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!