SOME Years ago, I was just about to start a Year 10 lesson, when a hand went up at the back of the room.
“Can I leave at 11 o’clock?” said a girl wearing PE kit.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m going on a Gifted and Talented day for sport,” she responded.
“Oh,” I said, “you’re not on the list I’ve been sent.”
“Well, that’s because Vicky’s got to go to the orthodontist,” she replied. “I wasn’t Gifted and Talented, but she’s not here, so now I am.”
I have always thought that this exchange was interesting, concerning the idea of someone being “Gifted and Talented”. Now that the provision for these students is part of my job (I am head of academic enrichment), I have found myself reflecting on it again.
Using the words “gift” and “talent” encourages us to think of ability as fixed; that some are “given” intellectual capacities not available to others; some “have talent” and some do not.
That old conversation highlights quite how absurd this approach is. The idea that my student became “talented” by virtue of an ill-scheduled orthodontist appointment suggests something is wrong in the way we’re looking at things.
Indeed, I think we are in danger of doing all of our students a great disservice in the way we currently approach setting challenges for “G&T” students in schools.
I am, of course, wholly behind schools making provision for their most advanced students: so many people lose out when taught “to the middle”.
Those who are quick, or ahead, or make connections easily, should not be held back just because they are already beyond “where they should be”.
In fact, there is no better way of losing a student than batting away an intelligent question because the National Curriculum or the GCSE criteria says they are not ready for the answer.
Schools should be places where all students can learn, regardless of ability, and this means stretching those who need it. But how can we do this while avoiding the notion that some students are special, and others are not?
The path through this tangled mess is growth mindset theory. Rather than claiming that ability is fixed, those who advocate growth mindset, developed by US psychology professor Carol Dweck, want to instil in students the belief that they can affect their own abilities and talents.
Barry Hymer, a professor of psychology in education at the University of Cumbria, is an advocate of growth mindset, and he gives a great example to illustrate it.
What do you do when your child paints a picture and brings it to you? Well, most people will say something like “You’re such a clever boy!” or “What a great artist you are!” and up it goes on the fridge. When we do that, though, Hymer suggests we are setting our children up for a fixed mindset mentality. It is the child that has been praised, not the endeavour. We have set the child up to be affirmed, however good the picture was. And as the child gets older, and the praise gets less frequent, what conclusions will they draw about their ability? Much better, according to growth mindset theory, to praise the endeavour, the effort or the improvement.
Much better, when the child brings you the picture, to engage with it, to praise the good points, and ask what the child might do to make it even better.
We need to take these lessons and apply them to how we approach stretching and challenging students. Growth mindset sits uneasily alongside the idea of students having “gifted” or “talented” status for two reasons.
Firstly, these labels cannot accurately describe students if ability isn’t fixed – no person is intrinsically gifted. The idea of “giftedness” suggests that ability can’t be improved upon, which growth mindset theory argues isn’t true.
Secondly, we have to think about what giving those labels to students will do to their achievement and general wellbeing. Quite aside from the implications for those children who are classified as not being gifted, there are real concerns for what this does to those who do get the label.
Dweck has shown that achievement is higher among those with a growth mindset, so by implication, telling students that they are gifted endangers their progress.
After all, the stakes are high if you have a label: as a “gifted” child, you need to live up to your reputation. Rather than taking intellectual risks, you will stick to areas that you know you can achieve in. You will chase the praise, and the observation from your teachers that you’ve “got it”.
Every “clever girl!” or “good boy!” will reinforce the idea that it is the child, not the endeavour, that is praiseworthy, and the fear of not being a clever girl or a good boy will increase.
The “gifted” child will constantly try to show they are indeed exceptional, and there is a high risk that they will interpret challenges and difficulties as opportunities for failure.
What is awful is that this pattern of thinking is then set for adulthood. High achievers in their 30s and 40s still fear being “found out”: that someone’s going to realise they’re not that bright after all and expose them as failures.
So, let’s change our approach. What policy can stretch students without trapping them in a fixed understanding of their ability? I think there are three key things we can do:
1. Don’t think of ‘giftedness’
as a status
Think of it instead as a different kind of special educational need: students need to be identified not as a way of recognising success, but as a way of providing for those who need something more than they would normally get in lessons. They might need encouragement and opportunities to do extra work, to enter competitions or to start a project.
2. Open access to programmes of enrichment
Those identified by departments (those normally called “gifted”) should be involved automatically in whatever the school is providing, but other students should have the option to nominate themselves to take part too. By doing this, we overcome the sense that some are gifted, and others are not. All have the opportunity for enrichment.
3. Reward effort, not correctness
Dweck has been working with others to create a maths game that rewards perseverance, not simply getting the right answer. We regularly review the progress of each year group and at these review points it is effort and improvement that we reward the most. By doing this, we recognise that ability is not a special status; it’s about what you do.