Is giftedness innate?

In ‘Brightening up: how children learn to be gifted’ (The Routledge International Companion to Gifted Education, 2009), Guy Claxton and Sara Meadows oppose the dominant conception of ‘gifted and talented’ and argue instead that ‘both the research base and practical and moral considerations should lead us to exclude ideas of innate and unchangeable degrees of “giftedness” from our educational practice as incorrect, inhuman and counter-productive’ (3).

They begin by pointing out that ‘brightness’ or ‘giftedness’ are ‘inferences and attributions, not statements of self-evident fact’ (3). By examining the ‘behaviours and dispositions’ on which these inferences and attributions are based, they set out to ‘explore the ways in which they might have been learned, and thus could be subject to further systematic modification’ (3).

Soon after children begin school, judgments are made about how ‘bright’ they are. Claxton and Meadows offer the following list of behaviours and dispositions that are used by teachers to make the attribution of ‘bright’ (3-4):

  • Physically alert and energetic
  • Strongly oriented to adults and alert to their presence
  • Facial expressions
  • Sensible responses for the classroom context
  • Ability to maintain focus
  • Articulateness
  • Quick on the uptake
  • Ability to sit still and listen to adults
  • Greater ease and fluency with peers
  • Ability to remember and make links to what has happened
  • Proactive and inquisitive
  • Greater perceptiveness about sensory details and patterns
  • From this it is clear that ‘bright’ is a ‘portmanteau word that contains a number of ingredients … [and] being “bright” is not a single thing; it is woven together from a number of separable developmental achievements, some social, some perceptual, some cognitive and some linguistic’ (4).

    The writers then go on to suggest the sorts of environmental influences on young children that could account for the observed behaviours and dispositions associated with ‘brightness’. In the years between birth and school, children are immersed in surroundings and relationships that will influence them in multifarious ways:

    The habitual ways in which carers scaffold, guide, interpret, comment on and evaluate children’s activities set up corresponding habits and expectations in the child, some of which may be education-positive and others not. (When you tell an outrageously exaggerated story, do grown-ups regularly laugh and clap, or tell you off for bragging or lying? How often do you have a story read to you and discussed with you? Are you allowed to play with things around the house or are you continually told ‘don’t touch’?). Recurrent rituals sow and water the seeds of certain ways of thinking and talking. Family mealtimes, for example, are an important arena in which habits of debate and discussion are displayed, and a child’s ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ as fledgling debaters may be invited and shaped — or not (Pontecorvo and Sterponi 2002). All the time, adults model ways of solving problems such as trying to remember where possessions have been left (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) or how to understand other people’s feelings (Meadows 2006). They are continually teaching through their actions how to react when things go wrong, what to do with leisure time, what is worthy of note and what things (that may be perfectly obvious and interesting to the child) get regularly and strategically ignored (Billig 1999).

    Thus the habits of thinking, remembering, noticing and talking that go to make up ‘brightness’ are, as sociocultural researchers have long known (Vygotsky 1978), highly socially contagious. If we push our attention back to individual differences at birth, or focus on heritability studies in twins or adoptees, or look at the problems associated with genetic disorders (Meadows 2006), we see that there probably is some inherited ingredient to ‘brightness’. People do seem to differ somewhat in their genetically underwritten ‘mean position’ on such dimensions (Plomin and Daniels 1987). But there is such a wide indeterminate zone around that mean position, that effectively it is your environment and your learning that most influence where you actually end up. Genes do programme development but they operate in continual interaction with environment and experience, and their programmes are generally flexible.

    Most researchers (e.g. Resnick 1999) now believe that young minds are better thought of as ‘developing muscles’ than ‘fixed-capacity engines’. The mind is made up of many interwoven strands which get stronger with exercise. Like musculature, minds have a genetic element to them. Different people are born with different physical ‘potential’, different ranges and aptitudes. But the training which these muscles receive determines whether they get stronger, much more so than differences in ‘potential’. In practice the hypothetical ‘ceilings’ set by genetic differences are so far away from where a child currently is that there is no excuse for anyone to impute ‘lack of innate ability’ when a child finds something hard to master. There is plenty of room for virtually everyone’s physical fitness to improve, and likewise there is plenty of room for everyone to get brighter, whatever portfolio of capacities and dispositions their genes and their early years has provided them with. Of course those early years have a big influence on the kind of learner you might become. But a child’s learning style and capacity is not fixed: far from it. We conclude that it is strategically practical and morally preferable to focus our attention as educators on how children’s minds might be capable of development, rather than on what is immutable. (5)

    As Meadows puts it in The Child as Thinker (‘The heritability of intelligence’, 176-84): ‘The genes you inherit from your parents may determine the potential you have for intelligence, but the environment in which you are reared determines how nearly you reach that potential.’ (182)

    Despite a broad consensus about the learnability of ‘brightness’, the idea that intelligence exists in a fixed quantity persists, and it influences educational policy and practice. Once attributions of ‘bright’ or ‘dim’ are made, expectations are created and reinforced in children, parents, peers and teachers alike. Such expectations are not merely damaging, they are simplistic, since they take into account neither variations over time nor the fact that intelligence is highly individual and variable:

    The fixed-pot view of ability is often associated with a restricted and rather academic view of intelligence in general. Yet recent research tells us that intelligence is as much about thinking slowly as it is about quick answering, and that true intelligence should not be confused with verbal fluency or mere cleverness (Claxton 1997). Yet there are still schools where ‘slow’ is used as a euphemism for stupid. Students with more practical or creative forms of intelligence can, as Sternberg … puts it, be ‘essentially “iced out” of the system, because at no point are they much allowed to let their abilities shine through’.

    Like adults, any group of children will vary widely on their current levels of achievement and performance (CLAPs) on any kind of skills or subject matter. To deny the fixed-pot theory of ability is not to deny these differences; it is merely to deny a particularly common but pernicious way of talking about them, how they came to be, and what can be done about them. (6)

    People with high CLAPs, whether it be in quiet listening or physical clowning, have got there because they have done a great deal of learning and have learned how to learn in effective ways. Across a wide range of activities — sports, musicianship, writing, chess, oratory, electronic games — if you want to be outstanding, you need to invest around 10,000 hours of good practice (Ericsson and Charness 1994).

    If you track their histories carefully, you find that the ‘gifted and talented’ have generally been lucky enough — and obsessive enough — to have the support and opportunities required. Mozart’s father immersed his children in music from their infancies, carefully marketed their ability to perform and to compose, opened up every opportunity to be a musician and persuaded his own employers to employ his son. Some small seed of their particular ‘talent’ may be there initially in the form of a mild interest or even a small aptitude, but that seed could equally well have been sown by a chance event, or even by the unjustified attribution of talent by a proud parent. Your elder siblings might have ‘bagged’ being good at sports and socialising, so you are looking around for something to be good at in your own right, when along comes a second-hand violin. The reason that virtuosi are so rare is because most of us don’t put in the hours. We lack the desire, the emotional support, the material resources, and we have too many other interesting things to do. (6-7)

    As Charles Darwin astutely observed, almost everyone is born with the ability to be bright, and to be G&T in something. Some children do not get that ability fed. And some get the joy of learning knocked out of them by too much chaos or too tight a prescription of what it means to be “good’, or by an education system apparently driven by assessment and labelling. And for some of those it will be hard or even impossible for them ever to catch up completely. Nevertheless our job is surely to help them develop the ‘zeal and hard work’ that will enable them to emerge as gifted and talented in their own unique ways.

    We can coach everyone in the generic skills of learning … Everyone can be coached in how to persist more in the face of difficulty; how to make more use of their imaginations to get ideas; how to learn more productively alongside others; how to capitalise more on the resources around them; how to be their own critical friend; how to look at a situation through other people’s eyes; how to choose and create the right kind of challenge for themselves and move on positively from it (Claxton 1999a, 2002).

    Summing up the research in this area, Lauren Resnick (1999, p. 39) put it like this:

    Students who, over an extended period of time are treated as if they are intelligent, actually become more so. If they are taught demanding content, and are expected to explain and find connections … they learn more and learn more quickly. They (come to) think of themselves as learners. They are (better) able to bounce back in the face of short-term failures.

    According to recent research on ‘student voice’, what adolescents want from school is respect, and responsibility (Flutter and Rudduck 2004). Give them the opportunity, and many of them will find and engage with learning challenges that are well beyond what the prescribed curriculum demands — just as many of them are already doing on their bedroom computers in the evenings. They say they like challenge. They like stretching their learning muscles, provided they see demanding exercise as a way of getting stronger, not as exposing their ‘weakness’. And they know when things are getting too easy and it is time to make it more difficult for themselves. Working with the giftedness in young people should not be about the busy teacher finding an endless succession of new mind games to entertain the fast-finishers. It should be about giving young people the support they need to take on challenges that interest them, and to build their own learning power in the process. Those with both high and low CLAPs can be encouraged to stretch themselves, without having to be labelled and stigmatised. And this applies, we are sure, to learners of all ages, in school and out of school, and from birth until death.

    Yet the pressure on teachers to use students’ CLAPs to infer ability, to use these bogus judgements as a basis for predicting future performance, and for schools then to be judged on whether these targets have been reached, remains strong. There is even a current suggestion on the [UK] Department for Children, Schools and Families website that we should identify gifted and talented students when they are eleven, hive them off into a ‘distinctive in-school teaching and learning programme’ and put them on a special national register, and censure secondary schools that do not ensure they all end up with distinguished first degrees from Oxford (or equivalent) — without any recognition of the avoidable damage that would result …

    Why is the idea of fixed ability so tenacious? Perhaps it is because the education system has always been concerned with sorting, grading and labelling young people and their educational outcomes, and with finding justifications for so doing. Or maybe ability attributions are attempts by harassed teachers to reduce the overwhelming complexity of a room of 30 young people to something graspable. Bright, average and weak; motivated and unmotivated; well- or badly-behaved; high- or low-achieving: however inadequate these filters are in capturing anything very interesting about students and their lives, perhaps they are necessary filters and defences. If this is so, they come at a high price. And it may be time to find alternative ways of supporting teachers, ways that do not damage students or distort their psychology so much. As Hart et al. (2004) point out, it is perfectly fine to arrange your students, for practical purposes, into those whose CLAPs are above average, average or below average. But to transmute these pragmatic and provisional groupings of how people are behaving right now into labels that can stick, and harm, for life … that has to stop. (7-8)

    Claxton and Meadows conclude with the following suggestion:

    In ten years’ time, the antiquated and dysfunctional idea that ‘giftedness’ is an innate, abiding and situation-independent quality of a fortunate minority of young people must have been removed from the discourse of educational practice and policy. It must instead be widely recognised that this idea exists primarily as a stress-reduction device for teachers, one that comes with unacceptable side-effects for the majority of young people – both those who are designated ‘gifted’ and those who are not. In its place must come a more humble and pragmatic commitment to helping all youngsters (a) stretch their mental capacities (whatever level those capacities may currently be) i.e. become more ‘gifted’ and (b) discover the domains of human achievement they would most like to become good at i.e. become more ‘talented’. We must accept that transitory levels of achievement in any sphere, including sociolinguistic fluency, reflect composites of learned habits, and provide only poor guides to future learning and performance. (9)

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    One Response to “Is giftedness innate?”

    1. Donna Leonard Says:

      I completely agree with the above Meadows quote: ‘The genes you inherit from your parents may determine the potential you have for intelligence, but the environment in which you are reared determines how nearly you reach that potential.’

      I believe that the above list of behaviors and dispositions sounds more like something from the 1970’s. I’m sure that had a little something to do with why I was put in the “gifted” programs in elementary school. More recently with my own children, they seem to allow for an “inability to sit still and pay attention,” otherwise, my son would never have been put in that category, his very high scores on the Raven test notwithstanding.

      I also agree with the thoughts of the final paragraph, a call for teachers to help all children as individuals to help them all achieve their highest potentials. Regardless of scores on tests to assess “giftedness,” some children process information in a way that makes traditional classroom situations not work as well for them as it might for their peers. I still wish we had known how to get the most out of our son who barely managed to keep his grades passing throughout middle school and high school, while his twin sister, who scored slightly lower than him on the Raven tests, got straight A’s–or higher if she was taking an AP class.

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