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Why Passion Is a Gift

Why don't we view passion and interest as gifts?

Lots of different definitions of giftedness exist. While these theories differ in important ways, such as their dimensionality, their emphasis on creativity, or their focus on developmental and environmental factors, there is one important way they don't differ: they all include preexisting ability as the most basic requirement.

To be fair, definitions of giftedness have evolved quite a bit over the years. Prior to 1972, practically every school used one criterion and one criterion only: an IQ cut-off of 130. This criterion was heavily influenced by the pioneering work of Lewis Terman, who equated high IQ with genius.

Then the first federal definition of giftedness came along in 1972, which was undoubtedly an important step forward. Noting that only a small percentage of the 1.5 to 2.5 million gifted school children were actually benefiting from special education services, former U.S. Commissioner of Education Sidney P. Marland, Jr. proposed a broadened definition that went beyond just IQ to also include specific academic and creative aptitudes. That report was important in its broadening of giftedness, but note that it only broadened abilities.

A more recent report released by the National Department of Education in 1993 ("National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent") kept the multidimensional definition of giftedness but once again lamented the sorry state of gifted education. In the report, Secretary of Education Richard Riley called gifted education the "quiet crisis."

Various psychologists have put forward their own pet theories of giftedness, hoping they would catch on. They haven't. Most school districts still stick to the IQ 130 cut-off. Nevertheless, let's look at some of these alternative theories, as they have played an important role in research on giftedness.

Howard Gardner proposed eight independent abilities: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Robert J. Sternberg proposed a synthesis of wisdom, intelligence, and creativity. Interestingly, part of Sternberg's definition of intelligence is the ability to capitalize on strengths and compensate for, or correct, weaknesses (more on that later).

Other researchers have added "non-cognitive" traits to the picture. In Joseph Renzulli's Three-Ring definition, giftedness is conceptualized as the interaction of high ability (top 15-20 percent of any domain), creativity, and task commitment. Still, task commitment alone is not enough; at least above-average ability is also required. Francoys Gagne's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT) includes motivation and temperament, but those traits are viewed only as catalysts that help transform gifts (e.g., intellectual, socio-affective) to talents (e.g., academics, social activists). The motivations and temperaments aren't the actual gifts.

But why isn't passion a gift all by itself? It's a glorious thing when someone has found "the one" domain that makes him or her get up in the morning. It's also special to find someone who has an intense drive to be great. That drive is rare.

The skeptic, of course, could say, "that sounds nice and politically correct, but realistically, there is limited funding and research shows that early ability predicts later achievement." Fair enough. But these correlations are far from perfect. And anyway, by definition there are only very few children in the top 3-5% of passion. That's not enough children to affect those with preexisting ability from getting their resources. The situation that bothers me more is when some students with no motivation sit in gifted classes while there are others with a burning desire to achieve who are not getting the resources they could use to excel.

Of course, the combination of preexisting ability and passion is better than either alone (that was Renzulli's important point). But who is to say that passion alone can't eventually create high ability? Again, I can hear the skeptic: "be realistic, Scott-- without the preexisting ability, the person is not going to be motivated to keep it up."

Fair point, but passion isn't always born from ability. Sometimes passion comes from other sources. For instance, many "talented" people have experienced harsh early life experiences that made them decide they were going to be great (see The Pursuit of Happyness). Specific interests also play an important role. There are probably genes that contribute to a person's attraction to particular stimuli, just as there are genes that contribute to sexual attraction. This special combination of passion and interest in a particular domain can be quite a potent driver of ability. Certainly more important than many people realize. Preexisting ability doesn't always drive passion.

Research does in fact show that both passion and interest predict later success independent of ability. Angela Duckworth and her colleagues have shown that "grit" (passion and perseverance for long-term goals) predicts outcomes such as educational attainment, GPA, class retention, and ranking in a National Spelling Bee -- all above and beyond IQ (see here). In a recent review, Kimberley Robertson and her colleagues showed that preexisting abilities do have a strong effect on the likelihood of educational, occupational, and creative outcomes throughout life but independent of that, measures of educational-vocational interest and lifestyle preferences also had a significant effect.

There are important practical implications of this research. Sir Ken Robinson has called for an education revolution, one in which we custom-tailor education to people's passions, interests, and imagination rather than their preexisting abilities. I agree with the spirit of this wholeheartedly, but there are baby steps we can start taking right now. Really easy things, in fact.

If a child approaches a gifted education teacher and wants to be given a chance, and the teacher sees that look in the child's eyes (come on, you know the look) that screams, "I want it, I want it bad", then let that kid in. Forget the rules!

I'm not saying we need to change the rules. Keep the definitions of giftedness we currently have (at least for now -- until the revolution comes). But schools could so easily add a short questionnaire that assesses the extent to which a student has passion, grit, or even an obsession for something culturally valuable. What if we gave all those who score in the top 3-5 percent on a measure of passion the same resources we give the students with preexisting abilities?

Sure, it's possible that that person won't eventually show high ability. But then again, it's also possible that the child will prove everyone wrong. Who knows? Herbert A. Simon, K. Anders Ericsson, and others have demonstrated how acquired expertise can trump preexisting ability across a number of different domains. Building expertise allows us to build mental structures over preexisting proclivities, thereby allowing us to compensate for weaknesses and build strengths (remember Sternberg's definition of intelligence?).

So again I ask: Why don't we view passion and interest as gifts? I think it's hard for many of us to imagine that a person can become gifted; we are seduced by the idea that people are gifted now or they will never be. I say let's grow some cajones and take a chance on those with passion and interest. Let's see what happens. We might be pleasantly surprised.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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