Tags: Classroom Teacher | Gifted and Talented | Gifted and talented pupils | NQT | Teaching and Learning | Teaching Skills
G&T coordinator Jo McShane reflects on how far things have come since she did her own PGCE and provides some strategies to share with NQTs and teacher trainees.
The PGCE course was set up to provide trainee teachers with a range of approaches and teaching methodologies, legalities, strategies and regulations. One-to-one contact with professional tutors helped to distil and work through these vast tracts of materials and raw classroom contact brings it home – with a crash!
Perhaps there is another form of learning that can influence you during that first year – a kind of partially-hidden or gnostic learning about a set of ‘truths’ that are revealed to you in an almost masonic way. Looking back, I consider them to be ancient survival mantras bestowed by some mysterious and kindly sage and I am certain that the two I am about to recount will resonate with a number of people: ‘Don’t smile before Christmas’ and ‘Teach to the middle’ were the main ‘truths’ that were burned into my psyche then and which still try to struggle to the surface on a miserable Wednesday at 2.12pm.
The former didn’t last long in my own teaching practice. Anyone who knows me will realise that I am taken to wandering around wearing an inane and somewhat toothy grin all over my face (especially in the run-up to the festive season). ‘Teach to the middle’, however, did stick for a while.
During my first month of teaching, I heard a colleague describe ‘giftedness’ as a special educational need and thought they had taken leave of their senses. In my early estimation ‘giftedness’ meant ‘arrogance’ and the blighters could teach themselves. I had enough on my plate with marking, Ofsted and trying to work out the difference between an ‘aim’, an ‘objective’ and an ‘outcome’.
‘Differentiation by response’ became my survival slogan, and though my deployment of thinking and critical skills meant that I somehow did reach the gifted and talented in my classroom, it was more a case of luck than good management; it wasn’t that the information wasn’t there for me, I just did not see G&T provision as a relevant tool in the fight to keep my head above water.
When new entrants to the profession start to consider the teaching strategies that will help advance the attainment of G&T students they are also starting to make sophisticated sense of their own understanding of their subject
Making changes That was, of course, until Excellence in Cities hit my classroom. The first time I encountered ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ (see G&T Update issue 15, June 2004) was at a training session to support the planning of a G&T summer school. As simple as it is, it changed my world, transformed my planning and fired up a keen interest in the needs of those lofty ones I had previously misunderstood. I learned that ‘extension’ was not just a matter of ‘answer the next 10 questions’ and that enrichment was more than a cagoule-clad trudge round a rain-sodden monastery. There really was no going back.
So what of the new generation of teachers? Does G&T provision manage to nudge itself onto the agenda between the vast range of formal and ‘gnostic’ learning experiences? During recent years, I have worked with staff and students at Newcastle University’s PGCE department. Sessions delivered have varied from workshops delivered in my own subject area (RE/philosophy) to Dr Vivienne Baumfield’s religious education cohort to whole-course sessions at the annual PGCE conference. On each occasion, student teachers have expressed an enormous amount of interest in G&T issues and dialogue has been superb. I initially found this quite surprising, based on my own early priorities, which had led me to wonder whether what I had to say would be at all relevant at such a steep point on their learning curve.
One PGCE student said that she had not only received guidance at university and at her placement school but had completed a research project on the overlap of G&T provision in middle and high schools. The recognition of the need to challenge G&T students is a developed element of her understanding that also reflects in her planning. Among other strategies, she uses self- and peer-assessment and activities targeted at different learning styles. She also raised concerns about the issue of transfer between primary and secondary phases and when asked if, in her estimation, gifted students would ‘do well regardless of intervention’ she responded:
‘To teach to the middle is a short-term solution, but every child has the right to be pushed to their academic potential and by leaving them to get on with it we would be failing as teachers even before we were qualified’.
Things have clearly come a long way since my PGCE days. Rachel Lofthouse is director of secondary PGCE at Newcastle University and course leader for the geography PGCE. When asked how she views G&T in the great scheme of learner needs, she responded: ‘Supporting the learning needs of G&T students could be seen as just another standard to tick off for PGCE students and NQTs – but doing it well can be indicative of a highly developed, holistic approach to learning. When new entrants to the profession start to consider the teaching strategies that will help advance the attainment of G&T students they are also starting to make sophisticated sense of their own understanding of their subject. When faced with hard questions from very able students, teachers have to get to grips with concepts as well as content, and the wider (sometimes unanswerable) dimensions of their subject. Facing such questions can also remind new teachers of the learning journey they themselves went on at school and university, and reasons why they were so engrossed in their subject. This kind of experience can only help to enthuse and engage them anew; and this can be good for all their students, not just the G&T ones.’
Rachel’s words remind me of another of the gnostic truths I glimpsed during my formative years: ‘You will come across pupils who are infinitely more intelligent than you – learn when to admit you don’t know the answer’. This thought made my blood run cold for several months, faced with the challenge of juggling classroom discipline and a firm grasp of my subject knowledge while maintaining that thin veneer of control.
For my own advice to NQTs, see below.
Teaching G&T students: some strategies for NQTs and teacher trainees.
1. Know who they are You may be given a register of G&T pupils in your subject area, but don’t be tempted to be limited by this list. The most fundamental thing we can do for G&T pupils is to recognise their existence. Although SAT, CAT, Midyis and internal performance data are extremely useful tools in identifying G&T students, there is likely to be a number of students who are not picked up by standard data trawls.
- Are there any students you teach who demonstrate an unusual grasp of your subject, wide knowledge or who ask complex questions?
- Look out for an unusual or ‘off the wall’ approach to tasks, the ability to take risks and bend rules. There is often a fine line between disaffectedness and giftedness, so the same pupils may also exhibit awkwardness or an unwillingness to adhere to the conventions of the classroom.
- Keep the term ‘potential versus performance’ at the forefront of your mind in your approach to identification.
Once you know who they are, highlight them in your mark-book. This awareness will not only help you to support them and find out if they are underachieving, but also prepare you for whole-school identification processes. Many departments have established subject-specific identification criteria (especially helpful in talent-based subjects).
For more information see: www.nc.uk.net/gt/general/index.htm.
2. Challenge them The National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) hold by Joseph Renzulli’s oft-quote aphorism that, ‘the rising tide lifts all the ships’. By demonstrating high expectations and nurturing a learning climate where challenge and engagement are valued, teachers can improve the learning experience of all pupils.
l Begin by employing the higher order thinking skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy: Synthesis, Analysis and Evaluation. Ask pupils to justify their conclusions, to invent, design and re-arrange and hypothesise. Since higher challenge and engagement can underpin classroom management, it is worthwhile investing time in this area.
3. Catch them if they fall If risk-taking goes hand in hand with challenge and missing the mark is a natural consequence of risk-taking, then our gifted pupils need support. You will come across gifted pupils who have always been cushioned by high achievement and who display an almost earth-shattering fear of failure. l The desire to always find one right answer can hinder their progress and the development of open-ended questions and activities can coax them along the road to fulfilment. By avoiding the spoon-feeding of meaning and actively creating an atmosphere where ‘wrong answers’ can carry points for thinking, you will undoubtedly help gifted pupils and unearth potential and capacity among their colleagues. For information on G&T basics, tips and strategies, try
G&T Wise: www2.teachernet.gov.uk/gat.
4. Help them to think creatively and stick at it If there was a league table for thinking about giftedness, I would place Joseph Renzulli at the top. I use his methodology in both planning and reflection on my own practice. Without wishing to reduce Renzulli’s theory beyond recognition, he argues in essence that creativity and task commitment are necessary accompaniments to allow above average ability to thrive and put G&T pupils on the road to success. Our disaffected gifted often give up on tasks when they perceive the challenge to be too great. By encouraging them to think around corners and to get past creative conflict we are providing them with the life skills required to fulfil their potential in the classroom and beyond. The teacher role is vital in this endeavour and practice goes a long way in creating a climate that scaffolds and supports their creativity while gently nurturing their staying power.
5. What fascinates you about your subject?
What gave you a buzz for your subject can be infectious. NQTs have the potential to be like a beacon in the lives of gifted youngsters by radiating their fresh subject interest and using (often) recent university experience to raise aspirations. Think about the ‘big questions’ and concepts that underpin your subject and put them to work in challenge-based activities.
6. Ask for help
If you are struggling to meet their needs, ask a colleague for help. Many schools have a named person responsible for G&T and it is an expectation that all schools employ strategies to meet their learning needs. Being open to coaching is a fantastic way of developing your practice in the longer term and having someone support you in your approach to G&T provision is an excellent starting point.
Further information Three Ring Conception of Giftedness, (Renzulli, 1978)
NACE Challenge Award: www.nace.co.uk.
Jo McShane is a school G&T and Aimhigher coordinator and cluster coordinator.
This article first appeared in Gifted & Talented Update – May 2006
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