A bit about me: in the 1990’s in Ontario, Canada, at the age of ten, I was identified as being gifted. This identification was a result of teacher observation, attainment in school, and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children – Third Edition (WISC-III). The WISC-III was used to assess select children who had been put forward by their teachers. From what I recall, it involved a series of tactile and verbal tasks. One task required manipulating nine cubes with red and white designs on them to recreate a specific image. Another task involved describing the differences between two pictures, with one of them having been taken away. As a result of my identification, I was offered the opportunity to attend a full-time gifted programme at a local school between the ages of 11 and 14 (grades 6 through 8 in Canada). I accepted.
What’s the most important part of that anecdote? It was not up to my school to decide if I was gifted. They used a collection of observations to put me forward for testing, which took place at the local school board. The definition of giftedness was the same across the province of Ontario. It was not based purely on a single factor, whether attainment, teacher observation or IQ.
Interestingly, the definition of giftedness that Ontario currently uses is the same one that has been used since at least the 1980’s. It is relatively easy to find a definition of giftedness through the Ontario Ministry of Education’s website in a document called “Special Education in Ontario”, which was most recently updated this year.
When I went to find the UK’s definition of most able or more able or gifted and talented – whatever it is that’s currently being used, I struggled. I went to the DfE website and quickly became frustrated with sifting through their documents. Eventually, I found what I was looking for through the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE). They clarify that Ofsted refer to “More Able” in primary schools and “Most Able” in secondary. The DfE uses the terms “high attainers” and “most able”. The DfE and Ofsted definition of of most able is measured in terms of “those whose progress significantly exceeds age related expectations.” It is up to each school how they will identify their Most Able students.
At one secondary school in Northwest London, they had identified most able students as those who had achieved at least a level 5 in English and/or Maths in Year 6. Now that we are faced with teaching post-levels, this is not such a straightforward process.
since the shift from a focus on Gifted and Talented, the emphasis is on attainment more than anything else
My concern, however, is not with lack of levels or lack of a consistent method of identification within a geographic area. My concern is that since the shift from a focus on ‘Gifted and Talented’ to ‘most able’ students in the early 2010s, the emphasis is now on attainment more than anything else. As I read through recent news articles about Most Able in the UK, I saw the word “excellence” come up a lot. One article featured one person’s strong opinion that in response to Most Able students underachieving, there ought to be more frequent standardised testing. What do students know? How smart are they? What grade do they get?
But what about how they think? While they are becoming increasingly rare in Canada, Vancouver has a full time programme for gifted elementary students. Students there take part in project based learning to develop higher order thinking skills. There is a focus on developing autonomous learners. They are encouraged to be creative. Along with more traditional forms of identification, students are assessed on their motivation.
In a world where our students are being force-fed information non-stop through all forms of social media, where politicians are celebrities and visa versa, where fake news is abundant, where racism and sexism are still major problems despite progress made in the 20th century, isn’t it more important to encourage our brightest students to be able think creatively and differently than to be able to make progress that significantly exceeds their peers?
The motto of Jnana Prabodhini Prashala gifted school in India is “motivating intelligence for social change.” By focussing on attainment, grade progression, and doing well on standardised tests, we are motivating intelligence to maintain the status quo.
The DfE needs to re-evaluate how it defines its high attainers and give serious thought to what it wants their outcome to be: exceptional progress or exceptional thinking.
Despite complaints that identifying students as gifted and talented is elitist, I believe it is a useful step towards developing young minds to be innovators of social change.
After re-evaluating, it is worth developing a more consistent and multi-faceted approach for the identification of these exceptional students. This doesn’t require re-inventing the wheel; research into the methods that other countries use will quickly reveal alternatives to the haphazard approach currently being used.
The next step, of course, would be to revamp how these students are supported in schools. Extension work, challenge questions and in-class differentiation are almost certainly not enough.
Not all students think the same. We know this. And yet our current approach largely ignores the fact and focusses instead on difference in attainment. If we are going to encourage our students to be creative, divergent thinkers, we need to think divergently first ourselves.