There are several reasons for having a Gifted Education Awareness Day.
Firstly, there is a need for awareness in the Irish Education system of the special and specific learning needs of Exceptionally Able children. Not a single teacher training programme in Ireland includes training on classroom provision for Exceptionally Able children. So awareness of their needs is usually absent in schools.
Secondly, even when Exceptionally Able children get a ‘mention’ in schools, perception of their situation is usually coloured by several myths. It is time to cast aside these myths and address the educational needs of roughly 25,000 children in Irish schools.
Myths about Exceptionally Able children in the classroom.
1. Exceptionally Able Children will always perform well no matter what.
There is an assumption that all gifted children are equally endowed with brilliance and that they will perform well in school no matter what attention, or none, they get from a teacher. And of course, if they don’t perform brilliantly, sure they weren’t gifted in the first place.
Firstly, this view ignores the fact that some gifted children also have dyslexia (think Richard Branson!). They are exceptionally able but often their ability remains locked inside their mind because they cannot express it. We call exceptionally able children who have a learning problem ‘Twice Exceptional‘, often shortened to 2e. Undiagnosed twice exceptional children are possibly those most likely to be the ones identified as disruptive. While generally I do not believe a child specifically needs to be tested to confirm their giftedness, 2e children should. Besides the understanding this provides of a child’s presence in class, the assessment can be used useful for obtaining resource hours in school.
The second point about this myth is what it means for the gifted child in class. Imagine, say, a maths class where the teacher gives out some practice questions. One student puts their hand up to say they don’t understand and so, as you would expect, the teacher goes to help them. But by this stage the gifted child will already have gotten the answer and will sit twiddling their thumbs or causing trouble. Often then the teacher will ask for answers. The gifted child will have the answer but not necessarily an understanding of how they got the answer. That is, the child is failing to learn how to solve maths and instead just gets the answers.
Basically, gifted children need a teacher’s attention too.
2. I teach mixed ability classes so I cater for all abilities.
Mixed ability teaching is increasingly the norm in Junior Cycle. There are many benefits to this, compared to streaming, especially for weaker students. However, it is equally clear that without specific lesson planning that includes at least one method of differentiation, teachers tend to teach to the middle ability of a class. See the maths example above. In this case, the Exceptionally Able child is left frustrated – unable to progress at a speed more suited to their ability.
None of this means that mixed ability environments cannot be classrooms where exceptionally able children learn. Nor does it mean that activities generally aimed at a mixed ability cannot hold something of value for exceptionally able children. But the Exceptionally Able child’s lament is the absence of the opportunity, under a teachers guidance, to delve deeper into a topic and therefore have a more meaningful learning experience that helps them achieve their potential.
While many teachers will understand the term ‘gifted’, they will often lack an appreciation of it’s many facets and of the special learning needs of Exceptionally Able children. This is not their fault; no teacher training course in Ireland offer modules on gifted education. Consequently, even when planning lessons, specific differentiation for exceptionally able children will often not be considered simply because it doesn’t enter a teacher’s awareness.
If you’re considering specific differentiation having read this, don’t start by designing a lesson and then altering it to suit weaker and then stronger students. Start by designing your lessons from the top down. Decide what the most capable child can do – and go a little beyond that. Then alter the lesson to suit children of different abilities. If that sounds daunting, consider groups of children of similar ability. I’ll add ideas over time to my differentiation page which will offer some ideas on how to differentiate – but remember top teachers teach to the top.
3. I provide for gifted children in my class – I give out extra work sheets.
No. Don’t. Confusing provision for potential with the potential to alienate a student and lose their respect will only make your life harder. Exceptionally able children finish work early because they ‘get it’. Giving them more of the same won’t make them ‘get it’ any more than they have already ‘got it’.
If you want to give something extra- make if different, deeper, extra-syllabus or even topical. The average child may be happy learning the parts of a volcano. The Exceptionally Able child learned that when they were 3 and wants to know the mechanics of Icelandic geothermal district heating. They may not know that they want to know this until you put an article in front of them. But when you do, ask them how they would design one for Ireland. And for homework, ask them to looking up Irish Geothermal energy on the SEAI website.
4. Ok…BUT all children are gifted…there’s Mary, she’s only 14 and is doing grade 5 piano!
All children have ‘gifts‘ (something else a rigid curriculum ignores) but not all children are ‘gifted‘. Mary is to be congratulated for her success and encouraged to keep practicing. But Alice was playing Scott Joplin when she was 5 – for entertainment – and Chopin when she had to be serious.
Being ‘gifted’ means having an advanced ability to learn. Gifted children learn faster, deeper and wider than most children and usually in several subjects or disciplines. Unfortunately this doesn’t guarantee them success in school or indeed life.
So here’s a question.
When Mary started primary school, she began to learn letter sounds (all of junior infants), then phonics and in senior infants she could read ‘Floppy and the bone’.Alice (who we will pretend is your child) entered junior infants having already read (yes, by herself) The Twits and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
So here’s the a question? How many letters should Alice colour in on Monday?
And if you think Alice is gifted..look here