An Introduction to Gifted Learners

Gifted special education policies and practices are dictated by each province or territory. Each province and territory differ in its definition of giftedness. Within each province or territory, the educational opportunities available differ on a school division by school division basis.

How is giftedness defined?

In Ontario, the definition of giftedness is currently:

An unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated.

Ontario Ministry of Education[1]

However, this definition hasn’t been updated since 1980, and doesn’t reflect how “conceptions of intelligence and giftedness have expanded considerably in recent years”, according to a 2016 review by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB).[2]

The Association for Bright Children of Ontario (ABC Ontario), a charitable advocacy group, offers a more in-depth definition of intellectual giftedness:

Asynchronous development characterized by measurable, advanced intellectual abilities which accompanied by any or a combination of the following: heightened intensity, exceptional creativity, persistent intellectual curiosity, rapid acquisition and mastery of concepts, superior reasoning and problem-solving skills, leadership capacity, potential for advanced achievement in a specific domain or general academic aptitude.[3]

What is the prevalence of giftedness?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011-2012, there were 3.2 million students[4] enrolled in gifted programs. That same year there were 83 million students[5], representing about 3.8 percent of the population.

There are currently no national estimates of giftedness in Canada.

While estimates of intellectual giftedness in the general population have ranged from 1 percent to 20 percent, a safe estimate is that 10 percent of the population are at least “mildly gifted or talented”.[6][7]

What are the origins of giftedness?

Giftedness is the result of both genetics[8]and socialization.[7]

Physically, gifted brains are bigger and more measurably active. MRI scans show that the gifted brain has longer and more dendrites… and a greater inter-connectivity between different areas of the brain. This heightened activity can lead to insightful and intuitive thinking, focused learning and greater integration and retention of thought.

Lynn Beresford[9]

While gifted children are born with superior intellectual capabilities, their talent development and growth is connected to social enrichment, just like all other students.

There are some youngsters who are born with the capability to learn faster than others those ideas or concepts that modern societies value in children and adults. Such youngsters and their abilities are subject to many social influences and must interact with their environmental context.

James J. Gallagher[10]
How is giftedness identified?

Gifted learners are often identified at an early age, displaying precocity, advanced insight, and/or creativity when compared to peers of the same age. In order to receive special accommodation, schools typically require a cognitive assessment. The age in which assessments are given or are needed in school depends on the school district and programs offered.

There are three widely accepted psychological assessments to determine giftedness in students in schools:

All three tests generate an IQ, measuring intelligence in areas including vocabulary, visual spatial processing and mathematical reasoning. A score of 130 or higher indicates giftedness, but depending on the school division, scores may need to fall within 97 percent or higher of the comparison group.

Many psychologists are critical of intelligence tests because they measure academic giftedness, but aren’t a holistic representation of the spectrum of exceptional talent and creativity.[7]

“IQ tests measure learned ability, not potential ability. At best they are keys that open particular doors of understanding, and must never be used to lock the door of possibility.”

Mary-Elayne Jacobsen[7]
What are the characteristics of gifted students?

Giftedness is not only about high intelligence. Research has shown that gifted minds also think and feel more intensely than the average person. This intensity is often misinterpreted by non-gifted learners.

Generally speaking, gifted learners, “instead of being viewed as exceptionally aware, insightful, and responsive, gifted people naturally exhibit traits that are considered excessive.”[7]

Here are some observable traits that distinguish a bright student from a gifted one:

Bright Child

Knows the answers


Pays attention

Works hard

Answers questions

Enjoys same-age peers

Good at memorization

Learns easily

Listens well


Gifted Child

Asks the questions

Extremely curious

Gets involved physically and mentally

Plays around, still gets good test scores

Questions the answers

Prefers adults or older children

Good at guessing

Bored. Already knew the answers

Shows strong feelings and opinions

Highly critical of self (perfectionistic)[7]

Gifted students with an additional exceptionality, be it a learning disability or cerebral palsy — twice exceptionality or 2e — can be more difficult to identify, “as the ‘disability’ characteristics take centre stage.”[11]

How do cultural values affect the education of gifted students?

While most of us feel a moral obligation to help those at a disadvantage, many educators are morally challenged when they are expected to support the needs of students with special gifts.

This is not a new attitude. In early civilizations like those in “Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, China, Meso-America, Greece, Rome, and Renaissance Europe”, gifted learners have been “objects of ambivalent feelings directed towards them as persons and toward their knowledge.”[12]

This ambivalence is part of the reason why special programming for gifted students is threatened or politically sensitive in many school districts. It also leads to gifted learners being neglected by teachers in classrooms.

Teachers and educators who believe gifted education programs are “elitist” or unnecessary may find themselves needing to reflect upon their own Tall Poppy Syndrome, Zero-Sum Prestige and Crab Mentality viewpoints when dealing with gifted students.

Because of these attitudes, and a focus on identifying those with academic intelligence, gifted and talented students are often unidentified and unnurtured in schools. Due to boredom, many underachieve and also develop behavioural issues. In high school, gifted learners have comparable dropout rates as those with below average intelligence. “Underachievers… often develop negative self-images or attitudes towards school… [because of this] any special abilities she might have will likely be overlooked”[11].

Within classrooms, giftedness identification also comes with social risk. Gifted students face criticism or social isolation by other children or their parents, who have a low tolerance for others who “eclipse the ordinary individual in some area of achievement.”[11]

“There is something self-limiting, if not self-destructive, about a society that refuses to acknowledge and nourish the special talents of its children who have the greatest gifts… However, it seems impossible to argue against special education for students with special gifts and talents without arguing against special education in general, because all special education involves recognizing and accommodating unusual individual differences.”

Daniel P. Hallahan[11]
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"You cannot strengthen one by weakening another; and you cannot add to the stature of a dwarf by cutting off the leg of a giant."

— Benjamin Franklin Fairless (1950)