Motivation and the Gifted

Winter 1993 Masthead

Pamela R. Clinkenbeard
Yale Universit
New Haven, CT

The following publications are some that I consider to be particular gems in the area of motivation and the gifted. Each is an excellent resource for educators and counselors interested in exploring issues of motivation and the gifted, especially the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and their educational applications. Some of these resources may have been overlooked because their titles do not mention motivation, or because they are written by authors who are not active in the field of gifted education. I have not included well known and widely available publications such as Sylvia Rimm’s Underachievement Syndrome and Miriam Adderholdt-Elliott’s Perfectionism, which also address these issues.

Amabile, T. M. (1989). Growing up creative: Nurturing a lifetime of creativity. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

The title of Amabile’s book does not give an indication of the importance she places on motivation. The central thesis of her research on creativity, upon which this book is based, is that intrinsic motivation is a necessary condition for high levels of creative production, and that extrinsic motivation damages creativity. She refers to the four “creativity-killers:” evaluation, reward, competition, and restricted choice. Growing Up Creative is a readable, practical handbook for parents and teachers. It is full of anecdotes about individual children, and information from interviews with creative adults. There are a number of suggestions and activities designed to foster creativity in children while maintaining their intrinsic motivation to explore and create. Amabile writes equally well for a general audience as she does for a scholarly audience; though this book is based on her psychologically sophisticated research, she presents the results of that research through anecdote and example, rather than charts and statistics. (The endnotes contain references to many of her academic publications.) Some of the chapter titles are “Vision and Passion,” “The Motivation for Creativity,” “How to Destroy a Child’s Creativity,” and “Keeping Creativity Alive at School: Suggestions for Teachers.” In the preface to this book, Amabile states: “The most crucial factor in creativity is the motivation to do something creative. Talent, personality, and skill tell us what a child can do; motivation tells us what that child will do.”

Bell, L. A. (1989). Something’s wrong here and it’s not me: Challenging the dilemmas that block girls’ success. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 12, 118-130.

This ethnographic article presents several more dilemmas that seem to block bright girls from engaging fully and successfully in school. The strength and near unanimity of girls’ feelings is particularly striking. As part of a project to study internal barriers to girls’ achievement, this study shows how educators and parents can help girls externalize and challenge the limits to their success. Bell and her colleagues met weekly for 14 weeks with a group of high potential urban elementary school students (grades three through six). The ethnic and economic breakdown of the 26 girls matched that of the school: 15% Hispanic, 28% Black, 57% White, and 39% eligible for free or reduced lunch. To start the discussions, the researchers introduced issues defined in the literature as problematic for females. The dilemmas, as expressed by the girls and labeled by the researchers, included “smart vs. social;” “silence vs. bragging;” “failure vs. perfection;” “media ‘beauty’ vs. marginality;” “passive vs. aggressive;” and, underlying the other dilemmas, “conforming vs. being punished.” The discussion groups served first as a way of showing girls that others face the same dilemmas, and second as a catalyst for creating new ways out of the dilemmas. For instance, the discussion of “passive vs. aggressive” resulted in the girls developing effective strategies for participating in classes when they feel the boys in the class are dominating the discussion and the teacher’s attention. Bell presents several other creative solutions, developed by the girls themselves, which illustrate her conclusion: Instead of “What’s wrong with me,” girls can learn to say, “What’s wrong out there, and what can we do to change it for the better?”

Helmreich, R. L., Beane, W., Lucker, G. W., & Spence, J. T. (1978). Achievement motivation and scientific attainment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 222-226.

This article describes the first in a line of studies by Helmreich, his colleague Janet Spence, and others. These studies look at achievement motivation as a multidimensional phenomenon, comprised of intellectual mastery, orientation toward work, and competitiveness. The researchers measure eminent scientists, scholars, and others using a motivation measure called the Work and Family Orientation Scale. This study reports on data from scientists. Helmreich and his colleagues found that the scientists whose work was cited most by their colleagues scored high on work and mastery orientations, and relatively low on competitiveness. The next most cited group of scientists scored low on work and mastery orientations, but high in competitiveness. They report that these results were generally replicated with two other groups using very different criteria: undergraduates and their grades, and graduates of a business school and their income. That is, the most successful in each group scored high on work and mastery and low on competitiveness. The authors speculate that high competitiveness may be characteristic of scientists who jump from one “hot” topic to the next, but that competitiveness probably results in some fear of failure in those scientists who are also motivated by work and mastery orientations.

Middleton, J. A., Littlefield, J., & Lehrer, R. (1992). Gifted students’ conceptions of academic fun: An examination of a critical construct for gifted education. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 38-44.

This article explores the radical notion that “fun” is not only acceptable in academics, it is a critical component of high quality academic activity. The premise here is that intrinsic motivation is important to education, and implicit in this kind of motivation is that students consider the activity to be fun. The authors present a model of academic fun and indicate how it was tested with students in grades three through seven. The three components that seem to comprise academic fun for gifted students include interests (they find the activity intrinsically interesting or find it a chance for self-expression), arousal (they find the activity exciting or novel), and control (they perceive that they have choices within the activity and that it is challenging but not too difficult). The authors offer suggestions for structuring classroom activities to promote academic fun, but caution against employing academically peripheral “fun and games” as a way of promoting interest.

Whitmore, J. R. (1986). Understanding a lack of motivation to excel. Gifted Child Quarterly, 30, 66-69.

This thoughtful article, by an author well known for her work on gifted underachievers, discusses motivation and these students. She cautions against the easy dismissal of gifted underachievers as “unmotivated” and asserts that the cause of underachievement in gifted students is usually a mismatch between the child’s motivational characteristics and the opportunities provided in the classroom. She urges a systematic investigation into the nature of the individual student’s problem, and an analysis of the classroom placement of the student. Her arguments are based on the premise that all students, and especially the gifted, want to master new knowledge and skills and to excel in school, but that various environmental factors and learning contexts can block that motivation to learn. She points out that punishment and pressure tactics are generally ineffective in the long term, and create further negative attitudes toward school and possibly emotional problems.


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