Staff urged to give talented pupils more support to help them to achieve their full potential. Dorothy Lepkowska reports
Thousands of gifted and able children are failing to achieve their potential because they cannot cope with the pace and pressure of lessons designed to stretch them, an academic has warned.
Chris Smith, of Glasgow university, said studies had shown that children of above-average ability were often more negative about learning than their peers in other groups.
They described their experience of school as "fast and pressured" and did not always understand what was expected of them. They said lessons were taught too quickly, giving them little time to think or to correct mistakes.
Ms Smith, of the university's department of educational studies, found that teachers often assumed pupils were clever enough to solve problems on their own with little input from them. She told a special needs conference that the comprehensive ideal had failed the most-able pupils because attitudes from the old grammar and secondary modern system continued to prevail among many teachers.
Ms Smith said children's strengths were nearly always judged on their success at numeracy and literacy, with little account taken of their aptitude in other areas such as music or foreign language learning.
More attention should also be paid to their interests and what they already knew, and they must be allowed to make mistakes.
"Being able is not a one-off and fixed state of existence," she told the Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress in Glasgow.
"Abilities emerge, develop and show themselves in different settings and at different times so that assessment has to be ongoing and flexible. The way children are organised for learning should reflect flexibility so that groups can be arranged on the basis of interests, friendship, tasks, styles and achievement."
Margaret Sutherland, who has jointly carried out research with Ms Smith on teaching gifted children, said the culture of praise in schools was another difficulty in dealing with highly-able children. "If you tell a gifted child they have done something brilliantly, but they know it took the minimal effort, then they will think 'if that's all it takes to get a gold star then that's all you will get'. They won't go the extra mile," she said.
"If someone is always telling you how great and how clever you are, the chances are you will avoid challenge and difficulty and not achieve your capabilities."
Ms Sutherland, also from Glasgow university, said that experiencing failure was a vital part of the learning process and education was geared too much towards always getting it right.
"Children need sometimes to be taken to the point of failure so they know it is safe to do so and it is not the end of the world. They learn from that," she said.
Paradigm shifts in inclusive and gifted education by Chris Smith can be obtained from C.Smith@educ.gla.ac.uk. See also www.ablepupils.com.