Education is often seen as a catalyst for progress, not only for individuals but also for countries. It provides opportunities for career advancement, social mobility, and increased equality. By providing children access to quality education, they become educated contributors to society. Great improvements in access and equity have been made over the last decades in the Middle East. For example, literacy rates for females rose from 20 to 40 percent in 1970 to 60 to 90 percent in 2000.
Education is also related to country-level economics. Educated workers are more skilled and productive, making countries with highly educated populations ideal for business. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that more than half of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth was related to labor income growth among those with a college education. Put simply, those with the greatest levels of education made the greatest economic impacts.
Another way countries seek to be competitive is through investment in their gifted, talented, or high potential learners. The Middle East is no different. For example, Egypt established its first specialized school for high achievers in 1955. Jordan established its first Jubilee School in 1977 for outstanding students. Other countries have similar provisions including the recent expansion of the Mawhiba schools in Saudi Arabia. These special schools or programs make unique provisions for gifted learners in order to accommodate their rapid pace of learning, foster creativity, and cultivate critical thinking.
But who are gifted and talented students? How are they defined, and what makes them unique from typical students? Giftedness does not have a unitary definition; rather, it is influenced by social, political, economic, and cultural factors. Although not every gifted child fits the same profile, there are some characteristics that are typical of gifted children in terms of intellect, motivation, creativity, and affect.
Gifted children tend to have advanced language and thought patterns. This reflects not only rapid vocabulary and knowledge development but also abstract thinking such as the ability to solve problems, think about their own thinking (metacognition), and make relationships between seemingly unrelated ideas. These students may also have developed early abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, music, or art. They tend to be eager to learn, able to work independently, curious, and have good memory, long attention span, and good judgment. Gifted children tend to be quick and logical thinkers. Combined with their desire for learning, this can lead them to frequently ask “Why” questions or seek to understand cause-and-effect relationships at an early age.
Another important characteristic of most gifted students is their motivation and persistence, or task commitment. Renzulli (1978) argued that “creative accomplishment is not necessarily a function of measured intelligence” (p. 182). In fact, for students with high intelligence one of the primary factors that separated the highly successful from the less successful was motivation. Gifted students tend to have an intrinsic motivation—that is, they engage in tasks for the sake of learning rather than external rewards. Over time, this motivation orientation tends to lead to higher achievement and performance.
Gifted students also tend to be creative. General intellectual ability and creativity tend to be related, but are distinct. Creativity in gifted students often manifest as the ability to generate novel ideas and analytically evaluate them, tolerate complexity, think divergently, and be mentally flexible. Creative students are also risk takers, adventurous, curious, playful, and reflective.
In general, gifted students are well-adjusted and have good self-concepts, particularly academic self-concepts. They also tend to have an internal locus of control—that is, they feel responsible for their successes and future plans. They often attribute failure to lack of effort, rather than lack of ability, which is associated with having a growth mindset.
In addition to traditional characteristics, there are also characteristics unique to each cultural context. For example, last week I attended the World Conference for Gifted and Talented Children where I heard a presentation by Dr. Anies Al-Hroub about teacher’s conceptions of gifted students in Lebanon. Teachers reported many of the common characteristics – high intellectual ability, creativity, and social intelligence. The Lebanese definition of social intelligence, however, went beyond traditional descriptions of leadership to include other specific behaviors that are important in Lebanon including the ability to bargain for low prices and cutting in line to get faster service.
Although gifted and talented students may have a unique set of characteristics – and some of those unique to particular countries or cultures – in some ways their learning needs are not unique. Each student needs to be challenged according to his or her ability. Each student needs to have opportunities to demonstrate what he or she has already learned and then to discover something new.
Educational provisions for gifted learners, however, might look different because of their high intellect, persistence, creativity, etc. Provisions may involve acceleration (completing work at younger ages or faster paces than typical), competitions with other talented peers, enrichment training in an area of talent or interest, or more opportunities for independent study. Developing the skills and talents of all students, including gifted learners, is critical for realizing the full benefits of education. For other information about gifted and talented learners in the Middle East, reference the Arab Council for Gifted and Talented.