Stage and Structure in the Development of Children With Various Types of Giftedness

November 1991 Masthead

In R. Case (Ed.), The Mind’s Staircase: Exploring the Conceptual Underpinnings of Children’s Thought and Knowledge

Marion Porath
University of British Columbia

This study investigated the cognitive development of gifted children from a neo-Piagetian perspective. Case’s (1985) theory of intellectual development provided a model of executive functioning within stages of development. This model was seen as appropriate for addressing issues raised in the literature concerning the need for a process analysis of gifted children’s thinking and the need to clarify to what extent a young gifted child’s thinking can be considered similar to that of an older, less intelligent child. The study also sought to account for the results of Piagetian studies which are equivocal about the degree of developmental advancement evidenced by gifted children.

Children identified as gifted on both verbal and performance measures were compared to chronological and mental age control groups on measures chosen to provide a comprehensive description of gifted children’s thinking within a developmental context. A group of verbally gifted children was compared to chronological and mental age control groups to test the hypothesis that the inconsistent results of Piagetian studies may be due to a disparity between verbal ability and the more spatially-loaded Piagetian tasks. In addition, a small group of spatially gifted children was compared to chronological and mental age control groups. Six-year-old gifted children were chosen for the study. Mental age controls were, on average, eight years old.

On measures which confounded learning with developmental level, gifted children performed like their MA peers. On measures which reflected development more exclusively, performance was not significantly different from their CA peers. In the case of children gifted on both verbal and performance measures, MA-equivalent abilities were demonstrated on the balance beam and letter series tasks, measures which would appear to require both verbal and spatial/performance abilities. Verbally gifted children told MA-equivalent stories and spatially gifted children drew MA-equivalent pictures. This finding suggests an alternative explanation for the findings of Piagetian studies, namely that some Piagetian tasks are learning confounded and some are not. Performance on tasks believed to be learning confounded was, however, limited to advancement of one substage. This suggests that there is an “optimal level” of development (Fischer & Pipp, 1984) which can be expected in certain problem solving situations, even for bright children.

A model of gifted children’s thinking within Case’s neo-Piagetian framework provided knowledge of structural level and processing capacities. Some specific abilities were also identified, such as linguistic and graphic maturity. These appeared to be independent of a general/developmental model and were much farther in advance of age expectations. Further research will address the nature of the relationship between these two types of knowledge and the implications for educational planning.

I would be pleased to hear from anyone with interest in developmental approaches to giftedness. Please contact:

Dr. Marion Porath
Faculty of Education
University of British Columbia
2125 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z4
(604) 822-6045 Fax (604) 822-3302

Case, R. (1985). Intellectual development. Birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Fischer, K. W., & Pipp, S. L. (1984). Processes of cognitive development: Optimal level and skill acquisition. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Mechanisms of cognitive development (pp. 45-80). New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.


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