By: Jim Virkler
All life is a gift bestowed by the Creator of Life. In this sense, all humans are gifted. The broader phenomenon of giftedness, however, is associated with possession of exceptional talent. Giftedness is a topic of considerable worth and wonder, both to those blessed by possession of exceptional talent and also to those who observe the talent in others. Giftedness is surpassed by a term describing a young person of exceedingly advanced and unusual achievement. These rare young people possess highly exceptional, atypical talent and creativity. Such a person is considered a prodigy.
The broad definition for gifted may overlap with the definition of prodigy. When children are very young, parents are anxious to describe them in keeping with their perception of unusual early talent or skill. Do their abundant physical, mental, and social skills appear earlier than normal? If so, optimistic parents may see their children as candidates for special placement in gifted and talented classes. Educators have devoted much attention to categories of giftedness and how to identify students worthy of placement in these special activities or classes.
We might distinguish between gifted individuals and true prodigies in any field of human talent or endeavor by citing a statistical reality of the human experience. We encounter a well known phrase: the “normal distribution curve,” also known as the “bell curve.” Genetic physical traits such as height and blood pressure may be arranged along the graphic continuum of short to tall, or low to high. Artistic and musical talent and intelligence ratings may also be arranged quantitatively from low to high. The classic bell curve manifests a symmetric clumping of data entries on both sides of the mean, diminishing as we travel away from the mean in either direction. We notice the typical bell shape flair at the extremes of the graph—the curve is closer to horizontal the farther it is from the mean. There are fewer occurrences at those low or high extremes.
Although the scores of almost any genetically influenced physical characteristic or type of talent may be plotted on a bell curve, we will use musical ability to illustrate some typical features of the normal distribution curve. Most people are aware that a large majority of the human population may be considered “average” in their musical ability. Gifted people possess varying degrees of desirable musical skills. Rare prodigies are in an elevated category considerably beyond the more common giftedness.
Frequently neglected are individuals whose musical ability is deficient according to common standards. A few people may be musically deficient to the point of being tone deaf. This deficiency is called amusia. Purportedly, 4% of the population suffers from it. It is due to insufficiency in neural networks governing musical aptitude. Musical “insufficiency” fits the realities of the normal distribution curve.
As we graph larger and larger quantities of scores we come closer to a perfectly symmetrical bell shape. Statisticians use one, two, or three (or more) “standard deviations” (Greek letter sigma) on both sides of the mean. One standard deviation (s.d.) on both sides of the mean score includes approximately 68% of all scores (34% below, 34% above the mean). Two standard deviations on both sides of the mean includes about 95% of all scores. Three standard deviations on either side of the mean includes 99.72% of all scores—almost all of them. We see there are very few scores as high as three standard deviations above the mean, just as there are very few scores as low as three standard deviations below the mean. The highest extremes of musical ability occur at three standard deviations in half of 0.28% of the population—about one in 700 members of the population!
It is doubtful that one in 700 musicians in the normal population could be considered musical prodigies, even though they may be very capable musicians. More likely, prodigies would fall into the extreme positive range of the 0.28%—perhaps on the order of 0.028%, or even 0.0028%. This latter percentage figures to one prodigy per 70,000+ individuals.
Over two-thirds (68%) of the population falls within what may be termed an “average” performance level. Are they gifted? Depending on our criteria, some of them may be considered gifted. One more positive standard deviation now includes the most talented several percent of the human population. Are those positioned at two positive standard deviations gifted? By many more criteria, yes, they are gifted musicians. Add a third standard deviation and ask again: Are these people gifted? Most analysts would enthusiastically say, “Yes, exceptionally gifted.” A few may even be musical prodigies!
As a public school educator I was called upon to serve all of my clients spread out on the theorized bell curve. As Christian educators, we all wish to perceive our clients at the positive edge of the educational bell curve. As parents, however, and as servants of the Creator, we must serve the needs of the entire range of humanity, regardless of where they are located on the bell curve.
Realities of human life, including the reality of the normal distribution curve relating to so much of our experience, are worthy of our study. There is much potential for an effective and satisfying educational ministry to meet diverse human needs. We remind ourselves again of the plea of the Apostle James: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” James 1:6 (NIV).
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.