Gifted and talented learners in Aotearoa New Zealand are not defined by arcane concepts of genius that pigeonhole their abilities to fixed measures of intelligence, as expressed by Mr Poole in his recent opinion piece. Rather, in the last 20 years, educators, researchers and policymakers in our country and overseas have considered the construct of giftedness and talent as embodying potential and performance in all areas of human endeavour. Here in New Zealand, the Ministry of Education’s handbook for gifted and talented, first published in 2000, revised in 2012 and serving as a framework for the 2017 refreshed tki website, has expressed very clearly that giftedness is socially and culturally constructed.
Defining giftedness is, in fact, one of the first tasks in meeting the unique abilities and qualities of exceptional learners. How can teachers identify and provide for giftedness if there is a lack of shared understanding of what it is to be gifted? The Ministry asks schools to work with their communities – teachers, whānau, and children – to co-create a school-based definition, which, in turn should inform identification practices and provisions across a continuum of enriched and accelerated approaches to learning. Defining giftedness and talent requires teachers to think beyond Poole’s re-definition of genius as “a developed (not innate) state”, which, quite frankly only acknowledges the development of abilities and qualities, while failing to also acknowledge many other criteria of equal, if not greater, importance.
The criteria we need to use for defining giftedness and talent include multicategorial concepts that encompass an array of abilities, across all areas of the curriculum, as well as qualities, like leadership, creativity, caring and thinking. Bicultural approaches incorporate Māori concepts, values, beliefs, attitudes and customs – and we extend this cultural responsivity and inclusivity to other cultures in our schools, including Pāsifika. Importantly, potential and performance – that is, the raw material that can be developed, as well as talent exceeding that of peers of the same age, culture or circumstances – should shape our definitions. Exceptional abilities and qualities are not limited to one academic area, sport or skill, but learners may have gifts and talents in one or more ways.
Unlike Mr Poole’s view that giftedness is limited to learners whose parents need gratification (from what, I wonder?), contemporary views of giftedness acknowledge that students with special abilities are found in every group in society, regardless of who their parents might (or might not) be. Giftedness cuts across the often divisionary lines of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender and disabilities of all types. In other words, there is an expectation to identify and provide for gifted and talented students in every classroom in Aoteroa – not only because our National Adminstration Guidelines demand it, but because, our definitions acknowledge that giftedness is not isolated to some groups of children in some classrooms in some schools (with some parents).
Importantly, the whole point in defining giftedness and talent is to provide differentiated educational opportunities, including social and emotional support. A good definition of giftedness expresses the relationship between a learner’s characteristics, their strengths and interests, and a responsive educational programme. Embedding identification of potential and performance in responsive learning environments also recognises that students’ gifts and talents emerge over time, in situational experiences and learning opportunities that may be unique to them. Identification of exceptionality is not about labelling, it is, rather, the link between a student’s learning characteristics and an appropriate educational response.
Ironically, giftedness and talent, as defined in contemporary Aotearoa, aims to be exactly what Mr Poole re-defines as genius: “good for every child and every field of human endeavour.” Giftedness and talent in today’s world seeks to identify individuals and groups of learners’ strengths, interests, qualities and abilities. Teachers of gifted and talented students respond to unique learning characteristics with not only “purposeful practice and opportunities,” as Mr Poole calls for, but also learning that is at the right pace, depth and breadth, often with like-minded peers, to empower gifted students with a greater understanding of themselves, how they belong in the world and what they can contribute. Through self-acceptance and acknowledgement of their abilities and qualities, gifted and talented students’ well-being and sense of belonging are strengthened. Matching teaching and learning to gifted and talented students’ abilities and qualities shatters glass ceilings, and as the glass shatters, resilience, discipline, deep learning, strategic thinking, empathy and courage are built.
In sum, it is not the label of giftedness that is damaging, as Mr Poole purports. The damage for gifted and talented students, and, in fact for all students, comes from a lack of professional engagement with a broad range of contemporary theories, research and practices related to learning. When professionals lack deep, broad understanding of giftedness, maintained through ongoing engagement in professional learning and development, networking and support and critical conversations and critique, all students are in danger. With or without a label, gifted and talented students in Aotearoa are likely to be the collateral damage of stereotypical, uninformed and out-of-date views, like those expressed by Mr Poole.
Tracy Riley is Dean, Research, Massey University and Board Member, giftEDnz: The Professional Association for Gifted Education.
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