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ERIC Identifier: ED262519
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: McClellan, Elizabeth
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.

Defining Giftedness. 1985 Digest.

Historically, giftedness has been closely linked with the concept of genius. This association began around the turn of the century when psychologists developed tests that were designed to measure intelligence (Termam 1925); people who scored on the low end of the scale were labeled retarded, and those who scored on the high end were considered geniuses.

The use of intelligence tests as the single measure of giftedness has been greatly criticized in recent years, primarily because the tests are often biased in favor of the white middle class and because they penalize children with differing linguistic styles.

Also, many researchers and educators have come to believe that giftedness is more than high intellectual ability; it also includes creativity, memory, motivation, physical dexterity, social adeptness, and aesthetic sensitivity.

Dissatisfaction with a limited perspective has led researchers and educators to develop "broadened" definitions. One of the first educators to write about such an expansion was Hollingsworth. Although her research focused on children with IQ's above 170, Hollingsworth believed that children can have other types of gifts, such as mechanical aptitude or artistic ability (Pritchard 1951).

During the 1840s, the conception of giftedness was expanded further when the federal government began to take an interest in the education of gifted and talented children. This federal interest was sparked during and after World War II when policy makers perceived a need for technological advancement in order to maintain the nation's military and political superiority.

By 1950, Congress had passed the National Science Foundation Act which marked the first time the federal government provided funds specifically for the gifted and talented (Zettel 1982). By providing funds for encouraging students to develop their abilities in mathematics and the physical sciences, the Act led, in essence, to the designation of specific academic aptitude as a type of giftedness.

Another significant development in defining giftedness was the publication of Guilford's (1959) studies of the structure of the intellect. As early as 1950, Guilford had urged psychologists to explore the area of creativity, or divergent thinking, but it was his structural model of the 120 theoretical components of intelligence that led to the development of tests to measure intellectual abilties other than those measured by conventional IQ tests.

The development of creativity tests and the results of many studies of the relationship between intelligence and creativity (Getzels and Jackson 1962) have led many educators to include creativity in their definitions. Renzulli (1976), for example, considers giftedness to be a combination of above average ability, creativity, and task commitment.

In 1969, Congress mandated a study by the U.S. Commissioner of Education to determine the extent to which the needs of gifted and talented children were being met (Sisk 1980). The ensuing document, known as the Marland Report (1972), contains a definition of giftedness that has been and continues to be the one most widely adopted or adapted by state and local education agencies. The Report states:

Gifted and talented children are those identified by professionally qualified persons who, by virtue of outstanding abilities, are capable of high performance. These are children who require differential educational programs and/or services beyond those provided by the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and the society.

Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination:

--General intellectual ability

--Specific academic aptitude

--Creative or productive thinking

--Leadership ability

--Visual and performing arts

--Psychomotor ability

Although the definition has been criticized as being limiting (Reis and Renzulli 1982) and of promoting elitism (Feldman 1979), more than 80% of the 204 experts polled for their reactions to the Marland definition agreed with the selection of the categories of high intellectual ability, creative or productive thinking, specific academic aptitude, and ability in visual or performing arts. Approximately half of the experts agreed that social adeptness and psychomotor ability should be included (Martinson 1975).

The federal government has included five broad areas in the definition found in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. In this act, block grants for education have been provided to the states; some of these funds may be used for:

special programs to identify, encourage, and meet the special educational needs of children who give evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership capacity, or specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities.

More recently, the Regulations for the Educational Security Act of 1984, which provides grants for strengthening the skills of teachers and instruction in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and computer learning have defined the term "gifted student" as a "student, identified by various measures, who demonstrates actual or potential high performance capability in the fields of mathematics, science, foreign languages, or computer learning." Gifted students may come from "historically underrepresented and underserved groups, including females, minorities, handicapped persons, persons of limited English-speaking proficiency, and migrants.

By placing an emphasis on math, science, foreign languages, and computer learning, this latest federal definition highlights the fact that the ways in which schools operationally define giftedness are often based on the needs of society. Definitions are also influenced by cultural and socioeconomic factors.

As Bernal points out, "what is clever and creative for a child in the barrio or on the reservation, where different value systems are in operation, will not be the same as for the child who grows up in the suburbs" (1974). For economically disadvantaged populations that place a heavy emphasis on preparing students for employment rather than college, a definition might recognize that students can be gifted in areas that are generally nonacademic in nature, such as carpentry or mechanics (McClellan 1984).


A definition of giftedness is the foundation upon which an educational program for gifted children is built. The specific abilities included in a definition determine the kinds of identification criteria that are used to select children for a program and the kinds of educational services that are provided to those children. The selection of abilities to be included in a definition is, therefore, very important to educators who must determine which children are designated as gifted and what kinds of educational services are provided to them.

For example, a definition that incorporates creativity as a category suggests that schools provide experiences aimed at developing the potential of children who have been identified as being creative; a definition that includes leadership ability suggests other types of identification criteria and educational experiences.

Educators who are charged with the reponsibility of creating or maintaining programs for gifted children and youth face a different task when they must decide what giftedness is, how gifted children can be identified, and what services schools should provide. The following points are a guide for helping them make those decisions:

--The concept of giftedness is not limited to high intellectual ability. It also comprises creativity, ability in specific academic areas, ability in visual or performing arts, social adeptness, and physical dexterity.

--A program for gifted children should be based on the way in which the school system operationally defines giftedness. A definition should be the basis of decision regarding the selection of identification procedures as well as the provision of educational services for gifted children.

--Definitions of giftedness are influenced by social, political, economic, and cultural factors.

--Giftedness is found among all groups, including females, minorities, handicapped persons, persons with limited English-speaking proficiency, and migrants.


Bernal, E. M. "Gifted Mexican American Children: An Ethnoscientific Perspective." CALIFORNIA JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 25 (1974):261-273.

Feldman, D. "Toward a Nonelitist Conception of Giftedness." PHI DELTA KAPPAN (1979):660-663.

Getzels, J. W. and P. W. Jackson. CREATIVITY AND INTELLIGENCE. London: John Wiley and Sons, 1962.

Guilford. J. P. "Three Faces of Intellect." AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST 14 (1959):469-479.

Marland, S. P. EDUCATION OF THE GIFTED AND TALENTED. Report to the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Commissioner of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972.

Martinson, R. A. THE IDENTIFICATION OF THE GIFTED AND TALENTED. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children, 1975.

McClellan, E. DEFINING GIFTEDNESS: AN ETHNOGRAPHIC APPROACH. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA, 1974.


Pritchard, M. C. "The Contribution of Leta Hollingsworth to the Study of Gifted Children." In THE GIFTED CHILD, edited by P. Witty. New York: D.C. Heath, 1951.


Reis, S. M. J. S. Renzulli. "A Case for a Broadened Conception of Giftedness." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 63 (1982):619-620.

Renzulli, J. "What Makes Giftedness?" PHI DELTA KAPPAN 60 (1978):180-184.


Zettal, J. J. "The Education of Gifted and Talented Children from a Federal Perspective." In SPECIAL EDUCATION IN AMERICA: ITS LEGAL AND GOVERNMENTAL FOUNDATIONS, edited by J. Ballard, and others. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children, 1982.


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