What Does It Mean to Be Gifted?

In this article, Dr. Sternberg introduces how children might be intellectually gifted in different ways. The author communicates his message with anecdotes but more importantly, advocates for the development of skills beyond the knowledge of facts and information. Cultivating creative and practical skills are also vital parts of the development of a gifted child. Elsewhere, Sternberg has developed a theory of what he calls, “successful intelligence.” Successful intelligence is being able to take advantage of one’s strengths, compensate for one’s weaknesses. Successfully intelligent people can adapt, shape, and select their environment to best suit their needs and goals. This perspective may be a useful reference when considering what can be done for gifted kids beyond their school curriculum.

When parents think of their children as gifted, they usually think of high IQ scores, high SATs, high ACTs, high grades, and the like. But research shows that there is much more to giftedness than the academic ability and achievement that U.S. society values.  Conventional tests emphasize memory and analytic skill.

At least two other kinds of skill, however, are important to success in life: creativity and practical know-how.

Children need creativity to come up with many ideas, analytic skill to decide which of their ideas are worth pursuing, and practical know-how to apply them and to persuade others of their value. Although some people are more creatively, others more analytically, and others more practically gifted, at least some level of all three skills is important.  One of my gifted students, “Alice,” who was very strong analytically, for instance, got high test scores and excellent grades and was very good at analyzing other people’s ideas, but she was not so good at forming her own. Nor did she apply ideas flexibly. Her traditional academic giftedness had come at a price. She did well as long as someone told her what to do; otherwise, she was at a loss. Alice’s schooling probably had made her this way. She had been so heavily rewarded for her analytic giftedness that she had had no incentive to develop creativity and practical skill.

On the other hand, other individuals may be very creative but may fail to recognize which ideas are good ones. One student with whom I went to graduate school, “Jimmy,” was highly creative but found it hard to distinguish between good ideas and bad ones. He has not been as successful as he might have been if he had cultivated his ability to analyze the relative value of his ideas.  High IQ is a start toward giftedness, but only a start.

Creative individuals also benefit from practical skills. Many highly creative people spend their lives feeling frustrated because they cannot figure out how to persuade any-one to listen to them. Their underdeveloped practical skills leave them unable to attain the success they seek.

Other people have excellent practical skill but not analytic skill or creativity. Their talent lies more in persuading others to do things than in finding worthwhile things for them to do. Many heads of state, for instance, have misled their countries because their powers of persuasion and enforcement—their practical skills—are highly developed, while their ideas are not.

So parents and teachers should help their children develop not only their memory and analytic skill but their creativity and practical skill. To develop creativity, children should be engaged in activities that enable them to discover, invent, imagine, and suppose; to develop analytic skills,  they should be encouraged to evaluate, critique, compare, and contrast; and to develop practical skills, they should be given opportunities to use, apply, and implement. Moreover, parents should model the skills they wish their children to acquire.  Simply taking children to see a museum exhibition on dinosaurs, for example, will not help them develop their intellectual skills, but asking them analytic, creative, and practical questions relevant to the exhibition will: How did small dinosaurs protect themselves from large ones? What might have happened if the dinosaurs had not become extinct but had lived for many more generations? What do we have to learn from the dinosaurs? Why do we refer to some people as dinosaurs?

It may seem like a daunting task to try to develop all three kinds of skills—analytic, creative, and practical—in your child. But it is worth the effort.  Of course, it is important for gifted children, regardless of their abilities, and for their parents to bear in mind that few people are exceptional at everything they turn their hand to. Rather, most people succeed by identifying their strengths and weaknesses, making the most of the one, and finding ways to compensate for the other. At a talk once I said to the woman next to me that I wished I could speak as well as the speaker did. “That’s the wrong thing to wish for,” she remarked. “You should wish to find your own way to excel.” She was right. We all need to find our own path. 

—Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D.

Robert J. Sternberg is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University; director of the Yale Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise; and president-elect of the American Psychological Association.

Sternberg, Robert J., Ph. D. “What Does It Mean to Be Gifted?” Duke TIP. Duke Talent Identification Program, 2011. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.


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