What is ‘giftedness’ and why do some ‘gifted’ children underachieve?

By Sabrina Blaas

Many teachers and parents would know some children as ‘gifted’ within our education systems. I am in the early stages of my research career on gifted underachievement and am currently looking at the different factors that impact upon school performance, so this blog post is really about my starting point.

Already I have a major challenge in that there is no single widely accepted definition of ‘giftedness’. Also, already I know that more research in the field of gifted underachievement is necessary to paint a true picture of ‘giftedness’.

Education policies in Australia have attempted to define ‘giftedness’, but even the use of the term within these policies still tends to be broad. Each State and Territory in Australia, as well as each school has their own method and guidelines to admitting students into a gifted and talented program or acceleration program. Also, once a student is in a gifted and talented program, does this really make them ‘gifted’ and/or ‘talented’?

It is clear, however, that there has been a definite evolution of the idea of ‘giftedness’ over the past 100 years and that there are several theories that help define ‘giftedness’ in Australian schooling systems. I am looking at these through the lens of trying to understand the underachievement of gifted students.

The history of intelligence assessment

One of the first methods to assess intelligence was based on the ‘g-intelligence’ theory by Charles Edward Spearman. This form of assessment was based on Intelligence Quotient tests (IQ tests). However, over years, many have recognised that there are multiple intelligences (not just academic intelligence). Also, much research, especially around the 1980’s, show that IQ tests are biased against minority populations, especially when English is not a person’s native language.

Due to these criticisms on IQ assessments, it is now acceptable to say that when assessing intelligence, a number of assessments are necessary to get a true picture of a student’s intelligence.

Theories that help define ‘giftedness’ in Australian schooling systems

Renzulli’s Three-Ring Model

Joseph Renzulli explained giftedness as a dynamic interaction between three traits which are: general ability, creativity and task commitment. Task commitment is described similarly to motivation and includes endurance, hard work, perseverance, and a belief in one’s self to complete a task. Having high levels of these three traits is believed to determine ‘giftedness’. His model also believes that being ‘gifted’ allows you to apply this to any area relating to human performance. However, when analysing this model, it is apparent that the model does not address ‘gifted underachievers’, namely gifted students who are achieving less than their actual potential. There are many reasons for gifted students to underperform or underachieve at school or in any other setting and therefore, with this model, would be hard to support these students if they are not even recognised as ‘gifted’.

Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent

Francoys Gagné created the Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT) which, compared to Renzulli’s model, recognises that gifted students have the potential to underachieve. This model is also used to define ‘giftedness’ in Australian Education departments. ‘Giftedness’ founded on Gagné’s model, is based on natural ability. However, little description is evident on what ‘natural ability’ exactly means.

So what are the characteristics of gifted students?

Many researchers have tried to identify common traits that are evident with gifted students. There are numerous research articles on the characteristics of gifted students. These traits include high levels of alertness, excellent memory, unusually large vocabulary and complex sentence structure for age and having a great sense of curiosity.

Researchers have also found that gifted students are at an increased risk of social as well as emotional difficulties. For instance, some gifted students can be highly sensitive, perfectionists and may be at a higher risk of internalising problems (including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem). This is not the case for ALL gifted students of course. This is one area of gifted underachievement that I will be researching.

My beliefs on ‘giftedness’, at this point, align most closely to Gagné’s DMGT model on giftedness where gifted underachievers are recognised and acknowledged. I will keep you updated as my research continues.

Meanwhile perhaps you can tell me what your school is doing with its ‘gifted’ children and how you feel about it.


Sabrina copySabrina Blaas is a PhD student at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane. Her research interests include gifted education, social-emotional wellbeing, underachievement, equality in education and education policy. She has experience teaching in the early years schooling system as well as at ESL schools. Sabrina has published her Master’s paper in the Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling in 2014. She has also published a number of book reviews in the International Journal of Disability, Development and Education.



2 thoughts on “What is ‘giftedness’ and why do some ‘gifted’ children underachieve?

  1. katie says:

    At present: we are focusing our attention on monitoring the achievement of our moderately, highly and exceptionally gifted students (all girls). Our exceptionally gifted girls fair well. We are finding that our highly and moderately gifted girls vary considerably in performance. There appears to be a strong correlation with student/teacher relationship and self efficacy. The better the social relationship with the teacher the better the performance.

  2. Sabrina says:

    Hi Katie,

    That is an interesting comment. Yes, lots of research does support your belief that self-efficacy is a major factor that differentiates the gifted achievers to the gifted underachievers. (For those who are unsure of the term self-efficacy, this refers to the “individual’s belief in his/her capacity to execute behaviours necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997)).
    What can schools/ teachers do to improve self-efficacy among gifted underachievers? Does it come down to the student/teacher relationship? What other methods/strategies can schools put in place?

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