Towards a smarter solution

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Too Clever by Half: a fair deal for gifted children

By Carrie Winstanley

Trentham Books pound;18.99

Exceptionally Gifted Children

By Miraca Gross

Second edition, RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

Parents and Carers' Guide for Able and Talented Children

By Barry Teare

Network Educational Press pound;12.95

Too Clever by Half opens rather oddly. It's not politically correct, Carrie Winstanley says, to admit to working with highly able children; it creates "a palpable sense of disapproval and even hostility". Yet, as she shows, such children are high on the current agenda. The Department for Education and Skills has its gifted and talented strategy, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority funds resources, Ofsted inspects provision, schools have named co-ordinators. Gifted children clearly matter.

All the more important then that we should be clear about who they are.

What do we mean by "gifted", "talented", "highly intelligent", "exceptionally able"? Are we talking about attainment or potential? And how do we measure "giftedness"?

Dr Winstanley's argument is that gifted children are simply those who perform - or could perform - well above what is normal for their age. They have significantly greater aptitude for some aspect of intellectual learning than their peers and show unusual achievement or behaviour. They may be under-achievers, they may be troubled, but they exist.

She says it is self-evident that such children need special provision. What matters is not equality of resources but equality of challenge. All children, she says, are entitled to spend their schooling in worthwhile and inspiring pursuits; none should be hostile or bored. If there are "sleeping giants", they must be wakened; if there are invisible barriers to achievement, they must be lifted. "Pupils should be presented with challenge every day."

But what does that mean? Wisely, perhaps, she leaves to one side the teach-and-test obsessions of the national curriculum, and concentrates instead on the most common answers to her question: acceleration, extension and enrichment. The key factor is how teachers interact with individual students and how willing they are to experiment, to negotiate, or even to relinquish control. There are valuable insights here in terms of pedagogy and practice.

A second possible solution, pushed by the DfES and commercial providers, is the teaching of "thinking skills", either in a specific subject context or as context-free "thinking kits", such as Edward de Bono's programmes or the web-based World Class Arena ( The latter approach, she argues, is too simplistic; the advantage of the former is that it encourages teachers to rethink their teaching style.

She is more interested in the movement that characterises itself as Philosophy with Children (PwC), which she discusses positively and in detail. Again, her approach is to analyse possible objections: that it is no more than classroom discussion; that children can't cope with abstraction; that it's not real philosophy; that it's too taxing. Wrong, she says, on the first three counts, citing case histories in support; wrong, too, on the fourth count, except possibly for teachers. But she is unhappy about elevating PwC to a movement. As yet, she insists, we still don't have the answers and it is just "a possible practical contribution": there are, and will be, others. The overriding need is more research into the nature of giftedness, the place of challenge in learning, and the role of the teacher.

This is a practitioner's book: relevant and very readable. "Giftedness" is part of a continuum, and it can't tell us where to draw the line, but it raises questions about the way we teach and assess the curriculum. Nor - though it confronts the crucial issue of equity of provision as against equality of challenge - does it fully address the fact that additional provision for the most gifted is skewed to the groups that already have easiest access to it. It is, though, an important contribution to an important debate, and teachers of able children will want to read it.

Exceptionally Gifted Children by Miraca Gross is rather different. It is an in-depth study of 15 children in Australia who enter school with something close to genius. The first edition examined the education their schools andor parents (invariably high achievers) provided; now, 10 years on, this book charts their subsequent development. Predictably, those for whom schooling was "a textbook example of educational mismanagement" still show the scars; those whose teachers recognised their gifts are multi-talented high-fliers. Fascinating, not least for its attack on the "malice, spite and envy" of many teachers. But not, on the whole, a book for parents.

For them, the Parents and Carers' Guide for Able and Talented Children is exactly what it says: a realistic and helpful guide through the intricacies of high ability and the provision they and their teachers can best make for it, within the curriculum or outside it. And, because able children are almost invariably avid readers, there is a comprehensive and imaginative list of fiction titles they (and their parents) are likely to enjoy.

Strongly recommended.

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