One of the first questions asked by parents and teachers learning about gifted children is, “What is gifted?” We all know what a “gift” is, but why is this term used, in some cases, specifically for accelerated learners, in other cases, specifically for high test scorers, and in other cases, for any child who shows an unusual talent? And is this something we’re born with, or something that’s created, or a little of both?
According to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), gifted children are defined by the federal government as “students who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”
Each state either has its own specific definition of gifted, or none at all.
Traditionally, “gifted” was seen as a genetic endowment. In the times of eugenics, there was a strong view that one’s genes determined pretty much everything.
In recent years, our understanding of the brain’s development has led to questions about what propels one student to A’s and another C’s, or one scientist to the Nobel Prize and another to languishing in an undistinguished university program.
One answer is clear: it’s not simply achievement on the present set of I.Q. tests. Experts watching the lives of those who score well on I.Q. tests note that the test itself is no indicator of life success, or much else. Instead, success — depending on how it’s defined — may involve a combination of a functionally high I.Q. with other talents and abilities.
“I look at intelligence as an integrated faculty,” explains writer David Albert, who became interested in the basis of intelligence while raising his two children. “Basically that faculty is being able to come up with adaptable solutions to things that are previously unknown. What happens when you’re confronted with a lion in the jungle if you’ve never seen one before? What are the things you have to call upon to solve a problem? Analytic ability is important but no more important than courage, nor the ability to focus on a problem, nor your ability to learn from others well, nor your ability to work in teams well.”
Albert says that research is pointing more and more toward intelligence that evolves.”One of the things we know more and more about is neuro-plasticity. It’s a given now that brains change. Also a given in childhood that they change in different rates. The kids who’s gifted today even by using the standard measures may not be gifted tomorrow.”
But not everyone who is studying children identified as “intellectually gifted” — which is largely defined as high analytic ability — agrees.
“Note that the statement ‘intelligence is malleable and can change over time’ is not logically or semantically equivalent to the statement ‘everyone has the capacity to become gifted’,” says Aimee Yermish, an educational therapist who works with gifted children. She points out that although people clearly do change over a lifetime, the amount of change that a low-I.Q. scorer can achieve is finite.
“It might have turned out that general intelligence doesn’t depend on specific brain areas at all, and just has to do with how the whole brain functions,” says Ralph Adolphs, the Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech, quoted in an article in Science Daily. “But that’s not what we found. In fact, the particular regions and connections we found are quite in line with an existing theory about intelligence called the ‘parieto-frontal integration theory.’ It says that general intelligence depends on the brain’s ability to integrate — to pull together — several different kinds of processing, such as working memory.”
The problem may be in which end of “gifted” we are looking at. Definitions like the federal one use words like “capability” and “capacity.” That seems to point to “gifted” being the starting point. But experts working with children identified as gifted say that ‘gifted’ itself predicts very little. The high I.Q. children identified in the famous Terman study, for example, showed purely average achievements over their lifetimes, with not a Nobel Prize-winner or a famous composer among them.
In other words, the question of whether an early gifted identification means anything may hinge on what comes next.
“In general, all brain functions, including the higher cognitive functions, are now seen to be developed by a rich and complex interplay of the brain with its experience and environment,” writes Tom Wood in Education and Intelligence (National Association of Scholars). “In response to experience, the brain grows new neurons, changes and multiplies the synapses (connectors between neurons), and reorganizes the neural circuitry of the brain. It is true that this occurs more rapidly and massively in fetuses, neonates, and early childhood, but it is very much an ongoing process. It goes on all the time, involving all parts of the brain and all brain functions (including cognition), as part of our normal response to experience, and not just in response to major trauma.”
A gifted identification at the age of three, therefore, would be much less meaningful than one at eight, ten, or fifteen. By then, the capacities that a child was born with have had a chance to be developed or to stagnate, depending on the child, the environment, and the expectations of others.
“All those people who do those tests are still stuck in this early 20th century paradigm,” says Albert, “Neuro-plasticity is a given. So, what about the kid who can read at the age of three but has trouble tying their shoes? The real question is, given a certain age in which they have an intelligence, will they find a different way to keep their shoes on?”
According to David Shenk in The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong, “the whole concept of genetic giftedness turns out to be wildly off the mark — tragically kept afloat for decades by a cascade of misunderstandings and misleading metaphors.”
In other words, experts are still agreeing to disagree.
Until research trickles into practice, we’re stuck with the part of the federal definition that makes the most difference. If a child “need[s] services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop [his] capabilities,” he’s gifted.
How his giftedness, that need for special services, might lead to success in life is a mystery yet to be unraveled.