traces the development of counseling gifted and talented students, focusing on the contributions of L. M. Terman, L. S. Hollingsworth, P. Witty, and R. Strang. Recent major contributors, counseling programs, ideas, and trends are documented. Contemporary issues concerning the counseling of the gifted are summarized, including factors that may have contributed to the neglect of this population in the past, and the special counseling needs of gifted students are identified.

On Leta Stetter Hollingworth.

  • Klein, A. G. (2000). Fitting the school to the child: The mission of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, founder of gifted education. Roeper Review, 23(2), 97-103.

Discusses the achievements of L. S. Hollingworth regarding the teaching of gifted children. Born in Nebraska in 1886, Hollingworth was a psychologist, educator, and feminist. She was profoundly gifted. She smiled, imitated others, crawled, and used language far earlier than the average child, and she exhibited Dabrowskian overexcitabilities throughout her life. She is most remembered as the founder of gifted education. In 1922, Hollingworth initiated the Public School 165 Experiment, a 3-yr longitudinal study of gifted children in New York City. The collected data was a rich source for scholars. In 1936, Hollingworth initiated the Speyer School Experiment to teach gifted students using newly developed, student-centered curricula. The issues she identified and addressed are the very issues that continue to be debated and pondered in the profession, which include: identification of the gifted, the value of acceleration and enrichment programs, and mainstreaming issues.

On Lewis Terman.

  • Cravens, H. (1992). A scientific project locked in time: The Terman Genetic Studies of Genius, 1920s-1950s. American Psychologist, 47(2), 183-189.

Lewis M. Terman is well-known in the history of American psychology for the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon intelligence tests and the Genetic Studies of Genius project. The same assumptions informed the genius project and Terman’s work in intelligence testing: the notion of the fixity of the IQ at birth and the maturation theory. According to the maturation theory, individuals developed only within the range of differences made possible by the genetic endowment of the “group” (natural, cultural, or both) to which they belonged. In this article the historicity and nonuniversality of Terman’s work is discussed.

  • Hegarty, P. (2007). From genius inverts to gendered intelligence: Lewis Terman and the power of the norm. History of Psychology, 10(2), 132-155.

The histories of “intelligence” and “sexuality” have largely been narrated separately. In Lewis Terman’s work on individual differences, they intersect. Influenced by G. Stanley Hall, Terman initially described atypically accelerated development as problematic. Borrowing from Galton, Terman later positioned gifted children as nonaverage but ideal. Attention to the gifted effeminate subjects used to exemplify giftedness and gender nonconformity in Terman’s work shows the selective instantiation of nonaverageness as pathological a propos of effeminacy, and as ideal a propos of high intelligence. Throughout, high intelligence is conflated with health, masculinity, and heterosexuality. Terman’s research located marital sexual problems in women’s bodies, further undoing possibilities for evaluating heterosexual men’s practices as different from a normative position. Terman’s research modernized Galton’s imperialist vision of a society led by a male cognitive elite. Psychologists continue to traffic in his logic that values and inculcates intelligence only in the service of sexual and gender conformity.

  • Janos, P. M. (1986). The socialization of highly intelligent boys: Case material from Terman’s correspondence. Journal of Counseling & Development, 65(4), 193-195.

Examined L. M. Terman’s (published 1916-1983) letters to the parents of 42 boys with IQ’s greater than 170 and contrasted them with letters sent to parents of 42 boys with IQ’s between 135 and 159. It is noted that parents of boys with very high IQ’s were more frequently advised by Terman to restrain academic acceleration and to encourage mixing with agemates. The advice is placed in its historical context, and it is suggested that the social needs of many highly intelligent children can best be satisfied in peer groups consisting of children of similar ability and interests. A discussion of current options for jointly facilitating social and intellectual development is presented.

  • Vialle, W. (1994). “Termanal” science? The work of Lewis Terman revisited. Roeper Review, 17(1), 32-38.

Suggests that Terman has been one of the most significant pioneers in gifted education, with his extensive work in intelligence testing and his longitudinal studies of gifted children. Nevertheless, recent criticism of Terman’s work has focused on the shortcomings of his work, particulary its bias against women and certain ethnic groups. While these criticisms may be warranted in the context of current understandings, this article attempts to place Terman’s conclusions in the context of his own time and space. The author concludes that, notwithstanding the unacceptability of his ideas on women and race, Terman’s work still provides an important foundation for the field of gifted education.


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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

5 thoughts on “Conceptions of Giftedness, in light of DVD finding

  1. I notice that Disney has demanded that the University of Washington retract their press release about this research, saying that it “unfairly disparaged [Baby Einstein] by grossly misrepresenting the focus and extremely limited findings and conclusions of the study your university has issued in its name and endorsed… ” Their primary objection seems to be that the release was “lumping Baby Einstein videos with all other ‘Baby DVDs/videos’ — including many, such as ‘Teletubbies,’ which offer a vastly different viewing experience.” Vastly! 🙂 See for further details.

  2. This is a great review of the giftedness literature from a cultural and historical perspective.

    After having written my thesis on the topic of genius, I think part of the problem in defining giftedness stems back to the early association of genius and giftedness. Terman used the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘genius’ rather interchangably in the Genetic Studies of Genius series. Hollingworth critiqued this practice, and stated that genius was not a suitable term to use in psychology because it had no scientific basis. So, even from the very inception of the term, it was linked with words that are difficult to define (e.g. genius, intelligence, creativity), thus making ‘giftedness’ itself a conceptual (and practical) nightmare.

  3. [cynic mode]
    “Gifted” is just a political term, used by schools to segregate those kids smart enough to correct
    the teacher’s mistakes.
    [/cynic mode]

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