Writer and consultant Barry Hymer explains why he thinks G&T education needs to rethink some commonly used policies.

Here’s the admission: I’m in no position to offer a clean-hands critique of ‘gifted and talented’ education in the UK. For a decade now, I’ve been heavily involved in the field. I’ve read, researched and written about it, pondered, pimped and proselytised about it; I’ve run extension and enrichment classes, summer schools and training courses for G&T students and their teachers, believed in what I did and what I’m doing, and made a very decent living out of all of the above.

But here’s the rub: in the UK, despite our reputation as a world leader in the field of G&T education, despite the best intentions of governments and civil servants and the years of heavy investment in training and resourcing that are associated with these intentions, despite the enthusiasm, dedication and creativity of countless teachers, G&T coordinators, lead and strand coordinators, I’m really not at all sure that we’re moving in an intellectually honest and educationally authentic direction. We need to be asking some awkward, often painful questions about the field of education to which many of us have devoted a large part of our professional lives.

And here’s why: the evidence really isn’t stacking up well. All the truly vital, compelling, challenging theories of learning that are emerging in the 21st century make G&T education, as it’s been understood and applied in the past, a deeply problematic concept.

All the truly vital, compelling, challenging theories of learning that are emerging in the 21st century make G&T education, as it’s been understood and applied in the past, a deeply problematic concept

Fixed intelligence or developing intelligence? Professor Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Columbia and Stanford Universities have spent 35 years studying motivation and achievement. Her work ranks as among the most coherent, robust and well regarded in the field. She has presented compelling (albeit often counter-intuitive) evidence that: Dweck’s work is shaped around the existence of two frameworks for understanding intelligence and achievement – a theory of fixed intelligence (what she terms an ‘entity theory’), or a theory of malleable intelligence (what she terms an ‘incremental theory’). People subscribing to an entity theory of intelligence – and roughly half of us do – believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait that resides within us, and which can’t be changed. If we hold such a theory, we are susceptible to helpless reactions to setbacks, we will seek out relatively simple tasks that validate our intelligence in performance terms, and avoid tasks that are challenging – but which can lead to new learning. Many high-achievers – especially girls – come to hold an entity theory of intelligence, and in the long term, it serves them poorly.

I held this theory too, throughout my school years, and it kept me from my studies: having been labelled ‘bright’ and ‘intelligent’ in school and at home throughout my early childhood, I came to believe that these affirmations reflected some deep virtue within me. I wasn’t going to put this judgment on the line when things got tough – as they usually do at secondary school – by working hard at things I found difficult – trigonometry, physics, Afrikaans, and then possibly still ‘failing’. Much better to devote my time to things I found easier and did well at – chess, table tennis or playing the clown, then blame my scholastic disasters on my extra-curricular dalliances, whilst still preserving an illusion of ‘intelligence’.

People subscribing to an incremental theory, on the other hand, believe intelligence to be something that can be cultivated through effort, experience and learning from that effort and experience. They do not mind ‘failure’ or ‘exposure’ in learning situations, because these aren’t a reflection of any innate fixed ability, rather an indication that something changeable needs to be changed – for example, strategies or effort invested. Over time, they become better, more successful learners. It’s one of the reasons why there is such a weak correlation between performance in school and achievement in life. Ask Richard Branson, Robbie Williams or Jamie Oliver or any of the C-streamers in your own school who’ve gone on to amaze you with their achievements as adults. Incrementalists have deep roots and a slow bloom – but they flower brightly.

Both theories are relatively stable within individuals over time. They are also, however, both susceptible to influences and strong contrary evidence, and therefore responsive to messages about what intelligence is and where it comes from (genes, fate, nature, or one’s experiences, learning, nurture). In short, the 21st century evidence suggests we can change not only students’ intelligence, but also their beliefs about intelligence. It’s my belief that the evidence presented by Dweck and others should lead us to do our damndest to ensure that throughout their formal schooling, students receive an overwhelming barrage of ‘incremental-theory’ messages. We should stint on intelligence-praise and performance-rewards, but enthuse when students exert effort, take intellectual risks, seek out challenges and new learning, or try novel strategies in the face of setbacks.

Differentiation by ability Regrettably, it’s my reading of the messages conveyed on the Excellence in Cities: Gifted and Talented Strand section of the DfES Standards Site and elsewhere that we give our students a deadly barrage of ‘entity-theory’ messages: an obsession with ‘identifying’ G&T students via a battery of quantitative and qualitative measures before providing them with a ‘distinct teaching and learning programme’ – distinct, presumably, from the ungifted and untalented.

Consider this extraordinary passage from The Role of the Gifted and Talented Coordinator in the Gifted and Talented section of the Standards site:
‘Pupils who are identified by teachers and school progress assessments but do not score highly on tests of potential need to be looked at very carefully. These pupils are often very hard working and fully maximising their potential, but may not be among the most able in the school. Alternatively, they may simply have underperformed on the test.’

Assuming no underperformance on the test, the clear implications for these hard working students is that they don’t merit inclusion on the register, as they are already working to potential. Apart from betraying a deep commitment to an entity theory of intelligence (which lies at the very heart of the concept of the ‘able underachiever’), this injunction flies in the face of at least 35 years of research: in reality, a capacity for hard work underpins all exceptional performances, all truly gifted behaviours, in all domains of human achievement. It is also integral to many of the most revered theoretical formulations of giftedness, such as Professor Joe Renzulli’s three-ring model (above average ability, creativity and task commitment). We patronise effort at our peril.

Models which hold as one of their non-negotiables the requirement for schools to identify a 5-10% G&T population in each year group are inevitably going to have to align themselves with an entity theory of intelligence, and help propagate the pervasive and damaging beliefs about giftedness that still abound in our society – the belief, for example, that ‘effortless achievement’ denotes high intelligence, whereas hard work can only compensate for a lack of ‘innate intelligence’. So, too, do implicit (and often explicit) nudges in the direction of naming and proclaiming the members of a G&T register: reconcile that if you can with Dweck’s warning that being labelled ‘gifted’ can be the kiss of death to the learning dispositions and achievements of many students; or the tendency to smile on setting and acceleration/fast-tracking: ‘If schools continue to use predominantly mixed-ability settings, they should be able to demonstrate high pupil attainment relative to other, similar schools.’

Why no similar warning to schools that persist in using setting and fast-tracking procedures? Because, presumably, they subscribe to an entity-theory view that G&T kids can, and should be, identified and then pushed through a curriculum at speed. The truly radical option is of course to pursue excellence through the eschewal of fuzzy concepts like ability altogether – mixed or otherwise (see Hart et al, 2004, for ways in which this ambition can be realised) – and to start from the assumption that all students can respond well to an enriched, extended, truly challenging curriculum. But that, for the present, is clearly too marked a break from our 20th century traditions.

We should stint on intelligence-praise and performance-rewards, but enthuse when students exert effort, take intellectual risks, seek out challenges and new learning, or try novel strategies in the face of setbacks

Summary G&T education, for all the problems inherent in the terminology, has provided the world of education with many rich signposts over the 20th century. It continues to do so. This article is not intended as an assault on its existence, even though I’d welcome changes to its nomenclature. Early signs of a possible shift in emphasis in DfES thinking from ‘gifted and talented’ to ‘challenge and engagement’ are to be welcomed and encouraged. We should certainly continue to invest heavily in the pursuit of excellence and achievement, confront anti-intellectual bigotry, and seek ways of raising aspirations within and without areas of deprivation.

We need also, however, to remain open to radical reformulations of what we mean by intelligence, achievement, and potential, to the evidence of how achievement arises, and to non-normative, non-deterministic conceptions of what we mean by gifts and talents. We can learn a great deal from abroad and also from within the UK: the work of Guy Claxton, Susan Hart, Belle Wallace, and others. This may – perhaps should – lead us to question the structures and strictures currently embedded in national policy, and to suggest alternative formulations. The risk otherwise is that we end up with ‘gifted’ students who avoid challenges, risk, uncertainty and lifelong learning, and opt instead for easy successes and validation through performance – the very opposite of what we intend. Gifted and talented policy should be the last area of education to be exempt from challenge. If we have learned anything about exceptional achievement in the past, it has been about the value of asking new questions, and seeking new answers. And so it shall be in the future.

Barry Hymer is an educational consultant, consultant Editor of the journal Gifted Education International and co-author of Gifted & Talented Learners – Creating a Policy for Inclusion. www.barryhymer.co.uk

  • highly able students, especially when identified as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’, are among the most educationally vulnerable students of all
  • students betray their vulnerabilities through helpless reactions to situations of high intellectual challenge – they engage in avoidance behaviours, self-condemnation, and lack of persistence
  • within school, academic success per se does little to bolster students’ desire for challenges or their ability to cope with difficulties
  • praise of students’ intelligence can generate fear of failure, the avoidance of risks and self-doubt
  • the promotion of students’ intellectual self-confidence is a decidedly questionable educational aim. It doesn’t deliver what we think it ought to – robust, mastery-oriented lifelong learners.

Further information Carol S Dweck (1999); Self Theories – Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development.

Susan Hart, Annabelle Dixon, Mary Jane Drummond & Donald McIntyre (2004); Learning Without Limits.

gifted, talented, differentiation, exceptional, challenge, engagement