It’s educationally reassuring to think that some people are born gifted and some are not. We just find the ones who are and ensure that they have the right educational opportunities. Simple. That’s what we thought when I started working in this field 35 years ago. But as the 20th century wore on it became increasingly apparent that spotting those people in childhood is unreliable and difficult.
Conceptions of what it means to be cognitively gifted continued to fragment rather than converge so making assessment difficult. At the same time, across the world gifted cohorts were found – regardless of the assessment processes used – to be stubbornly biased against the disadvantaged. People tried, but the result was always the same. Statistically speaking, gifted cohorts in schools and in enrichment programmes are dominated by more advantaged students. Gifted education is often therefore criticised as advantaging the already advantaged.
Equally challenging is the accumulating evidence to show that perhaps people are not born gifted or not gifted, but that they can become gifted. The brain is more malleable than we thought.
But in order to develop the requisite skills individuals definitely need regular and frequent access to advanced learning opportunities. So if you are lucky enough to get into the gifted cohort you might receive the necessary diet, but if you do not make the cut then your chances of success are significantly reduced because access to advanced learning opportunities will be cut off.
One could say that the creation of gifted cohorts causes schools to structurally lower expectations for the majority of students and hence make high performance for them well neigh impossible. Likewise for those fortunate enough to make the cohort their chances of eventual success are hugely enhanced. Unless they have associated mental health issues they are likely to steam ahead and do very well.
So where does this leave us? Is everyone gifted? Probably not, but it’s almost certain that in percentage terms far more students than we previously thought can become gifted. They are capable of reaching the same high levels of performance previously only attainable to those in the gifted cohort. The message is clear:
- We have to find ways to make advanced learning routinely and freely available in schools and open-access enrichment programmes, and to help more and more people build their intelligence. We have to create the gifted not find them.
- It is only by recalibrating the education system in this way that we stand a chance of breaking the cycle between socio-economic disadvantage and low educational attainment.
- Giftedness, if there is such a thing, should be a term used to describe performance at a high level not a certain type of person. It’s an attainable target, not an inherited superiority.
This is what the evidence tells us. If we want a successful well-balanced society we need to move on and drop the previous practices in favour of a new agenda that methodically builds human capital and systematically rewards mental agility, empathy and hard work.
Professor Deborah Eyre is a NET Leading Thinker and author of High Performance Learning: How to become a world class school.
High Performance Learning is an organisation that helps schools move from good to world class by focusing on pedagogy and helping students develop the higher order competencies they need for academic, workplace and lifetime success. www.highperformancelearning.co.uk