The Tripartite Model of Giftedness

Steven Pfeiffer is first author of the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS). He is a popular speaker on best practices in gifted assessment and how to raise successful and psychologically well-adjusted gifted kids. He is Emeritus Professor at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was a Professor at Duke University, where he served as Executive Director of Duke’s gifted program, TIP. He also served as Director of Devereux’s Institute of Clinical Training & Research, headquartered in Villanova, PA.  Author of over 200 articles and book chapters, he is lead author of the Gifted Rating Scales, published by MHS (

The Tripartite Model of Giftedness

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. Sternberg and Davidson suggested at least twenty different ways to view giftedness in their 2005 book. The alternative models imply different ways to define, conceptualize, identify, and nurture what we mean by kids with gifts. The different models reflect, in part, to what extent we view giftedness as a disposition within the child vs. a more contextual view of developmental conditions necessary to allow some individuals to demonstrate superior performance in real-world, culturally valued domains.

My model, the tripartite model of giftedness, is not contradictory to any of the major models that most readers are familiar with. In fact, the tripartite model incorporates elements from a number of the more popular models.  The tripartite model is a practical model, developed based on my experience working closely with highly gifted youth during my tenure as Executive Director of the Duke TIP summer programs. The tripartite model provides three different ways of viewing students with high ability or extraordinary potential. The tripartite model offers three different, complementary ways to conceptualize, identify, and provide evidence-based psycho-educational interventions for gifted learners. The three distinct lenses through which high ability students are viewed within the tripartite model are as follows:

  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of high intellectual ability;
  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of outstanding performance and accomplishments; and
  • Viewing giftedness through the lens of potential to excel

The first perspective of the tripartite model, the high intelligence view, is familiar to most readers. This first view dates back to Charles Spearman and Lewis Terman. Applying this first lens, an IQ test score or cognitive ability test score, or its proxy, can be used to identify students functioning at a certain level considerably above average intellectually. The criterion for high intellectual giftedness should be based on compelling, and scientifically reliable, evidence that the youngster is advanced intellectually, when compared to her or his same-age peers. The first perspective of the tripartite model can follow a general (g) or multidimensional view of intelligence. For example, the popular C-H-C model of cognitive abilities fits nicely within this first lens for viewing giftedness.  However, applying the first lens to operationalize giftedness could also be guided by any other of the other models of human intelligence, such as the structure of intellect model, multiple intelligences, or even recent neuroanatomical models of intelligences. The point of the first lens of the tripartite model is that high intellectual ability defines giftedness.   

The rationale for gifted programs based on viewing giftedness through the first lens of the tripartite model is that students with superior intelligence need, and benefit from, advanced, intellectually challenging and often more fast-paced academic material not typically found in the regular classroom. Based on this first lens or perspective, gifted education would be arrayed to reflect highly accelerated and/or academically advanced and challenging pedagogical approaches. The Johns Hopkins and Duke TIP summer programs are two examples.

The second perspective of the tripartite model views giftedness through the lens of outstanding accomplishments. This second perspective does not scoff at or minimize the value or importance of cognitive ability. However, the second perspective does emphasize viewing giftedness through the lens of a student’s actual performance in the classroom and performance on real-world projects as a core defining characteristic for giftedness in the schools. As we conceptualize giftedness applying the second lens of the tripartite model, evidence of real-world excellence compared to other same-age peers is the sine qua non to qualify a student for gifted programming. Not a high IQ test score. Standardized and rigorously developed portfolio and rubric assessment of actual student products are the templates that should be used to identify high-performing students as gifted through this second lens of the tripartite model.  

Viewing giftedness through the outstanding accomplishments lens, educators, school administrators, school psychologists, and parents would be looking for direct and incontrovertible evidence of authentic academic excellence. Creativity could be emphasized when viewing giftedness through this second lens, since we often expect ingenuity and creativity in judging outstanding real-world thinking and accomplishments. When we developed the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS), now revised and newly standardized with a teacher and parent form (GRS-2), we intentionally considered items such as displays an active imagination and generates many ideas to what if questions for the scale, reflecting our appreciation for the value of reliable assessment of classroom evidence of high levels of creativity. 

The rationale for gifted programs based on an outstanding accomplishments perspective is that students who excel academically have earned and deserve special academic programs and services because of their consistently outstanding effort and superior accomplishments. Gifted education, based on this second lens of outstanding accomplishments, looks somewhat different from gifted education guided by a high intelligence perspective. For example, gifted programs would consist of highly enriched and academically challenging curricula, although not necessarily fast-paced or highly advanced.

The third lens or perspective of the tripartite model is called potential to excel. What do I mean by this third way to view giftedness? In my clinical experience, and in consulting with many educators over 40 years, I have come to appreciate that some children and youth -for any number of reasons, have not been provided nearly enough opportunity or intellectual stimulation. I have also come to recognize that all-too-often, many children are not provided exposure and development of facilitative socio-emotional skills and attitudes that make a real difference in the expression of academic success and intellectual competence. This third perspective of the tripartite model is supported by a growing body of research (for example, Nisbett’s work [2009]). I am sure that most readers can identify with this third perspective and can think of one or more students that they taught or worked with who possessed latent, not-actualized high potential.

Most of us agree that not all children start out on equal footing -on a “level playing field.” Some children from poverty, immigrant families, from homes in which intellectual and academic activities are neither encouraged nor promoted, or children growing up in overcrowded or dangerous communities with limited community or neighborhood resources or educational opportunities, are at a distinct disadvantage to develop their gifts. This was the rationale for the third perspective within the tripartite model

The third perspective implies a prediction that students of high potential will likely flourish and excel when provided with “just the right” special resources and psycho-educational interventions. The assumption underlying this third perspective of the tripartite model is that with time, an encouraging and highly stimulating environment, and the proper social-emotional interventions, these students will actualize their yet unrealized high potential and distinguish themselves from among their same-age peers as gifted and talented.

Gifted programs guided by a potential-to-excel perspective should consist of highly motivating and enriched curricula and instructional approaches that may actually require compensatory interventions. This third category of gifted carries with it a prediction. The prediction is that if the identified student is provided a well-conceived, comprehensive and “high-dosage,” evidence-based set of psycho-educational interventions -often requiring an integrated home component -then she or he will thrive and ultimately appear almost indistinguishable, or at least very similar to, students who are already identified as falling within one of the other two gifted categories, high intelligence or academically gifted learner.

There isn’t a good deal of empirical research supporting -or refuting, for that matter -the hypothesis that there exists this third type of gifted, the diamonds in the rough. Children and youth who will flourish in astounding ways with well-designed and intensive psycho-educational interventions. It is apparent that the psycho-educational interventions need to be comprehensive and high dosage to compensate for the early, missed educational and psycho-social experiences and opportunities. It is also apparent that the earlier educators and school psychologists can identify these young, high potential students, the more likely a number of them will respond favorably to the planned, evidence-based psycho-educational interventions. This is a very exciting and promising area of research opportunity, both in the USA and globally. When we developed the Gifted Rating Scales (GRS), including the new parent scale (GRS-2), we intentionally included non-intellectual rating scale items ( ). We wanted to have behaviors that could be reliably rated that measure motivation, drive, persistence, academic passion and socio-emotional maturity – things that we believe help identify this third group of gifted children and youth -the diamonds in the rough. These items on the new GRS-2 teacher and parent scales reflect important, non-intellectual factors that differentiate successful from less successful gifted students.

In summary, these three categories of the tripartite model constitute three different types of bright children, which reflect different levels and profiles of cognitive and social-emotional abilities. However, the three groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, there are many students with exceptionally high IQ score who are also academically gifted learners with a burning passion to learn. The tripartite model, was developed, in part, to reduce much of the acrimony often found in the gifted literature and in the schools when one group of educators, administrators or parents advocate for adopting only one, typically narrowly defined view of giftedness that reflects only high IQ. The tripartite model intentionally goes beyond viewing giftedness as a unitary quality inherent within the child. It embraces multiple ways to view gifted learners, including recognition of non-intellectual factors, the role of the family and environment, and dynamic, developmental considerations. Interested readers may find my 2015 book, Essentials of Gifted Assessment,published by Wiley, informative ( ). The book details how to operationalize the tripartite model.