A Brief Commentary on Systems Thinking in Gifted Education

Back in September last year, I received an invitation from Albert Ziegler, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and Secretary-General of IRATDE, to contribute a peer commentary for publication in High Ability Studies, the journal of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA).

Although they are separate entities, IRATDE and ECHA have overlapping memberships and even governance. The Vice-President of IRATDE, Heidrun Stoeger – Professor of Education at Regensburg University in Germany – is also the Editor-in-Chief of High Ability Studies, while Ziegler is a member of the International Advisory Board. Both Ziegler and Stoeger are speakers at ECHA’s 2012 Conference in Munster, Germany

The target article for the peer commentaries was written by Ziegler with Shane Phillipson, now an Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia. Phillipson is also joint editor of IRATDE’s Newsletter ‘Talent Talks’.

The article is called: Towards A Systematic Theory of Gifted Education  and is essentially an introduction to the application of systems theory to gifted education.

The Abstract reads:

‘In this target article, we argue that current approaches to gifted education are based on the erroneous view that to understand the development of exceptionality we need to merely understand the components of giftedness, including cognitive [factors] such as intelligence and non-cognitive factors such as motivation. In contrast, systemic approaches to understanding exceptionality focuses on the interactions of these components where it is important to firstly understand the system that leads to exceptionality before it is possible to understand its components. After analysing the weaknesses of current approaches to gifted education we then present three central arguments for the need for a paradigm shift. This is followed by an introduction of constructs of a systemic approach of gifted education. Using the actiotope model of giftedness to understand the development of exceptionality, this article describes the basic principles of a gifted education that is based on this systemic approach.’

I had better not summarise further since the edition of the article posted on Ziegler’s University website is marked ‘draft, uncorrected blueprint, please do not quote’.

Commentaries were not to exceed 1,200 words. I struggled hard to meet this limit and the deadline. Albert Ziegler was very encouraging. I sent him a long draft and he encouraged me to whip it into shape. He even sent a supportive comment to the editors when I copied him into the final version.

But all to no avail. In February I received a short note from the Editorial Assistant. She pleaded ‘the large number of submissions’ and hoped ‘the outcome of this specific submission will not discourage you from the submission of future manuscripts’.

In fact, the episode has done nothing to resurrect any vestigial confidence in the whole business of editing and publishing academic journals. But that’s quite another story.

As far as I can tell, the relevant edition of High Ability Studies has not yet appeared, so you cannot yet read the contributions by my elders and betters, nor the riposte from Ziegler and Phillipson. Here’s my offering anyway, which speaks for itself.


April 2012


How Useful is a Systemic Theory of Gifted Education?

I am a systems thinking novice. I know slightly more about theories and models of giftedness and gifted education, but I come at them as an ex policy maker: I want to know how they can be applied to improve the scale and quality of gifted education for the direct benefit of gifted learners, schools, the wider education system and society as a whole.

I readily accept that systems theory provides a lens through which to consider giftedness and gifted education. I am far less ready to accept it uncritically as the new paradigm, to be applied exclusively and in place of existing ‘analytical’ perspectives.

The Nature of Giftedness and Gifted Education

The target paper says that research into giftedness has:

‘traditionally focused on an exclusive group of individuals with the potential for exceptional accomplishments in one or more area.’

The subsequent treatment rests on the assumption that the sole purpose of gifted education is to support these individuals to achieve adult excellence in their preferred domain(s).

Many prefer an approach that supports a much wider group of learners, enabling them to develop in their areas of strength, but also to improve in their areas of weakness, so they emerge from schooling as rounded individuals with the capacity to choose from a relatively wide range of routes into higher education and employment. One could argue that one purpose of gifted education should be to provide gifted learners with choices, rather than pushing them exclusively (and perhaps excessively) towards excellence in their particular area(s) of strength, especially if that may be detrimental to their holistic development.

The paper says that:

‘Traditional approaches to gifted education are based on the implicit assumption that protecting gifted individuals from inhospitable surroundings should suffice for ensuring that the most can be made of their potential…and it is precisely in this respect that we can see how the current approaches to gifted education have fallen behind the multifactorial models of giftedness that specify both the internal and external requirements which need to be fulfilled before potential can be realised.’

It may be true that over 90% of funding for gifted education is channelled into five main strategies (though it is unclear how this estimate could be derived for worldwide expenditure on gifted education, given the absence of any reliable data upon which to base it).

But setting and ability grouping, acceleration, enrichment and pull-out provision can only be regarded as protection from inhospitable surroundings if they constitute ‘stand-alone’ provision and the overall quality of mainstream education is low. If they are combined with high quality teaching and learning and effective differentiation in mixed ability settings, they become additional tools in the armoury of personalised learning, helping to ensure that gifted learners – indeed all learners – receive an education tailored to their needs.

The fifth strategy – the award of financial assistance – is more often associated with tackling wider problems that impact on the achievement of disadvantaged gifted learners, such as low motivation, poor self-esteem and limited aspirations – including in the learner’s family and community. Such support is now integral to many programmes and to the American 2010 Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards[i] and England’s Institutional Quality Standards[ii]. These exemplify the gap between contemporary reality and the ‘traditional approach’ presented in the paper.

Systems Thinking and Quality Standards

I recently published a series of posts about the development and content of such Quality Standards[iii]. One might place them firmly in the ‘analytical’ tradition since they break down whole school gifted education into its components. In an ideal scenario, each component captures effective practice in a few brief statements that together create a ‘flexible framework’, solid enough to frame broad consensus on the nature of that practice but flexible enough to permit variation, and so to foster innovation rather than stifling it.

But they offer a simple and straightforward tool that all settings can use to self-evaluate their practice and plan for continuous improvement, not to mention their many potential benefits to those responsible for system-wide improvement. While I can – with some difficulty – envision a more organic and complex systems-driven model for whole school gifted education, I need some persuading that it could provide the basis for an equivalently valuable and accessible instrument.

The Quality of Research

I was involved with a 2008 study[iv] which, after sifting almost 20,000 research articles, concluded:

‘If research in the field of gifted and talented education is to influence practice then it is essential that the quality of research design and reporting be improved…’

This paper argues that too much research is methodologically suspect, but also that researchers caught in the analytical paradigm have only limited explanations for the shortcomings they encounter. There is no quantification of the relative impact of these two factors on research quality. Given the second, one might reasonably expect extensive evidence of high quality systems-based evaluations, but this is not forthcoming:

‘Although evaluations of programmes based on this process are only beginning, the reported outcomes are very positive. In one such evaluation (Grassinger et al 2010) concluded that mentoring can produce long-lasting effects when tailored to both the needs of the mentee and their specific environment‘

These are slim pickings. And why are evaluations only just beginning? Is it because systems-based programmes are struggling to find acceptance, or have they been introduced without proper evaluation?

Miscellaneous and Concluding Comments

  • Speaking as a systems novice, I do not understand how the boundaries are defined. The number of systems potentially affected by any given gifted education intervention is probably finite but potentially huge. Where do we draw the line and why? When considering the sub-systems within a gifted learner, at what level of granularity do we stop and, if we stop before we reach atoms and molecules, what is the justification for doing so?
  • There is increasing emphasis on the role and value of networks within gifted education and this seems broadly consistent with the systems approach, whether articulated by Peter Csermely[v] in relation to the Hungarian Talent Support Network and the aspiration to roll that out across the EU or, in a UK context, by the instigators of GT Voice, the national support network for all stakeholders in gifted education. Such developments arguably have an important place in a systemic model.
  • My knowledge of Twentieth Century London-based bands is much greater than my knowledge of systems theory and may even exceed my knowledge of gifted education! The Byrds and Nirvana are definitely American bands.

I see the value of systems-inspired thinking as a counterweight to the analytical tradition, but am not convinced of the case for replacing one with the other. Systems theory has been around since the 1920s and 30s, coexisting with gifted education for much of its lifespan. If it was destined to be the new paradigm, why is it taking so long? I have seen it suggested that there are powerful vested interests in the analytical paradigm because it shores up top-down solutions and directly benefits those in positions of power and authority. But that is not in itself a strong justification for the alternative. What is wrong with a third way that draws on the strengths of both traditions?



[i] National Association for Gifted Children (2010) Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Education Programming Standards. Downloadable at http://www.nagc.org/uploadedFiles/Information_and_Resources/Gifted_Program_Standards/K-12%20programming%20standards.pdf

[ii] The National Strategies (2010) Institutional Quality Standards (IQS) in Gifted and Talented (G&T) education – revised 2010, downloadable from http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110809101133/http://nsonline.org.uk/node/434549

[iii] Gifted Phoenix (2011): A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards – Part 1, downloadable from http://giftedphoenix.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/a-comparative-view-of-gifted-education-quality-standards-part-1/; A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards – Part 2, downloadable from http://giftedphoenix.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/a-comparative-review-of-gifted-education-quality-standards-part-2/; Gifted Education Quality Standards: The Benefits Coda, downloadable from http://giftedphoenix.wordpress.com/2011/11/24/gifted-education-quality-standards-the-benefits-coda/

[iv] Bailey R, Pearce G, Winstanley C, Sutherland M, Smith C, Stack N, Dickenson M (2008) A systematic review of interventions aimed at improving the educational achievement of pupils identified as gifted and talented. Report. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre,Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Downloadable at http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=9e5l5LRWx3c%3D&tabid=2402&mid=4458

[v] Csermely, Peter (2011) TEDxDanubia 2011 – Csermely Peter – The Tao of Talent, downloadable from http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxDanubia-2011-Csermely-Peter

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