Including Gifted Children in Equal Educational Opportunities
In your classroom, the students you teach will vary widely in their levels of abilities. Some of these students will be markedly advanced in comparison with their same-age peers. These students have particular educational needs, and failing to recognise and cater for these needs can result in a range of problems, and the danger that these students may be excluded from access to the full education we aim to provide to all students.
The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee conducted an inquiry into the Education of Gifted Children in 2001, the report of which was referred to frequently in the development of this chapter. The report drew from 279 submissions, taken from schools, academics, gifted education and gifted children support groups, and parents. State education policies such as the Victorian Bright Futures initiative also begin to address issues surrounding gifted education at a state level.
Who Are Our Gifted students?
Definitions of giftedness vary in specificity; over time, the trend has moved from highly exclusive definitions predicated upon achievement measured in the top percentages of intellectual achievement tests, towards more inclusive conceptions encompassing potential and/or performance over a range of domains. Françoys Gagné’s 1985/1995 differentiated model of giftedness and talent (cited in Gross, 1993, and Gross, 1999a), has become widely accepted in Australia (Gross, 1999a; Gross and Sleap, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Gagné’s model defines giftedness as the potential to perform at a level significantly in advance of what might be expected at one’s age, whereas talent refers to performance or achievement at a level significantly in advance of what might be expected at one’s age. Giftedness may occur in one or more of the domains of intellectual, creative, socio-emotional, sensori-motor or ‘other’ ability. Gagné suggested that around fifteen per cent of students in any given subject area are capable of performing at a level far ahead of that of their same-age peers (Gross, Macleod, Drummond & Merrick, 2001). Within this model, a child may be gifted (have high potential) without being talented (demonstrating high achievement). The realisation of giftedness as talent depends on the catalytic factors in the centre of Gagné’s model: environmental factors, including family and school, and personality factors, most notably motivation. The challenge to teachers posed by this model, according to Gross (1993), is to ‘recognise the gift, and foster the talent’ (p. 40).
The Senate inquiry into the Education of Gifted Children (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001) identified three characteristics shared by conceptions of giftedness devised over the last century:
• Gifted children have the potential for unusually high performance in at least one area;
• The capacity to think clearly, analytically and evaluatively is a prerequisite for high performance in any area;
• Gifted children are not always successful. The child’s personality and environment can help or hinder the translation of potential into performance.
(Commonwealth of Australia, 2001, p. 18)
Gifted students are a diverse population, each of whom exhibit some of the following characteristics:
• They learn and understand material in much less time than their peers, and tend to remember what they have learned with no need for revision;
• They have often learnt to read before school age, and enjoy reading;
• They have longer attention spans than same-age peers;
• They perceive ideas and concepts at more abstract and complex levels than same-age peers;
• They become passionately interested in specific topics, and are reluctant to move on until they have learned as much as they can about their interest;
• They often have wide interests, and high ability in a wide range of domains;
• They enjoy challenges and intellectual activities;
• They have wide and advanced vocabularies and vivid imaginations;
• They are insatiably curious, and try to find the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things; and
• They may be emotionally intense, have advanced moral development, have heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others, and an acute sense of justice.
(Commonwealth of Australia, 2001; Gross, 1993, Gross 1999b)
Just as other children with special educational needs differ in the degree to which they require intervention, gifted students will vary in their level of giftedness. Therefore the changes that need to be made to their curriculum in order to challenge and motivate them will vary.
Why Should Gifted Children be Provided With a Differentiated Curriculum?
Labaree (1997) identifies three alternative, competing goals for education. The Democratic Equality approach seeks to provide equal educational access to all; the Social Efficiency approach aims to stratify students into groups trained for different niches in the employment market; and the Social Mobility approach offers education as a means for individuals to move up the socio-economic ladder. Attending to and making educational provisions for exceptionally able students may be seen to serve only the social mobility approach – that is, capitalising on their already advantageous ‘gifts’ and widening the gap of ‘social mobility’ potential. However, we can also see that meeting the needs of gifted students is necessary to the satisfaction of democratic equality: if all students are to have their educational needs met, then the needs of gifted students must also be met. Maximising the potential of gifted students also meets the goals of the social efficiency approach: supporting the full development of our brightest students may lead to their abilities being employed most productively for the good of the whole community, both eco-nomically and socially (as with new discoveries that may benefit all).
The Adelaide Declaration on the National Goals for schooling in the Twenty-First Century (MCEETYA, 2000, p. 73), states as its first goal:
‘Schooling should develop fully the talents and capacities of all students.’
All students should have equal opportunity of access to the educational resources they require to fulfil their potential. Special provisions need to be made for students whose educational needs differ from the majority; in the case of gifted children, who may be cognitively and emotionally advanced in comparison to their same-age peers, failure to provide a differentiated curriculum which is challenging and supportive can result in the following:
• Intellectual frustration and demotivation (stunting the realisation of giftedness as talent);
• Isolation, loneliness and social rejection when gifted students are given little access to children of similar interests, abilities and maturity;
• Underachievement, in an effort to attain peer acceptance, and demotivation;
• Learning ‘not to learn’;
• Misdiagnosis of ADD/ADHD when boredom and frustration manifest as behavioural problems;
• Psychological distress, ‘… often culminating in dire circumstances in later life’ (Fox, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001, p. 13).
(adapted from Commonwealth of Australia, 2001; Gross, 1993)
It is our responsibility as teachers to provide an appropriately differentiated curriculum for gifted students, both to foster student wellbeing and to discharge our duty to help students reach their personal and academic potential.
Concerns Surrounding Gifted Education Programs
As indicated in Gagné’s model above, the realisation of giftedness as talent depends upon motivation; research indicates that, contrary to popular belief, all gifted children will not ‘succeed anyway’, and indeed many gifted students underachieve (Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Gifted children from families of lower socio-economic status are particularly at risk; whereas wealthier children are more likely to have access to out-of-school opportunities for enrichment, poorer children are more reliant upon their school to provide opportunities for the realisation of their potential (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). When the Honourable Joan Kirner was Minister for Education in 1984, she asserted that gifted education programs sustain the dominance of the ruling class in education, and in political economy (Kirner, cited in Gross, 1999a). Comments such as this reveal a widely held misconception regarding giftedness: namely, that gifted children are boys from upper-class homes. Gifted children, boys and girls in equal numbers, hail from every ethnic group, every socio-economic stratum (Start, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001; Gross, 1999a); condemning gifted education programs on the basis of class discrimination perpetuates class discrimination, because less wealthy gifted children are so much more reliant on schooling to nurture, challenge and support their giftedness.
Submissions to the Senate inquiry into the Education of Gifted and Talented Children (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001) reported the view that ‘all children are gifted’ is widely employed by schools to justify the lack of provisions for the education of gifted children. This perception arises when giftedness is confused with relative strengths among children. Any given child may be comparatively stronger in mathematical reasoning than in verbal expression, but this does not necessarily mean that they are gifted in mathematics. Giftedness in any given domain is relative to the norm: all children cannot be gifted any more than all children are disabled (Gross, 1999a). Significant to the understanding of giftedness is the idea that it entails ability significantly beyond that of same-age peers (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). So why does this belief that ‘all children are gifted’, this discomfort with the reality that some children have different educational needs because of ability or performance in advance of their same-age peers, exist not only in the (presumably) uninformed community, but amongst teachers? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that intellectual ability, unlike sporting ability (frequently viewed as an arena in which individuals are ‘allowed’, and indeed encouraged, to excel without social repercussions) is not directly measurable, in much the same way that dimensions of personality and morality cannot be quantified. Intellectual ability has come to be associated with general moral superiority, and ‘educational outcomes have [wrongly] become a metric for human worth’ (Benbow and Stanley, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Geake (cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001) sets an aim of having ‘giftedness accepted as another ‘ordinary’ difference’, free of conjecture as to the underlying worth of the individual (p. 32).
What Can We Do As Beginning Teachers?
Know your students
‘It is well known that untrained [in gifted education] teachers are more likely to notice giftedness in the dominant culture and less likely to notice it in poorer or minority groups’ (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001, p. 27). Indeed, the Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre (cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001) states that teacher nomination, whilst the most commonly employed method of identifying gifted children, is the least effective, probably because teachers tend to focus upon positive behaviours and disregard the disruptive behaviour of children who act out because of boredom. Familiarity with common characteristics of gifted children may help in identifying underachievers, students deliberately masking their ability and gifted children frustrated with a lack of challenge.
Several methods of identifying gifted students are available:
The ‘Bright Futures’ Strategy of the Victorian Department of Education suggests the use of checklists, such as those found in the Bright Futures Resource Book (pp. 14 – 18) as a starting point. Whilst easy to use and apparently quite comprehensive, these lists do however fall into the trap of failing to list any negative behaviours that may be displayed by frustrated gifted children; indeed, one of the characteristics listed is that of ‘possess[ing] desirable social skills and etiquette’. The Bright Futures Resource Book does, however, include a checklist specifically designed to identify underachievers (p 60), which could be consulted where a teacher suspects that the student is capable of performing above their current level. A more inclusive checklist, which draws attention to negative behaviours which may be masking giftedness, is featured in the book ‘Gifted Students in Primary Schools: Differentiating the Curriculum’ (Gross, Macleod, Drummond & Merrick, 2001, appendix). It is important to note that any given student may not display all traits listed on a checklist, and that the level to which they display a trait may vary over time.
• Parent identification
The stereotype of the ‘pushy parent’, doing everything possible to educationally advantage their reluctant child, is actually almost entirely mythical. Where parents are inaccurate in their assessment of their child’s potential, they usually underestimate rather than overestimate. Parents have been shown to be far more accurate in their identification of gifted children than teachers (Gross, Macleod, Drummond & Merrick, 2001), and this stands to reason: parents spend the first five years or so of their child’s life in close observation of their child, and these five years are the most developmentally active of the child’s life. Parents have the opportunity to compare their child’s development to other children at the same age (including siblings) at a time when differences can be quite marked such as in speech development or motor co-ordination (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001; Gross, 1993; Gross, Macleod, Drummond & Merrick, 2001). Parents may be provided with checklists, which may inform teachers as to the child’s learning before school. The Bright Futures Resource Book features brief checklists for parents (pp. 65 – 67); however, comprehensive (but user-friendly) checklists (‘Things my young child has done’, and ‘Things my child has done’) can be found in ‘Gifted Students in Primary Schools: Differentiating the Curriculum’ (Gross, Macleod, Drummond & Merrick, 2001, appendix). The latter features a 10-point versus five-point scale, space for examples and encouragement to supply extra information and examples of work. These examples of work may be used to form a portfolio tracking the child’s advanced development, which could be a useful resource in determining the child’s needs.
• Ability and achievement tests
The use of tests to identify gifted children is contentious, and gives rise to legitimate concerns regarding cultural bias and the limited field of assessment of any given test. However, tests remain the most objective assessment of ‘cognitive horsepower’ (Australian Psycho-logical Society, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001), and when used as just one element of a range of diagnostic procedures (including subjective nomination by teachers and parents) can provide useful information as to the extent of the child’s advanced abilities. Whilst group tests are less time-consuming and expensive to administer than individual testing by a psychologist, individually-administered tests are far more accurate, and more likely to assist in revealing the abilities of underachievers or gifted children with learning disabilities (CHIP foundation, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Paper-and-pencil group tests are estimated to ‘miss’ more than fifty per cent of gifted students, disadvantaging as they do poor readers and slow writers, ESL-background students and poorly motivated students (Department of Education Victoria, 1996). Individual testing is also seen to be effective in combating cultural bias in testing, as the tester can respond to the language preference and cultural background of the child; culturally fair tests are available which may reveal abilities otherwise not apparent in the classroom situation (Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre, cited in Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). Victorian school communities are expected to have developed whole school approaches to identification, and to have contact with an educational psychologist who may conduct individual tests and assist with developing individual learning plans for gifted students.
• Australian Primary Talent Search (APTS)
Students in grades 4, 5 and 6, when nominated jointly by their school and their parents, may be eligible to be tested under APTS to determine if they require greater educational challenge. Accredited service providers (This list is available on SOFWEB at http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/futures/accredited_providers.htm ) can offer support to schools in the provision of challenging educational experiences for their gifted students.
Overall, a wide range of assessment strategies needs to be employed, in order to give the most comprehensive ‘picture’ of the child, and to ‘catch’ advanced abilities in domains which may not be assessed with any one assessment tool. Also, assessment needs to be ongoing. A child’s advanced abilities may not be initially apparent, but may ‘emerge’ over time. Mentally categorising a child as ‘not gifted’ after initial testing or observation may blind us to the later emergence of advanced ability – and blind us to the changing educational needs of that child.
Know the options
‘… there is no purpose in acknowledging a child’s potential unless you are going to offer them opportunities to maximise it: potential alone is not cause for applause’ (Landvogt, 2002).
A range of options is available in the education of gifted children, and should be explored by the school, the child and their family to determine what course would best meet the child’s needs.
• Acceleration options: a brief overview
Many teachers have concerns regarding the acceleration of students, primarily because of fears of negative social consequences of young gifted students learning alongside older students. Decisions regarding the acceleration of gifted students must be made on a case-by-case basis, but whilst this may mean that one of your gifted students might be better off remaining with their same-age peers, another student may thrive when accelerated. Research suggests that some gifted students, and most particularly exceptionally gifted students, are socially and emotionally advanced from their same-age peers to such an extent that keeping them with their age group is much more likely to result in ostracism and emotional problems than placing them with older students of similar social, emotional and intellectual development (Gross, 1999b).
Acceleration options may be summarised as follows:
Otherwise known as grade skipping, this involves either skipping one or two grade levels, or compacting, say, the curriculum of two years into one, such that the student enters the grade two year levels above that in which they began the previous year, at the start of the next school year.
This may occur when the student shows particular ability in one or more subject areas, but in the view of themselves, their school and family, is not ready for a full grade-skip. The student may stay with their class for most of the time, but move to a higher grade for a particular subject. The teachers of both classes would timetable their classes in this subject for the same time, so the student does not waste time revising material they already know.
Gifted students at a given level are grouped into one class, which completes the curriculum in a shorter amount of time – for instance, telescoping six years of secondary school into five. Several secondary schools in Victoria run such programs, notably University High School.
Early entry to school or university
Usually after testing, some students may be permitted to enter primary, secondary or tertiary education at a younger age when they demonstrate the requisite knowledge and ability to achieve at that level.
A number of universities offer first-year subjects to exceptionally able students to complete whilst still at secondary school, once they have completed the prerequisite school subjects. Credit earned for enhancement studies can often be used towards completion of a degree.
• Differentiating the curriculum
It may be in the best interests of the child to remain with their same-age peers in the classroom, but with greater challenge provided by their teacher in the curriculum. Like all students, gifted students require just the right level of challenge in order to obtain satisfaction from schoolwork, and thereby maintain engagement. By experiencing learning at this challenging level, gifted students develop the capacity to cope constructively with failure, to focus, and to achieve meaningful goals (Landvogt, 2002). Whilst their same-age peers will gain these experiences from the mainstream curriculum, gifted students rarely will, as they ‘cruise’, putting in the minimum effort required to pass, or even excel in comparison to others. Landvogt (2002) highlights the need to help students move from external motivation to internal motivation to learn, such that their learning becomes self-directed.
Gross and Sleap (1999) posit that differentiating the curriculum for gifted students must involve modifications in the four main areas of curriculum, as follows:
• The content needs to be more complex, deal with more abstract concepts, and be more varied than that for other students;
• The process of teaching needs to involve higher-level questions and demands, and occur at a pace too fast for their same-age peers;
• The product of learning may be expressed in a variety of formats, each targeted towards a different audience;
• The learning environment, in line with the recommendations of Maker (1982), ought to be student centred versus teacher-centred; encouraging independence versus dependence; open versus closed; accepting versus judgemental; complex and abstract versus simple and concrete; and permit and encourage high mobility versus low mobility.
Landvogt (2002) stresses the need for complexity in the curriculum: students ‘cannot think in a complex way without complex things to think about’ (p. 10). She recommends building a curriculum around big themes, which may be returned to several times over from different perspectives in what she refers to as a ‘spiral’ curriculum model.
Braggett, E. J., Day, A. and Minchin, M. (1997). Differentiated Programs for Primary Schools: units of work for gifted and talented students. Hawker Brownlow Education, Cheltenham.
Commonwealth of Australia (2001). The Education of Gifted Children: report of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee. The Committee, Canberra. Also available at:
Department of Education Victoria (1996). Bright Futures: resource book – education of gifted students. Department of Education, Victoria, Melbourne.
Gross, M. U. M. (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. Routledge, London.
Gross, M. U. M. (1999a). ‘Critical dialogue: Inequity in equity: The paradox of gifted education in Australia.’ Australian Journal of Education, 43 (1), pp. 87 – 100.
Gross, M. U. M. (1999b). From “the saddest sound’ to the D Major chord: The gift of accelerated progression.” At www.eddept.wa.edu.au/centoff/gifttal/EAGER/Miraca%20Gross.html . [Accessed 30th August 2002].
Gross, M. U. M., Sleap, B. and Pretorius, M. (1999). Gifted students in secondary schools: differentiating the curriculum. Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre, Sydney.
Gross, M. U. M., Macleod, B., Drummond, D., & Merrick, C. (2001). Gifted students in primary schools: differentiating the curriculum. Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre, Sydney.
Labaree, D. F. (1997). “Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals”. American Educational Research Journal, 34 (1), pp. 39 – 81.
Landvogt, J. (2002). “Sisyphus and happy: Moving forward in talent development.” Vinculum, 39 (3), pp. 4 – 12.
Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) (1999). The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, Curriculum Corporation. Also available at: http://www.curriculum.edu.au/mceetya/nationalgoals/natgoals.htm
Maker, C. J. (1982). Curriculum development for the gifted. Rockville, MD: Aspen.
SOFWEB (2002). At: www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/futures/accredited_providers.htm
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