This is an article published in 1995 as:

Piirto, J. (1995). Deeper, wider, broader: The pyramid of talent development in the context of the giftedness construct. Educational Forum, 59. (4), 363-371. Guest editor: John Feldhusen.

 Jane Piirto, Ph.D.
Trustees' Professor
Ashland University


ABSTRACT: The author presents a framework she has developed, a "Pyramid of Talent Development," and places this in the context of a "Giftedness Construct."

Current thought from the U.S. Office of Education seems to indicate that the term gifted "connotes a mature power, rather than a developing ability," and that the term talent is more generic, for talent can be found by "observing students at work in rich and varied educational settings" (National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent, 1993, pp. 26, 27.)

Contrary to popular exhortation, which says that we should educate outstandingly talented children because they are the "natural resources" of our country, the position taken in this essay is that all children are natural resources, and that the talented children have no greater obligation than any other children to be future leaders or world class geniuses. They are children who are individuals with educational needs.

A Pyramidal Framework 

Taking into account the shifting winds in the Zeitgeist surrounding the field of the education of the gifted and talented, and building upon them, the author developed her own philosophical position (Piirto 1994a) which was put into a pyramidal framework. The necessities for a child to realize his or her talent potential are in three areas. These three areas are influenced by the environment and by heredity. We do not know which has the major influence.  Piirtopyramid.htm

Personality Attributes

First, at the base of the pyramidal framework, certain aspects of personality are already present or must be cultivated. These personality attributes have been documented and re-documented by most of the primary researchers in the field of the education of the gifted and talented as well as in the work of psychologists studying people who achieve, and the cited references present but the tip of the iceberg in the empirical and qualitative studies that have been done in this area.

Among these are aggressiveness (Simonton 1984, 1992, 1994); androgyny (Barron 1968; Cziskentmihalyi, Rathune, and Whalen 1993; Piirto and Fraas, 1995); curiosity (Tannenbaum 1983); self-discipline (Renzulli 1978); flexibility (Davidson 1992); imagination (Piirto 1992); the presence of overexcitabilities, called OEs (Piechowski 1979; Silverman 1993); persistence (Renzulli 1978); perfectionism (Silverman 1993); resilience (Jenkins-Friedman 1992a, b); risk-taking (MacKinnon 1978; Torrance 1987); self-efficacy (Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons 1992); Sternberg and Lubart 1992); stubbornness (Simonton 1992, 1994); passion for work in a domain (Benbow 1992; Bloom 1985; Piirto 1992); intuition (Myers and McCaulley 1985); perceptiveness (Myers and McCaulley 1985); volition (Corno and Kanfer, 1993) and insight (Sternberg and Davidson, 1985; Davidson 1992).

Csizksentmihalyi, Rathune, and Whalen (1993) said such personality attributes make up the autotelic personality, where "flow," or the ability to tap into optimal experiences is accessible. These aspects of personality are present in some way in highly effective people.

Minimum General Ability

Second, there is a minimum general ability, or IQ, threshold that is different for different manifestations of talent. We do not know what the minimum is, but there is general agreement that the highest levels of IQ are not necessary for most manifestations of adult talent. Simonton (1984) thought it was about 120. Freeman (1986) thought that after two standard deviations above the mean, IQ is not terribly predictive of innate ability but of home environment. So-called general ability functions as a cognitive threshold so that the person can conduct everyday life or intellectual life if such is the case. The general ability is in the center of the pyramid, and is the mortar, for while one cannot discount the presence of general ability, recent thought seems to indicate that general cognitive ability has been over-emphasized as a component in the realization of talent potential. For example, developmental research on the acquisition and development of Piaget's "formal operations" has shown that the notion of the high IQ as being a general indicator of the ability to reason has not been borne out (Berninger & Yates, 1993).

In addition, few theories of giftedness have looked at adults. The data are now in, and practitioners and theorists in the field should look at longitudinal, empirical, and retrospective studies (e.g.: Baird, 1985; Simonton, 1984, 1988, 1994; Subotnik & Arnold, 1993; Subotnik, Karp, & Morgan, 1989; Subotnik, Kassan, Summers, & Wasser, 1993; Tomlinson-Keasey & Little, 1990). Such studies show that the relationship between high IQ and life achievement is not as sharp as would be desired. For example, the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman had a tested IQ in high school, of 125, yet his biographer titled his book, Genius (Gleick, 1992). Feynman's accomplishments were great enough to merit him that appellation. Feynman's originality, imagination, aggressive personality, curiosity, and talent for theorizing in physics contributed to his being called a genius.

Generally speaking, as Renzulli (1978) pointed out, above-average scores on an intelligence test seem to be enough for the manifestation of talent, for social effects and talent also enter in. A high IQ does not hurt, and is necessary, especially in science talent, as Simonton (1994) pointed out. However, depending on the test given, IQs will vary. A philosopher needs an IQ about 160 (Simonton, 1988) while a performer might need an IQ of 100 (Piirto, 1992), though a performer needs an extraordinary physical and verbal memory.

Specific Talent in a Domain

Third--and this is logically necessary--there must be specific talent in a specific domain such as visual arts, music, literature, No one asks talented dancers or actors what their IQs are, for their abilities, like those of athletes, are in their bodies, their kinesthetic and emotional memories. Specific talent in a domain is the peak, the top, of the pyramid.

Environmental "suns"

These three are the structure of the person, and they are influenced by six "suns." Environmental factors and their influence on development have long been studied and many educators believe that the child's access to positive situations in the home, in the community, in the school, as well as the influence of genes, the influence of gender, and what "luck" has presented make the difference between whether a talent is developed or whether it atrophies. Csikszentmihalyi et al. (1993) stated that it is a miracle that talent does get developed because there are so many external factors that impinge on optimal development. Even when significant talent is present, no matter what the intellectual ability or what the personality attributes, the talent may or may not be developed depending on the influence of several or all of these six environmental influences.

In "at risk" talented students, for example, only a few of these environmental suns may be present; other talented students may be fortunate enough to have all six present. When one or more of the environmental factors is absent or diminished, the school must make a special effort. For example, a student whose home life contains trauma such as divorce or poverty may be so involved in that trauma that the talent cannot be emphasized. The school's role becomes to recognize the talent and to encourage lessons, mentors or special experiences that the parents would otherwise have provided had their situation been better.

(1) the "sun" of home and family is key: talent seems to be nurtured in families (Feldman and Piirto 1995). Actors breed actors (the Fondas, the Redgraves, the Sheens); professors breed professors (Margaret Mead); race car drivers breed race car drivers (the Unsers, the Pettys); athletes breed athletes (the Ripkens, the Roses); artists breed artists (the Wyeths, the Renoirs); writers breed writers (the Cheevers (Cheever 1984), the Updikes); musicians breed musicians (the Graffmans, the Bachs) (Albert 1990; Brophy and Goode 1988; Goertzel and Goertzel 1962; Goertzel, Goertzel, and Goertzel 1978; Simonton 1984, 1988, 1992). Family propensity or interest must be taken into account in any consideration of development of talent although there are many people who demonstrate a talent that the family has not nurtured at all, showing that having a supportive family helps but that talent can be developed with the help of the other "suns" in the pyramidal framework, especially the help of the school.

(2) The "sun" of community and culture is absolutely essential: social psychologists describe the effect of the Zeitgeist on whether or not a person's invention will be recognized or valued. At a macro level, the simultaneous invention of insulin by Banning and by others, the simultaneous invention of HZT, the simultaneous or near simultaneous appearance of similar theories, indicates that the Zeitgeist is ready for the paradigm shift. On a micro level, for example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who would today have been called an "at risk" child, credited his mother, his church, and his school sports and academic participation for keeping him on the path to developing his strong rhetorical talents (Frady 1992).

(3) The "sun" of gender is a very important factor: for example, Subotnik, et al. (1993) in their study of high IQ students who attended the Hunter College Elementary School noted that the women averaged $40,000 in income per year while their classmates had a mean income of over $100,000, even though the women had more Ph.D., M.D., and J.D. degrees.

(4) The "sun" of genes, or heredity cannot be discounted. The fascinating studies going on at the University of Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart have uncovered that many heretofore accepted environmentally-influenced choices that people make (e.g. vocational choice) are, compellingly, indicated by genetics (Moloney, Bouchard, and Segal 1991).

(5) The "sun" of chance may be essential. The mere accident of geography, where one is born, can have an important influence. For example, when the author was the principal of a school for high-IQ children in New York City, casting agents for theater, movies, and television would often visit, for they liked our children's verbal ability. They would choose children to audition by seeing whether they had the "look" needed for the project: the children's acting talent was second. The children's luck for living in Manhattan, New York City, USA, was a mere accident of birth that launched several on their acting careers.

(5) The "sun" of school is a given. For example, the schools train scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and certain inventors, through a process called course-taking. Musicians, dancers, visual artists, and athletes need special talent development, usually through a coaching model. Allen (1992) differentiated between "two orders of artists-- creators and performers." He called creators "creative artists," and performers "re-creative artists" (p. 199). Special schools such as conservatories and studios should exist to serve those who need intensive talent development in the arts or sports. Schools have a duty to find, and help, those children whose "luck" may not have permitted them to be born into an environment that will nurture their great potential. In all cases, the school is merely an environmental factor in the development of talent, but the school can be either a powerful shaper or a deterrent to that development.

For example, when one or the other or all of the suns of home, genes, community and culture, gender, or chance are not shining brightly in a child's life, the sun of the school must expand and shine very brightly, in order to compensate. When all the suns are shining with full light, the sun of the school can take its equal place. When one or some of the suns are dimmed, the school must become a warm spotlight of talent development.

The giftedness construct

Researchers (Baird 1985; Hoge 1988) have pointed out that although studies are available, no studies have included the lower cognitive ability children, to see whether lower cognitive ability children would have done just as well in life, especially if they went to college, or if their "suns" of environment were present in relatively equal magnitude.

People have indicated that the exact words don't matter, but as a poet and a studier of words (Piirto 1994b), the author would like to here indicate that it is, by now, evident, that what has been called the giftedness construct can be made more functional and helpful when the field decides on accurate terminology. All kinds of talent make up the giftedness construct. When calling a person "gifted," we should be accurate in our language. If we mean high IQ; that is, if we identify a child's talent potential by means of an IQ test, we should say high IQ talent.

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If we say a child is creative, do we mean the child scored high on a divergent production test or ranked high on a creativity characteristics checklist? Then we should say the child has cognitive divergent production characteristics. We should not confuse creativity with either of these two identification tools. Whether creativity is a construct or an aspect of personality is not yet clear (Piirto 1992, 1994a). If we identify a child's talent potential by means of an an academic achievement test, we should say academic talent. Academic talent may or may not be synonymous with high-IQ talent, especially if the child with a high IQ does not get good grades or high scores on a standardized achievement or ability test such as the SAT or the ACT. If we identify a child's talent potential by means of expert opinion and concrete products within a domain such as music, visual arts, theater, dance, or athletics, we should call that talent musical talent, visual arts talent, theater talent, dance talent, mechanical talent, athletic talent and the like. If a child can relate with skill and grace to others, enhancing their lives with his/her presence, we should call that talent relationship talent. If we notice that a child has talents in several areas, we should say the child has multiple talents. Accuracy in naming the talent will clarify our thinking about talent.

All these talents could be shown to be within a giftedness construct. This would be a comprehensive and inclusive model, with high IQ being helpful especially in realizing science talent, mathematics talent, and verbal talent, as well as other academic talents that are generally the province of people in the professions. Then there would be creating talent, performing talent, mechanical talent, spiritual talent, relationship talent, and other talents that do not require a high IQ, though having high general ability is always a plus. For example, the performing talent of athletics requires the ability to move the body in space, and the mechanical talent of being able to sew or suture requires small or fine motor ability, another manifestation of what Gardner (1983) calls bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The creating talent of musical composition requires the auditory ability to hear acutely in one's head, various combinations of musical notes and rhythms or musical intelligence (Gardner, 1983), while the creating talent of easel painting requires the ability to see or visualize colors, forms, shapes (spatial intelligence) and to place these in harmony on a given space (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence).

This postulated giftedness construct should include all forms of talent. Schools and colleges should focus on academic talent; conservatories, camps, and special programs and coaches can focus on the other talents. Creative talent is present in all the other talents. Maslow (1968) called such creative talent a general propensity for doing everything in a creative manner. He also delineated domain-specific creativity as being able to be creative in one field of activity where one has demonstrated talent.

Once we are exact about our terminology, we can better serve the student's needs, for exact terminology leads to clear thinking. The somewhat justified, pervasive, and ringing charges by critics of the field that we are elitist and have fuzzy definitions should be met with a philosophy of talent development where individual talent needs and rights can be realized. The current high interest in the schools in Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (1983) can serve as a spur to talent development in general in the context of an expanded giftedness construct.




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