How to Identify and Develop Special Talents - ASCD
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February 1, 1996

How to Identify and Develop Special Talents

It's time to rethink programs for “gifted” students and learn how to recognize and nurture individual talents.

Instructional Strategies

Teaching basic skills and subject matter—the fundamental duties of teachers—can be abundantly satisfying if done creatively and successfully. But finding and nurturing special talents in children and youth, and seeing those students and their talents blossom, are among the great joys of teaching. In fact, our task in school should be to do both—to teach basic skills well and as early as possible, and to identify and nurture students' strengths.

Where, then, does education for gifted children come in? Do we even need special gifted programs? I would say maybe not. Do we need challenging classes, high-powered and cognitively complex curriculums, and the flexibility to allow children to get into advanced classes? Emphatically yes. Do we need teachers and other mentors who are attuned to talent development? Yes, again.

What we really need is a new orientation in gifted education. We must move from the global conception of giftedness to the growing emphasis on identifying and developing talent in students. To help teachers and counselors do that, I will offer some specific guidelines. Before I do, however, consider the following three case studies and what they illustrate about the development of talents.

Ellen, Michael, and Anne

Ellen, a 13-year-old 9th grader, is an avid and talented creative writer who comes from a family of readers. Her mother spent much time with her on writing activities, and by the time Ellen finished kindergarten, she could read so well that she skipped 1st grade.

Ellen began to demonstrate a talent for creative writing in the 2nd grade. Her teacher provided many opportunities for story writing and noted Ellen's imaginative powers, large and effective vocabulary, and ability to write narratives. She submitted one of Ellen's stories to a national children's magazine, and to the delight of the teacher, Ellen, and Ellen's parents, it was accepted and published. Ellen's parents held a luncheon to celebrate.

The following summer, Ellen's parents retained a tutor to work with her on her writing. Now, six years later, her family and teachers continue to give her as many opportunities as possible in writing contests and with tutors. (She also plays the violin and is good in mathematics.) They have never labeled Ellen a gifted child, but they have spoken often with Ellen about her talents and interests.

Michael, 23, works as a paramedic team leader and as an instructor in a paramedic training program. He is caring, socially adept, and a true leader.

When Michael was only 8, his 3rd grade teacher noticed his leadership skills after giving him an opportunity to lead a small group of children in planning a project on endangered species. In middle school, Michael's poise and articulateness became apparent when he was elected president of a school club. As a high school student, he exhibited strength as a caregiver in a part-time job at a senior citizen center.

Michael was earning grades of B and C, but a number of people—including his parents, teachers, and school counselors—noticed his emerging strengths and helped him learn about careers as a paramedic and emergency health specialist. As a result, he entered a community college paramedic program from which he graduated with honors.

Anne was a classic C student in elementary school. Her parents and a string of teachers believed that she possessed no special talents but that she was skilled socially. It was not until Anne was in the 7th grade that a mathematics teacher noticed her substantial talent for mathematics. The teacher, who engaged her students in a lot of problem solving, discovery, and constructivist learning activities, urged Anne to take all the math courses she could. She also informed Anne's parents of her observation.

After that, Anne began to improve greatly in all her subjects and to emerge as a leader in clubs and other extracurricular activities. She graduated with honors from a highly competitive high school and went on to earn an MBA degree at one of the first-ranked business schools in the country.

From Gifted to Talented

What can we learn from the experiences of these three students? One lesson is that talent-oriented education builds a strong sense of self-efficacy, effective goal setting, and a personal commitment that can enhance students' specific achievements and lead them to higher-level career accomplishments. This is true whether students' strengths are academic (mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, foreign language); artistic (art, music, dance, drama); vocational (agriculture, home economics, computer technology, business, trade, industrial); or interpersonal (leadership, teaching, caregiving, psychology).

Our major goal should be to tailor learning arrangements, curriculums, materials, resources, and activities, as much as possible, to individual students or to small subgroups or whole classes of students whose readiness is the same. Some excellent research studies, summarized by Walberg (1986), clearly show that if young people, particularly at the elementary level, are placed in classes where the general curriculum and instruction fit their levels of readiness, they will achieve or learn at much higher levels than they would in heterogeneous classrooms. Further, they will look back on that placement—or acceleration as it is sometimes mistakenly called—as a personally satisfying experience.

Why, then, do I not recommend special programs for “gifted students”? One reason is that such programs, paradoxically, often are not tailored to the needs of individual students. The underlying assumption in such programs is that these students are all the same, when in fact their types and degrees of talent vary widely. Too often, gifted programs offer standard, weak, all-purpose enrichment without regard to special talents. They also use tests and rating scales in psychometrically indefensible ways to dichotomize youth as gifted or not gifted, surely a dreadful message to the “ungifted.”

Another problem with gifted programs is that they communicate to young people that their talent or ability is a fully developed entity, an orientation that Dweck and Leggett (1988) have shown leads to some maladaptive learning behaviors. By contrast, the two researchers found that viewing talent as something that develops incrementally leads to more productive learning behaviors.

Stages of Talent Development

In the early years, children's talents may be quite undifferentiated. They may be limited to what Gagne (1991) calls the “basic giftednesses” (intellectual, creative, socioaffective, and sensorimotor aptitudes), or what Gardner (1983) calls the seven “intelligences” (logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal). As children experience varying environments at school, at home, and in the community, they demonstrate more specific strengths or aptitudes.

  • 4–10 years: Growth in cognitive control through exploration and observation

  • 10–13 years: Talent development through mentors, models, contests, apprenticeships

  • 13–18 years: Commitment to talent development, idealism, blending self with talent

  • 18–22 years: Crystallization of talent with a career choice

Six Strategies

Research shows that teachers do not need lengthy training to recognize and develop talent, only the orientation and motivation to do so. Here are some strategies that both teachers and counselors may find useful.

  1. Commit yourself to the role of talent scout. Be alert to signs of talent in four areas—academic/intellectual, artistic, vocational/technical, and interpersonal/social. Bloom (1985) reminded us that the process of identifying talents should begin early and be viewed as a continuous process of ever better delineation of students' strengths, interests, and learning-growth styles. It is not a one-shot process that tests and pronounces a child gifted or not gifted at a particular time, but rather an ongoing process, using learning experiences, tests, and feedback from teachers and parents. Above all, students and their parents should have a growing awareness of the student's talent strengths, interests, and learning styles. Children who quickly learn long division, or later how to divide complex fractions, may be showing signs of math talent. Talent may also be demonstrated by those who write poetry with striking images, who are conversant in political events, who write excellent reports on science experiments; who demonstrate skill in painting, music, or drama; or in producing projects in business, agriculture, shop, or home economics. The teacher's role is to point out these strengths to the child and parents, and to use achievement test results to further verify the possibly emerging talent. Teachers may also observe students being particularly good in leadership roles, in social interaction, or in helping others to gain insights. Feldhusen (1993) recommends that teachers take notes on file cards for each student to use in the second strategy, below.

  2. Structure some learning activities that give students particularly good opportunities to demonstrate their talent potential. Students with literary talent, for example, can exhibit their emerging abilities by writing poetry, stories, or descriptive prose; science students can brainstorm questions about an animal or compound, then design projects or research to answer their own questions; history students can study historical figures and conduct in-depth analyses of individual leaders; and math students can work in small groups and search for alternative ways of representing and solving classical math problems .In all these instances, the door is opened for students to exhibit critical thinking and interests, as well as initiative and skill in planning, organization, and leadership. Whole class and small group discussions also are useful because they call for less teacher talk, direction, and control and more student initiative.

  3. Recognize and reinforce signs of talent through praise. Praising specific talented behavior gives a student a sense of self-efficacy in that talent and encourages its growth (Schunk 1991).

  4. Help students who have shown signs of talent in a particular area to set learning goals in that area. In a classroom research project, Siegle (1995) has shown that students who are assisted in setting such goals are more apt to realize growth and superior achievement in that area. Siegle has shown, too, that with only one hour of inservice training, teachers can learn to effectively pinpoint student talent strengths and help them set goals.

  5. Locate resources to help foster students' talents. These include reading material and computer facilities; area libraries and museums; mentors; clubs and competitions; Saturday and summer programs offered by the school or community; artistic performances; and so on. A number of school districts and communities publish directories of resources for student talent development.

  6. Share your observations of budding talents with students' parents, and enlist the parents in the effort to identify and nurture their children's talents. The parents' role in talent identification and maturation is powerful. Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues (1993) and Bloom (1985) have shown that substantial parent support is required not only in identifying talents but also in helping children to obtain needed resources and experiences, in reinforcing their progress and building their sense of self-efficacy, and in encouraging goal setting behavior and a commitment to long-range, high-level talent development. Of course, the role of parents necessarily diminishes as the student grows older. By ages 16–18, students themselves must take increasing responsibility for developing their talents and pursuing career goals.

Talent Is Where You Find It

In sum, a major premise of talent-oriented education is that all students deserve instruction and learning opportunities at a level and pace that are appropriate for their current development and talents. Teachers and counselors at all grade levels and in all areas must do a better job of identifying and developing the talents of students with average and low potential, as well as those with very high potential. They can do this within any instructional arrangement—heterogeneous inclusion classes, pullout classes, or special classes for honors or advanced placement students.


Bloom, B. S. (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Ballantine Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., K. Ratundi, and S. P. Whalen. (1993). Talented Teenaagers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dweck, C. S., and E. L. Leggett. (1988). “A Social-Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality.” Psychological Review 95, 2: 256-273.

Feldhusen, H. J. (1993). Individualized Teaching of the Gifted in Regular Classrooms. West Lafayette, Ind.: Star Teaching Materials.

Feldman, D. H. (1992). “Intelligences, Symbol Systems, Skills, Domains, and Fields: a Sketch of a Developmental/Contextual Theory of Intelligence.” In Proceedings from the Edyth Bush Symposium on Intelligence, Blueprinting for the Future, edited by H. C. Roselli and G. A. MacLauchlan, pp. 97-121. Winter Park, Fla.: The Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation.

Gagne, F. (1991). “Toward a Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent.” In Handbook of Gifted Education, edited by N. Colangelo and G. A. Davis, pp. 65-80. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Schunk, D. H. (1991). “Self-Efficacy and Academic Motivation.” Educational Psychologist 26: 207-231.

Siegle, D. (1995). “Effects of Teacher Training in Student Self-Efficacy on Student Mathematics Self-Efficacy and Student Mathematics Achievement.” Unpublished doctoral diss. University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn.

Walberg, H. J. (1986). “Synthesis of Research on Teaching.” In Handbook of Research on Teaching, edited by M. C. Wittock. New York: Macmillan.

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