Giftedness

In many schools across Asia, the announcement by school leadership that they plan to launch a specialist ‘Giftedness Programme,” stimulates lots of excitement on the part of a proportion of the parents. Of course, these are most usually the ones who have been declaring for ages to anyone who would listen that their child was ‘special’, that the material being learned in the class is beneath their child and that really there should be a special programme that will tap in to the unique needs and abilities of their child.

Some years ago I was attending a dinner in Delhi, India that was held in honour of a very prominent Harvard professor renowned for his writings that shaped the work of many teachers and educators. His wife is also an educator of some renown – her specialisation being in the field of giftedness. I found myself sitting opposite her. During conversation at dinner, I clearly managed to ask the question she’d been asked before (and probably since) that was not welcome – “If we’re differentiating effectively for all our pupils, meeting them where they are, then do we really need specialist giftedness programmes?”

I know, I shouldn’t have done it. It was naughty of me. But, it just sort of slipped out. To be fair, the withering look I got was only second on the night to the one she gave the enthusiastic school principal who kept trying to engage her in discussion about her husband’s work, instead of hers!

However, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable and genuine question that needs to be asked, and I know that there’s more than enough evidence that others are also questioning the traditional orthodox approaches. I worry on a number of grounds. Firstly, I’m ultra cautious of anything that seeks to put labels on the children or to conveniently pigeon-hole them in to categories or ‘types’. Secondly, I fear that putting this particular label on to children can be another simple way like stating a child is SEN that exonerates the teacher from putting in the hard miles to reach, engage and help that child to learn. Often, it even leads to that child being taken out of the mainstream classroom, thereby reducing the class of remaining children to a more homogeneous core that can then all be delivered the syllabus in a standardised ‘one size now fits all’ way. The risk is these processes are used to clear the classroom of outliers, to simplify the teaching process. Nobody’s doing that consciously, but it can be the end effect.

Then there’s the issue of whether ‘Gifted’ programmes really work. What would we mean by working? If we are identifying these children as advanced, ahead of their peers, of higher intelligence and capable of transacting syllabus material faster and to more advanced levels than other pupils, then surely it would be appropriate to look for evidence of those students out-achieving their peers in to adulthood – both because of the attributes identified that justified putting them on a special programme and because of the fact that the programme should enable them to flourish and to fulfil the greater potential identified.

However, the evidence shows very little evidence of these outcomes. In fact, my understanding is that most studies of long term impact of giftedness programmes show very weak evidence of positive gains or outcomes.

Here’s a very interesting article from The Guardian, published about 6 months ago:

The Guardian – Education – Why There’s No Such Thing As A Gifted Child
(click on the link above to open the page)

The article carries some interesting evidence about how so many of the most exceptional adult achievers were very often average performers who didn’t stand out much during their school days. It also highlights something that is also reinforced in much of the research associated with growth mindset – IQ is not fixed and the attributes that might lead teachers to wish to identify a child as ‘gifted’ might be potentially capable of development in every child. Therefore, i firmly believe that instead of seeking to compartmentalize those children who appear to be at one end of the bell curve at the moment, educators should be seeking to put across a message to every child in their care that emphasises that their potential is limitless, that their opportunities and abilities will flow out of their effort and application over time and that all can excel at something if they are motivated and ready to work at it.

I have added links below for three articles I wrote as part of this blog in earlier years. Especially interesting is the one that highlights that being labeled and separated as gifted can be seen as much as a curse as a blessing for many children.

My Blog – Earlier Post – Selecting Gifted Children
My Blog – Earlier Post – Educating Gifted Children
My Blog – Earlier Post – Downside of Giftedness

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Suffer the Little Children

“What happened to my childhood?”

“OFSTED stole it!”

It’s said that persistence is a good thing, a very good quality that can contribute a lot to success. However, this comes with a caveat – it’s not persistence but foolishness to keep taking the same actions over and over in the hope that eventually, at some point in time, the world around you will change and make your actions the right ones to succeed. There’s are two other aspects to this kind of foolishness – going back to old ways of doing things when they’ve already been revealed to be positively harmful (and lacking in positive merit) and ignoring fundamental changes in the world around you that necessitate new and revised perceptions about the best way to move forward.

In relation to the education of young children in the first, early years of schooling there are those in the world who are currently guilty on both these counts. It might be OK if their guilt only harmed them, but sadly it means harm to untold numbers of children.

In a number of countries, but particularly in England, we’re seeing a big swing back towards discredited ideas of the past about emphasising heavier amounts of academic content in early years education. The most recent evidence of this has emerged in a report published by the Office for Standards in Education (sic) OFSTED. It’s entitled “Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.” Focusing on the Reception Year means that it relates directly to the educational experience of children in the age range 4-5.

The OFSTED report says many things, but the tone comes through loud and clear in the following key recommendation;

“All primary schools should:
■make sure that the teaching of reading, including
systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose
of the Reception Year

So, teaching reading is the core purpose of going to school for children aged 4 to 5. This is then backed up with further recommendations that suggest strongly that these children are in a race and the aim is to get as much as possible of a head start to be ahead of the game in terms of what has to be learned in Class 1. Also, there’s lots of talk about learning how to sit up straight, how to hold the pencil exactly right and how to obey orders.

Here’s the full report:

28933_Ofsted_-_Early_Years_Curriculum_Report_-_Accessible (1)

And here’s some commentary on it:
Huffingtom Post – Third of Kids ‘Failed’ In Reception

It all sounds like something out of the dark ages. Does it sound like we are creating an environment in which future leaders flourish? Or, are we perpetuating the education of the masses which was about developing obedient disciplined grunts – and maybe more important, making them economically productive as early as possible!

A cynic might look for the source of all this hurry up and haste in the political inconvenience and embarrassment of the PISA and TIMMS exams – tests that suggest that English 15 year old children don’t hold up very effectively compared to their peers in other countries. But then comes the massive error – a chronically misguided belief that if we can just give children a faster start, all the problems would be addressed and our children would go shooting up the world charts. Of course, the big inconvenience in all that is that Finland sits right at the top of the tables for these comparative examinations with children who barely start school before age seven, certainly in terms of heavy duty academic learning.

And a real cynic might look simply for sheer ignorance and myopia of ignorant politicians wedded to old orthodoxies like, “Well, it never did me any harm,” and who desperately base their political ideologies on a perception that if Britain could just get back to some mythical good old days, then everything in the world would be perfect.

However, as educators we have to be futurists, not regressionists. Our major task is to prepare young people for the world likely to exist tomorrow, not to hanker after bygone familiar days that will never come again.

Anyone who tells you that they know what children will need to know even ten years from now, let alone beyond that, is delusional. However, we can make some reasonable predictions about their lives. Firstly, advances in medical science mean that the majority of them will live to the age of 100 or beyond. That alone is massive. Barring bad lifestyle choices, more than 50% of these children will live to 100. In those circumstances, how long will a working life be? If we think of those who reach 100 today we think about the massive changes they’ve seen in the world, especially in technology.

These young people will need to be the most versatile, flexible and adaptable generation that has ever lived. They will have long working lives (you can’t retire at 60 if you’ve got another 40 years of life ahead!). They had better find meaning in the work they do and be ready for the likelihood of multiple careers, not just many jobs. In such circumstances they can’t be like today’s employees – where surveys consistently reveal engagement levels in the workplace well below 20%. These will need to be people who get a big buzz out of the work they do. When they stop getting a buzz they will have the skills, competencies and the flexibility to move on to do something new that does appeal to them.

To prepare young people for such a life what we don’t need is to be in a tearing hurry to shove all the knowledge we think appropriate in to them as quickly and early as possible. In these circumstances we need to lose the conventional ideas of certain mileposts being based entirely on the age of the child. Instead, we need models of learning based on competency, passion and interest. When the child is ready to pursue particular learning, educators support them until they can achieve and prove consistent mastery. Then, the educators help them to make choices about where to go next in their learning journey.

So, that’s the first reason I have issues with the Ofsted focus and direction reflected through their report. Worse, what Ofsted dictates, most teachers do, either because they want to get positive affirmation through Ofsted school inspections (or, at least, their Principals and Heads do). This kind of rushing like a bull at a gate is shown up in so many places. We only need to see this headline and article from The guardian some days ago:

The Guardian – Education – Children as Young as Two Grouped By Ability

This acts as a convenient lead to the second major reason why this approach angers me and why I believe it’s doing a massive disservice to children and blighting their lives in the future. At this point it’s useful to remind ourselves that, despite relatively rich budgets for spending on education for every child, Britain has at least 10% functional illiteracy. There are vast numbers of people who have gone through the UK schools education system and yet do not have adequate literacy ability to be able to achieve the levels necessary to carry out basic and common life functions. Clearly, the methods used in the country until now have been failing some people. Yet, this Ofsted approach and the trend of rushing to do more and more at an earlier age is going to make this worse, not better.

To understand why, we need to take on board the new knowledge that’s become available to us over the last 10-20 years through the field of Neurology. techniques such as functional MRI scanning have enabled scientists to build up new knowledge (and to jettison some old ideas) about how people learn, and particularly about the maturation and development of the infant brain.

On this, I share here the link to an excellent recent webinar that charts out in reasonably simple terms the latest understanding from neurology as it pertains to the acquisition of skills and competence in reading:

Neuron Learning – New Science of Learning for Struggling Readers
(You might need to open an account in order to see the video of this webinar, but there’s no cost and it’s worthwhile)

For particular types of learning to happen naturally, a given level or complexity of neural network needs to exist for the child that is ‘ready’ for the acquisition of that skill. This applies to everything from holding a spoon, to self-feeding, to crawling then walking, to reading and writing and basic concepts of number. Each child doesn’t reach the point of having a suitable network at exactly the same time. However, when we take the example of walking, except where there’s some significant mental impairment, every child walks. However, what we don’t see is late-walking children put in remedial classes for walking, given extra homework and subjected to the experience of hearing their peers praised for diligent walking (by implication condemning them as failures and let-downs for not making the walking teacher happy!)

However, when schools start pushing three and four year olds with reading that’s exactly what is happening. in those circumstances it’s inevitable that some will take longer than others. And in return for taking longer they will receive all sorts of subliminal messages that condemn them to low expectations – of themselves and on the part of parents and other care-givers. In those circumstances, some children will take on board certain negative beliefs about themselves. “I’m a slow learner,” “I’m never going to be good at this school stuff,” “Others are more intelligent than me,” “I can’t learn well.”

When education was seen as a massive filtering mechanism, children were seen as distributed across a standard bell curve. While some would flourish, some would inevitably be the floundering ones at the wrong end of the curve. Educators didn’t stop to consider that their own actions might be what was condemning those children to languish at that end of the curve. Nobody was willing to contemplate that their practices actually caused failure.

An education system for the Twenty First Century has to be built on principles of enabling each and every child to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, aspects of implied competition with each other or that learning and getting schooled is some sort of race are completely counter-productive. It also needs to be built on the principles that learning is fun, exciting and something that anyone would want to do for themselves – not something that others force us to do against our will.

Here’s further evidence that the priorities have to change and a plea from the World Economic Forum to apply the right priorities for education today, to enable tomorrow’s society;

World Economic Forum on Twitter

Here’s the link to the fuller article from the World Economic Forum that takes on this issue in more detail:

World Economic Forum – All Work and No Play Needs to Change for Kindergarteners – and Here’s Why

To conclude – in a changed world, there’s really no need for haste or rush for young people starting out on a long life, especially when all our new knowledge of brain sciences tells us that the rushing causes great harm and hurt to some children, thereby undermining their potential for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 

How To Mess Up A Good Thing

Formative assessment has been a vitally important element in education, as educators seek to have ways to move away from the old fashioned models based endlessly on the use of standardised examinations to provide data and evidence of student learning. Incidentally, on that, I read yesterday that in Japan, children don’t take any kind of full summative assessment until the age of 10.

Formative assessment goes by many names, the most common other name being assessment for learning (AfL) to differentiate it from assessment of learning (AoL) AoL can be compared to cracking eggs open on a regular basis to find out how the chicks are developing. When we consider that the man who invented standardised tests (especially of the multiple choice variety) actually came out after a year or two to say that they were too crude and unsophisticated to use to measure school pupils’ knowledge, skills or academic performance (and was promptly sacked for his honesty!) we have to say that if we are to have assessment it has to be something a great deal more advanced.

AfL sets out to pay more attention to the future, rather than looking solely backwards like summative testing. It includes a variety of techniques and methods to gather clues as to how well a student is progressing in some learning and to have clarity about where they need to go next to best build on to their existing knowledge, skills and competence. Also, and perhaps most critically, AfL is not just predicated on the need to produce a set of data for the teacher, but aims to have the learner themselves reflect on their learning, the journey they have taken up to the point in time and where they are going next – including what they will need to do to get there. It

In November 2008 I was very fortunate to attend a presentation in Mumbai, India arranged by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). The keynote speaker was professor Sue Swaffield of Cambridge University, a leading proponent of AfL and researcher in educational leadership, assessment and school improvement. She presented powerful research evidence about the ways in which grades and marks demotivate all but the strongest of academic achievers, lead to negative approaches to learning from children and teachers and advocating strongly for stronger training of teachers in the techniques and methods of AfL.

So, I was very interested recently to come across this article written by professor Swaffield nearly a year later that really highlights how good ideas can get mangled and abused in the education domain. The needs of those in power for data, control and top down dictating of how things are done is the very opposite of what we see throughout the world in the most dynamic, creative learning organisations.

The Misrepresentation of Assessment For Learning
(To download the document as a PDF you will need to have Adobe reader or some similar programme loaded)

I particularly loved the section on the second page of the paper that talks of the origins of the word ‘assessment’ in latin, deriving from a word that means “sitting beside”. Tell that to the exam invigilators – they would call that cheating!

That ‘No Homework’ Letter

During the last month, an education issue that has long caused debate sprang to the attention of the world when a simple short memo from an American teacher to the parents of her class went viral across social networks. Here’s some reporting on what she wrote, and how the story unfolded;

Cristian Science Monitor – Should Second Graders Get Homework?

Understandably reactions varied widely and some were pretty extreme. Many educators quoted educator Alfie Kohn in support of the teacher’s perspective. His writings and analysis of many research studies concluded that there was little or no evidence to prove the usefulness of homework except when pupils were in a year when they were due to take competitive standardised examinations. This suggests that it doesn’t really do anything much for learning, but helps in memorising to pass exams. In fact, some commentators have even gone as far as to suggest that it has negative effects because it undermines motivation to learn – thereby becoming a negative influence on learning.

The final line of the teacher’s letter reminded me of the admonition to parents – “Make your home a place of learning, not a schoolroom.”

There is something a little naive and childlike at times about the internet when such things go viral. It’s not as though this teacher is the first person to advocate (or even to act on feelings against homework) elimination of homework. Even when working with Indian parents in both India and Sharjah, I’ve been able to support teachers who wanted to minimise the relevance and significance of homework. These, after all, are considered to be very traditionally minded parents with a penchant for hard work and a belief that academic outcomes must be striven for in the extreme.

It was no surprise to me that when the teacher in question, Brandy Young, chose to explain herself and provide more context she chose to emphasise school-home partnership and collaboration in the best interests of the child and their learning. I find it slightly disturbing that both these articles and some others I’ve read appear to see this teacher as an individual working in isolation.

I would very much hope that the project-based, collaborative approaches she espouses are schoolwide policy and not merely an issue of chance for parents as to whether their child is in her class or another teacher’s. Also, if the consistency isn’t there children are the first to recognise that they appear to be the victims of fuzzy thinking and inconsistent treatment. They then have to adjust to the different ideological bases of the different teachers. Teaching leaves ample scope for individual creativity, flair and style within the context of key standard expectations and approaches that should be school wide policy.

Huffington Post – Why I Did It – The No Homework Letter

In her explanation the teacher highlights her use of Classdojo as an alternative to homework. Whilst I believe she’s completely right to stress that homework as a means for parents to check on children’s learning is a weak justification, I’m not wholly convinced that Classdojo is the answer. Whilst some of the features, such as instant sharing of pictures etc, can be beneficial in building home-classroom connection, Where I’ve seen Classdojo used, I’ve been concerned that it became a distraction in the classroom, that the carrots and sticks approach of praise and negative feedback that will all be visible to the parent every day does not build self-regulating children with a growth mindset.

I’m very interested to hear what educators and parents think on the issues of homework and home-classroom collaboration and partnership. Please share thoughts in the comments box below.

Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Permission To Be Human

Teachers are humans too!

As professionals an awful lot of teachers want to believe that they are objective, detached and that their thinking about every child in their care is shaped by professional considerations based upon pedagogy, all their training and learning and the desire to support every child to fulfil their potential.

Ahem! Reality check!

Let’s get real teachers. We’re no more or less subjective in the way that our minds work than other mature adults.

Here’s one way that we’ve all either done or certainly heard teachers doing in staff rooms (or might I say even Principals and leadership team members in management meetings! (Shock, horror!)

The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia – Cult of Pedagogy

Another example comes from my reading a few years ago. I wish I could remember or find the source for this. Apparently, there was a training programme going on for a group of around 30 teachers in a Scandinavian country. The teachers were asked to come up with a collective definition of ‘naughtiness’ in a classroom – what constituted bad behaviour? After arriving at a shared definition they were asked to think about who was the naughtiest child in their current class, to write the child’s name on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope.

Then, over the course of a couple of months their classes were monitored and analysed with video and other tools in great detail and all acts by children that fell within the shared definition of naughtiness were noted and recorded. In this way, they were able to rank the children in all the classes for the extent of their naughty behaviour.

So, the the million dollar question – how many of the teachers had the same name in their envelope as appeared at the top of the observed naughtiness lists?

10%, 25%, 50%?

Exactly none of them, 0% had a match in the children’s names.

The researchers concluded that innate subjectivity of teachers and their own personalities mean that some children’s ways of misbehaving were more noticeable and memorable than others. In short, the teachers were nothing like as objective as they thought they were (or wanted to believe they were).

This leads to two critical questions;

a) Does this level of subjectivity matter?
b) If so, what can teachers do about it?

In my view, absolutely this matters and has potential risks that some children are going to get their education potential hampered by the subjective clashes with individual teachers. As to the solution, I believe one of the most valuable tools for a teacher to get more objective is daily journaling – a regular habit in which the teacher records simply the facts of what happened in their classroom, wherever possible avoiding applying their emotions and feelings to it. Regular review of these journal records can enable the teacher to get a more holistic and objective perception of what’s really happening, class dynamics and how their own personality and those of the children are interacting.

For some teachers this may sound like a big investment of time and effort. However, I believe if the habit is built solidly it’s a task that can be carried out quite quickly. The biggest payoff comes at report writing time and the time of parent teacher meetings. All that objectively gathered data enables far better reports to be written in far less time.

Incidentally, i believe this also applies to leaders and the people they work with in terms of being objective about performance and development. Again, the payoff comes at the time of appraisals and performance management feedback sessions. For that, another day, another blog post.

Confessions of a Grade Fetishist

An interesting TedX video from a teacher about the benefits she and her pupils experienced when she broke her love affair with student grades as a measure of everything important.

"The score is what's remembered which essentially means nothing out of context."

One of the points she makes is something that has always stood out to me - there can be a whole bunch of children with the same grade, but who have very different learner profiles, needs and requirements as future learners. The truth is they tell us so little as to be useless.

She is at her most animated when she talks about what the process has done for her students.

This is well-worth watching to develop the debate about what's possible in learning.