Gifted Education

You know those stories about revelations: threshold concepts that change the way you see the world, like the day you were on your way to work and you realised that it’s not about what you teach, it’s about what the students learn? I had one of those powerful shifts in perception and belief some 10 years ago when I went on a training course run by Unlocking the World on Gifted Education. The course was a one week, 40 hour deep dive into gifted education theory and practice and it basically changed the way I looked at students from then on.

As I’m licensed to train teachers in gifted education, I took a whole school’s staff through the exact same course some years later, because I wanted them to see things the way I had been brought to see them, to unlock the world in each learner. It remains a passion today and I invite all educators to consider this mind-shifting approach to human intelligence, and therefore, to teaching.

The revelation

I used to think that the whole world of gifted education was a somewhat exaggerated and potentially damaging elitist exercise in labelling. To me, everyone was gifted in some way and it seemed crude to decide that some were and others not, not to mention all sorts of problems around criteria, cut off points and separate programmes running alongside mainstream programmes. However, I was misguided and ill-informed as the course taught me. Not everybody is gifted but more are than we might initially think, often gifted people are not recognised, and you can use the principles of gifted education to enhance all learning. Here are four powerful concepts embedded in gifted education that are worth careful consideration:

  1. There are different types of giftedness: you can be moderately or profoundly gifted and gifted in at least six domains (see the 2015 research of Betts & Neihart). Gifted people are not necessarily high achievers academically, that is just one type of giftedness. In fact, many go under the radar because educators have not been trained in identifying them. Bad schools ignore gifted students to the point that they become dropouts or even delinquents, since the enormous creative energy they have has simply been neglected. 
  2. Often gifted people are twice exceptional. This means that their gifts are accompanied by some form of neurodiversity. When you are gifted, you see things differently and that is not always understood and recognised by standard types of intelligence screening. In fact, and most unfortunately, often learning needs mask gifts. This can mean that untrained educators will treat a gifted student through a deficit approach, via the learning need and without compensating for the gifts. For example, a student might be dyslexic but highly creative, or might become restless when not challenged. The dyslexia and the attention deficit that should be looked at in isolation, they should be understood in the context of the gifts: they go together.
  3. Gifted people often experience asynchronous development (Silverman, 1997). The hyper development of their cognitive or intrapersonal abilities means that they are not necessarily in tune with the social behaviours of their age peers. The factory line admissions approach (stamped by date of production) we have socialised over the last century and a half assumes that children of the same age grow up better together. This might be true for a majority of students, but gifted students often prefer the company of older peers and struggle to assimilate the codes of the group given the asynchrony between those codes and the gifted person’s sense of humour, conversation preference, interest and passions.
  4. Gifted students are often neglected. Schools often spend a lot of energy on helping the students struggling to integrate the curriculum. However, the students who are performing well – so those who are academically gifted (which, again, is only one type of giftedness) – are seen as not needing help when, in fact, if they were helped, they would go even further.

  What to do?

Here are three steps I would encourage schools to consider in order to accommodate gifted students and create conditions for them to flourish.

  1. Ensure that you have the right checklist to identify gifts. Kanevsky’s brilliant behaviours are based on behaviours that can be observed and interpreted. Gifted students often have beyond age-peer sensitivities, an original sense of humour, quicker processing speed and higher spontaneous information recall capacity. Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a single quantitative assessment, even a well-established psychometric test, will identify giftedness, it simply loses too many gifts and is a very narrow yet blunt instrument to assume any pertinent diagnosis. Careful attention to behaviour while knowing what you are looking for will tell a more truthful story. The observation of peers and parents can be useful to build up an accurate picture too.
  2. Recognise, don’t label. When you see a gifted student in action, it’s a powerful, mind-opening moment, and it gives educators a renewed responsibility to differentiate carefully, to allow for enrichment and extension options on assignments, to consider acceleration and to engage the learner in a scaffolded manner. However, openly labelling students as gifted or running gifted programmes for some students and not others is a mistake because it leads to stigmatising, pressured expectations and, invariably, artificial cut-off criteria. Only when students are exceptionally and profoundly gifted should measures beyond differentiation be considered, the first being acceleration.
  3. Don’t punish students for being gifted. An unimaginative educator will simply give fast finishers extra work, or ask students who understand concepts quickly to teach the other students. Worse, they will become defensive when students are easily bored and challenge parents who might believe their children have gifts by looking to test scores, as if the only way to be gifted is through academics. An open-minded educator will see the restlessness, the etiolated behaviours and the unusually high processing speed of a learner as a challenge to ensure that in all curriculum planning, enrichment and extension work, qualitatively differentiated items, choice of assignment and other varied techniques (essentially, inverting Bloom’s Taxonomy so as to allow some students opportunities to deepen higher order thinking skills at entry point) are used.

Our role as educators is to see the gifts in learners and to make those gifts grow into socially recognised talents. 

Next time you are challenged by a student who is underperforming, is restless, does not get on well with their peers, seems to be looking for something else, consider that they might be gifted and look at them not through a deficit model created by a rigid assessment model, but through a world of possibilities.

One thought on “Gifted Education”

  1. Hi Conrad,

    Many thanks for this insightful article. Just what I needed at this time. In my school, we do not yet have a gifted and talented programme and I have taken on the challenge of developing one! Your article has provided me many tools to begin my journey.

    Would it be possible to have a chat with you to discuss some ideas/tools and strategies you have implemented in your experience for establishing this?


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