E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
Identifying and serving gifted and talented students is practiced around the country and the world by many educators in response to professional and personal beliefs, legislation, or educational practices. For centuries, people found it critical to search for children who had the potential to contribute to self and society in such ways that they were beyond expectations of cognitive development and age. The phrase “in comparison to others” was one way to think about differences among learners. NRC/GT researchers (1997) associated with a study of professional development practices to extend gifted education strategies to all learners presented the following qualities:
- prior knowledge or skill expertise
- learning rate
- cognitive ability
- learning style preference
- motivation, attitude, and effort
- interest, strength, or talent.
If individuals differ in these ways or others, then how do we view the talents and gifts of students in our schools and classrooms? Is it a matter of defining terms, reflecting on beliefs about abilities, or providing professional development opportunities?
There is no universally accepted definition of gifted and talented, intelligence, talent development, creative productivity, or learning ability. Perhaps there should not be; however, there must be an understanding of human abilities and how they manifest themselves in school-based, community-based, and work-based settings. When a group of educators was asked recently to define some of the terms above, several definitions were offered:
Intelligence is a psychological construct used to describe abilities that require reasoning, wisdom, and insight.
Talent development is a process of recognizing, nurturing, and supporting the skills and abilities of people who have not already demonstrated complete mastery.
Creative productivity is the confluence of intellectual and affective human traits directed by an individual’s interests and willingness to develop a written, visual, or auditory product or performance that did not already exist in the same exact form in a specific field of study.
Learning ability is a demonstrated propensity to acquire new knowledge or skills.
These suggested definitions are most likely as adequate as those proposed by researchers and theorists in psychology, human development, sociology, and education. They reflect personal and professional perspectives. Would everyone agree with each definition? Probably not. A wordsmith or two would work together until there was a general consensus on the interpretation and importance of each word and determine its implications within and across all cultural groups and at all levels of economic status.
Defining terms related to human abilities is a useful task, because it reveals underlying beliefs, personal biases, and multiple perspectives. Several definitions were created through national studies. In response to Public Law 91-230, Section 806(c) authored by former Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, Sidney P. Marland, Commissioner of Education for the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, evaluated the status of education for gifted and talented children by conducting public hearings, reviewing existing Federal education programs, studying programs in representative states, convening an advisory panel, and completing a survey of states. The advisory panel established the following definition of gifted and talented:
Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential in any of the following areas:
- General intellectual ability
- Specific academic aptitude
- Creative or productive thinking
- Leadership ability
- Visual or performing arts
- Psychomotor ability
It can be assumed that utilization of these criteria for identification of the gifted and talented will encompass a minimum of 3 to 5 percent of the school population.
Evidence of gifted and talented abilities may be determined by a multiplicity of ways. These procedures should include objective measures and professional evaluation measures which are essential components of identification.
Professionally qualified persons include such individuals as teachers, administrators, school psychologists, counselors, curriculum specialists, artists, musicians, and others with special training who are also qualified to appraise pupils’ special competencies. (Marland, 1972, pp. 10-11)
The advisory panel and the external review team members (including Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli, University of Connecticut, Dr. James J. Gallagher, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and William G. Vassar, former Consultant on Gifted and Talented Education, Connecticut State Department of Education) also suggested three characteristics of programs to meet the needs of gifted and talented students:
- A differentiated curriculum which denotes higher cognitive concepts and processes.
- Instructional strategies which accommodate the learning styles of the gifted and talented and curriculum content.
- Special grouping arrangements which include a variety of administrative procedures appropriate to particular children, i.e., special classes, honor classes, seminars, resource rooms, and the like. (Marland, 1972, p. 11)
Congress revised the Marland definition in 1978 by including pre-school, elementary, or secondary students and eliminating psychomotor ability. The emphasis on demonstrated or potential abilities remained along with the notion of required services that are not commonly part of most school’s opportunities:
The 1978 definition remained as is until the Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act of 1988 was passed. Modifications were made, such as replacing designated grade levels with the phrase “children and youth” and eliminating the phrase “possessing demonstrated or potential abilities.”
Defining terms was also one of many tasks undertaken by a steering group brought together by the United States Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, to revisit the prior national definition from the 1972 Marland report, later updated in 1978, and the Javits definition of 1988. The steering group shared perspectives as teachers, administrators, professors, researchers, and business people. Their perspectives were then discussed with others within and outside the Department of Education and feedback was sought as ideas were refined. As a result of all the deliberations, the following report was produced in 1993: National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent. The report focuses on the quiet crisis in educating the Nation’s most talented students. The “quiet crisis” in education reflected how we continue to neglect the talents and abilities of top students and how we continue to under-challenge many students because of preconceived limits or expectations of how they learn and apply their talents and abilities. Once again, a revised national definition was crafted:
These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools.
Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor. (United States Department of Education, 1993, p. 26)
Review the definitions listed above or review your state definition. Think about your responses to the following questions:
- How do you define the characteristics of gifted and talented students?
- If you live in a state that mandates identification and programming, does the definition reflect your beliefs about students’ abilities?
- What services and activities would challenge the talents and abilities of students?
- Do you know how to identify and nurture manifest, emergent, or latent talents?
- Do you have experience with students who perform at remarkably high levels?
- What is your understanding of high-level accomplishments?
- Would talents be recognized in all areas of human endeavor?
- What are your professional development needs to successfully identify gifted and talented students and provide challenging programming opportunities?
At first, these questions may seem easy to answer if you are completing the exercise by yourself. They require reflection on your personal and professional beliefs and in-depth understanding on the varying needs of talented students. To determine whether your responses are similar to others, organize a small group of people and ask them to share individual and group perspectives. Questions such as those listed above would be great discussion starters for professional development opportunities.
The National Excellence report emphasized the importance of professional development as one step to addressing the “quiet crisis” in education:
What would it take for teachers to respond to this “quiet crisis” and to determine the status of programs and services for gifted and talented students (see Renzulli & Reis, 1991)? The research agenda for The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented included a focus on regular classroom practices. In the early 1990s, we wanted to know the extent to which grade 3 and grade 4 teachers modified their instructional practices for average students and gifted students. Results of the national survey reported that
- 61% of the public school teachers had no training in gifted education
- 54% of the private school teachers had no training in gifted education. (Archambault et al., 1993, p. 43)
Why were these results a reality? Part of the reason for this reality is that very few universities and colleges offer courses in meeting the needs of gifted and talented students for undergraduate students. Oftentimes, future teachers are introduced to these students’ special academic and affective needs during one course in special education, of which one class spends about 45 minutes dealing with the topic. So, what are prospective teachers supposed to do? Obviously, each person can pursue learning opportunities through many techniques:
- Journals, newsletters, books
- Workshops, conferences, graduate coursework
- Observations, visitations
- Videotapes and audiotapes
- Discussion groups
These formal and informal approaches to professional development may or may not be enough for individual teachers to experiment with different strategies and practices related to teaching and learning. Teachers can be made aware of different strategies and practices, determine their relevance to their current position, and evaluate the extent to which they have a positive impact on students and teachers alike. These are not easy tasks. Typically, workshops and conferences are organized by school districts and professional organizations. Presenters are chosen for their specialty and may conduct a half-day, full day, or several days of training to a small or large group of educators. Will these educators learn and apply suggested strategies as a result of these training opportunities? It is hard to answer this question for the entire group of educators. Perhaps some will change; perhaps others will receive confirmation of their current strategies and practices; perhaps others will pursue further training; and perhaps still others will resist any change. The realities of offering opportunities to learn and apply different strategies and practices require more than a “one time only” or short term involvement in any new innovation. Scaling up a practice promoted by educators, but not fully integrated into teachers’ repertoires, may result in resistance to change. Fullan (1993) describes the process of change as a result of extensive study, reflection, and review. The following “Eight Basic Lessons of the New Paradigm of Change” resulted from his work and are documented in Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform:
(The more complex the change the less you can force it)
(Change is non-linear, loaded with uncertainty and excitement and sometimes perverse)
(Problems are inevitable and you can’t learn without them)
(Premature visions and planning blind)
(There are no one-sided solutions to isolation and groupthink)
(Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary)
(The best organizations learn externally as well as internally)
(Change is too important to leave to the experts, personal mind set and mastery is the ultimate protection) (pp. 21-22)
Fullan’s lessons offer a reality check for many of us who reflect on the needs of teachers and students alike and think about how we can make the learning better. We may not have immediate answers, but there are ways to think about the types of services that would be most appropriate.
School districts should create a continuum of local services as an exercise to determine the extent to which multiple opportunities are responsive to students’ talents and abilities. Are services available to all, some, or just one student? Should services be unique to some children or just one child? What is appropriate for your school and classroom? Even, more importantly, what is your district’s philosophy about meeting the needs of students? Oftentimes, a district’s philosophy will state, “we want students to reach their potential.” Does that sound familiar or is the phrase more of a paper promise to the students and the community? One example of an integrated continuum of services (see Figure 1) focuses on the specifics of programming for elementary, middle, and high school students. Note the orientation of the continuum: input, process, and output are spaced horizontally. Vertical sidebars, which are more recent additions to the 1985 diagram, emphasize the continuum of potentials (i.e., abilities, interests, and learning styles) and the continuum of performances (i.e., academic, creative productive, and leadership).
Figure 1. The continuum of services for total talent development, Renzulli & Reis, 1985, P. 25. (Click on the figure to see it as a PDF file.)
As a second exercise, change the continuum into a short questionnaire by grade level clusters (i.e., elementary, middle, and high school). Ask administrators and teachers to circle existing services. Share the information and then ask them to discuss the possibility of considering additional services.
What services do your students need? To what extent are existing services connected to students’ skills, abilities, talents, and interests? Does your school district prefer one or more services for some or all grade levels? What services should be added, modified, or reconsidered? Approach these questions or others by asking if the services are appropriate for all students, some students, or one student. Remember professional development should also be designed in response to educators’ needs and the requirements of specific services. Knowing, understanding, and nurturing the gifts and talents of your students are steps to enhancing educational opportunities for the entire school district.