So, what does ‘gifted’ mean anyway?

As you may be aware, non-selective secondary schools are failing the ‘most able’. How do we know? Because a brand new Ofsted report tells us so.

The report’s key findings include such revelations as the fact that “expectations of what the most able students should achieve are too low” and  that not enough has been done “to create a culture of scholastic excellence” which leads, unsurprisingly, to, “Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they are capable of.”

The problem is attributed to ineffective transition arrangements, poor Key Stage 3 curricula and early entry to GCSE exams. Homework also gets a bashing; too much of it is “insufficiently challenging” and “fails to interest students, extend their thinking or develop their skills.”

The result is that “just over a quarter of the pupils who achieved Level 5 in English and mathematics at the end of Year 6 did not make the progress expected of them in their non-selective secondary schools”.

So that’s that: QED.

Now you may well quibble, as Geoff Barton has done over their means of measurement and the woeful laziness of many newspaper reports but really, I find it hard to argue with the likelihood that secondary schools’ expectations of their students are way too low.

I know I’ve certainly been guilty of this. A few years ago I taught a girl called Charlotte. Charlotte had an E grade target and, I confess, my expectations of her were low. In the opening weeks of Year 10 she told me that she wanted to get an A grade and I, to my shame, tried to manage her expectations and let her know that his was unlikely. It would be enough of a miracle if she were to managed a C! The first piece of coursework she turned in was a lowly D. She was devastated. She took it away (remember, this was the old days) acted on my advice and handed in a C grade essay. I was chuffed; she was still devastated. She took her English GCSE at the end of Year 10 (something else we’re now no longer allowed to do) and got a C. Two grades above her target grade. By this time I knew she’d be gutted with this result, and she was. She still professed cock-eyed, unwavering faith she could get an A. But, I knew she couldn’t. Obviously.

I’m sure you can see where this is going, can’t you? Charlotte continued to plug away and retook the exam in November getting a B grade. C’mon, I told her. Enough’s enough. Be happy with your B. But she wasn’t and retook for a third time in June of Year 11. And still she didn’t get an A.

She got an A*.

Now you can say what you like about lack of challenge and low expectations and the wonky Key Stage 3 curriculum and early entry being the enemy of promise; this girl was a grafter. She believed that she could be better than she was. No one ever told her she was gifted at anything, and she didn’t care; she knew that if she worked hard enough she could get what she wanted.

Of course for every Charlotte I’ve taught a thousand kids with nothing like her mindset or capacity for trying. Many of these were identified as G&T and went on to coast a B grade or similar. But Charlotte taught me far more than probably I ever managed to teach her. She taught me that my expectations were, for most kids, a determining factor in their achievement. And what’s the point in having high expectations for just some of our students? Where on earth is the sense in picking off our ‘most able’ 10% and deciding to push this elite to scholastic excellence? Charlotte taught me that this was a nonsense and that effort always trumps talent.

Tom Bennett gives us The Orthodoxy in his TES article How best are the gifted lifted? Above average, but below the radar: the problem of G&T kids. His solution is based on the following these 3 familiar steps:

  1. identify your potential brainiacs,
  2. provide something special for them, and then
  3. monitor that this hothousing is having the desired effect.

I have absolutely no argument with point 2 and 3. None. But, oh my goodness! I’m not at all happy with point 1. To his credit Tom does say that “high expectations should be tattooed inside our hearts for every child, until the minute they leave school for good – maybe not even then.” Quite right. But how does corralling the boffins and treating them differently serve this aim?

Take out the word ‘gifted’ and this could be a marvellous manifesto:

Teachers need to be trained more clearly on simple techniques that can revolutionise the work a gifted pupil does, eg setting them tasks a year above their age; accelerating them into the year above (astounding, but caution required); asking for work to be redone – after school if necessary – if it doesn’t meet the required level. Forcing yourself to give them time in lessons to explain things at a higher level, just as if they were as important as a weaker kid (fancy that); setting slightly different homework, and so on.

I get that Tom, and Ofsted for that matter, are berating us for chasing the grail of the C/D borderline, but still.

Grammar school head Tom Sherrington talks about having a Total G&T Philosophy and how lessons should be designed with rigour and high expectations to ‘lift the lid’ to what students can achieve. He advocates that we should ‘teach to the top’ instead of the usual slow ball middle pitch Tom Bennett describes. And yes, teach to the top, support at the bottom. Everyone’s aspirations are raised and they start to believe in they can achieve more than they ever believed possible.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mr Sherrington speak about his approach to teaching yesterday and one throwaway line got me thinking. He said something about teachers often removing layers of complexity because kids would be turned off if the work seemed too hard. Instead he suggested giving kids work which seems impossible. What if we scrapped our Year 7 curriculum and just taught ’em the Year 8 stuff? Would it matter? And this got me thinking: maybe I could try teaching work which ‘seems impossible to see what’s possible’?

Last week I taught a transition lesson to a class of Year 6 students to prepare them for the ‘step up’ to big school. I didn’t find out I would be doing this until that morning and just for the hell of it I decided to teach them a lesson I’d taught to my Year 11s on analysing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. At the end of the lesson I asked them to tell me on a scale of 1 – 10 how hard the work had been (1 being insultingly easy, 10 being ear bleedingly difficult.) And guess what? They gave me a 5! When I told them the lesson’s provenance I’m not sure if they were more impressed with themselves or disappointed by the lack of challenge presented by GSCEs. The point was, I treated them all as if they could do it and, by God, they could do it!

If I’d told ’em in advance that they were going to tackle poetry from the GCSE Literature anthology it might have ‘seemed impossible’. But now maybe (maybe) they’ve seen what’s possible.

What if they’d been streamed as Wilshaw suggests and all the ‘gifted’ kids fed a steady diet of ‘scholastic excellence’? What kind of message does this give to everyone else?

Every year I expect my students to get A grades. And every year I’m disappointed when some don’t. I’m sure, come August, I’ll be disappointed again. Never mind, next year I can try again and fail better.

Related posts

How to subvert target grades
Redesigning a curriculum
The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery

9 Responses to So, what does ‘gifted’ mean anyway?

  1. Beccy Pook says:

    At the school where I work we include task commitment and an interest in the subject in our gifted and talented criteria. Most teachers I work with believe intelligence can be built through work and effort and that everyone has intelligence but perhaps focuses it in different areas so as to build up their 2 to 10 000 hours (Gladwell). Many of us take a interest in the work of Carol Dweck. It would be hard to find someone who is not always trying to put constructive praise at the heart of what they do. One thing I like most about working in this environment is I can constantly learn from those around me.

    I have a friend who does not see eye to eye with me on the matter of intelligence. She is a psychiatrist and as we both have adopted siblings we discuss the matter of nature versus nurture from time to time. I find it interesting that she is very much of the view that her intelligence is a genetic advantage when a) she had very high levels of parental support throughout her childhood b) I don’t find her more intelligent in conversation than my other friends and she can be as blinkered and flawed in her thinking as the rest of us. c) she has worked incredibly hard and has high levels of ability in putting her knowledge in writing

    I could add my reflections on our siblings into the mix but these are more private thoughts as trauma events have such a large role to play.

    There is so much to be admired in everyone, if I were ever to become the teacher I want to be I would be able to promote a growth mindset in all my students, seek to enhance their strengths and help them work away from weaknesses. Yes I want to aid and advance those who already have a growth mindset and academic ability and I strive to put things in place for them to achieve but I don’t want the best any more for them than the students who have not yet reached this position. I know that is idealistic, but many teachers are and work with that beside them in the face of the obstacles.

    As someone who loves to learn and would love to keep experiencing and achieving but has also worked to overcome interesting obstacles and minor disabilities I am sometimes perplexed by the readiness of those who achieved with slightly less of these interruptions to label people as less or more intelligent.

  2. John Hodgson says:

    Much of my motivation as a teacher came from my experience of grammar school. Having gained only 4 O levels and been told to leave at 15, I decided to play the game and got 4 A levels and a scholarship to an elite university. I think it is impossible to distinguish academic ablity from motivating and demotivating factors related to social class. Charlotte was unusually aspirational. We have all taught opposite kinds of student too. One of my most brilliant A level students, who wrote poststructuralist essays before theory entered the curriculum, decided not to leave her coastal home town and became a haridresser. So I agree entirely that we should not siphon off a supposedly brainy elite, but teach as if they can all do it!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Absolutely agree – I love the fact that I often teach challenging and complex texts to my KS3, something that often colleagues say is for GCSE, and they rise to that challenge. They might not always get the same thing out of it that a Y11 does, and I think with literature there is the level of maturity to think about in terms of themes and their emotional response, but a lot of the time they absolutely do, and you can do some incredibly exciting things with them.
    Teaching to the top is by far the best way to do it, and I’d argue to go one step further and say teach to the level above the top to make sure everyone’s challenged.

  4. @geogjo says:

    Hi, thanks for another thought provoking post. By coincidence I was in some training this week at a local school for excluded pupils and they introduced us to some research called the Pygmalion Effect. Its worth googling if you’ve no seen it. I approach all pupils like they could get an A, which can be hard when we are meant to go on about their targets all the time.

  5. frank says:

    She taught me that my expectations were, for most kids, a determining factor in their achievement

    I think this was explored in The Pygmalion Effect.

    I taught a boy from Egyptian boy who joined us in Year 10. He was determined to get a grade C and did, outperforming many of his native speaking peers.

  6. cunningfox says:

    Obviously a grammar school head has a Total G&T Philosophy: all of his pupils are G&T, by definition. Nobody at a comprehensive should ever have such a policy, because all it does is pretend that the genuinely gifted are no better than the average or than the below-average.

    That sort of pretence is exactly what leads to the genuinely gifted being failed, left behind or (at more than one comprehensive I’ve worked in) being actively sneered at, by teachers as well as peers. G&T itself, with its requirement for fixed percentages of G&T, has exactly the same effect: you’re filling a quota, not looking for criteria, so School A will waste its G&T money on pupils who aren’t good enough, while School B (that grammar school, for instance), will only serve a few of the pupils who need the service.

    And I don’t know what Charlotte is doing in this blog: she’s evidently not gifted, but merely a not very bright girl who happened to get lucky with your resit policy. Her A* (which should never have existed) only devalues the A*s of the genuinely bright who would have got them without the help of you or anyone else.

  7. David Didau says:

    Crikey!

    So the ‘genuinely gifted’ would get A*s without the help of me or anyone else? If that’s the case what need for any kind of G&T policy? Let’s just ignore them as they’ll all obviously be fine anyway.

    I failed my exams at school. Clearly I ought to have been consigned to the scrap heap and never allowed to retake them. Like Charlotte’s A*, my degree and teaching qualification clearly shouldn’t exist either.

    I’m stunned by the paucity of your expectations.

  8. ChemistryPoet says:

    I love the example of Charlotte. I’m not necessarily impressed with the A*, but I am very impressed with her persistence and refusal to pay attention to your advice. When I interview for recruitment, I am always impressed with those candidates whose A-levels (or GCSE’s) were nothing special, but whose University degree (or A-levels) were then much improved. When questioned about this, they often relate how they realised that they weren’t taking things seriously enough, and that to be successful they needed to work harder, with more focus. Most are bright enough, but being bright isn’t enough to fulfill potential. Several recent blogs have noted that learning isn’t linear……there have been many topics that appeared as gobbledygook to me for the first 90% of the time I spent on them. It was only after investing that 90% of gobbledygook time that things suddenly started to become clear. I knew that these were topics I could understand, but suspect that others looking in would never have believed I was capable of grasping them.
    Real world problems often require that level of tenacity (and self-belief) to solve them. We look for employees that are bright, but who also know what it takes to tackle difficult problems (hard work and deep thought).

  9. ad says:

    I can’t help but think of this essay: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/31/the-parable-of-the-talents/

    In particular, this quote:

    “And without some notion of innate ability, I don’t know what to do with this experience. I don’t want to have to accept the blame for being a lazy person who just didn’t try hard enough in Math. But I really don’t want to have to accept the credit for being a virtuous and studious English student who worked harder than his peers. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course – and who still got Cs and Ds. To deny innate ability is to devalue their efforts and sacrifice, while simultaneously giving me credit I don’t deserve.”

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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