Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

What is giftedness?

How do you measure giftedness?

Johnny, a 9-year-old elementary school student, has an IQ of 140, which would qualify him as "gifted" by virtually any IQ-based definition of giftedness anyone might use. Johnny has few friends, in large part because he has very poor social skills. Johnny has no hobbies to speak of, and is unengaged in significant extracurricular activities outside of school. And despite his IQ, Johnny is a good, but not great, student.

Davy is also 9 and is in the same school as Johnny. He has an IQ of 120, which would quality him as "gifted" by some, but not other IQ-based definitions of giftedness. Davy is very active in sports and is the best soccer player of any age in his school. He also is a highly talented trombonist, and is first trombone in the elementary-school orchestra. His teacher believes he has the potential for a career in musical performance, should he wish to follow that path. Davy is very popular and is one of the top three academic performers in his class.

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Who is gifted? Johnny? Davy? Both?

This is a question Robert J. Sternberg and I posed to giftedness researchers in a recent handbook on giftedness [1]. Now I pose the same question to you. What do you think?

There is no obvious answer. As we point out in our book chapter, the term "giftedness" is only a label. As a scientist, I am interested in discovering some underlying truth about the world. It is important that I remain as objective as possible. When trying to answer questions such as "what is giftedness?", or "what criteria should we use to identify gifted individuals?", I have to shift my goals a bit. There are disagreements, even among researchers (let alone from one person to another, culture to another, and generation to another) as to the criteria that should be set to identify students with extraordinary potential.

Therefore, while I can remain as objective as possible in weighing the evidence regarding the underlying cognitive mechanisms behind performance on an IQ test (post coming later...), the heritability of intelligence within a particular population (also coming later...), or the environmental factors that affect IQ performance within a particular population (you guessed it!- coming later...), I cannot remain as objective when trying to answer the question "what is giftedness?".

This I can do. In my next series of posts, I will trace the history of giftedness research, look at various conceptualizations of giftedness, and discuss different proposed criteria for identifying and nurturing gifted students. I will present varying perspectives. And I'll leave it up to you to decide what it means to be gifted.

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1. Kaufman, S.B., & Sternberg, R.J. (2008). Conceptions of giftedness. In S. Pfeiffer (Ed.), Handbook of giftedness in children: Psycho-educational theory, research, and best practices. Springer.

© 2008 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved 

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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