Part 2 – Interview of Dr. Steven Pfeiffer, first author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS) and noted authority on giftedness and talent development

This blog is a preview of an interview with Steven Pfeiffer, GRS author, conducted by Dayana Sanchez, bilingual school psychologist and CEO/Founder of 2e Minds. The full interview appears in an upcoming blog post at 2e Minds was created to provide guidance and resources for twice-exceptional (2e) students and their families. Check out the website to learn more about “how to assist 2e children in identifying their strengths, embracing their learning differences, and building essential skills to thrive and tap into their highest potential.”

INTERVIEWER: There are a few conceptualizations of giftedness that I appreciate and use to guide my work with high ability children. I’m an advocate of Joseph Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, which proposes that gifted behaviors are the result of an interaction of three clusters of traits: creativity, above-average ability, and task commitment. I also appreciate your Tripartite Model of Giftedness and find it very valuable in my work with twice-exceptional (2e) children. Can you share the key elements of your Tripartite model and the implications of viewing giftedness through each of the three lenses? 

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. There are educational conceptualizations, like Professor Joseph Renzulli’s brilliant three-ring conception. There are also political conceptualizations, philosophic conceptualizations, and psychometrically-driven conceptualizations. The psychometrically-driven models, in fact, are the ones most often taught in school psychology and clinical psychology training programs. No one conceptualization is correct. They are all simply different ways to view kids (and adults) who are, in some way, special or unique.

In addition to Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conceptualization, other often-cited models include Julian Stanley’s mathematically and verbally precocious model (SMPY), Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, Francoys Gagne’s developmental, differentialted model of giftedness and talent (DMGT), and Nancy Robinson’s psychometric model- which I was trained on during my graduate school days at UNC-Chapel Hill. There is also Robert Sternberg’s wisdom, intelligence, creativity, synthesiezed (WISCS) model. And dozens others!  Each of these models presents unique ideas and perspectives that tries to explain what is meant by students of “uncommon” or exceptional ability and promise.

The models are similar, but in a few ways, they have unique wrinkles. For example, some of the models view giftedness as unique qualities and characteristics inherent within the child. In other words, gifted kids  are born gifted and are different from kids who aren’t born gifted. Other models view giftedness from a more dynamic, eco-systemic and developmental perspective; the unfolding of abilities that require thoughtful planning and nurturance over time. The most recent consensus among most authorities is that giftedness is best viewed as specific, not generic, and that the expression of giftedness occurs within particular domains. I tend to agree with this position- at least by ages 8, 9, and 10.  

Over the course of my work with high ability students, I developed what I consider a practical model for academic giftedness based on my experience “on the sidelines” as a parent of a young, gifted athlete. Watching my young daughter’s athleticism and skills in soccer nurtured and developed over the years as a member of the U.S. Olympic Development Program helped me formulate my tripartite model of giftedness. The tripartite model offers three different apertures to focus on kids who might be gifted. identify. The tripartite model incorporates these three distinct but complementary lenses or apertures through which one can view giftedness.

The first lens I call the High Intelligence perspective. This first lens is familiar to most readers. An IQ test or its proxy (for example, the SAT test for college admissions) is used to identify students who are functioning at a certain cognitive ability level, considerably above average. This first lens can employ a general [“g”] or multi-dimensional view of intelligence (for example, Cattell-Horn-Carroll model (CHC), structure of intellect, or multiple intelligences view). It can even be based on the newer, neuroanatomical models of giftedness that are appearing in the scientific literature. This first lens views giftedness and high IQ as strongly genetic, and well-established at birth. The rationale for gifted programs based on viewing giftedness through this first aperture of High IQ is that students with superior intelligence need and/or are entitled to advanced, intellectually challenging, and/or more fast-paced academic material, not typically found in most regular classrooms. Another assumption of this first lens of the tripartite model is that students are entitled to special gifted education services throughout their public education.

The second perspective or lens of the tripartite model is called Outstanding Accomplishments. This second viewpoint does not minimize the importance of the IQ or intellectual ability. However, through this second lens, there is a heightened emphasis on a student’s performance in the classroom and on the success of performance on academic tasks. According to this second lens, evidence of academic excellence is the sin qua non to qualify as a gifted student and to qualify for admittance into a gifted program, nor high IQ.  Gifted identification, embracing this second aperture, includes assessment of academic performance – evidence of “authentic” academic excellence. Evidence of creativity is often emphasized when viewing giftedness through this second lens. Obviously, the importance of motivation, drive, persistence and passion- clearly non-intellectual factors- are all considered highly relevant when viewing giftedness from an Outstanding Accomplishments lens. These non-intellectual factors are recognized as impacting the talent development of all students, and critical for high-level academic performance in the classroom (and in life!).

The rationale for gifted programs based on an Outstanding Accomplishments perspective is that students who excel academically have earned and deserve special academic programs because of their outstanding effort and superior classroom accomplishments. Gifted curricula typically would consiste of highly enriched and academically challenging material. Within this second perspective, students are not viewed as “gifted for life.” One practical and exciting implication of the Outstanding Accomplishments perspective is that re-assessments should be conducted every 2-3 years, with opportunities for new students to qualify to enter gifted programs.

The third and final lens of the tripartite model is what I call Potential to Excel. What I mean by this third type of gifted student, within the tripartite model, is that some children – for any number of reasons – have not been provided enough opportunity or stimulation to develop what remains latent and as yet undeveloped or under-developed intellectual or academic gifts. This third group is based on my experience working with many students of unactualized, but obvious high potential, the experience of countless others, and an abundant body of compelling research that I cite in my book, Serving the Gifted.      

I think that we all agree that not all students start out on an equal footing. Some children from poverty, families in which intellectual and educational activities are neither encouraged nor nurtured in the home or community, or in which English is not the primary language spoken in the home, children growing up in rural or overcrowded or dangerous communities where intellectual stimulation and educational opportunities are rare, are all at a distinct disadvantage to develop their gifts. I frequently label kids in this third group as the “almost or potentially gifted student.” From this third perspective or aperture, the student with high potential to excel is viewed as very likely to increase her tested IQ and/or her academic performance when provided with special resources and special attention. The assumption is that with time, an encouraging and stimulating environment, and the proper array and dosage of psycho-educational interventions, these students will eventually actualize their yet unrealized high potential and distinguish themselves from among their peers. There is, in fact, some compelling research to support this very notion. Gifted programs for this third group, the Potential to Excel, should consist of highly motivating and enriched curricula that may include compensatory activities.

I hope that this provides a succinct overview of the Tripartite Model and some of the implications for identification and gifted education programming.