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Mentorship of the Highly Creative

Gifted Research

This article details the positive effects of mentoring on a gifted young man. This particular mentorship lasted four years and involved a high school student and two mentors–one of which who resided on the opposite side of the country. “Educators and parents who look for ways to nurture the growth of gifted young people may profit from Jon’s [the student] self-reported perceptions of his mentorship experience, and from the perceptions of the two adults who were so fortunate to cross his path. The triangular mentorship developed some interesting nuances that should prove informative to those interested in supporting future scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders.” Authored by Don Ambrose, Jon Allen and SaraBeth Huntley.

Author: Ambrose, D., Allen, J. & Huntley, S.
Publisher: Roeper Review
Volume: Volume 17, Number 2
Year: November/December 1994

    This retrospective case study investigated the experiences of Jon, a gifted young artist, and two mentors who guided his development throughout his high school years. In this unusual mentorship, one mentor worked closely with Jon on a daily basis while the other interacted with him by telephone and through the mail across a continent. Through a questionnaire and a series of interviews, the study probed for the mentors’ influences on Jon’s cognitive and affective development. The results demonstrate that the mentorship validated Jon’s style of thinking, sharpened his metacognitive abilities, helped him develop a general sense of career direction, and provided emotional support when it was most needed. Jon also volunteers advice for prospective mentors suggesting that they provide guidance without stifling the volition of gifted young people.


Don Ambrose is Assistant Professor of Education, Graduate School, College of Education and Human Services, Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Jon Allen, previously a student in the gifted and talented program in Georgia now attends Columbia University. SaraBeth Huntley teaches gifted students at Roswell High School, Georgia.

    The mentorship was where so much of my development rested and shifted. Without it, Without the mentorship with SaraBeth and the mentorship that spanned a continent. I’m not sure where I’d be. It instilled hope in me that people in America still think and care.


These are the words of Jon Allen, an extremely bright and talented young man from Georgia, who became the central figure in a unique, triangular mentorship. Jon’s considerable talents attracted the attention of two educators who eventually became his mentors. One of these people worked closely with Jon, providing ongoing intellectual guidance and emotional support throughout his high school years. The other, who lived 2300 miles away, provided occasional pieces of inspiration and insight through phone calls, letters, and glimpses of his own work, which was remarkably compatible with Jon’s rather idiosyncratic interests. Over the years, Jon became a source of inspiration to his mentors, hence the term triangular mentorship.

In education there is a common and unfortunate misconception that gifted youths need no social attention because their talents give them a considerable advantage over their less academically talented peers. Actually, many of our gifted children face serious emotional and social problems that prevent them from developing to their highest potential (Cohen & Frydenberg, 1993). Whitmore (cited in Cohen & Frydenberg, 1993) estimates that an alarming 70% of these young people become gifted underachievers who resentfully bide their time in lock-step, pedagogical assembly lines paced for the average.

Mentorships, however, are one way to effectively guide the development of gifted young people through these difficult formative years (Gallagher, 1985). According to Zorman (1992), several critical elements make the relationship between mentor and protege much deeper and more enduring than the typical teacher-student relationship. For instance, the mentor and protege share passions and interests, and there is a close match between the mentor’s teaching style and the protege’s learning style. In addition, a lifelong bond of trust develops as the relationship evolves over time. The mentor becomes a trusted counselor or guide for the protege. Jon Allen enjoyed the benefit of such guidance.

Jon is a highly gifted young artist attending Columbia University. He already has produced some significant art work, and according to those who know him well, Jon’s potential has few limits.

Dr. SaraBeth Huntley, an educator of the gifted in Fulton County, Georgia, was the primary mentor for Jon. She worked extensively with him, providing opportunities for independent study and individual guidance throughout his high school years. Dr. Don Ambrose, an assistant professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and a former school administrator in Western Canada, was a doctoral student at the University of Oregon when he became Jon’s secondary, long distance mentor.

Jon met his primary mentor, SaraBeth, during his freshman year in high school. As part of the TAG program, SaraBeth was running subject extensions in which Jon and some of his peers studied topics and met weekly to discuss issues related to these topics. For Jon, these seminar sessions were challenging and exciting exercises in higher-order thought, and the mentorship with SaraBeth began to evolve. In Jon’s words, “It gradually grew from an independent study to a true mentorship via the genuine communication between us, passion for the topic we studied, mutual respect, and resonating natures.”

One of the subject extensions involved an exploration of artistic communication. This became the link that connected Jon to his secondary mentor, Don Ambrose. SaraBeth met Don at the 1990 National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) convention in Little Rock, Arkansas. Having discovered intriguing parallels between Jon’s interests and Don’s work with visual metaphors, SaraBeth arranged for Don to call Jon from the convention center. An immediate rapport was established, leading to intermittent contacts and to the development of a long distance mentorship from 1990 to 1994. During this time the relationship spanned the continent, from Jon’s home in Georgia to Oregon. Interestingly, Jon still has not met his secondary mentor, but the latter recently moved to the East coast and a meeting is imminent.

This is Jon’s story. Educators and parents who look for ways to nurture the growth of gifted young people may profit from Jon’s self-reported perceptions of his mentorship experience, and from the perceptions of the two adults who were so fortunate to cross his path. The triangular mentorship developed some interesting, nuances that should prove informative to those interested in supporting future scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders.

Illuminating the Nature of a Continent-Spanning Triangular Mentorship
This mini-case study describes the role of the mentorship in Jon’s growth throughout his high school years. The three partners in the mentorship all reflected on the nature of their interactions. Their reflections addressed a series of questions about the mentorship regarding how it began, its effects on Jon’s cognitive development, its most interesting affective elements, its most frustrating features, possible ways in which the mentorship contributed to Jon’s career aspirations, and the advice that Jon might provide prospective mentors of gifted young people. To ensure accuracy, each reviewed his or her contributions to this report. Particular attention was paid to Jon’s feedback since his perceptions of the experience are likely to be the most interesting to educators.

Cognitive Implications of the Mentorship
Jon’s reflections strongly emphasize the ways in which his knowledge base and thought processes were influenced by the mentorship. In particular, he refers to a growing awareness and appreciation of his cognitive strengths. Jon clarifies his perception of the mentorship’s influence on the development of his thought processes with a wonderful metaphorical insight.

    The mentorship showed that approaching problems and opportunities from the inside, using one’s intuition, is as valid as approaching problems within a logical, concrete, conceptual framework. I learned to value and more clearly recognize my own thought processes. This was important for me to perceive what sort of conceptual lenses I was gazing through. These lenses, which are often marred and dirtied, constantly need cleaning. The mentorship made me realize this and spawned a new awareness of how to go about it.


Jon’s insight is a remarkable piece of metacognition. He has incorporated the complex metaphorical and philosophical concepts of world view and conceptual lens passed on to him through Don’s work and through discussions with Sara-Beth. Bowers and Flinders (1990) claim that those who understand the subtle yet pervasive influence of such metaphors are empowered to critically analyze their own thought and the thought of others. Jon’s ability to do this is a remarkable accomplishment at the age of eighteen.

Some interesting similarities between Don’s work and Jon’s art also stimulated the latter’s cognitive development. For several years, Don had been working with visual metaphor, a communicative and interpretative medium that is relatively untapped in education. Based on the work of Gruber (1981, 1989) and Cohen (1987), Don had developed a series of images of wide scope (IOWS) that captured the essence of complex theories of creativity and intelligence in the form of metaphorical drawings. The IOWS simplified the theories and condensed them, translating them into imaginative, unusual renderings. SaraBeth asked for copies of the IOWS, believing that they would encourage Jon in his art work. In the fall of 1990, Don sent copies of these IOWS to Jon who incorporated them into an independent study of creativity. The IOWS provided Jon with a sense of validation for his own thought processes.

    Being an artist, I was intrigued by the paradoxes between verbal and visual communication, and the possibilities for synthesis of these two forms…. I learned that visual and verbal communication can be combined for striking results. The apparent duality of their nature is perhaps reconcilable. Through Don’s conceptual art work and his synthesis of verbal and visual elements, I saw how there are forms of communication unexplored, and that visual/verbal combinations can be strikingly effective. A different artform was presented to me and the processes it dealt with were truly innovative, which had an impact on me.


Exposure to the IOWS gave Jon the inspiration he needed to further enrich his art work with intricate conceptual connections.

Affective Influences in the Mentorship
Persistent and inspiring emotional support during the formative years of a budding artist can protect his or her emerging genius. This was the case with Jon. According to SaraBeth, Jon experienced some difficult times when his interests and strength of conviction conflicted with the sociocultural milieu in which he was immersed. She notes a profound strengthening of his resolve over the years, indicating that he has grown into an exceptionally mature young man with strong character. This might have occurred without the mentorship experience, but according to Jon the emotional support provided by contact with adults who truly understood was “crucial to my development.” He hints at the powerful emotional impact provided by the mentorship experience:

    I was completely moved and consumed by the mentorship. It was frequently a vehicle [enabling me] to learn from my personal emotions, feelings, and from resonating with others. It sometimes made me tremble in awe at the power of what we studied…It helped me grow and learn, and inspired passion…My ideas, thoughts, and learning processes were consistently valued and developed. This gave me comfort, made me learn, made me inspired and willing. The mentorship and the TAG program were the only parts of the education system in which this happened.


If the effect of this emotional impact persists over time it will serve Jon well. According to Gruber (1989), it is the affective or emotional aspects of a creative individual’s work that supports the immense effort needed to persist with long-term, difficult endeavors that are not often immediately valued by society. It is such long-term endeavors that define a creative life. A highly gifted person with sufficient emotional strength to withstand the criticisms of an unappreciative society has a chance to achieve eminence in a chosen field. Jon’s mentors helped him develop the passion for his work that will enable him to maximize his considerable abilities.

Effect of the Mentorship on Jon’s Career and Life Path
One of the most important roles of a mentor is to help the protégés better define the nature of their life’s work. This role is particularly difficult when dealing with a highly gifted young man with multiple interests. Jon certainly has creative potential, but to achieve that potential he must channel much of his talent into a particular domain or field of endeavor. Gruber’s (1989) research pertaining to the life-long creative development of highly gifted people indicates that the individual’s sense of purpose provides a general direction along which a career develops over time. In dynamic tension with this purposeful direction is the urge to pursue interesting opportunities that lie beyond the path of career development. Thus, a creative life is characterized by a purposeful general direction punctuated with minor course deviations.

In Jon’s case, the mentorship helped him clarify his general sense of purpose although he has not yet decided on a career.

    [As a result of the mentorship] I know more of my interests, purposes, and goals as a human being. Although I do not yet know my specific career, I certainly am more aware of what I want my career to be, and what this entails.


This clarification is related to Jon’s ability to more firmly grasp his interests through the mentorship experience. Although Jon’s interest in art already was quite strong before he met his dual mentors, the mentorship helped him to intensify his interest in art and to further clarify the nature of that interest. He succeeded in establishing a strong sense of purpose, and he can be confident that the specifics of his career will align themselves with this purpose.

    The mentorship made me realize the implications art has, the power of art as a form of communication, the need for art, the passion to create. It brought into clearer focus my ambition to be an artist, and more importantly, my reason for being an artist.


What’s In it for the Mentor?
Jon’s work captured the imaginations of his two mentors, fueling their idealism and prompting them to work with him. SaraBeth commented that she gained emotionally charged cognitive insights and certain metacognitive understandings from her role as mentor. Her insight about the blending of cognitive and affective experiences is reported as an aspect of self-knowledge.

    Affective and cognitive terms blend for me as I mature. I have a genuinely affective response to some of the cognitive explosions you [Don] and Jon engendered in me. I love the knowing of it. The mentorship experience intensified and clarified this aspect of self-knowledge for me.


Don and Jon contributed to SaraBeth’s growth in self-understanding, or intrapersonal intelligence, one of Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligences. SaraBeth also reports that her role in the mentorship made her appreciate the positive impact she could have on another person, which enabled her to more fully “give from the heart.” The mentorship evolved and strengthened as she teamed to enjoy the rewards of giving. For her, nurturing a gifted youth never was just a part of her job.

The question, “What’s in it for the mentor?” is especially pertinent when the mentor has never met the protege and corresponds with him on a sporadic basis from the opposite side of the continent. In Don’s case it was the remarkably close match of interests and talents between himself and Jon that kept the third side of the triangle going.

    When I heard about Jon, and received some of his work in the mail, it was almost like a case of deja vu. I remembered the years I spent as a youth in which my interests and thoughts didn’t quite fit in. I remembered inventing board games while my peers were tinkering with cars. I recalled visualizing elaborate scenes on imaginary planets while listening with one ear to monotone chemistry lectures. I saw myself in Jon, and I wanted to help him discover and treasure his strengths before they atrophied in the midst of an unappreciative society.


Another attraction for Don was the opportunity to nurture a young person who could make a difference in a rapidly changing world.

    My greatest goal as an educator is to contribute to the creation of a critical mass of innovative, systemic, panoramic thinkers in our society, people who can give us a fighting chance to successfully grapple with today’s global macroproblems. As Einstein once said, ‘The problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thought we were at when we created them.’ Some call me an incurable idealist, but when I hear about people like Jon, I realize that there is good reason for optimism. I recognize in Jon a powerful mind, a remarkably honed sense of ethics, and an indomitable spirit. I know he’ll make a difference, somehow, somewhere, some day.


Interestingly, Jon’s altruistic, empathic nature appealed to SaraBeth in much the same way. Before she met Jon, SaraBeth encountered one of his drawings, hanging in a middle school classroom.

    The picture depicted two groups of youths trying to cross a highway to a mall full of the valuable opportunities in life. Where the whites stood, the yellow line was broken indicating ‘passing.’ Where the black youths stood, the solid yellow line indicated ‘Stay in your lane.’ I knew then that I would seek out this young man.


Jon certainly is not the only beneficiary of the mentorship. The rewards for his mentors may not be immediate and tangible, but they are very real and powerful.

Advice from the Protege
Jon is an insightful young man and his recommendations from the viewpoint of a protege can inform prospective mentors of the gifted. It is a rare mentor who could achieve everything that Jon suggests and wise mentors understand need reminding. Jon recommends the following:

    Staying away from didacticism, ruling, and governing is important. Let them wonder and come to terms with what they need to know. Be completely open to their needs and interests. Guide them. Offer direction, but let the power of their own volition move them. This is extremely important- don’t see a young person’s interest or self-motivation as a threat. I had experiences with teachers in which my self-motivation was a threat to them and it made life hell at times. What you can do is offer resources, advice, input. Bring them the perspective you’ve gained from experience. They don’t have the experience you have, and it’s a valuable asset. And do not forget that you can learn as well, that a teacher need not always be a teacher. Be flexible, be open, be respectful of whatever their style of learning is. Expand their perspectives by constantly discussing, discussing, discussing. Get to know them, hang out, be formal and informal. Open up. Treat them as human beings, not as students. A lot of helping people is intuitively sensing their needs and watching them grow, letting the mentorship evolve. The process of learning should be stressed, not the product. Of utmost importance is to be mature and willing to help. I had teachers who could not come to terms with someone who as passionate for learning and they feared it, hated it. I was punished for it. Don’t be afraid to become friends and pals, and to go beyond the learning framework the modern education system has erected.


Most of the overt control in education lies in the hands of adults. Researchers and theorists define the parameters of knowledge and practitioners define the parameters of a student’s experience. It is refreshing to examine the perceptions and suggestions of someone with recent experience as a student and as a protege in a triangular mentorship. It is particularly enlightening to hear these messages from someone who has developed much wisdom and clarity of thought at a young age.

This mentorship is a three-way partnership in which the mentors gain as much as they give. The partners in this mentorship certainly inspire one another. Jon’s experience shows that it is important for mentors to provide emotional support and encouragement, particularly when the protege has had some difficulty adjusting to the educational system. It also shows that different mentors can serve different needs for the protege. An empathic mentor can provide on-going support and guidance through difficult times. Another mentor, whose work closely matches the interests of the protege, can provide occasional insights and inspirations about a topic of study. The latter interactions can be encouraging even if the mentor and the protege have never met face-to-face.

A triangular mentorship such as this can have a profound impact on the emotional and cognitive development of a young person. Since mentors can be so influential, they are well advised to consider the ethical implications of their role. They must periodically assess the nature of their impact on the protege. Jon’s recommendations are particularly valuable in this regard. He suggests that the ideal mentor is an insightful, flexible person who guides without controlling. Such a person is likely to be aware of his or her influence and should be able to artfully modify that influence throughout the course of a long-term, evolving relationship.


Bowers, C.A. & Flinders, D.J. (1990). Responsive Teaching: An ecological approach to classroom patterns of language, culture, and thought. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cohen, L.M. (1987). Images of wide scope: Aides for metacognition and synthesis. Unpublished manuscript, University of Oregon, Eugene.

Cohen, L.M. & Frydenberg, E. (1993). Coping for capable kids. Melbourne, Australia: Hawker Brownlow.

Gallagher, J.J. (1985). Teaching the gifted child. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. New York: Basic Books.

Gruber, H.G. (1981). Darwin on man: A psychological study of scientific creativity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1974)

Gruber, H.G. (1989). The evolving systems approach to creative work. In D.B. Wallace & H.G. Gruber (Eds.), Creative people at work. (pp. 3-24). New York: Oxford University Press.

Zorman, R (1992). Mentoring and role modeling program for the gifted. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Monks, & A.H. Passow (Eds.), International handbook of research and development of giftedness and talent (pp. 727-741). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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