Sunday, 19 June 2016

Getting education right for gifted and talented students - Imperative for the survival of humanity!

Welcome to my annual blog - every year I hope to blog more regularly but then all of a sudden Gifted Awareness Week is here again and I haven't written!  This year the topic for the Blog Tour is Belonging.  This got me thinking where do gifted students belong once they leave school? As usual I went off on a tangent and that tangent led to the topic for this blog.  Without gifted students being allowed and encouraged in school to develop their gifts into talents, there will be nowhere to belong!

The title of this blog sounds a bit serious doesn't it? A bit dramatic? But, I argue, sadly true.  Our society is at a crossroads, there are some serious issues facing the next generation: unsustainable use of resources; increasing poverty; increasing obesity; disparate education outcomes; homelessness - to name but a few.  All these issues will have a huge impact on society as we know it if nothing changes drastically in the next 50 years.  Earth and humanity can't continue to sustain the way we've been living for the last 200-odd years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and it is up to the generation of students in our schools currently to do something drastic about this or experience serious breakdown in the way Western society functions.

BP's 2014 annual report states that, as of the end of 2013, Earth has nearly 1.688 trillion barrels of crude, which will last 53.3 years at current rates of extraction.  It is no longer a far off issue that a generation far removed from ours will have to deal with, it is a reality and even the oil companies know this is a big deal.

Let me paint you a picture.  My son is 1 year old.  If BP's predictions are correct, he will be 54 when there is no more oil left on Earth.  Every minute of the day, in one way or another, we are consuming and encountering products that are made using oil.  So in 53.3 years if there is no oil, what is my son going to shave with, what is he going to hang his clothes on, how is he going to clean his dishes and get to work if there is no oil left? First world problems? No. Unless the whole population of Earth stops consuming oil at the current rate and finds alternatives to these simple everyday plastic items (and makes using them the norm), first world problems will be a thing of the past because there will be no world as we know it today.  

This is just one of the massive issues facing the next generation.

What has this got to do with gifted education you ask?

In order to find viable solutions to the issues facing us, we need creative innovators to develop solutions and lead systematic societal change.  We need affordable alternatives to the current plastic and oil-based products and in order to make using these alternatives the norm, we need strong, confident leaders who are willing and able to stand up and fight for change.  The current Western economic environment is based on oil consumption and neo-liberal economics.  Bryan Bruce, award-winning New Zealand documentary maker, likens neo-liberal economics to a virus that has infected every aspect of our lives.  For this environment to change inside the next 50 years, students graduating from our schools need to be creative, innovative thinkers who can think outside the box and who question the 'me, me, me' societal values.  Gifted students by their nature, think outside the box and moral sensitivity is seen by many theorists as a central feature of giftedness (Silverman, 2016), the development of which is essential to the welfare of our entire society.   Without the opportunities to develop and extend these innate abilities, their creativity, innovation and sensitivity can be left unrealised.  Gifted and talented students need a qualitatively differentiated education where their unique strengths, interests, abilities and qualities are acknowledged, catered for and developed.

To just say that gifted students will 'do well' regardless of the education they receive has been proven again and again not to be true. Just like a gifted sportsperson still needs guidance from a specialised coach, gifted students need guidance from well-trained teachers who can challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities (National Association for Gifted Students, 2016).  Gagné's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (Gagné, 2008) describes the importance of environmental and interpersonal factors in ensuring that giftedness (outstanding potentialities) can be transformed into talent (outstanding achievements).  Without the opportunity for appropriate environmental catalysts such as getting enough sleep, support and encouragement from family, opportunities for the student to practice and develop their skill, giftedness can remain untapped and underutilised.  Interpersonal catalysts are just as important. These are under the partial influence of genetic inheritance and can be divided into physical and psychological factors. Physical characteristics can influence the chances that a person may attain high performance levels in a specific field for example height, slenderness or leg length may impact the performance of a dancer.  Psychological factors that influence the development of gifts into talents, can be catergorised into four areas: motivation, volition (i.e. desire, determination), self-management, and personality.  These factors or traits can be developed through practice and encouragement and are vital for gifts to develop into talented performance.  For example, successful scientists have strong observational skills, and highly developed questioning skills, logic, creativity, skepticism, and objectivity.  In order for potential high-performing scientists to be able to develop and sustain these psychological traits they need to be supported and encouraged to utilise and extend them in their educational experiences.

The rising prevalence for test-heavy curriculum since the introduction of National Standards in 2010 as well as other symptoms of the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) infecting our previously world class education system do not lend themselves to developing the gifts of creative, innovate, morally sensitive students. Authoritarian, content-driven teaching leads to compliant thinkers, which is the opposite of what we need in order to develop a creative economy.  Other symptoms of the business model of the GERM invading the New Zealand education environment are charter schools, Investing in Educational Success (IES), league tables, and proposals for performance funding for schools and performance pay for teachers.  Educationalist, Professor Yong Zhao (2015) believes that the changes many Western democratic and developed nations (America, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and others) have made to their education systems are simply trying to do the wrong thing more right and changes such as the narrowing and homogenising of education through policies such as National Standards, are putting the world at risk.  To prepare our children for the new economy, we must begin the shift away from GERM to a different educational paradigm.

Zhao believes GERM ideology is destroying the traditional virtues of education in Western developed countries, which tend to tolerate exceptionality, respect individual differences, and condone unconventional behaviours (the basis of recognising giftedness and talent).  He describes the rigorous but blind pursuit of test scores as the only outcome of education has the expense of killing creativity and other non-cognitive skills which are equally, if not more valuable than academic test scores for success in life.  The imposition of uniform curriculum standards on all children in all classrooms narrows educational experiences and reduces the professional autonomy of educators.

The old paradigm aims at strengthening schools to prepare citizens for a by-gone era, resulting in the global phenomenon of talent mismatch: the co-existence of massive youth unemployment and widespread talent shortage. As a consequence, the world is more at risk than before the reforms. 
Yong Zhao, 2015

For today's students to succeed in this ever-changing world, they need to be able to think like entrepreneurs: to be resourceful, flexible, creative and global.  This cannot just be expected to happen once they reach the workplace, this must be encouraged and modelled throughout their education experience. Students need opportunities at school to develop and practice these skills.  Education for gifted and talented students needs to enable them to discover and follow their passions, to take risks and learn from their mistakes, to experience 'hard' and build resilience, not just show teachers what they already know and can do.

So what might the new education paradigm look like?

Thankfully many schools in Aotearoa New Zealand have realised that education must change with the times and move away from the GERM paradigm and we are lucky that the New Zealand Curriculum acknowledges the particular needs of gifted and talented learners and is designed to allow for flexibility of application so that the needs of diverse learners can be appropriately responded to.

Zhao makes recommendations that are relevant to improving the educational experience for gifted and talented students in Aotearoa New Zealand, that I believe will lead to a brighter future for us as a nation.  Some of them would be simple to implement, some will take more systematic change.

  • Stop prescribing a narrow set of content through curriculum standards and testing.
  • Personalise education to support the development of unique, creative and entrepreneurial talents.
  • Empower students by liberating their potentials, capitalising on their passion and supporting their pursuits.  Give the ownership of learning to the children.
  • Stop constraining students to learning opportunities present in their immediate physical environments by assigning them to year-levelled classes and solitary teachers.
  • Start engaging them in real life learning opportunities that exist in the global community, beyond their class and school walls.
  • Stop forcing students to learn what adults think they may need and testing them to what degree they have 'learnt' that content.
  • Allow students to opportunity to engage in creating real life, authentic products and learn what they are interested in.
  • Stop comparing achievement of educational programmes to outdated measures of the past, such as international test scores.
  • Start inventing the excellence of the future.  

Schools such as Ao Tawhiti in Christchurch exemplify this shifting paradigm and all their students, from new entrants to Year 13 are able to plan their learning around their personal interests, needs and passions.  This diverse and flexible approach allows their students to explore all aspects of the curriculum in a safe and supportive environment and encourages them to be creative, innovative and take risks with their learning.  Students at Ao Tawhiti do not have to follow prescribed assessment routes and are able to work at whichever level of the curriculum best serves their current needs.  They recognise that every student has different strengths and weaknesses and use that information to make a unique programme for each student.  There are other schools in New Zealand running in similar ways.  This demonstrates that a paradigm shift away from the GERM theories to a education model more conducive to providing gifted students with an education that better meets their needs as well as the needs of society as a whole is possible.  All it requires is strong, confident leaders who are willing and able to stand up and fight for change that is supported by evidence and well thought out. 

The students themselves have an important part to play in this change too.  According to a 2015 MTV report, 91% of Generation Z-ers (born after 2001) are optimistic that their generation can help build a better world.  Generation Z believe they are responsible for building a new social order. Jane Gould, senior vice-president of MTV Insights said "Not only do these kids have a clear identity, they have a stunningly intuitive sense of the changing times they've been born into and the huge opportunity that lies ahead to make new history," As Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying "The best way to predict the future is to build it."  This is a maker generation, a pragmatic and practical generation who must architect and build the future we are all trying to imagine living in. 

Providing educational opportunities for gifted students to shine will have a positive impact for all humanity.  Getting it wrong, likewise...I know which future I prefer!!

Gagné, F. (2008). Building gifts into talents: Brief overview of the DMGT 2.0. Retrieved 7 June 2016 from!dmgtenglish/cabg

Silverman, L.K. (2016). The moral sensitivity of gifted children and the evolution of society. Retrieved 16 June 2016 from

Zhao, Y. (April, 2015). A world at risk: An imperative for a paradigm shift to cultivate 21st century learners. Retrieved 16 June 2016 from

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