Who are the gifted and talented

who are the gifted and talented

A Conversation with Giftedness Expert, Dr. Steven PfeifferPart 1

Steven Pfeiffer is a popular speaker on topics related to raising successful, high-ability children. He is Emeritus Professor at Florida State University. Prior to his tenure at FSU, Dr. Pfeiffer was a Professor at Duke University, and 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.

Dr. Pfeiffer has worked as a Pediatric Psychologist at the Ochsner Clinic and Medical Center in New Orleans and served as a Clinical Psychologist in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps. Trained as a clinician, Dr. Pfeiffer enjoys an active clinical and consulting practice, and speaks internationally on topics related to successful parenting and the social-emotional needs of high ability kids. Author of 200 articles and book chapters, he is lead author of The Gifted Rating Scales, published by MHS.  Among his most recent books, he authored Serving the Gifted (2013; Routledge) and Essentials of Gifted Assessment (Wiley; 2015). He is Editor-in-Chief of the APA Handbook on Giftedness and Talent (2017), Springer’s Handbook of Giftedness in Children (2018, Second Edition), and The Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted: What do we Know?, co-edited with Tracy Cross and Maureen Neihart (2015; Prufrock Press).

A long-time advocate for the socio-emotional needs of children, Dr. Pfeiffer testified at the White House and before the Italian Parliament. Eminent scholar Alan Kaufman of Yale University considers Professor Pfeiffer, “Among the small group of the world’s leading experts in the (gifted) field…”  His websites can be found at: Steven Pfeiffer Psychology and Gifted Assessment Insights.


There is a lot to explore with regards to the conceptualization of giftedness, so I’d like to start by narrowing our focus down. Imagine aliens arrive on Earth, and you have the task of communicating with them about the future of education on our planet. How would you describe giftedness to these aliens? What would be some key elements or pieces of information that they would need to understand to grasp the construct of giftedness fully? And by the way, these aliens have very short attention spans!

Dr. Pfeiffer:

What a creative and fun question to start off this interview! I would probably begin by taking the aliens on a tour.  I would show the aliens – hopefully they are friendly creatures! – a few ‘typical’ classrooms, both in the USA, and classrooms across the planet. So that the aliens could observe and make their own initial inferences about what actually occurs in typical classrooms, both in the elementary grades and in the middle and high school grades.

I’d also invite them to join me in observing gifted classes in action, both in the public schools and in private and boarding schools, and in summer programs. I would encourage them to make their own initial inferences and hypotheses about what they observed. Then I’d invite them to ask me questions about what they saw and their impressions of regular and gifted education (and special education!) on Earth.

My hope would be that they would accurately describe the state of affairs of regular and gifted education in 2019-2020 on Earth!  This would save me the chore of having to explain for them typical curriculum and instructional pedagogy on our planet!

Of course, I would explain the history of how we have defined “gifted” and the challenges that we still face – almost 150 years later – in agreeing upon our definitions and how to properly go about identifying gifted students! MHS, my test publisher, would insist that I show them our new Gifted Rating Scales products, as an example of how we’ve gone beyond the IQ test in identifying gifted students in the schools!

What would be particularly enjoyable would be to dialogue with them, over a nice bottle or two of wine, about the exciting innovations that are occurring here in the USA and internationally in terms of educational initiatives – for regular learners, special-needs students, and gifted learners. I think that it would be valuable to include discussions on what’s happening here in America and globally in serving special needs learners with disabilities.  To provide the aliens with a full and complete picture of the state-of-education here on Earth!

I guess I would invite a few colleagues in the gifted field to join me, people who, in my opinion, are some of the leading thinkers on gifted education – folks like Joyce VanTasel-Baska, David Yun Dai, Elizabeth Shaunessy-Dedrick, Sally Reis and Joe Renzulli, Carol Tomlinson, and Javier Touron, from Spain. We’d certainly need more than two bottles of wine with this group!


Wow! I would love to be part of that group discussion! It sounds like an event that we should organize. Even without the aliens, a conversation with all these leading experts would be out of this world!

Steven, many people still view high IQ as the defining element in gifted identification. As a school psychologist, I’m familiar with the research supporting the validity of the IQ construct, and I understand that IQ predicts school performance. I see how this can lead to the, in my opinion, outdated conclusion that high IQ equals gifted. I’m also aware of all the limitations of IQ tests and the many factors that can influence test-taking performance. Can you share your thoughts on the “high IQ equals gifted” line of reasoning?

Dr. Pfeiffer:

I’m happy to offer an opinion on this issue. As you may know, I actually wrote a book on this very topic, published by Wiley in 2015! Its title is, Essentials of Gifted Assessment. Readers interested in a more detailed discussion will find the book informative! And it’s easily available on Amazon.

There are many different ways to conceptualize giftedness. Not one way. The IQ equals gifted and gifted equals high IQ is but one, albeit a very popular way, that many educators and psychologists view giftedness. There are at least four popular and very different ways to conceptualize. The most well-known of the four is the traditional psychometric view- which puts great value on a youngster’s performance on an IQ test. Talent development models, on the other hand, don’t discount the IQ score, but emphasize the dynamic unfolding of a youngster’s abilities in concert with the important role that their environment plays in nurturing the unfolding of their abilities into domain-specific skills and talents.

The expert performance perspective certainly places the least importance on genetics, individual differences, or an IQ test score in explaining how an individual progresses from neophyte to competent and on to expert in any number of fields. Finally, the multiple intelligences model views high IQ intelligence as but one of many types of gifts that a person can have.

And a fifth model is my own, the tripartite model of giftedness. The tripartite model views high IQ as one of three types of academic giftedness. In my tripartite model, outstanding performance is a second type of giftedness. A child need not have a high tested IQ to be gifted, based on this alternative lens through which to view giftedness. And the third lens within the tripartite model is uncanny potential to excel.

What I’ve tried to explain is that not all of the models place the same importance on the IQ score in defining gifted. However, the IQ score still remains the pre-eminent metric, both here in the USA and globally, for defining gifted.

One final point bears mentioning. Today’s IQ tests are far superior to the first-generation IQ tests that I was trained on! The newer Wechsler Scales, Standford Binet-5, and Woodcock Johnson IV, and the Differential Abilities Scales-2nd Edition, for example, are all well-designed, carefully normed, and reflect our most recent thinking on the universally-recognized hierarchical Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory of cognitive abilities. They are reliable and valid-albeit not perfect, measures of intelligence!

To be continued….