Valsa Koshy explores the issues surrounding the identification of, and provision for, our youngest gifted and talented children

Of all the children with special needs, younger gifted and talented children are the group most frequently ignored throughout the world. What happens if we continue to neglect the needs of these children? There are losses for the children themselves and for society at large. In societies that care about their children, it is difficult to justify continued neglect of those for whom the ordinary pre-school or school programme may be a poor fit. Like all children, gifted children deserve a happy childhood full of vigour, joy, optimism and growth, whether or not early intervention produces long range differences in their attainment. They thrive best in environments that are a good fit for the level and pace of their development and provide opportunities for the joy and satisfaction that comes from mastering challenges, alongside companions who share their interests, curiosity, depth of understanding and sense of humour (Neihart, Reis, Robinson and Moon, 2002). These are the children who will become our social and political leaders, scientists and artists: who will solve the problems that currently seem unsolvable and whose creativity will open doors to better tomorrows for all. In 2003, Tim Dracup, the DCSF G&T team leader, recognised the importance of developing the gifts and talents of children in the first years of schooling and commissioned us at Brunel University to support a group of local authorities to develop frameworks for both identification and provision. In this article, and a second article in issue 51 of G&T Update, I will describe some of the issues that arose from our work and present some of the useful strategies that emerged from the case studies.

Rationale

When our project was launched, we made it very clear that our purpose was to nurture the young shoots of talent without fully knowing the nature of the flowers into which they would eventually bloom; it was not about ‘labelling’. Our rationale for targeting provision for young gifted and talented children recognised the following:

  • Children’s cognitive growth is at its highest during the first years of life and gifted and talented children may not fit into the Piagetian model of ‘normal development’ because of their advanced cognitive development and their ability to process information faster than their peers.
  • Adults (teachers, parents and classroom assistants) play a significant role in the actualisation of talent (Vygotsky). Retrospective accounts of the childhoods of individuals who, as adults, made significant contributions, describe how some of them showed astonishing precocity – and most had been encouraged by their families towards high achievement. An interesting study of young adults who were world-class achievers in sports, the arts and academics, by Bloom and his colleagues, also confirmed that precocious talents could often be observed in early childhood, although, particularly in the case of the academics, not specifically in the area that blossomed later. Many of the children who excelled in sports and performing arts had been introduced to their area of talent by their families, and had been gently coached and encouraged until their own strong motivation took over. The importance of the early years in at least some talent areas such as classical music and dance (Winner) has been re-confirmed many times. The implications of this for parents and others who work with younger children are significant.

Identification

The challenge of identifying gifted and talented younger children was not underestimated by our teacher researchers. One of the themes that dominated the discussions was whether identification should be based on a general set of criteria or a list of subject-specific attributes. Some of the project teachers chose not to take a particular curriculum subject. For example, five Reception class teachers within Kent, used scales for ‘wellbeing’ and ‘involvement’ to screen their classes in order to identify ‘intriguing’ (and possible underachieving) gifted and talented learners. The Suffolk project used Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, alongside other models to identify attributes such as sensitivity, humour, imagination, observation skills, task commitment and creativity. Perspectives from established research also provided the key to exploring identification systems for multiple exceptionality in the Hounslow LA project. The project schools established a group of potentially very able children: eight children with English as an additional language and two with hearing impairment. They used Gardner’s multiple intelligences model to provide learning experiences in the form of enrichment projects that were not focused on just the development of linguistic competence. The four mini enrichment projects satisfied the following criteria:

  • explicit intentions without the need for language
  • problem solving, allowing for divergence of thought
  • open-ended, but with completion criteria so that all members of the group could experience success
  • linked to previous experiences and/or culturally accessible to all
  • no space or time constraints.

Provision

The principle that provision and identification are closely inter-linked was highlighted by many of the research projects. Teachers reported that planning appropriate curriculum provision to challenge and extend the more able learners raised the expectations and achievements of the whole class and supported effective identification. A project in York, for example, used structured music sessions with the whole class and trained teachers to identify musical talent: many unsuspected, highly talented musicians emerged as a result and were then provided with special mentoring. The project teachers reviewed and revised their teaching strategies alongside their approach to curriculum planning. The Devon project team’s experience reflected many of the other projects in that, overall, the teachers’ curriculum planning became more flexible and creative:

‘… the children’s enthusiasm is infectious and promotes passionate teaching!’

Significant changes to curriculum planning included addressing one or more of the following:

  • the integration of higher-order thinking skills and creative thinking
  • planning open-ended activities or enquiries which increased children’s opportunities for problem solving
  • including the children’s special interests as central to curriculum development.

Effective curriculum provision often necessitated changes to the normal timetable of events. For example, in the Wandsworth project an ‘interest time’ was built into each week’s timetable and, at the outset of each topic, emphasis was given to children establishing questions that they wanted answered. In a similar way, the Dorset and Hillingdon project teachers integrated a programme of special workshops or activity days into their timetables. Dorset focused on the development of cross-curricular tasks to develop children’s creative thinking skills while Hillingdon began with after-school workshop provision for mathematics within a cross-curricular theme. This model was fine-tuned at a later stage and integrated into the daily mathematics lesson within the classroom setting. Two Suffolk schools also gave curriculum time to developing individual children’s special interests via individual ‘I like learning about’ journals. The journals provided a shared home-school focus for developing personalised learning journeys. The Southwark research group devised mini-enrichment projects designed to be cross-curricular and to cater for different learning styles. They too aimed to encourage the use of higher-order thinking skills, problem solving and creativity. Each project was set out on a planning web, showing how activities linking to different areas/subjects of the curriculum could be generated from a single starting point. A broad range of outcomes including story maps, book making, artwork, life-cycle drawings and plays were suggested. Resource boxes were made to support each project and suggestions for other useful materials were made. The mini-enrichment projects were based around familiar children’s stories, eg The Gingerbread Man, Little Mouse and the Big Red Apple and Rumble in the Jungle. The Warrington project developed outdoor and role play material to foster thinking skills for their gifted and talented children. Setting up enrichment activities and using external experts were effective strategies used in some projects. Richmond invited an artist to work with a group of gifted Year 1 writers building a 3D spaceship in order to enhance the children’s opportunities for using imagination and extended vocabulary. Similarly, in order to enrich the curriculum and support children’s ‘expressed interests’, Devon teachers invited specialist inputs from local poets, bee-keepers and smallholders. Teachers drew on a range of expert guidance to help them through the complex process of identification:

  • Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and his assertion that it ‘should be possible to identify an individual’s intellectual profile (or proclivities) at an early age and then draw upon this knowledge to enhance that person’s educational opportunities and options’.
  • Renzulli’s ‘three-ring’ model which emphasises the need for creative productivity in children.
  • Sternberg’s view of intelligence as developing expertise.

There was never an intention to ‘hot house’ pupils, but a belief that bringing them together in an enrichment cluster would offer them challenges and opportunities to be creative. Fears that class teachers might become de-skilled as a result of segregated provision were assuaged as they were seen as integral partners in the process with the intention being to support them in providing for these children back in the classroom. However, the main aim was to avoid the situation – as discerned by one six-year-old boy in the Rotherham project – ‘I am on the hardest shelf and it is far too easy’.

‘One of the reasons that makes educators shy away from the identification and development of talent in younger children is the fear that the advancement will be a “flash in the pan”; but when we combine adults’ descriptions of the children, with evidence from objective measures of development, we can identify children who are gifted and talented and remain so.’ (Robinson, 2006)