Can you tell a gifted child apart?

Last Updated : 10 October 2012, 19:40 IST
Last Updated : 10 October 2012, 19:40 IST

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Amita Basu enumerates the different ways in which a gifted child can be identified

A few weeks ago, in these columns, we discussed why it is important to train our teachers in gifted education. We must address the advanced learning needs of high-ability children, not leave them to fend for themselves.  Today, we discuss methods of identifying gifted children.

Identification depends on model

Before we can ask, “who are the gifted?” we must define “what is giftedness”?  Even in the West, with a tradition of research in giftedness, there is no consensual model among either researchers or practitioners.  In the United States, identification protocols (thus, also, the models behind them) vary across schools or school districts.  This determines which tests are used; as well as the relative weight of tests and other sources of information such as nominations, portfolios, and academic or extracurricular records. 

Components of giftedness

In the absence of a consensual model, let us examine the components of giftedness.  Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is one component that most researchers agree is important – what differs is how important.  Some models, such as Renzulli’s and Gardner’s, claim that to be gifted a child needs above-average, but not superior, intelligence. Gardner claims that an IQ of 120 is a minimum for outstanding achievement: a necessary but not sufficient condition.  Other models, including Gagné’s, view intelligence as the most important component of giftedness.  They cite an abundance of research on IQ as the single strongest predictor of both academic and work performance.

Gardner’s well-known Multiple Intelligence theory challenges the concept of one intelligence, proposing instead the existence of eight relatively independent intelligences.  This theory has become popular among educators operating on the belief that “all children are gifted.”  However, Gardner himself has challenged the use of his theory for such purposes. Moreover, there is no evidence that these intelligences are in fact independent.  For the most past, individuals who excel in one area tend to excel, or at least do well, in other areas, too.  This is less true at high IQ levels.  Individuals with high IQs are more likely to show a jagged ability profile: high in one or two abilities, average or below in the others.  The case of prodigies — whose exceptional and precocious ability in one domain cannot be explained by IQ alone — illustrates this point.
Thus many researchers agree that, after general intelligence, specific aptitude is a second component of giftedness.

A third component of giftedness is motivation.  With the exception of prodigies and savants, gifted children excel in comparison with peers. Even exceptionally gifted children need long hours of hard work to prepare for significant adult achievement. Bloom and Sosniak’s research indicates the crucial role of effort and commitment in developing ability.  Motivation includes both the willingness to work hard, and a sustained interest in a domain: what Renzulli calls “romance with a subject or topic.”
A fourth important component is creativity.  Eminence in any field means not merely knowing, but creating or improving.

Identification methods

Having decided what we need to measure, we now ask how.  Methods of identification can be categorised as follows:

* Testing: Psychometric tests allow a child to be compared to his/her peers.  Tests of IQ and specific aptitude provide a useful and objective measure of the child’s ability in developmental and normative terms.  For first-level screening, tests administered in a group are acceptable. At the second level, it is recommended that an individually-administered test be used for a more valid and componential measure of IQ.

An important issue with the use of IQ tests is culture-fairness. Verbal tests, especially, may be measuring not pure ability (potential), but also achievement (what has already been learned). Even when psychometric tests are adapted for Indian use, they may be biased against children who lack formal education, do not understand English, and come from poor families.  One solution is to use so-called culture-fair tests, which eliminate prior learning and cultural content and measure pure reasoning ability.

* Nomination: Nomination of a child by teachers, parents, peers, and/or self is another method of identification.  In the US, studies find that teacher nominations show the same systematic biases as conventional IQ tests: minority and poor children are underrepresented. As well, teachers may focus on high-achieving, conforming children and may fail to identify children who underperform or misbehave.  This is particularly so in India, where students are recognised for neat work and rote learning, rather than for divergent or critical thinking.

Teacher nominations do have value.  Teachers are able to compare a given child with hundreds of others of the same age; an experienced teacher can often identify quickly and accurately a child who exceeds peers in learning and reasoning ability.
Peer nominations are also useful.  Our own research shows that even young children accurately answer the question: “Who in your class is good at Maths (or any other activity)?”

Self-selection acknowledges the importance of interest.  In any activity or programme, there should be room for children who even if not identified by any other measure, display an interest in the topic. 

* Portfolio assessment: An ongoing portfolio of a child’s work is an indicator of his/her abilities and achievement. In fields where precocity is important, assessing what the child already knows or can already do (achievement) is important. 
The drawings of children with artistic gifts, for example, differ systematically from the drawings of peers.  An expert can identify artistic gifts at a young age via portfolios.
Portfolios are crucial in domains where no valid or reliable test exists.  Creativity, for example, has proved much more difficult to measure than intelligence. In many fields, the best predictor of future creative achievement is past creative achievement.
A comprehensive identification programme should consider information from several sources. 

Testing vs assessment

Renzulli distinguishes between testing and assessment. The major difference is that testing happens once or twice; assessment is ongoing.  Are we justified in making a decision about a child based on a single score obtained on one day of the child’s life? IQs do show continuity across the lifespan; scores obtained in early childhood and in high school correlate at .50.  However, higher education reduces this correlation.  In other words, while innate ability is important, environment and education play a role too.  We need to ‘keep the door open’ for children to be identified as gifted at any age, and by methods other than test scores.

(The National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) is conducting a project on the identification of gifted children.  Schools and teachers wishing to participate in the project may contact  Ajay Chandra at 99161 61322.)

Published 10 October 2012, 12:20 IST

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