What we think about gifted children matters, for both professional educators and parents, and there must be a shared understanding if the relationship between the two is to be productive and happy. 

That idea may initially sound strange — we all know what giftedness means, right? — but the truth is that there is not necessarily a universally agreed-upon definition, even within a particular school district, and certainly not from one state to another, as shown in NAGC’s most recent State of the States report.

Is a child of IQ 160 gifted? Assuredly so, and you’ll likely not find much disagreement on that example. However, what about the child at IQ 140? What about the child at IQ 135 whose academic performance is average, or even terrible? 

(For that matter, about that child with IQ 160 — if they are not performing well in school, is that child’s giftedness really “there,” and what, if anything, does the school need to do about it?) 

Paradigms of Giftedness

As you might imagine, this “fuzziness” about the concept of giftedness makes it difficult, if not impossible, for schools to create robust programming to challenge and engage these students.

However, there is enough agreement that some patterns emerge. A review of the literature and survey of schools reveals three paradigms of gifted education: the gifted child paradigm, the talent development paradigm, and the differentiation paradigm. This three-part theoretical framework is most notably described in detail by David Yun Dai and Fei Chen in their 2013 book, Paradigms of Gifted Education: A Guide to Theory-Based, Practice-Focused Research.  The distinctions between these perspectives are small but significant, in that they inform schools’ curriculum and programming even if a school does not explicitly belong to or endorse one perspective or another. For parents, it’s important to understand the way a school sees giftedness to fully understand the goals of their programming and evaluate its “fit” for their child. Educators need to recognize which of the paradigms they subscribe to — and which one their school subscribes to, especially if they are not aligned.

The Gifted Child Paradigm

An older and perhaps more familiar conceptualization of giftedness is called the gifted child paradigm. Dating from the earliest days of gifted education as a field — Louis Terman’s work on IQ in the 1920s — it asserts that general intelligence is a quantifiable thing, and that exceptionally high intelligence should be identified so it can be addressed with educational interventions specifically designed for such students. Leta Hollingworth’s work on profoundly gifted children is cut from the same cloth, arguing that the obvious intellectual capability of these children both needs and deserves special attention to develop optimally.

In Hollingworth’s hands, however, the gifted child paradigm changed slightly to include a different “flavor:” the social-emotional impact on children of very high intelligence. Hollingworth emphasized that the giftedness of such a child is an intrinsic part of their very being; that its impact is pervasive throughout their lifetime; and that their cognitive and social-emotional development require interventions tailored to their specific needs.

gifted child paradigm

People who live with gifted children would likely heartily agree with the idea that they are not just bright or fast learners, but that they are qualitatively different in a number of ways from typical children. They are more emotionally sensitive and that they seem to experience the world differently than typical children do: they can see the very same things as their age-peers and yet think very different things, reflecting more complex or higher-order thinking, more connections to seemingly distantly-related topics, and/or more emotional intensity.

This paradigm may have the earliest roots of the three we will describe, but it is arguably still quite influential. In fact, many of the most influential thinkers in gifted education today are proud members of Team Gifted Child. The Columbus Group, comprised of psychologists, parents, educators, and researchers, defined giftedness this way in 1991:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally. [emphasis mine]

People who adhere to the gifted child paradigm also generally recognize that these children “march to the beat of their own drummer,” in the words of psychologist Ellen Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. This description again points to a conception of giftedness that is far broader than increased intellectual capacity, implying that there is a fundamental difference in the way gifted children live in the world.

Giftedness as an intrinsic part of a child makes intuitive sense to those who know or love such children: it is impossible to imagine them without the unique sensibility that animates them, the quirky sense of humor, the wildly voracious curiosity. They are all defining characteristics of that child, the things that set them apart, in ways flavored both like “odd” and like “extraordinary,” simultaneously. How could you possibly separate a gifted child from their gifted-ness?

Like all paradigms, this perspective can be problematic

One clear problem with the gifted child paradigm — for both educators and for policymakers — lies in the means of identifying students. Traditionally, IQ tests are used, though some states employ achievement tests or even parent or teacher nominations as part of their identification practices.

The trouble is that these identification practices might actually not be very good at doing this job, and if so, the number of students identified is of necessity smaller than the actual number of gifted students out there, leaving many gifted students under-served or even ignored. There have in fact been innumerable studies pointing out tests’ weaknesses, such as cultural bias (sometimes implicit, other times less so), which is why new types are constantly being developed and existing instruments continually refined.

gifted child paradigm quote from Einstein

Consequently, the gifted child paradigm, having enjoyed the longest tenure, has had plenty of time to create a lack of equity in access to programming, as evidenced by substantial underrepresentation of students from various groups, including but not limited to: students of color, female students, students from rural areas, students from families of low socioeconomic status, English language learning students, etc. There is simply no way to fully excise historical privilege and inequity from instruments created by human beings to quantify other human beings, as this data clearly shows. Purdue University provides an in-depth analysis of underrepresentation in gifted education in the United States in their comprehensive report, System Failure Access Denied if you are interested in learning more.

The other immediate issue with this concept is that intelligence tests are, in fact, not very good at capturing all the different kinds of giftedness we see in the world. An extraordinary pianist, for example, might not necessarily have strong verbal skills; a stellar athlete might not exhibit strong quantitative reasoning skills; and a student with leadership gifts might score in the perfectly average range on all kinds of IQ measures — yet all three of these students may have gifts that are obvious and clearly head-and-shoulders above what we expect of children their age. Lacking an instrument to precisely measure their degree of excellence is a terrible reason not to cultivate and nurture their capabilities, no matter what the discipline.

The very “-ness”-ness of it

In the end, the gifted child paradigm is not going anywhere, despite its weaknesses; after all, the “-ness” in “giftedness” denotes an ongoing state of being, not a secondary or temporary characteristic.

On the plus side, though, the gifted child paradigm’s insistence on the intensely personal nature of giftedness does point to the necessity of tailoring educational interventions to individual children, an outcome many educators and parents alike would consider ideal. Additionally, it includes the idea that cognitive gifts are not only expressed academically but also impact children’s social-emotional development, a position which rings true both in and out of the classroom.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the paradigm’s recognition of a child’s giftedness as a central, inextricable part of their being is closely aligned with what many educators and parents instinctively believe — and gifted children, themselves, often agree: their giftedness is part of who they are, not what they do.

Looking for more?

This article is one in a series about paradigms of gifted education. Subscribe to our monthly Gray Matters newsletter for future posts and more insights and resources for the amazing children you parent and teach.


Columbus Group (1991, July). Unpublished transcript of the meeting of the Columbus Group. Columbus, Ohio.

Dai, D. Y., and Chen, F. (2013). Paradigms of Gifted Education: A Guide to Theory-Based, Practice-Focused Research. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Dai, D. Y. (2005). Reductionism versus emergentism: A framework for understanding conceptions of giftedness. Roeper Review 27, 144-151.

Dai, D. Y., and Chen, F. (2013). Three Paradigms of Gifted Education: In Search of Conceptual Clarity in Research and Practice. Gifted Child Quarterly 57: 3, 151-168.

Puryear, J. S. (2015). Paradigms of gifted education and why they matter. Presentation at NAGC’s annual conference. Phoenix, November 2015.

Winner, Ellen. (1997). Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. New York: Basic Books.

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