Do we need to re-think Gifted & Talented in school?

Over the last couple of months I’ve been speaking around Australia about the need to understand the impact feedback has on an individual’s belief about their potential or need to learn.

The source code for the talk is Carol Dweck’s work around Mindset, to which I’ve added my own take on things based on my experience in the classroom.

In my opinion, there are too many kids who believe they can’t learn as well as too many who believe they don’t need to learn.

In essence – to use Dweck’s language – they have a Fixed Mindset.

I contend that many of the well-intentioned strategies employed by school serve to exacerbate  this situation.

Take for instance the Opportunity Class construct in NSW public primary schools, which is explained on the NSW Public Schools website as:

There are 75 primary schools with opportunity classes across NSW. These schools can provide intellectual stimulation by grouping together gifted and talented students who may otherwise be isolated from a suitable peer group.

The OCI’ve always had an issue with the language that surrounds G&T – just look at the paragraph above for starters – and in particular I’m not keen on the notion that Opportunity  should only be afforded to those the system deems worthy.

I decided – perhaps in hindsight, unwisely – to bring this up in front of around 1000 teachers a couple of weeks ago.

I wanted to consider what we really meant by the phrase Gifted & Talented, and by association, if having an Opportunity Class (OC), we were subliminally telling the kids not in the OC they have no discernible gifts or talents, and as result are consigned to the NOC (No Opportunity Class)? 

I say it was perhaps unwise as I received one piece of feedback from the talk – don’t ever think that no-one reads those conference feedback forms!!

It went a little bit like this:

I was offended by this speaker’s [me] ill-informed and gratuitous throw-away lines with respect to gifted children and gifted education.

It went on suggest I belittled, derided, was sarcastic, and mocked gifted children, and went further to suggest that because of attitudes such as mine, many gifted children suffer mental health issues because their needs aren’t met in school.

Wow. As you can imagine as someone who prides himself on having student wellbeing front and centre of everything I do I was taken aback. So this post may be something of a cathartic exercise, but I thought I’d state my case.

The NSW Public School website defines G&T as:

Gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in one or more of the following domains of human ability: intellectual, creative, social and physical.

Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.

For the record I made these references to G&T.

“I think sometimes we underestimate the role that time, effort, dedication and downright hard work has played in the gaining of such gifts and talents.”

“Perhaps it might be better if we renamed our Gifted and Talented class the Kids who were fortunate to be born into a family who, not only recognised their innate affinity to a particular activity at an early age, but also had the time, means, money and commitment to allow them to pursue their interests with such vigour that they are now better or have the potential to be better at the said activity than the majority of their peers…. class.”

“For example, it’s hard to be gifted and/or talented at the piano, if you don’t have a piano.” 

I’m not saying there is no such thing as being gifted, but I do believe that the language and strategies we have in place in school may be unintentionally creating the fixed mindset in students across the board and in turn impacting on student wellbeing, engagement and outcomes.

In her own words, Carol Dweck says:

“[Those students] who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.”

“This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”

“Praising children’s innate abilities.. reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential.”

So bringing it full circle, far from belittling gifted children, I was attempting to shine a light on the system itself.

Phenomena that serve to highlight the short-comings of current approaches to G&T is the historical underrepresentation from kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, and varying definitions and identification of gifts and talents.

It is crucial we examine the language and strategies we have in school to ensure that we are not only meeting the needs of gifted kids, but also – at the same time – ensuring we are not alienating those kids who have not been identified as gifted, or worse still, those who from an early age have considered themselves incapable of learning.

In the same – rather long – breath, I wonder if we should completely re-think what we mean by gifts and talents, and whether the system in its current form can really meet the needs of all kids?

If you’re still with me, you might be interested in this I wrote a fair while ago now

Sorry if I upset you 🙂

But more than keen to hear your thoughts!

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  1. I hear you loud and clear Dan. Working with students with disabilities, requires constant clarity around language. Just as there may be deficits that are genuinely difficult to overcome because of the nature of a disability, the word in itself suggests a lack/or complete void of ability. Some of the young people I work with have shown the greatest “giftedness” in empathy and compassion than any “able” person I have come across. I have also worked with young people with a past riddled with trauma that hinders the access to learning as they struggle to make sense of their world. I have seen these same children flourish as they eventually overcome the darkness and begin to feast on the opportunities others take for granted.
    I have fought in many settings, sometimes with success sometimes without, for the appropriate use of language in defining who we are. Just as I wouldn’t want my students labelled “disabled” nor do I want them labelled “gifted/talented”. Dwecks work identifies how powerful language is in developing a fixed identity of who we are and if we truly want G&T students to be challenged and fulfil their potential, shouldn’t they do so under the brand of “learning”?

  2. What message are we really communicating with those classes? When I was younger we had special ed classes for people with disabilities. These students were not allowed to work with “normal” classes because they had special needs it was believed that they would disrupt learning in the classroom and slow learning down. And perhaps, for a short time integration did cause that. But we got over it and now we would not imagine moving away from integrated classrooms. Why? Because we fundamentally believe that all people have a right to education and to be included and not be marginalised by society. That creating subgroups handicaps people’s ability to thrive as they have been labelled and diminished by being included in the sub-group. That learning is best when we collaborate in diverse communities… and much more. Now we are reversing the trend. The “special needs rooms” is the regular classes and the “gifted classes” are the places where real learning occurs. We separate them because we think being in a regular class will disadvantage them and disrupt their learning. We separate them so they can thrive as individuals. That these people have a fundamental right to exclude themselves from working with others so they can achieve without the “normal kids”.
    Some kids may be pillaged enough that the current model and systems advantage them and they can master the forms of assessment and get the results that impress in that system. But being proficient at the current system is not innovation or creativity. It does not even equal better learning, just more of what they already do well.

    This system says that learning is not collaborative, it is competitive. When these people move into workplaces and become leaders in their field they will replicate the same thing. They will not value the intelligence of the group over their own. People who are not as smart as them will be a hindrance to their ability to shine or excel. Work places will become centred around individuals instead of collaborative environments where real creativity and innovation occurs. Such a shame.

  3. I’m torn on this discussion. As a beginning teacher, I want to foster an attitude of positivity towards learning amongst, and within, all of my students. I don’t want a bar of deficit-model teaching.

    As a parent to one introverted and very gifted child (as well as two extroverted and gifted children) I can see that my introvert would benefit in big ways from being in a targeted and segregated class.

    She has always been friends with others in her class who have learning difficulties and has often been asked to assist in their learning. Being a caring individual, she has always taken this on, but I believe it has potentially been to the detriment of her own academic advancement even if it has benefitted her socially.

    I have not seen a model that allows for both opportunities; how can we help students to grow socially and not inhibit their academic abilities?

    My daughter is not a teacher, so why should she be placed in that role? My daughter has possibly learned big things from helping others. Would she have still become the same person without those particular opportunities to help others? I like to think she would.

    Therein lies my struggle. Teaching the whole child is a very difficult proposition, regardless of their levels of giftedness and /or talent.

    • Wow. Ideology aside it’s situations like these where we are really tested. A well articulated example and a conflicting position for sure. I feel quite challenged by your story and wish to explore your example more to test where I stand on the matter (my daughter is only 4months and I have not been in this position as a parent). Could you elaborate on the disadvantages you see to your child’s learning and what you see as the end goal for learning for your child? What would a targeted and segregated classroom do for your child in regards these goals? Could you expand on your comment “how can we help students to grow socially and not inhibit their academic abilities?” – How do you see the interaction and relationship of social settings and academics? Would there be an example of academic goals you could provide. Sorry to bother you, just wanting to grow in my understanding of other perspectives.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I have long questioned the whole G&T concept – the definitions, identification, the system we use to cater to their (supposed) needs etc. From my experience in schools, I am yet to see a teacher who has an adequate understanding of it, let alone a deep one- I see myself as one of them.

    More recently, post-EduTech, I have been really questioning its validity. Aren’t all kids gifted and/or talented in some way? And isn’t it part of our responsibility as educators to a) help the kids discover what that is for them and then b) nurture it?

    I have four children – the oldest three are in high school (the youngest is 2) – and I see gifts and talents in each of them (as does every parent I guess). The extent to which those gifts and talents have been discovered, nurtured and developed has been mostly up to me but schools must take a share of that responsibility too. School is undoubtedly an enormous part of a child’s life and clearly impacts upon their development. My (only) son is a glaring example of how negative this impact can be. Of all my kids, he is the one most like the G & T version we see in schools. Now he is in high school and HATING it, with a passion. He is a perfect case for you Dan!

    Katie.

    • Katie (and Paul)

      All kids are unique and special.

      But to say all kids are gifted and talented is plainly incorrect and not useful for anyone. One might as well say that all kids are retarded in some way – now that didn’t sound right, did it?

      The “gifted” term is problematic, as it is applied to very large range of kids covering many different challenges and issues. But the truly gifted kids are special needs kids.They aren’t “just” normal kids with special talents. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t.

      Life at school for these kids can be very lonely, even hostile, because teachers and their age peers don’t understand them. And this starts from day one at school, when they have the least amount of social experience and maturity.

      Result: Kids that are disengaged, socially inept and with a bucket load of self-esteem issues.

      But don’t take my word for it – read the research referenced by Cerian below.

      And anyone, who are against special treatment and ability segregation, should be truly outraged by what’s going on at your local football (or any form of sports) club.

      John

      • John, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, in particular the application of the term “gifted”. In 20 years of K-6 teaching, I believe I have only come across 3 truly gifted students- they had all the hallmarks you mention. The number of talented kids on the other hand has been much larger.

        The message I was trying to convey was that each child has their own set of needs, interests, abilities, passions etc (what I described as “gifts and talents”). And that it is up to us as educators (as well as parents) to assist in the discovery, identification and nurturing of these things. Not only for the successful, holistic development of the child but also to ensure authentic engagement at school.

        Katie.

  5. You have hit the spot again Dan.
    G and T removal sends a message to the students but also to teachers. It suggests the teacher lacks the skills to teach the individual. If that is true, then why do we leave any individuals with the teacher?
    G and T can tend to focus on numeracy and literacy as well. My belief is that all students have a talent and part of our role is to assist the student to discover it G & T students, who do need to be extended, as do all our students, often need support in other areas. Taking them out often deprives them of these learning opportunities, particularly in working with groups of students who do not share their passion or skills. This is something they will need for life!

  6. Good Grief. I can’t believe the ignorance of either this blog post, or the opinions being publicly espoused.

    It’s hard to display talent for piano, if one is not in possession of a piano, certainly. But there is a very big difference between being talented, and being gifted. Working hard to nurture a talent is obviously important, and yes, perhaps anyone can have a talent. But that is not, by any means, the definition of ‘gifted’. Gifted children are those who are cognitively above 98% of their age peers. Profoundly gifted children are above the 99.9% and are very rare creatures indeed, with extremely special needs; often ones that schools can not adequately cater for at all (and parents of these children, often open up about their unique differences to only those most trusted of friends. The ‘Tall Poppy’ syndrome appears to be alive and well).

    I would suggest doing some thorough research into the subject before making such ill-informed comments as these:

    “I think sometimes we underestimate the role that time, effort, dedication and downright hard work has played in the gaining of such gifts and talents.”

    Giftedness is inherent. It’s part of a person’s genetic make-up. It can’t be taught, imbued or otherwise introduced. You don’t seem to understand the meaning of ‘gifted’. Of course you can apply your above statement to ‘talents’.

    “Perhaps it might be better if we renamed our Gifted and Talented class the Kids who were fortunate to be born into a family who, not only recognised their innate affinity to a particular activity at an early age, but also had the time, means, money and commitment to allow them to pursue their interests with such vigour that they are now better or have the potential to be better at the said activity than the majority of their peers…. class.”

    Research has repeatedly shown that gifted children are present in all walks of life, regardless of social or economic background. Giftedness is not an ‘activity’. Nor is extreme giftedness always a positive or a blessing. Exceptionally gifted children can often not be catered for in those ‘gifted’ classes, which are more often than not directed at high achievers (gifted children can be underachievers, particularly the more highly gifted they are), and/or more mildly gifted children, and those moderately gifted children who are not also in possession of a learning disability (along with the profoundly gifted, perhaps the most misunderstood group of all).

    Some initial suggested reading for you would be Miraca Gross’s book, ‘Exceptionally Gifted Children’ – a 20 year longitudinal study, http://crushingtallpoppies.com/2014/03/19/no-for-the-last-time-every-child-is-not-gifted/
    http://www.triplenine.org/download/IQ_and_the_Problem_of_Social_Adjustment.pdf
    and many of the articles on the Davidson Organisation’s site… http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10099.aspx and the Gifted Development Centre, just to name a few. http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/resources/articles

    I’m certainly not surprised that the listener was offended.
    At least do some research into what gifted is, and what it means, before expressing such an unenlightened opinion in public. It would be extremely detrimental to go back to the conservative, uninformed times and cries of ‘elitism’ of the 1970s.

    • I would have to agree with Cerian’s note above. Dan, what is your specific training, qualification & experience in Gifted education? I would encourage you to engage in some research on Gifted, at the likes of GERRIC or similar best-practice institution on Gifted education, before publicly making the sweeping statements you have. I get that all children are unique & every child deserves for their potential to be supported & we need to teach tolerance of difference, that we are all unique yet equal. I support the intent of what you promote yourself as – pioneering to innovate the education system – but please understand the nuances of Gifted – or any other special needs – education before you next speak about it. There are a lot of myths in the community about gifted children (as correctly defined by Cerian’s definition above). Far from the elitism you & others allude to in your comments, Gifted children more often than not struggle to fit in, find their identity & be accepted and do not necessarily breeze through school and into the leadership positions society assumes they will. Typically, parents do not find it an easy job advocating for their gifted child at school. So it’s vital that when someone in a leadership position in Education takes the floor, they truly understand what they’re saying and are not perpetuating the myths & misunderstandings already in the system that do Gifted children a great injustice.

      • Just one further comment I’d like to call out…. the nature of your argument – that children’s view of themselves is crucial to them reaching their potential in education and that Gifted & Talented programs damage “non G&T children’s” self perception – I find staggering & perpetuating a reverse type of the discrimination you seem to be saying you want to stamp out. Are you saying that Gifted children, with actual identifiable needs, should not be catered to so others feel good about themselves? – which leaves the Gifted child’s self perception altered. In this case, someone has to lose for the other to win. We need to move to a more individualised approach to Education across the board, not reinforce one that tries to make all children the same. It seems to me we may be confusing “equity” with “ubiquity”. I agree it’s an important priority to teach children resilience, which surely must include an understanding that being different – in any regard – does not make you better or worse than anyone else

  7. It is plainly obvious, without needing to read beyond the first couple of paragraphs that this buffoon has never had to raise a gifted child.

  8. As the parent of a gifted child, and someone with teacher training (not yet fully utilised) – I would not feel fully competent to provide for the needs of gifted children in a regular classroom. As a gifted child’s parent – all I will say is – You (Dan and all who agree with him) come and live with a gifted child who is severely underachieving because the mainstream system has denied him opportunities, even worked against us (including the school counsellor) as if we were the enemy; come and live with a child who is difficult to motivate because the mainstream system has disengaged him; come and live with a child who we have NOT – as proposed – spent loads of time and money on cultivating his ‘innate’ giftedness (I am spending loads of my time, effort and money now, just trying to find a better placement to repair the damage the mainstream, undifferentiated system has done to my child’s desire to learn; come and live with a child who, as psychologists forewarned would develop behavioural issues if his educational needs were not met, who is now developing these issues (and which we at home have to deal with just as much as the school system who has failed to heed these warnings do); come and live with a child who most weeks breaks our hearts to see falling so far short of the obvious potential he has. Once you have lived the life of a parent (teacher or not) who lives these issues on a daily basis (not to mention read the countless articles, studies and reports which support the ‘labels’ and the differentiated curriculums, OC classes etc, etc, once you have watched your child who had a passion for life an learning begin a slow decline into apathy – then maybe you could debate the merits of grouping like-minded children together for the benefits of their learning. Unlike you, G&T kids are NOT an elite group – they are the underdogs who struggle for survival in the school system at almost every turn (and btw, I have a profoundly intellectually impaired daughter as well, so I know both ends of the spectrum and she is far better catered for!). Even the selective GATS units do not cater fully for these kids – more, it seems for the high achievers who are not truly gifted – but who have the drive (and the parents with the time and money to tutor) to achieve such standards. These children NEED differentiating! And out of interest, we have never mentioned the ‘gifted’ label to our son – so there is no issue with labelling. You may be teachers, but you really don’t fully understand the gifted child’s plight – I too am not surprised anyone was offended. Live the life, before you talk that talk.

  9. Can’t you see that it’s teachers like you that cause the problem. Teachers that won’t provide challenging work because “all children have a gift”. How can they learn to strive and learn, how can they learn to have a flexible mindset when they do know what you are teaching? Then again, how can they fit in a learning environment that doesn’t offer learning? Challenge them so they have a chance to learn just like everyone else.
    On a side note, there are special schools for people with severe learning problems, perhaps OC is the equivalent for the gifted.

    Children aren’t arrogant or elitist at 6, but they may be gifted. Life is tough for a gifted child, many are aware of loneliness and isolation from an early age, many won’t watch movies because they understand it on an emotional level, can’t go to discos because it’s too noisy or too intense, then there’s the hand dryers in public toilets!

    Their parents aren’t being pushy, they are trying to manage the child’s anxiety and frustration, they act in fear of their children being depressed and disengaged.

  10. Thanks for your comments one and all! I’m assuming that this has been posted on a G&T Facebook page or the like given the sudden interest.

    I find it interesting the different ways in which my post has been interpreted – it’s as though a “call to arms” has been issued, as many of the latest comments seem to criticise the post despite the fact that every single comment serves to reinforce my assertions that:

    “[Perhaps we need to] re-think Gifted & Talented in Schools”it appears many of you agree with me here?

    “I’m not saying there is no such thing as being gifted, but I do believe that the language and strategies we have in place in school may be unintentionally creating the fixed mindset in students across the board and in turn impacting on student wellbeing, engagement and outcomes.” Again… many of your comments support this!

    “It is crucial we examine the language and strategies we have in school to ensure that we are not only meeting the needs of gifted kids, but also – at the same time – ensuring we are not alienating those kids who have not been identified as gifted, or worse still, those who from an early age have considered themselves incapable of learning.”Is anyone arguing we shouldn’t do this?

    “In the same – rather long – breath, I wonder if we should completely re-think what we mean by gifts and talents, and whether the system in its current form can really meet the needs of all kids?”Most of you are saying most schools don’t meet the needs of your kids, so again I wonder if you are arguing against this?

    For the record I stand by my statement that “talent” is the result of hard work and commitment and I’d also argue that many of the kids in G&T classes are there based on talent, as opposed to being there based on their gifts. And no… that’s not to say I don’t believe your child isn’t gifted.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it.

  11. So by your definition, kids can’t be talented at sport unless they’ve already really committed to it and worked very hard at it? So selecting a child for a soccer team on the basis of 3 or 4 weeks of extremely outstanding performance, having previously not played at all, would, what, not be a good idea? Because that child, by your definition, can’t possibly be talented. So, by your definition, soccer teams should perhaps be selected on the basis of how hard they work at it, and how committed they are to the sport, and not any special ability? Should we apply that to all other sports? Because, you see, the definition of ‘Talent’, as included in the Oxford Dictionary is that of a ‘special ability’. You are, instead, talking about ‘achievement’. But you clearly have so little knowledge of anything regarding gifted and talented, that I suspect the semantics will escape you. It will probably take me a couple of days to prepare my response in full, but the archaic ideas you are espousing are extremely concerning to many of us who have fought for improved education and possibilities for our gifted children (many of whom also have a learning disability).

  12. Hi Dan, I agree that opportunity is crucial for children to flourish but I have to challenge your idea that talent is nothing more than this. My child is both gifted and learning disabled. If it is my fault he is gifted, is it also my fault he is learning disabled? Did I not give him enough opportunities in the area of his disability?
    We are born different, it’s not a mindset. Mindset is a different issue. I have short, bow legs and will never be an elite athlete but I do have other talents. I am OK with that, and I enjoy exercise, but it’s not my mindset stopping me from being an elite athlete!
    Everyone IS special, but not everyone is gifted. Yes, gifted is a confusing word, I agree. Your confusion between the concept of mindset versus an innate attribute is not, however, helpful.
    Thankyou for engaging in this debate. Please do take it the next step and find out some more about giftedness as you clearly have a powerful voice and some of your comments can do real damage, even though unintentionally. Please change your mind, and those of others, as your misconceptions are understandable (I held some of them myself until recently) and very common and underlie much of the suffering gifted children endure.

  13. Before I take this further, Dan, 6 people who are leading experts in gifted, have suggested that I drop this altogether. Their reasoning is that you know so little about gifted, and that you won’t take it on yourself to learn anything whatsoever about gifted within a few hours…

  14. I do not agree with the argument, mainly because I am a child in the G&T program. I have not been born into a fortunate family,I was seen as being a child who could not excel greatly in learning and I never thought I would be this intelligent. Sounds vain but it’s true. I have been in the G&T program since 7th grade and I am now in 10th grade. As I am going to enter 11thgrade next year I fear that I will be put into a class of children who cannot excel as academically as I can. The gifted and talented program has truly let me excel in all my subjects, I am surrounded by students who understand the same concepts as me and encourage me to always try my best. Being in the program does not mean that intelligence comes naturally, I study hard, I complete all my homework, and take school seriously, I devote myself to school and you know why? because the gifted and talented program has led me to believing that I can.

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