A rising tide lifts all ships

…why Gifted and Talented provision is less about labelling students, separate work or extension tasks and more about providing opportunities for all.

At the recent Gifted and Talented conference organised jointly by NACE and SSAT, Professor Deborah Eyre outlined her philosophy regarding G&T provision. What came as something of a surprise was the way in which she questioned the idea that G&T students should be given a separate diet from other students. Indeed, the ideas she outlined almost question the need to have a Gifted and Talented register at all.

Eyre started with the perennial problem of how to define and measure intelligence. Unhelpfully (or perhaps helpfully) over the past one hundred years of study, psychological opinion regarding conceptions of giftedness has fragmented rather than converged and definitions are now numerous and often conflicting. Educationalists and psychologists even over the last decade or so can’t agree, with Lykken (1998) arguing that ability is redetermined by our genes and can be measured, while Ericsson (2007) suggests the opposite; that there is no evidence of innate constraints in reaching high performance. Add to the debate Gardner’s suggestion (1983) that ability is multi-dimensional, while Sternberg (2005) suggests that ability is intelligence, creativity and wisdom, and the argument that we can both define intelligence and accurately label those that possess it becomes rather fragile.

Nevertheless, Eyre suggests that intelligence can be divided into three broad categories. The first of these is analytic intelligence, which is a general intelligence, where ability can be demonstrated through success on IQ and similar tests. Creative intelligence is the ability to think what others don’t think and often children are very good at this. Finally, practical intelligence is the ability to bring your intelligence to bear on practical problems or situations. Currently our whole school G&T cohort is defined as those exhibiting the first of these types of intelligence, as the criteria for inclusion on the register are based on CAT scores, KS2 SAT results or KS3 Maths results. Subject specific criteria for identifying students that have exceptional ability in individual subject areas are more flexible, as they are based not just on data but also on ‘soft’ skills such as demonstrating curiosity, using language or materials in a creative way or demonstrating a practical skill.

The age at which a child should be labelled as G&T also creates problems. Bloom’s research in 1982 concluded that, contrary to popular belief, gifted adults were seldom child prodigies. This research was supported by Lohman and Korb (2006) who found when cohorts of children are tested at a young age then regularly retested over time, the scores show substantial year-to-year regression, disproving the common myth that a child considered gifted at aged six would still be considered gifted at sixteen. If, the implication is, that early identification doesn’t necessarily lead to better educational achievement and, indeed, those that are G&T may not actually show their ability until much later in life, what is the point of the register at all?

Eyre moved on to look at the three different ways in which G&T students can be provided for educationally. The first of these she called the ‘Unique Level’ and this would accommodate the needs of a unique individual, the ‘child genius’. This would be a special educational pathway and, perhaps ironically, would not necessarily be provided by the school, as the educational system may be of little importance to the achievements of such a child.

Second, is the ‘Cohort Paradigm’, where a group of G&T students is identified as being different from others and follows educational programmes that separate them from others in terms of the concepts and content covered, the skills developed and the learning attitudes nurtured. Key issues for educators using the cohort paradigm include choosing the cohort, defining the learning conditions needed and designing the optimal curriculum offer. There are a number of pros and cons to such a system and these are outlined below:

The main arguments against the Cohort Paradigm view of G&T provision can be summed up by Shore (2000), who in a meta-analysis of able pupils’ learning found that G&T students do not seem to use strategies that others never use, and though they differ from others in their creativity and the extent to which they draw upon a repertoire of intellectual skills these are nonetheless available to others. Sternberg (2007) also suggests that traditional education tends to “shine the spotlight” on certain students almost all of the time, and on other students almost none of the time. The result is that some students are placed in a much better position to achieve than are others. The students who are not placed in an optimal position to achieve may be just as able to achieve at high levels as the students placed in a position to achieve. Moreover, the advantaged students will not necessarily be more successful later in life.

So what should the educational objectives for Gifted Programmes actually be? Gallagher (1985) suggests the following:

• Gifted children should master important conceptual systems that are at the level of their abilities in various content fields.

• Gifted children should develop skills and strategies that enable them to become more independent, creative and self-sufficient searchers after knowledge.

• Gifted children should develop a joy and excitement about learning that will carry them through the drudgery and routine that is an inevitable part of learning.

Sounds familiar? Well much of this ties very nicely in with the philosophy that underpins our KS3 curriculum in the JLV, as well as the new National Curriculum, especially with its focus on personal, learning and thinking skills and subject specific key concepts. Independence, creativity and self-sufficiency overlap with responsibility and resourcefulness, while mastery of conceptual systems surely involves both reasoning and reflection. Finally, what carries children through the ‘drudgery and routine’ that is an inevitable part of learning better than a healthy dose of resilience? As Eyre points out, learning shouldn’t need to be ‘whizz-bang and exciting’. Rewards come from mastering something that requires hard work and easy success is ultimately unsatisfying.

But if Gallagher’s are the kinds of skills, attributes and competencies that we are seeking to develop in all students, how can we accommodate the needs of the most able and show we are providing appropriate levels of stretch? Well this brings us to Eyre’s third approach to G&T provision, the ‘Human Capital Paradigm’.

The ‘Human Capital Paradigm’ operates at the macro level of education, in that it provides G&T opportunities for all students. Using such a model, G&T students would not be a pre-defined cohort but would instead emerge, much like a butterfly from a chrysalis, having been provided with the right kinds of conditions for optimum development. G&T students are therefore defined as those that actually reach high levels of performance and their development is significantly influenced by environmental and personality characteristics. Such an approach to provision demands an ‘expert performance approach’, as defined by Anders Ericsson et al June 2007: “The expert performance approach starts by identifying reproducibly superior performance and then works backwards to explain development of the mediating mechanisms.” Such an approach does not place a numerical limit on the number of students seen as capable of achieving exceptional levels of performance.

The key is also that students learn they can develop, improve and progress. “From the outside, it seems like talented people don’t have to put in a lot of effort. They make it look so easy,” said Ericsson in a recent interview. “But when you look closely, the opposite is actually true. The best performers are almost always the ones who practise the most. I have yet to find a talented person who didn’t earn their talent through hard work and thousands of hours of practice.” This kind of philosophy is similar to that of Carol Dweck , who in her book Mindset, suggested that ability is not a fixed thing but something that, with the right kind of mindset and the determination to succeed, can be developed. This sounds a lot like resilience again.

Eyre suggests there are various aspects of the Human Capital Paradigm that need to be developed for it to be successful. These are outlined below:

School structures

• Advanced curriculum running alongside normal curriculum

• Advanced curriculum characterised by problem-solving, enquiry and creative tasks

• Teaching focused on developing high levels of subject knowledge plus the ability to ‘use and apply’ it

• Learners in active dialogue with their teachers encouraged to challenge ideas and deal with cognitive conflict

• Offer is personalised wherever possible to offer choice

• No age-related ceilings imposed on achievement

Culture

• Ambitious aspirations on behalf of all students

• Rewards for high achievement in a variety of contexts

• Emphasis on striving and persisting and overt rewards for doing so – practice, practice, practice

• Openly appreciative of individuality – students and staff

• A learning environment where staff demonstrate the value of learning through their own engagement

• An academic climate that aims to build intellectual confidence in individuals and enables them to practice articulating and defending ideas

Management of Individuals

• Use of ‘assessment for learning’ techniques

• Regular review meetings between students and personal tutor (coach)

• Identified ‘SMART’ targets for improvement and timeframes for achievement

• Access to e-library of information, advice and guidance for secondary students

• Use of diagnostic tools to identify strengths and weaknesses

Close scrutiny of these should offer some reassurance that we are heading in the right direction at Cramlington, with our focus on a personalised approach, student choice, assessment for learning, the CASKE curriculum, ICT access, shared success criteria, learning conversations and the development of the role of tutor as a learning guide.

Eyre’s philosophy can be summed up as follows: “Meeting the educational needs of the Gifted and Talented is about building on good general school provision, not about providing something entirely different,” and she communicates this through her visual ‘English Model’, shown below.

None of this looks terribly far from where we are regarding our current practice with all students. The question still remains, however, that if we are providing such a rich diet of opportunity for all of our students at Cramlington, how can we ensure we maximise achievement, particularly with regard to top grades? Clearly we aren’t getting it completely right at present, as although our most able students achieve well at KS4, coming out with a positive value added score, they aren’t doing quite as well as other groups within the school. Those of you that like nothing better than scrutinising a bit of data might like to take a look at the RAISE Online package, which shows that where there are negative value added scores in different subjects at KS4, these tend to be among the A/A* students.

Perhaps we need to reflect more on our current classroom practice and think about whether we are actually providing appropriately challenging tasks for students, tasks that truly require higher level cognitive thought and resilience, or whether we are making things a little too easy, chunking the learning too much and teaching to the middle. Here too, Eyre has a suggestion. While most of us may plan a lesson then think about how to adapt it for the most and the least able, Eyre suggests that a better approach is ‘top down’ planning, whereby we plan first for the most able students, then adapt the lesson and resources for the range of the ability spread in the class. Such an approach to planning, while seemingly simple, should ensure that an appropriate level of challenge is built in automatically and should also provide opportunities for all students to rise to the challenge if they are capable.

And finally, what about that G&T register? Well, despite Eyre’s suggestion that a national register may be a flawed idea, it looks like it isn’t going to go away any time soon. The DCSF asks all schools to identify the top ten per cent of their students for inclusion on this register, which we dutifully do each year and justify this on the grounds that it raises the aspirations of staff, students and parents. Perhaps we should follow the example of some of the more subversive schools, who have sent their returns to the DCSF including all of their students on the register and while we’re about it, why not set A* as everyone’s target? Now that’s aspirational!

Karen Blackburn

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One thought on “A rising tide lifts all ships

  1. Katja says:

    Admiring the time and energy you put into your blog and in depth information you provide. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed material.
    Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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