Gifted Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

We've talked about conceptual thinking before on this blog, but after seeing a number of pint-sized big picture thinkers in our clinic these past months, we thought to post on this thinking profile in kids.

Perhaps because of our interest in gifted dyslexics, we seem to see this pattern quite a lot. Gifted high conceptual thinkers are not limited to the dyslexic population though, of course.

One educational authority defined conceptual thinking is an "ability to identify patterns or connections between situations that are not obviously related, and to identify key or underlying issues in complex situations. It includes using creative, conceptual or inductive reasoning." Wikipedia adds that conceptual thinking is a problem solving style that involves a "creative search for new ideas or solutions".

We see young gifted HCTs as kids really driven by new and different ideas. Their interests are often quite broad, but what really gets them going is discovering something new, seeing something familiar from a unfamiliar viewpoint, or applying something conventional to an unconventional use. The HCT label may seem to capture them better than any conventional learning style like visual or verbal learner.

High Conceptual Thinkers are often...

- Omnivorous Learners: The world may be their oyster. Because of their quest for the "interesting", they may love the Internet, read entire encyclopedias, or incessantly question adults about the real world, and so learn a little bit about everything. They may not hit ceiling scores on the conceptual knowledge IQ subtests because their omnivorous approach to figuring out the world around them.

- New is the Thing: HCTs prefer novelty (this is how they develop new conceptual categories) and are tickled by unconventional viewpoints or discoveries.

- Big Picture, Not Little Details: HCTs don't always transition well to the "precision years" of late elementary, middle school, or beyond.

- Boredom is Death: Although using the 'b' word is notoriously a "no-no" word when talking to teachers, these kids rebel against what they see as boredom. Boredom may really seem like death to young HCTs. If young HCTs seem "driven by a motor", it's intellectual restlessness and it can be a blessing as well as a burden.

Not surprisingly, these kids often find classroom learning unsatisfying. After all, much of early education is focused on mastering basic skills or established facts, this is not what these kids are about. They'd rather be finding new worlds to conquer.

Although these kids are challenging to teach and parent, they are also a delight, and Dan Pink and others have suggested that the Conceptual Age is upon us and this pattern of thinking should be what we should be encouraging.

Teaching Big Picture / High Conceptual Thinkers

- Sky's the Limit: If an idea or a lesson would be interesting to a wonky tech-y post-college 20-something, then it's fine for the HCT. If a story or thing could be written about in Wired, Fast Company, or Mental Floss, then you're probably on the right track. Sky should be the limit. Even some generally excellent gifted programs we've seen may grossly underestimate an HCT's ability to think about advanced concepts. Also because HCTs develop their ideas through pattern recognition, they may want to see many examples and permutations, and complex presentations in order to help organize their ideas into simpler concepts.

- Play with Ideas: Conceptual thinkers like and need to play with ideas. Play expands ideas, creating a new opening for associations. Play means not micromanaging learning experiences - allowing some dabbling, and taking away some of the "high stakes every time" routine (e.g. not everything should be graded).

- Argue with Ideas We think many educational curricula wait way to long before they allow young HCTs to consider different viewpoints, learn how to frame arguments or actually debate, but this is often what HCTs love. If they don't get it at school, make sure they get it home...maybe at the dinner table? Half of the 400 eminent men and women profiled in the Goertzels' Cradles of Eminence came from "opinionated" families: "It is these homes that produce most of the scientists, humanitarians, and reformers."

More Misc. Facts about High Conceptual Thinkers: some HCTs may get into their ideas so much that they forget the physical world (forget to eat, can be unkempt, messy spaces). Finally, it's useful to recognize that HCTs have a different motivational structure than non-HCTs. For instance, an HCT may easily pass the marshmellow experiment of delayed gratification, for instance, but miserably if rather than a marshmellow it's really cool game, puzzle, book, kit, gizmo...


  1. I blogged about this type of gifted thinker for a couple of years. But I called them high cognitives. It's nice to see that maybe the rest of the world is beginning to catch up.

  2. "...taking away some of the "high stakes every time" routine (e.g. not everything should be graded)."

    Yes yes yes! My son is in second grade. He got a B+ and was almost in tears because he wasn't perfect. It's not about being perfect and I have never expected him to be perfect. Do your best is our motto. These kids have so much expected of them sometimes a project just for fun has more benefits than just the learning they get from that particular project.

  3. In 1983 I taught physics to high school students in Bogota Colombia. One of my students struck me as entirely different in the way he thought and learned. He didn't do well with tests or output of any kind, but when I worked with him one-on-one he lit up like the sun -- his questions showed a depth of thinking and conceptualizing that not even my most brilliant students in my class had. I learned later after speaking with the Headmaster, that he struggled through school, most teachers thought he was of exceptionally low IQ. Because he struggled so much with output, teachers did not see his brilliance, which was clearly that of an HCT. How many of these children are missed by the system? How many have long-term psychological troubles because of low self esteem established at an early age by the educational establishment? Once we recognize these children, it's imperative that we teach them according to their unique learning profiles. These unusual children have one of two paths to follow . . .

  4. As always, a fascinating and helpful read! My 7-year-old son with 'special needs' scored high school level on pattern recognition IQ tests, yet struggles to learn to read. He 100% fits your description of a high conceptual thinker, especially the voracious appetite for the new and unusual. I am often amazed at his insights and his creative ideas.

    I was dismayed to hear from a parent at school that my son's teacher called him one of her "low performers". I agree with srichter, our schools need to view these children differently! Thankfully at home our son gets a whole different kind of feedback!

  5. Hey Drs. Eide,

    Just thought you might want to see the discussions that your HCT post prompted:

    Cultivating “High Conceptual Thinkers”

    Guest Post: Cameron on “High Conceptual Thinkers”

  6. WOW - I can't tell you how nice it was to find this article. I am an HCT adult and until I read this article, never understood what I was or why my learning style was so different from everyone around me!!! I have always been able to grasp any concept I come across but truly struggle with the mundane details that are so necessary to work performance and it truly gets me down and makes me feel defeated. It's nice to know there is some hope for me:) I certainly don't yet know what to do with this information - or how to best utilize myself - but it's great to know there is a name and a face and a community of people like myself out there.

  7. I am probably in the wrong place as most of these comments posted are about children. I am a 56 year old man that is reaching apex thinking. I don't know where I gained this knowledge or insight, but it needs to be shared. Quantum physics has it mostly right. except for one small detail. Where would a person like me share ideas? first post.