Every once in a while we see children around us who seem to be very unlike their peers. Some who appear to master their books effortlessly; some who always seem to be dreaming up a new invention or writing brilliant poetry; some who seem to have an adult-like maturity in dealing with people; others who perform physical feats that no other child of his/ her age could perform.
The term used to describe such children is ‘gifted’. Gifted children are those whose abilities or potential exceed that of their peers or what is considered to be normal for their age. Earlier, the term ‘gifted’ was applied to only those who demonstrated superior intellectual capabilities. In recent times, however, the definition has been broadened to include abilities or potentials in several domains. According to Howard Gardener’s (1983) Theory of Multiple Intelligences, giftedness may be demonstrated in one or more of the following areas: verbal, numerical, visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalistic or musical.
Other scholars have pointed out that gifted children may be of different types. Robert Sternberg (1977, 1985) for instance distinguished between the analytically, synthetically and practically gifted. Analytically gifted children are those who perform at the top on academic problems and standardised psychometric tests. Children who are synthetically gifted show abundant creativity, intuitiveness and perform well on novel tasks using new ideas. Practically intelligent children are those considered to be “street-smart”, demonstrating a high capacity to adapt and shape their environment in order to achieve goals.
Joseph Renzulli, another leading exponent on giftedness, has similarly distinguished between the ‘school-house’ gifted and ‘creative-productive’ gifted, thus acknowledging the fact that while some children excel at school tasks such as test-taking and lesson learning, others may stand out due to their ability to create new knowledge rather than consume knowledge.
These different categories proposed by these authors by no way means that children may be gifted in one domain or type of giftedness alone. Often, giftedness in one domain may be an indicator of potential or abilities in other domains. What these different models and domains of giftedness do offer is a realistic representation of the variety in abilities we encounter in the real-world context.
This recognition of differences in gifted children has also made it imperative for us to move away from psychometric and test-based approaches, such as the IQ tests. Typically IQ tests have worked on the presumption that intelligence is a stable, innate potential that determines gifted performance by the top 3-5 per cent of the population. However, new research in the field has pointed out to the intervening effects of environment, culture, and personality traits of individuals in the manifestation of giftedness. For example, research on early childhood environments has shown impoverished physical and cognitive environments to have detrimental effects on later cognitive abilities. This challenges the notion of heredity as the sole determining factor of later intelligence.
Other research by Betts and Neihart (1988) has shown that gifted students may vary based on their socio-emotional traits: some may be well adjusted and may learn to work with the system (successful type); some others may appear problematic due to their confrontational nature (challenging type); yet others may hide or attempt to minimise their abilities to gel with the crowd (underground type); some may feel frustrated or angry with the system for not catering to their needs (drop outs); in some, giftedness may be accompanied by a disability (double-labeled); and finally, some may master the system and learn to manipulate it for their needs (autonomous learner). These different types of gifted children also bring with them different socio-emotional problems that affect their performance, ranging from isolation, perfectionism, frustration, depression, superiority complex, under-achievement, etc. Simple checklists measuring numerical, verbal or problem solving abilities thus seem inadequate to capture this complexity. Further, it also means that educational opportunities, mentoring and nurturing need to be tailored to meet the needs of the ‘whole child’ rather than catering to their intellectual advancement alone. However, not all children may show asynchronicity in development and many children appear to be well-adjusted.
This complex nature of giftedness means that identification of these children in a country like ours that is characterised by wide socio-economic and socio-cultural differences, cannot take a simple route such as IQ or psychometric testing. Further, the numbers in the country make identification and mentoring for any single agency a mind-boggling feat. An alternative route to identification can be taken by paying attention to early developmental processes as they are revealed in authentic tasks and contexts. A detailed account of the emergence and development of these processes can only be got through a partnership between concerned parents, committed teachers, and other experts in the field who can sensitively record the developmental differences in children. Rich data can be got if parents and teachers maintain diaries, record their observations of children’s performances, develop case studies and narratives that can supplement test data.
Identification however comes with its own baggage of problems. Labeling, stereotyping, high expectations, teasing are some of the repercussions of identification. Further, for those who believe that all children are gifted, identification goes against their basic philosophy. Here, it should be stressed that the focus of identification should not be to develop an ‘elite’ club of students. Rather, it should be to uphold the framework of equality by providing every child opportunities to meet his/ her full potential. This can help ensure their well-being which can otherwise be affected due to frustration and depression.
The National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) is engaged in a similar endeavour to develop a Programme for Early Identification of Gifted Children in the country.
Commissioned by the Principal Scientific Advisor’s Office to the Government of India, NIAS along with its collaborators – Agasthya Foundation and Delhi University — are engaged in a series of classroom observations, case studies, and teachers’ workshops, to develop new methods and tools for identification. Further, the attempt is also to bring about greater sensitivity and awareness about the issue and to build a strong network of parents, teachers and researchers who can contribute vitally to this area.
(The writer is a research scholar at NIAS)