Friday, October 7, 2011

Ten Things You May Not Know About Giftedness

 By Grace Shangkuan Koo 

IN reviewing more than a dozen research studies from the United States, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea published recently in the “Gifted Child Quarterly,” it occurred to me that, for starters, the information may be organized into 10 observations.

1. Experts do not agree on one definition of giftedness.

In this US study, 94 percent of experts agree that “giftedness” is a vague and imprecise term inconsistently applied. People are confused whether we are referring to potential or actual productivity, and whether creativity is a component.

Furthermore, 41 percent questioned the identification process and 30 percent, the validity of instruments available. Some 84 percent believed there was lack of curricular breadth, depth and specificity in programs for gifted children.

This is not a very encouraging sign for people who make a business out of “gifted” programs and products, particularly because the experts were selected based on their credentials. They are authors of three or more peer-reviewed research on the subject and are on five editorial boards of professional journals as well as on the Board of Directors of the US National Association of Gifted Children.

2. There are gender differences in how gifted students view themselves.

A study of sixth graders in Germany found, in spite of earning as good grades in mathematics as boys, girls reported lower mean levels of academic self-concept, interest and motivation. This was true for gifted as well as for girls of average ability. In fact, gender differences were larger in gifted than in average-ability students.
This suggests girls’ uncertain attitudes toward math and the need for schools and parents to foster among gifted female students recognition of their ability, instead of crediting effort or environmental factors.

3. There are types A, B and C of giftedness, and four clusters.

Type A gifted students have high cognitive ability and adequate-to-well-developed social skills. They need academic opportunities to continue developing their cognitive and academic abilities.

Type B gifted students have high cognitive ability but also exhibit some behaviors that may be regarded as indicative of social-emotional difficulty. They are academically misplaced and may appear to suffer from a disability such as autism. But when placed with intellectual peers who share their interests, the autism-like behaviors (especially social isolation or perceived social impairment) disappear or, at least, are greatly reduced.

Type C gifted students have high cognitive ability and severe social impairments. Unlike the type B gifted, the type C has social impairment that is not a reflection of a mismatched environment. The severity of the social impairment is internal and represents a disability.

While the type B gifted have difficulties as a consequence of their exceptional abilities and thus may miss being identified as gifted, type C gifted students are at risk of having their disability misdiagnosed.

On the other hand, from a study of 498 Chinese gifted students in Hong Kong on perceived intelligence scores, the students could be classified into four clusters: super-smart, socio-emotionally gifted, modest gifted and artistically gifted.

It was found that the super-smart students engaged in more activities related to leadership and creativity than the other clusters of students, with the modest gifted students reporting the least engagement. Super-smart students, however, were rated by teachers as less emotionally mature, showing less concern for others, and more likely to have behavioral conduct problems than the socio-emotionally gifted students.

4. Acceleration is not for every gifted student.

Results from a study in Singapore indicate that grade skipping, early school entrance and early admission to college do have socio-affective benefits for certain gifted students—those who are selected on the basis of demonstrated academic, social and emotional maturity. The caveat is the same processes may be harmful to students who are arbitrarily accelerated on the basis of intelligence quotient (IQ) and achievement.

5. Gifted students encounter adjustment problems, including perfectionism.

A study of Hong Kong gifted students listed six problem domains that should merit attention from parents and schools, namely: a) relationship/ability concerns, b) unchallenging schoolwork, c) intense involvement, d) concerns about being different, e) parental expectations and f) perfectionism.

Parental expectations and perfectionism are prevalent in the inflexible and exam-driven Hong Kong curriculum that does not promote the realization of students’ individual potential and talents, such that students are easily disappointed for not getting full scores.

There is a difference between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism.

Healthy perfectionists strive to be excellent in their work, but do accept limitations and imperfections. They feel satisfied with their best performance.

High standards typify both healthy and unhealthy perfectionists, but organization and order are more a concern for healthy perfectionists. They have a significantly higher level of emotional intelligence, and are characterized by relatively low levels of concerns and doubts, and by the perception of relatively low level of criticism from parents.

In my own experience as student and teacher, I agree that a little perfectionism doesn’t hurt.

6. Underachievement is common among the gifted.

Creativity and intelligence are very much related. Underachievement of many gifted and talented students may be due to their creativity, which tends to clash with traditional school environments. Highly creative students exhibit characteristics that many teachers find undesirable in traditional school environments.

There are teachers who have negative attitudes toward gifted students who resist conformity. Teachers who emphasize order, control and conformity tend to promote more structured and less innovative styles in their students. Gifted underachievers become frustrated with the lack of challenge and active inquiry. Misbehavior is often a reaction to the unchallenging, boring and repetitive tasks in school.

7. Some gifted students are bullied and/or are bullies.

A US study found that the prevalence of being bullied for some time during nine years of school (K-8) was 67 percent (73 percent of boys, 63 percent of girls). Many gifted students were victims of repeated bullying. After peaking at sixth grade, bullying declined.

Name-calling (dork, geek, nerd, smarty) was the most prevalent kind of bullying reported across all school years, followed by teasing about appearance, teasing about intelligence and grades, pushing/shoving, beating up, knocking books and hitting/punching.

The US study also explored the prevalence of bullying by gifted children and adolescents. Of all participants, 28 percent (33 percent of boys; 22 percent of girls) bullied someone sometime during the nine years of school. Gifted children were likewise perpetrators of name-calling (idiot, moron, retard, dumb).

8. Gifted students do drop out of school.

In two studies, it was found that many gifted dropouts were from low income families and racial minority groups. These dropouts had parents with low levels of education and they participated less in extracurricular activities.

The reasons for gifted male dropouts were more related to economic issues (needing to work), while reasons for gifted female dropouts were more related to personal issues (wanting to get married).

Dropping out among gifted students was significantly related to students’ educational aspirations, pregnancy or child-rearing and parents’ highest level of education.

9. Gifted students prefer intuitive teachers.

For the gifted students, the exemplary teachers are those more likely to prefer intuition (vs sensing) and thinking (vs feeling). The personality types of teachers are in many ways similar to the personality types of gifted students. People with N (intuition) prefer to see big pictures, tend to be innovative, see patterns and generate ideas.

A Johns Hopkins University research from the Center of Talented Youth suggests that teachers who are judged to be highly effective in working with gifted students prefer abstract concepts, are open and flexible, and value objectivity and logical analysis.

10. Wisdom is a form of giftedness.

I have saved the best for last. Robert Sternberg writes, “If we ask what distinguishes four extremely gifted individuals of the 20th century—Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela—we could safely conclude that it is not the kind of giftedness measured by conventional tests of intelligence.”

Sternberg proposes an alternative view to giftedness: tacit knowledge used for balancing interests.

Tacit knowledge comprises “the lessons of life that are not explicitly taught and that often are not even verbalized.” Wisdom, then, is the application of tacit knowledge as “mediated by values toward the goal of achieving a common good through a balance among multiple interests—intrapersonal, interpersonal and extrapersonal.”

Perhaps, this is one kind of giftedness that our schools should develop—not only among a few students, but all who enter their gates.

And when these students leave school, they will have learned lessons in life and will remember to bring this wisdom to their families, neighborhoods and communities so that everyone may benefit from giftedness.

The author is associate professor of educational psychology at the University of the Philippines College of Education. E-mail her at
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