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.

 

 

 

Connected Learning

This was such an inspiring set of short profiles of innovative and exciting learning – examples of where connected IT related learning tools are changing the nature and opportunities of learning.

Digital Promise – What Powerful Learning Looks Like – Students Share Their Stories 

What I really liked about the videos was the extent to which student agency is expanding, past stereotypes are being challenged and questions of student motivation are not even required.

These are children who have a strong sense of ownership of their own learning, are pursuing learning for its own purpose, because of genuine desire to learn and not because it’s on the syllabus or a teacher says that’s what they must learn. There’s scope within the examples for the students to make choices about where they’ve taken their learning and where they might take it in the future.

The examples here challenge past narrow thinking about things like girls in STEM, how old a child needs to be before they have a voice worth hearing and even what’s worth learning (and how).

Some might watch these videos and just think of them as exceptional kids who, by accident of opportunity have found a passion and been supported to pursue it. However, I believe it says far more to us about what education has the potential to be for a bigger proportion of children. ICT

 

Where Have We Reached With Growth Mindset?

Mastery of anything worthwhile takes time. Teachers, of all people, should be very well aware of this fact. However, it’s all too tempting for them to look for silver bullets that can deliver quick, easy panaceas. In Growth Mindset, many teachers believed they had just such a silver bullet.

Carol Dweck has acknowledged that there are those ready to criticise and doubt the relevance or value of her work, as I highlighted in my earlier blog post:
Carol Dweck Applies Growth Mindset to Growth Mindset

When I first came across the work of Carol Dweck on Growth Mindset, one of my first thoughts was that if an educator was to be capable of helping children to have more of a growth mindset more of the time, they were going to first need to do some significant work on themselves. We are all products of the education system we seek to change and therefore, when fixed mindsets are so prevalent, the first group of people who need to acknowledge this are teachers themselves.

Once teachers take this fact on board, they come to realise that such ‘inner work’ and change will not magically happen overnight. it’s a long and arduous process of self-reflection, modest goals to change, working on those over time and following up with further goals. Mastery is a long term goal.

I’m not saying that a teacher has to develop perfect ‘all the time Growth Mindset in themselves before they can begin to work on children’s mindset. In fact, too often, that becomes a mistake on the part of teachers – believing they must be perfect at something before they bring it in to their classroom. However, what’s important is that the teacher is on a journey and committed to the process with themselves. Then, they’re able to begin the work with students.

However, we have to accept as well that the work with children won’t happen overnight. We need to have multiple ways to guide children, learn to have our receptors attuned to when we see or hear mindset that we want to reinforce and strategies to redirect fixed mindset thinking. Mindset is a form of habit, and like any habit creation or change process, it takes time, diligence and persistence to achieve.

Both in ourselves and in children we will find that there are some areas where growth mindset comes easily and effortlessly, but others where the fixed mindset remains stubborn and entrenched. We need to be honest with velours, but also kind and compassionate.  On this journey we’ll have both good days and bad and that’s OK.

What’s important is to be on the journey.

This article, and the downloadable report it summarises carry more than enough evidence on this. It appears that in the US teachers haven’t lost faith and intuitively know that the concept is a good one and that this journey is worthwhile. However, they’ve come to the realisation that it’s not a quick fix and it doesn’t happen overnight. They seem to feel they need more strategies to sustain their work with children. And, as I’ve indicated above – they may need to acknowledge more of the work they need to do with themselves.

Edweek – Mindset in the Classroom  – US National Study 

 

Carol Dweck applies Growth Mindset to Issues of Growth Mindset

I’m never quite sure if it’s exclusive to the education field, or more extreme, but there is a very bad habit of latching on to ‘the latest new thing,’ demanding that it represents a magical simple wand to change the profession. Then, when simplistic representations of the concept or idea don’t deliver instant, easy payoff there’s a backlash and attention switches to attempts to tear down any validity in the idea or concept.

In recent years we’ve seen this happen with differentiation, at times with the emphasis on formative assessment, with the concepts related to Grit (Angela Duckworth) and very strongly in relation to Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset.

So it’s very refreshing to hear this interview with carol Dweck, conducted by Times Education Supplement;

TES – Carol Dweck – On Growth Mindset Theory

To my mind, the real value that comes out of the interview is that Dweck’s work has caused masses of teachers to focus on the issues of student motivation and its impact on learning outcomes to an extent far greater than ever before. I believe it’s also lead to a far greater level of attention to the fact that what has to matter more is learning rather than teaching and that teaching is nothing if not evaluated on the basis of its impact on learning and the fulfillment of potential on the part of learners.

As educators, we work with the human mind. This is incredibly complex and will never lend itself to simplistic prescriptions. The nearest comparison is to look for a desire that simple formulaic approaches to leadership can create highly effective organisations. The human mind, human motivations and the dynamics of human interaction are incredibly complex. Therefore, it will always require maximum flexibility, conscious reflection and ability to calibrate responses. It is vital to be open and receptive to all evidence of what’s working and how and ready to continuously build a flexible tool kit that offers increasing levels of responses and refinements.

For any of us whose work involves working with other human beings, we can never get good enough. We have to relish the process of continually learning more, refining our skills and adding more skills to our ‘toolkit’ in order to give us more refined choices for the decisions we take when dealing with others. I believe Carol Dweck’s work is just such a new tool that is thoroughly worth having in the toolkit. It’s not a panacea, a magic bullet and we need to rebuff those who seek to write it off because it didn’t deliver instant gratification.

Access to the Highest levels in Formal Education

There are institutes of further studies in India where, because of such enormous desire for seats, admit only 0.01% of all applicants. However, interestingly, some years ago I saw an interview with a prominent business head in the country during which he was asked whether he would rather recruit the ‘intake list’ of those institutes or the graduates coming out of those institutes. His answer was – the former, not the latter. In the case of those Institutions the entry requirements are handled by some very clear cut, very rigorous and taxing examinations. The ability to absorb the vast volumes of information required to do well in those exams becomes the key criteria of entry. From that business Head’s perspective, if he recruited those who could get in to these Institutes he’d know he was getting people with high intelligence, a strong work ethic and ability/ willingness to compete at extreme levels, putting themselves through whatever it takes to get through. Amazing stories abound of the arduous experiences people have gone through to jump the hurdles.

The best and most respected centres of learning in other parts of the world have different methods for selecting the students they wish to attract through their doors. This was a particularly interesting article about Oxford University’s interview and questioning process;

The Guardian – Solving the Riddle of Getting in to Oxford

The Oxford University approach is very clear about the kinds of students they seek to attract through their admissions process. The interviews are designed to identify students who think critically (individually and in discussion with others), who challenge and question and don’t just accept the knowledge they’re ‘given’ at face value. If you want even more insight in to the kinds of questions that were being posed to potential students and the sorts of answers that professors were looking for, you can read this page;

University of Oxford – Sample Interview Questions

The mismatch between what some education systems produce and what places like Oxford University are looking for was brought home to me very starkly when I worked for two years in Bangladesh. There, every year, there would be celebrations of a handful of students who had achieved 5 A* A levels in a single sitting. Like anyone in the world really needs five A Levels? And yet, up to that time, no individual student from Bangladesh had ever been admitted to either Oxford or Cambridge Universities for undergraduate studies. Some had obviously made it there at the post-grad level. These students were seen to be too one dimensional – able to mug up vast amounts of learning to score highly in exams, but lacking the critical depth of view.

Returning to the Indian scenario of the IITs and IIM’s, there is no question that they do fulfil a role of a very strenuous filter – in an environment where the age profile and population size means a massive educable youth at any one time. However, it’s a system that cannot contribute to having every person achieve their potential. It just pulls a few with innate intelligence and ability to pass exams and places them at the top of the pile with masses of self-belief thrown in. Even in this respect, they experience certain challenges. Across India, over the last 20 years a number of academies have arisen that take youngsters from very modest surroundings and ‘hothouse’ them through the IIT entrance exams. However, I was told a few years ago by a number of IIT faculty that these youngsters struggle once they’re in. The goal of getting in figures so massively in their lives that once achieved some struggle to re-calibrate to new longer term goals.

There are also doubts and issues raised about whether these institutes are adequately and effectively preparing young people for the world environment in the Twenty First Century. A lack of emphasis on the development of social-emotional skills is something I know has been a point of focus in the last few years, especially for the IIMs.

By their very nature, seats to study in the very highest of educational institutes will always only be for a very small minority. Only a few have the motivation to test themselves in such an inferno atmosphere and even fewer have the character, competences and skills to achieve entry or to pursue a course of study in these places.

For those who do, enormous and varied opportunities are opened up in the world for how the person will contribute. For those students who have such aspirations and the potential, preparation needs to start early. That preparation needs to be focused very much on what the person’s goals are, their vision and values and how those align with the Institute they’re looking at. Then, the focus needs to be very much on what that institute requires, how their system works and how to be as prepared as well as possible.

Classroom Posters

Teachers are often looking for some good, powerful and effective posters for their classroom walls;

Edutopia – Motivational Printable Posters

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