Are All Children Gifted? (Part One)

I am starting the New Year with a deliberately controversial post. Part One establishes the controversy; Part Two will consider some specific examples.

A few weeks ago I had a lively debate with several fellow Tweeters about whether every child has talent. It could just as well have been about whether every child is gifted.

I am always suspicious of statements that begin: ‘Every child…’, especially when they drop from the lips of educational experts. Perhaps the only one I would willingly and immediately endorse is ‘Every child is different’, which tends to undermine almost every alternative formulation one can possibly contemplate.

Where do I stand?

Just occasionally I will use the phrase ‘every child has gifts and talents’. At one level this is just a vague and populist statement – the kind that every parent wants to hear – meaning ‘every child is rather better at some thing(s) than others’.

But, at a deeper level, it is shorthand for the position I hold on the ever-vexed question of the interaction between nature and nurture in the determination of ability; a position that I believe reflects a broad consensus (though several authorities defend positions that lie outwith these parameters).

In my view, the cumulative weight of evidence tends to support the position that:

  • Every child has a unique mix of inherited dispositions which influences their relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as the relative strength of those strengths and weaknesses. (Such dispositions relate to eg motivation, resilience, self-esteem, as well as to narrower conceptions of ability.) It follows that, while all will have some vestiges of ability, some will inherit a relatively greater propensity towards high ability (and high achievement) than others;
  • Every child’s development is influenced significantly by their environment – including their educational environment – and by the interaction between their inherited dispositions and that environment. There is a range of wider environmental factors related to eg poverty, community, parental education and aspiration. Educational environment has a smaller but still significant impact through the development of ‘learned ability’, as well as through the translation of ability into achievement. Some educational environments and practices may be significantly more conducive than others, offering eg universal high expectations, an ethos supportive of excellence and proper emphasis on a ‘growth mindset’. More accurately perhaps, one might say that some learners experience a better match between their dispositions and their (educational) environment, since every child is different;
  • Consequently, heritability and environment are both significant determinants of ability. In some cases, environmental benefits will compensate for limited heritability and, in others, the opposite will be true. It follows that someone with limited heritable ability can compensate through learned skills and effort – and someone blessed with heritable riches may need to try less hard. But these two factors are not always easy to unravel (eg effort cannot be regarded solely as a product of environment, unaffected by heritable dispositions). Typically though, heritability and environment are relatively balanced: we might expect each to account for some 40-60% of the causation of ability, though there will be exceptions.

I should emphasise that this is not a fixed position. The language is far from perfect (especially since I haven’t defined my terms) and, even more importantly, I am always ready to adjust the argument to reflect new evidence and new learning.

But, that aside, when I say ‘every child has gifts and talents’, my statement really stands proxy for the first segment of this explanation, which will not stand without the other two legs of the argument.

Stress Testing ‘All Children Have…’ Arguments

When I encounter ‘all children are gifted’ statements made by others, I find that they tend to fall into one of four different categories:

a. value judgements (occasionally descending into vacuous idealism);

b. politically convenient rhetoric designed to bolster an anti-elitist or non-elitist stance;

c. shorthand for the broad consensual position I have outlined above, or something relatively similar;

d. a justified ‘outlier’ position, most often advanced by those who see giftedness as a social construct and nothing more.

Part Two of this post will look at examples of each of the latter three categories.

When such statements are proffered, three related questions help to determine exactly what is meant:

  • First, is the word or phrase that completes the statement properly defined, in a way that is easily understood, and without relying on additional terminology that is itself not properly defined?
  • Second, is the word or phrase deployed consistently in the rationale that follows, assuming there is a rationale, or is there unhelpful switching between ill-defined variants? In gifted education, some of these explain orders of magnitude (eg mildly gifted, highly gifted, profoundly gifted) but, leaving these aside, an embarrassment of riches remains: is gifted, has gifts, is talented, has talent, has a talent, has talents, has ability, has abilities, is able, has potential, is creative…and so on.
  • Third, and most importantly, is there a clearly defined comparator? Depending on the nature of the word or phrase, one hopes to be clear that the statement:
  • identifies a positive feature relative to other features of that individual, or
  • identifies a positive feature relative to that individual’s peers.

In the case of the latter, it is also important to know how the peer group is defined. Is it the child’s class at school for example, or every single child of that age, or every child regardless of age?

If one applies these three tests to my basic phrase ‘every child has gifts and talents’ it is clear that it fails on all three counts.

But I am not alone in such inexactitude. In 99% of cases, the underpinning rationale for ‘every child… statements will not pass muster when these three simple tests are applied. Worse still, the user is often not aware – or refuses to accept – that this is problematic.

Value Judgements, Political Rhetoric and Outliers

More often than not, the phrase is no more than a value judgement, or a broad ideological belief, rather like a belief in God. This happens all too frequently in contexts that masquerade as serious educational research.

All too often, the speaker or writer fails to admit this explicitly, preferring his auditors or readers to assume that a belief, if it is strongly enough maintained, automatically becomes an indisputable fact.

Religious authorities are particularly prone to such behaviour, and so are politicians, but it is also prevalent amongst educationalists, who should know better.

In a field like gifted education strong personal feelings and beliefs are aroused. Such value judgements are often articulated by educators who – rightly or wrongly – perceive gifted education to be exclusive and elitist.

The same goes for politicians, who tend to wield such statements when they wish to distance themselves from criticism that they are elitist in their educational beliefs and in the educational policies that they pursue. It is attractive, politically, to align oneself with the ideal of unlimited equality of opportunity – and sometimes this converts into the kind of statement this post is concerned with.

Sometimes such statements are posited on the idealistic belief (not usually well evidenced) that every single human individual begins life with unlimited capacity to excel – and that this capacity is only diminished as a consequence of shortcomings in their environment, including their educational environment.

I am not averse to being persuaded that such a position is factually true – and not a value judgement – but that would require a convincing explanation of why heritability has no impact on the ubiquity of this capacity to excel, when there is broad consensus that heritability and environment are both significant factors in determining such capacity, or its absence.

The ‘outliers’ who maintain that such capacity is predominantly heritable or, more likely, (almost) exclusively determined by environment seem to me to have scant evidence to support their positions. Those who see giftedness as a social construct might even argue that such evidence is irrelevant.

The Twitter Discussion

What better way to end this first part than to reproduce the bulk of the Twitter exchange I referred to above.

I do not offer this illustration with the intention of belittling or mocking the positions adopted by my interlocutors, but rather to exemplify the kinds of statements that get made during such discussions.

Some learning points for me were:

  • We tend to feel very strongly about such issues because they strike to the heart of our most fundamental educational and philosophical beliefs;
  • For some people, what we say is less important than how we say it. Evidence is necessary to belief for some people, while others hold fundamental beliefs regardless of the evidence. Effective communication between these two ‘types’ can be problematic;
  • Sometimes we are too ready to jump to conclusions about what others stand for: we project our own ‘anti-beliefs’ rather than really listening to what our interlocutor is saying. This can make our respective positions seem antithetical when they may actually be relatively similar;
  • It helps if the meaning of core terms is thrashed out at the outset, otherwise there is huge scope for misunderstanding;
  • Such discussions are nevertheless helpful in clarifying our own perceptions and understanding, as we are invited to defend our position against a rapid-fire critique from very different perspectives. They may be unlikely to help us reassess where we stand, but they may help to confirm and clarify our positions.

Of course I am biased but, if you ever need an example to prompt discussion in a learning setting about differing perceptions of gifted education, you may be pushed to find one better.


January 2012


4 thoughts on “Are All Children Gifted? (Part One)

  1. Only one comment, until you drop the other shoe (which I suspect will fall in a position that’s okay with me):

    Julian tweeted: “Can’t assess all talent as you so rightly point out-ESP creativity!”
    You replied: “But that last ESP reference lost me anyway. Are you allowed to teach that stuff?”

    You didn’t get a response (or if you did, you didn’t show it).

    I am pretty sure that Julian was using all caps for emphasis on a shortened “ESPECIALLY” rather than suggesting Extra Sensory Perception creativity.

  2. Hi Josh

    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. I don’t think I had a response to that Tweet (I really did have to clean the bathroom). Now you point it out, ‘especially‘ makes a lot more sense than ‘extra-sensory perception’!

    Had I realised he was saying that you can’t assess creativity, I might have asked why not?

    I’m no expert on creativity, or on assessment for that matter, but I’m not at all sure I accept that creativity is unassessable. I suppose it is relatively hard to assess unless embodied in a creative product, but I’m pretty sure there are tests around that purport to measure the raw trait.

    I have a hunch that you know a lot more about this than me. How would you have replied to that statement?

  3. The closest to a response to that that you got was “Are you allowed to teach that stuff?” I laughed.

    There are many tests that purport to measure the raw trait, the most famous of which, arguably, is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. While I am not going to assess the creativity tests… I will simply observe that we are far better at assessing how creative a person is after there is product than figuring out which person will come up with the most creative work years in advance.

    One of my favorite studies was initiated in 1950, testing a group of men (27 years old) in intelligence, personality, and creativity – and then testing them at age 72, 45 years later.

    But it is a tricky thing, susceptible to bias on the part of the subject who is trying to make a positive impression:

    All in all, I would probably have suggested that assessing creativity, when doable, is really best done by other creative and intelligent people rather than by instrument.

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