Perfecting education for the gifted and talented:
As someone who has been teaching for over 20 years, I am finding it increasingly interesting to look outside of education for ideas as to how to better cater for my students. The first book I read this summer was “Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Having read this book I wonder whether it is time to question the identification of so-called gifted and talented pupils. Ericsson, an internationally recognised expert on human performance and Pool, a science writer who has worked at some of the world’s most prestigious science publications, share decades of research into the factors which facilitate expert performance in a variety of fields such as sport, music, chess and memory. What they claim to find time and time again is that expertise is not the result of some innate and rare talent but rather a combination of factors which should be accessible to all. The authors share a wide range of case studies on people that have generally been acknowledged to have been extremely gifted and talented such as Mozart, Paganini and the Williams sisters in tennis but also share less well-know individuals who have become world class experts in fields such as memory challenges, chess and pilots of fighter jets. Compelling evidence is provided to show that there are certain factors which have been instrumental in leading to expert performance and needless to say, natural talent is not one of them. Of particular importance is something the authors refer to as deliberate practice which is described purposeful and informed practice.
Deliberate practice for the gifted and talented:
In the field of teaching and learning deliberate practice would require teachers to:
- have a high level of understanding of how various current abilities can best be developed. This is easier when expert performers can be identified. Interestingly the authors question whether such expert teachers can be identified as a result of there being a lack of objective criteria.
- constantly challenge individuals by pitching material just beyond their current comfort zone. This would appear to require considerable differentiation and it may be that better use of technology could be exploited here.
- set well-defined specific goals, often involving improving some aspect of pupil’s target performance.
- ensure that individual pupils provide their full attention and concentration on the specific goals set. This raises questions about the importance of resilience and motivation.
- ensure that pupils receive constant feedback and that modifications are made in response to that feedback. Emphasis is placed on the quality of this feedback but with teachers under heavy workloads there needs to be thought invested into how frequent, individual and appropriate feedback can be best provided. Again, better use of technology may provide part of the answer.
- increasingly help pupils to develop a capacity to monitor their own progress, spot mistakes and adjust accordingly. This could provide part of the answer to reducing teacher workloads but how best to develop such systems?
- help pupils to develop effective mental representations, aiding them to spot the right way to do something. This involves things such as helping pupils to see patterns in otherwise apparently random phenomena. Various memory techniques are helpful here.
- develop or modify previously acquired skills, paying particular attention to establishing the correct fundamental skills.
Gifted and talented? Potential?
Although none of the above will be news to teachers, what the book does shed light on is that we may only be scratching the surface of what individuals really are capable of achieving. How often do we come across statements in education such as “B needs to focus more in class if he is to fulfil his potential”? I for one have tried to avoid using “potential” for a while now and this book for me confirms that B’s so called “potential” is almost certain to be far greater than either he or we ever imagined and in fact in reality is so great that it makes the concept “potential” totally pointless, demeaning, short-sighted, negative and most depressingly, probably self-fulfilling.
We all are gifted and talented
So next time you are asked to identify those pupils that are gifted and talented in your department or school, perhaps being gently advised that the figure may tend to approximate to around 10% of the population, ask yourself why the other 90% aren’t just as capable to becoming an expert in your subject. And if you take an instant offence at this suggestion, I challenge you to read “Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise” and to see if your views don’t shift somewhat. Whilst there is of course nothing wrong with ensuring that those pupils who have excelled relatively in a particular area of their education continue to be supported, guided and challenged appropriately, we must be very conscious of not doing this at the expense of forgetting that the other 90% of pupils are also capable of achieving exceptionally high levels of performance and almost certainly much more than we thought possible.