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On Failing Gifted Children

Interesting: the two stock images used by the BBC this morning (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22873257) to report evidence slating the state system (secondary) for failing our most able pupils (primary). The first shows a boy with beaming smile and friendly eyes peering at us over oversized spectacles. The second, a girl, with smaller yet still prominent specs, eagerly anticipates A-Level equations on a the board behind her.

The problem and the challenge are captured in these two caricatures. The solution is simple to say, hard to enact.

Gifted? More able? Talented? Smart? Clever? Bright? Whatever label we stick on high performing children, the assumptions are unhelpful. The BBC images perpetuate the myth that able kids are enthusiastic, quirky, mini-adults performing many years past their age. Undoubtedly there are children who fit this description, but gifts are wider, talents deeper, and abilities more fluid than any narrow stereotype suggests. And those of us working with these children know all too well that their gifts can quickly become a burden when emotional development lags academic growth. Might this have something to do with able primary pupils falling by the wayside in secondary? Maybe, but the implied cause (teaching) is typical and unhelpful.

It's so, so easy, and so, so dangerous to continually blame the professionals who dedicate their lives to our young learners. I've not met a single teacher who purposefully sets out to undermine the progress of their most able pupils. I have met a great many who are so driven to 'get the grades' that they continually pull off 'good enough' lessons. And I've met a handful who manage to include and challenge everyone in their lessons (gifted and less able) to the right levels.

I propose that many gifted children slow down in secondary because of their emotional development and because the system is flawed (exam-fixated) not because their teachers don't have the skill or will to provide for them.

How can we move forwards?

When I'm invited to support schools in developing their G&T provision I offer a generic definition of more able pupils for teachers to customise:

These pupils do, or could do, something much better than most others.

The school is then free to define what the 'somethings' are, what 'much better' means and who 'most others' are. It also respects potential (could do) thereby keeping our expectations high of all children. I find that most teachers believe that all children are, or can be, gifted in some way. That's why they chose the profession.

Customising this definition to the BBC images we get, Pupils who do maths five years ahead of their peers and who wear comedy specs so teachers know who they are.

Customising it in a richer form we get, Pupils who have or could have skills, attitudes or subject knowledge that stands out in one or more contexts. I am a gifted peacemaker, I am a talented negotiator, I am a successful comedian, I am an able mathematician, I am a linguist I am even a politician. 

The ultimate conclusion here - and one which a good friend of mine nearly enacted in his primary school - is to put everyone on the G&T register. As well as Head, he was an Ofsted inspector, so decided to keep that idea as a card to play later.

Maybe the solution is simple and three fold:

1. Praise and support teachers. Our profession, after all, causes all the other professions.
2. Reject unhelpful stereotypes of gifted children. Widen and deepen your definition of who they are and who they might be.
3. Focus strongly on emotional support and pastoral care of ALL pupils. Long term, this is more important than jumping through someone else's examination hoops.

Simple to say, hard to enact. No policy can cause 1,2 and 3. It has to happen at ground level in our hearts and minds. If enough of us believe it and then act on our beliefs then we'll not only get the best from the best but a richer, more human understanding of what 'best' actually means.

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25 July 2013 10:07

Teaching with our hearts and minds, now there's a thought, dare I add soul?
Non tangeables are the unspoken trend I see in education today, the recognition that caring is the foundation for any and all school and other success. Clearly it's not about just grades, education is of a whole person and forever, it's not for passing exams. Nothing new stated but all too often I have seen the "gifted" child being seen by even well meaning teachers as a window to God. If we stick with this line of thinking, then surely all children might be such! We have a lot to learn from ancient and current Eastern philosophies of education. An article that provokes reflection. Thank you for the timely post as we ease in to the new school year.

13 August 2013 12:28

You certainly may add soul and I think that it's vital to do just that. What always intrigues me is folks who believe it's one or the other: academic rigour or soulful learning. Whoever said it can't be both, simultaneously?!
Thanks for your reply.

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