Theories about Giftedness

 One needs wisdom to balance the effects of one's ideas not just on oneself, but on others and on institutions, as well, both in the short and the long terms.

Robert J. Sternberg

During the last hundred years different theories and models about giftedness have been developed. 

While human achievements in many domains have always found their rewards, there has been a substantial shift in the conceptions about giftedness since giftedness was defined as possessing a high intellect measurable by intelligence tests. Not surprisingly then, the work of Lewis M. Terman with children who were selected by their teachers because they showed what Joseph S. Renzulli describes as schoolhouse giftedness, found much more attention than the writings of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, who right from the beginning showed an interested in artistic performance, too.

Because of the results of Terman's long-term study, showing that highly intellectual people don't necessarily produce ground-shaking inventions, researchers got more concerned about the role of creativity and motivation for giftedness.

Renzulli tried to summarize these developments in his Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness. In a next step researchers building on Renzulli's concept added environmental factors and additional personality characteristics to their models. Good examples for such models are the Munich Model of Giftedness and Gagné's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent.

Apart from taking more factors into account - making the models more complex and multifactorial - with time they also got more dynamic, as interactions between different components became more important. Latest models like Ziegler's Actiotope Model of Giftedness are not only highly complex and dynamic, they are also models built on the concepts of "random" chance and constant change.

Each of these models has strengths and weaknesses, none has been left uncriticized. Some of the models show common underlying concepts others stand in stark contrast to each other. Nevertheless, it is important to base one's own work with the gifted on such a concept, because concepts have a strong influence on identification practice and therefore hopefully on the programs provided for the gifted, too.

Looking at different models and comparing them, it is useful to consider the following questions:

From recent development future models of giftedness will probably be far more detailed, complex and dynamic than what is known today. For the contemporary educator this means: Be aware that a model is always just one possible reflection of reality, not the reality itself. In dealing with gifted children, the individual case should therefore always carry more weight than any ideological conviction.

Further information

Visit the Human Intelligence web site to learn more about some of the people mentioned.


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Matthias Giger, April 2006 (Update: 26-04-2006)