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 also have been told that your child is not really gifted, that all children are gifted, or that there is no such thing as giftedness.

Yet you know that your child is more advanced that the majority of their peers. You're also aware 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 human mind. It exists only because society agrees it exists. This 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 just 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, as do different aspects of society.

History of Giftedness

The term "gifted" was first used in 1869 by Francis Galton, who referred to giftedness as a trait exhibited by adult achievement. Galton also acknowledged children of "gifted adults," who inherited the "gifted gene" and therefore, had the potential to become "gifted adults" themselves. Gifted adults were those who demonstrated exceptional talent in some domain, such as music or math.

In the early 1900s, psychologist Lewis Terman established that high IQ was marker for giftedness in children. But psychologist Leta Hollingsworth believed there was more to giftedness than an IQ score and that children could be gifted in one area, but not in others. In 1926, she published Gifted Children, Their Nature and Nurture, and the term "gifted" has been used widely ever since.

However, the definitions of and views toward gifted children have changed and to this day, there is no universal consensus 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 are able to 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 is why some people feel there is no such thing as "gifted." It suggests 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, such as interpersonal and social intelligence. In those cultures, high intelligence in math may not be as valued.

This could help explain why some people believe that giftedness is a social construct. Western society tends to view high intelligence and talent as markers of giftedness in children. In a culture that values interpersonal skills over academic scores, those same children may not be recognized by some Western cultures as gifted, despite that they display exceptional talent in another area.

Giftedness Exists Whether It's Recognized and Valued or Not

There is no doubt that varying degrees of giftedness exists. Different signs giftedness can be seen in children all around the globe and some traits can be detected as early as infancy. The fact that certain traits might not be valued to the same extent 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's interesting to note that after educational reformer Horace Mann introduced the first age grouping of children in American public schools in 1848, the idea of "giftedness" showed up two decades later. Without age grouping of children in school, we wouldn't necessarily 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 their age. Because children are grouped by age, it is easy to notice the differences in their abilities.

Now the concept of gifted children is engrained in our culture. What if we no longer grouped children by age? Would we still talk about gifted children or would we recognize that all children are individuals with different academic needs?

3 Sources
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By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.