Giftedness as a Social Construct

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If you are the parent of a gifted child, you most likely have had a hard time getting an appropriate academic environment for your child. You might have been told that your child is not really gifted, that all children are gifted, or that there is no such thing as giftedness. You know your child is more advanced that the majority of his peers. You also know that there are other children as advanced or even more advanced than your child. Doesn't that mean that giftedness exists and that your child is gifted? According to some people, no, that's not what that means. Some people believe that giftedness is what they call a social construct.

What Is a Social Construct?

Simply put, a social construct, or construction, is something that comes from the mind of man. It exists only because we agree it exists. That means that without humans "constructing" it, it would not exist. When we say "construct, though, we don't mean build, like we construct buildings or other tangible things. We mean we are constructing reality. That doesn't mean that there is no reality unless we construct it. For example, buildings exist where people live, but they are really more than buildings. Everything we think about those buildings is part of the social construct of "home." A social construct, therefore, includes our attitudes and beliefs. A home is more than just a house.

Different cultures have different social constructs because they have different belief systems.

History of Giftedness

Until 1869, there was no such thing as gifted children because the term had not yet been used. It was first used by Francis Galton to refer to children who inherited the potential to become gifted adults. Gifted adults were those who demonstrated exceptional talent in some domain, such as music or math.

Lewis Terman added high IQ to the concept of gifted children in the early 1900's. Then in 1926, Leta Hollingsworth published a book with "gifted children" in the title and the term has been used ever since.

However, the definitions of and views toward gifted children have changed and to this day we have no agreement on what giftedness is or how to define it. We have to work with a number of different definitions of gifted. Some definitions do not consider a child or adult gifted unless they can demonstrate that giftedness, which usually means excelling in school or in a field, while others see giftedness as the potential to excel whether that potential is reached or not.

The lack of consensus on the meaning of giftedness suggests to many people that there really is no such thing as gifted. It suggests to others that giftedness is a social construct that does not yet have a firm set of beliefs attached to it.

Values of Society

Different cultures value different traits. Many Western cultures value high intelligence in academic subjects like language and math. They also value talent in music and art. But other cultures value other traits, like the ability to track animals. In those cultures, high intelligence in math would not be valued.

This is the main reason some people believe giftedness is a social construct. After all, it is only because we value high intelligence and talent that we identify children as being gifted. In a culture that values animal tracking skills, those same children identified as gifted in Western culture would not be valued as much as those who were exceptionally skilled at tracking animals.

Giftedness Exists Whether It's Recognized and Valued or Not

There is no doubt that what we call giftedness exists. The same traits that we recognize as signs giftedness can be seen in children all around the globe and signs can be seen as early as infancy. The fact that those traits might not be valued by every culture does not mean they don't exist. Giftedness may be a social construct, and in a different kind of society, it might not be.

It is interesting to note that we first saw age grouping of children in public schools in 1848 and the idea of giftedness showed up two decades later. Without age grouping of children in school, we wouldn't need to single out a group of children who are more advanced than their peers. Children would just move along at their own pace without a need to compare them to other children. But because children are grouped by age, we can't help but notice differences in their abilities.

Now the concept of gifted children is part of our culture. What if we no longer grouped children by age? Would we still talk about gifted children or would we see all children as individuals with different academic needs?

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