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Gifted and Talented Education

Education discourse is littered with acronyms. NZQA oversees NCEA. RTLBs and ESOL teachers work in schools. You get the idea and, of course, there is jargon in every profession. One acronym that I especially dislike is the abbreviation for gifted and talented education: GATE. Supposedly, this acronym should conjure up an image of a welcoming entrance leading to further enriched or accelerated educational  programmes but to me, I am reminded of gated communities (very un-New Zealand) or students being ‘gated’ and confined to school grounds as a punishment. However, semantics aside, I do strongly believe in the notion of GATE and the provision of differentiated programmes for very able students which is a legal requirement in our schools.

This was passed into law as a result of a significant investigation of gifted education undertaken by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 2002 which produced a milestone report from Massey University, The Extent, Nature and Effectiveness of Planned Approaches in New Zealand Schools.  From this excellent document sprung a number of initiatives, most significant of all being the amendment to the National Administration Guidelines (NAGs) instructing each board, through the principal and staff,  ‘to identify students who have special needs (including gifted and talented students)’ and then to develop and implement appropriate teaching and learning strategies to meet their particular requirements.

Last month, Massey University released a report written by gifted education specialists, Associate Professor Tracy Riley and Waikato University’s Dr Brenda Bicknell. They had surveyed primary and secondary schools to find out whether gifted learner programmes had improved in the education systems since 2002. They found, that with the current sharp focus on lifting the achievement of under-achievers, referred to as priority learners, funding to support gifted education programmes had been reduced. They concluded that our brightest students may not be getting the targeted programmes they needed to realise their potential. If this is correct, it is of concern to us all as New Zealanders. Most likely those very able students in our schools are our future leaders in business, education, medicine and politics. They are precious human capital and as such must be empowered to develop their considerable abilities and qualities.

I wince when I hear the comment that because a particular student is very able they will thrive regardless of the educational opportunities offered. This shows little understanding of ‘giftedness’. Although gifted students possess exceptional capabilities, most cannot excel without assistance. They require both academic and emotional support through understanding, acceptance and encouragement and, I would add, especially in our society where “tall poppies’, with the exception of sporting high-flyers, are often cut down.

Here are some facts.  Children with exceptional abilities often exhibit some or all of the following characteristics. They might be early readers, have a high level of curiosity and thrive on exploring abstract and complex ideas. They might have a vivid imagination, a very sophisticated sense of humour, think outside the box, seeking the new and the unconventional. They often possess interests that are wildly eclectic and intensely focused, have a large storehouse of information and can sustain concentration for longer periods.  Often they are perfectionists and can be socially isolated and sadly, in an unsupportive environment they may seek to conceal abilities in order not to stand out. They have the potential to make an outstanding contribution to society; conversely, their gift and talents could lie fallow or even worse, be used for criminal purposes.

That gifted and talented learners are found in every cultural group and in both genders within society is of great significance. In A Room of One’s Own, 19th century writer Virginia Woolf envisages the life of Judith, an imaginary sister of William Shakespeare. Equally as gifted as her acclaimed brother, Judith Shakespeare does not have the benefit of a grammar school education nor the freedom to don doublet and hose, run away to London and join a theatre company. In Woolf’s view,’ any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at’. As a free man from a middle class background, Shakespeare thankfully did have the opportunities to develop his extraordinary talent and the world is a much brighter place because of his legacy. However, Woolf’s example does highlight the fact that without opportunity, ‘gifts’ can be wasted or misdirected.

It is tantalising to imagine what would have been the demeanour and on-going legacy of Judith Shakespeare’s version of Lady Macbeth.