‘We want a level playing field but we’re not all equal’

13th November 2015 at 00:00
Efforts to narrow academic gap may be ‘harming’ gifted pupils, psychologist claims

The problem with equality, Jonathan Wai says, is that it is not particularly equal.

The US academic has recently been stirring up online controversy by claiming that, in their pursuit of equality, schools are supporting everyone except the most talented pupils.

“The big theme is the struggle between pushing equality and pushing excellence,” he says. “We want everyone to be on a level playing field. But at the same time, we’re not all equal.

“If you go into education believing that you want to narrow differences between people, then you’re not challenging the top people. You’re bringing up the bottom but bringing down the top.”

Aiming for the average

Dr Wai (pictured, inset), a psychologist specialising in education at Duke University in North Carolina, has begun to generate international debate around these ideas. Speaking to TESS, he is careful to point out that he is not blaming teachers for the system’s failures. The problem, he believes, is that it is often impossible for teachers in busy classrooms to attend to every child’s individual needs. And so they aim for the average.

“We feel like talented students can make it on their own,” he says. “They already have a head start in life, therefore we don’t need to help them. If we gave the top students equivalent attention to the bottom students, we’d widen the variance in education. That kind of thinking isn’t popular.

“So, often, the talented kids end up tutoring other students, or they’re waiting around and they’re bored.”

But there is a broader impact, too. Research across 90 countries, conducted by academics at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, has shown that an increase of one IQ point among average pupils ultimately raises the per capita GDP of a country by $229 (£148).

Meanwhile, an increase of one IQ point among academically talented pupils raises the per capita GDP by $468.

Propelled by pushy parents

The problem, Dr Wai believes, is that governments tend to look at individual success stories and assume that they are typical of the whole. For instance, the innovators of Silicon Valley are often held up as examples of the way that gifted children can become successful, profit-producing adults.

“We have innovation hand over fist,” Dr Wai says. “So we say, ‘We’re clearly doing OK.’ But what innovations have there not been because of our lack of attention to talented students? What minds haven’t been developed or have been lost?

“We don’t realise that successful people come from backgrounds with parents who support them.”

Dr Wai’s own parents were a physicist and an electrical engineer who emigrated from China to the US. Education was highly valued in his family, and there was an expectation that he would try hard and perform well in school. His mother actively campaigned for his school to test his ability and to admit him to its gifted and talented programme.

“It was her pushing for that, not the school,” he says. “I think that’s happening a lot.”

This leads to a situation where bright children who do not have pushy parents are often overlooked by schools.

“So we’ll have greater disparities between rich and poor because we’re not having the school system take care of the disadvantaged children,” he says.

‘Special needs’ for the talented

Dr Wai advocates standardised testing as a means of identifying gifted children. “There’s a big backlash against testing in contemporary society,” he acknowledges. “I think that stems from an evaluation anxiety. It’s hard to be evaluated by something that seems so impersonal.

“Sometimes, if you don’t like the message, you try to get rid of the messenger. But we need some objective feedback.”

In his ideal system, children identified as gifted would be taught in separate classes: a special needs provision for the talented.

“That way, the teacher can shoot to the average,” Dr Wai says. “And that average is higher.”

Of course, he adds, this would require government investment. “Funding is literally a statement about values,” he says. “You put your money where you care about things.”

And, he concedes, it would also require a fundamental shift in the way that equality is understood. “The point of education, as I understand it, is to bring out every student to the best of their ability,” he says. “We’re not doing that.

“First of all, in education we should do no harm to all students. But if you don’t challenge all students at the level that they’re functioning, you potentially are doing harm.”

What schools can do

Identify gifted children by using standardised tests.

Teach gifted children in separate classes.

Where all children are taught together, try to personalise learning to meet the needs of gifted pupils.

Remember that although bright children might appear self-sufficient, they need to be stretched or they will become bored.

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