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


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