There are decades upon decades of research on giftedness and, as with any topic, certain ideas and ideals have gone in and out of vogue. In my own experience, as a gifted student, and instructor of gifted students, one theory of giftedness has always stood out.
First, it is important to have an understanding of giftedness. You might picture pocket protectors and scientific calculators; you might envision the child prodigy who becomes the eccentric CEO. These are not necessarily incorrect but they certainly aren't the whole image.
Gifted individuals are NOT always high-achievers, on task, organized, on time, or intrinsically motivated students.
Gifted individuals ARE: creative, flexible (this doesn't mean go with the flow), curious, quick, and intuitive.
That first descriptor--creative--is the key.
Creativity is typically associated with painters, singers, and maybe even an avante garde architect. Creativity lies at the core of a gifted individual’s drive to go beyond, think beyond, exist beyond the typical. There is a disconnect then, when giftedness becomes synonymous with high academic achievement. Math and science have been the hallmark subjects of gifted education since the Space Race. Incredibly, neither subject is typically associated with creativity. If creativity is at the core of giftedness then where is the disconnect? As usual, the disconnect stems from misconception. Creativity is sometimes confused with arts and crafts but in reality it is a process or state of being where an individual is able to construct something; knowledge, a product, and experience, a solution, etc.
Robert DeHaan studies creative thinking but spent the bulk of his career at Emory University, as a cell biologist. According to DeHaan, “If you're doing an experiment on cells, and you want to find out why those cells keep dying, you have a problem. It really takes a level of creative thought to solve that problem.” Could we have gotten to the moon without some serious creative problem solving? No way. Creativity is essential to developing a learning environment in which gifted students can explore, grow, and feel confident in their ability to reach their full potential (somewhere in the world a preteen is rolling their eyes and a thirty year old is wishing they had listened to their parents).
Abraham Maslow ,famous for his hierarchy of needs, believed that a creative person and a self-actualized [aka: someone who has reached their full potential & from here on referred to as gifted] person are one in the same. They stretch themselves to fulfill their potential. They crave to grow, develop, and hone the skills they possess. Maslow’s definition of giftedness allows for those without opportunity in their youth, to develop their talents and gifts no matter their age.
This flexibility in life-long growth of giftedness is the key to effective gifted education identification and program development. There are certain populations which are consistently under-served in all areas of education. These populations are even more drastically under-served when it comes to gifted education programs. Gifted education has an elitist reputation but if you examine the true meaning of giftedness it is impossible to ignore the benefits of implementing comprehensive GT programming in all learning environments.
How should we construct these environments for our students? Think about your own gifted child. How early did you notice their drive; their intense inquiry or desire to push the boundaries of virtually any task put in front of them? Maslow stated that a gifted person has a “desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially…the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming…what man can be, he must be.” (1968)
My son recently commented to me that he wished he had a third foot. When I asked why, he responded that if he had a third foot he could sit criss-cross-applesauce in his rocking chair and still be able to rock himself. As he elaborated on all the other things he could do with a third foot, all ll I could do was agree that that would indeed be very helpful. He is never satisfied; there is always a follow up question, idea...or ten. This can be both exhausting and awe inspiring.
Gifted students need room to ask those questions, ponder those possibilities, and experiment with those seemingly insatiable ideas. In a traditional classroom this can be challenging but it isn’t impossible. However you decide to implement exploration for your gifted learner the product should never overshadow the process. (For more on how to develop this process in your learning at home or school take a look at “Take Learning to the GT Level,” Sept. 29th, 2018.)
“Self-actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption. It means experiencing without the self-consciousness off the adolescent. At this moment of experiencing, the person is wholly and fully human.” (Maslow 1965)
Maslow’s 1965 presentation was to mental health professionals who specialize in adult patients. A good portion of his speech, however, focused on the health and well-being of youth. When a gifted child doesn’t have a cause, focus, voice, or purpose, their gifts and talents become exponentially more skewed in unhealthy ventures than their mainstream counterparts. This disconnect of self can exacerbate perfectionism, anxiety, over-sensitivity, and any of the other challenging traits of existing as a gifted person. Let’s replace Maslow’s use of the word counsel with teach and client with learner:
"[Teach]ing is not concerned with training nor with molding, nor with teaching in the ordinary sense of telling people what to do and how to do it...it is a Taoistic uncovering. Taoistic means the non-interfering, the “let be.” Taoism is not a laissez-faire philopsophy nor a philoshophy of neglect nor a refusal to help or care...What he does, the good [teacher], is to help his particular [learner] to unfold, to break through the defenses against his self-knowledge, to recover himself and to get to know himself."
This statement floored me the first time I read it. I finally had permission from one of the penultimate gurus on creativity and mental/emotional well-being to just let my students “be”. Our goal as parents and educators is not to flatten the path for our kids; it isn’t even to direct them to the path. Our responsibility is to let them know paths exist. When they ask for assistance, guidance, or advice we are present and ready to share our own experiences and to support theirs. This is as difficult for the adult as it is for the student because it requires us to be vulnerable to the fact that our child may fail; but they will also have the opportunity to thrive!
Clark, B. (2013) Growing up gifted - 8th Ed.: Pearson Education, Inc.
Cutaro, J. (2012) How Creativity Powers Science. Science News for Students. Retrieved from www.ScienceNewsforStudents.org
Davis, G. (1983) Creativity is Forever. Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
David, L. (2014) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Learning Theories. Retrieved from: https://www.learning-theories.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs.html.
Maslow, A. H. (1965). Self-actualization and beyond. In Proceedings of the Conference on the Training of Counselors of Adults (pp. 108-131). Winchester, MA: The New England board of higher education.
Maslow, A.H. (1968) Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
Extreme Explorers, Director