What does it mean to be gifted? Who is gifted? How well can giftedness be measured and how well does it predict future achievements?
Every generation of psychologists and educators has grappled with these fundamental questions and answered them differently.
In a recent study in Exceptional Children, researchers Jonathan Plucker and Carolyn Callahan review recent research on intelligence, creativity and giftedness to help guide future gifted programming.
“Researchers in gifted education, like those in many applied fields, deal with a constant tension between research and advocacy,” the researchers write. “This is not surprising: Why would someone devote a career to studying gifted students without a strong belief that addressing the needs of those students was a good and necessary activity?
“This tension, of and by itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as researchers draw conclusions from their data and not their advocacy beliefs.”
In an effort to separate advocacy from evidence-based research, the authors provide the following research updates on some key issues in gifted education today.
Identification and screening–Concerns that some demographic groups are underrepresented in the gifted population have raised questions about identification and screening. Among the recommendations for improving identification are to assess students independently of their demographic characteristics and to use multiple measures. However, use of multiple measures as well as alternative measures, such as nonverbal intelligence tests, does not necessarily identify talent in underrepresented groups, the researchers note.
Some researchers argue that identification should not be a barrier to students who want to challenge themselves and that gifted programs should be more oriented toward inclusion (locating more students) as opposed to exclusion (keeping students out).
Creativity–There’s been great progress in defining and conceptualizing creativity in spite of the “we don’t know enough” attitude that many educators maintain. Researchers have also made progress in clarifying how teachers can effectively assess and foster creativity. After years of debate, a consensus is emerging that creativity is both content-general and content-specific, which has important implications for teaching and supporting creativity. Further research is needed on how to best link creativity to specific academic content areas. But, in general, the knowledge base on creativity is more advanced than most researchers and educators realize and continues to grow rapidly.
Ability grouping–It is difficult to imagine a wider range of opinions and conclusions than on the issue of ability grouping. One difficulty is that advocates on both sides of the debate tend to use tracking and ability grouping interchangeably. Tracking refers to placing students in ability groups over the long term that are difficult to leave while ability grouping refers to a more fluid organization strategy that is used between or within-class groupings that allows for changes in instructional placement over time.
Many meta-analytical studies have been done on ability grouping. “Contrary to most interpretations, these studies generally find small or negligible effects for ability grouping of students at all levels of ability without curricular or instructional modification,” the researchers write.
The researchers caution that with the emphasis on differentiation in teacher training in recent years, ability groups may look different today than they did from the 1960s to 1990s when much of the cited research was done.
Acceleration–Schools around the world tend to be age-based with students of similar ages progressing through their education at a fixed pace. Strategies to address atypical development of bright students include subject- or content-based acceleration and grade-based acceleration.
Grade-based acceleration strategies include early entrance to kindergarten or college, grade skipping, multi-age classrooms and early graduation from high school and college. Subject-based acceleration strategies include curriculum compacting, allowing students to take a college course or distance learning course and participation in Talent Search programs while students remain with same-aged peers for other instruction.
Researchers reach largely positive conclusions about the academic efficacy of almost all forms of acceleration. There’s also evidence that acceleration does not have social and emotional side effects, but may have benefits for students.
Ironically, the one type of acceleration with mixed evidence of effectiveness is the most common and most popular: Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. While these programs fit conveniently into the grade-level structure of most high schools, research indicates that the enthusiasm for this acceleration strategy may not be warranted.
Curriculum design–Should teachers use a descriptive or a prescriptive framework for implementing curriculum? In the descriptive approach, teachers develop daily lessons using a model as guide while in a prescriptive approach, teachers use predeveloped units for instruction.
Research on the impact of the descriptive curricular model on gifted students provide limited evidence of effectiveness. In contrast, many studies have supported the use of prescriptive curriculum with gifted students.’
“Overall, the empirical support for prescriptive unit success (units often based on the descriptive frameworks) far outweighs the support for the implementation of a descriptive framework, suggesting that programs based on prescriptive models of curriculum and instruction are more likely to produce improvements in student growth,” the researchers conclude.
“Research on Giftedness and Gifted Education: Status of the Field and Considerations for the Future,” by Jonathan Plucker and Carolyn Callahan, Exceptional Children, 2014, Volume 80 Number 4, pp. 390-406.