Reflecting on a Conversation With Joe Renzulli: About Giftedness and Gifted Education

Reprinted with permission from Belle Wallace, Editor, Gifted Education International.
Originally published at: Knobel, R., & Shaughnessey, M. (2002). Reflecting on a conversation with Joe Renzulli: About giftedness and gifted education. Gifted Education International, 16, 118-126.

Ron Knobel and Michael Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University, School of Education
Portales, New Mexico, USA

The following article compiled by the writers records the main points of a reflective conversation with Professor Joe Renzulli. The compilers explore the key ideas which have fired and motivated Joe Renzulli’s focused and long, term exploration with regard to the needs of pupils, teachers, parents a administrators in the field of ‘Gifted Education’.

Joe Renzulli is one of the foremost leaders in the field of gifted education. He currently is at the University of Connecticut and lectures and writes extensively in the field of gifted identification and assessment. In this interview his discusses his current research and reflects on the field of education of the gifted. He is most well known for his three-ring conception of giftedness.

1. What are you currently working on writing/researching?
I’m at the beginning of a whole series of research studies on the background factors in which the three-ring conception of giftedness (above average ability, task commitment, creativity) is embedded. When I first developed the three-ring conception I knew that there were many things that gave rise to that conception of giftedness, those things being personality and environment. I made the background a hound’s tooth pat rather than its original form, which was checkerboard square, because there re a, tremendous amount of interaction between and among these factors. I am now beginning, with a number of my colleagues, to design some studies that take a look at those factors, the kinds of intangibles that are often at times, difficult to study in a scientific way, although we are pursuing our research using the most rigorous design possible. Some of the factors we are looking at are: optimism, courage, sense of power to change things, charisma, sense of destiny, physical and mental energy, and the ability to develop a romance with a discipline or field of inquiry. These are the things we find in people who have changed the world—people like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and people like Rachel Carson, whose marvelous book leads to the doing away with the use of chemicals that were devastating our environment. These people had gifts and talents that we should be examining and promoting in the young people we serve in special programs.

We’re calling our studies in this area Operation Houndstooth, and we have found that there’s been a tremendous amount of interest in this work, among both people in the gifted field and people interested in the generals of leadership training, social and emotional development, and character development. The study is proceeding in two phases, the first phase is figuring out better ways to identify potential for some of those characteristics that I mentioned above; defining and measuring key factors, and looking at what the research has already revealed. Some areas like optimism have been well researched; other areas (e.g., hope and sense of destiny) haven’t been studied too extensively. The second phase of this work will consist of intervention studies in which we examine the effectiveness of various ways of promoting the Houndstooth characteristics in young people. Interested persons can learn more about this work (and even participate if they would like) by checking out our web site [].

I’m also working on a new general theory that attempts to integrate learning theory; instructional or curricular theory, and the role that technology should play in learning… but it’s too early to talk about this right now.

As far as the National Research Center is concerned, we are looking at a number of different studies dealing with underachieving gifted students and ways to improve the school performance of at-risk student populations who have high potential. One of the biggest areas of frustration in the gifted field is bright kids who don’t achieve, and so we are using different interventions or experimental treatments to see how we can turn around underachievement and low performance. We’re taking a hardcore look at the differences between majority and minority groups. One of our studies, under the direction of Sally Reis and jean Gubbins, is looking at urban, mainly minority, students. We want to find out what does or does not contribute to success in reading and how we can help them become more successful readers. Bob Sternberg is working on how his theory of intelligence applies to young people from diverse backgrounds, and Carolyn Callahan is working on the impact of various programmatic approaches to improved performance in diverse gifted populations. So those are some of the major things that are going on here.

2. What do you see as your biggest contribution over the past 10, 20 years?
On the theoretical side, I would say it is the Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, the Enrichment Triad Model, and the Multiple Menu Model for developing Differentiated Curriculum, which someone kindly referred to as the only curricular theory in the field. On the practical side, I would say that it is all the instruments, instructional materials, teacher training procedures, and implementation guides that make the theoretical parts of my work easy to implement. On the leadership side, the most important contribution is unquestionably our University of Connecticut’s summer Confratute Program, which has enrolled almost 18,000 people from all over the world during the last 24 years. Other major leadership activities include directing the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented since 1990. The NRC/GT has truly served as a vehicle for developing a community of scholars in our field, and on a personal note, it has been my honor and privilege to work with so many competent and committed scholars. I would include in this group more than 50 doctoral students with whom I have worked over the years, many of whom have gone on to be leading contributors to the field and who continue to remain my closest friends. I’m also proud of establishing the Three Summers Masters Program at our university and the UConn Mentor Connection, a unique summer program for high school students. Information about these various programs can be found at the web site mentioned above.

3. What is currently lacking in gifted education?
Governmental commitments, including financial support, high quality teacher training and leadership training programs, strong leadership at state and provincial education ministry levels, and an ever-emerging strong research foundation upon which to base identification and programming practices. This last need is especially important if we are to gain the respect and political support of governments and funding agencies. Unfortunately, our field has been the victim of endless unsubstantiated practices-oftentimes perpetrated by self-proclaimed experts who have not taken the time to verify through research what they are recommending. If this happened in medicine, most of us would be dead! Sometimes these people posture themselves as overlooked gifted children, and they gain attention by being seductive storytellers who pander to the vulnerabilities of parents desperately seeking solutions for their children. But if you ask the following tough questions you may find that there are no good answers: Show me your research? Point to a hundred programs that use your ideas? Do you have follow-up data on students served by your approach (not just the one or two in your seductive story)? Is there a respectable theoretical rational and research base for your ideas?

I believe that all ideas are potentially good ones and that everybody’s opinion is valuable, but in the long run if we don’t take the time to verify what we stand for, and in so doing, create a solid research base, we’re likely to fall for anything. Limited research makes us vulnerable to the large anti-gifted establishment that is always looking for ways to run us out of business. I also think that for a field to survive and gain respect it must have trained practitioners who can deliver a good product in schools and classrooms and who can make defensible arguments to policy makers.

4. How can we best train teachers to teach gifted children?
That’s a difficult one to answer in a short period of time. But, I certainly believe that giving people that are interested in being teachers of the gifted more than just classroom courses! And now, of course, some people are getting most of their training on line. These experiences should be supplemented by working in a variety of gifted program situations with people who are successful master teachers of the gifted. One of the things that we pride ourselves on in our teacher training program is the internship component through which we put our students with people who we know are first-rate, successful teachers of the gifted. I also believe that careful selection is important when selecting candidates for training programs (as well as for teaching positions). We use an interest assessment instrument for prospective students that focuses on characteristics that are not unlike the things we look for when selecting students for gifted programs. This instrument helps us see if that “creative sparkle” necessary to inspire kids is there and if the candidate has, himself or herself, done things that reflect advanced learning, high motivation, leadership, and creativity.

5. What influence, if any, has inclusion and mainstreaming had on gifted education?
This is a difficult question to generalize about; I think that when all is said and done that a good job can be done in regular classrooms up to a given point. Beyond that, however, because regular classroom teachers have many students and a broad spectrum of needs to deal with, a broad spectrum of abilities, they can’t easily go above and beyond the prescribed curriculum or speed up the pace of instruction for rapid learning students.

The kinds of individual work, especially the type that I have defined in my work as Type Three Enrichment, can only happen when there is a specialist available that knows how to guide or facilitate those kinds of activities. Type Three Enrichment is the highest level of involvement that a gifted program can provide and this can’t be done easily by a regular classroom teacher who may not have the training and is dealing with large numbers and diverse needs. Regular classroom teachers can learn to do it, and I’ve seen some of them do it as good or better than trained G/T specialist, it’s just that the range of demands brought upon regular classroom teachers makes it difficult, and in some cases, impossible for them to be able to do the kind of facilitatation necessary.

6. As we enter the new millennium, what do you see as the crucial issue in gifted education?
Believe it or not, I see one of the most crucial issues as trying to get better information about defensible programs, and practices programs out to the general public and especially to policy makers. There are so many demands being made on the education system that it is easy to think that gifted students “can make it on their own.” What has always fascinated me is that the policy makers who argue for inclusion, little or no special services, and even criticize gifted education initiatives are often persons who send their own children to private schools.

Another crucial issue is the need for an integrated continuum of special services rather than thinking that a single approach (acceleration, enrichment in the regular classroom, pull out programs, special classes, etc.) is the one “right” way. Lately, an overwhelming number of educators have bought into the concept of “differentiation.” This is a sound concept for general education, and even some gifted education advocates are saying that within-classroom differentiation is going to take care of our most able students. This belief is nonsense. I have lived through several iterations of the “we-can-take-care-of-gifted-students-in-the-regular classroom,” and it always ends up being a smoke screen behind which bright kids get a few extra assignments and more work based on traditional (didactic) models of learning. Without specialized personnel and differentiated learning models, we will seriously under-serve gifted students.

Two other issues are crucial. First, we need to find better ways to include underrepresented groups in special programs, and this includes females and students who learn in different ways as well as students from racial and ethnic minorities. Second, we need to do some well-designed research on the most effective ways to use the new and emerging technology. Gifted education should take the lead in this regard—otherwise we might end up using the vast resources of the Internet as one, big electronic encyclopedia.

7. How has the World Wide Web affected gifted children?
I see a lot of much more advanced kinds of resources being brought to bear on kids’ work as a result of the Web. Believe me I’m not one of these kinds of persons that think that computers and the Web will save us. However, the more that I get around to schools, and these are mostly schools where we’re doing research, the more I see that kids needs to have a facility to get information that is what I sometimes call “needed information”. One of problems with general education is that we teach everybody the same thing, at the same time, usually at the same pace. But, information on an “as needed basis” really makes for fairly outstanding and very authentic scientific work, literary work, artistic work, and creative productivity. And by being able to access this through the Web, young people are going beyond the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge—the teacher and textbook. This access literally opens up the floodgates to advanced knowledge and is already resulting in higher levels of student productivity.

8. How can we best help gifted girls to succeed?
This is not an area that is a specialty of mine. Sally Reis, who also happens to be my wife, has among others done some outstanding work in that area. And so I’m going to skip that question with a possible exception of pointing out that there are so many societal issues related to this question that we’re going to have to make some major changes in society—starting with teachers. The ways in which bright young women are viewed and the way that they view themselves is going to have to be reexamined before we will see major improvements, especially in cultures that are still a long way from some of the advancements taking place in Western countries. And males need to change the most if we are ever to achieve gender equity.

9. What do you see as the qualities of a good mentor and a good mentoring program?
The major quality of good mentor is that they are first and foremost very expert in the topic. I’ve seen mentor programs that randomly assign adults to children, regardless of specialization or commonality of interest. In many cases, this approach bastardizes the concept of mentoring in favor of providing “homework helpers!”

We operate a program at the University of Connecticut; I should have probably added this to the list of my accomplishments that I feel are really important. It’s called the Yukon Mentor Connection. And in this program young people come to work with somebody in their area Of interest on first-hand research. Cutting edge scientists have these young people side-by-side with them almost like research assistants, as in some cases, they’re closer to graduate students than they are to high school students or even under-graduates. I think that the match up of kids who absolutely love something related to, lets say, bio-technology with a person that’s doing research, not just teaching them bio-technology as they would in a class or out of a text book or even tutoring them; but rather working on a research project, where the kid is side-by-side, running samples, doing experiments, and things like that. I think the second thing is, we follow this advice in the selection, it has to be people that want to work with young people. A lot of people that are very expert in an area would prefer to work alone or else they would prefer to work only with other adults. And I think we found that there are some people who absolutely adore working with what they hope will be the next generation. All people that are very committed to an area are proselytizers, they want the next generation to love and adore their subject, or topic, or research. And so I think that this is the other part of it, the affective part, that is so important. Those two characteristics are to me what make a good mentor, and a good mentoring program. I think that there has to be a lot of opportunity for give-and-take both between the mentor, and the young people that she or he is working with; and also between the people who are working in different areas so they can exchange ideas with one another, and this interaction we also build into our Mentor Connection Program.

10. How do gifted students learning styles differ form non-gifted students learning styles?
There has been a small amount of research on this topic—not as much as can or should be done, but the main findings have been that gifted students prefer less structured kinds of learning experiences—projects, independent investigations, simulations, and dramatizations. But, as is always the case, we must be careful about over generalizing. We have found that some highly gifted students prefer more structured activities such as lectures and computer assisted instruction. A golden rule is that we should always look at each student individually. We should also expose students to varying styles of instruction so that they may learn appreciation for other styles, or at least help to develop the meta-cognitive skills that allow them to capitalize on their strongest styles.

11. Have you found that gifted students have a preferred cognitive information processing style? Is it sequential or simultaneous?
I haven’t done any research on this topic myself but interested persons might want to take a look at the very excellent work on thinking styles conducted by Bob Sternberg.

12. Have you found that gifted students have a field-dependent or field-independent perception of their environment?
I’m not aware of any work that has been done in this area so far as gifted students are concerned. It’s probably better to ask someone else about this topic.

13. Would you please describe your Learning Styles Inventory? Will the instrument distinguish between gifted and non-gifted students?
The Learning Styles Inventory is part of a series of instruments for assessing strengths; it also includes several Interest-A-Lyzers (for various age levels and subject areas), and some relatively new work that assesses expression style preferences. All the instruments have been developed through research techniques that utilize factor analytic methodology—a procedure that enables us to look at thousands of student protocols for patterns that allow us to form factors. The factors are used to prepare profiles for individual students.

The LSI asks questions about students’ preferences for various instructional techniques. The patterns (factors) in the LSI range from highly structured preferences (Recitation and Drill, Lecture, etc.) to less structured preferences (e.g., Projects, Problem Based Activities, Independent Investigations). As indicated above, research has shown that higher ability students lean in the direction of less structured instructional preferences.

14. Will your Learning Styles Test Inventory work for ages k-8, 9-12, college age students and individuals above age 30?
I don’t know. Some people have used it with adults, but as a researcher I can only answer by saying that this is a research question. I am certain that a good study with 30+ persons would have to include information about non-school learning environments. I have a friend who is a specialist in adult learning, so I will kick the idea around with him.

15. What still needs to be researched in gifted education?
One thing that needs to be researched is the effectiveness of various delivery systems for various populations. We’ve had a hard time getting more gifted programs into areas where there are at-risk students, and sometimes we’ve taken programs into those areas that are based on models of learning and gifted program practices that have been successful in mostly middle class suburban communities. I think that there are certain commonalities to all learning, but there are also different kinds of environmental influences that interact with learning. I don’t think that you can take a program out of an affluent suburb and plunk it down into a hardcore urban area or a rural poor area for that matter, and say, “Here, it is. This is what you need to develop high performance in your potentially gifted kids.” And so I think that that kind of research needs to be done. Studies that examine the cultural strengths, environmental and family influences, and social and emotional factors will help us understand how to better serve diverse populations.

I think that we need to look at some of those intangible characteristics that I mentioned earlier when I was talking about Operation Houndstooth. We know that these are important contributors to the success of persons of great accomplishment and creative productivity so we need to know how to better identify persons with these potentials and how to develop them in young people. I have described the Houndstooth factors as “those things that are left over after everything explainable has been explained.” We need to be able to learn more about why young people with great test scores, wonderful grade point averages, and the best advantages don’t go out and do the kinds of things that result in contributions to social improvement. And we need to learn how young people can balance the pursuit of material and intellectual capital with a concern for contributions to social capital—the kinds of things we do to improve society in general rather than focusing on material gain, ego enhancement, rampant consumerism, and devastation of the Earth’s resources. To me, this would be the most noble goal and contribution of gifted education.

16. Motivation is a key aspect of your three-ring model. How do we accurately assess motivation and maintain it?
A very good question. Motivation must be looked at within context. I’m not motivated, for example, to do a research project just by sitting here. I get interested in something because of exposure to a new or interesting topic. That’s why I built the Type I dimension into the Enrichment Triad Model. As I become more involved in the project, it takes on a life of its own, and that creates the motivation, or what I have called Task Commitment. The psychologist, Gordon Allport, called this functional autonomy – a project creates its own energy, as it were, between the person and the work to be done. We often confuse motivation in young people with simply getting good grades. Motivation to get good grades is a good thing. But the kind of motivation that I talk about in the three-ring conception (i.e., Task Commitment), this is something that always occurs within a context. You have to get into it by personalizing the problem or task, and you have to get involved with it, and then you’re either going to quit or else you’re going to keep on working. Your work ethic is going to increase because you are really heavily involved within the problem area and within the context of the problem. Our research has shown that, while motivation is a general construct, like being motivated to be a good student Task Commitment is always developed and heightened within the context of a real and present problem for a particular student. That’s why I view Type III Enrichment as an essential service in a gifted program.

17. Are teachers really prepared and trained to engage in enrichment activities?
Some are and some aren’t. We need to be more precise about what we call enrichment teaching and learning when we work with teachers. We also have to guard against the fact that many education systems are becoming more prescriptive. The whole issue of prescribed standards and high stakes testing in a lot of ways is squeezing good enrichment out of the curriculum. So therefore, it is very important that we not only look at teachers (there are a lot of great teachers out there), but they often work within a system that in many cases doesn’t allow them to do enrichment teaching. One teacher recently told me that her job should be defined as a “test-prep and textbook administrator!” We need to look within the systems’ requirements that are placed on teachers and we have got to change these requirements so that there is greater balance between knowledge acquisition and creative productivity. You can’t teach a teacher how to do several great enrichment activities and then they walk into a school that’s using a very prescribed method that scripts the lesson for the teachers.

18. What do you see as the most important social/emotional concerns of gifted children?
This is not an area that I am especially an expert at. There are other people who have certainly done more work in that area than I have. Maybe five years from now I might know a little bit more because we are taking a look at some of these things in Operation Houndstooth.

19. What are your feelings about the current standardized I.Q. tests?
I’ve always said that IQ tests tell us something. But they don’t begin to tell us everything, and in some cases they may not even be telling us what is most important about a young person’s potential. The kinds of things that result in extremely high levels of creative productivity on the parts of young people and adults, come from combinations of characteristics which I’ve tried to summarize in the Three Ring Conception of Giftedness and others such as Howard Gardner have summarized in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. I’d much rather have a portfolio; several samples of work that a person has already done to both estimate potential, and to develop relevant experiences that further that potential. My colleagues and I have developed a vehicle called The Total Talent Portfolio, and we use it for these purposes. The Total Talent Portfolio looks at youngster’s abilities, interests, and learning style in terms of both assessment instruments and work already completed. When I say abilities I do not mean just information that comes from tests or grade point averages. If you have someone coming into your office for a job as a journalist or a photographer, or an editor, you want to see some examples of their work, you don’t want to just to look at their diplomas. That is why the concept of a talent portfolio is so prominent in our work.

20. What question have I neglected to ask?
I think you did a good job; you’ve certainly covered the most important issues facing the field today. People oftentimes ask me what do I think is the future of gifted education, or do we have a future? I believe that the best way to predict the future is to create it. If we have people that are working at all levels: practitioners, administrators, coordinators, state and ministry officials, teacher trainers, active parents and professional advocates, and university researchers, then people in government will see the value of devoting resources to gifted education. A concerted effort on the part of people in many different roles is how we get good work done. And good work leads to public acceptance which, in turn, leads to financial support. I also believe that we need lots and lots of people who are involved full-time or who are mostly full-time in gifted education. You can’t make and sustain a movement if we only have people who are temporarily or peripherally involved. When people ask me what is the most important goal of gifted education, my answer is always the same: There should be a full-time gifted education specialist in every school in the nation. When that happens in our country and the other countries of the world, gifted education will be able to achieve its potential as a major force in the improvement all aspects of the human condition; and the gifted children of the world will have the opportunity to contribute their talents to these improvements.

I view all of our work in this field as a war against the forces of mediocrity, conformity, and the societal institutions that knowingly or unknowingly contribute to the suppression of creativity, social justice, and the liberation of the human mind and spirit. I view myself as a soldier in this war, and there are still many battles to be fought before we achieve the equity that gifted youngsters need and deserve.