Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education: Postscript

A few months ago I published an extensive blog post about Hong Kong’s Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE)

On 21 December 2011, a new question was asked in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) about the progress made by the Academy to date.

The answer included revised figures for many of the elements set out in the original post. This postscript introduces the new figures and compares them with those which I supplied previously.

Numbers of learners supported by the Academy

The latest reply gives total numbers admitted by school year as:

School Year 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11 TOTAL
1212 1409 1340 3961

These figures are different to those given in HKAGE press releases (which may have used a calendar year rather than an academic year):

Year 2009 2010 2011 TOTAL
700 1351 1200 3251

and those for 2008/09 and 2009/10 are different again to those given to LegCo in January 2010:

School Year 2008/09 2009/10
1357 1385

In the new answer, we are also given the domain into which students were admitted over the period 2008-11 (some students were admitted to more than one domain):

Domain Humanities Leadership Maths Sciences
No. admitted 857 864 1249 1159

It seems that there were no admissions during this period to the other two domains mentioned on the Academy’s website – Multi-Disciplinary and Personal Growth/Social Development.

The new answer also tells us from which grade these students were recruited:

Grade S1 S2 S3 S4 S5 S6 S7
141 305 709 1413 540 987 43

showing that S4 – the first year of senior secondary education – supplied by far the largest number of students, followed by S6.

The question asks specifically about primary sector provision. The answer refers to existing primary pilot activity, adding that the Academy has also accepted some primary pupils into activities intended primarily for secondary students and intends to expand its primary pilot provision. It continues:

‘Seeing the ever increasing demand for services from primary school students and their parents, the HKAGE will provide at least 6 primary programmes in mathematics and humanities within 2011/12 school year…It is planned to provide more primary programmes in the near future…Currently the EDB has been running 10 web-based courses for students of P4–S3 on astronomy, earth sciences, mathematics, humanities, and palaeontology. EDB will continue to run enrichment programmes for students, including programmes for those aged 10 or under.’

An Appendix provides figures for numbers of students undertaking different kinds of activities provided by the Academy, which are far larger than those given for students admitted to Academy programmes.

This is somewhat confusing because there is no obvious correlation between the number of students ‘admitted to the Academy’ (total 3,961) and the number ‘enrolled’ (total 10,440) or, indeed, the different number ‘served’ (total 14,228). The definition of these three terms and the distinctions between them are not made fully clear.

I had assumed that the figures for ‘number of students enrolled’ must be the total number of student enrolments (ie some students undertook several activities) rather than the total number of students, but the footnote to the figures in the total column says otherwise.

There is again some inconsistency with the January 2010 response to LegCo over the number of activities offered. The earlier answer says there were 41 activities in 2008-09 and that a total of 75 activities were planned for 2009/10. This latest answer says 40 or 45 in 2008/09, depending whether or not one includes the second set, and either 62 or 71 for 2009/10.

Adding in 110 activities in 2010/11 gives a grand total of 226 activities over the three year period, 123 of them falling into the category of ‘courses’.

Number of teachers and parents supported by the Academy

The figures provided for the engagement of teachers and parents relate to a different four-year period which begins in March 2007 and ends (presumably) at the end of the 2010/11 academic year.

The headline figures given are 121 programmes for 7,820 teachers and 88 ‘deliverables’ for 16,788 parents. The associated tables in the Appendix add further detail.

Taking teachers first, it is clear that the annual number served has declined somewhat over the period, from 2008/09 onwards.

The figures provided to LegCo in 2010 were almost 1,100 participants in 2008/09 and a projected 1,900 in 2009/10, but here the comparable figures are 2,743 and 2,689. It would appear that the basis for the calculation has changed between the two answers.

Thematic seminars, outreach talks, structured courses and thematic workshops respectively are the most attended activities.

Moving on to parents, outreach talks account for the majority of the service. Comparing with the answer to LegCo in 2010, which says that there were 1,241 beneficiaries in 2008/09, this table suggests that 5,420 parents were served in that year. It is not possible to reconcile the two figures.

The annual figure for parents served is fairly stable across the period, although number in 2010/11 are slightly down on the previous year.

The Appendix gives separate figures for the Academy’s Consultation and Assessment Centre:

These show that calls to the Helpline reduced markedly in 2010/11, while General Enquiries have increased markedly. There have been only 43 face-to-face consultations over the three year period.

Since the Academy’s original targets were to serve 5,000 parents and 600 teachers a year, and 10,000 learners over the period 2008-2011, we can see that, on the basis of these latest figures it is:

  • exceeding its target for learners
  • heavily exceeding its target for teachers and
  • falling slightly short on its target for parents in two out of three years (unless one includes the figures from the Consultation and Assessment Centre.

However, there are unanswered questions about the relationship between this set of figures and those previously published – and indeed about the nature and inter-relationship of the different figures for student involvement.

Budget and Expenditure

The Academy was established with an endowment of HKD 200m which was expected to last at least 10 years.

My post recorded that the audited accounts for 2008-09 showed income of HKD 3.2m (largely interest on the endowment) against expenditure of HKD 9.2m. For 2009-10, projected income was expected to be lower (only HKD 0.25m was earned between April and November 2009), while projected expenditure was forecast at HKD 25.1m.

The figures given in answer to this latest question show income in line with previous figures, but actual expenditure in 2009-10 undershot the forecast by almost HKD 10m.

Since 2008-09, annual expenditure has increased by roughly HKD 5m per year, but we do not know how close the Academy is to achieving ‘steady state’ nor are we told of its financial projections for future years.I am unsure of the accounting basis for including ‘the unrealised gain on the investment in Schroders’, which presumably refers to the location of that proportion of the endowment that the Academy does not yet need to draw down.

On the basis of this data, assuming that the Schroders investment is guaranteed, and will continue at a similar rate, the financial health of the Academy is better than I had previously assumed.

However, if the Schroders figure is excluded, it becomes more open to question whether the endowment will cover costs over 10 years. It appears that income generated from services is currently minimal and that the Academy needs to increase funding from that source to guarantee its longer-term financial sustainability.


The question asks about overall evaluation of the Academy’s effectiveness. The answer refers to:

  • the Board of Directors appointed by EDB, including its Strategy and Planning and Finance and Investment Committees;
  • the working groups in place for each Division of the Academy, by which means ‘a number of independent professionals have been invited to advise on the design and development of programmes/services’
  • the imminent establishment of the Academy’s Research Division which will initially ‘
    concentrate its efforts on the further development of an evidence-based Evaluation Framework that will operate across all Divisions’.

But there is no commitment to a full-scale independent evaluation, as suggested in my earlier post:

‘The apparent lack of a rigorous formative and summative evaluation seems to be a lacuna in all plans, from the inception of the Academy onwards.

It is particularly odd that the EMB is not seeking an evidence base with which to justify the level of the Government’s financial investment in the Academy – and HKAGE itself surely has a vested interest in securing evidence to show the positive impact it has on students’ learning outcomes and the educational effectiveness of partner schools.

We have seen how earlier evaluation exercises have avoided any attempt to pin down a measurable impact on student attainment. It is expressly to be hoped that, despite the conceptual obstacles, a future evaluation of HKAGE does not fall into the same trap.’


Overall, the new set of figures suggests that Hong Kong’s Academy is in fairly rude health, though some marginal doubts must remain given the questions I have raised about the figures above and the problems I have encountered in reconciling them with earlier data.

The new Research Division may well want to undertake some early work to flesh out a set of rigorous quantitative and qualitative performance indicators that will provide a more robust scorecard against which to assess the Academy’s future progress. Whether it will decide to commission independent external evaluation remains to be seen.


January 2012

Are All Children Gifted? (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post examining the case for asserting that all children are gifted and/or talented.

It examines a range of expressions implying that ability of some kind is universally distributed so that everyone has a share, even if it is not an equal share.

Part One set out:

  • my own current, consensus-based position on the ever-contentious issue of the balance between nature and nurture in the development of ability (in a nutshell, each typically accounts for 40-60%);
  • a basic typology of ‘all children are…’ statements and some initial comments about each type;
  • three questions that effectively test the meaning and robustness of such statements; and
  • the bulk of the Twitter exchange that prompted the post, exemplifying some typical statements one hears when such matters are discussed – and some personal learning points that emerged from the exchange.

In this second part, I analyse some examples of ‘all children are…’ statements, each of which illustrates a different part of my typology:

  • (what I believe to be) a shorthand expression of the consensus position or something broadly similar – the arguments advanced consistently by Sir Ken Robinson over the past 13 years, most recently at a Schools Network Conference on the theme Every Child Has Talent; and
  • the ‘outlier’ position – the social constructivist interpretation of giftedness, as it emerges from the writings of James Borland and as subsequently expressed in the doctoral thesis of UK academic Barry Hymer.

Michael Gove’s Sermon on The Parable of the Talents

Michael Gove meets Arne Duncan courtesy of USembassy London

Michael Gove addressed the Conservative Christian Fellowship in a little-reported political speech – the Fellowship’s Annual Wilberforce Address – on 9 December 2011,

After the usual encomium to William Wilberforce, Gove ‘takes as his text’ The Parable of the Talents. Having given his interpretation of the Parable, he offers us an exegesis which, unusually for him, includes an over-complex and questionably constructed sentence (the second below):

‘The first thing it acknowledges is that all of us do have different talents. Some of us have the gifts of eloquence or intelligence or wisdom or foresight but with the others, not so gifted in those conspicuous ways, who have other gifts of gentleness or forbearance or kindness, yet others who will have talents in the field of sport or music or art but I believe that every single one of us will have a talent. And sometimes that talent may exist in generating warmth and love and charity in others. I think one of the most striking things is that is it often the case that there are people who appear not to have the intellectual ability or the physical charm or the career enhancing qualities that the world currently values, who may be overlooked but they will have a talent for inspiring love and devotion in others and that talent is as worth nurturing as any.’

He continues:

‘The parable of course acknowledges that each of us have those individual and different talents and it reflects on the fact that anyone who is in charge of education has to work hard to find out what the talents of individuals are and give them an appropriate platform.

But the parable also places an injunction on those who have those talents, to use them. And one of the things that I am conscious of, as Secretary of State for Education, is that we are not using all the talents of all our people to the utmost in this country. And of course whenever any Education Secretary makes a remark like that there is always a tendency for some to say, “ah, there he goes, he’s a pessimist, he’s accentuating the negative, this is a prelude to a criticism of our young people and how things were much better in his day.” Well let me nail each of those myths on the head. I am not a pessimist, I am an optimist about human nature and potential. I think there is almost no limit to what young people in this country can achieve, if well-led, well-educated and provided with the right values…

…But while we can be optimistic about the future, we need to be realistic about our present state and some of the deficiencies in our education system…’

Note that the idea of everyone having a talent is initially expressed as a belief rather than a fact but, second time around, it has become a fact, evidenced and reflected by the Parable. A little later on, the references to individual talent are extended to all young people, but Gove’s optimism about translating young people’s universal potential into achievement is made dependent on leadership, education and values.

In this context, ‘talent’ is being interpreted in the widest possible sense, to encompass, for example, physical charm and inspiring love in others. One might reasonably criticise the statement because it presupposes that these talents are mutually exclusive – that those who are not blessed with ‘eloquence, intelligence or wisdom’ may be compensated through the bestowal of ‘gentleness, forbearance and kindness’.

If we apply the third of our stress-testing questions (see Part One), it appears that these are talents relative to other features of the individual, rather than relative to one’s peer group (however defined): Gove is saying that everyone has something they do better than others, rather than everyone is better than (most) other people at something.

This echoes a similar but shorter passage in the Prime Minister’s September 2011 speech on education:

‘There’s something else we believe: that every child is different, with different interests and different talents.’

But, having begun in this fashion, Gove moves on to consider the narrower range of talents that can be nurtured and supported through education.

Unusually, he feels no compunction to counter allegations that he is embracing ‘elitism’ and its handmaiden ‘excellence’ (two words that are also regularly deployed in a loose and unhelpful fashion). That may be because he is addressing a Conservative audience.

But he has taken care to establish that academic ability is just one kind of talent – and that other kinds of talent are ‘as worth nurturing as any’. This is sufficient for him to set aside such emotional talents in favour of academic ability.

While Cameron argues:

‘We want to create an education system based on real excellence, with a complete intolerance of failure….The trouble is for years we’ve been bogged down in a great debate about how we get there. Standards or structures? Learning by rote or by play? Elitism or all winning prizes? Frankly, I think these debates are now over, because it’s clear what works. Discipline works. Rigour works. Freedom for schools works. Having high expectations works.’

Gove moves straight into the now familiar arguments about educational excellence, expressed as ever in terms of progression to Oxford and Cambridge Universities:

‘Only 0.5% of pupils in maintained schools, manage to make it to Oxbridge. In towns like Reading the entire population of children who make it to Oxbridge come from just two schools. Two superb schools, Reading School and Kendrick but they are selective schools. No pupils at all progressed to Oxbridge this year from Portsmouth. Although over half the schools in authorities which had pupils progressing were from schools which were independent. It’s a massive waste of talent. More than that, it’s an affront to all our consciences because we should be, just as Wilberforce was, animated by a deep and burning sense of anger at the way in which many souls in this country, in this year, are enslaved. Enslaved by ignorance, enslaved by lack of opportunity, enslaved by a poverty of aspiration that means they never fulfil their full potential.

Now, I am not so much of a romantic or an idealistic that I believe that a child in a comprehensive school in Lewisham or in Lambeth will have exactly the same arithmetical chances of making it to Oxford or Cambridge or any great university, as a child who has gone to school at Eton or St Paul’s School for Girls, but what I do believe is that this massive gulf is unjustifiable, unsustainable, illogical. It must be the case that there are children of talent and ability, intellectual talent and ability who are not being sufficiently well taught or well motivated or well supported and who are not making it, who are not fulfilling their talents. They lie buried when they should be treasured. And it’s not just academic ability.’

Gove proceeds in the speech to lay out his policy agenda for changing this situation. This is not the place to analyse that agenda or to assess its chances of success (we have addressed this several times in earlier posts). It is enough on this occasion to have exemplified how ‘all have talent’ phrases can be appropriated by skilled politicians, and not only those of a socialist disposition.

The Ken Robinson Manifesto

Ken Robinson courtesy of Learning Without Frontiers

The Twitter exchange that concluded the first part of this post began with my provocative Tweet referencing this newspaper account of Sir Ken Robinson’s contribution to the Schools Network Conference.

The journalist quotes him:

‘Every child has talent. It’s just a question of teasing it out.’

Now, that statement is not quite the same as saying that all students’ individual talents should be nurtured. It is subtly different to my:

‘Every child has gifts and talents’

and Gove’s:

‘Every single one of us will have a talent’.

The absence of an indefinite article or a plural suggests that the word ‘talent’ is being used to mean ‘a measurable level of high potential’ rather than ‘one thing they’re relatively better at than others’.

There are, of course, many different definitions of ‘talent’, but we could select Gagne’s as being one of the best-known:

‘Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.’

But how can Robinson be adopting the illogical position that everyone – so 100% of the entire population with no exceptions – has skills that are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance? He must have a different definition of talent that allows it be possessed by everyone, or he must be expressing a belief rather than an evidenced position. But this context is missing.

Unfortunately there seems to be no full record of Robinson’s contribution to the conference. A summary of the presentation produced by The Schools Network offers a slightly different perspective:

‘Calling for schools to undertake their own revolution in how they operate, he identified the interface with Government as a major source of confusion, with Government’s constantly changing agendas having a “schizophrenic” quality to them.

Accordingly, creativity must be at the heart of this revolution – it is the “Holy Grail” for business and essential for future economic growth, particularly in the context of constantly changing industries and job markets.

This means abandoning the linear assumption that the courses studied at school or university will have a clear bearing on our future employment and instead offering a broad ranging curriculum which allows every child to explore and develop their talents.

…Sir Ken said: “Communities depend on a great variety of talents and human talent is tremendously diverse. “We often don’t know our talents until we have full access to them.’

Here we are firmly back to the position where all children have things they’re better at than others: ‘Every child has talent’ has morphed into a version in which ‘every child’ has ‘their talents’. That plural ‘s’ makes all the difference!

Confused? Perhaps Robinson’s earlier presentations will explain exactly where he is coming from on this vexed question of the incidence of talent…

The Initial Development of Robinson’s Hypothesis

In May 1999, Robinson Chaired a National Advisory Group on Creative and Cultural Education that produced the Report to Government: ‘All Our Futures: Creativity and Cultural Education’.

The Report focuses on ‘creativity’ rather than ‘talent’, but the latter term (usually in its plural form) gets drawn into the mix, along with several others. The series of quotations below show the substance of the argument:

‘It is sometimes thought that only very rare people are creative and that creativity involves unusual talents. ..The elite conception of creativity is important because it focuses attention on creative achievements which are of historic originality, which push back the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. These achievements constitute the highest levels of creativity. Education must certainly nurture young people who are capable of such achievements. But there are other considerations.’

‘In our view, all people are capable of creative achievement in some area of activity, provided the conditions are right and they have acquired the relevant knowledge and skills.Moreover, a democratic society should provide opportunities for everyone to succeed according to their own strengths and abilities. Meeting the various challenges we have described, economic, technological, social, and personal, involves realising the capacities of all young people, and not only those with obviously exceptional ability’.

‘We…define creativity as: Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.’

‘Creativity is a basic capacity of human intelligence. Human intelligence is not only creative, but diverse and multifaceted. It is for this reason that we argue that all young people have creative capacities and they all have them differently.’

‘Creativity is best construed not as a single power, which you either have or do not, but as multidimensional.’

‘Research and common sense suggest four key principles:

all young people have a wide range of abilities;

these abilities are dynamically related and interactive;

all children have strengths in different areas of ability;

success in one area can stimulate self-esteem and encourage success in others.

‘By broadening our understanding of the capabilities of all children, we will reassess the potential of those who, in conventional terms, are thought to be less able’.

‘There is an obvious sense in which children cannot be ‘taught’ creativity in the way that they can be taught the times tables. Creative processes do draw from knowledge and practical skills. It is also the case that there are various techniques to facilitate creative thinking. But this does not mean that children are taught creativity by direct instruction. We define creative teaching in two ways: first, teaching creatively, and second, teaching for creativity…By teaching for creativity we mean forms of teaching that are intended to develop young people’s own creative thinking or behaviour.’

The first obvious point to make is that creativity is not quite the same thing as talent. Robinson defines creativity for us, but his definition is imprecise without quantification of ‘original’ and ‘of value’. We understand him to mean something that is within the scope of everyone.

He causes further confusion by saying that ‘creativity involves unusual talents’ without explaining the relationship between these two terms. He also makes a distinction between ‘creativity’ (a basic capacity of human intelligence that all possess) and ‘creative achievement’ (which depends in part on the right conditions and the possession of knowledge and skills) and, for good measure, adds ‘creative thinking’ and ‘creative behaviour’ into the mix.

This makes it difficult to synthesise the argument but it seems that the most essential points, placed in the most logical order, are:

  • young people have different levels of creativity
  • all young people have (different) creative capacities as part of human intelligence
  • everyone is capable of (different levels of) creative achievement in the right conditions and if they have the necessary knowledge and skills
  • teaching for creativity develops young people’s creative thinking and creative behaviour

Synthesising still further, we might say that, while creativity is partly heritable (because we all have creative capacities – albeit different capacities – at birth), its expression through creative achievement – at all levels – is partly dependent on a supportive environment. If the environment is supportive, creative achievement will be much more widespread than it it is currently assumed to be. And teaching for creativity is part of this supportive environment.

It seems, then, that Robinson is simply expressing the consensual view in which talent (or, in this case, creativity) depends on a blend of nature and nurture. But, if he is making broadly the same argument as I did at the beginning of Part One, he never seems to say so explicitly.

By never calling a spade a spade, he makes it much more likely that those who sincerely believe that everyone has talent will identify in him a champion for those beliefs. That may or may not be his intention.

The Hypothesis Rephrased

Seven years on, Robinson’s 2006 TED talk develops his theme, beginning to advance the theory that education is part of the problem as well as part of the potential solution. He begins with the statement:

My contention is all kids have tremendous talents and we squander them. Pretty ruthlessly’

On this occasion too, he speaks of ‘talents’ not ‘talent’, but never defines either term, or quantifies what he means by ‘tremendous’. Moreover, he quickly switches the discourse from ‘talents’ to ‘creativity’.

He has refined his definition of creativity to:

‘the process of having original ideas that have value’

which remains within the compass of all, while leaving largely unspoken the fact that some people will have relatively more ideas of relatively greater originality and relatively higher value than others.

The argument, distilled into its key phrases, remains broadly the same, but now introduces an added dimension, advancing the idea that our approach to schooling – and indeed the pre-eminence of academic ability – is antithetical to creativity:

‘We are educating children out of their creative capacities…our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability…academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence…the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not…we need to radically rethink our view about intelligence…intelligence is diverse…dynamic…distinct…we must reconstitute our conception of human capacity…seeing our children for the hope that they are.’

While it is a reasonable argument that schools should value and support the development of different kinds of ability, this statement also creates the unfortunate impression that academic ability and creativity are entirely unrelated – and also implies that academic ability is somehow over-rated when compared with creativity.

Robinson develops the theme in his 2008 RSA talk ‘Changing Educational Paradigms’by introducing an explanation of causation:

‘Public education was driven by an economic imperative of the time…which was essentially the enlightenment view of intelligence…And this is deep in the gene pool of public education; there are only two types of people – academic and non-academic; smart people and non-smart people…’

but then he is diverted into a commentary on divergent thinking:

Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but it’s an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question to think what Edward de Bono would probably call laterally – to think not just in linear or convergent ways. To seek multiple answers, not one.

...we all have this capacity [divergent thinking] and…it mostly deteriorates…’

In this – and in a parallel US presentation – Robinson is careful to point out that divergent thinking is not the same as creativity. In the US presentation he says:

‘Divergent thinking is not the same thing as creativity, but it is a good example of it. It’s the capacity to think non-logically: to think analogically and associatively’.

So it seems as though divergent thinking is both a dimension of ‘creative capacity’ and an example of creativity.

The case for the deterioration of divergent thinking with age is made on the strength of a single research study which is not properly referenced but is drawn from ‘Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today’ (1998) by Land and Jarman

Robinson says that, of 1,500 individuals undertaking longitudinal testing for divergent thinking, 98% scored at ‘genius level’ as kindergarten pupils, but this percentage declined when they were tested at ages 8-10 and still further at ages 13-15.

Robinson doesn’t quote the later statistics in his RSA talk but, in the US presentation they are given as:

Kindergarten 98%

8-10 32%

13-15 10%

Adult 2% (the test now administered to 200,000 adults)

Leaving aside the issue of the precise relationship between divergent thinking and creativity, and whether other research supports the findings, this critique by Professor Daniel Willingham suggests that the reason for this decline may have more to do with ‘functional fixedness’ than that schooling is responsible for the increasing dominance of convergent thinking.

By 2010, in his follow-up TED talk, Robinson is still pursuing the same course, but has reverted to discussing it in terms of ‘talents’:

‘I believe fundamentally…that we make very poor use of our talents. Very many people go through their whole lives having no real sense of what their talents may be, or if they have any to speak of. I meet all kinds of people who don’t think they’re really good at anything.

education, in a way, dislocates very many people from their natural talents. And human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves. And you might imagine education would be the way that happens, but too often it’s not.

human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. … At the heart of the challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and of intelligence.

I think we have to recognize a couple of things here. One is that human talent is tremendously diverse. People have very different aptitudes.

.We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.’

There is nothing here that is fundamentally inconsistent with the idea that talent depends on a blend of heritability and environment, though it remains easy for those taking an ‘all children have talent’ line to interpret Robinson’s words as meaning precisely that. Hence his arguments are often seized on by those with an ‘anti-elitist’ axe to grind.

This is because he chooses to underplay the point that some have potential for achievement at higher levels than others. He also prefers to put a particular slant on the contribution of the educational environment, emphasising its tendency to prevent mass low level creative achievement, rather than its capacity to develop high level creative achievement.

He justifies this on the grounds that a more inclusive approach maximises the creative contribution of humanity, which is the optimal solution for society and the economy. But this is not an either/or choice – we desperately need both!

Rather than embrace Robinson’s vision, I prefer a differentiated ‘pyramid’ approach to creative talent development, as exemplified by this programme, which outlines a process designed to bring out the best in every student, by building up provision through four levels of service:

‘Level I: Services for All Students
Opportunities that provide foundational skills and tools that help all students to discover and build their personal strengths and talents.

Level II: Services for Many Students
Opportunities that invite students to engage in activities through which they can investigate their interests and verify areas in which they may demonstrate strengths and talent potentials.

Level III: Services for Some Students
Opportunities that involve alternative learning activities for students to engage in rigorous and complex learning based on their demonstrated performance and documented needs in areas of strength and sustained interest.

Level IV: Services for a Few Students
Advanced opportunities that respond to the unique needs of individual students who have demonstrated outstanding ability, expertise, motivation and passion to learn in a talent domain or academic area.’

Provided that access to level 1 is universal, learners are encouraged to progress up the levels to a zone that is challenging (but not excessively so), but have some degree of control over the decision whether or not to progress, rather than being selected automatically into the higher levels.

The Social Constructivist Position: Borland

This post cannot be a treatise on social constructivist beliefs because I know too little about them and have even less sympathy with the tenets of such thinking. This explanation is a useful starting point for those of us who are not yet familiar with it.

Within the gifted education context, this type of position seems to be associated most often with James Borland.

In a 1997 paper ‘The Construct of Giftedness’, Borland argues that:

‘…giftedness, especially in children and adolescents in the schools, is something we as a field have constructed or invented through our writing and talking, not something we have discovered…To state that a construct is socially constructed is to state that it gains its meaning, even its existence, from people’s interactions, especially their discourse. Concepts and constructs that are socially constructed thus acquire their properties and their influence through the give and take of social interaction, not through the slow accretion of empirical facts about a pre-existing entity, at least not exclusively.’

Borland surmises that, whereas we have discovered, rather than invented, what we know about the brain, the same is not true of intelligence. Moreover, the emergence of giftedness as a construct is linked historically with development of the parallel construct of intelligence.

While the construct of giftedness has been many times revised, belief in its objective existence has only recently been challenged.

He quotes another academic, Sapon-Shevin:

‘Recognising giftedness as a social construct means acknowledging that, without school rules and policies, legal and educational practices designed to provide services to gifted students, this category, per se, would not exist. This is not to say that we would not have tremendous variation in the ways in which children present themselves in schools or even in the rates and ways in which they learn, but the characteristics of giftedness, possessed exclusively by an identifiable group of students, only exists within a system that, for a variety of reasons, wishes to measure, select and sort students in this manner.’ (Playing Favourites, 1994)

Borland envisages a future when, instead of distinguishing between gifted and non-gifted students, we will address the individual educational needs of each child.

He develops this theme in a 2005 Paper ‘Gifted Education Without Gifted Children: The Case for No Conception of Giftedness’:

‘…the construct of the gifted child is not necessary for, and perhaps is a barrier to, achieving the goals that brought this field into existence in the first place. In other words, I argue that we can, and should, have gifted education without gifted children…

…I am suggesting that we dispense with the concept of giftedness – and such attendant things as definitions, identification procedures, and pull-out programs – and focus instead on the goal of differentiating curricula and instruction for all of the diverse students in our schools’.

Though I come to it via an entirely different route, I have much personal sympathy with the argument that our priority should be gifted education rather than giftedness, in the context of effective curriculum differentiation for all.

But my preliminary view of social constructivism in the field is articulated by David Yun Dai in his Paper ‘Essential Tensions Around the Concept of Giftedness’ in The International Handbook of Giftedness Vol 2, Ed Shavinina (2007):

‘In its radical form, however, deconstruction and anti-essentialism represented by Foucault and Derrida, can also border on nihilism and cynicism. All forms of knowledge are nothing but devices of social control, of gaining economic advantages, or simply a language game. From this extreme point of view, the rationality of scientific endeavor is simply an illusion…The temptation towards this direction should be resisted, in my opinion.’

The Social Constructivist Position: Barry Hymer

While I support the idea that giftedness could helpfully be set aside in favour of gifted education, I am far less supportive of those who deploy social constructivism to argue, not that there is no such thing as giftedness in children (as Borland does), but the reverse – that all children are gifted.

I take as an example the work of UK consultant Barry Hymer, now installed as Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Cumbria.

(Incidentally, I know Barry quite well and like him too, so I hope he won’t take this as unhelpful negative criticism. It’s probably fair to say that my thinking is closer to his now than it has ever been – but there is still a yawning chasm in this one respect.)

Barry’s biographical page on the University’s website says:

‘An interest in talent development has been an enduring thread throughout his career, as has a commitment to non-deterministic approaches to such concepts as intelligence, ability and giftedness, and a drive to expose those areas of educational policy which diverge from the promptings of educational research….

…Though his early research was characterised by an allegiance to the positivist, experimental tradition, over the past decade Barry has been persuaded by the potential of naturalistic research (especially interpretative inquiry and action research) to bridge the frequent divide between educational theory and classroom practice, and to help teachers and other practitioner-researchers deepen and inform their understandings of their own capacity to create unique and intellectually convincing accounts of practice – thereby creating new educational theory in the process…

…Alongside his theoretical writings Barry has investigated the ways in which social constructivism informs and invigorates actual classroom practice – especially in the potential of such approaches as Philosophy for Children (P4C) and Dilemma-Based Learning to transform children’s (and teachers’) learning and lives.’

The reference here to exposing policy that ‘diverge[s] from the promptings of educational research’ is strangely at odds with the social constructivist position, as expressed in Barry’s own doctoral thesis How do I understand and communicate my values and beliefs in my work as an educator in the field of giftedness?’ (2007).

(I will wager that ‘promptings’ has been introduced in place of ‘evidence’, a word which would make this dissonance even more pronounced.)

For this is not a typical, traditional doctoral study – the kind that builds on the foundations of empirical research – as the Abstract readily admits:

‘I document my attempt to critique – and to contribute to a transformation of – dominant epistemologies in the field of gifted and talented education, and to describe and explain my own compromised relationship with this field of enquiry…I describe and explain the source of my dissatisfaction with traditional western, rationalist approaches to the field of gifted and talented education, with their instrumentalist, dualistic, individualistic, pragmatic, tool-for-result…knowing-centred associations… I record also how…I have moved in the direction of creating and living my core personal and educational values…

These include the value of individual intellectual respect as a contributor to the creation of generative-transformational giftedness – i.e. giftedness which is co-constructed (not identified) in a social, relationally respectful, activity-oriented, dialectical, tool-and-result (Vygotsky, 1978) manner and context. I make a claim to originality in scholarship in articulating the emergence of the value-laden concept of generative-transformational giftedness and its latent fecundity in and relevance to the field of gifted and talented education. To this end, I suggest an inclusional, non-dualistic alternative to the identification or discovery of an individual’s gifts and talents by arguing that activity- and development-centred (not knowing-centred) learning-leading-development (Vygotsky, ibid.) environments lead not to the identification of gifts and talents but to their creation.

OK, so the language is fairly typical of a doctoral thesis, but let’s leave that to one side!

This statement is heresy to those of us who – while instilled with healthy scepticism prompted by the ideological underpinnings of some more ‘traditional’ educational research and the bias that results – are otherwise broadly positive about the significance of ‘evidence-based policy-making’.

Hymer sets out his beliefs, values and principles, as originally articulated in 2002. They include:

  • Giftedness and talent are best seen as relative rather than absolute terms, within the context both of an individual child’s profile of strengths and weaknesses and his or her wider learning environment’;
  • The school has an important role in helping every child to identify his or her gift/s or talent/s’;
  • The school should take steps actively to implement teaching and learning procedures and methods which will accommodate the principles set out above.’

These were manifested in a contemporaneous definition of a gifted student he adopted, which is articulated in the second part of the thesis:

‘A gifted or talented student is regarded as one who has:

  • experienced a degree of facilitated self-reflection on his or her pattern of learning strengths and preferences, and:
  • identified his or her area(s) of greatest strength(s) within the framework of an enriched or extended learning environment.’

He adds:

‘There was the potential…for 100% of a school’s roll to be identified as gifted or talented – but only through the rejection of a norm-referenced, comparative understanding of the term, in which a child is gifted because she is objectively “better,” “brighter,” “more successful” than another, in any given domain...Instead, there is the potential for the term to be conceived in ontogenetic terms, in which a child (any child) is seen to have a gift in a domain, because relative to her other interests, aptitudes or performances, this domain emerges as a relative strength or focus of energies.’

So, for Hymer, giftedness and talent are ‘best seen’ in terms of what a learner is best at, rather than through any comparison with other learners. Identification is fundamentally a matter for the learner and depends entirely on facilitated self-reflection within an appropriate learning environment.

Towards the end of the thesis, Hymer explains his new concept of ‘generative-transformational giftedness’. This is:

‘proposed as a theoretical scientific model – not a literal picture of ‘reality’ – but a personally meaningful, partial and provisional way of imagining the unobservable.’

He toys with following Borland’s line:

‘If we need the term, perhaps it’s the education, not the children who are best seen as gifted. When it’s the ‘gifted children,’ we will always be content to identify those who’ve already benefited from their opportunities. When it’s their education, we can touch the hard-to-reach and the disadvantaged.’

But then retraces his steps, offering something approaching a succinct definition:

‘From this socio-constructivist perspective…I argue that just as individuals build their knowledge through language and social interaction, so can gifts be built, created or made – rather than identified, discovered or found. This will in large measure be dependent on the social and relational element at the heart (in more than one sense) of generative transformational giftedness – as socio-cognitive processes emerge through the activating and development of higher-order thinking skills, which in turn arise from the relationships a person sustains with his or her social environments.’

This insistence on the environmental dimension of giftedness, combined with the absolute denial of any heritable dimension, produces an extreme ‘outlier’ position which is nevertheless cloaked in academic respectability.

It is only possible to hold this position by denying the validity of all empirical research, which seems fully consistent with the social-constructivist perspective, or by cherry-picking only that research which is supportive of the argument.

Politicians and policy-makers are often accused of the latter, but academics should really know better.

As for the former, what is the ultimate point? For me this is a dead end that helps no-one.

Whether all children are gifted, or none are gifted, or something in between, the fundamental problem remains the one that Borland identified – how to respond optimally through effective differentiation to meet every learner’s uniquely different needs, (recognising that ‘every learner’ includes those who are already high-achieving), enabling each and every learner to be the best that they can be, building on their strengths and weaknesses alike, and placing no artificial limits on their progress.

Rather than dancing on the end of Aquinas’s pin, we would better serve the needs of these learners if we were to establish effective practice in gifted education and apply it consistently throughout our education systems.

By continuing to quibble over the nature and incidence of giftedness, rather than accepting a consensual view with all its imperfections, we materially reduce our chances of success.

Our ideological posturing obstructs real progress and is of zero benefit to the gifted learner, whether he is everyman or none.


January 2012

Gifted Phoenix Twitter Round-up: Number 3

This is the third in my series of monthly round-ups of @GiftedPhoenix Twitter activity related to gifted education and associated subjects.

It covers the period from 15 December 2011 to 11 January 2012 inclusive.

I am still experimenting with the best way to collate and present this information. On this occasion I have opted for fairly comprehensive coverage but have divided tweets into three categories, each presented in chronological order:

  • News items on gifted education outside the UK
  • News and comment on issues pertinent to gifted education within the UK
  • Research and opinion

I have only included tweets that contain a hyperlink to another source. (I haven’t rechecked that all these work, so apologies if you encounter any broken links.)

The vast majority are my own tweets; a handful are modified tweets or retweets of originals sent by others. I have stripped out all addresses and hashtags. I have also corrected a few typos – otherwise the wording is unchanged.

If you have any feedback about how I could improve the usefulness of these Twitter round-up posts, do please use the comments facility below.

Global News

Kenya’s Talent Development Programme reaches Mombasa – http://t.co/aN5V89oM

Presentation outlining the differentiated maths curriculum in Singapore’s gifted primary programme – http://t.co/CaojtBKg

An interview with Miraca Gross – http://t.co/rCpOypwW

Filipino gifted education – http://t.co/komMoOGs – Apparently the gifted are considered ‘a laughing minority in any country’!

Does the US education system discriminate against high achievers? – http://t.co/hu6OWAl8 – An uncomfortable read…

A database of presentations accepted for the 2012 giftEDnz conference – http://t.co/AOJcK4Bk

Begavede barn er oftere deprimert http://t.co/vAI9mXZi A perception I don’t really share from Norway

21/12 LEGCO question on HK Academy for Gifted Education including primary support: http://t.co/Oa8MFaUX Answer not yet in Hansard

Ingenius Scholarships awarded to 1000 Indian students with ‘all-round talent’ – http://t.co/VHTF8AgW

Twice Exceptional Newsletter 21 December 2011 – http://t.co/m33inX18

An interview with the Philippine Association for the Gifted – http://t.co/g6omzYYj

Kuwait’s National Center for #Gifted signs MOU with the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation – http://t.co/Xg8FB52W

Interview with Elaine Tuttle Hansen – new Director of CTY at Johns Hopkins: http://t.co/haaEhmxU

What is the relationship between Massachusetts’ strong educational record and a limited approach to gifted education? http://t.co/2KinF116

Press release on the January ICIE/Dubai Women’s College conference on Excellence in Education – http://t.co/qdp42fX1

Comprehensive German perspective on gifted provision at pre-school level – http://t.co/i63ra9vN

Who Is Currently Identified as Gifted in the United States? http://t.co/Xlx0XZ3x

Dropout Nation takes on those claiming that NCLB held back high attainers -and takes a sideswipe at gifted education: http://t.co/vIONxkyX

African Gifted makes national news in Zanzibar! http://t.co/mmoHvhiH

Blog sensibly suggests CTY should collaborate with JHU’s school of education: http://t.co/uqHRhIbW – Often wondered why they haven’t

Azerbaijan is considering the introduction of a range of different specialist schools for gifted learners – http://t.co/picmiuRp

Azerbaijan is also considering following Kazakhstan in introducing a centre for ifted children (actually a ‘bank’) – http://t.co/KCawGemV

Article about Verity Prep, a school for gifted children in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa – http://t.co/CDJBIZb8

Twice Exceptional Newsletter 9 January 2012 – http://t.co/4Yp8Fvpv

Nova Scotia Summit Gifted Education & Talent Development – NEAG on tour in NS! http://t.co/NyLmuVhQ

The Global Center for Gifted and Talented Children on Facebook – Gifted education from around the world http://t.co/Ty1TPq7G

UK News

Percentage of KS2 pupils achieving L5 in both English and maths fell from 23% in 2010 to 21% in 2011: http://t.co/8X8bw4Lv

Only 72% of KS1 pupils with L3+ in KS1 achieve KS2 L5 English; comparable figure for maths is 84% – http://t.co/8X8bw4Lv (Table 5)

Only 61% of pupils with L3+ in KS1 English and maths combined achieve L5+ in KS2 English and maths combined – http://t.co/V1FUZCdy

So a staggering 39% of KS1 pupils at L3 in both Eng and maths are not making the expected progress across KS2: http://t.co/V1FUZCdy

HUGE variation by school in percentage of pupils with KS1 L3+ in Eng and ma achieving level 5+ in both at KS2: http://t.co/bgCDkxq0

My comments on today’s league tables blog by Polly Curtis here – http://t.co/XmFax0n2 – are here – http://t.co/ock9iCPE

Daily Mail on underachieving high achievers in primary schools – http://t.co/kCjrTCSA – but will ‘shining a light’ improve matters?

Are primary schools failing clever kids? http://t.co/RIbVcc92 Many condone gifted underachievement. So what will we do about it?

I accept DfE’s denial of ex independent selective academies: http://t.co/4LuNKlsc but I don’t see what Roskilly gains by making it up…

The Concord Review publishes secondary students’ academic research – http://t.co/hxyaVoHN – Would DfE/BIS support GT Voice to do the same?

Positive for Youth (para 4.30): ‘The NC Review…will take account of the needs of…the most able’: http://t.co/Zl7bdZLW

Time to stop ability labelling? http://t.co/fHIRvS0U No levels or sets and, for consistency, mustn’t we ditch eg SEND labelling?

Read Ingotian’s tight treatment on shifting the bell curve. How many realistically will be left sub C? http://t.co/RlTjHEei

Looks like another satisfied customer for London Gifted and Talented – http://t.co/fxGZfsSr

London Academy of Excellence (16-19 free school for gifted disadvantaged) now has its own website – http://t.co/kxczYCSf

London Academy of Excellence now asking only 5Bs at GCSE; seems to have dropped all criteria for disadvantage: http://t.co/lI4CX70V

But London Academy of Excellence still only offering 12 A level subjects – http://t.co/b1ir03Y4 – Verdict: a good idea much diluted

Compare with original LAE vision here: http://t.co/gPQXZS8m – that could have increased FSM flow to Oxbridge. Not now I fear

I guess the all-through School 21 will be a direct competitor: http://t.co/7aiYeKwd – Were both after the same premises at one time

The full text of Willetts’ speech at Policy Exchange this morning can be found here: http://t.co/ouALCqLq

Baroness Campbell: Olympic legacy for youth sport needs proper funding http://t.co/cRLHas9v

This preview of Twigg’s speech today suggests he might espouse progression by ability rather than age: http://t.co/xuEthClM Hope so

Further suggestions that the case against Aim Higher was less robust than claimed by Government – http://t.co/5Wq7AZ8k

Profile of Langley Hall Free School – http://t.co/djWDzxCB – ‘Every child has some talent’ but they must all learn to play the violin!

The full text of yesterday’s Twigg speech: http://t.co/yGb1Cs03 How does it relate to emerging Labour policy thinking announced by Burnham?

Grammar annexes would be useful if they enabled GS to take in lots more learners eligible for the pupil premium – http://t.co/bPiRLC3x

This plea for an end to ‘ability labels’ will run up against the new tripartite division in school performance tables – http://t.co/iamEoMr1

This Statement of Intent tells you how the primary + secondary performance tables are constructed: http://t.co/dfHaj78P

There’s an interesting difference between maths and English on the expected progress measure at KS2 – http://t.co/d4HfCb0N

Ahh! Regression to the mean again! Don’t think I ever saw the promised Feinstein defence of his diagram http://t.co/bGIEiAra

State schools should be more ambitious for their pupils – http://t.co/Kmhbpdcu – improved teaching standards are also key

What’s the best way for the independent sector to support social mobility?http://t.co/AxzSlgSr We need system-wide consensus

Direct link to DCMS’s new Youth Sports Strategy – http://t.co/jlidtZKo – a partial reinvention of PESSCL or a new approach?

Primary Performance Tables: in 15 schools 20% or more pupils at L3 at KS1 were still at L3 4 years later: http://t.co/PHp9OhKk

The Miliband relaunch speech – http://t.co/AzBIjSs3 – despite the theme, explicit commitments on social mobility are conspicuously absent

Benn analysis of contemporary selection fails to overlay academy/non-academy distinction or play in 16-19 free schools http://t.co/IUcYY4MP

Guardian has been let in on the Cambridge admissions process to see how it really works http://t.co/PLK6pkUS

Jowell calls for School Sports Coordinators to be retained to support new Youth Sports Strategy – http://t.co/1cIsIToW

Thorough coverage of Sevenoaks Grammar Annex story in Telegraph – http://t.co/xXOlwn8V – What price virtual grammar school annexes?

News at a Glance: Grammar schools move to introduce catchment areas – http://t.co/yOEURNPa

The Advocate for Access does his bit to get those last HE applications in before the 15 Jan deadline – http://t.co/8tWwBTuh

We have to nurture our ICT talent – http://t.co/DF3ek24p – Amen to that! Haven’t seen much yet about this dimension

Research and Opinion

Tiger mothers, Wolf dads and the reality of Chinese parenting – http://t.co/la7f98z6 – penned by the beautifully nomenclatured ‘Berlin Fang’

Yong Zhao restores some faith in education academics with this on PISA as a measure of ‘forced excellence’: http://t.co/AfRaTSLi

Continuing that theme, here’s Frederick Hess on ‘the new stupid’ part 1 – http://t.co/W46y7w3A r

Direct link to ONS’s fascinating analysis of UK human capital and why it’s begun to decline – http://t.co/rrQVsP71

The benefits of being gifted – http://t.co/Rfz1J4Cn (warning – rather checklisty)

An interview with Frank Worrell about that controversial ‘Rethinking Giftedness’ paper – http://t.co/TGycLq0N

Gifted kids with learning problems (Psychology Today) – http://t.co/bpjW0ytK

The relationship between giftedness and creativity) Psychology Today – http://t.co/sKbWglB6

Achievement as a function of effort and the need for personalised education – http://t.co/QhJ65H0Q r

Study: IQ isn’t fixed at birth, can increase with education. http://t.co/oPD6O0hB

Wide-ranging blog post on school and creativity – http://t.co/QeXO6XZN

Why Don’t We Value Spatial Intelligence? – http://t.co/fpkckYuc

Is Intelligence in the Genes? http://t.co/akELro8y

Two interesting posts on ability bias and the returns to education – http://t.co/Na9Yu1sx and http://t.co/dHwKHhgd

It pays to extend your next 5 minute argument with your teenager to the full half hour – http://t.co/S11wER8H – but focus on quality too!

How about this, on the interaction between Confucianism and creativity? – http://t.co/V38Uoq1q

We aren’t evolving higher intelligence because the evolutionary opportunity costs are too high http://t.co/Uh2Xv5mn

Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius? http://t.co/YxevdmGw – An article packed full of fascinating material. Brilliant!

Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments, Nisbett et al: http://t.co/acL9jrwG – Valuable round-up of latest research

The Advantages of the Middle-Age Brain – http://t.co/blQqEL4b – much needed boost for those of a certain age!

Fascinating new report for US consumption on OFSTED inspection regime – http://t.co/7HN3e9O6 – even quotes my old mate Ceri Morgan!

Communicate high expectations carefully – http://t.co/9tKeEihj – Incidence of depression amongst high-achieving Chinese students

Schooling in adolescence increases IQ scores: http://t.co/vG5zFmOJ (but only the abstract not the full text)


January 2012

Are All Children Gifted? (Part One)

I am starting the New Year with a deliberately controversial post. Part One establishes the controversy; Part Two will consider some specific examples.

A few weeks ago I had a lively debate with several fellow Tweeters about whether every child has talent. It could just as well have been about whether every child is gifted.

I am always suspicious of statements that begin: ‘Every child…’, especially when they drop from the lips of educational experts. Perhaps the only one I would willingly and immediately endorse is ‘Every child is different’, which tends to undermine almost every alternative formulation one can possibly contemplate.

Where do I stand?

Just occasionally I will use the phrase ‘every child has gifts and talents’. At one level this is just a vague and populist statement – the kind that every parent wants to hear – meaning ‘every child is rather better at some thing(s) than others’.

But, at a deeper level, it is shorthand for the position I hold on the ever-vexed question of the interaction between nature and nurture in the determination of ability; a position that I believe reflects a broad consensus (though several authorities defend positions that lie outwith these parameters).

In my view, the cumulative weight of evidence tends to support the position that:

  • Every child has a unique mix of inherited dispositions which influences their relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as the relative strength of those strengths and weaknesses. (Such dispositions relate to eg motivation, resilience, self-esteem, as well as to narrower conceptions of ability.) It follows that, while all will have some vestiges of ability, some will inherit a relatively greater propensity towards high ability (and high achievement) than others;
  • Every child’s development is influenced significantly by their environment – including their educational environment – and by the interaction between their inherited dispositions and that environment. There is a range of wider environmental factors related to eg poverty, community, parental education and aspiration. Educational environment has a smaller but still significant impact through the development of ‘learned ability’, as well as through the translation of ability into achievement. Some educational environments and practices may be significantly more conducive than others, offering eg universal high expectations, an ethos supportive of excellence and proper emphasis on a ‘growth mindset’. More accurately perhaps, one might say that some learners experience a better match between their dispositions and their (educational) environment, since every child is different;
  • Consequently, heritability and environment are both significant determinants of ability. In some cases, environmental benefits will compensate for limited heritability and, in others, the opposite will be true. It follows that someone with limited heritable ability can compensate through learned skills and effort – and someone blessed with heritable riches may need to try less hard. But these two factors are not always easy to unravel (eg effort cannot be regarded solely as a product of environment, unaffected by heritable dispositions). Typically though, heritability and environment are relatively balanced: we might expect each to account for some 40-60% of the causation of ability, though there will be exceptions.

I should emphasise that this is not a fixed position. The language is far from perfect (especially since I haven’t defined my terms) and, even more importantly, I am always ready to adjust the argument to reflect new evidence and new learning.

But, that aside, when I say ‘every child has gifts and talents’, my statement really stands proxy for the first segment of this explanation, which will not stand without the other two legs of the argument.

Stress Testing ‘All Children Have…’ Arguments

When I encounter ‘all children are gifted’ statements made by others, I find that they tend to fall into one of four different categories:

a. value judgements (occasionally descending into vacuous idealism);

b. politically convenient rhetoric designed to bolster an anti-elitist or non-elitist stance;

c. shorthand for the broad consensual position I have outlined above, or something relatively similar;

d. a justified ‘outlier’ position, most often advanced by those who see giftedness as a social construct and nothing more.

Part Two of this post will look at examples of each of the latter three categories.

When such statements are proffered, three related questions help to determine exactly what is meant:

  • First, is the word or phrase that completes the statement properly defined, in a way that is easily understood, and without relying on additional terminology that is itself not properly defined?
  • Second, is the word or phrase deployed consistently in the rationale that follows, assuming there is a rationale, or is there unhelpful switching between ill-defined variants? In gifted education, some of these explain orders of magnitude (eg mildly gifted, highly gifted, profoundly gifted) but, leaving these aside, an embarrassment of riches remains: is gifted, has gifts, is talented, has talent, has a talent, has talents, has ability, has abilities, is able, has potential, is creative…and so on.
  • Third, and most importantly, is there a clearly defined comparator? Depending on the nature of the word or phrase, one hopes to be clear that the statement:
  • identifies a positive feature relative to other features of that individual, or
  • identifies a positive feature relative to that individual’s peers.

In the case of the latter, it is also important to know how the peer group is defined. Is it the child’s class at school for example, or every single child of that age, or every child regardless of age?

If one applies these three tests to my basic phrase ‘every child has gifts and talents’ it is clear that it fails on all three counts.

But I am not alone in such inexactitude. In 99% of cases, the underpinning rationale for ‘every child… statements will not pass muster when these three simple tests are applied. Worse still, the user is often not aware – or refuses to accept – that this is problematic.

Value Judgements, Political Rhetoric and Outliers

More often than not, the phrase is no more than a value judgement, or a broad ideological belief, rather like a belief in God. This happens all too frequently in contexts that masquerade as serious educational research.

All too often, the speaker or writer fails to admit this explicitly, preferring his auditors or readers to assume that a belief, if it is strongly enough maintained, automatically becomes an indisputable fact.

Religious authorities are particularly prone to such behaviour, and so are politicians, but it is also prevalent amongst educationalists, who should know better.

In a field like gifted education strong personal feelings and beliefs are aroused. Such value judgements are often articulated by educators who – rightly or wrongly – perceive gifted education to be exclusive and elitist.

The same goes for politicians, who tend to wield such statements when they wish to distance themselves from criticism that they are elitist in their educational beliefs and in the educational policies that they pursue. It is attractive, politically, to align oneself with the ideal of unlimited equality of opportunity – and sometimes this converts into the kind of statement this post is concerned with.

Sometimes such statements are posited on the idealistic belief (not usually well evidenced) that every single human individual begins life with unlimited capacity to excel – and that this capacity is only diminished as a consequence of shortcomings in their environment, including their educational environment.

I am not averse to being persuaded that such a position is factually true – and not a value judgement – but that would require a convincing explanation of why heritability has no impact on the ubiquity of this capacity to excel, when there is broad consensus that heritability and environment are both significant factors in determining such capacity, or its absence.

The ‘outliers’ who maintain that such capacity is predominantly heritable or, more likely, (almost) exclusively determined by environment seem to me to have scant evidence to support their positions. Those who see giftedness as a social construct might even argue that such evidence is irrelevant.

The Twitter Discussion

What better way to end this first part than to reproduce the bulk of the Twitter exchange I referred to above.

I do not offer this illustration with the intention of belittling or mocking the positions adopted by my interlocutors, but rather to exemplify the kinds of statements that get made during such discussions.

Some learning points for me were:

  • We tend to feel very strongly about such issues because they strike to the heart of our most fundamental educational and philosophical beliefs;
  • For some people, what we say is less important than how we say it. Evidence is necessary to belief for some people, while others hold fundamental beliefs regardless of the evidence. Effective communication between these two ‘types’ can be problematic;
  • Sometimes we are too ready to jump to conclusions about what others stand for: we project our own ‘anti-beliefs’ rather than really listening to what our interlocutor is saying. This can make our respective positions seem antithetical when they may actually be relatively similar;
  • It helps if the meaning of core terms is thrashed out at the outset, otherwise there is huge scope for misunderstanding;
  • Such discussions are nevertheless helpful in clarifying our own perceptions and understanding, as we are invited to defend our position against a rapid-fire critique from very different perspectives. They may be unlikely to help us reassess where we stand, but they may help to confirm and clarify our positions.

Of course I am biased but, if you ever need an example to prompt discussion in a learning setting about differing perceptions of gifted education, you may be pushed to find one better.


January 2012