Gifted and Talented: A Teacher's guide

Zoe Benjamin

Zoe Benjamin provides us with a fresh perspective on catering for 'gifted and talented' students.

What is Gifted and Talented?

'How do you cater for your most able students?'

If you are a teacher, I expect you have been asked this question many times in every year of your career.  There is probably a box dedicated to it on the lesson plan proforma that comes out each time you are observed. 

Common approaches to a gifted and talented education in schools, colleges and universities include: 

There is a lot of pressure on secondary schools and colleges to cater for their brightest students, but some of the strategies employed to do this can unintentionally jeopardize the academic success of those students not identified as gifted and talented.  

In the UK, the Department for Education defines gifted students as being in the top 5% for intellectual abilities.  It is equally as important to cater for these students as it is to cater for the other 95%.  This article will examine the issues associated with the concept of gifted and talented children, whether differentiation and enriched programs of study are fit for purpose, and practical ways that we can ensure all students are making excellent academic progress.  

 

Gifted and Talented Terminology

Shakespeare wrote: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  This is not always the case!

There are so many terms used for students who have a particularly high academic aptitude according to baseline cognitive ability tests:

  • Gifted Children
  • Talented Children
  • Enhanced Students 
  • Highly Able
  • More Able

Would a gifted and talented student by any other name achieve as much?  Probably not.  Research suggests that they would actually achieve more without any label.  

Mueller and Dweck (1998) found that performance on future tasks improves when teachers praise students' effort rather than their ability.  Labels such as 'gifted and talented' emphasize the role of innate or natural talent, which can be interpreted by pupils as diminishing the importance of effort.  Irrespective of ability level, these labels can decrease future academic success if pupils are aware of them.  

However, the reverse is true when the labels are only made available to teachers.  Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966) found that when teachers were told that they had a class of high achievers, the pupils made significantly more progress over a year compared to a control group with the same baseline data. 

What can we learn from these two studies? 

  • Avoid labeling students according to natural talent
  • It is better to say 'you know how to work hard' than 'you are smart'
  • Emphasize the importance of effort on achievement 
  • Hold high expectations of all students

Data: Approach with Caution!

We should be cautious about using tests to measure academic aptitude.  They may only consider one aspect of intelligence or not reflect the wide range of cognitive abilities we see in a mixed ability classroom.  Differences in aptitude may be due to a student having English as an additional language or being particularly strong or weak in one or more of the intelligences being tested.  

Terman (1995) found that character traits such as determination and persistence were a better indicator of future success than measures of intelligence, even in the case of children who were identified as being gifted.  So although academic aptitude tests can be useful when information about prior attainment and grades aren't available, the results are more reliable for identifying underachievement rather than revealing academic talents.

Plan opportunities for higher-order thinking
Plan opportunities for higher-order thinking

Challenging All Students

'How do you cater for your most able students?' is actually a dangerous question to ask and it is one we are asked too often in education.  A far better question is: 'How do you cater for the needs of all your students?'.  The answer to this question will include strategies that benefit all pupils, whereas strategies designed specifically to benefit the brightest students can often be detrimental to those who have not been identified as gifted and talented.  This article will examine the following four examples and how they can be adapted to meet the needs of all pupils: 

Differentiation

As a mathematician, I love differentiation!  But as a pedagogical technique, I find it much more challenging.  How do you design a differentiated curriculum? Is it better to differentiate by task or by outcome?  If you differentiate by task, how do you decide who receives each task?  If you differentiate by outcome, do you disadvantage students who work at a slower pace?  

Rather than planning for differentiation, plan for learning.  Go back to the pedagogical basics:

  • Learning Outcomes 
  • Direct Instruction
  • Formative Assessment 
  • Adaptive Teaching
  • Personalized Feedback

Planning an outstanding lesson will be a more effective use of your time than creating differentiated tasks or extension activities.  These will emerge naturally in response to the formative assessment and feedback and you will avoid placing a preemptive ceiling on students who are not preselected for the extension work.  A further benefit of using formative assessment to inform differentiation is that you utilize the expertise reversal effect: tasks requiring higher order thinking skills benefit students more if they have demonstrated mastery of the basics first.  

Differentiation for gifted and talented students
Differentiation for gifted and talented students

Accelerated Learning 

Accelerated learning challenges highly able students through fast paced lessons and entering them for examinations early.  It is an easy approach to implement and is effective if there is a viable option for further study after the course completion; often student will take a more advanced qualification in the same subject.  The disadvantage of this approach is that it labels a group of students at the start of the year as more able than others in a subject, it then exaggerates the knowledge gap between this group and their peers, and makes membership exclusive.  It is a deterministic approach that places a greater value on academic aptitude than effort. 

A better alternative to accelerated learning is an extension of curriculum at every possible opportunity throughout the standard course: depth instead of breadth.  Using tasks that require higher order thinking skills once new knowledge has been acquired is a simple way to challenge pupils.  Examples of this include:

  • Critical Thinking (e.g. questioning the reliability of a source)
  • Metacognition (e.g. reflecting on the efficiency of a method and refining their approach)
  • Comprehension (e.g. listing similarities and differences compared to prior learning)
  • Application (e.g. describing a real-world application of a theory)
  • Evaluation (e.g. assessing value by examining the advantages, disadvantages, or supporting evidence)
  • Problem Solving (e.g. using skills in a novel concept or combining two ideas in a new way)
  • Synthesis (e.g. combining two concepts to make a more valid argument)
  • Inference (e.g. using current knowledge to make predictions - 'what would happen if...?')

Taking this approach is more adaptive to pupils' individual needs and talents as the group of students taking part in these extension activities can vary from one lesson to the next.

Streaming (aka Catch-22)

Streaming (or setting) is the process of putting pupils into different groups according to their ability level.  Research has shown that streaming is a very effective way to enable gifted children to excel.  Parsons and Hallam (2014) studied 19000 children over a five year period; they found that pupils in a 'top set' produced greater academic achievement than their peers who had the same scores on the initial cognitive ability tests but were placed in a mixed-ability group.  However, it was only the most able children who benefited from streaming; students who were not placed in the top set performed worse than their peers of a similar ability level who were placed in a mixed-ability group.  

Should you challenge the more able students through streaming or cater for the rest of the cohort by having mixed-ability sets?  Both approaches benefit a different group of students.  I do not believe that there is a correct approach for all schools or for all subjects.  Being aware of the disadvantage associated with each option will allow you to put support in place for the group of students who do not directly benefit from the decision you make.

If you decide to use streaming, put support in place to challenge those students who are not in the top set.

If you decide to have mixed-ability classes, put support in place to challenge the most able pupils.  

Gifted and Talented Programs 

Gifted and talented programs or enriched programs can be an effective way to challenge gifted students.  They are often accompanied by mentorship, opportunities for leadership, activities that are tailored to students' interests, and entry into external competitions.  Although these programs are an effective way to encourage your brightest students to work together and develop the behaviors that lead to exceptional achievement, invitation to these programs is akin to labeling.  You risk over emphasizing the importance of innate intelligences and downplaying the role of effort.  A simple solution to this is to rebrand your gifted and talented program as an extension of curriculum: a list of opportunities that are available to all pupils, which includes activities that require effort and more than one aspect of intelligence.  For example:

  • Invitations to conferences
  • Opportunities to lead extra-curricular activities
  • Symposiums offered by teachers on topics outside of the normal curriculum
  • Participation in a student council
  • Entrance to external competitions
  • Regular internal competitions (e.g. creative writing)
  • University preparation (e.g. interview practice and entrance exam tuition)
  • Debating club
  • Subject-specific enrichment activities 

Develop a staff culture for stretching the more able
Develop a staff culture for stretching the more able

 

Catering for More Able Students

One of the greatest challenges teachers face when catering for their brightest students is that any gifted and talented education is only effective if pupils engage with it.  Even pupils with the most exceptional ability will not reach their full learning potential if they do not take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.   

What can we do to ensure that all pupils, including the most able, strive to achieve their potential?  If there was a clear answer to this question, there would be no need for this article!  Here are my thoughts.

Culture

Creating a culture that is grounded in the shared value of hard work and the merit of effort, is likely to lead to a range of positive behaviors that will result in increased attainment.  This is not something that a single teacher can achieve; it must be a whole-school effort.  Behaviours that align with the school's shared values should be celebrated and rewarded.  Praise should be sincere, immediate and focused on effort rather than skill (Willingham, 2005).  Discipline needs to be consistent and used to teach positive behaviors rather than simply punishing negative ones.  All members of the school community should embody and model the school's shared values; teachers can achieve this by continual professional development and making explicit the actions they are taking in response to this.  As more members of the community internalize the shared values, more will follow.  Staff and students are likely to conform to the new sets of behaviors because they either believe in the school's values (internalization), feel part of the community (identification), or simply because they want to receive the same rewards as others (gratification).

Motivation

Everyone is more likely to work hard when they are motivated.  This increased effort leads to greater success, which in turn leads to greater motivation (Zimmerman, 2000).  Generating opportunities for success and emphasizing the role of effort will start this self-perpetuating cycle. 

Teachers' mindsets can also have a significant affect on students' motivation.  Dweck (2010) found that students' motivation, grades and achievement increased when their teachers possessed a growth mindset (a belief that intelligence can change) compared to a fixed mindset.

Encouraging students to become future-focused can help to increase their motivation.  It can be particularly difficult for a student who is gifted and talented in many areas to know what they want to do with their talents in the future.  Discussing their aspirations, the universities or colleges they are considering, or providing subject-specific mentorship and guidance, can have a positive affect on motivation.  

Lastly, providing students with a brief rationale at the start of a lesson about the topic being studied or the activities being used, will often result in significantly greater engagement from all pupils (Jang, 2008).  

Higher Order Thinking for gifted students
Higher Order Thinking for gifted students

Extra-Curricular Opportunities

Outside of the classroom there are so many ways to challenge and inspire pupils of all abilities.  Furthermore, Holdsworth et al (2017) found that extra-curricular activities foster resilience, which may contribute more to future attainment than innate intelligences. 

Effective extra-curricular activities that can be used to challenge all pupils are: 

  • Participation in Young Enterprise competitions to encourage entrepreneurship 
  • Research-Based Qualifications such as an FPQ or EPQ
  • Trips to exhibits, galleries or conferences
  • Leading an extra-curricular club for younger pupils
  • Project-Based Learning, such as coding clubs
  • Completing MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • Entering external competitions (e.g. Academic Olympiads)

Concluding thoughts on the label 'Gifted and Talented'

It is not always helpful to think of gifted and talented pupils as a special cohort that need a separate provision; in fact, this approach could be damaging for students who have not been identified as being highly able based on their baseline assessments.  It is most effective to focus on approaches that enable us to cater for the needs of all pupils, to which formative assessment and personalized feedback are essential. 

The research discussed in this article has led to the following recommendations: 

  • Avoid labeling students as gifted and talented as it promotes students to hold a fixed mindset
  • Be aware that our expectations can impact students' attainment
  • Emphasize the role that effort can have on achievement
  • Hold a growth-mindset for yourself and your pupils
  • Encourage determination, persistence, and resilience, as these are a better indicator of future achievement than baseline data
  • Create a culture that values hard work and celebrates effort
  • Provide all students to succeed, both within and out of the classroom