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Gifted and Talented Education

The Nature and Identification, Goals and Purposes, Programs and Their Effectiveness, Controversies Issues and Trends

The term gifted and talented is often used in tandem to describe both a wide range of human exceptional performance, and people who display such high levels of competence in culturally valued domains or socially useful forms of expression. For children to be identified as gifted and talented, they need to demonstrate outstanding potential or promise rather than mature, expert performance. Thus different standards are used when the term is applied to children as opposed to adults. The term gifted children has a connotation that the outstanding potential they demonstrate is largely a natural endowment. However, the term gifted as used in educational contexts (e.g., gifted child or gifted performance) is descriptive rather than explanatory. Although efforts have been made to differentiate the two terms, with giftedness referring to natural (spontaneously demonstrated) abilities, and talents referring to systematically developed abilities, such differentiation proves difficult, if not impossible, in practice, as no reliable measures exist to tease apart the constitutional and acquired parts of individual differences in human abilities.

The Nature and Identification

The phenomenon of gifted and talented children is easier to describe than explain. Some scholars in the field attribute children's outstanding performance on IQ or culturally defined domains largely to their constitutional makeup (e.g., a neurological advantage), reminiscent of the position of Francis Galton (1822–1911), an early pioneer of behavioral genetics and intelligence testing. Other scholars are more cautious about bestowing the title of gifted and talented for some children by mere virtue of their test performance while treating the rest as nongifted. Rather, they emphasize the emergence of gifted and talented behaviors among children in more authentic contexts as a result of both genetic and environmental influences, involving motivational as well as cognitive processes. Still others point out that, to the extent that the phenomenon of the gifted and talented is subject to different interpretations and assessment strategies based on one's values and beliefs, consequently with different criteria and outcomes, it reflects a social construction rather than an objective reality.

One way of analyzing the research underlying conceptions of giftedness is to review existing definitions along a continuum ranging from conservative to liberal. Conservative and liberal are used here not in their political connotations, but rather according to the degree of restrictiveness that is used in determining who is eligible for special programs and services.

Restrictiveness can be expressed in two ways. First, a definition can limit the number of specific performance areas that are considered in determining eligibility for special programs. A conservative definition, for example, might limit eligibility to academic performance and exclude other areas such as music, art, drama, leadership, public speaking, social service, and creative writing. Second, a definition can limit the degree or level of excellence that one must attain by establishing extremely high cutoff points.

At the conservative end of the continuum is Lewis Terman's 1926 definition of giftedness as "the top 1 percent level in general intellectual ability as measured by the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale or a comparable instrument" (p. 43). In this definition, restrictiveness is present in terms of both the type of performance specified (i.e., how well one scores on an intelligence test) and the level of performance one must attain to be considered gifted (top 1 percent). At the other end of the continuum can be found more liberal definitions, such as the following one by Paul Witty in 1958: "There are children whose outstanding potentialities in art, in writing, or in social leadership can be recognized largely by their performance. Hence, we have recommended that the definition of giftedness be expanded and that we consider any child gifted whose performance, in a potentially valuable line of human activity, is consistently remarkable." (p. 62)

Although liberal definitions have the obvious advantage of expanding the conception of giftedness, they create two dilemmas. First, they introduce a values issue by forcing educators to delineate potentially valuable lines of human activity. Second, they introduce even greater subjectivity in the measurement and assessment of children's potentialities.

In recent years the values issue has been largely resolved. There are very few educators who cling tenaciously to a "straight IQ" or purely academic definition of giftedness. Multiple talents and multiple criteria are almost the byproduct words of the present-day gifted education movement, and most people would have little difficulty in accepting a definition that includes almost every socially useful form of human activity.

The problem of subjectivity in measurement and assessment is not as easily resolved. As the definition of giftedness is extended beyond those abilities that are clearly reflected in tests of intelligence, achievement, and academic aptitude, it becomes necessary to put less emphasis on precise estimates of performance and potential and more emphasis on the opinions of qualified judges in making decisions about admission to special programs. The crux of the issue boils down to a simple and yet very important question: How much are we willing to sacrifice purely objective criteria in order to allow recognition of a broader spectrum of human abilities? If some degree of subjectivity cannot be tolerated, then our definition of giftedness and the resulting programs will logically be limited to abilities that can be measured only by objective tests. A balance between the reliance on measurement technology and expert judgment seems to be the most reasonable course of action.

Goals and Purposes

Although Lewis Terman launched the first large-scale effort to identify gifted children in the United States, it was Leta Hollingworth in 1942 who shifted the focus of the gifted child movement to educational issues. However, a full-fledged gifted education movement was rather triggered by the launching of the satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the ensuing space race. The ensuing decline of targeted services in the second half of the twentieth century was closely related to political and economic circumstances and apparently inadequate educational conditions, as reflected in the reports by the National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983 (A Nation at Risk) and by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993 (National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent). For example, by citing evidence of declined academic achievement and poor showing of American students compared to other industrialized nations, Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis in 1991 proposed that a major goal of gifted education was to "provide the best possible education to our most promising students so that we can reassert American prominence in the intellectual, artistic, and moral leadership of the world" (p.26). The general education curriculum, which is tailored to average students, is inadequate to provide such an education, thus necessitating special educational provisions for gifted and talented students.

Other educators and researchers of the gifted and talented have advanced an alternative argument for a special service for the gifted and talented. In line with Hollingworth, they emphasize the uniqueness of gifted and talented students' cognitive development, social-emotional experiences, and corresponding educational needs. Therefore, gifted and talented education is aimed not at advancing national or societal interests but at promoting individual gifted children's welfare, academically as well as socially and emotionally, not unlike special provisions for the mentally retarded or learning disabled.

A more recent approach to gifted and talented education focuses on talent development. This movement is largely a result of dissatisfaction with the notion of giftedness as unidimensional (i.e., high general intelligence) and the traditional gifted programs that are frequently short-term based, limited to school subjects, and typically do not address individual children's unique strengths, interests, and long-term development. The talent development approach, based on related psychological research that cumulated in the 1980s and 1990s, attempts to nurture talents among a more diverse group of children and address their unique needs with their long-term talent development in mind.

There are two main strategies to serve gifted children: acceleration and enrichment. With accelerated curriculum, gifted children can learn at a pace commensurate with their learning ability. This allows them to progress to high-level materials much faster for their age norms or grade levels. The constant challenges not only suit these advanced learners' intellectual levels, but also keep them motivated. Enrichment activities, on the other hand, provide gifted children with opportunities to explore topics and issues from (or beyond) regular curriculum in greater breadth and depth, to engage in independent or collaborative inquiry that cultivates their problem solving abilities, research skills, and creativity, and inspire their desire for excellence. Acceleration and enrichment, facilitated by various forms of grouping arrangement, constitute the core instructional adaptations to meet the educational needs of gifted and talented children. From a talent development perspective, both acceleration and enrichment can be used to provide individualized educational programs that aim at promoting long-term development and accomplishment in one's chosen area of human endeavor.

Programs and Their Effectiveness

Specific programs for the gifted and talented can be conceptualized as a continuum from activities that can be arranged in regular classrooms, sometimes with the participation of all students, to arrangements that are exclusively tailored to the needs of the gifted and talented. These programs encompass enrichment and acceleration services that take place (1) within regular classrooms or clusters from one or more grade levels; (2) during special grouping arrangements within classrooms, across grade levels, or in after-school and out-of-school programs; (3) in special schools such as magnet schools or high schools that focus on advanced learning opportunities in particular curricular areas; and (4) through arrangements made for individual students at colleges, summer programs, internship opportunities, or mentorship programs. Age and grade levels play a role in making decisions about special services. Students' abilities, interests, and learning styles tend to become more differentiated and more focused as they grow older. There is, therefore, more justification for interest and achievement level grouping as students progress through the grades. The nature of the subject matter and the degree to which classroom teachers can reasonably differentiate instruction also play a role in making decision about differentiation. For example, acceleration is a more viable option for subjects that are highly structured and linear-sequential in content (e.g., algebra, chemistry, physics). Within-class differentiation in literature is easier to accomplish at the elementary or middle school levels, but an advanced literature class is a more specialized option at the high school level.

With respect to the issue of effectiveness, gifted students in pull-out, separate class, and special school programs performed better than their gifted peers in the within-class arrangements or in schools without gifted programs. Academic gains from acceleration and various benefits regarding content, process and product aspects of objectives as well as positive affective and motivational effects are also reported for enrichment programs. Meta-analyses of the outcomes of these programs reveal quite compelling positive effects. Among other issues, concerns about social-emotional adjustment for students accelerated to higher grade levels or college, about the impact of the gifted label on social interaction, and about self-concept change when placed with equally competent peers, have also been addressed in research.

The effectiveness of gifted and talented programs is not easy to determine for many reasons. Difficulty in finding appropriate control groups, as well as in controlling extraneous variables, poses many threats to internal validity. Ceiling effects constitute another problem. In addition, some criteria (e.g., problem solving, creativity) for evaluating the effectiveness of gifted programs are not as amenable to reliable measurement as those typically used in general education. Because of these difficulties, there is a lack of high-quality research on the effectiveness of various gifted and talented programs. More systematic, methodic (instead of piecemeal) program evaluation is sorely needed.

Two issues about the effectiveness and equity of gifted programs remain controversial. The first one involves the argument that what is good for gifted students is good for most students. Such an argument is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, gifted education can be and has been a viable laboratory for educational experimentation. What is shown to be effective in gifted education may inform and facilitate reform in general education. On the other hand, however, it is preposterous to assume that only gifted children would benefit from such an education. Many critics who argue that gifted education is elitist hold such a view. Two responses have been advanced to address this concern. First, some components of gifted programs may indeed be applicable to general education, such as enrichment or inquiry-based learning, while other components are only suitable for gifted children, such as acceleration and some high-level curricular materials. Second, even though instructional principles and strategies appropriate for gifted learners may also be appropriate for other learners, there are differences in the pace and levels of learning and understanding that impose constraints on the effectiveness of implementation of these principles and strategies. In 1996 Carol A. Tomlinson identified nine dimensions along which to differentiate curriculum and instruction: foundational to transformational, concrete to abstract, simple to complex, few facets to multifacets, smaller leap to greater leap, more structured to more open, clearly defined or fuzzy, less independence to greater independence, slower to quicker.

The second issue is whether gifted education is nothing but "fluff," with fancy rhetoric but not much substance. This concern reflects the fact that the quality of gifted programs varies from school district to school district and that programs meet the needs of their constituents. There are many factors contributing to effectiveness or ineffectiveness of gifted programs, such as administrative support and staff training. In general, gifted education needs to continue to develop and implement individualized programs rather than a one-size-fits-all gifted curriculum, integrating what students receive from regular classrooms and what they get from pull-out programs. Based on their extensive review of the literature, Bruce Shore and Marcia Delcourt in 1996 suggested that effective gifted programs (1) congregate gifted children at least part of the time; (2) address children at a high intellectual level; (3) use acceleration when warranted; (4) address real and challenging problems; (5) include well-supervised independent study; (6) place educational experiences in a life-span context for the learner; (7) build substantially upon opportunities for individualization; (8) include well-trained and experienced teachers; and (9) support the cognitive and affective needs of all gifted students.

Controversies Issues and Trends

Because the term gifted and talented is an umbrella concept meant to encompass various facets of excellence or potential for excellence, its meaning is an object of constant debate within and outside of the field. What is the basis for the phenomenon of gifted and talented performance: general mental power or highly specific abilities or talents, or both? Even though most experts in the field accept the notion of diverse expressions of excellence, they have their own leanings, ranging from the most traditional conception of giftedness as high general intelligence as indicated by IQ test scores, to the most pluralistic definition that defies any terms of psychometric measurement.

A related question is do gifted and talented manifestations reflect fundamental attributes of some children (hence gifted children) that set them apart from other children, or emergent developmental qualities of the child as a result of interaction with the environment? Is it a fixed or fluid condition? Major ideological differences exist in the field between those who believe that gifted children are a distinct group of exceptional children who share certain unique cognitive and social-emotional characteristics (i.e., being gifted made them different from the rest of children), and those who believe that gifted and talented performance or behavior should be understood in a more dynamic context in which it occurs, and can be attributed to contextual influences as much as personal characteristics. These differences have profound implications for identification. Should we develop a fixed formula for finding the right gifted child or should we instead focus on nurturing and facilitating the emergence of gifted behaviors among children, while holding flexible but "soft" identification criteria?

From an assessment perspective, the traditional approach, deeply rooted in the intelligence testing movement, focused on a set of static attributes or traits. On the other hand, a dynamic assessment approach affords a closer look at processes, strategies, insights, errors, and so on, and is thus more informative and explanatory. A contrast has been made between a static (trait) approach and a dynamic (process) approach that involves micro-level analysis and clinical insights regarding children's superior performance. This reinforces the issue of subjectivity in measurement and assessment. Time will tell whether a dynamic assessment will supplement, or even replace, the traditional way of identifying gifted and talented children. A better understanding of the nature and improved assessment of potential for talent development will also help address other derivative issues such as multipotentialities, multiple exceptionalities, and underachievement among highly able children.

Because of different understandings of the phenomenon in question and concerns about equity, some experts suggest that we abandon the term gifted altogether to avoid the arbitrary bifurcation of the gifted and nongifted, and that we should label services instead of labeling the child, whereas others view this movement as abandoning the very raison d'etre for gifted programs. The social-emotional impact of labeling aside, the issue is also that of restrictiveness discussed earlier: how inclusive and flexible gifted programs can be. On the one hand, programs such as Talent Search are highly selective in nature; some cutoffs (e.g., ninety-ninth percentile) are necessary to determine one's qualification, and intensive programs can be implemented with relatively high efficiency. On the other hand, various forms of enrichment and high-end learning can be open to a larger pool of able students, even to all students, and qualification can be determined in a flexible manner to maximize opportunities for participation, with gifted programs justified on the basis of needs (e.g., substituting regular curriculum with more advanced materials) rather than status (being identified as gifted), as is the case with the Revolving Door Identification Model.

As mentioned above, various forms of grouping are necessary to provide special services for gifted and talented children. It is not difficult to justify grouping as a way of providing an optimal educational environment for gifted and talented children. The challenge is justifying the services within the context of the whole educational system. Ability grouping practices are vulnerable to charges such as favoritism or elitism in a democratic society and egalitarian culture. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that ethnic minority (except Asian-American) students and students from families of low social economic status are underrepresented in gifted education programs in the United States. Until gifted education is well integrated into the whole education system, its identity and functions become better defined, and its pursuit of excellence is balanced with concerns over equity, it will continue to be the target of criticism.

On a positive note, gifted education has proven to be a vital force in American education. In many respects, programs for the gifted have been the true laboratories of our nation's schools because they have presented ideal opportunities for testing new ideas and experimenting with potential solutions to long-standing educational problems. Programs for high potential students have been an especially fertile place for experimentation because such programs usually are not encumbered by prescribed curriculum guides or traditional methods of instruction. It was within the context of these programs that the thinking skills movement first took hold in American education, and the pioneering work of notable theorists such as Benjamin Bloom, Howard Gardner, and Robert Sternberg first gained the attention of the education community in the 1980s. Other developments that had their origins in special programs are currently being examined for general practice. These developments include a focus on concept rather than skill learning, the use of interdisciplinary curriculum and theme-based studies, student portfolios, performance assessment, crossgrade grouping, alternative scheduling patterns, and perhaps most important, opportunities for students to exchange traditional roles as lesson-learners and doers-of-exercises for more challenging and demanding roles that require hands-on learning, firsthand investigations, and the application of knowledge and thinking skills to complex problems.

Research in a variety of gifted education programs has fostered the development of instructional procedures and programming alternatives that emphasize the need (1) to provide a broad range of advanced level enrichment experiences for all students, and (2) to use the many and varied ways that students respond to these experiences as stepping stones for relevant follow-up on the parts of individuals or small groups. These approaches are not viewed as new ways to identify who is or is not gifted. Rather, the process simply identifies how subsequent opportunities, resources, and encouragement can be provided to support continuous escalations of student involvement in both required and self-selected activities. This orientation has allowed many students opportunities to develop high levels of creative and productive accomplishments that otherwise would have been denied through traditional special program models. Practices that have been a mainstay of many special programs for the gifted are being absorbed into general education by reform models designed to upgrade the performance of all students. This integration of gifted program know-how is viewed as a favorable development, since the adoption of many special program practices is indicative of the viability and usefulness of both the know-how of special programs and the role gifted education can and should play in total school improvement. This broader and more flexible approach reflects a democratic ideal that accommodates the full range of individual differences in the entire student population, and it opens the door to programming models that develop the talent potentials of many at-risk students who traditionally have been excluded from anything but the most basic types of curricular experiences. This integration of gifted and talented education into the general education system is beginning to redefine the ways in which we develop the many and various potentials of the nation's youths.


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