Sally M. Reis
Professor, Educational Psychology
Neag School of Education
University of Connecticut
President, The National Association of Gifted Children
The United States of America
What are the turning points in the education of gifted and talented students in this century? We begin a new century and it is appropriate to reflect on the extraordinary changes and advances witnessed in the last several decades in our field. Consensus on the turning points of the past century may be difficult to reach, but I am pleased to have an opportunity to offer one perspective while acknowledging that this perspective is filtered through an American lens and the perspective of someone who has spent the majority of her professional life in this area. The first and most important turning point is our understanding of the multidimensionality of giftedness.
In the past century, we have come to understand that gifted learners are not a homogeneous group. To the contrary, they are many, varied, and unique. A thorough review of the research on gifted and talented learners indicates that the gifts and talents among the gifted vary widely. For the first several decades of this century, psychometricians and psychologists, following in the footsteps of Lewis Terman in 1916, equated giftedness with high IQ. Some of this “legacy” survives to the present day, as giftedness and high IQ continue to be equated in some conceptions of giftedness. Since that early time, however, other researchers (e.g., Cattell, Guilford, and Thurstone) have argued that intellect cannot be expressed in such a unitary manner, and suggested more multifaceted approaches to intelligence (Wallace & Pierce, 1992). Research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s has provided data that support notions of multiple components to intelligence. This is particularly evident in the reexamination of “giftedness” by Sternberg and Davidson (1986) in their edited Conceptions of Giftedness. The different conceptions of giftedness presented although distinct, are interrelated in several ways. Most of the investigators define giftedness in terms of multiple qualities, not all of which are intellectual. IQ scores are often viewed as inadequate measures of giftedness. Motivation, high self-concept, and creativity are key qualities in many of these broadened conceptions of giftedness (Siegler & Kotovsky, 1986).
Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences (MI) and Joseph Renzulli’s (1978) “three ring” definition of gifted behavior serve as precise examples of multifaceted, expanding and scholarly conceptualizations of intelligence and giftedness. Gardner’s (1983) definition of an intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings. Within his MI theory, he articulates eight specific intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist. Gardner believes that people are much more comfortable using the term “talents” and that “intelligence” is generally reserved to describe linguistic or logical “smartness”; however, he does not believe that certain human abilities should arbitrarily qualify as “intelligence” over others (e.g., language as an intelligence vs. dance as a talent) (Gardner, 1993).
Renzulli’s (1978) definition, defining gifted behaviors rather than gifted individuals, is composed of three components as follows:
The United States federal government also subscribed to a multifaceted approach to giftedness as early as 1972 when a national report was issued called the Marland Report. The Marland, or “U.S. Department of Education,” definition has dominated most states’ definitions of giftedness and talent (Passow & Rudnitski, 1993). The most recent federal definition was cited in the most recent national report on the state of gifted and talented education:
Though many school districts adopt this or other broad definitions as their philosophy, others still only pay attention to “intellectual” ability when both identifying and serving students. And, even though many psychologists and educators recognize broadened definitions of giftedness and intelligence, many students with gifts and talents are unrecognized and underserved.
Conceptions of Schoolhouse vs Creative Productive Giftedness
A discussion of “high intellectual ability or potential” and “high creative ability or potential” is presented in two separate sections because existing research and discussion often identify two broad categories, which Renzulli (1986) appropriately referred to as either “schoolhouse giftedness” and/or “creative/productive giftedness.” Schoolhouse giftedness refers to test-taking, lesson-learning, or academic giftedness, and individuals who fall into this category generally score well on more traditional intellectual or cognitive assessments and perform well in school. Creative/productive giftedness, on the other hand, is reflected in individuals who tend to be producers (rather than consumers) of original knowledge, materials, or products and who employ thought processes that tend to be inductive, integrated, and problem oriented. Results of a recent longitudinal study provide research that supports Renzulli’s distinction between schoolhouse giftedness and creative/productive giftedness. Perleth, Sierwald, and Heller (1993), in their Munich Longitudinal Study of Giftedness (1985-1989) focusing on a large number of secondary students, found clear differences between students who demonstrated creative/productive as opposed to schoolhouse giftedness. Renzulli believes that both types of giftedness should be developed and that an interaction exists between them (Renzulli, 1986). This dichotomy provides a departure from previous conceptions of giftedness and a focus on the need to develop creativity as a form of giftedness.
In the recently released federal report on the status of education for our nation’s most talented students entitled National Excellence, A Case for Developing America’s Talent (U.S. Department of Education, 1993), a quiet crisis is described in the education of talented students in the United States. The report indicates the absence of attention paid to this population and the absence of challenge that confronts them: “Despite sporadic attention over the years to the needs of bright students, most of them continue to spend time in school working well below their capabilities. The belief espoused in school reform that children from all economic and cultural backgrounds must reach their full potential has not been extended to America’s most talented students. They are underchallenged and therefore underachieve” (p. 5). The report further indicates that our nation’s talented students are offered a less rigorous curriculum, read fewer demanding books, and are less prepared for work or postsecondary education than top students in many other industrialized countries. Talented children from economically disadvantaged homes or from culturally or linguistically diverse groups are especially neglected, the report also indicates, and many of them will not realize their potential without some type of intervention.
Boredom and Repetition in School
In the last twenty-five years, American textbook publishers have been accused of “dumbing down” textbooks. In 1982, for example Kirst (l982) indicated that a sample of U.S. publishers agreed that their textbooks had dropped two grade levels in difficulty during the last 10 to 15 years. And, according to Kirst, when California educators tried to find textbooks that would challenge the top one-third of their students, no publisher had a book to present for adoption, and suggested instead, the reissuing of textbooks from the late sixties. The term, “dumbing down of textbooks” was used in 1984 by Terrell Bell, the Secretary of Education during Reagan’s first term, as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the well known national report that was extremely critical of our American schools and provided the impetus for most current educational reform initiatives. However, the problem with the use of easier textbooks did not begin in 1984. A thorough examination (Reis & Westberg, 1994) of the dumbing down problems with textbooks found that the trend towards easier materials began in the 1920s when the vocabulary began to decrease because more children of immigrants and the poor began entering schools. Fewer and fewer new words were introduced in textbooks and the words that were introduced were repeated more and more often to meet the needs of a changing population. This trend continued in the 1930s through the 1950s in both reading and social studies. Chall repeatedly questioned the practice of using reading textbooks that were too easy because they were matched to students’ grade placement, but not their reading levels as the problems of less challenging textbooks continued (Chall & Conard, 1991). Chall and Conard further documented that the trend to using less challenging content continued through the end of the century.
Classroom Practices for High Ability Students in Classrooms in The United States
Recently, three studies conducted by the University of Connecticut site of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented have analyzed what occurs in American classrooms for high ability students and the results portray a disturbing pattern. The Classroom Practices Survey (Archambault et al., 1993) was conducted to determine the extent to which gifted and talented students receive differentiated education in regular classrooms. Approximately 7,300 third and fourth grade teachers in public and private schools in the United States were randomly selected to participate in this research and over 51% of this national sample of classroom teachers responded to the survey. Sixty-one percent of public school teachers and 54% of private school teachers reported that they had never had any training in teaching gifted students. The major finding of this study is that classroom teachers make only minor modifications in the regular curriculum to meet the needs of gifted students. This result was consistent for all types of schools sampled and for classrooms in various parts of the country and for various types of communities.
The Classroom Practices Observational Study (Westberg, et al., 1993) examined the instructional and curricular practices used with gifted and talented students in regular elementary classrooms throughout the United States. Systematic observations were conducted in 46 third or fourth grade classrooms. The observations were designed to determine if and how classroom teachers meet the needs of gifted students in the regular classroom. Two students, one high ability student and one average ability student, were selected as target students for each observation day and the types and frequencies of instruction that both students receive through modifications in curricular activities, materials, and teacher-student verbal interactions were documented by trained observers. The results indicated little differentiation in the instructional and curricular practices, including grouping arrangements and verbal interactions, for gifted students in the regular classroom. In all content areas in 92 observation days, gifted students rarely received instruction in homogeneous groups (only 21% of the time), and more alarmingly, the target gifted students experienced no instructional or curricular differentiation in 84% of the instructional activities in which they participated. The daily summaries of these observations completed by the trained observers were also examined. The most dominant theme in this content analysis involved the use of identical practices for all targeted students. For example, phrases such as “no purposeful differentiation” appeared on 51 of the 92 daily summaries. Anecdotal summaries such as the following provided poignant glimpses into the daily experiences of high ability students: “It should be noted that the targeted gifted student was inattentive during all of her classes. She appeared to be sleepy, never volunteered, and was visibly unenthusiastic about all activities. No attempt was made to direct higher order thinking skills questions to her or to engage her in more challenging work.She never acted out in any way.”
A third study, The Curriculum Compacting Study (Reis, et al., l993) examined the effects of using a plan called curriculum compacting (Reis, Burns & Renzulli, 1992) to modify the curriculum and eliminate previously mastered work for high ability students. The work that is eliminated is content that is repeated from previous textbooks or content that may be new in the curriculum but that some students already know. Four hundred and thirty-six teachers participated in this study as did 783 students. Students took the next chronological grade level Iowa Test of Basic Skills in both October and May. When classroom teachers in the group eliminated between 40-50% of the previously mastered regular curriculum for high ability students, no differences were found between students whose work was compacted and students who did all the work in reading, math computation, social studies and spelling. In science and math concepts, students whose curriculum was compacted scored significantly higher than their counterparts in the control group. Accordingly teachers could eliminate as much as 40-50% of material without detrimental effects to achievement scores. And in some content areas, scores were actually higher when this elimination of previous mastered content took place!
The Ramifications of the Lack of Challenge for Gifted Students
Three ramifications clearly exist for gifted students in our nation’s schools. First, they are clearly underchallenged and therefore, their development is delayed or may even be halted. If instructional materials are not above the students’ level of knowledge or understanding, learning is less efficient and intellectual growth may stop. It is, for example, not surprising to find a very talented first grader in a urban school who reads on a fifth grade level who is reading only slightly above grade level when he/she enters fifth grade. Second, too many of our brightest students never learn to work and consequently, acquire poor work habits. In a recent study (Reis, Hébert, Díaz, Maxfield & Rattley, 1995) conducted on 35 high ability urban students who underachieve in school, students have provided insight into why they are doing poorly in high school, blaming an elementary school program that is too easy. One students’ comment is representative of the attitude of the majority of students involved in the study: “Elementary school was fun. I always got As on my report card. I never studied when we were in class and I never had to study at home.”
The problem of not learning to work does not, however, exist only in urban areas or in America alone, and it seems to be an area of increasing importance in education of gifted and talented students.
Unfortunately, the majority of young people participating in gifted and talented programs across the country continue to represent the majority culture. Few doubts exist regarding the reasons that economically disadvantaged and other minority group students are underrepresented in gifted programs. For example, Frasier and Passow (1994) indicate that identification and selection procedures may be ineffective and inappropriate for the identification of these young people. They also indicate that limited referrals and nominations of students who are minorities or from other disadvantaged groups affect their eventual placement in programs. Test bias and inappropriateness have been mentioned as a reason as the continued reliance on traditional identification approaches. Groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs could be better served, according to Frasier and Passow (1994), if the following elements are considered: new constructs of giftedness, attention to cultural and contextual variability, the use of more varied and authentic assessment, performance identification, identification through learning opportunities, and attention to both absolute attributes of giftedness, the traits, aptitudes, and behaviors universally associated with talent as well as the specific behaviors that represent different manifestations of gifted potential and performance as a consequence of the social and cultural contexts in which they occur (p. xvii).
In addition to students from economically disadvantaged populations, various minority and cultural groups, as well as gifted students with various disabilities such as learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, and physical handicaps. Another group of students who are traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs are females who have potential in mathematics and science, as well as gifted females who achieve in school but later underachieve in life (Reis, 1987; 1998). Special programs, strategies, and identification procedures have been suggested for many of these groups, however, much progress still remains to be made to achieve equity for these underrepresented groups.
Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Gifted and Talented Learners
The decade of the eighties was marked by an increasing interest in the atypical gifted who are described generally as consisting of ethnic, racial, and linguistic minorities, the economically disadvantaged, gifted females, gifted underachievers, and the gifted/disabled. In these populations, the identification of giftedness may be masked by other characteristics and prejudices (Bireley, Languis, & Williamson, 1992). During the last two decades, researchers in the field of gifted education have increasingly turned their attention to the underrepresentation of some populations in gifted programs such as those mentioned above. Ethnic, racial, and linguistic minorities have also been targeted by federal and state policies. For example, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act of 1988 established that “outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor” (U.S. Department of Education, 1993, p. 26).
The pervasive disparity in the proportion of culturally and linguistically diverse (e.g., limited English proficient (LEP), bilingual, English as a Second Language) students identified and served in programs for the gifted is the major concern of several researchers and educators in gifted education (Kloosterman, 1997; Maker, 1983; Mitchell, 1988). The primary reason cited for their underrepresentation is the absence of adequate assessment procedures and programming efforts (Frasier, García, & Passow, 1995; Frasier & Passow, 1994; Kitano & Espinosa, 1995). The United States Department of Education (1993) report, National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent, states that “special efforts are required to overcome the barriers to achievement that many economically disadvantaged and minority students face” (p. 28). Various sections in this report also address the need to identify talents in youngsters of different socioeconomic and cultural background. In this regard, although several efforts have been made in the last decade to overcome these limitations, school districts and individuals still find themselves lacking systematic research support to design and implement a more equitable system of identifying these students. However, careful attention needs to be devoted to the relevance of the current checklists of traits and characteristics leading to the identification of advanced students. For instance, teacher judgment poses difficulties in referring and identifying culturally and linguistically diverse students due to negative teacher attitudes, resistance, and/or unsatisfactory knowledge of the manifestations of giftedness in these students. It is crucial that educators hold positive and high expectations towards their bilingual/LEP and culturally diverse students and become aware of the family culture, which may differ greatly from majority families. It is also critical that unique characteristics of each population be included as a part of the identification process.
Recently, researchers at The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented completed a three-year study of 35 economically disadvantaged, ethnically diverse, talented high school students who either achieved or underachieved in their urban high school (Reis, Hébert, Díaz, Rattley, & Maxfield, 1995). Qualitative methods were used and a number of common personal characteristics were found to be exhibited by the participants in this study including: motivation and inner will, positive use of problem solving, independence, realistic aspirations, heightened sensitivity to each other and the world around them, and appreciation of cultural diversity. A determination to succeed was consistently echoed by most of the participants in this study, despite what could be considered prejudice leveled against them. Rosa, one of the participants in the study, said that she had experienced various types of prejudice in her community, and occasionally in academic experiences, and she believed that she experienced prejudice because she is both intelligent and Puerto Rican. This prejudice occurred in school, coming from teachers as well as students, and in the summer programs she participated in for high achieving students-which were held at some of the most prestigious private schools in the state. She explained, “I know that people will occasionally look at me and say, when they find out that I’m smart, ‘How can that be? She’s Puerto Rican'” (Reis, et al., 1995, p. 102).
Each of the high achieving participants in this study referred to an internal motivation that kept them driven to succeed in their urban environment. One participant referred to this drive as an “inner will” which contributed to the strong belief in self observed in the participants. Resilience was also exhibited by many of the participants in this study, as the majority came from homes which had been affected by periodic or regular unemployment of one or more parents, poverty, family turmoil caused by issues such as alcohol, drugs, and mental illness, and other problems. All participants also lived in a city plagued by violence, drugs, poverty, and crime. Their school district has often been called one of the worst in the country and had the dubious distinctions of having the state eliminate the local board of education and take over the schools. Despite these challenges, the majority of the high achieving participants in this study developed the resilience necessary to overcome problems associated with their families, their school, and their environment. The courage and resilience they displayed seems remarkable, and yet they simply accepted their circumstances and took advantage of the opportunities given to them.
These culturally diverse gifted students and those who are acquiring English represent a heterogeneous group. According to Kitano and Espinosa (1995), “Their diversity suggests a need for a broad range of programs that provide options for different levels of primary and English language proficiency, different subject-matter interests, and talent areas” (p. 237). These authors call for new strategies for identifying diverse gifted students including, developmental curriculum and enriched programs that “evoke” a gifted student’s potential, broader conceptions of intelligence, alternative definitions of giftedness, and assessment models developed for specific populations.
What factors cause some smart young girls with hopes and dreams to become self-fulfilled talented women in their later lives? For the last two decades educators have speculated on the answers to this question, and while some research has addressed the issue, much more is needed. In this section, several issues related to the characteristics of gifted and talented girls in school are discussed.
Some research (Arnold & Denny, 1993; Bell, 1989; Cramer, 1989; Hany, 1994; Kline & Short, 1991; Kramer, 1991; Leroux, 1988; Perleth & Heller, 1994; Reis, 1987,1998; Reis & Callahan, 1989; Subotnik, 1988) has indicated that gifted females begin to lose self-confidence in elementary school, which continues through college and graduate school; increasingly doubt their intellectual competence; perceive themselves as less capable than they actually are; and believe that boys can rely on innate ability while they themselves must work hard. Talented girls, it is also said, choose more often to work in groups, and are more concerned about teacher reactions, more likely to adapt to adult expectations, and less likely than boys to describe themselves or to be described as autonomous and independent. But some bright girls also use affiliations and their relationships to assess their level of ability, and to achieve at higher levels, and often believe that their grades will be higher if their teachers like them.
Reis (1998) recently completed a comprehensive analysis of gifted females and offered numerous suggestions on how their needs can be better met across the lifespan. She studied research on talented girls’ social and emotional development through elementary and secondary school, concluding that achievement of girls is good in school, but that self-confidence and self-perceived abilities decrease and that achievement in life is lower than males of comparable ability. Some gifted females value their own personal achievements less as they get older, which may indicate that the aging process has a negative impact on both the achievement and the self-confidence of gifted females. Reis (1998) also found however, that as gifted females approach middle to later age, many of the conflicts they faced as young women decrease and they are able to excel.
Gifted Students with Disabilities
Historically, the exceptionality of gifted students with disabilities was mentioned at a national conference on handicapped gifted held in 1976; in 1977 the category “gifted handicapped” was added to ERIC indices (Yewchuk & Bibby, 1989). During the last twenty years, some research has contributed to our understanding of the special needs of these exceptional young children; however, it is still clear that students with disabilities are more often recognized for handicaps, not gifts (Baum, 1990; Schwartz, 1994; Yewchuk & Bibby, 1989). Research about this population is ongoing and will be briefly discussed by specific exceptionality.
Hearing disabled gifted students
Children with hearing impairments were judged by teachers to exhibit similar characteristics of giftedness to hearing peers, except for academic achievement, which may be delayed for four or five years. Yewchuk and Bibby (1989) concluded that “giftedness in both hearing and hearing impaired populations is manifested in similar ways” (p. 48), i.e., in eagerness to learn, visual skills, superior recall, quick understanding, superior reasoning ability, expressive language, etc.
High potential students with cerebral palsy
Willard-Holt (1994) explored the experiences of two talented students who have cerebral palsy who were not able to communicate with speech. Using qualitative cross-case methodology, she found that these students demonstrated the following characteristics of giftedness: advanced academic abilities (especially math and verbal skills), broad knowledge base, quickness of learning and recall, sense of humor, curiosity, insight, desire for independence, use of intellectual skills to cope with disability, and maturity (shown in high motivation, goal orientation, determination, patience, and recognition of their own limitations). Several educational factors contributed to the development of these characteristics in these students such as willingness of the teachers to accommodate for the disabilities, mainstreaming with other students, individualization and opportunities for student choice, and hands-on experiences.
Gifted and talented students with learning disabilities
During the last two decades, increasing attention has been given to the perplexing problem of high ability/talented students who also have learning disabilities. The specific research concerning high ability students with learning disabilities began following the passage of PL 94-142, when the expanded emphasis on the education of students with disabilities created an interest in students who were both gifted and demonstrated learning disabilities. Although the literature has addressed this topic, problems still exist regarding the identification and provision of support services and programs for this population. Research on high ability students with learning disabilities continues to be difficult because of problems in defining each population. The fields of gifted education and education of students with learning disabilities have long been separated by their own definitions of the population to be served (Vaughn, 1989; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1983).
Baum and Owen (1988), in a study of 112 high ability or LD students in grades four through six, used statistical analyses to find that the major characteristic distinguishing high ability/LD students from both LD/average and high ability (non-LD) groups was a heightened sense of inefficacy in school. The high ability/LD students in their study also displayed high levels of creative potential, along with a tendency to behave disruptively and to achieve low levels of academic success. Also, 36% of the students in their study who had been identified as having a learning disability simultaneously demonstrated behaviors associated with giftedness. Baum (1990) later identified four recommendations for gifted students with learning disabilities: encourage compensation strategies, encourage awareness of strengths and weaknesses, focus on developing the child’s gift, and provide an environment that values individual differences.
After a thorough review of the literature on gifted/LD students, Reis, Neu, and McGuire (1995) compiled a list of characteristics of gifted/LD students that may hamper their identification as gifted. These characteristics are the result of the interaction of their high abilities and their learning disabilities. These researchers studied talented college students with learning disabilities who were successful in college, finding that the use of compensatory strategies were necessary for their success and that half of these identified students with learning disabilities experienced social and emotional difficulties because of their uneven pattern of academic strengths and deficits.
Gifted children and ADHD
Children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and gifted children may exhibit similar behaviors (e.g., inattention, high energy level, impulsivity), and there seems to be mounting evidence that many children being identified as having ADHD are also very bright, creative children (Cramond, 1995; Baum, 1990). Recent attention given to this population would indicate that more research is needed to be able to identify how to better identify and program for this population.
Underachieving gifted learners
Student performance that falls noticeably short of potential, especially for young people with high ability, is bewildering and perhaps the most frustrating of all challenges both teachers and parents face. According to a 1990 national needs assessment survey conducted by The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, most educators of gifted identified the problem of underachievement as their number one concern (Renzulli, Reid, & Gubbins, n.d.).
Some students underachieve or fail in school for obvious reasons: excessive absences from school, poor performance, disruptive behavior, low self-esteem, family problems, and poverty. In addition to the risk factors that predict the reasons most students fail, another long-standing problem which causes underachievement in gifted or high potential students is the inappropriate curriculum and content which some of them encounter on a daily basis. The hundreds of hours spent each month in classrooms in which students rarely encounter new or challenging curriculum, the boredom of being assigned routine tasks mastered long ago, the low levels of discussion, and the mismatch of content to students’ ability lead to frustration on the parts of many of our brightest students. In fact, dropping out of school is the only way that some students believe they can address these issues effectively.
Reis & McCoach (2000) identified specific characteristics of gifted underachievers, which may provide helpful insights for educators regarding the performance of some of their students. These characteristics include: high or variable abilities, especially verbal and/or visual/motor; good knowledge, memory and motivation in areas of strength and interest; possible creative talents; low course grades relative to ability; variable scores on standardized achievement tests; preference for non-traditional rewards; poor organization and time management; lack of homework production; and unrealistically low or high self-concept. Reis and McCoach (2000) also provided a comprehensive summary of research on gifted students who underachieve, and summarized the limited interventions studied to address this area.
In the past, the general approach to the study of gifted persons could easily lead the casual reader to believe that giftedness is an absolute condition that is magically bestowed upon a person in much the same way that nature endows us with blue eyes, red hair, or a dark complexion (Renzulli, 1980). This position is not supported by the current research cited in this article. The multiple lists of traits and characteristics-some for girls and some for boys; some for students from the majority culture, others for students from diverse cultural backgrounds indicate the diversity of talents in different populations. For too many years educators have pretended that we can identify THE traits of gifted children in an absolute and unequivocal fashion. Many people have been led to believe that certain individuals have been endowed with a golden chromosome that makes him or her “a gifted person.” This belief has further led to the mistaken idea that all we need to do is find the right combination of traits that prove the existence of this “gift.” The further use of terms such as “the truly gifted,” “the highly gifted,” the “moderately gifted,” and the “borderline gifted” only serve to confound the issue. The misuse of the concept of giftedness has given rise to a great deal of criticism and confusion about both identification and programming, and the result has been that so many mixed messages have been sent to educators and the public at large that both groups now have a justifiable skepticism about the credibility of the gifted education movement and our ability to both define and offer services that are qualitatively different from general education.
Most of the confusion and controversy surrounding characteristics of giftedness can be placed into proper perspective if we examine a few key questions. Do we use specific characteristics of one group of people to identify another group? Are the characteristics of giftedness reflected in high ability Puerto Rican students the same characteristics of giftedness as those demonstrated by above average Mexican students or Chinese students? Are there characteristics common to each group? If so, how are they exhibited? What happens to a child who consistently manifests these characteristics when he/she is in the primary grades but who learns to underachieve in school because of an unchallenging curriculum? What about a gifted child with a learning disability whose disability masks his or her talents? Are characteristics of giftedness static (i.e., you have or you don’t have them) or are they dynamic (i.e., they vary within persons and among learning/performance situations)?
These questions have led us to advocate a fundamental change in the ways the characteristics and traits of giftedness should be viewed in the future. We believe that the characteristics of any advanced learners must be identified within various population groups. That is, we should attempt to identify the characteristics of talented students within each educational context and population. This information should be used to help us differentiate between all students and those who need different levels of service, or a continuum or services (Renzulli, 1994; Renzulli & Reis, 1997) in school to realize their potential. This shift might appear insignificant, but we believe that it has implications for the way that we think about the characteristics of giftedness and the ways in which we should structure our identification and programming endeavors. This change may also provide the flexibility in both identification and programming endeavors that will encourage the inclusion of diverse students in our programs.
Defining our populations, then deciding which services are offered to all students and what is qualitatively necessary for gifted students based on the traits of the population, will help us to develop programs that are internally consistent. At a very minimum, we must understand that giftedness is manifested by different traits in different populations, and we must develop programs that reflect the diversity of talent in our culture.
A Continuum of Services
A broad range of special services is recommended (Renzulli, 1994; Renzulli & Reis, 1997) to meet the needs of the a program for total talent development that challenge students who are capable of working at the highest levels of their abilities and special interest areas. These services may include: individual or small group counseling, direct assistance in facilitating advanced level and accelerated work, arranging mentorships with faculty members or community persons, and making other types of connections between students, their families, and out-of-school persons. Direct assistance also involves setting up and promoting student, faculty and parental involvement in special programs such as Future Problem Solving, the Model United Nations program, and state and national essay, mathematics, and history contests. Another type of direct assistance consists of arranging out-of-school involvement for individual students in summer programs, accelerated learning opportunities, on-campus courses, special schools, theatrical groups, scientific expeditions, and apprenticeships at places where advanced level learning opportunities are available. Provision of these services to students whose learning needs match the service is one of the responsibilities of the gifted program teacher or an enrichment team of teachers and parents who work together to provide options for advanced learning.
Applying “Gifted” Education Pedagogy to Develop Talents in Students
Much that has been learned and developed in gifted programs can be adapted to offer exciting, creative alternatives in instruction and curriculum for all students, understanding that if this were to occur, truly advanced services could be targeted for those who really need them. A rather impressive menu of exciting curricular adaptations, independent study and thinking skill strategies, grouping options, and enrichment strategies have been developed in gifted programs which could be used to improve schools. The Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997) has been field tested and implemented by hundreds of school districts across the country for the last nine years. Experiences with schoolwide enrichment led us to realize that when an effective approach to enrichment is implemented, all students in the school benefit and the entire school begins to improve. This approach seeks to apply strategies used in gifted programs to the entire school population, emphasizing talent development in all students through a variety of acceleration and enrichment strategies that have been discussed earlier. Not all students can, of course, participate in all advanced opportunities but many can work far beyond what they are currently asked to do. It is clear that our most advanced students need different types of educational experiences than they are currently receiving and that without these services, talents may not be nurtured in many students. Gifted and talented students flourish in an environment that nurtures and tries to develop the talents of all children, and the unique needs of gifted students are better served in an environment that seeks to maximize the potential of all students.
We seldom ask how gifted program participants benefit from their experiences, and we rarely ask what else we should have been doing for gifted students who had some program involvement. It is clear that a continuum of services should be made available representing a variety of different approaches, including acceleration, counseling, regular curriculum modification and differentiation, separate classes, and a pull-out or resource room component. Longitudinal studies should also investigate the acquisition of self-regulated, self-directed learning, given the current explosion of knowledge available on the web. We must start to investigate how gifted students can gain access to this information while also learning the skills of synthesis, analysis, and evaluation necessary to understand how to interpret the large body of information they encounter.
The new millennium is causing us to ask questions about every area of our personal and professional lives. The explosion of knowledge has yet to be completely explored in the area of education. If we could imagine a perfect learning situation for every advanced learner, it might include some of the following: opportunities for advancement through the regular curriculum at an appropriately challenging rate and pace; depth and advanced content; independent, self-directed learning challenges; independent study; and varied learning opportunities based on interest, learning styles, product preferences and modality preferences.