Keep on giving to the gifted and talented

Differentiation is for everyone - including those at the top of the ability range. Follow these tips to get the most out of high-fliers

If education is the pursuit of excellence for all children then, at first glance, labelling a select few students as gifted and talented seems more than a little problematic.

For a start, it suggests that the other children are neither gifted nor talented. That is a misconception, of course, but one that can be highly damaging. Second, giving this group more attention than the rest is, so some argue, immoral: everyone should have access to the same facilities and opportunities. And then there is the way that these pupils are selected: the vast majority of schools rely on teachers' opinions of who is gifted and talented - and, according to critics, this can be inaccurate.

However, most of these concerns are either unfounded or can be overcome with good teaching and proper management. For example, teachers' decisions about who is placed in the Gamp;T group are invariably accurate, based on their knowledge and understanding of cognitive ability, high-level motor skills and relative differentiation from the rest of the cohort. Meanwhile, the perception of "gifted and talented" is in the hands of the school. If pupils get the wrong idea, the strategy is not to blame; instead, the problem is how the label has been explained.

And the fuss is confusing: in reality, Gamp;T interventions are simply differentiation for the top of the ability range. The special treatment is only as special as the differentiation we provide for the whole variety of abilities. With the Gamp;T group, we are simply seeking ways to stretch and challenge the thinking of those pupils who, for whatever reason, show themselves to be most capable in a particular subject. Putting it like this instead of using the divisive "gifted and talented" label may make some teachers feel more comfortable with the process.

So how do you ensure that the Gamp;T group is differentiated for in the right way? That is, a way that will maximise achievement but avoid overexertion or negative experiences that can destroy confidence. Here are some strategies that I have found to be effective.

Set meaningful extension work

Extension work should be pre-planned and well considered, not just an ad hoc extra question or a request to "do a bit more". Here are three ideas for exercises you can set.

The first is deeper questioning. For example, you might read a student's work and then ask "Why did you write this when you could have written something else?" or "What if your answer had to be understood by someone who couldn't read. How would you communicate it?" The aim is to help the pupil to see the familiar in a different light, so that they question it and think more deeply about it.

Open-ended and creative activities are just as useful, because they give students the scope to explore and develop their own ideas. This helps to engage young people and to create a sense of challenge. For example, ask something like "How would you plan a media showcase of the ideas we have been looking at?" or "How would you develop a new method for creating electrical energy?" In both cases, students are given a starting point from which they can take off, explore and create.

The third strategy is to provide problems that appear to have no solution but can nonetheless draw in the curious thinker, setting them off on a journey of exploration. Such questions are frequently philosophical in nature, for example: "What is good?", "Can you prove the universe exists?", "How much is enough?", "What is art?" or "Is it possible to be fair and just in every situation?" Identify a few of these for your subject at the start of the year, so that you can call on them when required.

Build in challenge

Many methods can increase the level of challenge. The first is to introduce ambiguity. Making tasks or questions ambiguous is an easy way to raise the difficulty level. Students must reason, infer, solve problems and predict to find an answer, using their critical and creative faculties.

To do this in a lesson, set a task where the question closes down two familiar routes, suggests an unspecific alternative and leaves the instruction imprecise. The result is that students have to work hard first to make sense of the statement and then to respond to it.

The second technique is to use more complex language. This can be as simple as introducing higher-level keywords. As a supplement to the work that the rest of the class is doing, try setting gifted students the task of defining and exemplifying words from a list. This could be vocabulary from the next level of the course or words that are less commonly used. Another option is to present gifted pupils with three keywords that they have not yet encountered, just before the start of a written task. The idea is that students research the meaning and purpose of this new vocabulary before including it in their writing.

Thinking at sentence level can also help you to make the language you use more challenging, whether this is in written feedback, teaching resources or when speaking directly to gifted students. Complex sentences that contain extra clauses and detail are more difficult to make sense of. A useful approach is to imagine that the student you are speaking to is a couple of years older.

Alternatively, try setting time limits. This is one of the simplest tools for effectively challenging your most able students. Knowing that you are working against a time constraint increases pressure and makes any task more challenging. When a student finishes their work before the rest of the class, set them an extension task with a specified time limit. To really create a sense of momentum, display a countdown on the board. This will encourage other pupils to aim for these extension activities in the future.

Introduce deeper thinking

The final set of tips revolves around instigating higher-level thinking. The first trick is not to allow cop-out answers. When responding to questions, many students fall back on responses that either try to neutralise the question or do not require thinking in any depth. Some classic examples are "It's just my opinion", "Everybody is different" or, my favourite, "I think whatever the right answer is".

Allowing cop-out answers means letting pupils take the safe or easy route rather than challenging their thinking. So ban them. Whenever you spot one being used, draw attention to it and ask for an alternative response instead. Repeatedly identifying and challenging cop-outs will lead to improved thinking and higher-quality answers from your gifted students.

Insisting on balanced answers is another great technique. A balanced argument or response means considering more than just your own ideological standpoint and accepting that what you think isn't necessarily correct or complete. It requires more advanced and careful thinking on the part of the student.

You can insist on balance when giving formative feedback in books or verbally when students respond to your questions in class. You could also try producing a written list of success criteria specifically for gifted students that includes a requirement for balanced answers.

Another useful strategy is playing devil's advocate. This means taking a position that you do not necessarily agree with purely for the sake of debate or argument. It can be frustrating for the student when you respond to everything they say with a counterargument, but it is great for developing higher-level thinking. It is a way of continually challenging their ideas, pushing them to take account of things they have not considered and examining the assumptions that their views rest on. You can develop this technique by inviting gifted students to take on the role of devil's advocate, either when talking to you and their peers or when reviewing their own opinions.

Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice

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