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What the Research Says About Gifted Learners

Gifted Research

This article briefly describes the developmental theories of Piaget and Bloom. Understanding how learning occurs can help teachers be aware of how gifted learners may differ from their age peers. Most hierarchical theories of learning share the notion that as a child develops and matures, his or her understanding of the world is limited first by neural development and second by his or her ability to incorporate experiences into a definition of the world. Additional readings exploring gifted education are recommended in the article.


There is a wide array of research available that pertains to gifted learners. However, much can be learned by going back to the basics. Basic developmental theories form the foundation of available information on characteristics of gifted learners and how to work with them. Understanding how learning occurs in general can help you be aware of how gifted learners may differ from their age peers, as well as decide which techniques are likely to be most effective with highly able students.

Possibly the theories that are best known to educators and have the widest application to education are the developmental hierarchies by Jean Piaget and Benjamin Bloom. Although these two theorists – and many others – divided their hierarchies differently, the concepts and applications are similar. What most, if not all, hierarchical theories of learning have in common is the notion that as a child develops and matures, his or her understanding of the world is limited first by neural development and second by his or her ability to incorporate experiences into a definition of the world.

Piaget — According to Piaget, intellectual development follows physical development. Learning begins with interactions with the environment that are prompted initially through reflex and chance and later through purposeful action on the part of the child. As the child develops, actions become more purposeful and assimilation and understanding move from the physical to the abstract. Piaget divided development into four stages:

  • Sensorimotor — In this stage, the child learns through physical interaction with the environment. The child lacks object permanence, or the awareness of objects that are out of sight. At this stage, which typically ends sometime around the second year, the child is learning the basics of action-reaction.
  • Preoperational — This stage is represented in toddlers and young children up to about age seven. Children in this stage cannot think abstractly and therefore need concrete physical situations or props for learning.
  • Concrete operational — Although the child still relies heavily on concrete situations and props for learning, he or she is beginning to think abstractly. Accumulated experience with the environment has led to logical thinking, and the child begins conceptualizing about his or her surroundings. This stage typically lasts from around age 7 to about age 11.
  • Formal operations — Having reached the highest level of development in Piaget’s theory, individuals at this stage are able to use conceptual reasoning and abstraction. In most cases having reached adolescence, the individual thinks, perceives and processes information much like an adult. He or she is able to consider hypothetical situations and deal with broad, overarching issues and theories.

Piaget’s work offers a helpful description of developmental stages as they relate to learning, however, Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed specifically to describe the learning process to educators.

Bloom — The purpose of Bloom’s Taxonomy is to classify the goals of education for use as “the basis for building curricula and tests” thereby improving teacher performance. Bloom’s Taxonomy identifies six major categories of proficiency:

  • Knowledge — remembering information. This stage is essentially rote learning and involves simple recall of information. Students at this level would be able to identify shapes. Goals include committing facts to memory or knowing rules.
  • Comprehension — explaining the meaning of information; understanding instructions and problems. Comprehension requires that students not only recall information, but understand its meaning. For example, rather than simply knowing their shapes, students at this stage would be able to explain the difference between a circle and an oval or a square and a rectangle. Goals include describing an illustration using words and paraphrasing instructions or content.
  • Application — applying a concept to a new situation; using abstractions in concrete situations. Students might demonstrate proficiency at this level by computing the area of a simple object using a standard formula. Goals include using laws or theories to predict and outcome or calculate a result.
  • Analysis — the ability to break down information and concepts and understand the difference between inference and fact. Students at this level might determine which container has the largest volume by measuring and computing their volumes based on their knowledge and reference materials. Goals include recognizing fallacies in logic; comparing and contrasting major assumptions of competing theories; and using deductive reasoning.
  • Synthesis — the ability to use diverse elements to identify and build new patterns and structure. Students at this level might devise a formula for finding the area of an irregular shape based on their knowledge of the rules and theorems of geometry. Goals include writing a logical argument to an ethical dilemma; designing a program, procedure or machine to accomplish a specified task; and revising existing programs, procedures or machines to improve performance.
  • Evaluation — the ability to judge the value of ideas and information. Students at this level might use their knowledge of geometry and physics and information from wind tunnel testing to determine the most fuel-efficient design for a new automobile or airplane. Goals include selecting the best proposal based on a variety of variables; critiquing the work of others based on appropriate standards.

Bloom’s Taxonomy offers teachers a tool for developing a student-centered classroom by providing the framework for articulating specific outcomes in terms of student learning. The result is a classroom plan that emphasizes student skills rather than rote information. It also allows flexibility for teachers who are working with students of different levels. By setting higher outcomes for high-ability students, teachers can develop a lesson plan and set of activities that will satisfy the needs of students at various levels.

To further explore gifted education, we recommend reading the following:

Smutny, Joan. (2003) Gifted Education: Promising Practice. Phi Delta Kappa International. ISBN: 0873678451

Delisle, James. (1999) Once Upon a Mind: Stories and Scholars of Gifted Child Education. Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN: 0155031929

Clark, Barbara. (2001) Growing up gifted: Developing the potential of children at home and at school. Prentice Hall. ISBN: 013094437

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