Who are the gifted and talented and what provision do they need? Deborah Eyre provides a basic layman’s guide to the fundamental principles of G&T education

For those encountering the idea of gifted children and gifted education for the first time, the field can appear complex and confusing. ‘Who are the gifted?’ and ‘What educational provision will they need?’ are some of the most difficult questions to answer. Yet it is important for a growing population of professionals and lay people to get to grips with some of the basic principles underpinning good practice. As the range of providers of services for G&T is expanded, this need is becoming greater and more acute.

This article is a reworking of one originally developed at NAGTY for new providers and constitutes a very basic introduction to the nature of giftedness and its development through the compulsory schooling period.  It is intended for non-professionals who are interested in providing for gifted students, and readers may also find it useful for sharing with parents and governors.

Gifted and talented: a brief guide
What does a gifted child look like? Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer. For the most part, gifted and talented young people are just normal children and teenagers with all the usual characteristics of their age group. They have all sorts of personalities and interests, and it would be no easier to say what kind of person a gifted child may be than, say, a child with dyslexia. If someone asked, ‘What does a dyslexic child look like?’, you might say: ‘That’s an impossible question; dyslexia is about how a person’s brain works, it isn’t something you can tell from their appearance or behaviour.’ The same goes for the gifted and talented.

The thing that does set gifted and talented children and young people apart is their intellectual characteristics. Most are of above average ability generally, but have specific areas of outstanding strength – they’re pretty good across the board, but really excellent in only one or two areas. Research tells us that, while some children might display outstanding ability very early, with others it might not show until secondary school or even adult life. Partly, this is because giftedness is something that develops over time; a child’s potential has to ‘collide’ with the right opportunities for it to be developed. 

Potential + opportunities and support + motivation = high achievement
With some children, outstanding ability may be detected very early. The baby who can talk in full sentences at 12 months and never makes grammatical errors is hard to miss. However, interestingly, although some pre-school children might be unusually good at working with language or numbers, the most reliable early indicator of giftedness isn’t early aptitude (how good they are at something compared to other children of that age), but rather the interest they take in a  subject. Gifted children will often be fascinated by language or numbers and will play with them, going way beyond the learning of simple skills. Most families will try to nurture this playfulness, especially if the child’s interest is shared with that of others in the family. If a pair of professional musicians find that their child shows an interest in music, they will encourage and support its development in quite a structured way, perhaps arranging music lessons from an early age. A family of academics might encourage their child to ask lots of questions; an entrepreneurial family might teach their child about the family business.

Starting school and the primary years
When children start school, they come into contact with a much wider range of opportunities. They also begin to discover which areas are their strengths and which are their weaknesses. This is partly because they can now compare themselves on a daily basis with other children of the same age.

At primary school, some gifted children will very easily get to grips with new knowledge, skills and ideas, learning at a much faster rate than others. But not all will. Some will struggle with certain basic skills. For example, a child who is gifted with language (ie, is very good at putting what they want to say into words, and understanding what other people mean, even when they use complicated phrases) might struggle with the basic processes of forming letters with a pen or reading words on a page. This can be very frustrating for a child who is used to learning quickly, and unless helped to master those skills, he or she is likely to achieve much less than they are capable of. The fact that some gifted children find it difficult to master basic skills quickly is one of the reasons that their potential is not recognised at primary school.

By the age of 10 or 11, giftedness will usually have become easier to spot: partly because there is more evidence of high performance (eg, from test results); and partly because the gap between the gifted and other children has increased. Yet even now, gifted children who have not previously achieved high standards can emerge. As children encounter new opportunities and experiences at secondary school, they can discover new strengths. Another factor is that in some subjects, high performance requires a level of emotional maturity that children are unlikely to develop much before age 10, making giftedness in that subject difficult to spot early on. For example, in history, pupils are asked to think about how people in the past might have felt about a particular change or event. Younger children tend not to be so good at understanding how other people think and feel.

Development in secondary school
In the 11-19 age range, the kind of opportunities available to pupils will have a big impact on their levels of achievement. As the gap between the highest and lowest achievers grows, schools have to try to provide effectively for children of different abilities. In the 11-14 age range, pupils of different abilities are often taught in separate classes for each subject (sometimes called ‘setting’), with specific opportunities for the gifted and talented to study at an advanced level. In the 14-19 age range, important choices have to be made and schools will encourage gifted students to follow an educational path which will allow them to fulfil their academic potential.

Secondary school years can be difficult: most gifted teenagers will know (to some extent) that they are gifted, but will still have all the worries that come with being a teenager. They want to blend in with their friends, but their abilities make them stand out. They know that they can do well, but they feel under pressure to work hard, to achieve the highest grades and prizes, not to let anyone down: themselves, their parents or their school. They’re being asked to make choices, but are unsure about quite what they want, or quite what they’re capable of achieving. They try to follow advice in order to make the right choices, but advice from school, home, friends and other sources can be conflicting and not always helpful. 

By 16, most gifted children will have become confident in their chosen subjects, but even at this stage they will find some subjects easier than others, and they may discover new strengths. Some students who have previously been seen as competent rather than outstanding (gifted) may come into their own as the nature of advanced study allows them to display their abilities. For example, a student who is OK at arithmetic, but not great, and who has been viewed as competent at maths, might find that they are able to do maths to an outstanding level now that the subject has more to do with understanding abstract concepts than working with numbers. Other students will find that their ability to plan, organise and meet commitments (such as deadlines) will have a significant effect on how well they perform.

What next?
Students with little experience of education beyond their own school can find it hard to rank themselves against others. This can lead to either low aspiration (aiming too low) or over-estimation of ability (aiming too high), and to trying to follow a path that isn’t right for them. To make the right choices, students need ‘informed aspiration’ – the ability to judge what might be possible. The opportunity to work with others of similar ability at inter-school, regional and national events can be very helpful in achieving this.

High achievers may be targeted by the university sector, looking to recruit the best students. ‘The best’ means more than top exam scores: universities are also interested in rounded individuals with the motivation to do well. They are looking for students who have the potential to grow intellectually and the desire to do so; the potential to become experts and possibly the academics of the future.

Essentially, giftedness is not about what is achieved at school; it is about what can be achieved in adult life. The equation is about motivation, opportunities and potential being the three ingredients of high achievement. At university, students are assumed to have great potential and will be provided with high-quality opportunities. The focus shifts to personal motivation. Success is in the hands of the individual, who, as an adult, can choose to develop or disregard their ability.

Professor Deborah Eyre, VP of the World Council for G&T