Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Dr. Von may not be able to define " giftedness" but he knows it when he sees it.

This post was very interesting to me both for Von's insights into the complicated nature of high intelligence, most of which struck me as spot-on from my own experience in working with gifted and a few profoundly gifted students and the subsequent comment the post evoked. I am reproducing " What Is a Gifted Student?" in full. My comments are in regular text, Dr. Von's are in bold.

"As another round of parent conferences fast approaches, I anticipate at some point being asked if various students should be looking for opportunities to participate in ‘gifted’ programs at universities, online or in other venues. And it is just a matter of time before the next article on ‘giftedness’ makes an appearance in one of the education journals, or one hears other teachers talk about ‘gifted’ students who get A’s on all their tests throughout the school year. But what is “giftedness?” Is there a single definition that can work for the masses? Or is this term one of the most misused, overused and exaggerated terms in the educational vocabulary?

I personally think talk of ‘gifted’ students is entirely overused and misinterpreted. I don’t think one can come up with a single definition, either, largely because of my belief and support for Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (although perhaps a replacement for ‘intelligence’ is ‘competence’)."

Being quite familiar with Gardner's theories myself I'd agree that " competence"or perhaps " modality" is a better descriptor. Some of Gardner's " intelligences" appear to be traditionally g-loaded conceptions and others are expressing at least partially non-cognitive physiological or even vague cultural aspects. They all appear to be socially or psychologically useful qualities however, if not all equally useful in every context.

Whatever the language, a truly gifted person in any particular field or activity is, in my mind, someone whose skill, intellect, or ability is off the charts and at a different level than someone who is merely competent, consistent, or accelerated in that field. As an example, I know many teachers and parents who refer to their straight A students as gifted.

A very common misconception. Bright, hardworking, highly motivated students are exactly that and no more. Because they are often able to exceed the curricular standards of their local public school, which has standards set for the student in the low-average range, their relative superiority often lulls them( certainly their parents) into the mistaken belief that they are more able than they actually are. The irony of course is that if these students were truly gifted they would not have fallen into that self-referential trap.

Because of my long involvement with the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, I know countless parents who place their kids in programs run through universities because their kids are ‘gifted’ and need new challenges that are not available at their respective schools. Having worked with top-tier students for over ten years, it has been more than obvious to me that ‘gifted’ is a term that is as overused and abused in education as ‘genius’ is in the popular media. Terms like 'gifted' and 'genius' are meant to be used for the rare individual whose talents, knowledge, ability, and performance is so far beyond even the most competent in a field that there is not another term that would properly describe them.

I might suggest " polymath" fits some of these multidimensional prodigies better than " genius". Even some people of genius level intelligence can be exceptionally linear or tunnel-visioned in their thinking style compared to the extraordinairly creative, high performing minds of a Newton, DaVinci, Aristotle, Mill, Jefferson or similar figures.

Let me stick to my area of expertise and experience to give examples of what gifted might look like in science education. I know many who might consider the typical student in AP classes to be categorized as gifted. After all, students in AP classes are working perhaps one, two or three years ahead of their age-group. These students tend to be motivated, do their homework, listen in class, and have a decent amount of curiosity for the subject. These students are about as ideal for a teacher to work with as you can imagine. But in my ten years working with many hundreds of AP caliber students, there may be a handful who I would classify as ‘gifted’ in science. In my definition of gifted, grades are not part of it. Motivation is not necessarily part of it. Rather, insight and the ability to understand a subject at such a deep level as to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics is part of it. Ability and understanding at such high levels that make me wonder how the student came up with an idea or conclusion that the typical accelerated student would not be able to make fits into the definition. That rare student whose abilities can only be related to others through anecdotes rather than single words fits into the definition.

I think that Von has caught the essence of the phenomena of a truly gifted mind in this paragraph. On the sketchiest introduction to a subject, the gifted individual shows prodigious powers of extrapolation to quickly grasp the overarching principles of a field and ask logically incisive questions that test the field's boundaries. This capacity for intuitively deep vertical cognition is often paired with impressive horizontal cognition, the vision to recognize similar patterns across even seemingly unrelated domains. The character of these insights tend to be "sudden leaps" or " eureka moments" rather than methodical problem solving as we tend to see from bright students.

One example that may sum it up happened a number of years back. After introducing the concept of electromagnetic induction in class, a student who is truly gifted immediately came to me with a comment. This student rarely appeared to ever pay attention in class, because he would be scribbling things on his paper, or have the ‘day dream’ look on his face most of the time. But after knowing him only a few days I knew he was doing something else. He paid attention the first few minutes of class to get the topic, but then took it to new levels on a daily basis in his own mind. Concepts were understood immediately, as soon as he saw where I was headed and what the topic at hand was related to. His day dreaming was normally him deriving in his head or on paper things I was going to do for the class over a week’s worth of time; he knew where it was headed because he intuitively understood at a deep level where it should go. This is hard to put into words, which is why ‘giftedness’ is so difficult to define.

It's hard to quantify which is why it is hard to define. While these rare students all have high IQ scores this kind of divergent thinking is not always something that can be produced on command or in reference to a standardized test format. It is a thought process that appears to me to be " triggered" to a certain extent by new data being integrated rather than consciously developed by pure reason. On the flip side, there are plenty of nominally" gifted" people who lack this imaginative or creative capacity to generate or recognize these kind of insights; instead they often master existing bodies of knowledge or conventional skill-sets to a very high degree.

Going back to the electromagnetic induction story, one day he came up to me with a calculation scribbled on a piece of paper. In his mind, he was able to take the concept of time varying electric fields producing (i.e. inducing) magnetic fields and time varying magnetic fields inducing electric fields and apply it in a way that made complete sense to him: a similar thing should be seen with gravitational fields. In fact, he ‘saw’ mathematical similarities between electromagnetic theory and gravitational theory, and deduced a similar phenomenon should exist in an entirely different realm. He came up with gravitomagnetism on his own, which is a prediction Einstein (who, I think we could argue, was somewhat ‘gifted’ in physics) made with general relativity. This sort of intuition or insight is absolutely not the norm, even for knowledgeable, hard working AP level students, who I would classify almost entirely as accelerated students. ‘Gifted’ is a whole other level of understanding that few ever attain, and, at least in science, is based on the deep level of processing and understanding of concepts that allow students to step beyond simply being competent with applying the concept, and rather make connections well beyond the norm. It is the kind of thing as a teacher you recognize and know when you see it.

And we don't see it very often. I've encountered this kind of intellect in my students no more than twice. It's that rare. Charles Murray compiled a book a while back entitled Human Accomplishment:The Pursuit of Excellence in Art and Science, 800 B.C. to 1950 which illustrated how few in number are the people who made truly epochal contributions to global civilization .

In sports, one may talk of a Michael Jordan being a gifted basketball player. What separated him from all other players? Others could jump as high and run as fast and dribble as well, but Jordan had ‘instincts’ that no one else did. Some have described it as if he could ‘see’ the play happen and predict what other players would do before it ever happened. It cannot be put into words, and the gifted individuals typically cannot explain how they do it. My student could never explain how he came up with his thoughts or ideas or conclusions…they just ‘appeared’ and ‘made sense.’ Jordan always said he just ‘felt’ where he should go and what he should do on a basketball court, and never thought of it consciously; he just did it. The masters of music simply ‘know’ how to play the notes just right to overwhelm an audience; many others can play the same notes, but there is a quality that separates the truly gifted musician from the masses, and you know it when you hear it. There is not a single definition or word that does it justice."

On a sociological and political note, it is interesting how quickly American society recognizes and richly rewards an athletic talent like Michael Jordan's yet finds his intellectual equivalent to be profoundly threatening and alien. Gifted programs are usually attacked as " elitist" by both teachers and parents despite the normal curriculum being as unsuitable for profoundly gifted children as it is for those with severe learning disabilities, for whom Congress has mandated exceptional programatic changes to meet their educational needs.

Can America really afford to keep neglecting its best minds ?

Mark, this is a thoroughly interesting post.

I wonder what would happen if a truly gifted individual didn't focus entirely on extroverted interests -- music, sports, political science, physics -- but focused on her own internal capacities. Dr. Von's notion that the gifted "just know" things without being able to explain how they know things speaks of one sort of gifted individual, the generally extroverted sort, but I suppose another exists. (Perhaps Freud and Socrates would be examples of this second class?)

Anyhoo. I also suspect that most who are truly gifted will find their way without a cooperative educational sys-administration. The U.S. could locate gifted individuals and give them opportunities to excel -- particularly, could help them make a living by finding them suitable careers -- or improve its own showing in the world by harnessing such talent, but I wonder if the gifted are so easily "harnessed."
I also suspect that most who are truly gifted will find their way without a cooperative educational sys-administration.

The gifted, in the sense that Mark and Vonny discuss, will always be outliers. They may work through a lesson in their own way, like the physics student, or they may give up on the too-narrow strictures of most classes and become troublemakers in various degrees.

They usually present problems of one kind or another, and uncreative (or even jealous?) teachers will resist their insights or actively put them down.

They'll find their way to something, but that may not be the full use of their capabilities. Their school experiences may well convince them that their best path lies outside of normal society.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems to me to be one example of a gifted student trying to find his way, despite an educational system doing everything it could to destroy him.


I think to the list of nay-sayers we should add parents. Even supportive educators run into the problem of indifferent or hostile parents who fear and perhaps loathe their gifted children.
it's not what you will pay, but what the market will bear. the market will bear Michael Jordan. people love it. the market will also bear private education and private gifted programs and private tutoring, etc.

what the market doesn't bear very well is public funding of gifted programs. you say 'well, we have public funding for sports for the Michael Jordans of the world, growing up in public school in Wilmington, NC and the UNC-Chapel Hill.' and i say you're right, but that's where the market is.

on the 'plus' side, the world's richest people are more often intellectually gitfted than athletically. Bill Gates is doing fine, thank you very much.

to answer your question, no, we can't afford to neglect our best minds. we'd shudder to know how many 'mute and glorious Miltons' there are out there. but that's where our society is.

the best advocates for gifted children are their parents. they must decide how to invest in their gifted children, how to get resources for them, how to enrich their education. the public support is probably not going to change much anytime soon (and will likely erode).
Linked as part of my morning rundown.
I've often pondered how outliers like the gifted and risk-takers evolve in a population. They are frequently unwanted by their societies (or the people in their immediate environment) and even driven to early deaths. (Risk-takers probably go to early deaths in greater numbers than everyone else.)

But a successful society needs to be able to evolve to meet changing circumstances. The outliers provide this capability. So there is an evolutionary reason for keeping a few of them in the gene pool.

A successful society also needs stability, which the outliers disrupt. The society therefore keeps them under heavy strictures and limits their numbers, perhaps beyond what is healthy for meeting change.

The dislike and fear many people feel for outliers thus serve an evolutionary purpose of stabilizing society. Outliers are an insurance policy for change and therefore need to be available, but not in large numbers.

So the question is what do we want? Stability or change? Or could a stability strategy try to co-opt those outliers into using their creativity and risktaking to improve a stabilized society?

Now that Blogger seems to be working again....

Wow ! Great comments all around - and some good email to boot. Let me see if I can jump back in to the mix:


Gardner tried to deal with the Introspectively gifted in _Extraordinairy Minds_. It was, I must say, his weakest chapter by far. Even he had a difficult time getting a good handle on that kind of mindset. Odd in a sense because most philosophy that investigates epistemology and metaphysics must rely on this kind on cognitive awareness. CKR brought up Zen - there is a kind of one-pointed concentration in Zen and the martial arts - that would fit the bill.


True -there's a lot of negative behavioral traits associated with giftedness - hence the trouble caused by terminally bored students to which you refer. We lose a lot of gifted kids that way and to peer pressure. Females generally and poor minoritry males in particular; though that shouldn't obscure the fact that the public school system does almost as piss-poor a job with socially advantaged white male gifted kids - they just have a better safety net to bounce back.

Your evolutionary question is a fascinating one. Gardner uses Freud as an example of how extraordinairy minds also require geographic outlier status to come up with ideas that challenge convention. Einstein was also an outlier - though here in terms of scientific status until his breakthrough year in 1905.

Come to think of it, as Jews both Einstein and Freud were social outliers as well in the German -central European world


True. We're not a culture that admires genius - success created by genius yes - but not the brains that make it possible. Tocqueville noticed this so it is a longstanding cultural trait of Americans.

In my experience, the UMC parents are effective advocates but as you slide down the socioeconomic scale that kind of advocacy becomes rarer. It exists but it is less common.


Much thanks my man !

Wonderful post. Intimidatingly good. I can't respond to something that well written. Instead, I will ramble. ;)


Wonderful discussion.

What would a good gifted program look like? As a student who was in my school's wonderfully underfunded (for several years in a utility closet, previously in an condemend annex of the building) gifted program...

1. "Gifted Ed" was the most fun part of my day until junior or senior year, but not always useful. I enjoyed it, there was a place to have real discussions, but little was done.
2. The major exception to this being the three years we had an instructor who was strongly into National History Day. I remember working hard on a project that didn't qualify (3rd in regional, so I got to attend state as an "alternate"). It was the first time I was interested in something, worked on it, and didn't succeed. I loved it.

So then I had to do "real work," and for the next two years wrote papers I'm still proud of.

3. Starting junior year, I began taking college classes. It worked out well, and my brother, whose smarter than I am, starting taking them his sophomore year.

Definitely a step up from almost any regular class.

I'm skeptical of a very horizontal definition of giftedness. You run the risk of transitioning form one narrowband view (he's so good at math, he has to be gifted) to another (he's so good at 'creativity,' he has to be gifted). Especially considering that horizontal thinking to an extent can be mechanically created. And that a lot of "creative" thinking is just vertically drilling down from a particular thesis/orientation, using pre-existing knowledge domains instrumentally.

Further, horizontal thinking isn't likely to do much good without a solid veritcal base and further vertical construction. Horizontal thinking is like building a platform. Build it on the dirt and you haven't accomplished much. Build it on mighty pillars, and erect and now that foundation becomes a pedestal for something greater.

For example, my interest in evolution (which led to a thesis) came from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the Red Mars trilogy, and The Making of Modern Economics. The knowledge that Kuhn, Gould, and Schumpeter were talking about the same thing oriented me, leading to "creative" thoughts that are really implied by the initial thesis. The ability to talk about their thoughts allow me to defend my position, making me "original." But without the pre-existing knowledge -- so what, some kid has an thought.

So be kinder to "students in AP classes [who] are working perhaps one, two or three years ahead of their age-group." This will allow them to achieve more later, not just think more empty thoughts now.

-Dan tdaxp
What a great thread, good comments, and food for thought. I am always excited to see people discussing the concept of giftedness; hopefully the fear and prejudice that surrounds high intelligence will start to dissipate the more we talk about it. Allowing parents of exceptional children to celebrate their difference and find appropriate education would be a great first step. Educating people about the special sensitivies that often occur with high intelligence would also be useful. Giftedness doesn't disappear when you hit the work world, but the bottom line trumps a gifted person's thirst for meaningful work every time. That's why I work in the area of helping gifted people find careers that build on their talent, whatever it may be.

Our world is set up for the majority - and the evolutionary importance of social groups means most of its structures are self reinforcing. In my experience gifted people do always feel different, but knowing why can remove a huge psychological burden! Once aware of the "problem", they are very adept at finding resources and peer groups where their difference is welcomed.
Hi Dan,

Great comment !

I'm not knocking AP types - they form the bulk of our lawyers, doctors, engineers, PhD's, CPA's who make the system hum nicely. Diligence and brains is a good combination. There's just a difference of kind between that sort of highly competent mind and guys like Archimedes or Freeman Dyson.

Horizontal thinking is both a learned skill ( Ed DeBono ) which anyone can improve their cognitive performance and an innate capacity that people have in varying degrees. Some people just seem to be more wired to perceve the world from an unconventional perspective which becomes evident from a very early age.

Welcome Jo.

You make an excellent point. Very few gifted programs are set up to help children deal with affective aspects of their giftedness.

Where I find this most troubling is at the primary grades where the students have sensitivity of perception and emotional nuance that usually exceeds their ability to articulate what they find distressing or troubling. So the teachers end up describing these children as " moody"," quiet", daydreamy" or having ADD.

Thanks for your comments, everywhere. As of now (3:01 AM) I'm trying to prevent a hangover in the morning, so I apologize for the obtuseness of my remarks.

A part I forgot to write about:

I think that Von has caught the essence of the phenomena of a truly gifted mind in this paragraph. On the sketchiest introduction to a subject, the gifted individual shows prodigious powers of extrapolation to quickly grasp the overarching principles of a field and ask logically incisive questions that test the field's boundaries. This capacity for intuitively deep vertical cognition is often paired with impressive horizontal cognition, the vision to recognize similar patterns across even seemingly unrelated domains. The character of these insights tend to be "sudden leaps" or " eureka moments" rather than methodical problem solving as we tend to see from bright students.

So giftedness is having a good fingertip-feeling for a field -- that is, being lucky enough to have your "innate" biases on physics, mathematics, etc, being congruent with the current practices in the field?

That plus narrowband horizontal thinking creates "giftedness"?

I understand the difference you are getting at, and maybe intuition/fingertip-feeling/having the right prejudces + pattern recognition makes "giftedness," but it seems suspicious...

Dan tdaxp
hey Dan,

Well yes and no.

Yes, because we have to be careful about culturally influenced self-selection bias in creating definitions of giftedness. Innate talents are also trainable to higher levels of skill and skills sometimes resemble innate talents.

No, because the essence of g is its broadband applicability to thinking in any context requiring reasoning. Gifted people demonstrate great cognitive prowess even in entirely unfamiliar cultural contexts or domains.

Ability and experience are deeply, deeply, entangled partly because the brain has neuroplasticity to some extent -especially during early childhood but going on even into the early twenties. Perhaps longer. Environment shapes the "hardware" even as it codes your "software".

Hard to perfectly isolate the variables.
Yes, because we have to be careful about culturally influenced self-selection bias in creating definitions of giftedness. Innate talents are also trainable to higher levels of skill and skills sometimes resemble innate talents.

No, because the essence of g is its broadband applicability to thinking in any context requiring reasoning. Gifted people demonstrate great cognitive prowess even in entirely unfamiliar cultural contexts or domains.

Hmm... I wonder if both are right...

When I first moved to UNL, I was surprised how similar doctoral-level general aesthetics and English literature seemd to war and polisci (at least, so far as I could gather in conversation). Very similar movements, criticisms, etc in all.

I wondered if it was because they were the same field -- an attempt to rearrange the minds of a neutral population in the face of criticism. Certainly as social omnivorous mammals, humans would be hard-wired for this form of conflict, so at its core this sort of "giftedness" should found in any culture, though manifested in different ways.

Indeed, as one could say this sort of struggle "makes of human," all other forms of "giftedness" could be merely competencies.

Dan tdaxp
The character of these insights tend to be "sudden leaps" or " eureka moments" rather than methodical problem solving as we tend to see from bright students.

I wonder if this is more an "outside-looking-in" description of it. Someone like da Vinci or Shakespeare probably has an almost continuous "leaping" or "eureka" state of mind, although some discoveries or leaps might surpass others and occasional bouts of brain-numbness might occur.

It would be as if the "method" is really a kind of method for such individuals, after all, but a different method than most follow.

I think, also, that the ability to combine disparate things in meaningful ways might account for the genius/madness schisms and overlaps -- even the ability to find meaningful differences in things normally not considered dissimilar.

I also wonder if a confrontational society or disparaging milieu pushes some gifted individuals into an introverted mode who might otherwise have found extroverted outlets. I recently read an autobiographical note by Einstein, in which he said that he recognized at a very young age the importance of the "outer world" as an escape from subjective turmoils and phantasms. (He had seen many of his immediate neighbors descend into chaotic relations because of their being trapped by their own internal subjectivisms.) So, Einstein found a way out of extreme introspection.
Being gifted is a gift. Having one child who I often was assahmed and embarased to talk about or even help because so many thought or told me I was just overpromoting a child who "wasn't all that". But everyday I would have to face her increasing discouragement and fustration. If she had special needs everyone would have been falling all over themselves to help her but because she could do it well and quickly and then could help the teacher for free and show other kids how to do the assignment. She wasn't at the public low average curriculum she was at a private school that offered advanced subject matter. I think if we are willing to recognize those who need extra help we need to at least be able to idantify what would the criteria be for gifted. Don't label someone. Identify their needs and offer something, anything, to meet those needs. Not every kid may be gifted. They may just work at a higher level than that of their class mates. But rather than lose a good mind to melt down or boredom lets do something. Interesting my child was tested Johnson Wooodcock and was learning at a faaster level and skipped the second half of the grade she was in and the first half of the next grade. She is challenged and very happy. She still picks things up quickly but at least knows you don't have to be bored.
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