People with special gifts and talents are everywhere, every strata of society, every field of endeavour and in every community, school and classroom.
The first time I heard the term ‘gifted’ in relation to special abilities was in 1981 when I was teaching at a rural school in the central North Island. The principal asked me to take on a full-time position providing support for all students with special needs in the school (called a 31D teacher). When I pointed out that I was a third year teacher with no special training, knowledge or expertise in this area he told me 1) that every teacher was a teacher of children with special needs, 2) that I had an instinct for working in this area that was more valuable than special training, and 3) that I was to approach this from my heart first, then my head. Then he added, “Oh, and by the way, this includes students whose special needs require advanced pacing and learning challenges in areas of particular interest and ability; they’re gifted.”
I was provided with a room and a small budget and was left to my own devices and so began a lifelong commitment to working with ‘out-of-synch’ kids. I asked teachers to identify any students that they felt might benefit from some extra personal attention in any area at all - social, emotional, behavioural, intellectual, the arts, etc. I then asked teachers, students and their parents (and anyone else who showed interest) what they thought would make the biggest difference for each child. Knowing that I could not possibly address the needs of each and every child identified (over 120 in a school of 500) I decided that my job, as I saw it, was to bring talented people into the lives of these children. I sought out volunteers within the wider community, I coerced teachers with special talents and interests to let me take their classes while they worked with interest-based groups, I encouraged colleagues to allow students to come to my room if and when a need arose and I operated an open-door policy for parents, whānau and people who were interested in what we were doing – this extended to psychologists and inspectors from the Department of Education.
I had no knowledge of the jargon associated with this, or any other, approach. I did not know that we were ‘personalising learning’ or that I was using a ‘multi-modal approach to identification’ or that the people I brought into these children’s lives were ‘mentors’ – it just made sense to ensure each child was able to progress at an appropriate pace and level. One 6 year-old was sent to me by a despairing teacher because he was literally ‘climbing the walls’ and refusing to read anything at all – he had also set off several fire alarms. I asked him why he was doing this; I chatted with his parents and found out that there was not one book in the classroom that he couldn’t read; he was exercising what he considered to be his right to choose not to read them because they didn’t interest him (I agreed with him) – he was wading his way through encyclopedias at home by choice. The teacher and parents got together and agreed on a programme of reading that would meet his personal needs and abilities (an IEP), which included bringing his own books to schools and being allowed to go into higher level classes for some lessons, determined by him in negotiation with his teachers (advanced placement, multi-level).
The following year I participated in a one-year Special Education programme at the Auckland College of Education (so I could find out how to do my job properly). I was surprised to find that gifted students were not regarded as having special needs and that our focus was on what students couldn’t do rather than on what they could. One of my placements was at the Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy where I was exposed for the first time to computers and augmented devices being used to enhance learning opportunities (e-learning) and met students who, with the help of these devices, were able to demonstrate their high levels of cognitive reasoning and wit. The current Home Page for Carlson School states: “We encourage the achievement and success of all our students with the flexibility and support to encourage each student’s learning. We encourage our students to achieve to the best of their ability.”
Isn’t that all any of us want for our children, gifted or otherwise? It is what was promised with the 2005 amendment to National Administration Guideline 1(c)iii (NAG 1) which states:
(c) on the basis of good quality assessment information, identify students and groups of students:
(d) develop and implement teaching and learning strategies to address the needs of students and aspects of the curriculum identified in (c) above;
In hindsight I can’t help but feel that I was especially fortunate in being encouraged to use my professional judgement when teaching students with special needs, including the gifted and talented. Admittedly, with more knowledge and experience, there are things I would do differently - for one thing, I wouldn’t support my colleagues to relinquish responsibility for catering appropriately for all students in their classes but I would work alongside them to create a learning environment that fosters both individual and collective gifts and talents. I would encourage them to apply their professional knowledge, and I would encourage them to ask their students’ parents, whānau and other more experienced and knowledgeable people for guidance and support. A few national New Zealand communities that provide support are: giftEDnz, the TKI Gifted & Talented site, NZAGC (an organisation for parents and children).
I would also strongly advise them to take on board the meaning of the words “Māori achieving success as Māori.” A documentary shown on MTV in June 2011, Maori Boy Genius provides insight into the challenges, aspirations, barriers and enhancers that face many gifted students and their whānau. In this documentary Ngaa Raauira says of his current education provisions “If the system can’t cater for you, it’s simple, go outside the system.”
In the interests of learning from those who seem to be ‘getting it right’ I, and many other educators I know, have been looking closely at what is happening in Finland. Finland's Education Minister, Henna Virkkunen is proud of her country's record but her next goal is to target the brightest pupils. ''The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented. Now we have started a pilot project about how to support those pupils who are very gifted in certain areas.''
My hope is that all students, including those who are gifted and talented, will be catered for appropriately within our education system and that they, in turn, can use their gifts to benefit others. It seems quite simple really. I only hope the decision-makers are listening….
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