Gifted 'held back' by fear of elitism

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
An international expert on the education of the most able children is pleading with schools not to try to turn "obsessive" pupils or those "on the fringes" into well-balanced all-rounders.

Roger Moltzen, of Waikato University in New Zealand, told the SNAP conference that it was the child "out there on the fringes" who had the potential to change the world.

"If we want these students to break through the glass ceiling and make a real difference in society, we have to give them the freedom to do that,"

he told the conference in Glasgow.

Dr Moltzen, a former teacher and specialist in gifted and inclusive education, said: "I worry that schools in New Zealand are very good at producing imitators but not very good at producing innovators."

He said there was a tendency for schools to become sausage-machines, producing a product designed to run the world but not to change it, because schools valued conformity over divergency or diversity.

He cited research by Karen Arnold, from Boston College in the USA, who had tracked school duxes into university and into employment to see if they became world-beaters.

"The results were hugely disappointing - not one devoted their energies into a single passion area, yet these were held up by their schools as being the best. They were wonderfully well-rounded and they were students who were running the world. We need these people. Yet not one of them was going to achieve eminence because they were leading well-balanced lifestyles."

His own research into 28 of the most outstandingly talented people in New Zealand had led him to characterise them as obsessive, he said.

The importance of being well-balanced had always been ingrained in him.

But, he realised: "Nothing of greatness was ever achieved by being well-balanced people."

Dr Moltzen said that there was an economic loss to a country and a personal loss to the most able people if they were not given the freedom to make the most of their talents and passions.

In the past 10 years, New Zealand had become recognised internationally for its work on meeting the educational needs of "gifted and talented"


Dr Moltzen stressed the need for the most able pupils to be educated along with others, since early identification of giftedness was unreliable. A 1985 study by Benjamin Bloom into 126 concert pianists had shown that, at the age of 11 or 12, no more than 10 per cent had developed their talent area to the level that anyone could predict they might make the top 25 of talent ability in their 20s.

"The ability to pick them out is pretty crude - that's why it is good to have them in an inclusive classroom," he said.

He added that New Zealand had suffered from the "tall poppy syndrome" - an approach also identified in Scotland - where provision for the most able pupils had been held back by fears it would undermine egalitarianism and that the most able would be fine on their own.

But Dr Moltzen said the fact that it is now mandatory for all state schools to demonstrate how they are meeting the needs of gifted and talented youngsters had encountered little resistance from teachers.

"We didn't have people screaming 'elitism' because it was presented as just another area of need," he said.

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