As the debate on effective teaching hots up, Neil Munro listens to one expert with a message for all teachers
Schools should be on their guard to spot "gifted underachievers", an international Scots-born authority on the subject said last week.
Miraca Gross, who attended Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh and spent her first teaching years at Craigmuir Primary in the city's Pilton area, is associate professor of gifted education at the University of New South Wales in Australia. She told an Edinburgh conference of teachers from the private sector that hostility from fellow pupils to bright and talented students was often a cause of underachievement - or worse.
She cited the suicide of Katherine Jane Morrison, the 16-year-old pupil at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, who took her own life in February last year, seven weeks after being assaulted in the town centre.
The court case which led to the conviction of two girls for the assault heard evidence that she had been pushed over the edge after her tormentors threatened to cut off her hair if she did well in her Highers - the punishment meted out during the war to female collaborators, Dr Gross observed.
She added: "It is difficult to display or use your gifts or talents if you know you're going to become an outcast. This case happened in a school which, 10 years ago, was carrying off all the academic prizes quite out of proportion to its size and the socio-economic status of its pupils. What happened in those 10 years?" Giftedness could be driven underground, Dr Gross warned, because a pupil does not want to be different or strange or unpopular. Even the apparently successful pupil, the "teacher-pleaser" who works hard and does what he or she is told, may under-achieve.
Teachers should not be afraid of making children proud of their gift. "Pride is not conceit," she said. "Conceit says 'I am gifted and I am better than you.' Pride says 'I am gifted and I can be better than me'. We should no more assume that acknowledging a gift is conceit than that admission of a handicap is a cause of shame."
Gifted children had to be challenged, Dr Gross stressed. If they are allowed to cruise through school, without experiencing insecurity or taking risks, they may develop a fear of failure and not strive to do better in case they do not perform as well as expected. Schools then end up praising the success not the process of surmounting the challenge.
But, she added, that should be a model for all learning and not one confined to gifted pupils.
Dr Gross told her audience that intellectually gifted children read earlier, talk earlier, walk earlier and even reach puberty earlier than others. That had been a consistent finding from more than 40 research studies since the 1920s. While 5 per cent of the general population are reading by the time they go to school, the proportion of gifted pupils who are doing so is 50 per cent.
But a study she was conducting in Australia with 53 highly-gifted children found that 70 per cent had deliberately stopped reading within two weeks of starting school because of "peer pressure" (they did not stop reading at home, however), and 90 per cent of parents had not told the teacher that their child could read because they did not want to be thought "pushy".
Parent information about their children should not be discounted, even where they are drawing attention to a strength. Dr Gross observed that schools are more disposed to accept negative information from parents on their children's disabilities than positive information about their abilities.
Gifted children, Dr Gross commented, are not a homogeneous group and giftedness can exist at more than one level. It is also possible for children to be "double-labelled" so they may be gifted but dyslexic or autistic or hearing-impaired. Such youngsters get frustrated when teachers concentrate only on their weaknesses. Schools should be able to spot these pupils if, in the case of a gifted dyslexic for example, they know he or she has been an early walker and talker but has problems reading.
The old definition of giftedness, which assumed that pupils qualified only if they were "a Leonardo, gifted across the board" had been abandoned, Dr Gross said. The former model, which regarded children as gifted if they were of above average ability, creative and hard-working, appeared to chime with teachers' experiences. But it often picked out "the conformist, middle-class boy or girl who did what he or she was told and worked hard. It failed to pick up the gifted, under-achieving child".
Dr Gross cautioned against embracing extreme positions. "I often meet people who say that they have never encountered a gifted child. But if we only define giftedness as the peak of excellence, it's like saying that Kilimanjaro is my personal definition of a mountain and none of the Munros comes anywhere near it.
"At the same time we must beware of the other extreme which says that every child has a gift or talent. There's a difference between a strength and a gift."
The definition which is now gaining widespread acceptance, from a Canadian psychologist named Francoys Gagne, is that a gifted child has superior potential to work at levels beyond what would be expected at that age. This can apply to intellectual, creative and social activities but not necessarily involve all these attributes.
Pupils who absorb extraordinary quantities of information and show unusual retentiveness, the classic teacher definitions of giftedness, may also be bored with the regular curriculum, get impatient waiting for the rest of the class to catch up and end up turning their wit into mischief - unless they are exposed to new information and new ways of doing things, Dr Gross said.
Teachers had to be alert to the range of abilities in their class, she added. The reading age in the average Scottish first year secondary class spans eight years which means that "some are struggling at the primary four age while others derive great enjoyment from sophisticated science fiction and works of historical biography".
Dr Gross said a study of nine-year olds in Quebec, the implications of which were "terrifying," revealed that about half the group knew at least 60 per cent or more of the work at the beginning of the year that they would not be expected to know until the end.
Yet teachers assume they are starting off with a blank slate and carry out so much repetition of material for everybody when they only need to do it for a third of the work for half the class. "We are demanding less of all our children than they are capable of," Dr Gross added. This "Deslaurier test" is now commonly administered in Australian schools.
Dr Gross said she would rather have a "false positive" diagnosis of a potentially gifted child, setting work at a high level which they might not be able to achieve. A "false negative" diagnosis could commit the child to work that was too easy "which I might not realise would bore the pants off them, especially if it was for a biddable child who is quiet and doesn't cause trouble".