Giftedness: Important Theorists and Theories

While the definitions of “intelligence” or requirements for being classified as “gifted” shift by theorist and by state, there are some beliefs which transcend state lines. In short, it generally is agreed that students who are gifted possess a high level of aptitude, achievement, creativity, and motivation which sets them within the top 90% or higher of their peers. It is nearly impossible to give a comprehensive overview of the theorists who have impacted our teaching of gifted students, but below, I have included work which resonated with me.   

Françoys Gagné: Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT)

Gagne’s DMGT

Key Points

Gifts: Natural abilities which place an individual within the top 10% of peers. Gagne breaks down gifts into six domains where giftedness can be observed.

Talents: Mastery of abilities or competencies which again place an individual within the top 10% of peers.

Development: Transitional step between giftedness and talent. Through various developmental measures, a learner can go from one to the other.

Catalysts: Can be intrapersonal or environmental, and they “may exert—by their presence or absence—both positive and negative influences, and (b) they may be permanently ransformed through their involvement in the developmental process” (Gagne).

Chance: The degree of control one has over their gifts, development, and catalysts.

Reflection: Gagne’s DMGT helps to create the distinction between giftedness and talent, and an understanding of this difference is key to understanding gifted learners as a whole. Oftentimes, as Gagnes notes, the two terms are used interchangeably. Further, it is often assumed that if one is gifted, they will go on to exhibit those talents to make a great product or contribution. Gagne’s work posits that this cannot be the case without appropriate development of gifts. Additionally, Gagne’s work introduces the very important concept of chance. Of course, not everyone can be born with gifts, but it still is important to work to bring opportunities to gifted students who are impacted by extenuating circumstances. 

Howard Gardner: Gardner’s Eight Multiple Intelligences

What are the Multiple Intelligences?

Key Points

Intelligence manifests in different ways: Gardner expands the previously limited definitions of what it meant to be intelligent by offering eight different pathways for displaying intellectual ability. Each of these intelligences is outlined in the above video.

Intelligence can be improved: While giftedness refers to natural abilities, intelligences are skills which can be cultivated to reach higher aptitudes. 

Reflection: When Gardner began developing the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he had not given much consideration to how it should be applied to education. Instead, he was focused on understanding the psychology of learners, and while this might cause initial apprehension for some, anyone who has successfully differentiated for student learning and demonstration of knowledge can attest to the fact that when students are able to explore and to express themselves in a variety of ways, they are far more likely to retain information and enjoy the process of acquiring knowledge. Additionally, because everything we do within a classroom is connected to the human beings we teach, understanding the psychology of learners is of the utmost importance. If we cannot understand how students think, we cannot expect to reach them.

One activity I have done in the opening days of school is to have students complete a quiz which will show them their strongest intelligences. I also take the quiz simply to show them that as a teacher, I am not strong in every area either, and that is perfectly okay. While I haven’t done it in the past, these results could be used for mixed grouping to ensure that there is a balance of skill sets involved in students’ collaborative efforts.  

Leta S. Hollingworth: An Advocate for Equity

Key Points

Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development (1942) became the first comprehensive text on the characteristics and behaviors of gifted students (Silverman)

Dual Exceptionality: Hollingworth was one of the first scholars to note the possibility that one could possess both gifted attributes and handicaps (Silverman). This potentially influenced how we perceive certain disabilities like Autism, Down Syndrome, deafness, and blindness today.

Educational Feminist: Much of Hollingworth’s work was dedicated to dispelling the notion that women were intellectually inferior to men. As one interesting accomplishment, her research helped to disprove the myth that while menstruating, women perform at an inferior level to men (Silverman).

Disproving Myths about Gifted Students: In “The Research Legacy of Leta S. Hollingworth,” Dr. Jennifer L. Jolly details Hollingworth’s contributions to gifted education, one of which includes her work proving that gifted students were not less physically capable or physically attractive than their peers. 

Reflection: Leta S. Hollingworth’s work lays a foundation for what we call “culturally responsive” teaching today (The ASCD raises interesting and relevant points about motivation and culture as one example clearly tied to gifted learners). Hollingworth went beyond examining gifted students simply as producers or possessors of knowledge, and she instead looked at them first as human beings with complexities and troubles and triumphs. As educators, we are tasked with differentiating content every day, but at the root of differentiation lies the task of understanding our students and the contributions they bring to the table. In order to be successful, we have to avoid deficit models in our practice and interactions with those we teach, and doing so ensures that we are striving towards equity in education.   

Again, it is nearly impossible to capture the work of every theorist who has impacted the education of gifted students, but these three resonated with my personal teaching beliefs. On the Additional Resources page, you can find links for further exploration of other important theorists and their works.


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