Labelling gifted students ... a double-edged sword

It's important for schools to acknowledge and cater for gifted students, but there is a danger for the students who are selected into specially designed programs. 
Karen Green
Nov 26, 2020
Be careful not to isolate

One of the teaching roles that I held in the 90’s was as head of a special education department in a private school. When I first arrived at the school, I was approached by a teacher who kindly went out of her way to introduce herself, explaining that she was a physical education teacher. She then asked me what my role was. I replied by saying that I was ‘special’. She giggled and said, ‘Aren’t we all?’ Subsequently, it became a joke between us and every time she passed me in the corridor, she would acknowledge my ‘specialness’. 

While there may have been an element of humour in this, in retrospect I can see how unhelpful and damaging it was. The students that I worked with were students first and foremost. The fact that they had been identified as requiring extra support, should not have labelled them as ‘special’. All of the students that I worked with had varying cognitive abilities (particularly in English and mathematics), motivation levels (including self-esteem) and social and emotional maturity. Many of these students’ other abilities were masked by their learning difficulties. 

In another role, in the 80’s I worked as a visiting teacher for hearing impaired and visually impaired students, ranging in age from 5 to 18. These students required one-on-one work with a specialist teacher like me, to ensure that they understood what was being expected of them in the classroom. I also provided advice to teachers regarding ways to make learning more accessible for these students. This advice included classroom strategies as well as advice as to the extent of a student’s ‘disability’. I would sometimes be referred to in staff meetings as the ‘deaf’ or the ‘blind’ teacher. Once again, in hindsight, this was not helpful and potentially damaging. If any of these students were also identified as ‘gifted’ they then had the label of being ‘twice exceptional’. Another label that does more to segregate than integrate.  

So, back to my special education role. After two years in the role, I attended a workshop about underachieving girls and a whole new world opened up to me. I developed an increased awareness of the similarities between the students I was already assisting, and those who had not ever been referred to me for support but who were ‘underachieving’. I approached the principal and suggested that my department should also be working with ‘gifted students’ that is, those who were clearly performing ahead of their peers, in one or more learning areas. I was given the go-ahead to set up a program, as well as access to a large room that I could reconfigure to best suit the needs of the program I would set up. When it came to putting a name on the door, I decided that ‘The Learning Centre’ was appropriate, as I would be facilitating learning opportunities for students from both ends of the spectrum. 

Since 2001 I have been working as an education consultant. I began my consultancy in the area of ‘gifted education’ providing support for teachers with ways to differentiate the curriculum in order to provide for students who could work at levels beyond that of their same age peers. I also offered support to schools wishing to identify ‘underachieving students’ who were capable of performing at a higher level than their peers, but were not doing so. Both groups of students require opportunities that often sit outside of the regular curriculum being delivered to their peers.  

Often, I would find teachers unresponsive to suggestions that gifted students required any special provision. Many felt that these students were the lucky ones who would thrive no matter what. I then started my conversations and workshops with information about the social and emotional needs of gifted students. This garnered some traction. I began noticing a shift in teachers’ attitudes when I explained the ‘at risk’ nature of these students if they were not provided with appropriate, stimulating learning sequences that were pitched at their level – often more than one year ahead of the curriculum provided for their same age peers. 

Along with the buy-in from teachers that gifted students require alternative opportunities, including differentiation, withdrawal programs and access to external competitions, there came a dilemma. I was aware of how important it was for schools to acknowledge and cater for gifted students, but I also perceived a danger for the students who were selected into specially designed programs. 

I believe that when we create programs for gifted students, we run the risk of creating a double-edged sword that carries with it the benefit of appropriate educational provisions and the liability of placing gifted students under pressure. This pressure can come in many forms. Sometimes gifted students who are placed in special classes or schools can find the burden of living up to their teachers, their parents and their own expectations unbearable. In these instances, we really need to back off and find out what can be done to take away any pressures that a student may be responding to. Sometimes, well-meaning parents, rearrange the lives of family members, move house or even move inter-state in order to give their gifted children the very best educational opportunities. For a gifted student, this could mean that they carry a heavy burden to live up to the expectations of others.   

For some gifted students the fear of ostracism from their peers can encourage them to underperform in order to ‘fit in’. This is known as the ‘forced choice dilemma’ whereby students deliberately camouflage their abilities to blend in with and be accepted socially by their peers. 

Gifted students are not a homogenous group. These students may express giftedness in one or many areas. If high-ability students – many of whom have complex emotional needs – internalise these labels and place emphasis on their performance ahead of other students, it can lead to anxiety and even underperformance. High-performing students may not always perform highly, and others may come into their own in later years.

John Munro, a well-respected Australian researcher and educator, provides helpful insights when he explains that “gifted potential is not an IQ score, but the individual’s ability to learn spontaneously in ways that lead to an understanding of a higher quality. Teachers don’t interact with intelligence – they interact with how students learn, what they know and how they use their knowledge.”

What is important is not that a student is receiving straight A’s; what is important is that the student is understanding the process for learning and coming to their own conclusions; that they are met with thought-provoking content in their curriculum and that they are enjoying the learning process. 

Ultimately, we want all of our students to perform well in their endeavours. The raison d'être is not about improving a school’s status on the My Schools website, and it’s not about pleasing parents who may be putting pressure on teachers for their children’s performance to improve. This is about each high ability student being given opportunities to use their skills and their advanced thinking capacity to perform at a high level, for them.

If we asked gifted students to nominate themselves for special programs, would they? Many students would perhaps be embarrassed or anxious to not be singled out. Many would possibly be unaware of their talents. 

It is important, therefore, to understand that labels are external to the student; they are a social construct allowing education systems to allocate appropriate resources. In this sense labels are often used as a pejorative in order to contest funding. I remember when trying to get funding to support a student who had both a visual and a hearing impairment, it was initially refused because neither of his disabilities were ‘severe enough’ for him to qualify for aid. I then had to explain to the funding authority that the compounding effect of having both a hearing loss and poor vision meant that this student required a lot of support. The decision was overturned and he did get extra assistance, but only after a struggle. 

Diagnoses, however, are provided by professionals such as teachers, doctors, psychologists and speech therapists and provide insights into students’ educational needs. This essentially renders a diagnosis an intrinsic description of a student, and as such, is an important part of a student’s file. Teachers need to triangulate data in order to get a true picture of both the strengths and weaknesses of gifted students. It is imperative that teachers use tests and other data collection in a targeted manner and with clear intentions.   

Any labels that we use should be guiding teachers as to what students need in order for them to advance their knowledge, skills and dispositions. Labels such as ‘gifted’, ‘underachiever’ or ‘lazy’, do little to progress the cause of providing appropriate educational opportunities for students. 

To that end I particularly like this quote by Clark and Shore, in Educating students with high ability (2004): 

“The ultimate purpose of identification is not to identify; the goal is to match students to appropriate services.

First, we should never lose sight of the imperative to provide opportunities for learning at the highest level.

Second, our success at identifying highly-able children will be increased if we do not rely on any one, or even maybe two, identification procedures.

Third, we should always be prepared for, and even welcome, our expectations being exceeded.”

In order to ensure that adequate provision is made for gifted students, we need to start with the most effective and obvious place – the classroom. Gifted students are often buoyed by participation in withdrawal classes where they get an opportunity to work with like-minded peers. They also value the stimulation and intellectual rigour of participation in competitions such as Tournament of Minds and Future Problem Solving. However, in regular schools, the place where they spend most of their time is in the classroom, alongside their same age peers who present with varying abilities. 

One of the most critical aspects of a teacher’s work is differentiation. This refers to teachers providing a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same classroom.

In my experience, there are elements of a rigorous and engaging curriculum that provide a rich starting point and as such make it easier to differentiate than one that comes directly from a text or work sheets. As a trained Primary Years Program (International Baccalaureate) teacher and having completed a Masters in Gifted Education, I developed a curriculum planning template that initially provided the inspiration for MAPPEN, an online primary school curriculum. 

After years spent consulting to schools on advice regarding differentiation, best-practice curriculum design and lesson planning, I and my co-founders set about crafting the best-practice lesson plans we could write based on our combined 40+ years of specialist knowledge and government learning requirements. We then mapped this out in a complete curriculum from foundation to year six, in a logical, sequential order to ensure that any schools implementing it wouldn’t have unnecessary repetition – as sometimes happens when teachers bring the same lesson plans to composite classes year after year. 

With built-in teacher training, thousands of practical resources and content that is updated constantly, we’ve developed a unique offering, quite distinct from the ad-hoc purchased class plans that teachers often turn to. 

The team at MAPPEN is focused on developing: self-management skills; social competence; critical and creative thinking; using initiative, applying conceptual understanding; problem-solving and persistence; giving students the best chance of being future ready and prepared for our changing landscape where jobs-of-the-future haven’t been invented yet. 

Also included within the MAPPEN template are ideas for teachers to consider when they are differentiating. Drawing on the Maker Model for curriculum differentiation, we have included prompts for teachers to consider as they modify either the content, processes, or products they present to their students.

MAPPEN provides primary school teachers with a great starting point - rigorous and impactful learning sequences that lead to open-ended performances of understanding. The feedback we continuously receive is that students of varying ability enjoy the variety of tasks and the opportunities to work cooperatively with each other. 

While I respect that labels can help us to place students into programs and allocate funding, I think that school leaders and teachers should be mindful of the possible ramifications of placing students under undue pressure or pigeon-holding them based on an assigned label. Greater attention should be placed on gathering a range of assessment data and anecdotal evidence that includes students providing regular feedback about what they are being taught. They, after all, are the ones in the centre of our education system and their feedback is invaluable. Then, when we have all of this information, we need to ensure that quality educational experiences are presented at every age and stage of each students’ journey.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels