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What is Giftedness?

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The quick response is that there is, as yet, no universally agreed upon answer to this question. Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures. Even within schools you will find a range of personal beliefs about the word "gifted," which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance.

NAGC does not subscribe to any one theory of the nature of human abilities or their origins. We assert that there are children who demonstrate high performance, or who have the potential to do so, and that we have a responsibility to provide optimal educational experiences for talents to flourish in as many children as possible, for the benefit of the individual and the community.

Current Definitions

Although interpretations of the word "gifted" seem limitless, there are a handful of foundational definitions that may be categorized from conservative (related to demonstrated high IQ) to liberal (a broadened conception that includes multiple criteria that might not be measured through an IQ test).

National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC)
Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains.  Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).

The development of ability or talent is a lifelong process. It can be evident in young children as exceptional performance on tests and/or other measures of ability or as a rapid rate of learning, compared to other students of the same age, or in actual achievement in a domain. As individuals mature through childhood to adolescence, however, achievement and high levels of motivation in the domain become the primary characteristics of their giftedness. Various factors can either enhance or inhibit the development and expression of abilities. To read the NAGC position paper, Redefining Giftedness for a New Century:  Shifting the Paradigm click here. 

A person's giftedness should not be confused with the means by which giftedness is observed or assessed. Parent, teacher, or student recommendations, a high mark on an examination, or a high IQ score are not giftedness; they may be a signal that giftedness exists. Some of these indices of giftedness are more sensitive than others to differences in the person's environment.

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Federal Definition 
This definition is taken from the Javits Act, which provides grants for education programs serving bright children from low-income families:
"The term gifted and talented student means children and youths who give evidence of higher performance capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools in order to develop such capabilities fully."

US Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) (1993)
In the report titled National Excellence and Developing Talent, the term "gifted" was dropped. This definition uses the term "outstanding talent" and concludes with the sentence:
"Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor."

State Definitions of Gifted and Talented
Each state has its own definition of gifted and talented.  Click here for a complete listing.

Other Definitions from the Field

Columbus Group: "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."

Gagné: Gagné proposes a clear distinction between giftedness and talent. In his model, the term giftedness designates the possession and use of untrained and spontaneously expressed natural abilities (called aptitudes or gifts) in at least one ability domain to a degree that places a child among the top 10% of his or her age peers. By contrast, the term talent designates the superior mastery of systematically developed abilities (or skills) and knowledge in at least one field of human activity to a degree that places a child's achievement within the upper 10% of age-peers who are active in that field or fields. His model presents five aptitude domains: intellectual, creative, socioaffective, sensorimotor and "others" (e.g. extrasensory perception). These natural abilities, which have a clear genetic substratum, can be observed in every task children are confronted with in the course of their schooling. (Gagné, F., 1985)

Renzulli: Gifted behavior occurs when there is an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits: above-average general and/or specific abilities, high levels of task commitment (motivation), and high levels of creativity. Gifted and talented children are those who possess or are capable of developing this composite of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance. As noted in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, gifted behaviors can be found "in certain people (not all people), at certain times (not all the time), and under certain circumstances (not all circumstances)."

A Brief History of Giftedness

Although people with exceptional ability have been celebrated across the ages, the use of the word "gifted" in an educational sense is relatively recent. In the late 1800s, Dr. William T. Harris, Superintendent of Schools in St. Louis, discussed a plan for the acceleration of gifted students so they would have more challenging work and not fall under the spell of laziness.

By the early part of the 20th century publications such as "Classes For Gifted Children: An experimental study of method and instruction" (Whipple, G. M., 1919) and "Classroom Problems in the Education of Gifted Children" (Henry, T.S., 1920) used the term "gifted" to describe students who are able to work through the curriculum faster, and whose work is measurably different from that of average students. Then, in 1921, Lewis Terman began his famous study of genius. He believed that nurturing academically exceptional children was essential for our country's future. He used the term "genius" in the title of his book, but later referred to the subjects in his study as "gifted," which established that label in our educational vocabulary.

Click here to view a timeline of gifted education.

More Information

Read the ERIC Digest article, "Giftedness and the Gifted: What's It All About?"

ABC's of Gifted, Start here to learn more about raising and educating a gifted child.

Frequently Asked Questions 

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) has compiled a list of each state's Gifted and Talented Definitions, along with a chart listing different terminology used within the definitions.

Access NAGC's Glossary of Gifted Education Terms

"A Snapshot of Intelligence" from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) 

"Why Do We Need to Define Giftedness" by Rhode Island Advocates for Gifted Education (RIAGE)

"Intelligence Theory and Gifted Education" from the Indiana site on the History of the Influences in the Development of Intelligence Theory and Testing

Parenting for High Potential, June 1997: "President's Column: Let's be Intelligent about Intelligence " by Carolyn Callahan. The article addresses the relation of intelligence to test scores and other factors.


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

National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent - October 1993

Renzulli, J. S. (1978). "What Makes Giftedness? Re-examining a Definition". Phi Delta Kappa, 60: pp. 180-181.