Deborah Eyre begins a series of articles exploring the issues emerging from G&T provision, and considering how to create the best conditions to encourage exceptional performance

Over the last 100 years or so, various approaches have been developed which aim to provide a good education for the gifted and talented. In the early days, the most popular approaches were built around the idea that G&T people display unique, inherited characteristics and so can be readily identified. But as the field has developed, it’s become increasingly obvious that psychological opinions on this matter have varied widely and over time they have fragmented rather than converged. For some time now we have been moving further away from agreeing on a universal definition of how to identify a G&T cohort, rather than moving nearer towards one.

What appears to be clear, however, is that when we consider the road to excellence or exceptional performance, factors other than innate ability play a significant role. Such factors as opportunities, support and personal motivation are critical to exceptional performance and nothing to do with inheritance. Some researchers, such as Ericsson et al (2007), suggest that expert performance is largely the result of training. Ericsson goes so far as to say that in his work he has been unable to find any evidence for any innate constraints to the attainment of elite achievement for healthy individuals. So he is suggesting that with the right opportunities and/or training many more people could reach the levels of performance normally associated with the gifted or talented.

In addition, gifted and talented education has been dogged by controversy, with significant hostility from many sectors. While we can agree that as a country we need to ensure that we develop our most able young people and also agree that every child who goes to school has a right to an education that meets their needs; it is also the case that the mere mention of the words gifted and talented can invoke visions of elitism and unfairness in the minds of many. White (2006) recently launched a stinging attack on gifted and talented education seeing it as in a direct line of descent from Galton’s (1978) theories of eugenics. White suggests gifted and talented is based on the idea that some children are better than others with the old notions of belonging to a genetic elite, and them needing to be identified and rescued from general education, not far from view.

Why not start in a different place?
As the general education offer becomes more flexible and is better able to accommodate a range of learning needs, then the case for embedding gifted and talented education within it becomes stronger. Hence the English Model (EM) is about catering for the needs of the gifted and talented within the context of a broader education offer. It is about the overall education structure being stretched to meet the needs of the gifted and talented, or put another way ‘designing for exceptional performance’. Challenging opportunities are created within the general education system and an emphasis is placed on ‘enabling’ and ‘encouraging’ the learner to strive for exceptional levels of performance.

Over the next few months I will be taking a look at the opportunities offered by some of the current major education agendas and considering how best to exploit them in pursuit of exceptional performance. I will be suggesting some practical ways to ‘design for exceptional performance’ and describing some particularly effective practice in terms of, for example:

  • Personalisation creating opportunities for bespoke services to meet the needs of individuals, with children and young people taking greater ownership for their learning journey.
  • The skills agenda with its emphasis on increasing the number of young people attaining world-class levels of skill and at the same time, expanding the range of skills that are both developed and valued. 
  • ‘Narrowing the Gap’ and the thorny question of equity in gifted and talented education.=

In each input the emphasis will be on making it work in practice and using the potential for transformation. However, we will also keep in mind the value of small steps at both classroom and structural level which themselves can bring significant changes to outcomes. Of course we need to begin by defining what we mean by ‘exceptional performance’. In the EM, exceptional performance relates to children and young people performing highly on educational assessments and completing school with good qualifications that will allow them to move on to higher education or bespoke training. However, those are not its only success criteria. It also encourages development of the domain-specific expertise and behaviours that are associated with mastery in a specific subject. Not just passing school tests but also moving along a journey towards becoming expert in specific domains. Finally, it encourages the development of the social and emotional characteristics associated with intellectual confidence, in particular persistence, aspiration, confidence and collaboration. These latter characteristics are crucial to the learner becoming an informed user of educational services (whether offered within school or outside of it). Over the next few months we will explore how best to use the opportunities offered by major education agendas to create the conditions for exceptional performance and then drive as many pupils as possible towards that outcome.

Ericsson, AK, Roring, RW, Nandagopal, K (2007) ‘Giftedness and Evidence for Reproducibly Superior Performance: An Account Based on the Expert Performance Framework’ in High Ability Studies, Volume 18, No 1, June 2007
Galton, F (1978) Hereditary Genius, reprint of 1892 edition, first published 1869 London: Friedman
White, J (2006) Intelligence, Destiny and Education: The Ideological Roots of Intelligence Testing. London and New York: Routledge