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A Defining Moment

by James R. Delisle

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Don't miss Response to A Defining Moment by Kristie Speirs Neumeister

In celebration of his daughter’s wedding, Robert Frost composed a poem, “The Master Speed”, which begins:

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater.  You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time…

In reading this poem, I was touched not only by a parent’s love for his child, but with the many life situations in which Frost’s words ring true.  It’s not a stretch, from my view, to apply these eloquent images to the situation of gifted children seeking outlets for their innate abilities to see more vivid hues, to hear more subtle sounds, and to experience life in a higher key than others.  These inborn traits of gifted children—as natural to them as their eye color—are what make a gifted child…well, gifted.

Which is why I am so disturbed with the new definition of giftedness adopted recently by The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).  Calling it “a bold step” in her 2011 Presidential address to NAGC, Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius presented this new definition:

Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains.  Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g. mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g. painting, dance, sports).

This definition continues on for two more paragraphs—for a total of 224 words.  As it proceeds, it grows ever-more convoluted, even referring readers to a Position Paper that explains in further detail the rationale behind this new brand of giftedness.

How and why am I disturbed with this definition?  Let me elaborate.

Its length.  Any definition that is 224 words long is far too lengthy for its own good.  And when four separate parenthetical explanations are needed to refine it, it’s obvious that this definition was written by a committee of people—a Task Force, in this case—who, apparently, couldn’t agree on common, concise language.  A definition of anything that takes three paragraphs to explain is trying simply to justify its relevance.  Precision, not scattershot, is needed when something is defined.

Its practical limitations.  In justifying this new definition, Olszewski-Kubilius states that our field needs to “consider making talent development, rather than giftedness, the major unifying concept of our field and, most importantly, the basis of our practice.” (Olszewski-Kubilius, 2011, p. 2) Such a stance is justified, she explains further, because gifted child advocates’ efforts have been marginalized by their focusing on gifted children rather than gifted curriculum.  It is her contention—and the underpinning of this new definition—that giftedness is not a set of personal, innate traits but rather, the expression of particular talents in music, math or any other “structured area of activity” referred to in the definition.

I find this approach to giftedness both utilitarian and selfish.  By making the main job of gifted child educators to be talent developers, we are likely to put ourselves out of business—after all, aren’t all teachers developers of their students’ talents?  Our field’s uniqueness lies not in the curriculum we offer our students nor the educational methods we use to develop their talents; rather, our field’s focus since it began a century ago has been to recognize the unique cognitive and affective facets of a gifted child’s life and then finesse school experiences to enhance these traits.  By removing these cognitive and psychological aspects from the core of our definition, we are neglecting the very reasons our field of study came to exist initially.  That is both shortsighted and rude.

Its theoretical limitations.  In 1982, gifted legend Annemarie Roeper used her decades’-long experiences with gifted individuals to arrive at this definition of giftedness:

Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences. (Roeper, 1982)

And in 1991, a group of gifted educators, counselors and researchers—The Columbus Group-- came to see giftedness in the following way:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.  This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity.  The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order to develop optimally. (Columbus Group, 1991)

Whether you prefer either of these definitions or the new NAGC conception of giftedness is irrelevant.   What is relevant is that an entire body of literature exists on gifted individuals that defines them from a psychological, rather than an educational, viewpoint.  However, this entire body of literature is missing in the new NAGC definition.  I’m not sure why this glaring omission was not obvious to its creators, but the new NAGC definition of giftedness has given short shrift to a profoundly important aspect of giftedness.

Its contextual focus. The domain-specific nature of the new NAGC definition presupposes that students are gifted in math or science or soccer or art.  An overall ability to think in deeper or more complex ways apart from a specific domain does not constitute giftedness.  Using this new NAGC view, giftedness lies in something you do as opposed to being someone you are.     In this new world of domain-specific giftedness, then, people are gifted only part of the time—the times when they are “acting” that way.

Using this logic and applying it to other populations of children with special needs, we would have to agree to believe that an individual with a cognitive disability does not have this disability all of the time, only in select circumstances.  Or, we would have to compartmentalize blindness or deafness to restricted areas of a child’s existence—no one could possibly be blind all of the time, could they?  The absurdity of this on again/off again disability condition is equally valid in discussing giftedness.  Whether a child chooses to perform to an exceptionally high level in math, science, soccer or art, or to keep these abilities latent or minimally expressed, is a personal choice; however, such a lack of outstanding performance does not detract from the fact that a child with a measured IQ of 145 is qualitatively different  from his or her classmates whose IQs hover near 100.  For NAGC to adopt a definition of giftedness that dismisses and ignores the reality of innate intellectual differences in deference to a performance-based definition shows me that the Association itself—The National Association for Gifted Children-- has become an anachronism.  Let’s just rename the Organization for what it truly is: “The National Association for Talent Development” and dismiss giftedness altogether.

Where’s the transparency?  At first, I thought it was me.  When this new definition was presented at the 2011 Annual NAGC Conference as a fait accompli, I thought I had really missed the boat.  Where were all the discussions with the NAGC membership about the implications of this change?  What forums did I miss where the Task Force’s varied ideas were presented?  Indeed, who were these Task Force members and on what basis were they selected to participate in this important undertaking?

Apparently, I am not alone in asking these questions, for if I missed the boat along the way, so had countless other colleagues whose concerns and questions are similar to mine.

To say I am disappointed in the direction that our Association has taken away from giftedness and towards talent development is an understatement.  To say that I am puzzled by the secrecy of this policy decision that has been adopted as NAGC’s official definition of giftedness by the NAGC Board of Directors would be equally as understated.  And to know that a small group of individuals can decide for our entire field how to define the very population that countless thousands of us are advocating for daily is a collective slap in the face—to us and the gifted children about whom we care-- that must not be ignored.

No speed of wind or water rushing by

But you have speed far greater.

Robert Frost’s words again, and they must now apply to us, for if you agree that gifted children are more than the sum total of their academic, athletic or artistic talents alone, you must raise your voice loudly and clearly in protest.  Do not let a small group of individuals change the focus of our field without your input.



The Columbus Group (1991) Unpublished transcript.

Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2011) Taking a bold step. Compass Points. 4 (11), pp. 1-2

Roeper, Annemarie  (1982) How the gifted cope with their emotions. Roeper Review, 5 (2), 21.

Jim Delisle has been a teacher, counselor, parent and advocate for gifted children for more than three decades. The views expressed in this article are presented with the hope that the rights of gifted children will be reinforced and their sanctity be preserved.

©2012 by James R. Delisle

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