Friday, February 8, 2013

What's in a Name? Gifted or High Aptitude Learner?

In my last blog post, I urged educators to identify a new term for “giftedness” since the label incites so much controversy (see “Let’s not call them gifted”). Although the term is not going to disappear any time soon, new alternatives still need to be explored. Given an opportunity for a change in terminology, what might constitute an improvement?

A term like “high aptitude learner” could describe gifted abilities without provoking so much debate. Use of a more technical-sounding name is less likely to generate an emotional reaction. The label of giftedness can inspire fantasies implying that a child is somehow more special and beloved. If a more technical, descriptive term were used, there might be less deliberation over whether one’s child is special or not. School administrators would not have to apologize for presumably offering an “elitist” program supporting special kids. When a term describes a variation in learning ability, not a judgment about a child’s inherent value as a person, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with the task of education.

Secondly, the new term focuses on aptitude, or “a natural ability to do something” ( Aptitude reflects one’s innate capacity to master something, referring to potential and what is sometimes seen as raw ability. While talents and abilities must be nurtured and developed, they are sometimes unfairly linked to images of pushy parents, flash cards, prep classes, or tracking. Misperceptions about aptitude sometimes lead to assumptions that gifted children are either pampered, privileged kids who have received every available learning opportunity, or conversely, have been rigidly bombarded with intensive academic demands, mountains of homework, and expensive tutoring.  While these unfortunate stereotypes may be the reality for some children, regardless of intellectual ability, they do not contribute to aptitude. Mastery of a skill involves learning, practice and experience; innate ability is not something that can be taught.

Finally, the concept of learning is essential to the new term. Learning continues throughout life; it does not begin and end with formal schooling. This is why most high aptitude learners demonstrate exceptional learning capability long before they start elementary school, and why they continue to seek out and absorb information at a higher level as adults. It also may explain why some run into conflicts with peers, spouses and co-workers as they adamantly espouse their complex view of the world, sometimes with little patience for those who fail to grasp their perspective. (This impatience, grounded in their quicksilver learning pace, will be the subject of a future blog.) Many high aptitude learners thrive on acquiring knowledge throughout life, obtaining great joy from the act of learning once they have moved beyond the constraints of traditional education.

Although I prefer the term “high aptitude learner,” in future posts, I will use this term and “gifted” interchangeably. “Gifted” is still the formally recognized label, and until consensus for another name is reached, it may be less confusing to use the more familiar terminology.  Hopefully, continued dialogue among education professionals will result in the eventual revision of the term, so that there is less time wasted in debate and more time devoted to education. 


  1. I could not disagree with you more. As an advocate for gifted children, I feel that you definition ( as well as the entire movement toward talent development) leaves out a critical aspect of the gifted experience.In 1982, gifted advocate and legend Annmarie Roeper utilized her decade long years of research with gifted children to create her own definition of giftedness, stating “Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.” The majority of the public is not aware that giftedness has an emotional as well as an intellectual component. The concept of giftedness was broadened throughout the years to include a larger segment of the population in part, as an attempt to make it less elitist (Silverman, 1995). The change was driven by the acceptance and popularity in the community with Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory and his disdain for the IQ test. In accordance with this movement, the Columbus Group (1993) provided a new definition of giftedness that reads, “children and youth with outstanding talent perform or who the potential to perform at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared to others of their age, experience, or environment.” This movement from the term gifted to talented appears to move the focus on a child’s accomplishments and many feel that something critical is lost in the process. The shift in thinking focuses on a child’s performance in a particular area and this negates an entire realm of the gifted experience. In The Moral Sensitivity of Gifted Children and the Moral Evolution of Society, Silverman (1995) warns that this one dimensional view of giftedness neglects the interrelated constructs of the gifted experience in a way that provides a message to gifted children that their value is determined solely by their performance. In doing so, we lose the humanness and moral dimension of gifted experience. I agree with Jim Delisle (2001) in In Praise of Elitism when he says, “if being an elitist means that I believe gifted individuals need to be understood as the complex intellectual and emotional beings that they are, then I suppose I am elitist. I feel that the field has moved in a negative direction with the movement toward talent development because of its focus on achievement.

  2. Rebecca,
    Thank you for your comprehensive response. I actually don't think my post was in disagreement with what you state. I am not in favor of "achievement" as an indicator of giftedness. In fact, I was suggesting aptitude as another construct to move away from that assumption. However, I see your point that the term aptitude can preclude the understanding that giftedness incorporates the emotional sensitivities. Unfortunately, the term "gifted" also precludes that understanding and incites a range of controversy among people who resent the term. Regardless, gifted individuals require advocacy. I appreciate your energy toward that effort.