Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bright, gifted or creative...does it matter?

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I was thinking recently about how fast the summer holidays have disappeared and half-dreading half-welcoming the back-to-school rush which is upon us already. That got me thinking, as usual, on whether I should ask to meet my children's teachers right away in September to explain their learning differences. One (more!) challenge for teachers is identifying gifted learners and distinguishing them from bright high achievers. So how can teachers figure out who is bright and motivated, and who is gifted? And more pertinently, why does it matter?

This useful checklist will help determine bright from gifted learners, but doesn’t help tell us why schools should make the distinction. In fact, in our current educational system, where rote-learning is rewarded with high marks in State Exams, there may be no way to distinguish gifted students from bright students. And where there are likely to be a good cohort of bright children in every school, the same cannot be said of gifted learners who form a much smaller number of the population.

So, who are the bright, high achievers? They are the ones whose school reports read: “a pleasure to teach”. They are motivated, conscientious and hard-working. They fit in well in the school system, present good work, are motivated and committed to getting good results. They do well in exams and leave school with awards and prizes under their belts. They may be sports captains, head boys, head girls or prefects and are often among the most popular members of the student body. They are seen as having much to contribute to their communities. These children still need adults, parents and teachers to support them in continuing to add to their achievements, but as they are adept at working within the system they usually have little difficulty maintaining their high standards. In short, these children are the ones teachers and parents don’t really have to worry about.

What of the gifted learners then? The common myth is that these are the children who “have it all”, the easy path to academic success. Surely if the bright, high achievers have little to trouble them, the same would be true of the gifted learners? Not always so, unfortunately. Of course, it must be said that there are many gifted learners who are consistent and high achievers, who fit happily in the system and thrive as much as do bright hard-working students. Others, however, look at learning from a very different perspective, one that can cause huge conflict and difficulty between student, school and parent. They question, notice inconsistencies and injustices, they go off on tangents, they challenge, they often irritate! At primary school, some may correct the teacher...loudly. By secondary they may have learned not to do that any more, or may have learned to at least keep it quiet! Some may under-perform in State Exams to the frustration of their parents, teachers and even themselves. They may start to question their abilities when they don’t fit into the exam success box. They may follow their passions which may not “count” in the future points race. They might even question the “point” of the points race before they get to the Leaving Cert! Along the way they may show flashes of brilliance and excellence in certain subjects or areas. They can demonstrate erratic performance in school, from complete mastery to average or mediocre levels, depending on their interest, their teacher or their passions. The creative among them often sing from a completely different hymn-sheet, some may not even see the point of school at all in the pursuit of their dreams. They may have a different vision of their future than the one mapped out by their parents or teachers. They may be right, but the adults in their lives may think they should have a Plan B in the form of formal educational qualifications!

So, why does it matter? Two groups of learners, one for whom the system is a good fit, the other, well, they’ll come into their own at third level. Or will they? Without going down the road of heralding the potential of gifted learners as if they are mere fodder in the pursuit of economic growth and a return to the Celtic Tiger (God forbid!) these young people, as much as any other, do have the potential to make real and significant contributions to our future society. I’m not one who likes to describe gifted children as the future cancer-cure scientists or business and political leaders because I’m uncomfortable with the implication that only gifted children hold this potential. We all know the reality is that children across the intellectual bell-curve can grow into adults just as accomplished as those with the highest IQs. However, these exceptionally able children, for whom the educational system is an uncomfortable fit, are at risk of having their potential snuffed out by it. Whether their chosen path is at the top of academia, as a carer, a teacher or an accountant, they have a right to fulfill their personal potential. In this, gifted learners are poorly served by the Irish educational system in its current form. The inflexibility of rote-learning, the volume of prescribed material to be covered and the lack of opportunity for creativity, problem-solving or innovation in our exam system greatly reduces the chances that these young people will reach that potential. The risk is that they will be switched off learning by the time they have spent 13 or 14 years within a system that does not accommodate their needs.  The result will be that their career and life-choices may be reduced. And that is why it is important that teachers are able to accurately assess who among their pupils may be gifted as opposed to bright. From there, educators may be able to support the differences in their learning needs.

So, back to whether I should have that chat with my children’s teachers? Truth is, we’re into the first week of school now and I still haven’t decided. I don’t want to be labeled as a pushy parent in the first week of term and I don’t want unreasonable expectations placed on my kids either. On the other hand, nor do I want to short-change them by ignoring the fact that they are seldom challenged by classroom work. Maybe by the time they are heading to college I’ll have an answer to my dilemma. I’ll let you know!


  1. Your entry is so timely for me! I've been assigned the bright child/gifted child portion of an upcoming parent informational night in my district. I have some materials but your 'in the head thinking' might be a great addition to my section. May I use it? It would lend a more global view to my presentation.

  2. Thank you Angie! I would be delighted for you to use the post in your parent informational night. I hope it can help demonstrate that we share the same concerns and issues in gifted education in Ireland and elsewhere.

  3. Are you familiar with Dr. Francoys Gagne's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent? If not, you may want to research this. The model suggests that without consistent development the gifts don't develop into useable talents and that there are many factors including background, personality traits, availability of services,etc. that contribute positively or negatively to an individual fully developing their gift.
    I wonder if we should look at setting up challenging programs and letting all who can be successful participate whether it is because they are gifted or possess a "good enough" intellect (to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers) and desire/motivation to succeed. posted by Bonnie N Augusta, Maine

  4. Interesting you should say that! Although we are trying to establish the Future Problem Solving Program as a resource for gifted students, we have decided that any student who shows an interest should be allowed to give it a go. Those who stick with it and enjoy it are the ones who will benefit. We hope that this will unearth kids who might not otherwise get an opportunity to shine. We feel that, whether they are gifted or just bright and enthusiastic, the "right" students will self-select.

  5. Thanks Bonnie, I am indeed familiar with Gagne's Differentiated Model. I agree that a combination of factors has to be in place to fulfill innate ability. If teachers can identify the different abilities of their pupils, they may be able to put in place the scaffolding each needs to develop them. However, I believe that gifted pupils may need more support to ensure that the particular factors they need to realise their potential are offered. We want to ensure that the work offered challenges gifted learners adequately. To this end I feel it would be helpful if teachers had the skills to distinguish between the learning needs of bright as opposed to gifted pupils.
    Incidentally, some teachers in Ireland use the "All/Most/Some" pyramid for learning targets to reach a wide range of abilities. All pupils will be able to do A, Most will be able to do B, Some will be able to do C, with all activities offered so that every pupil has the chance to work at the top of their ability level.
    As Frazzled said, offering the Future Problem Solving Program to all pupils comes from a similar philosophy; put the scaffolding in place and let talents develop organically. Although we feel that it will particularly appeal to gifted students it will offer everyone the chance to develop problem-solving skills.