Valsa Koshy has spent 20 years researching giftedness. She was part of the team that launched the UK’s first university-based research and development centre to support the education of gifted and talented children – the Brunel Able Children’s Education (BACE) Centre, at Brunel University London – back in 1995. She has worked with schools, teachers, students and families around the world on approaches and theory around giftedness in schools.
What she has decided, after all that research, is that giftedness – in the sense schools often see it – is a myth.
“When I founded the centre, I thought I would find a definition and a list of attributes for giftedness,” she recalls. “But there is no universally accepted definition of giftedness or talent. No child is globally gifted. We have never known a child who is an all-round gifted child in every area. Even Nobel Prize-winners aren’t gifted in every area.”
And yet, in schools, the gifted label is a meme that seems immune to any attempts to destroy it.
As part of its early research, the centre conducted a national survey of primary school teachers, in which 85 per cent said they found it difficult to align themselves with the idea of labelling a child as gifted.
These findings were presented at the American Educational Research Association conference in New York in 1996, yet the English government’s gifted and talented programme – which encouraged the identification of pupils to create cohorts with those labels – was launched in 2002 and remained in place until 2010, when it was branded “inconsistent and incoherent” in a presentation to the Commons Education Select Committee.
But many schools still keep a version of the policy in place now, forming an elite group of students based on academic performance.
Koshy thinks it is madness. Not only is there the issue explained earlier of “giftedness” being a problematic label, but also she says the practice is creating tension among teachers and families. Koshy refers to a “mental aristocracy” perceived by parents. And it can have negative effects on young people’s mental health, potentially causing self-esteem issues for those who don’t receive the accolade – and an unwelcome sense of otherness for those who do.
A new approach
“Giving children the label ‘gifted’ can put pressure on them,” she says. “Some feel uncomfortable being perceived as different. Some even mask their ability by making deliberate mistakes in their work – and many are targets of bullying.”
And so Koshy is proposing a new approach. She wants teachers to ask not whether a child is gifted, but what a child’s gift might be. By finding and nurturing something a child is passionate about and has ability in, there is a knock on effect on the rest of a child’s school performance, she believes. It is an approach she discusses in her book – Find and Nurture Your Child’s Gifts: Boost your Child’s Learning Potential and Wellbeing, which was released last year.
“There’s one word that I use in my lectures probably 20 times in an hour: passion,” she explains. “If a child is passionate and has got the ability to move forward in an area, then the ‘gift’ will start showing as potential and everything else will improve as well.
“When a child starts school, we need to identify their passion, which can be used as a lever for motivation and self-esteem.”
She gives the example of Jonathan, a six-year-old she met during a visit to a school in the north of England. His teacher had been exploring each child’s talents, both in class and with parents. Jonathan was brilliant at football. Hearing it described as his “special intelligence” gave him a huge boost in self-esteem and motivation. He later asked for homework and reading books to take home because he wanted to get better at reading and writing, too. His subsequent marks in national tests were higher than expected in all subjects.
“Over the past 20 years, I have seen many instances of increased motivation and achievement in children who were encouraged to develop their special interests,” she continues. “I founded the Urban Scholars Programme at Brunel in 2000, to raise the achievement and aspirations of 12-year-olds from some of the poorest areas of London – and one of the key elements was their ‘passion project’.
“Students selected a topic they were passionate about and worked on it for five months, concluding with a presentation to tutors and other experts. Some chose careers they hoped to pursue, others chose hobbies. Many of the students’ achievement and self-confidence levels were enhanced and a high percentage cited the project as one of the most useful intervention strategies.”
She is certain this approach is not only fairer and more in line with research than grouping students as “gifted and talented” (G&T) – but that it is more effective long term, too. “This approach is based on the principle that a person is likely to show giftedness in specific and specialised fields,” she says. “It is more practical and wiser to consider giftedness as a special ability in one or more specific areas, whether it is mathematical, musical, social or artistic.”
Obviously, identifying a child’s passion – and their ability in it – is not simple. Koshy explains how, during an action research project for the Department for Education, she gave a questionnaire to parents, teachers and children about children’s interests. Each was asked to answer what the child would like to do if they had a lot of free time.
“The teachers and children had similar responses,” she recalls. “But a lot of the parents didn’t know what their child’s special interest was.”
Dreamer to worker
Koshy says that getting children, teacher and parents together is therefore crucial. Teachers also have to be observant, too, she says.
She cites the case of a four-year-old named Melissa, who was often withdrawn during activities in her Reception class and would appear “dreamy” and uncommunicative. One day, by chance, Melissa’s teacher saw her looking through a book containing pictures of butterflies. The teacher asked Melissa what she was looking at. Melissa told her about her interest in butterflies and suddenly became animated.
The teacher took the opportunity to help Melissa come out of her shell, by asking her to start a project: to write about what she already knew about butterflies, to find out more about them and draw pictures of them, all in a special book. The results were significant. This “quiet dreamer” became a passionate worker and started communicating better with her teachers and her peers.
As this and the other examples show, Koshy argues, engaging with students’ interests needn’t be a complicated process. But she insists it is not happening enough and that it depends on a connection with home that is not always there. Fix this and every child’s gifts will be developed, their attainment will increase. Most importantly, the child will be happier.
“A key message is that a happy child is more likely to be a motivated learner and an unhappy child is more likely to be a reluctant learner,” she says. “But it has to be about families and educationalists working together, which is what I hope will happen.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer