The talent development model for gifted education has enjoyed increased prominence recently, notably in the scholarly work of researchers Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Rena Subotnik, Frank Worrell, and others. Olszewski-Kubilius directs Northwestern University’s eponymous program for children; originally a sister program to the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins and Duke’s Talent Identification Program (now sadly defunct). Northwestern’s 35-year-old Center for Talent Development consciously spotlights this paradigm, featuring this self-description on its landing page: “Unique and Challenging Academic Programs That Develop Children’s Talents So They Can Shape Their Future.” On their main webpage, the word “gifted” appears only twice — once describing working with schools and teachers to “reimagine gifted education” and once parenthetically, offering that “gifted education services” are among the opportunities they provide to the students they serve. CTD even operates some programs that are open to all interested students without requiring test scores or other scholastic/intellectual data, offering classes which “encourage students to think deeply and creatively and to learn to problem-solve. They are an introduction to the CTD learning environment and a chance to delve deeper into interesting topics.”
These choices — of language and of admissions criteria — are neither accidental nor arbitrary. By offering opportunity without “gatekeeping,” CTD can reach many more children, some of whom might have slipped through the identification processes in many schools. Participating students are able to explore topics in many domains and to discover strengths that might otherwise have gone unaddressed. This is the heart of talent development: less emphasis on identification as a prerequisite for access to programming, shifting focus instead to offering opportunities for students to discover strengths in themselves which can then be cultivated.
How did Talent Development…develop?
The talent development paradigm developed beginning in the late 1970s at UConn with Joe Renzulli’s three-ring conceptualization of giftedness (Renzulli, 1978). Since then, it has enjoyed increasing prominence in response to the growing recognition in the 1990s and early 2000s that gifted programs relying solely on IQ to identify students were overlooking (whether intentionally or not) many children who would benefit from gifted education. Sometimes, these students’ gifts were either not the “schoolhouse giftedness” easily demonstrated on tests (to use a term Renzulli himself coined); however, the field increasingly recognized that the problem of underrepresentation of particular populations in gifted programming was a larger and more pervasive issue than had been previously acknowledged or understood, and that addressing these disparities was an urgent need across the country.
A more technical understanding of the context of talent development can be called “emergentism,” described most fully in David Yun Dai’s work in the early 2000s. Central to this concept is the idea that “only by exposure and transactional experience with certain environments can specific forms of superior human potential emerge and take shape” (Dai, 2005). Echoing Renzilli’s work, then, it is up to parents and educators to offer students as wide an array of experiences as possible in order to discover the areas in which their potential is greatest, then allow them opportunities to pursue that area of interest and high potential.
The primary distinction of this perspective from other paradigms is that it places giftedness in a developmental context from childhood through adulthood rather than conceiving of it as a hardwired binary “on” or “off”-type phenomenon. Here, giftedness is a more malleable construct, with capabilities and possibilities that shift and change as the child develops. Additionally, as its name implies, talent development emphasizes nurturing a child’s potential with the goal of driving them towards achievement more than simply identifying that potential: after all, what good is it to know that a child is gifted if we do nothing about it?
Walking different paths
Another distinct feature of the talent development paradigm is its interest in domain-specific trajectories; researchers Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell have generated substantial psychological and educational scholarship exploring the stages of achievement through which one must pass in order to achieve eminence in a number of widely varying fields such as acting, culinary arts, dance, mathematics, computer programming, and sports.
Generally speaking, the path from beginner to mastery moves through stages: thinking, knowledge, skills, understanding, and creativity, the last of which is necessary to achieve distinction in any given domain. While domains differ greatly in terms of optimal age to being instruction or training, nearly all trajectories include close study under a mentor as well as multiple “gatekeeper” inflection points along the way that winnow the field of participants as they amass expertise. There is a great deal of variation within domains, as well: there is disparity between trajectories in mathematics versus history and between dance and musical performance, for example (Subotnik et al., 2011).
This perspective on cultivation of potential is tremendously positive in that it asserts that there is plenty of room for students of all kinds to shine, whether in creative endeavors, athletic pursuits, leadership opportunities, or academic disciplines. However, such multifarious avenues for development can also put a burden on educators and families for which they are not necessarily prepared: how, for example, are we to define and identify potential for achievement in such a wide array of pursuits? And is our educational system — or our society, in general — organized so teachers can effectively act as “talent scouts” who can direct students towards the resources and training that will help them develop optimally?
Bloom where you’re planted — if you’re planted
If one were to drop one seed into a pot of soil and another onto a sidewalk, no one would be shocked by which one grows and flourishes and which does not. The one on the sidewalk may well surprise us — it might exploit a crack in the concrete and thrive despite its initial circumstances* — but such a trajectory is far more likely to be an exception rather than the rule. Is it fair to determine that these seeds should have different outcomes, given that one lives in an environment that is rich with resources and the other one is starved of what it needs?
The talent development model conceptualizes giftedness as contextual, a quality that can be more or less “visible,” or expressed, depending on the circumstances in which the child is educated. Programs that have a talent development alignment focus on creating richer educational environments for students at earlier ages: if the seed on the sidewalk is picked up at some point and put into a pot with soil, that stubborn and hardy little thing might suddenly burst into remarkable growth and development — perhaps even outperforming the seed who has been in that pot for its whole life.
Simply put, what if every seed lived in a soil-filled, sun-soaked, well-watered pot?
The seed that improbably survives and thrives despite its initial on the sidewalk is, I think we would all agree, a rarity. Such exceptional outcomes are often reported in a “human interest story” format, in which they may serve as lovely and uplifting stories about overcoming the odds. However, under these circumstances, a larger public unaware of the vanishingly small prevalence of this trajectory might come to misapprehend an agglomeration of such anecdotes — to believe that they constitute data — about the ability of any/every child to rise above a negative environmental situation to become successful. While heartwarming, such a belief does not serve the vast majority of such children, as it undercuts the urgency of addressing educational inequities.
Arguably, this perspective on giftedness is achievement-centered rather than child-centered and emphasizes the expression of a child’s giftedness. It focuses on the externalizing of giftedness — on doing rather than being — which makes ensuring high engagement in education even more crucial: what good is giftedness if “it’s in there” but not “doing” anything?
Its focus on the external may frustrate those whose concerns about gifted children are centered more on the social-emotional aspects of giftedness and how it can change a child’s way of experiencing the world. However, the perception of giftedness as dynamic offers an avenue of opportunity for more diverse students whose potential goes unrecognized and undeveloped: “giftedness involves continual doing, changing, and becoming,” in alignment with what we already know about development throughout childhood (Dai, 2005).
Olszewski-Kubilius emphasizes the nurturing of potential rather than the performance of giftedness, explaining that “the talent development framework emphasizes the deliberate cultivation of psychosocial skills supportive of high achievement, persistence, and creativity rather than leaving these to chance.” This insistence on long-term, intentional mentorship of children’s potential is in keeping with other research on achieving expertise, including that of Malcolm Gladwell (he of the 10,000-hour rule) and of Angela Duckworth (a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant recipient whose work focuses on grit). Additionally, it is in keeping with what we know about mentorship as the educational intervention with the most significant effect size for gifted children, according to a metastudy of thousands of scholarly articles on gifted education (Rogers, 1991).
Talent Development creates a culture of learning
While it may have its detractors, a talent development model should be part of education across the board, for gifted and typical students alike; we have known for a long time that some students are “early bloomers” or “late bloomers,” after all. Similarly, we know that providing a rich, highly engaging educational environment benefits all students, regardless of their ZIP code, background, or age.
The talent development paradigm’s more inclusive approach to potential is a promising way to move the field towards a more equitable distribution of resources and programming. One researcher characterizes it thus: “The aim of the talent development paradigm is mainly to cultivate a broader, more diverse range of strengths and interests and to help students achieve excellence in their chosen areas” (Dai, 2005). Perhaps this optimistic, dynamic outlook can help ameliorate the underrepresentation that both plagues those not identified and robs society as a whole of the benefits we might realize from a more diverse population in gifted programming.
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.
Olszewski-Kubilius, P. and Thomson, D. (2015). Talent development as a framework for gifted education. Gifted Child Today 38(1) 49-59.
Renzulli, J. S. (1978). What makes giftedness? Re-examining a definition. Phi Delta Kappan 60, 180-184, 261.
Rogers, K. B. (1991). A best-evidence synthesis of research on accelerative options for gifted students. In N. Colangelo, S. G. Assouline, & D. L. Ambroson (eds.) Talent Development: The Proceedings from the 1991 Henry B. and Jocelyn Wallace National Research Symposium on Talent Development (pp 406-409), University of Iowa, Trillium Press.
Subotnik, R.F., Olszewski-Kubilius, P., and Worrell, F.C. (2019). Environmental factors and personal characteristics interact to yield high performance in domains. Frontiers in Psychology 10:2804. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02804