Mostly By Steven M. Nordby © 1997-2002  


Giftedness and education from the perspective of sociologic social psychology 

Some additions have been made to this since his original work, as the field has not been stagnant. Still, the volume of work Steven put into this is amazing and I am grateful to him for his permission.

Used by permission

Glossary A-E




Ability grouping – Placing students of similar ability in the same class or group for purposes of instruction. Research shows higher academic achievement gains for all students when grouped by ability and taught at a pace that matches their learning rates. Compare with tracking.

Acceleration – Faster presentation of content to more closely match the speed at which gifted students learn. Compare with grade skipping. See pacing, compacting.

Achievement – Accomplishment or performance; the realization of potential. Compare with aptitude.

Action – Intentional, goal (2) directed, or meaningful behavior. Interactionism is concerned with action. Behaviorism is not.

Affective education – Study of emotions, identifying and dealing with them.

Alternative schools – Schools designed with more flexible programs for exceptional learners or with an educational philosophy different from regular public education.

Anti-intellectual – One who is suspicious or hostile toward intelligent people and their pursuits. This may take the form of “name calling” (geeks or nerds) or a more serious form, such as author Edward de Bono’s coining of the term intelligence trap.

Appropriate – A subjective judgement of suitability often used in phrases such as “appropriate behavior” and “appropriate education” whose definitions are relative to specific cultures, situations, institutional and personal values and educational philosophies. The ability to define and label “appropriate” and “inappropriate” is a jealously guarded power of teachers.

Aptitude – Undeveloped potential or ability. Compare with achievement.

Assessment – Assignment of value. Academically, this usually means grades. In psychology, it means comparing the tested measures of a subject’s mental characteristics (e.g., intelligence, personality, self-esteem) to a norm, or average. See grading, standardized test, authentic assessment, reliability, validity, and IQ.

Asynchronous development – Differing rates for physical, cognitive, and emotional development, also known as dyssynchronous development. For example, a gifted child may be chronologically 13 years old, intellectually 18, emotionally 8, and physically 11. The discrepancies are greatest for everyone at the chronological age of about 13, but the extremes displayed by gifted children have led some experts to define giftedness itself as asynchronous development. If you tell a gifted child to “Act your age!” s/he could legitimately respond: “Which one?” See characteristics of the gifted, middle school movement, peer group.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) – A sub-type of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – As defined by the American Psychiatric Association, ADHD is a mental disorder characterized by inattention and/or impulsivity. ADD is a sub-type with fewer impulsive symptoms. Earlier labels for these symptoms included “minimal brain dysfunction.” Gifted students in understimulating environments may demonstrate identical symptoms. If giftedness, learning disabilities, depression, or other problems are accommodated first, ADHD-like symptoms can be reduced or eliminated. ADHD treatment usually includes drug and/or behavior therapy. The effects of drugs on attention, concentration, frustration tolerance, and conforming behavior are displayed in all children, not just those diagnosed with ADHD. The school-based giftedness accommodations which are best supported by research differ from ADHD behavioral interventions in that they offer integrated subject matter, concern for the whole child and his/her own interests, and they address the emotional as well as cognitive aspects of learning. See also labeling theory, mental health. Problems in Identification and Assessment of ADHD. ADHD versus Overexcitabilities.

Authentic assessment – (1) In classroom testing, tests which cover the material actually taught. (2) In psychology, testing under natural, actual conditions rather than in a clinical or artificial environment.

Average – See normal, statistics, mean, median and mode.


 Back to basics – A conservative advocacy for increased teaching (2) of basic skills and less teaching (1) of higher order thinking skills and enrichment.

Basic skills – Reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Battery – Multiple tests to assess functioning in a variety of psychological areas such as intelligence, achievement, personality, and self-esteem.

Behavior analysis – Radically behaviorist application of behavior modification.

Behavior checklist – A list of non-academic behaviors with a rating scale. Used by teachers, parents, or other adults in order to diagnose students as having a disorder such as ADHD or SED.

Behavior disorder – Synonymous with serious emotional disturbance (SED). Behavior disorder is the preferred term of most educators and mental health professionals. See mental health.

Behavior management – Techniques of behavior modification applied to children. A Behaviorist View of Behavior Management.

Behavior modification – Changing the environment and using reinforcers (or their absence) to control the behavior of others. Practitioners set up the environment to prompt a behavior, then reward the desired behavior and/or punish undesired behavior in that specific situation. The absolute control of reinforcers, the maintenance of the behavior when environmental controls are removed, and the generalization of the behavior to other situations are problematic. It tends to be used to produce conformity and obedience. See behaviorism, mental health.

Behavior therapyBehavior modification.

Behaviorism – A deterministic, stimulus-response theory of psychology which forms the basis for behavior modification and many common teaching methods. Behaviorism is concerned only with observable behavior, not with internal processes, meanings, emotions, attitudes, beliefs or values. Accounts of these things are treated as merely “verbal behavior.” In behaviorist teaching strategies, the teacher, not the student, establishes the goals, directs and controls the environment, and makes assessments. See educational philosophy. Contrast with Constructivism, interactionism.

Brain based teaching – Application of research from neurology and clinical and cognitive psychology to design and orchestrate lifelike learning experiences that excercise

  • the ability to detect patterns and make approximations,
  • the capacity for various types of memory,
  • the ability to self-correct and learn from experience through analysis of data and self-reflection, and
  • the inexhaustible capacity to create,

so as to optimize the extraction of meaning for the individual learner. Brain based teaching incorporates integrated curriculum, and is built on these principles:

  1. The brain is a parallel processor.
  2. Learning engages the entire physiology.
  3. The search for meaning is innate in human nature.
  4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.
  5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
  6. The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.
  7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
  8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
  9. We have at least two different types of memory: a spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning.
  10. We undertand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory.
  11. Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
  12. Each brain in unique.

“Our purpose here is to identify some features of the innate drive that students have to act and to understand. Educators need to capitalize on these drives. In fact, this is precisely what exceptional teachers of gifted and talented students do. They provide opportunities for students to pursue their own interests. They support student creativity. They provide a rich and stimulating environment and in that context introduce students to more and more of what the world has to offer. That is the general philosophy that should apply to all students, everywhere.” — Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine (1991), Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. See also Montessori method.

Brain lateralization – Specialization of the brain hemispheres. In right handed people, the right brain hemisphere is more involved with spatial relations, imagery, and non-verbal, non-sequential processing, while the left brain hemisphere is more involved in verbal and sequential processing.

Bright – See levels of giftedness.


Ceiling effect – Compression of top scores on a test. For example, if a group IQ test can only measure reliably to 130, then a student with an IQ of 160 (if measured by some other test) may only score 130 due to the ceiling effect of the group test. Group intelligence tests often have low ceilings, so a relatively low IQ score, perhaps 115, could be accepted as evidence of potential giftedness. See intelligence quotient.

Characteristics of the gifted – The following characteristics are common but not universal:

  • Shows superior abilities to reason, generalize or problem solve.
  • Shows persistent intellectual curiosity.
  • Has a wide range of interests; develops one or more interests to considerable depth.
  • Produces superior written work or has a large vocabulary.
  • Reads avidly.
  • Learns quickly and retains what is learned.
  • Grasps mathematical or scientific concepts readily.
  • Shows creative ability or imaginative expression in the arts.
  • Sustains concentration for lengthy periods on topics or activities of interest.
  • Sets high standards for self.
  • Shows initiative, originality, or flexibility in thinking; considers problems from a number of viewpoints.
  • Observes keenly and is responsive to new ideas.
  • Shows social poise or an ability to communicate with adults in a mature way.
  • Enjoys intellectual challenge; shows an alert and subtle sense of humor.

These characteristics can lead to conflicts in the regular classroom, as the gifted child may:

  • Get bored with routine tasks.
  • Resist changing away from interesting topics or activities.
  • Be overly critical of self and others, impatient with failure, perfectionistic.
  • Disagree vocally with others, argue with teachers.
  • Make jokes or puns at times adults consider inappropriate.
  • Be so emotionally sensitive and empathetic that adults consider it over-reaction, may get angry, or cry when things go wrong or seem unfair.
  • Ignore details, turn in messy work.
  • Reject authority, be non-conforming, stubborn.
  • Dominate or withdraw in cooperative learning situations.
  • Be highly sensitive to environmental stimuli such as lights or noises.

These reactions of gifted students to the regular education environment are normal only within the context of an understanding of the gifted. Without that understanding, they may be used to label the student as ADD/ADHD or SED. See overexcitabilities.

Compacting – Eliminating repetition, minimizing drill, and accelerating instruction in basic skills or lower level classes so that gifted students can move to more challenging material.

Conformity – Unexceptional behavior and/or convergent thinking.

Constructivism – The theory that new knowledge is an active product of the learner integrating new information and perceptions with prior knowledge. It is based on the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, and complementary with interactionism. Educational philosophies based on constructivist ideas stand in contrast with behaviorist teaching techniques, such as Direct Instruction.

Content – The academic subject matter studied in an educational program or class.

Convergent thinking – Thinking which results in conventional solutions and answers or confomity. Contrast with divergent thinking.

Cooperative learning – Students working in small groups, where often the same grade is given to all. In heterogeneous groupings, achievement and extrinsicly motivated students may dominate the group and do all the work so their own grades don’t suffer, and underachievers may simply withdraw or refuse to participate. Cooperative learning groups with students of similar ability with complementary skills tend to work most smoothly.

Counseling the gifted – Gifted students can benefit from talking with counselors educated in the characteristics of the gifted. Without such education, counselors may misinterpret these characteristics as psychological disorders. Because counseling consists largely of talk, the counselor may also be manipulated, fooled, or looked down on by students highly gifted in verbal ability and reasoning skills. See mental health.

Creativity – Artistic or intellectual inventiveness. “Stamped out of kids by third grade,” says education professor George Sheperd, University of Oregon. Creativity depends on divergent thinking, but schools emphasize and reward convergent thinking and conformity. Arts are a safe outlet, but that doesn’t help the child who’s more interested and intuitive in science and math. Silliness, immaturity and disruptive behavior are characteristics of students whose creativity has been stifled.

Criterion-referenced - Measurement is compared to an acceptable standard, such as a test of mastery.

Critical thinking skills – The higher order thinking skill of applying logic in order to reduce ambiguity and lead to understanding of complex problems or ideas. Educators may use task analysis to develop step by step methods to teach critical thinking skills, but critical thinking itself cannot be reduced to step by step thinking.

Curriculum based assessment – See authentic assessment (1).


Depression – There is some research evidence and considerable anecdotal evidence that the gifted are at a significantly higher risk for depression and suicide than the general population. This may be due to characteristics, such as keen insight into the inequities of life, and asynchronous development, which make the gifted individual feel out of place in the social structure. Counseling with someone fluent in the issues surrounding giftedness can be helpful.

Development – Cognitive (intellectual), emotional and physical growth. See asynchronous development.

Deviance – Behavior outside a norm. Displaying gifted behaviors is, by this definition, deviance. See normal, social control.

Diagnostic test – An assessment prompted by a perceived problem in order to determine current level of functioning. Test results are then used to prescribe a solution.

Direct instruction (DI) – Teacher directed and structured programmed instruction in explicit skills with an emphasis on efficiency. The teacher sets the goals, chooses the materials, and sets the pace. Instruction proceeds through specific steps:

  1. demonstration,
  2. guided practice,
  3. feedback, and
  4. independent pracice.

DI requires pretesting and ability grouping, and is most often used in primary and remedial reading. It is ineffective in teaching things which are not easily broken into ordered tasks, such as complex problem solving, creativity, and higher order thinking skills.

Discipline – (1) An area of knowledge; (2) training or treatment, often punishment, to control behavior. See structure.

Discovery method – A variety of student-centered approaches to teaching, including the Socratic method, in which the teacher acts as a guide and/or resource. Unlike programmed instruction, the emphasis is not on efficiency in mastering a predetermined body of knowledge, but in developing students’ abilities to learn how to learn. Discovery is an assumed method in unschooling.

Divergent thinking – Thinking which results in novel, unique, or creative solutions or answers. See creativity. Contrast with convergent thinking.

Dysychronous development – See Asynchronous development.


Educational philosophy – The basic value orientation on which educational systems, agendas, and programs are built. Conflicting educational philosophies lie at the heart of many problems in getting appropriate education for the gifted. See human nature, middle school movement, behaviorism, constructivism, interactionism, homeschooling, unschooling, Montessori method.

Educational psychology – A branch of psychology which studies learning and teaching.

Educational reform – Popularly used to describe efforts to increase standanrdized test scores of public school students. As such, it is more a description of assessment reform than a change of educational philosophies or methods, although a back to basics philosophy is often implied.

Elitist – A criticism of gifted education programs. If students in gifted programs act as if they are socially or morally superior, or if the program supports the social order rather than identifying and serving all gifted students, then charges of elitism have merit. Gifted programs which serve gifted students from all social classes and ethnic groups, whether achievers, underachievers or handicapped, are not elitist.

Emotional shutdown – A psychological defense mechanism characterized by withdrawal. A gifted student in a hostile or anti-intellectual environment may react this way. See underachievement.

Empathy – Understanding and feeling from the point of view of the other person, believed in interactionism to lie at the heart of development of self and society.

Engaged time – That part of on-task time actually spent with the subject matter. One sociologist has estimated non-engaged time to be 45 percent of the school day (Richard Everhart, Reading, Writing and Resistance 1983).

Enrichment – Deeper coverage of content often provided for gifted students. Contrast with acceleration.

Estimated true score – A calculation to move the score a student gets on a test closer to average based on the reliability of the test. See Estimated True Scores.

Evaluation – See assessment.

Exceptional learners – Students with an IQ in the bottom (retarded) or top (gifted) three percent of the population, or those with other physical or mental differences which affect learning. See special education.

Exceptionally gifted – See levels of giftedness.

Extrinsic motivation -Reinforcers, rewards, or incentives used by one person to bring about desired behavior in another person. See behaviorism. Contrast with intrinsic motivation.

Glossary F-M



Free appropriate public education (FAPE) – As required by IDEA, instruction to disabled children, at no cost to parents, provided by the public school, which allows students to make satisfactory progress.

Flynn effect – A rise in IQ of the general population of about 3 points per decade, discovered by James Flynn of New Zealand in the early 1980′s. If true, the average person of 100 years ago would be considered retarded today. A variety of explanations have been offered, either explaining the rise as an artifact of testing or as a real increase in intelligence, but no explantion has gained widespread acceptance. To compensate for the IQ increase, test makers select a new sample for the norm reference on their tests about every ten years. See IQ.

Frustration tolerance – Ability to continue working to solve a problem even when setbacks are encountered or little progress is made.


Geek – A label for a person who does not seem to fit in socially because of high intelligence or achievement. Sometimes used interchangeably with nerd, but geek implies higher social status.

Generalization – (1) In behaviorism, applying skills learned in one situation to other situations. (2) In research, applying the results of one study to the general population.

Genius – A popular term for extraordinary intelligence which has no fixed meaning in education or psychology, where it is rarely used.

Gifted – Having superior mental ability or intelligence. A label of potential. The intellect and emotions of gifted students are both quantitatively and qualitatively different. See characteristics of the gifted, labeling theory, overexcitabilities, levels of giftedness.

Gifted programs – Special academic and social opportunities which try to meet the needs of gifted students. See acceleration, ability grouping, enrichment, independent study, pull-out, special education.

Goals – (1) As written in an IEP, goals are the desired long-term outcomes of individualized instruction. (2) In the philosophy of Dreikurs, the natural, healthy goal of children is to achieve belonging and significance. When this is thwarted, mistaken goals of attention, power, revenge or inadequacy take their place. When a child reaches adolescence, the more complex, healthy goal of individuation (establishing one’s own identity by rebelling or breaking away) enters the mix. (3) When choosing their own goals, students who feel responsible for their success tend to choose reasonable goals. Illustration.

Grade advancement – See grade skipping.

Grade skipping – Promotion to a higher grade. Often confused with acceleration. A grade-skipped gifted child can still learn at an accelerated rate and may eventually outperform students at a higher grade placement.

GradingAssessment of academic achievement.


Higher order thinking skills – Abstract reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving abilities. See Critical thinking skills.

Highly gifted – See levels of giftedness.

Home schooling – An option for students whose needs are not being met at school. It allows for greater student involvement and responsibility for his/her education and individualization in pacing and content. See independent study, unschooling.

Human nature – Assumptions about human nature form the starting point of all educational philosophies. Conflicting assumptions lead to conflicting educational philosophies, which lie at the heart of the problem of defining appropriate education for the gifted. It involves such dichotomous and contentious issues as good and evil, needs and desires, absolutism and relativism, free-will and determinism. See mental health, behaviorism, interactionism, brain based teaching.


Identification – The selecting and labeling process. Requirements to be identified as gifted vary between school districts. Generally, a group IQ test is used to screen students. Those scoring high enough (usually about 115 due to the lower reliability and ceiling effect of group tests) are given an individual IQ test. Those scoring above 130 are usually considered gifted without further ado. Those scoring lower may also be considered gifted based on teacher and parent nominations, outstanding achievement, or other evidence.

Inclusion – Grouping of students in regular classrooms without regard to ability. It is based on social, not academic concerns.

Independent study – Self-education, often using self-selected resources and driven by student interest.

Individual education plan (IEP) – A written document which states the student’s unique characteristics and needs, educational goals and objectives to meet those needs, and instructional materials and services to be provided.

Individualized instructionContent and pacing of instruction geared toward the individual’s unique learning styles, abilities, needs, and goals. See special education.

Individual referenced – One’s score is compared to one’s previous score on a test covering the same material in order to show that learning has occurred.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – Federal legislation to provide special education for specific categories of disability. For qualifying disabled students, school districts must provide free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment as specified in an annual individual education plan.

Inquiry method – See discovery method.

Integrated curriculum – Combination of content from two or more subjects to enhance meaning through interconnectedness of knowledge. See brain based teaching.

Intelligence – A general concept of mental ability, often summed up as the ability to learn from experience. The concept was put into a measurable form as intelligence quotient, but theorists such as Howard Gardner believe there are multiple intelligences which traditional IQ tests do not sample. Others counter that multiple intelligences are merely manifestations of an underlying general factor (“Spearman’s g”). Pragmatically in schools, intelligence has come to mean whatever intelligence tests measure, regardless of the test’s reliablity or validity

Intelligence quotient (IQ) – A quantitative representation of cognitive ability which results from testing a sample of cognitive skills. The formula is intellectual age divided by chronological age, times 100. For example, someone 10 years old with an intellectual age of 13 would have an IQ of 130. This is called the “ratio IQ.”

The scales of different IQ tests vary slightly due to differences in test construction and the sample which provided the norm. Variation in scores is described by the standard deviation. Assuming that intelligence is normally distributed, the IQs of about 95 percent of the population are between 70 (about 2 standard deviations below the mean) and 130 (about 2 standard deviations above the mean). Below 70 is considered retarded, and above 130 is considered gifted. Individual tests such as the WISC and Stanford-Binet are considered the most reliable, but no published test since the older Stanford-Binet Form LM (1972) is valid above 160. Most IQ tests since 1960 have reported IQ as “deviation IQ,” which adjusts the ratio IQ scale slightly based on the different means and standard deviations of each age group in the sample used to construct the test. Ratio and deviation IQ’s seldom differ by more than 4 points. See levels of giftedness, ceiling effect, multiple intelligences.

Intelligence trap – A term coined by Edward de Bono refering to what he reports as the tendency of self-ascribed highly intelligent people to be “poor thinkers” because of their arrogance, prejudice, “intellectualizing,” ability to defend many sides of an issue, and their need to display their superior minds (de Bono (1991), I Am Right – You Are Wrong, and (1996), De Bono’s thinking course). Only rhetorical and anecdotal support exists, and such claims are at odds with the usually accepted characteristics of the gifted. See Anti intellectual. An Essay on Edward de Bono. For additional opinion on the use of de Bono’s ideas in business, see A Review of “Personal Best”.

Interactionism – A social-psychological theory that the self is formed by interacting with others and that social life depends on the ability to imagine ourselves in other social roles. Interactionist and constructivist educational philosophies make the student an active partner in all aspects of his/her education, as opposed to behaviorist philosophies where the teacher selects the content, sets the pace, sets the goals, directs, manipulates and evaluates. Effective strategies with gifted students, especially underachievers, are usually interactionist.

Intrinsic motivation – The desire to satisfy natural needs and interests, which includes a desire to understand and make sense of the world. The discovery method, and unschooling depend on intrinsic motivation. Compare with extrinsic motivation.


Javits Act – Federal legislation originally passed in 1988 to provide grant money for gifted and talented programs and research. 1997 appropriations were less than one-hundredth of one-percent of total federal special education dollars, less than, for example, literacy programs for prison inmates.

Labeling theory – The proposition that labels placed on a person may lead him/her to act the role associated with the label whether or not it was initially accurate. When a label is know to others, they may interpret the labeled person’s behavior as abnormal whether it is or not. This changes their actions toward the labeled person so that their interactions reinforce the label. Gifted, learning disabled, underachiever, ADD, and SED are all labels which may affect students’ future behavior even in the absence of objective evidence supporting the label. See interactionism, normal. Labeling Theory Tested: Pygmalion in the Classroom.

Lateral thinking – A popular term coined by Edward de Bono in the 1960′s for unorthodox thinking. See divergent thinking.

Learning – An increase in knowledge or skill.

Learning disability – A deficit in a specific area, such as word decoding or arithmetic computation, which is out of line with overall intellectual ability. Some learning disabilities may interfere with proper measurement on conventional IQ tests, so a learning disabled student might be considered gifted with an IQ test score significantly lower than the usual 130 cut-off.

Least restrictive environment (LRE) – School placement where the student’s needs can be met which most closely approximates the regular classroom.

Left brained – See brain lateralization.

Levels of giftedness – According to IQ measurements, the following labels are generally accepted:

  • Bright – 115 and above
  • Gifted – 130 and above
  • Highly gifted – 145 and above
  • Exceptionally gifted -160 and above
  • Profoundly gifted – 175 and above

Because of measurement error and ceiling effect, the exceptionally and profoundly gifted labels are often used interchangably.


Mean – Arithmetical average.

Median – A measure of central tendancy where half the scores are above and half below.

Mental health – A concept based on socially acceptable behavior and subjective feeling. Simplified, here are two competing philosophies: (1) People need to have their natural, selfish impulses controlled in order to fit into society, or (2) Like physical health, mental health is something people grow toward naturally. See behaviorism, interactionism, human nature, labeling theory, Montessori method.

Middle school movement – Advocacy of developmental approaches to schooling in grades 5 through 8 which build the curriculum around perceived social-emotional needs of the average early adolescent. Asynchronous development and the characteristics of gifted children makes this problematic. Tracking and ability grouping are often eliminated in favor of inclusion and cooperative learning. Also frequently used: small advising groups assigned to each teacher, team-teaching, interdisciplinary courses or integrated curriculum, personal health and affective education.

Mode – The most frequent score.

Montessori method – An educational philosophy based on the ideas of Italian physician/educator Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952). Although originally developed with students labeled “mentally defective” her tremendous successes led her approach to be widely embraced, especially in upper class pre- and elementary schools world-wide. Montessori saw students’ learning as the result of innately self-motivated activity. The teacher’s job, then, is to supervise and guide rather than transmit knowledge. Many private and a few public schools in the U.S. call themselves “Montessori,” however there is no official body to regulate use of the name and actual teaching practices vary considerably.

Multiple Intelligences – Constructs of intelligence that include more aspects of mental ability than the conventional concept of intelligence. Howard Gardner proposed seven intelligences: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. He recently added an eighth: naturalist. Conventional IQ tests measure mainly logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Intellectual profile illustration.

Multipotentiality – The idea that gifted children have the ability to succeed in virtually any career. Use of interest inventories and ability tests with higher ceilings can help differentiate between areas in which students are merely competent and those in which they truly excel and are highly motivated toward.

glossary N-Z



Needs – A word often used in such phrases as “behavioral needs” and “educational needs” which can only be understood when the goals are known. A statement of needs makes sense only with an explicit or implied “in order to.” For example: “The student needs to turn in homework” is meaningful if it is followed by: “in order to earn credit for it” but is nonsense if followed by “in order to learn.”

Nerd – A particularly socially unattractive or awkward subset of geek.

Non-production – Unrealized ability in which the student knows s/he is capable, but chooses not to do the assigned work. See underachievement.

Norm – (1) In sociology, a culturally relative guideline for social behavior. (2) In testing, a statistical measure of central tendency, as a mean, median, or mode.

Norm-referenced – Measurement is compared to a norm or average. IQ tests are norm-referenced tests.

Normal – A range of behavior that is considered socially acceptable. Behavior that tests the limits of normal is normal, but behavior consistently outside normal is considered deviant. Experimenting with behavior is normal for children, especially gifted ones. Behaviorist educators and psychologists are concerned with ways to produce normal behavior in others. But to be gifted is not normal. Abnormal qualities define leaders, heroes, and eminent people.

Normally distributed – Statistically symmetrical around an average, represented graphically by a bell curve. In a normal distribution, the mean, median, and mode are all equal. Illustration


Objectives – In the IEP, desired outcomes of a shorter term than goals.

Off-task – Behavior which the teacher disapproves.

On-task – Behavior which the teacher approves.

Outcome based education – Teaching designed to lead student to demonstrate a specific level of mastery.

Overachievement – Performance that exceeds ability. Because this is not possible, overachievement does not exist.

Overexcitabilities – A term originated by Kazimierz Dabrowski to describe excessive response to stimuli in five psychic domains (psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emotional) which may occur singly or in combination. Overexcitabilities are often used to describe certain characteristics of the gifted. “It is often recognized that gifted and talented people are energetic, enthusiastic, intensely absorbed in their pursuits, endowed with vivid imagination, sensuality, moral sensitivity and emotional vulnerability. . . . [They are] experiencing in a higher key.” – Michael Piechowski. Extreme overexcitabilities or a strong imbalance between them may reduce the individual’s ability to function in society. See also ADHD Versus Overexcitabilities.


Pacing – The speed at which content is presented and instruction delivered. Pacing which matches the student’s rate of learning is optimal. Because gifted students are usually able to learn faster, they often prefer accelerated pacing.

Peer group – People with which one feels equal. Due to gifted students’ asynchronous development, they may have very different intellectual, social, and emotional peer groups.

Perfectionism – The desire to execute tasks flawlessly. Gifted children may develop perfectionism after entering school, as they perform better than their classmates. Later, such perfectionism may lead to avoiding challenges so as not to appear imperfect. See characteristics of the gifted, underachievement.

Play – An important part of the learning process that allows for teamwork, risk taking, creativity, and testing one’s ability against others.

Portfolio – A collection of student work that demonstrates achievement for purposes of assessment.

Precocity – Development significantly earlier than normal. Most gifted children show precocious intelligence, but not all who develop skills early are gifted: they may reach a plateau, allowing those of average ability to catch up.

Pretest – A test given before instruction to determine current level of performance in a specific skill.

Prodigy – A child (usually under age 10) who is able to perform at an adult level in a specific skill. Unlike savants, prodigies often have high intelligence and are aware of their thinking strategies.

Profoundly gifted – See levels of giftedness.

Programmed instruction – Teaching a predetermined body of knowledge in a predetermined sequence, often also at a predetermined pace. See direct instruction.

Psychometrics – The quantitative measurement of mental characteristics, as in IQ.

Pull-out – A part-time special educational program that takes exceptional learners out of the regular classroom for a limited time. Many elementary gifted programs are once a week, pull-out, enrichment activities. Since gifted students are gifted all day, every day, pull-out programs alone seldom meet their needs.

Punishment – Causing psychological or physical pain to another usually with the goal of changing the other’s future behavior. Punishment may quickly produce submission or obedience, with longer term side effects such as rebellion, revenge, or withdrawal. See social control.


Reliability – The accuracy and repeatability of a measurement.

Right brained – See brain lateralization.

Savant – A person with exceptional ability in a specific skill, often artistic, mathematical or musical, who seems intuitively to “know” but is unaware of thinking strategies. Savants often display flattened emotions and little creativity.

School psychologist – The person who gives diagnostic tests to students and acts as a consultant to teachers, counselors, and administrators. Like teachers and counselors, they often have special training in disabilities but little or no training in giftedness.

Section 504 – Federal law mandating accommodations for children with disabilities.

Self-contained – A classroom is self-contained if the students in it spend the entire day (or the bulk of the day) with the same teacher. Elementary education is almost always conducted in self-contained classrooms. Self-contained programs can also be geared toward grouping by ability, disability, or other labels placed on students, such as the label “gifted.”

Self-esteem – A subjective feeling of self-worth built from the respect and sense of worth reflected back on the person from significant others. Can be altered by labeling and social interaction.

Serious emotional disturbance (SED) – A special education category under IDEA. The terms “behavior disorder” or “emotional/behavior disorder” are synonymous with SED. A student may be identified as having SED for not having “satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers” or for displaying “inappropriate types of behavior or feelings.” The characteristics of the gifted combined with the subjectivity of these criteria may lead educators to mislabel some gifted children as SED. See labeling theory.

Social control – Formal and informal enforcement of social norms and values. See behavior modification, discipline, deviance, mental health, normal.

Socialization – Acquiring the cultural values, knowledge and skills which allow one to function productively in a society. Pro-inclusion and anti-homeschooling arguments are often based on the socialization value of the heterogeneous classroom. However, there is no empirical evidence that ability grouped or homeschooled students have poorer social skills.

Socratic method – Dialog and discussion to expose logic, meaning, and truth. See discovery method.

Special Education – The promise of individualized instruction for exceptional learners. Appropriate education is supposed to be based on the unique characteristics of each student but often is provided categorically according to the labels placed on students. Federal law does not mandate special education for the gifted, but some states have their own mandates. Appropriate special education for underachieving gifted students is extremely rare.

Standard deviation – A statistical measure of variability from the mean. To calculate it, find the difference of each and every score from the mean, square each difference, average them, then take the square root. For IQ tests, the mean is designed to be 100, and the standard deviation is calculated to be about 15 or 16. See intelligence quotient, norm, normally distributed.

Standardized test – A test taken by many students under identical conditions which allows results to be compared statistically to a standard such as a norm or criteria. See reliability, validity.

State mandates – In the absence of a federal mandate for gifted education, many states have passed mandates. The level, quality, and availability of services varies widely from state to state.

Statistics – Quantitative abstractions of group measurements, such as mean, median and mode. Statistics about groups of individuals are often invoked erroneously to define characteristics of an individual, regardless of contradictory evidence, as in Estimated True Scores.

Structure – Social organization and rules to minimize the hassles of routine tasks so people can get on with more interesting aspects of living. Functional structures define what’s important and stress it, define what’s not important and ignore it, and minimize everyone’s inconvenience. Structure enables social functioning, but excessive structure limits creativity, spontaneity and motivation. See also mental health.


Task analysis – Breaking down complex skills into a highly structured series of simpler, smaller, sequential subskills, and omitting higher order thinking skills.

Teaching – (1) Actions intended to induce learning (interactionism). (2) Activities which result in learning (behaviorism). See teaching methods.

Teaching methods – See programmed instruction, direct instruction, discovery method, Socratic method, unschooling, Montessori method.

Teacher preparation – Regular education teachers are required to pass courses in disabilities but not giftedness. Even most teachers of the gifted have not had specific training. Many are told: “The gifted can take care of themselves.” Education majors have the lowest average scores on standardized tests such as the GRE, which does not bode well for their capacity to understand the characteristics of the gifted and provide appropriate education for them.

Tracking – Full-time, often permanent assignment to achievement groups. Compare with ability grouping, where students may be temporarily grouped and regrouped for immediate instructional needs.

Twice special – A student both gifted and handicapped, for example, gifted and learning disabled.

U, V, W, X, Y, Z

 Underachievement – A significant difference between ability and performance. A gifted underachiever is often defined as having superior intelligence, yet working below grade level. Underachievement is sometimes differentiated from non-production by including a psychological factor of perceived inability to succeed academically. Some underachiveres may withdraw, others may become disruptive. Factors that can contribute to underachievement include:

  • Lack of respect for the individual.
  • An overly competitive environment.
  • Inflexible and rigid structure.
  • Stress on external evaluation and criticism.
  • Authoritarian control.
  • Unrewarding curriculum.
  • Family conflicts, such as divorce.

Underachievement shows up often in the most stressful grades: fourth, when students stop learning how to read and start reading to learn; and ninth, with adolescence and the transition to high school.

Underachiever, like gifted, is a label relative to expectations. Underachievement may also be viewed, then, as a case of unreasonable adult expectations. Helping the Underachieveing.

Unschooling – A contructivist, interactionist educational philosophy which relies on the natural desire of the child to make sense of the real-world environment around him rather than the environment of school. See intrinsic motivation, human nature.

Validity – (1) In testing or assessment – A measurement’s ability to measure what it purports to measure. (2) The truthfulness of an argument, i.e., how well the hypothesis is supported by the evidence.