What Has Become of the European Talent Network? Part One

This post discusses recent progress by the European Talent Centre towards a European Talent Network.

EU flag CaptureIt is a curtain-raiser for an imminent conference on this topic and poses the critical questions I would like to see addressed at that event.

It should serve as a briefing document for prospective delegates and other interested parties, especially those who want to dig beneath the invariably positive publicity surrounding the initiative.

It continues the narrative strand of posts I have devoted to the Network, concentrating principally on developments since my last contribution in December 2012.

 

Flag_of_HungaryThe post is organised part thematically and part chronologically and covers the following ground:

  • An updated description of the Hungarian model for talent support and its increasingly complex infrastructure.
  • The origins of the European Talent project and how its scope and objectives have changed since its inception.
  • The project’s advocacy effort within the European Commission and its impact to date.
  • Progress on the European Talent Map and promised annual European Talent Days and conferences.
  • The current scope and effectiveness of the network, its support structures and funding.
  • Key issues and obstacles that need to be addressed.

To improve readability I have divided the text into two sections of broadly equivalent length. Part One is dedicated largely to bullets one to three above, while Part Two deals with bullets three to six.

Previous posts in this series

If I am to do justice to this complex narrative, I must necessarily draw to some extent on material I have already published in earlier posts. I apologise for the repetition, which I have tried to keep to a minimum.

On re-reading those earlier posts and comparing them with this, it is clear that my overall assessment of the EU talent project has shifted markedly since 2010, becoming progressively more troubled and pessimistic.

This seems to me justified by an objective assessment of progress, based exclusively on evidence in the public domain – evidence that I have tried to draw together in these posts.

However, I feel obliged to disclose the influence of personal frustration at this slow progress, as well as an increasing sense of personal exclusion from proceedings – which seems completely at odds with the networking principles on which the project is founded.

I have done my best to control this subjective influence in the assessment below, confining myself as far as possible to an objective interpretation of the facts.

However I refer you to my earlier posts if you wish to understand how I reached this point.

  • In April 2011 I attended the inaugural conference in Budapest, publishing a report on the proceedings and an analysis of the Declaration produced, plus an assessment of the Hungarian approach to talent support as it then was and its potential scalability to Europe as a whole.
  • In December 2012 I described the initial stages of EU lobbying, an ill-fated 2012 conference in Poland, the earliest activities of the European Talent Centre and the evolving relationship between the project and ECHA, the European Council for High Ability.

I will not otherwise comment on my personal involvement, other than to say that I do not expect to attend the upcoming Conference, judging that the cost of attending will not be exceeded by the benefits of doing so.

This post conveys more thoroughly and more accurately the points I would have wanted to make during the proceedings, were suitable opportunities provided to do so.

A brief demographic aside

It is important to provide some elementary information about Hungary’s demographics, to set in context the discussion below of its talent support model and the prospects for Europe-wide scalability.

Hungary is a medium-sized central European country with an area roughly one-third of the UK’s and broadly similar to South Korea or Portugal.

It has a population of around 9.88 million (2013) about a sixth of the size of the UK population and similar in size to Portugal’s or Sweden’s.

Hungary is the 16th most populous European country, accounting for about 1.4% of the total European population and about 2% of the total population of the European Union (EU).

It is divided into 7 regions and 19 counties, plus the capital, Budapest, which has a population of 1.7 million in its own right.

RegionsHungary

Almost 84% of the population are ethnic Hungarians but there is a Roma minority estimated (some say underestimated) at 3.1% of the population.

Approximately 4 million Hungarians are aged below 35 and approximately 3.5m are aged 5-34.

The GDP (purchasing power parity) is $19,497 (source: IMF), slightly over half the comparable UK figure.

The Hungarian Talent Support Model

The Hungarian model has grown bewilderingly complex and there is an array of material describing it, often in slightly different terms.

Some of the English language material is not well translated and there are gaps that can be filled only with recourse to documents in Hungarian (which I can only access through online translation tools).

Much of this documentation is devoted to publicising the model as an example of best practice, so it can be somewhat economical with the truth.

The basic framework is helpfully illustrated by this diagram, which appeared in a presentation dating from October 2012.

EU talent funding Capture

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It shows how the overall Hungarian National Talent Programme (NTP) comprises a series of time-limited projects paid for by the EU Social Fund, but also a parallel set of activities supported by a National Talent Fund which is fed mainly by the Hungarian taxpayer.

The following sections begin by outlining the NTP, as described in a Parliamentary Resolution dating from 2008.

Secondly, they describe the supporting infrastructure for the NTP as it exists today.

Thirdly, they outline the key features of the time-limited projects: The Hungarian Genius Programme (HGP) (2009-13) and the Talent Bridges Programme (TBP) (2012-14).

Finally, they try to make sense of the incomplete and sometimes conflicting information about the funding allocated to different elements of the NTP.

Throughout this treatment my principal purpose is to show how the European Talent project fits into the overall Hungarian plan, as precursor to a closer analysis of the former in the second half of the post.

I also want to show how the direction of the NTP has shifted since its inception.

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The National Talent Programme (NTP) (2008-2028)

The subsections below describe the NTP as envisaged in the original 2008 Parliamentary Resolution. This remains the most thorough exposition of the broader direction of travel that I could find.

Governing principles

The framework set out in the Resolution is built on ten general principles that I can best summarise as follows:

  • Talent support covers the period from early childhood to age 35, so extends well beyond compulsory education.
  • The NTP must preserve the traditions of existing successful talent support initiatives.
  • Talent is complex and so requires a diversity of provision – standardised support is a false economy.
  • There must be equality of access to talent support by geographical area, ethnic and socio-economic background.
  • Continuity is necessary to support individual talents as they change and develop over time; special attention is required at key transition points.
  • In early childhood one must provide opportunities for talent to emerge, but selection on the basis of commitment and motivation become increasingly significant and older participants increasingly self-select.
  • Differentiated support is needed to support different levels of talent; there must be opportunities to progress and to step off the programme without loss of esteem.
  • In return for talent support, the talented individual has a social responsibility to support talent development in others.
  • Those engaged in talent support – here called talent coaches – need time and support.
  • Wider social support for talent development is essential to success and sustainability.

Hence the Hungarians are focused on a system-wide effort to promote talent development that extends well beyond compulsory education, but only up to the age of 35. As noted above, if 0-4 year-olds are excluded, this represents an eligible population of about 3.5 million people.

The choice of this age 35 cut-off seems rather arbitrary. Having decided to push beyond compulsory education into adult provision, it is not clear why the principle of lifelong learning is then set aside – or exactly what happens when participants reach their 36th birthdays.

Otherwise the principles above seem laudable and broadly reflect one tradition of effective practice in the field.

Goals

The NTP’s goals are illustrated by this diagram

NTP goals Capture

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The elements in the lower half of the diagram can be expanded thus:

  • Talent support traditions: support for existing provision; development of new provision to fill gaps; minimum standards and professional development for providers; applying models of best practice; co-operation with ethnic Hungarian programmes outside Hungary (‘cross border programmes’); and ‘systematic exploration and processing of the talent support experiences’ of EU and other countries which excel in this field. 
  • Integrated programmes: compiling and updating a map of the talent support opportunities available in Hungary as well as ‘cross border programmes’; action to support access to the talent map; a ‘detailed survey of the international talent support practice’; networking between providers with cooperation and collaboration managed through a set of talent support councils; monitoring of engagement to secure continuity and minimise drop-out. 
  • Social responsibility: promoting the self-organisation of talented youth;  developing their innovation and management skills; securing counselling; piloting  a ‘Talent Bonus – Talent Coin’ scheme to record in virtual units the monetary value of support received and provided, leading to consideration of a LETS-type scheme; support for ‘exceptionally talented youth’; improved social integration of talented youth and development of a talent-friendly society. 
  • Equal opportunities: providing targeted information about talent support opportunities; targeted programming for disadvantaged, Roma and disabled people and wider emphasis on integration; supporting the development of Roma talent coaches; and action to secure ‘the desirable gender distribution’. 
  • Enhanced recognition: improving financial support for talent coaches; reducing workload and providing counselling for coaches; improving recognition and celebrating the success of coaches and others engaged in talent support. 
  • Talent-friendly society: awareness-raising activity for parents, family and friends of talented youth; periodic talent days to mobilise support and ‘promote the local utilisation of talent’; promoting talent in the media, as well as international communication about the programme and ‘introduction in both the EU and other countries by exploiting the opportunities provided by Hungary’s EU Presidency in 2011’; ‘preparation for the foreign adaptation of the successful talent support initiatives’ and organisation of EU talent days. 

Hence the goals incorporate a process of learning from European and other international experience, but also one of feeding back to the international community information about the Hungarian talent support effort and extending the model into other European countries.

There is an obvious tension in these goals between preserving the traditions of existing successful initiatives and imposing a framework with minimum standards and built-in quality criteria. This applies equally to the European project discussed below.

The reference to a LETS-type scheme is intriguing but I could trace nothing about its subsequent development.

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Planned Infrastructure

In 2008 the infrastructure proposed to undertake the NTP comprised:

  • A National Talent Co-ordination Board, chaired at Ministerial level, to oversee the programme and to allocate a National Talent Fund (see below).
  • A National Talent Support Circle [I’m not sure whether this should be ‘Council’] consisting of individuals from Hungary and abroad who would promote talent support through professional opportunities, financial contribution or ‘social capital opportunities’.
  • A National Talent Fund comprising a Government contribution and voluntary contributions from elsewhere. The former would include the proceeds of a 1% voluntary income tax levy (being one of the good causes towards which Hungarian taxpayers could direct this contribution). Additional financial support would come from ‘the talent support-related programmes of the New Hungary Development Plan’.
  • A system of Talent Support Councils to co-ordinate activity at regional and local level.
  • A national network of Talent Points – providers of talent support activity.
  • A biennial review of the programme presented to Parliament, the first being in 2011.

Presumably there have been two of these biennial reviews to date. They would make interesting reading, but I could find no material in English that describes the outcomes.

The NTP Infrastructure Today

The supporting infrastructure as described today has grown considerably more complex and bureaucratic than the basic model above.

  • The National Talent Co-ordination Board continues to oversee the programme as a whole. Its membership is set out here.
  • The National Talent Support Council was established in 2006 and devised the NTP as set out above. Its functions are more substantial than originally described (assuming this is the ‘Circle’ mentioned in the Resolution), although it now seems to be devolving some of these. Until recently at least, the Council: oversaw the national database of talent support initiatives and monitored coverage, matching demand – via an electronic mailing list – with the supply of opportunities; initiated and promoted regional talent days; supported the network of talent points and promoted the development of new ones; invited tenders for niche programmes of various kinds; collected and analysed evidence of best practice and the research literature; and promoted international links paying ‘special attention to the reinforcement of the EU contacts’. The Council has a Chair and six Vice Presidents as well as a Secretary and Secretariat. It operates nine committees: Higher Education, Support for Socially Disadvantaged Gifted People, Innovations, Public Education, Foreign Relations, Public and Media Relations, Theory of Giftedness, Training and Education and Giftedness Network.
  • The National Talent Point has only recently been identified as an entity in its own right, distinct from the National Council. Its role is to maintain the Talent Map and manage the underpinning database. Essentially it seems to have acquired the Council’s responsibilities for delivery, leaving the Council to concentrate on policy. It recently acquired a new website.
  • The Association of Hungarian Talent Support Organizations (MATEHETZ) is also a new addition. Described as ‘a non-profit umbrella organization that legally represents its members and the National Talent Support Council’, it is funded by the National Council and through membership fees. The Articles of Association date from February 2010 and list 10 founding organisations. The Association provides ‘representation’ for the National Council’ (which I take to mean the membership). It manages the time-limited programmes (see below) as well asthe National Talent Point and the European Talent Centre.
  • Talent Support Councils: Different numbers of these are reported. One source says 76; another 65, of which some 25% were newly-established through the programme. Their role seems broadly unchanged, involving local and regional co-ordination, support for professionals, assistance to develop new activities, helping match supply with demand and supporting the tracking of those with talent.
  • Talent Point Network: there were over 1,000 talent points by the end of 2013. (Assuming 3.5 million potential participants, that is a talent point for every 3,500 people.) Talent points are providers of talent support services – whether identification, provision or counselling. They are operated by education providers, the church and a range of other organisations and may have a local, regional or national reach. They join the network voluntarily but are accredited. In 2011 there were reportedly 400 talent points and 200 related initiatives, so there has been strong growth over the past two years.
  • Ambassadors of Talent: Another new addition, introduced by the National Talent Support Council in 2011. There is a separate Ambassador Electing Council which appoints three new ambassadors per year. The current list has thirteen entries and is markedly eclectic.
  • Friends of Talent Club: described in 2011 as ‘a voluntary organisation that holds together those, who are able and willing to support talents voluntarily and serve the issue of talent support…Among them, there are mentors, counsellors and educators, who voluntarily help talented people develop in their professional life. The members of the club can be patrons and/or supporters. “Patrons” are those, who voluntarily support talents with a considerable amount of service. “Supporters” are those, who voluntarily support the movement of talent support with a lesser amount of voluntary work, by mobilizing their contacts or in any other way.’ This sounds similar to the originally envisioned ‘National Talent Support Circle’ [sic]. I could find little more about the activities of this branch of the structure.
  • The European Talent Centre: The National Talent Point says that this:

‘…supports and coordinates European actions in the field of talent support in order to find gifted people and develop their talent in the interest of Europe as a whole and the member states.’

Altogether this is a substantial endeavour requiring large numbers of staff and volunteers and demanding a significant budgetary topslice.

I could find no reliable estimate of the ratio of the running cost to the direct investment in talent support, but there must be cause to question the overall efficiency of the system.

My hunch is that this level of bureaucracy must consume a significant proportion of the overall budget.

Clearly the Hungarian talent support network is a long, long way from being financially self-sustaining, if indeed it ever could be.

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Hungary Parliament Building Budapest

Hungarian Parliament Building

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The Hungarian Genius Programme (HGP) (2009-13)

Launched in June 2009, the HGP had two principal phases lasting from 2009 to 2011 and from 2011 to 2013. The fundamental purpose was to establish the framework and infrastructure set out in the National Talent Plan.

This English language brochure was published in 2011. It explains that the initial focus is on adults who support talents, establishing a professional network and training experts, as well as creating the network and map of providers.

It mentions that training courses lasting 10 to 30 hours have been developed and accredited in over 80 subjects to:

‘…bring concepts and methods of gifted and talented education into the mainstream and reinforce the professional talent support work… These involve the exchange of experience and knowledge expansion training, as well as programs for those who deal with talented people in developing communities, and awareness-raising courses aimed at the families and environment of young pupils, on the educational, emotional and social needs of children showing special interest and aptitude in one or more subject(s). The aims of the courses are not only the exchange of information but to produce and develop the professional methodology required for teaching talents.’

The brochure also describes an extensive talent survey undertaken in 2010, the publication of several good practice studies and the development of a Talent Loan modeled on the Hungarian student loan scheme.

It lists a seven-strong strategic management group including an expert adviser, project manager, programme co-ordinator and a finance manager. There are also five operational teams, each led by a named manager, one of which focused on ‘international relations: collecting and disseminating international best practices; international networking’.

A subsequent list of programme outputs says:

  • 24,000 new talents were identified
  • The Talent Map was drawn and the Talent Network created (including 867 talent points and 76 talent councils).
  • 23,500 young people took part in ‘subsidised talent support programmes’
  • 118 new ‘local educational talent programmes’ were established
  • 25 professional development publications were written and made freely available
  • 13,987 teachers (about 10% of the total in Hungary) took part in professional development.

Evidence in English of rigorous independent evaluation is, however, limited:

‘The efficiency of the Programme has been confirmed by public opinion polls (increased social acceptance of talent support) and impact assessments (training events: expansion of specialised knowledge and of the methodological tool kit).’

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The Talent Bridges Project (TBP) (2012-2014)

TBP began in November 2012 and is scheduled to last until ‘mid-2014’.

The initially parallel TBP is mentioned in the 2011 brochure referenced above:

‘In the strategic plan of the Talent Bridges Program to begin in 2012, we have identified three key areas for action: bridging the gaps in the Talent Point network, encouraging talents in taking part in social responsibility issues and increasing media reach. In order to become sustainable, much attention should be payed [sic] to maintaining and expanding the support structure of this system, but the focus will significantly shift towards direct talent care work with the youth.’

Later on it says:

‘Within the framework of the Talent Bridges Program the main objectives are: to further improve the contact system between the different levels of talent support organisations; to develop talent peer communities based on the initiatives coming from young people themselves; to engage talents in taking an active role in social responsibility; to increase media reach in order to enhance the recognition and social support for both high achievers and talent support; and last, but not least, to arrange the preliminary steps of setting up an EU Institute of Talent Support in Budapest.’

A list of objectives published subsequently contains the following items:

  • Creating a national talent registration and tracking system
  • Developing programmes for 3,000 talented young people from  disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs
  • Supporting the development of ‘outstanding talents’ in 500 young people
  • Supporting 500 enrichment programmes
  • Supporting ‘the peer age groups of talented young people’
  • Introducing programmes to strengthen interaction between parents, teachers and  talented youth benefiting  5,000 young people
  • Introducing ‘a Talent Marketplace’ to support ‘the direct social utilisation of talent’ involving ‘150 controlled co-operations’
  • Engaging 2,000 mentors in supporting talented young people and training 5,000 talent support facilitators and mentors
  • Launching a communication campaign to reach 100,000 young people and
  • Realise European-Union-wide communication (in addition to the current 10, to involve 10 more EU Member States into the Hungarian initiatives, in co-operation with the European Talent Centre in Budapest established in the summer of 2012).

Various sources describe how the TBP is carved up into a series of sub-projects. The 2013 Brochure ‘Towards a European Talent Support Network’ lists 14 of these, but none mention the European work.

However, what appears to be the bid for TBP (in Hungarian) calls the final sub-project ‘an EU Communications Programme’ (p29), which appears to involve:

  • Raising international awareness of Hungary’s talent support activities
  • Strengthening Hungary’s position in the EU talent network
  • Providing a foreign exchange experience for talented young Hungarians
  • Influencing policy makers.

Later on (p52) this document refers to an international campaign, undertaken with support from the European Talent Centre, targeting international organisations and the majority of EU states.

Work to be covered includes the preparation of promotional publications in foreign languages, the operation of a ‘multilingual online platform’, participation in international conferences (such as those of ECHA, the World Council, IRATDE and ICIE); and ‘establishing new professional collaborations with at least 10 new EU countries or international organisations’.

Funding

It is not a straightforward matter to reconcile the diverse and sometimes conflicting sources of information about the budgets allocated to the National Talent Fund, HGP and the TBP, but this is my best effort, with all figures converted into pounds sterling.

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2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Total
NTF x £2.34m.or £4.1m  £2.34m.or £4.1m £8.27m tbc tbc tbc
Of which ETC x x x £80,000 £37,500 £21,350 £138,850
HGP £8.0m £4.6m x £12.6m
TBP x x x £5.3m £5.3m
Of which EU comms x x x £182,000 £182,000

Several sources say that the Talent Fund is set to increase in size over the period.

‘This fund has an annual 5 million EUR support from the national budget and an additional amount from tax donations of the citizens of a total sum of 1.5 million EUR in the first year doubled to 3 million EUR and 6 million EUR in the second and third years respectively.’ (Csermely 2012)

That would translate into a budget of £5.4m/£6.7m/£9.2m over the three years in question, but it is not quite clear which three years are included.

Even if we assume that the NTF budget remains the same in 2013 and 2014 as in 2012, the total investment over the period 2009-2014 amounts to approximately £60m.

That works out at about £17 per eligible Hungarian. Unfortunately I could find no reliable estimate of the total number of Hungarians that have benefited directly from the initiative to date.

On the basis of the figures I have seen, my guesstimate is that the total will be below 10% of the total eligible population – so under 350,000. But I must stress that there is no evidence to support this.

Whether or not the intention is to reach 100% of the population, or whether there is an in-built assumption that only a proportion of the population are amenable to talent development, is a moot point. I found occasional references to a 25% assumption, but it was never clear whether this was official policy.

Even if this applies, there is clearly a significant scalability challenge even within Hungary’s national programme.

It is also evident that the Hungarians have received some £18m from the European Social Fund over the past five years and have invested at least twice as much of their own money. That is a very significant budget indeed for a country of this size.

Hungary’s heavy reliance on EU funding is such that they will find it very difficult to sustain the current effort if that largesse disappears.

One imagines that they will be seeking continued support from EU sources over the period 2014-2020. But, equally, one would expect the EU to demand robust evidence that continued heavy dependency on EU funding will not be required.

And of course a budget of this size also begs questions about scalability to Europe in the conspicuous absence of a commensurate figure. There is zero prospect of equivalent funding being available to extend the model across Europe. The total bill would run into billions of pounds!

A ‘Hungarian-lite’ model would not be as expensive, but it would require a considerable budget.

However, it is clear from the table that the present level of expenditure on the European network has been tiny by comparison with the domestic investment – probably not much more than £100,000 per year.

Initially this came from the National Talent Fund budget but it seems as though the bulk is now provided through the ESF, until mid-2014 at least.

This shift seems to have removed a necessity for the European Talent Centre to receive its funding in biannual tranches through a perpetual retendering process.

For the sums expended from the NTF budget are apparently tied to periods of six months or less.

The European Talent Centre website currently bears the legend:

‘Operation of the European Talent Centre – Budapest between 15th December 2012 and 30th June 2013 is realised with the support of Grant Scheme No. NTP-EUT-M-12 announced by the Institute for Educational Research and Development and the Human Resources Support Manager on commission of the Ministry of Human Resources “To support international experience exchange serving the objectives of the National Talent Programme, and to promote the operation and strategic further development of the European Talent Centre – Budapest”.’

But when I wrote my 2012 review it said:

‘The operation of the European Talent Centre — Budapest is supported from 1 July 2012 through 30 November 2012 by the grant of the National Talent Fund. The grant is realised under Grant Scheme No. NTP-EU-M-12 announced by the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development and the SándorWekerle Fund Manager of the Ministry of Administration and Justice on commission of the Ministry of Human Resources, from the Training Fund Segment of the Labour Market Fund.’

A press release confirmed the funding for this period as HUF 30m.

Presumably it will now need to be amended to reflect the arrival of £21.3K under Grant Scheme No. NTP-EU-M-13 – and possibly to reflect income from the ESF-supported TBP too.

A comparison between the Hungarian http://tehetseg.hu/ website and the European Talent Centre website is illustrative of the huge funding imbalance in favour of the former.

Danube Bend at Visegrad courtesy of Phillipp Weigell

Danube Bend at Visegrad courtesy of Phillipp Weigell

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Origins of the European Talent Project: Evolution to December 2012

Initial plans

Hungary identified talent support as a focus during its EU Presidency, in the first half of 2011, citing four objectives:

  • A talent support conference scheduled for April 2011
  • A first European Talent Day to coincide with the conference, initially ‘a Hungarian state initiative…expanding it into a public initiative by 2014’.
  • Talent support to feature in EU strategies and documents, as well as a Non-Legislative Act (NLA). It is not specified whether this should be a regulation, decision, recommendation or opinion. (Under EU legislation the two latter categories have no binding force.)
  • An OMCexpert group on talent support – ie an international group run under the aegis of the Commission.

The Budapest Declaration

The Conference duly took place, producing a Budapest Declaration on Talent Support in which conference participants:

  • ‘Call the European Commission and the European Parliament to make every effort to officially declare the 25th of March the European Day of the Talented and Gifted.’
  • ‘Stress the importance of…benefits and best practices appearing in documents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.’
  • ‘Propose to establish a European Talent Resource and Support Centre in Budapest’ to ‘coordinate joint European actions in the field’.
  • ‘Agree to invite stakeholders from every country of the European Union to convene annually to discuss the developments and current questions in talent support. Upon the invitation of the Government of Poland the next conference will take place in Warsaw.’

The possibility of siting a European Centre anywhere other than Budapest was not seriously debated.

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Evolution of a Written Declaration to the EU

Following the Conference an outline Draft Resolution of the European Parliament was circulated for comment.

This proposed that:

 ‘A Europe-wide talent support network should be formed and supported with an on-line and physical presence to support information-sharing, partnership and collaborations. This network should be open for co-operation with all European talent support efforts, use the expertise and networking experiences of existing multinational bodies such as the European Council of High Ability and support both national and multinational efforts to help talents not duplicating existing efforts but providing an added European value.’

Moreover, ‘A European Talent Support Centre should be established…in Budapest’. This:

‘…should have an Advisory Board having the representatives of interested EU member states, all-European talent support-related institutions as well as key figures of European talent support.’

The Centre’s functions are five-fold:

‘Using the minimum bureaucracy and maximising its use of online solutions the European Talent Support Centre should:

  • facilitate the development and dissemination of best curricular and extra-curricular talent support practices;
  • coordinate the trans-national cooperation of Talent Points forming an EU Talent Point network;
  • help  the spread of the know-how of successful organization of Talent Days;
  • organize annual EU talent support conferences in different EU member states overseeing the progress of cooperation in European talent support;
  • provide a continuously updated easy Internet access for all the above information.’

Note the references on the one hand to an inclusive approach, a substantial advisory group (though without the status of an EU-hosted OMC expert group) and a facilitating/co-ordinating role, but also – on the other hand – the direct organisation of annual EU-wide conferences and provision of a sophisticated supporting online environment.

MEPs were lined up to submit the Resolution in Autumn 2011 but, for whatever reason, this did not happen.

Instead a new draft Written Declaration was circulated in January 2012. This called on:

  •  Member States to consider measures helping curricular and extracurricular forms of talent support including the training of educational professionals to recognize and help talent;
  • The Commission to consider talent support as a priority of future European strategies, such as the European Research Area and the European Social Fund;
  • Member States and the Commission to support the development of a Europe-wide talent support network, formed by talent support communities, Talent Points and European Talent Centres facilitating cooperation, development and dissemination of best talent support practices;
  • Member States and the Commission to celebrate the European Day of the Talented and Gifted.’

The focus has shifted from the Budapest-centric network to EU-led activity amongst member states collectively. Indeed, no specific role for Hungary is mentioned.

There is a new emphasis on professional development and – critically – a reference to ‘European talent centres’. All mention of NLAs and OMC expert groups has disappeared.

There followed an unexplained 11-month delay before a Final Written Declaration was submitted by four MEPs in November 2012.

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The 2012 Written Declaration 

There are some subtle adjustments in the final version of WD 0034/2012. The second bullet point has become:

  • ‘The Commission to consider talent support as part of ‘non-formal learning’ and a priority in future European strategies, such as the strategies guiding the European Research Area and the European Social Fund’.

While the third now says:

  • ‘Member States and the Commission to support the development of a Europe-wide talent support network bringing together talent support communities, Talent Points and European Talent Centres in order to facilitate cooperation and the development and dissemination of the best talent support practices.’

And the fourth is revised to:

  • ‘Member States and the Commission to celebrate the European Day of Highly Able People.’

The introduction of a phrase that distinguishes between education and talent support is curious.

CEDEFOP – which operates a European Inventory on Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning – defines the latter as:

‘…learning resulting from daily work-related, family or leisure activities. It is not organised or structured (in terms of objectives, time or learning support). Informal learning is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective. It typically does not lead to certification.’

One assumes that a distinction is being attempted between learning organised by a school or other formal education setting and that which takes place elsewhere – presumably because EU member states are so fiercely protective of their independence when it comes to compulsory education.

But surely talent support encompasses formal and informal learning alike?

Moreover, the adoption of this terminology appears to rule out any provision that is ‘organised or structured’, excluding huge swathes of activity (including much of that featured in the Hungarian programme). Surely this cannot have been intentional.

Such a distinction is increasingly anachronistic, especially in the case of gifted learners, who might be expected to access their learning from a far richer blend of sources than simply in-school classroom teaching.

Their schools are no longer the sole providers of gifted education, but facilitators and co-ordinators of diverse learning streams.

The ‘gifted and talented’ terminology has also disappeared, presumably on the grounds that it would risk frightening the EU horses.

Both of these adjustments seem to have been a temporary aberration. One wonders who exactly they were designed to accommodate and whether they were really necessary.

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Establishment and early activity of the EU Talent Centre in Budapest

The Budapest centre was initially scheduled to launch in February 2012, but funding issues delayed this, first until May and then the end of June.

The press release marking the launch described the long-term goal of the Centre as:

‘…to contribute on the basis of the success of the Hungarian co-operation model to organising the European talent support actors into an open and flexible network overarching the countries of Europe.’

Its mission is to:

‘…offer the organisations and individuals active in an isolated, latent form or in a minor network a framework structure and an opportunity to work together to achieve the following:

  • to provide talent support an emphasis commensurate with its importance in every European country
  • to reduce talent loss to the minimum in Europe,
  • to give talent support a priority role in the transformation of the sector of education; to provide talented young persons access to the most adequate forms of education in every Member State,
  • to make Europe attractive for the talented youth,
  • to create talent-friendly societies in every European country.’

The text continues:

‘It is particularly important that network hubs setting targets similar to those of the European Talent Centre in Budapest should proliferate in the longer term.

The first six months represent the first phase of the work: we shall lay the bases [sic] for establishing the European Talent Support Network. The expected key result is to set up a team of voluntary experts from all over Europe who will contribute to that work and help draw the European talent map.

But what exactly are these so-called network hubs? We had to wait some time for an explanation.

There was relatively little material on the website at this stage and this was also slow to change.

My December 2012 post summarised progress thus:

‘The Talent Map includes only a handful of links, none in the UK.

The page of useful links is extensive but basically just a very long list, hard to navigate and not very user-friendly. Conversely, ‘best practices’ contains only three resources, all of them produced in house.

The whole design is rather complex and cluttered, several of the pages are too text-heavy and occasionally the English leaves something to be desired.’

 

Here ends the first part of this post. Part Twoexplains the subsequent development of the ‘network hubs’ concept, charts the continuation of the advocacy effort  and reviews progress in delivering the services for which the Budapest Centre is  responsible.

It concludes with an overall assessment of the initiative highlighting some of its key weaknesses.

GP

March 2014

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Working Towards Stronger European Collaboration in Gifted Education

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This post reviews recent progress towards pan-European collaboration in gifted education via the emerging European Talent Network and the establishment of a European Talent Centre in Budapest, Hungary.

EU talent centre Capture

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It continues a narrative thread that has permeated this Blog since its earliest days. Following a brief review of the history of this initiative, the post examines:

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  • Recent EU lobbying activity;
  • The 2012 Conference in Warsaw, Poland;
  • The European Talent Centre, its activities and website; and
  • The evolving relationship with the European Council for High Ability (ECHA).

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The History

In June 2010 I wrote about Hungary’s Plans to Strengthen G&T Education across the EU.

Those plans were fourfold:

  • An international conference on talent development and its contribution to EU competitiveness scheduled for April 2011 in Budapest.
  • A series of annual national Talent Days, unified into a single pan-EU Talent Day by 2014.
  • Inclusion of talent support references in key EU policies and documents, including the EU Education and Training Strategy 2012-2014 and a non-legislative act (NLA) on talent support.

In April 2011 I published a two-part blog post about the Conference and inaugural EU Talent Day which had just taken place as planned in Budapest.

Part One reported the conference proceedings. Part Two reflected on the Declaration generated at the Conference and on whether the Hungarian talent support model was scalable to Europe.

The Declaration proposed that:

  • National representatives should seek broad consensus around an inclusive talent development concept that incorporates a broad range of talents and people of all ages.
  • Talent development benefits individuals and society, countries and the EU as a whole, contributing to EU strategic goals for innovation and sustainable growth. It is a shared responsibility of governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses and local communities.
  • Talent support can strengthen social cohesion and social mobility. Programmes should balance excellence for all and support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • The Hungarian talent support movement may provide the basis of an EU-wide network. The EU is called upon to make the annual day of talent an official ‘European Day of the Talented and Gifted’.
  • Talent support should be reflected in key European Commission, Council and Parliament documentation. There should be joint effort to ensure it receives due attention in all member states. A Budapest-based Talent Resource and Support Centre might co-ordinate and monitor progress.
  • Stakeholders would convene annually to discuss talent support issues, starting in Warsaw, Poland in 2012 (Poland had the EU Presidency following Hungary.).

The post raised some difficult questions about the sources of long-term funding to realise an EU-wide model on the Hungarian pattern. I expressed reservations about a Budapest centre:

‘I am not yet convinced that the idea of establishing a European Centre in Budapest is necessary, or entirely in keeping with a distributed pan-EU network. Ideally, such a network should be capable of thriving with the smallest possible central hub which exists almost entirely online. The notion of a Centre smacks somewhat of the centralised top-down solutions that the network is intended to render unnecessary. It is not clear what responsibilities it would undertake and how it would add value to the overall endeavour. It could very easily become a ‘white elephant’.’

I also drew attention to potential difficulties in the relationship with the European Council for High Ability (ECHA):

‘The Hungarians seem to have gone out of their way to court ECHA to date, but their aspiration for a pan-European network rather calls into question ECHA’s raison d’etre. Put bluntly, if ECHA had succeeded in achieving its objectives, the current Hungarian initiative would not be necessary. Similarly, if the Hungarian initiative succeeds, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ECHA would be redundant. This issue needs to be addressed head-on from the outset, not swept under the carpet.’

Finally, I argued that other nationalities should be actively engaged in the early planning process via the proposed OMC Expert Group.

So much for the history up to April 2011, but what has happened (and what has not happened) in the 19 months between then and now?

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EU Lobbying Activity

Immediately after the Conference, Peter Csermely circulated an outline Draft Resolution of the European Parliament on Talent Development.

My comments included a reminder that the text should reflect the original commitments to a Non-Legislative Act (NLA) and an Expert Group.

By September there was a revised text incorporating an outline 2011 NLA and an outline resolution. Several MEPs were reporting to be planning to submit the latter during Autumn 2011.

The draft proposed that:

‘A Europe-wide talent support network should be formed and supported with an on-line and physical presence to support information-sharing, partnership and collaborations. This network should be open for co-operation with all European talent support efforts, use the expertise and networking experiences of existing multinational bodies such as the European Council of High Ability and support both national and multinational efforts to help talents not duplicating existing efforts but providing an added European value.’

Apropos the proposed Centre it said:

‘To support the networking activities as a hub of the EU-wide network from 2012 a European Talent Support Centre should be established. The European Parliament accepts the offer of the Hungarian Government to host such a Centre in Budapest. The European Talent Support Centre should have an Advisory Board having the representatives of interested EU member states, all-European talent support-related institutions as well as key figures of European talent support. Using the minimum bureaucracy and maximising its use of online solutions the European Talent Support Centre should:

  • facilitate the development and dissemination of best curricular and extra-curricular talent support practices;
  • coordinate the trans-national cooperation of Talent Points forming an EU Talent Point network;
  • help  the spread of the know-how of successful organization of Talent Days;
  • organize  annual EU talent support conferences in different EU member states overseeing the progress of cooperation in European talent support;
  • provide a continuously updated easy Internet access for all the above information.’

It is noteworthy that the proposed Expert Group has now become an Advisory Group for the Centre, and that the Centre will be responsible for organising the annual conferences.

But, by January 2012, this document had morphed into a draft Written Declaration on the Support of Talents in the European Union which calls on:

  • Member States to consider measures helping curricular and extracurricular forms of talent support including the training of educational professionals to recognize and help talent;
  • The Commission to consider talent support as a priority of future European strategies, such as the European Research Area and the European Social Fund;
  • Member States and the Commission to support the development of a Europe-wide talent support network, formed by talent support communities, Talent Points and European Talent Centres facilitating cooperation, development and dissemination of best talent support practices;
  • Member States and the Commission to celebrate the European Day of the Talented and Gifted.

And which: ‘instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Council, the Commission and the Governments of the Member States’

Note the reference to ‘European talent centres’ in the plural. All references to the Budapest Centre and a group – whether advisory or expert – have been dropped.

This may have been because of funding difficulties over the Centre and its activities, or it may have been impossible to include these details given the restriction on the length of Written Declarations to 200 words.

Alternatively, these references may have been removed to ensure that MEPs weren’t dissuaded from supporting the declaration on grounds of bureaucracy (the group) or advantage to one member state (the Centre).

Conceivably, all three reasons may have been in play.

It is not clear why the Final Written Declaration was not submitted until 19 November 2012, some ten months after the initial draft had been circulated.

On this date it was presented by four MEPs:

The wording is only very slightly different.

The first point is unchanged.

The second calls on:

‘The Commission to consider talent support as part of ‘non-formal learning’ and a priority in future European strategies, such as the strategies guiding the European Research Area and the European Social Fund.’

The third has been very slightly altered, calling on:

‘Member States and the Commission to support the development of a Europewide talent support network bringing together talent support communities, Talent Points and European Talent Centres in order to facilitate cooperation and the development and dissemination of the best talent support practices’

The fourth has lost its ‘gifted and talented’ terminology – presumably because that might also alienate some potential signatories – calling instead on

‘Member States and the Commission to celebrate the European Day of Highly Able People’

The final instruction is unchanged.

The purpose of such Written Declarations is to stimulate a debate on any issue within the EU’s remit. Declarations are submitted by a group of up to five MEPs, printed in all the official languages and entered into a register.

Those that are signed by a majority of MEPs are announced by the President in a plenary session of the European Parliament and forwarded for consideration to the institutions named in the text. Declarations lapse if they have not been signed by a majority of MEPs within three months of their entry into the register.

The register of written declarations is available online. At the time of writing it shows that 84 MEPs had signed by 22 November, still a long way short of the requisite number (there are 753 MEPs in total). The lapse date is 19 February 2013.

Peter Csermely has used Facebook to encourage the gifted education community to lobby their MEPs and I have also used Twitter for the same purpose.

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EU lobbying poster Capture

There is even a poster to promote the Declaration..

The impact of this activity – whether or not the Declaration is endorsed by the majority of MEPs – remains to be seen.

It is not clear why the Declaration procedure has been adopted over the original plan for a Non-Legislative Act, but presumably the advice of EU constitutional experts has been sought and heeded.

It may, at best, provide a platform on which to build further lobbying activity. It seems unlikely that it will lead to anything more tangible in the short-to-medium term.

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The Polish Conference

 

Organisation and Planning

 It is with some trepidation that I turn to the Warsaw Conference, for I understand the difficulties involved in organising a successful event of this kind.

There are always problems and inevitably compromises have to be made. Those with an interest in attending are willing to forgive much, as long as it’s clear that the organisers have tried their best and they are kept informed. But in this case there is some cause to question whether those two criteria were satisfied.

I first enquired about the Conference in January and, despite pursuing the matter throughout the intervening period,  did not manage to obtain an invitation until 11 October, exactly eight days before the event, when it was already too late to shift my prior commitments.

Rather than clog up the post with the sorry details, I have appended them as a separate page. Readers of a nervous disposition may prefer to avoid this full chronology.

Such shortcomings are particularly unfortunate (and ironic) given that the very purpose of the EU Talent initiative is to support networking between countries, linking partners together and so enabling them to interact for mutual benefit.

It is noteworthy that – according to the September drafts at least – the European Talent Centre plans to take control of this task in future, presumably regardless of the conference location. That is potentially problematic however and may not be possible to achieve in practice, other than through some kind of sub-contracting arrangement.

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Proceedings

The linked chronology records my efforts to persuade the Conference organisers and participants to share real-time information about the proceedings. That did not happen. Given the limited information in the public domain, I published the Programme I received with my belated invitation and shared it via Twitter.

The programme carries the logo of the European Social Fund, implying that funding from that source was used to defray at least part of the cost. This is confirmed by the legend on some of the presentations subsequently forwarded to me:

‘Conference co-financed by the European Union within the European Social Fund’.

Some of these papers also bear the Conference byline:

‘Systemic strategies in teaching gifted students – a way to the future of education’.

That then is the declared theme, but to what extent did the proceedings stick to this agenda?

There was a significant Polish input.

Keynotes were given by: Michael Piechowski, an expatriate psychologist long resident in the USA; Wieslawa Limont, a Polish psychologist; Maria Ledzinska, a third Polish psychologist; and Csilla Fuszek, Hungarian Director of the Budapest Talent Centre.

Given the provenance of the Conference, Csilla Fuszek’s presentation was essential and important. She focused on the core topic, speaking about ‘Building a cooperation network in Europe regarding systemic solutions in the education of gifted students’. I will return to the content of her presentation below.

I am not sure the same could be said of the triumvirate of Polish professors:

  • Piechowski discussed ‘Talent Development and Personal Growth’. His presentation is foregrounded in contemporary US debate about whether talent development or personal growth should be paramount in gifted education, with Piechowski firmly in the second camp.
  • Limont covered the ‘Education of Gifted Students in Poland – selected examples’, basically providing a description of the current state of Polish gifted education. This input would have fitted better in the plenary session on ‘presentation of good practices in selected countries’ on day two (see below).
  • Ledzinska spoke about ‘Understanding Gifted Students as the Fundament [sic] of Teachers’ Work’. This seems to have been a plea for educators to review their unsubstantiated and inaccurate beliefs about gifted learners.

But much of the time was dedicated to panel discussions with overlapping themes. The first tranche included:

  • The newest conceptions of giftedness and their verification in research (Beate Dyrda, a Polish lecturer who specialises in the pedagogy of gifted education and the ‘psychopedagogy of creativity’).
  • Education policy in different European countries – model solutions for the legislation, organisation, funding and education of gifted students (Leo Pakhin, project manager of a gifted and talented project employed by the Finnish National Board of Education).
  • How to systematically support the development of various talents? – exchange of experience and good practice (Ludmila Popova, a Russian professor of psychology).
  • Strategies to assist schools and teachers in gifted education (Margaret Sutherland, lecturer at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Scottish Network for Able Pupils).
  • Organisation of gifted education – examples of effective solutions from selected countries (Seiglinde Weyringer, a lecturer from the University of Salzburg in Austria).

The five panel sessions on the second day were:

  • Systemic solutions in the organisation of gifted education – development of skills and talents (Lianne Hoogeveen, a psychologist from the Centre for the Study of Giftedness (CBO) at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands).
  • Determinants of the process of gifted education in the context of systemic solutions (Christian Fischer from the University of Munster, Germany).
  • Possible solutions for the future – perspectives of gifted education in 2012-2030 (Eva Vondrakova, another psychologist, from the Czech Republic);
  • Examples of good practices in gifted education – selected aspects (Oleksandr Burov, Deputy Director of Institute for Gifted Child in Ukraine)and
  • Creating co-operation networks in Europe to improve the quality of gifted education (Franz Monks, also from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands).

The Poles forwarded me a copy of a paper presented by Monks, presumably during this latter session. I have no hesitation in sharing it because a substantial proportion is my own drafting, dating from 2007 or thereabouts (though there is no attribution), at the time of the last ill-fated effort to secure European collaboration. I recorded these events at the beginning of my June 2010 post.

There is otherwise no substantive record yet available of these discussions, which formed the core of the Conference proceedings. One hopes that this is soon rectified and that they are of some benefit to the wider initiative.

What must have been a stamina-sapping two-hour slot was set aside for eight successive ‘presentations of good practice from selected countries’, featuring each of the moderators (excepting Monks and Dyrda, the latter being replaced by Kosiarek from ORE, the Conference organisers).

Contrary to the billing in the Programme, Margaret Sutherland spoke only about Scotland, not the UK as a whole. The organisers were aware that this would be the case but failed to change the agenda.

I wouldn’t wish to belittle Scotland’s significance, but the fact is that it is home to perhaps five million of the UK’s population of around 60 million people, England being some ten times larger. It is always a mistake to omit Scotland from the UK, but it is a much bigger mistake, quantitatively speaking, to omit England, let alone Wales and Northern Ireland.

Fischer’s address on Germany seems to have been supported by a document about self-regulated learning strategies. Hoogeveen’s paper is a concise summary of provision in the Netherlands. Despite requests and commitments from ORE, I have not received the other presentations or associated materials.

The details so far published are confined to this in English on the European Talent Centre site and this in Polish on ORE’s site. The Polish version promises the uploading of conference proceedings shortly here. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for them to appear.

In the meantime, the published summaries tell us very little of significance, though the photographs attached to the Polish report give an insight into the nature of the proceedings  that is perhaps more eloquent than mere words.

The Hungarian summary comments:

‘Most participating countries have already introduced some good  examples of gifted education, however these initiatives do dot [sic] constitute a nationwide network, do not form an integrated system at the national level – explained Teresa Kosiarek who was responsible for the organization of the conference at ORE. This was the reason why they have chosen systemic solutions in gifted education as the main topic of the conference.’

It is disappointing that England, the sixth largest country by population in Europe (when the populations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are discounted) with its rich recent history of gifted education, including a national programme serving around one million learners, was left entirely out of consideration.

One is left wondering just how the moderators for the event were selected – and by whom. (Here you may detect a hint of sour grapes for which I apologise.) Apart from the preponderance of academic psychologists, what do they have in common? Why did this prospective moderator not qualify for consideration?

Perhaps it is significant that the vast majority are active ECHA members while I am not. I flatter myself that the criterion could not have been personal commitment to the wider EU Talent initiative…but probably we will never know. And, anyway, as I remarked to the organisers ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’…

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The EuropeanTalent Centre in Budapest 

While the Poles were struggling to set up their Conference, progress towards the establishment of the Budapest Talent Centre was also proving somewhat slow and difficult.

Communications in January suggested that the Centre would be launched the following month with Csilla Fuszek installed as Director.

By February the Ministry of Education had given its approval in principle to these arrangements and even assigned a budget for the year ahead, but no money had changed hands. The opening was delayed until the end of May.

A plan to write to a range of stakeholders across Europe to request their support was put on ice. When no funding had been received by mid-April, opening was again put back, this time until the end of June. Meanwhile a skeleton staff developed the project in anticipation of future remuneration.

Money was finally paid at the start of July permitting the Centre to begin work in earnest. However, the website carries a prominent statement that:

The operation of the European Talent Centre — Budapest is supported from 1 July 2012 through 30 November 2012 by the grant of the National Talent Fund. The grant is realised under Grant Scheme No. NTP-EU-M-12 announced by the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development and the SándorWekerle Fund Manager of the Ministry of Administration and Justice on commission of the Ministry of Human Resources, from the Training Fund Segment of the Labour Market Fund.’

A 30 September press release confirms that the sum payable for this period is HUF 30 million (almost £87,000). The bulk of this has presumably been used to pay the staff of nine.

It is not stated whether resources are forthcoming for the period after 30 November, though this may feature in an imminent press release about the Centre’s achievements over its first six months. One suspects that donations from sponsors will be necessary for it to continue in business much beyond mid-2013.

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The Centre’s Activities

Back in July, expectations for 2012 were scaled back to collecting ideas and expressions of support while also launching the website.

The site describes the Centre’s mission thus:

‘The long-term objective of European Talent Centre – Budapest established in Summer 2012 is to contribute – based on the success of the Hungarian co-operation model – to organising the European organisations and professionals proclaiming the above values into an open, flexible network overarching the countries of Europe. Its mission is to offer organisations and individuals, active so far in an isolated, latent or maybe already in a network-based form or framework structure, an opportunity to work together to achieve the following:

  • to provide talent support an emphasis commensurate with its importance in every European country
  • to reduce talent loss to the minimum in Europe,
  • to give talent support a priority role in the transformation of the sector of education; to provide talented youngsters access to the most adequate forms of education in every Member State,
  • to make Europe attractive for the talented youth,
  • to create talent-friendly societies in every European country’.

The threefold goal of the Centre is:

  • ‘to accelerate the sharing of information on the topic,
  • to create a higher number of more efficient forms of talent support for the talented,
  • to make it easier for social actors interested in talent support to find each other through the European talent support network.’

Fuszek’s presentation to the Polish conference puts a little more flesh on these bones, noting that the Centre will:

  • Form the hub of a European network that will ‘trigger mechanisms which bring organisations and individuals together to facilitate collaboration, share best practices and resources’. The ambition is that ‘over time’ this and other centres will be ‘directly sponsored by the EU’.
  • Develop an online ‘Talent Map of Europe’. This will incorporate existing networks, organisations and institutions focused mainly on talent support, (including schools, universities and research centres), NGOs, policy makers, businesses with talent management programmes and organisations for parents of gifted children.
  • Share best practice, including through the imminent publication of International Horizons in Talent Development Volume 2 (which was due on 28 November). This is said to include coverage of USA, Saudi Arabia, Finland, and Israel. There will be a separate publication covering the Carpathian Basin countries of Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia.
  • Lobby the European Parliament via the Written Declaration.

There is reference to use of social media but it is not quite clear what is intended:

‘will have a webpage so via social media will help to turn tacit networks into explicit networks…’

The Talent Map is clearly the top priority. There is no reference to annual conferences or even Talent Days.

The website  carries an interview with Fuszek in which she mentions plans to ‘set up a team of voluntary experts from all over Europe who wish to actively contribute to the development of the European talent network and help draw the European talent map’.

It appears that the Expert Group cum Advisory Group now has a third incarnation.

The news items on the website include a feature on a regional meeting, held shortly after the Polish Conference, with representatives from Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia (the Poles were invited but could not attend). Very helpfully – and as if to point up the contrast with the Polish event – all the presentations given at the event are attached.

One sets out an idea from Austria for a ‘European knowledge map’ for gifted and talented education which bears a strong resemblance to the observatory I have proposed regularly on this blog, most recently in this post on the contribution of social media to gifted education. It is not clear whether this idea can or will be brought within scope of the Talent Centre initiative.

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The Website

The website went live in September as planned, around the time of the ECHA Conference. I offered feedback as requested:

‘…You have a lot of written information in several different places. It would be a good idea to edit some of the text so there is less to read on the web pages, with detailed documents linked as PDF attachments. Some of the English could also be simplified so it has more immediate impact.

The site is also hard to navigate because there are three different sets of menus – two are available from the home page and two from the content pages, one being common to both. I think you may need to simplify the structure a bit, so it’s not so easy to get lost

…I would personally prefer the website to serve as a hub that supports interaction between different bodies and individuals featured on the map – so people can actively discuss partnership and collaboration in the same space, rather than moving elsewhere to do that.

That means the site is more like a virtual agency where prospective partners can meet and explore possible relationships, either openly or in private discussions as they prefer’.

Little has changed since I made these statements. The homepage carries a scrolling set of links to five pages on the site and four brief news items beneath. Clicking on ‘sitemap’ takes one to the homepage.

The main pages are selected from a horizontal menu with six options. Most of these include an additional vertical menu and also a series of links to the same set of ‘news and events’ (so the latter form the right-hand column on the majority of pages).

The Talent Map includes only a handful of links, none in the UK.

The page of useful links is extensive but basically just a very long list, hard to navigate and not very user-friendly. Conversely, ‘best practices’ contains only three resources, all of them produced in house.

The whole design is rather complex and cluttered, several of the pages are too text-heavy and occasionally the English leaves something to be desired.

I’ve made no secret of my conviction that the Talent Centre should embrace social media, developing a website built on social media principles, by which I mean that it should serve as an online hub rather than a central repository, and actively support multimedia online interaction rather than providing a more traditional ‘information store’. The current version is some way from that vision.

I’ve also offered feedback on an ‘EU Talent Points Plan’, a copy of which was circulated at the ECHA Conference. This:

  • Urged a more flexible, inclusive approach to the selection of points on the talent map.
  • Suggested an online consultation seeking views from stakeholders about what they want from the map and how they think it should be developed.
  • Proposed ‘an Amazon-style rating scale’ enabling users to publish reviews of the services they have experienced.

It would be helpful if the Centre could publish a synthesis of the ideas and suggestions it has received, as well as a statement of how it proposes to develop the map and the timescale for that. If it is to rely on an international team of volunteers they will need to be recruited rather urgently.

Because of its function, it is imperative that the Centre is as open and transparent as possible over such matters, otherwise it risks being viewed with a degree of suspicion by some potential allies.

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The Relationship with ECHA

A major risk associated with the EU Talent initiative is the potential for conflict with ECHA. As I have said before, if ECHA had been effective there would have been no need to establish a parallel network.

There is therefore an implicit criticism of ECHA’s performance, especially since the network is being set up as a separate entity rather than within ECHA.

So from ECHA’s point of view, it would be all too easy to regard the EU Talent project as a deliberate effort to undermine it, even to supplant it. This helps to explain the intensive courting of ECHA by the Hungarian team during the development phase.

Future progress will have been smoothed by the choice by ECHA members of Peter Csermely as their new President, an event reported on the Talent Centre’s website in suitably diplomatic terms (the emphasis is mine):

‘According to Prof Péter Csermely, newly elected president of ECHA, the Budapest Centre will play a supportive role in ECHA’s network-building efforts by creating a Talent Map of European talent support institutions and best practices. The idea of sharing experiences and networking was welcomed by numerous members of ECHA at the Münster conference.’

One can reasonably predict that the two organisations will draw more closely together following Peter Csermely’s election. It seems doubtful that ECHA will swallow the EU Talent Centre, though there is a possibility that the reverse could happen. Some sort of merger or federation may be on the cards, especially if both entities are short of cash.

Economies of scale and greater efficiency could be realised through merger, though it is open to question whether the politics would permit even that relationship, despite the fact that Csermely, the master diplomat, sits at the head of both organisations.

In the short term, the new ECHA Executive is focused on improving ECHA’s own infrastructure, with plans to reform its rather clunky website by early 2013.

In an equally refreshing move, the Slovenian organisers of the ECHA 2014 conference have selected ‘giftedness in a digital age’ as their theme and have established an open forum to gather ideas about the content and organisation of the event.

I am grateful that they have read my post about the 2012 Conference and expressed their willingness to receive further ideas from this quarter. What a contrast between Slovenia and Poland!

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An Overall Verdict on Progress to Date

After a slow start, the Budapest Centre has made some significant progress, particularly over the past four months. The Polish conference will have caused some reputational damage but, in the grand scheme of things, should have only a marginal impact on the wider initiative.

It remains to be seen whether there will be a 2013 Conference, as envisaged in the 2011 Declaration and, if so, where it will be held. (The 2013 EU Presidency falls first to Ireland and then to Lithuania.) A decision soon on the timing – as well as the location – is devoutly to be wished for.

Despite the progress in Budapest, there are several warning signs which cannot be ignored:

  • Given the size of the staff, the overall level of activity seems relatively low when judged in terms of the quality and quantity of published material;
  • So it seems probable that much of this human resource is disproportionately allocated to relatively marginal but labour-intensive activity, such as the promised publication of a second volume of International Horizons of Talent Support, a review of gifted education activity elsewhere in the world. (Even though I say so myself, there are others in that territory providing a more flexible service entirely free of charge!)
  • The website needs fairly urgent attention if it is to adopt a design and approach consistent with the networking principles upon which the initiative as a whole is based. The talent map is still embryonic, though it was launched well over two months ago now.
  • As far as I can tell, nothing has been done to establish the International Expert/Advisory Group which formed part of the original vision. This seems essential to wider international ownership of the initiative. It would be unfortunate in my view if the group was limited to populating the talent map.
  • There are unexplained omissions and delays. There was no EU Talent Day in 2012, despite initial rumours that it would be celebrated during the ECHA Conference in September. The website mentions plans for an event on 28 November marking the first six months of the Centre’s activities and publication of International Horizons Volume Two. But at the time of writing, there is still no report on proceedings and the new volume has yet to be uploaded.
  • The future funding of the Centre seems relatively precarious and unclear. The website is explicit that initial support from the National Talent Fund runs out on 30 November. Some sources suggest there may be money available to support the Centre’s activities for a further six to nine months, but longer term support will almost certainly depend on sponsorship. Sponsors may well want some influence over the direction of the project and its priorities. It will be telling (and rather worrying) if the press release marking the first six months of activity – when it is eventually published – makes no reference to future funding arrangements.

It remains to be seen whether the EU lobbying effort will bear fruit. It may set back progress if too few MEPs are willing to sign the EU Declaration. Even if the Declaration is supported, it is not entirely clear what benefits this will bring.

And overall I remain concerned at the Budapest-centric nature of the operation. There is no published plan for how the current model will shift to a more distributed approach where responsibility and control is shared across Europe. As I have several times suggested, an EU funding bid under the Lifelong Learning Programme would provide the wherewithal to begin that process.

The next twelve months will be critical, almost certainly determining whether or not this laudable initiative is destined to succeed. We will return to the subject this time next year to find out whether the EU Talent project is a resounding success or a glorious failure.

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GP

November 2012

Review of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) Conference 2012

 

This post contains my reflections on the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) Conference 2012 which took place from September 12-15 in Munster, Germany.

From 2004-2008, I attended three ECHA Conferences in succession – Pamplona (2004), Lahti (2006) and Prague (2008) – but missed the next event in Paris (2010). I hadn’t intended to be in Munster either, until Javier Touron suggested I might chair a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education.

There is a commentary on that session below, but I begin with a review of the wider Conference. I have also included some observations drawn from my experience of live tweeting the event.

All these comments are set in the wider context of what I said about gifted education conferences in the post I wrote for the Symposium.

My argument is that face-to-face academic conferences of this kind are fundamentally inefficient, whether as a vehicle for professional development or the wider dissemination of research.

Careful use of social media offers one way to improve efficiency by ensuring that:

  • more people derive more benefits and
  • there is a better, closer fit between the flow of benefits to each individual and their particular needs.

My earlier post added, with some acerbity:

‘Conference keynotes are invariably dominated by the pantheon. They tour the circuit dispensing the ideas on which they built their reputations, while more junior researchers and other stakeholders compete for tiny audiences much further down the bill. Conference audiences are complicit in this since they are drawn to attend conferences by the big names, apparently regardless of whether they have something new to say. Consequently, old ideas are slow to be challenged and replaced, different models are regarded as mutually exclusive and the gifted education community makes no real effort to achieve broad consensus.’

I was interested to discover whether the Munster Conference would change that perception.

I conclude this post by offering some  suggestions for improvement and reform ahead of the next ECHA Conference in Slovenia in 2014.

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The Conference Location

There was upside and downside to Munster as a location.

On the downside, it wasn’t the easiest location to reach. The conference website  referred potential delegates to ‘the International Airport Münster-Osnabrück’, but the airport’s website reveals that travellers from London must first fly to Munich! (Ironically, a direct connection to London City Airport is being introduced next month.) The easiest and fastest way I could find to get to Munster was to fly to Dusseldorf and take a two hour train journey.

On the upside, Munster is an attractive, small and relatively compact city with some 270,000 inhabitants. It is pleasant to walk around the city centre, provided one successfully avoids the superabundance of bicycles – there are said to be almost two for every resident. I would very happily revisit as a tourist.

Three of the University of Munster’s buildings were used to host the Conference, which ran alongside a parallel German-speaking ICBF NationalConference. The organisers were supported by a core team and an ever-helpful host of student volunteers who helped us to navigate between and inside the venues.

Where we held the Symposium (courtesy of Javier Touron)

It was announced that over 1,000 delegates attended the Conference from 43 countries, though the first figure must account for both conferences rather than ECHA’s alone. I estimate the number registered for the ECHA event at between 200 and 300.

A quick review of the ECHA Conference programme suggests that there were speakers from 38 countries, including 26 in Europe, so slightly over half of all European countries were represented in this fashion.

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Content

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Keynotes

Eight keynote speeches were included in the programme, but two sets of two were originally scheduled simultaneously. In the event, one of the European keynoters did not appear and was substituted by one of the previously parallel events. This gave a total of seven keynotes, although with one pair still scheduled simultaneously.

The majority – four of the seven – were given by American speakers (Colangelo, Feldman, Renzulli and Subotnik). Even allowing for the absence of one European speaker, it struck me as questionable policy to draw half of the keynotes for a European conference organised by a European organisation from a single country located outside Europe. Can you imagine that scenario ever happening in reverse?

But no doubt the organisers had gone for members of  the pantheon to attract more delegates. The majority of the pantheon is located in the United States.

I attended five of the seven surviving keynotes, missing Feldman and Tirri (the latter being scheduled against Subotnik).

Of the American contingent, Colangelo and Renzulli turned in their usual polished performances – a variety of edutainment – but neither had anything terrifically new to communicate.

I thought Subotnik did a very good job of conveying lucidly the main thrust of the lengthy and complex papershe recently produced with Olszewski-Kubilius and Worrall.

The European keynotes were provided by Peter Csermely and Heidrun Stoeger. Peter covered the same ground he visited at the 2011 EU Talent Day Conference in Budapestand in his TEDx talk. Heidrun Stoeger discussed her work on self-regulated learning.

All five keynotes I attended were pitched to those in the audience who had never heard these ideas before, including many who do not have English as their native language. It follows that they were not quite so satisfactory for delegates who did not meet this description.

Of course I recognise the difficulties, but I would have been impressed by a more strenuous effort on the part of the speakers to differentiate their material – to offer greater stretch and challenge to those amongst their audience who would benefit from it. There was a certain irony in this shortcoming given the topic we had all assembled to consider!

Some of the keynoters were offering additional ‘in-depth workshops’ and may have deliberately whetted our appetites, reluctant to impart too much and so duplicate the content of those sessions. But this is not of itself a strong enough justification for the relatively low pitch of their keynotes.

I was reminded of references made by Joan Freeman during our Symposium to the relative superficiality of social media compared with other forms of interaction. I do think that this criticism may be justifiable – see for example my comments below about our Symposium – but it can also be levelled at the typical academic conference keynote.

My contention is that, by combining traditional forms and social media – and by planning for a continuum of interaction between expert and audience – one can more easily provide the differentiation that is otherwise lacking.

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Other Presentations

There is a rigid hierarchy to ECHA conferences. I attended three of the nine sessions by invited speakers – basically second division keynotes – but found them rather disappointing. Maybe I was unlucky, but they seemed rather thin. Each could have been accommodated comfortably in one of the 20 minute slots allotted to the standard third division presentations. (I never found the posters that made up the fourth division.)

The third division had been divided into triads – so three presentations taken together in a one hour session – on the basis of a logic that often escaped me. Sometimes I could spot different groupings that would have made more sense but, on other occasions, one could see that the organisers had no option but to force at least one square peg into a round hole.

A more flexible structure – perhaps permitting presentations to be grouped in twos, threes and fours – might have been preferable. I do not underestimate the timetabling difficulties caused by several presenters offering multiple presentations, although those could be reduced if some sessions were used to accommodate two or more contributions from a single presenter (ie the organising principle becomes the presenter rather than the theme).

Invariably there is a single presentation one wants to hear and a supporting cast comprising two rather less valuable offerings. And of course several sessions of this kind are blocked against each other, which causes one to miss many interesting presentations, especially if one is unwilling to be impolite and disruptive by flitting constantly between sessions.

In one case, two of the three presenters did not turn up, leaving a solitary speaker to fill up the hour available. One had scratched before the conference began but the other had reportedly ‘gone home’. The optimal choice would have been to leave and join the next best session, but how could we treat the last surviving presenter so brutally?

Some such timetabling arrangement is clearly necessary if the organisers are to fit the proceedings into the limited period available, but this perfectly illustrates the point I made in my blog post about the fundamental inefficiency of conferences organised in such a fashion.

The quality of these presentations was also highly variable. It seems unfair and unreasonable of a native English speaker to complain, but a few of the presenters did not have the requisite standard of spoken English to undertake the task.

Perhaps there is already some simultaneous translation software good enough to tackle this problem. Perhaps the answer lies in posting a multimedia online presentation instead (as opposed to the ‘fourth division’ poster, which has surely had its day).

Some of those with a much stronger command of English also had relatively little of significance to convey, and the very worst examples exemplified both of these shortcomings simultaneously.

Several of the better presentations I attended were largely descriptive of particular localised interventions. Yet this information could also have been conveyed much more clearly and efficiently online. We could not get beyond the description to consider in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the models being described.

There was very little indeed that dealt with gifted education at a strategic level and spoke to the (ex-) policy-maker.

I live tweeted from most of the sessions I attended and, in several cases, found the source material available on websites that I could have consulted from the comfort of my home, incurring much less expense in the process.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the presentations were unremittingly poor. Some were very good. Something akin to the Pareto Principle was in operation, in that I derived 80% of my learning benefit from 20% of the presentations I attended. Unfortunately that was a relatively small return on the outlay of time and money I had expended.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the content of this Conference was any worse than others I have attended. In many respects it was significantly better. But I believe that, as 21st Century conference-goers, we should actively question whether we get real value for money from events that cling to a 20th Century format and, if not, we should begin to request more substantive fare.

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An Aside About Networking

Faced with recognition that a conference does not quite live up to their expectations, many conference-goers will rationalise their disappointment by observing that the formal proceedings are far less significant than the peer-to-peer networking that takes place in the margins of the event.

I could not undertake much of that on this occasion owing to ill-health. I had no energy left to spare after a full day of conference sessions and retired to my hotel room to rest. I don’t know how I would feel about it if I had been healthy. (For the introverted amongst us, the peer-to-peer element can be by far the most difficult and tiring to undertake, even when we are fighting fit.)

From a purely mercenary perspective I find that face-to-face networking at conferences is rather over-rated. Pleasant though it is to spend some time socially with people one has not seen since the last event – and I really enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with several delegates that I already knew – the professional and business benefits that one realises by establishing brand new contacts are rarely worth the effort invested.

I understand the importance of making connections to establish a bigger, stronger network. After all, my blog post on the benefits of social media is based on that very principle. I recognise that face-to-face conferences offer significant potential to build such connections, but too often those interactions prove fleeting and transitory.

It requires sustained follow-up to translate them into something more lasting and meaningful – and that is where social media comes into its own. New contacts made face-to-face can be developed and sustained via Twitter and Facebook, but only if both parties are active users. Social media is the glue that can extend and build those initial relationships into something more substantive and valuable.

Which is a neat transition to…

 

Our Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education

I did not have high expectations of the Symposium. Past experience has confirmed that such events suffer typically from three shortcomings:

  • If the session is reliant on technology, something is bound to go wrong.
  • There is too little time to accommodate all the speakers and, partly as a consequence of that, plenary discussion is desultory at best.
  • Rarely if ever is there substantive agreement about the outcome of the discussion or the immediate next steps that should be taken. The leap from the theoretical to the practical and immediate is somehow too daunting to contemplate.

On this occasion the speakers surprised me by their collective willingness to fit their contributions into a ten-minute slot. It may have helped that all presentations were already in the public domain and that all the presenters were highly-experienced. Despite an exceedingly tight timetable we started on time and even finished slightly earlier than planned

However, the technology let us down. We could not get the projector to give sufficient magnification to the Twitterwall, so it was far too small for the room and only a few of the participants could follow the Twitter conversation by that means. The wall did not scroll automatically either, so our willing helper had to move it on manually throughout the session.

The plenary discussion inside the room did not exactly catch fire, though some interesting and valuable statements were contributed.

Although we had uploaded all presentations ahead of the session, so that everyone could internalise the key messages and frame questions in the light of them, there was negligible interaction of that kind from the Twitter audience. It seemed that they were satisfied with the capacity to ‘listen in’ and were much less inclined towards vigorous discussion.

There wasn’t too much in the way of high quality interaction between those tweeting from inside the Symposium and those following online. The number of people overtly involved via Twitter was also lower than I would have liked (but we have no way of knowing how many were lurking).

A handful of us managed to provide the lion’s share of live tweeting from inside the Symposium. (I am very grateful to @SilverDay and @Kariekol in particular for their help.)  A few other audience members were also active, but not too many.

Participants took photographs of all the speakers in action, which really helped to convey a better sense of the proceedings to those following on Twitter. I particularly liked this close-up of one of the graffiti-covered desks.

Overall I felt we successfully demonstrated how Twitter can be used as a simple tool to open up conference sessions to a much wider audience, but we were markedly less successful in generating active discussion and developing a way forward. Because of that, our session did not always manage to pull itself out of the superficiality that is associated with negative perceptions of social media.

So we exceeded my expectations but fell somewhat short of the fully interactive ideal. I’d grade us at B- or thereabouts.

Perhaps I am being over-critical. Our experienced moderator – @gtchatmod, aka Lisa Conrad, from #gtchat – was much more positive about the event from her Twitter perspective.

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Lisa has very kindly uploaded a full transcript of proceedings so you can judge for yourselves.

I have also published a somewhat shorter version with most of the repetitious retweets removed. Both are on Storify, so include the pictures that were taken at the event.

It remains to be seen what if anything will change as a consequence of the Symposium. I would like to see the open development of a Europe-wide social media strategy for gifted education which takes in ECHA and the European Talent Centre in Budapest, but is not owned or dominated by either of those entities.

The strategy should be consulted on widely, and revised in the light of that consultation, with every effort made to secure buy-in and commitment from all parties.

The guiding principle must be to build connections for the mutual benefit of every European engaged in supporting gifted education – the individuals as well as the local, regional, national and international organisations – rather than creating an exclusive membership-based network which benefits some at the expense of others.

And if the strategy is devised with the understanding that gifted education is on the verge of becoming globalised (as I argued in my previous post), it follows that it cannot relate solely to Europe but must adopt a worldwide perspective.

 

Live Tweeting from the Conference

There was a good deal of live tweeting from the Conference, with substantial contributions in Dutch, English, German and Spanish. Unfortunately, there are relatively few reliable free options for archiving the full record. Some I tried did not work particularly well.

You will find what I believe is a full record of the #echa12 feed at Twubs.

As ‘belt and braces’, there is also an Excel file containing all of the tweets found by SearchHash.

The latter is less visually attractive but perhaps more permanent, given the relatively short shelf-life of some Twitter-related services.

This was the first conference I have live tweeted. I would have been far too slow on the tiny keyboard of a mobile phone, so I decided to take my full-sized laptop for the purpose. I had to make use of the sockets in the smaller rooms used for normal presentations so I had enough battery juice to make it through the keynotes.

I ran out of battery only once – towards the end of the Subotnik keynote – and had to resort to notebook and pen. I converted these notes into Tweets later that evening.

Live Tweeting became my replacement for personal note-taking (since I could not do both simultaneously). So my record of proceedings is permanent but it is also public. I have published a Tweetdoc which captures my personal contribution for posterity! (The PDF file is here in case Tweetdoc also disappears.)

I had in mind Twitter followers who wanted to know the substance of what had been said during any given presentation, but also people attending the Conference who were following the Twitter feed too.

It struck me that the latter in particular would benefit from quick access to supporting material rather than near-verbatim summaries of the arguments being advanced by the speaker. So, during the presentations, I researched the background of speakers, their websites and publications. This enabled me to post a number of links to useful attachments

I have no idea whether anyone actually used the service I was providing in the manner I intended. I couldn’t help feeling that the provision of such a potentially valuable service ought not to depend entirely on the voluntary services of Twitter users providing an unofficial conference backchannel. There is a case for an ‘official’ Twitter feed to provide at least some of this material.

 

What are the Learning Points for ECHA 2014?

 

Principles

The next ECHA Conference takes place in two years’ time, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. What lessons could the organisers learn from the Munster experience and how can they best utilise social media to make their conference successful?

I would urge them to start from the principle that their face-to-face event in September 2014 is part of a continuum of provision spanning the period between the event just finished in Munster and the conference that will follow them in 2016.

  • How can they maintain contact with the delegates who attended in Munster, sustaining and building that network through social media in the run-up to 2014?
  • How can they design a conference in 2014 that serves as a key-staging post in this continuum, adding significant value for those who attend as well as those who participate from a distance?
  • How can they support the next organising committee in the parallel transition to their face-to-face event in 2016?

They might plan with the specific objective of providing the best possible online access to those who cannot attend the Conference in person.

Rather than supply this service through social media tools and an aggregation of stand-alone services, they should explore delivery through a single learning platform. They should contemplate developing a fee structure that will enable them to recoup the cost of providing the service.

As far as content is concerned, the conference should be designed explicitly to fill gaps in our collective knowledge of gifted education and/or tackle collective problems we face in the design and delivery of gifted education programmes. In other words, there should be a significant, positive, tangible outcome for the gifted education community as a whole.

The conference should also be differentiated throughout, to ensure that participants from different stakeholder groups and with different levels of experience are well provided for. That should apply as much to world-leading experts as to novices in the field. Every participant should have a means of contributing significant value to the conference and of receiving commensurate benefit in return.

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Practice

At the same time, the organisers should take practical steps to harness the power of social media to deliver an improved conference experience for all participants, whether they come to Ljubljana or access the event online.

  • It is good that the 2014 Conference organisers have already established a Twitter Feed as well as an embryonic website. This might usefully be complemented by a Facebook page and possibly a blog too. A steady flow of information about developing plans for the Conference will help to engage prospective delegates, especially if there are opportunities for them to contribute to the conference design.
  • Once the conference programme starts to take shape, social media could be deployed to build discussion around the key themes that emerge. Potential presenters could develop their contributions to address the issues that surface from such discussions, or to illustrate how their policies and practice might be adapted to inform provision elsewhere in the world.

This would help us to move away from conference sessions that are mere reportage – whether of programmes underway or research undertaken – and so to concentrate on identifying gaps in our knowledge and understanding and how best to fill them. There would be much more discussion and much less presenting.

  • A week or so before the conference, all presentations could be uploaded on to the conference website, so that delegates and others could read them and reflect on points to raise in discussion. Wherever possible presentations would carry hyperlinks to all the documents and materials they reference.
  • Instead of preparing a fat and heavy conference brochure, including the programme, abstracts and biographical detail, all this information could be supplied online, in the form of a searchable database. Such a database should also be made available as a mobile app. Delegates could download it before they attend, or – if they preferred – receive it on a flash drive. (They would no longer need a conference bag, so the savings on bags and folders could be redirected to pay for the flash drives, or a sponsor might supply a batch as support in kind.)
  • There should be a multimedia conference blog to supply news, report on highlights and generally capture the spirit of the event. Short snippets of film could be prepared and edited for this purpose as an alternative to the conference film that was shot at Munster, which was said to have required excessive work to complete.
  • The organisers should arrange an official conference Twitter feed, linked to the blog, to carry news and highlights of the main sessions. Other Twitter users should use the stream as a back-channel to pose questions and points to be addressed during discussion. This would enable those not physically present to engage directly in the debate. There should be a prominent Twitterwall in each session and in the main meeting areas where conference delegates assemble.
  • Rather than publish a set of ‘proceedings, whether as a hard copy or a DVD, the Conference website should preserve the database of presentations and supporting material, with authors given the option of uploading further material relevant to the issue at any point after the Conference. Responsibility for maintaining this database would either be handed over to the next conference team at an appropriate point or passed back to ECHA. Either way it should be free for everyone to access.

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Conclusion

Ljubljana Dragon courtesy of Arbo Moosberg

It cost me about £750 all told (about 936 Euros currently) to attend the Munster Conference and I am really not sure whether that investment was justified by the benefits I have derived from doing so. It is probably too early to judge.

Were the reforms I have suggested to be introduced, participants would have available a cheaper means of access to much of the conference proceedings. They would be able to exercise choice over how to interact with the event, with cost as one factor influencing their decision.

Effort would be invested in ensuring that the flow of benefits from the event is personalised to meet the very different needs of participants – and that the collective benefit to the gifted education community is significant and tangible.

We would have made a valiant effort to shift an outdated and inefficient format into the 21st Century. We wouldn’t get everything right first time, but we would learn from our evaluations and continue to refine our strategies, taking full advantage of new and more sophisticated technologies as they emerge.

Or else we could gloss over the shortcomings of the current model and persuade people to attend such conferences as we have always done – by holding them in attractive places that people want to visit. The closing ceremony at ECHA 2012 offered us filmed advertisements for the glories of Antalya, Auckland and Ljubljana respectively.

They all looked very pleasant, but that’s not really the point, is it?

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GP

September 2012

Can Social Media Help Overcome The Problems We Face In Gifted Education?: Part Two

 

Part One of this post was my best effort to explain the context for the arguments I will now advance, supporting the hypothesis that social media can help us to address some of the major problems we face in gifted education.

Part Two is organised around the five aspects of gifted education I identified: advocacy, learning, policy-making, professional development and research.

It is my personal assessment of how social media is already helping us to tackle some of the issues and problems that we face – and how the global gifted education community might deploy social media to make further progress in each area over the next few years.

Each section of the commentary that follows expands on the broad nature of the challenges we face in relation to the relevant dimension of gifted education, considers briefly and in general terms how social media is being used now to respond to those challenges, and offers constructive suggestions for how we might build on those foundations.

It concludes with a brief analysis of the some of the weaknesses in a social media-driven approach, some of the obstacles to progress that we face and to what extent these are surmountable in the short to medium term.

The five dimensions are again introduced in alphabetical order – no assumptions should be derived about their relative importance.

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Advocacy

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

Advocacy is heavily dependent on the capacity to build links with other people who have similar concerns and priorities, joining forces to influence more effectively the decisions and behaviour of third parties. It depends so heavily on making connections that the synergy between it and social networking is self-evident.

Advocacy typically originates in separate, personal interaction between the parent of a potentially gifted learner and his or her teacher.

Because gifted learners are relatively scarce (however the term is defined), the parent is unlikely to have contact with others who are experiencing the same issues. The teacher may also be unused to addressing the needs of gifted learners, and gifted education is unlikely to be a top priority for the school, so a degree of persuasion may be required.

The parent typically engages with a teacher – and often subsequently with the headteacher – to achieve shared understanding of the learner’s educational needs and how those needs can best be met within the resources available.

Even though parents are the customers that schools serve, whether in the public (state) or private (independent) sectors, they may feel at something of a disadvantage, especially if they find themselves questioning school practice, challenging teachers’ professional expertise or even seeking alternative provision that better meets the learner’s needs.

Before navigating these waters, a wise parent will want to access reliable sources of information, advice and support. They can strengthen their position as an advocate for their own child through interaction with other parents of gifted learners, and with educators and other professionals who have expertise in giftedness and gifted education but are not connected with the learner’s current educational setting.

They typically secure this interaction by forming a personal support network, very similar in concept to the personal learning network explored in Part One, though the interaction may not necessarily take place online.

The intersection of many different personal support networks creates a social support network which enables support to flow through its members in different directions. The parent who sought support may be able to offer advice and support to others, at least for the period during which he or she still needs to receive it.

Critically, the social support network should also generate wider benefits, achieved through collective advocacy at local, regional or national level. This is typically co-ordinated through an organisation.

Historically, such organisations have often sought to restrict the benefits they offer to a defined membership who pay for the privilege, with the income generated used to support the continued operation of the organisation. The benefits of belonging to the organisation are not accessible to those who, for whatever reason, do not meet the membership criteria, or who cannot afford the cost.

To function effectively on the national stage, an advocacy-driven organisation must itself have national reach. Regional or local networks may succeed better in effecting localised change, but it is otherwise inefficient to rely on many smaller, fragmented networks with relatively limited access to information, advice, support and expertise.

Resources are scarce so duplication is wasteful. Small organisations struggle to survive, especially if they operate on a voluntary basis. Small networks suffer disproportionately from the departure of individuals with experience and expertise.

It seems that gifted advocacy often fails. Networks are insufficiently strong or too patchy in their coverage. Too few volunteers have too little time. Organisations are unable to secure consistently the baseline funding they need to thrive. Personal differences arise and cannot be overcome (and it may even be possible to attribute this to the malign influence of so-called ‘gifted intensities’).

Given a globalised environment and globalised gifted education, the logically optimal solution is a global network, openly accessible to everyone who needs its services, which depends principally on a large number of volunteers each making their own small contribution and receiving commensurate benefits through the free flow of information, advice and support.

But while that might serve the needs of those requiring such support, it does not address the lobbying function, ie it does not provide the leverage that advocates require to persuade key opinion formers to change their policies and/or allocate scarce resources to gifted education.

If we are realistic, we should accept that advocates for gifted education have been rather unsuccessful in this respect in many (perhaps most?) countries around the world. To be fair, advocates have often achieved small local victories but rarely have they swayed state or federal governments. If they had been successful on the bigger stage, effective gifted education would be much more prevalent than it is today.

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Current Response via Social Media

Gifted advocacy has developed a significant online presence. Originally this was used to share information and advice primarily on a top-down basis, but more interactive communication began with the introduction of online discussion forums, several of which continue to this day.

In recent years, advocacy groups have begun to make use of social networking tools. Some host their own blogs. Several have established social network pages and/or post frequently on pages established specifically to facilitate international networking, such as International Gifted Education and Mary’s Gifted Contacts, both on Facebook. A few host their own webinars or podcasts.

Twitter is particularly active with hundreds of gifted education advocates posting regularly under the #gifted, #gtchat, #gtie, #gtvoice, #2ekids, #hoogbegaafd (in Dutch) and #nagc hashtags. The vast majority of posts include shortened links to resources and news stories elsewhere on the Internet, including material made available via other platforms.

Of the hashtags mentioned above, #gtchat, #gtie and #nagc run chats – real time discussions with regular timeslots and pre-announced topics enabling Twitter users worldwide to engage with each other and to share resources.

Many advocates, especially parents, say that they rely heavily on Twitter – especially on weekly chats – to establish and maintain contact with others in a similar situation, wherever they may be located.

Connections can be made globally, so advocates can support each other regardless of nationality or geographical distance (though the time of day can be a problem). Translation tools enable one to understand Tweets in a foreign language, but are not yet good enough to support direct communication.

I use my @GiftedPhoenix Twitter account to publish analysis and commentary on English education policy and global gifted education using hashtags to differentiate the two streams. It is part of my personal advocacy effort to expose my education policy followers as well as ‘lurkers’ (those who read posts but do not post or follow others) to information about gifted education, including more detailed pieces posted on this Blog.

Some of those followers – and probably some ‘lurkers’ – are key education opinion formers and leaders in the field. I think I can detect limited positive influence through these efforts but the impact is impossible to quantify.

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How Can Social Media Improve Advocacy Further?

Social media can play a major role in developing and sustaining the personal support networks that provide the foundations of the gifted advocacy movement. Moreover, to the extent that time and language differences allow, they can have a genuinely global reach. Many social media users derive considerable personal benefit from their engagement.

But this benefit is currently confined to the small minority of parents, educators and other stakeholders who are actively involved with the relevant social media and have come to understand its value as an advocacy tool.

There is capacity to expand this activity significantly, building national and international networks to accommodate all those able and willing to communicate in this manner. Numbers are increasing and some well-known names are actively engaged, but critical mass has not yet been achieved.

Most of the leading membership organisations and centres of gifted education continue to rely principally on traditional methods of communication, notably face-to-face conferences, subscription journals and newsletters. They may host their own discussion forums but are only occasionally active on social media. The majority seem to prefer such interaction to be controlled and undertaken by their own members in a closed environment.

They typically use open social media to announce news and events rather than to interact with other participants. They can seem unduly defensive, reticent about exposing themselves to external scrutiny and reluctant to engage with any form of challenge or criticism. This serves to reinforce a silo mentality which is not helpful to the gifted education movement.

So there is currently huge untapped potential to develop this kind of advocacy through social media. The reach and quality could be significantly increased if organisations like ECHA were to place it at the core of their business rather than dabbling at the margins. They might consider switching the focus of their communications away from the traditional formats, so as to free up resource for the purpose of building their social media presence.

Were the number of users to increase substantially, these social media tools might also be utilised more systematically for advocacy directed at external players, designed to improve the funding, provision for and general status of gifted education.

With the full commitment of all the major organisations in the field, it would be possible in future to plan and run vigorous awareness-raising or lobbying campaigns but, for the time being, this is a bridge too far.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Learning

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

Gifted learners need personalised education to meet their needs. Because gifted learners are more likely than most others to require customised provision, they are also more likely to receive education in more than one setting. The greater the number of settings involved, the greater the risk of fragmentation.

It is essential that the different elements are drawn together into a coherent programme, ideally comprising a judicious blend of acceleration, enrichment and extension – and that progress is monitored carefully. When there is an accelerative dimension, there must be a long term plan with a clear end point, including opportunities for learners to step off the fast track without loss of esteem

Because gifted learners (however that term is defined) are relatively scarce, it is often difficult to bring enough of them physically together – whether in a class, a school or a local area – to make separate provision economically justifiable.

It may be organisationally difficult for a school to maintain appropriate accelerative options, whether they involve maintaining a faster pace in specific subject areas, full transfer into an older year group, or early entry into a different educational setting.

Moreover, effective provision can place significant demands on teachers’ pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. In primary settings where the teacher is likely a generalist, they may not have the necessary subject knowledge to provide sufficient stretch and challenge.

And gifted learners are not exempt from wider problems associated with the traditional model of face-to-face schooling, especially when they live in rural settings or in urban settings where the supply of suitable school places is insufficient to meet demand.

So the education of gifted learners can be a complex matter, requiring close collaboration between parents and providers over an extended period and especially at key transition points in the host educational system. Some are fortunate to find the right learning environment which adjusts with them as they develop; others may experience periods in which there is a significant mismatch between their educational experience and their needs.

But many gifted learners are also highly active independent and online learners, relying extensively on the material they can access – and on a variety of peer-to-expert and peer-to-peer interaction – to supplement their formal learning activities.

Because social media can address so many of the problems faced by gifted learners, while also capitalising on their familiarity with the online environment, it is tempting to regard the relationship between gifted education (in this narrow sense) and social media as ‘a marriage made in heaven’.

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Current Response via Social Media

The emergence of online and distance learning has provided new options for gifted learners which can be applied in any of the contexts outlined above.

By linking learners regardless of geographical location, at least some of the organisational difficulties potentially inherent in gifted education can be overcome. Younger gifted learners can more easily access learning opportunities designed primarily for older students, including higher education courses.

Complexity of provision can be organised, managed and monitored through e-portfolios and similar online tools.

A crude taxonomy of online provision for gifted learners would comprise:

  • virtual schools specifically for gifted learners – though Hoagies currently lists just five providers, all of them USA-based
  • virtual schools that take gifted learners as part of a wider service
  • online extended learning opportunities provided explicitly for gifted learners by specialists. Several of the leading providers have invested in online services to complement their face-to-face provision. Perhaps the first to enter the field was Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth which ran its first course for gifted students in 1992. Several providers are active in Europe. Those based in the UK include IGGY and OLP.
  • generic online courses, including many higher education courses which accept younger students
  • an ever-increasing range of generic learning platforms, some of them social learning environments, some of them MOOCs (these two subsets are not mutually exclusive)
  • a vast array of independent learning opportunities inherent in materials freely available online. These may be entirely self-standing, or pre-organised into a sequence or package, or accessed through an imposed framework of some kind. They may be curated and indexed, or they may be found through a search process instigated by the user.
  • the organisational and record-keeping tools mentioned above, which are sometimes stand-alone and sometimes integrated within one of the forms of provision above.

Although the concept of a PLN is typically applied to adult learners, it can equally apply to those of school age. Hence gifted learners may also be learning informally through everyday engagement with peers through generic social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

And it is not difficult to find specialist social networks that focus on particular topics where gifted learners can engage with others who share that interest. If there is no extant social network, it is straightforward to use one of the generic platforms to start a new one.

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How Can Social Media Further Improve Learning?

The supply side of the market has developed many competing online learning platforms and services, some espousing social learning principles, others adopting a more traditional didactic teacher-student learning model.

A few niche providers are catering solely for gifted learners but, rather surprisingly, I can find no evidence that any of the big players has overtly identified gifted learners as a significant sub-population amongst their users.

There is also very little signposting of the different services available from a gifted education perspective (although there are several directories of varying quality providing details of online resources for home schooling).

Although it would be a major task, an organised effort to establish and update a database of formal online learning options suitable for gifted learners would have significant value.

Such a resource could be designed for global use, cataloguing formal learning opportunities by type, subject area, language, pitch and age appropriateness. The database could be crowdsourced, so compiled from details submitted by gifted learners, parents and educators. An Amazon-style rating and review system would provide a basic quality assurance mechanism.

A search engine would allow users to find learning opportunities that match their needs, and maybe even suggest possible progression routes to related subject matter or the same subject at a more advanced level. A visual representation, similar to Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map, would allow learners to navigate easily between topics and levels.

A database of this kind could be further enhanced by recording ‘learning pathways’ taken by gifted learners through the resources it contains, enabling other learners to trace the same routes. Such pathways could even incorporate stand-alone learning resources found online.

There would be significant potential in encouraging gifted learners to act as curators developing their own ‘learning pathways’ to share with others. Mentormob is one platform supporting learning-based curation of this nature.

It might even be possible to accredit some of these learning packages as a contribution to formal education by mapping them against any set of curriculum requirements and adding appropriate assessment tools. (Online learning could be combined with computer adaptive testing for this purpose.)

Further stimulus could be given to peer-to-peer learning between gifted learners, perhaps through partnership between gifted education providers and one of the existing social learning platforms. It would be relatively straightforward to build multimedia online learning communities around any of the resources in the database.

The nearest equivalent I can find to this currently is Cogito, established and supported by CTY at JHU. But that is confined to maths and science only and members must be aged over 13. There are also similarities with Renzulli Learning Systems though that is a commercial operation with access sold through schools rather than to individual users.

Both are US-based and seem to stock English language resources only. A multi-lingual approach would have wider global reach. It would enable gifted learners to develop foreign language skills by learning other topics through the target language. Learners with first languages other than English could also form learning communities with others in countries where those languages are spoken.

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Harbour View courtesy of GP Junior

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Policy-making

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

The global gifted education community has probably made least progress in this area, in terms of recognising and responding to the particular needs of gifted education policy-makers, whether they operate at local/district, regional/state or national/federal level.

The leading international organisations have not developed a critical mass of members who have policy making functions, nor do they offer services designed to meet policy makers’ needs.

This may be chicken-and-egg in that gifted education policy-makers have shown no great propensity to organise themselves as a coherent subset within the gifted education community, or indeed within the wider education community.

There is consequently little communication between policy-makers, or between policy-makers and the other key stakeholder groups, despite the fact that such communication would be mutually beneficial.

To undertake their functions effectively, policy-makers need access to high-quality research to provide a comprehensive evidence base. They also need access to reliable information about the way in which other districts, states or countries have tackled the problems inherent in the delivery of gifted education, plus any evaluations of the effectiveness of such programmes.

An evidence base of this kind helps guard against the worst excesses of ‘policy tourism’ and the selective use of evidence to justify contentious political decisions. It also means that policy makers do not waste time and effort in ‘reinventing the wheel’, or in replicating failed initiatives that have been tried already and found wanting in other jurisdictions.

Policy making can also be undertaken collaboratively, across local, regional and national borders where that makes sense, for example where a policy impacts on two or more jurisdictions. Those engaged in policy-making need a location, physical, online or a mixture of both, in which they can undertake this activity.

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Current Response via Social Media

Barely any gifted education policy makers are active within social media and any who are will most likely have a parallel role that aligns them with the professional development and/or research fields. (It is not unusual for the policy-making function to overlap with others in this fashion.)

Twitter provides the nearest equivalent to an education policy forum in which gifted education-related issues can be aired and discussed but, because so few policy makers are active, such discussion tends to be with other stakeholder interests.

As far as I am aware, this is the only blog that addresses gifted education issues from the national policy perspective, so providing an information source of direct use to policy makers. Some other blogs make occasional forays into the policy-making sphere, but not from a policy-maker’s perspective.

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How Can Social Media Further Improve Policy-Making?

An online Gifted Education Observatory, serving as a repository of information, research and data about gifted education worldwide would be of direct use to policy-makers and to all other stakeholder groups within gifted education.

For example, gifted learners engaged in peer-to-peer learning could understand more about the systems in which their peers are educated, parents could research provision prior to relocation or emigration and researchers could access material to inform comparative studies.

If the Observatory were designed on social media principles, policy-makers and other stakeholders could engage collaboratively with such materials, so supporting the policy-making process.

It could host collaborative effort to develop international gifted education policy, such as the roles and responsibilities of the European Talent Support and Resource Centre, now being established.

It could support all five areas of gifted education by engaging all stakeholder groups in the development of International Quality Standards for gifted education, as well as providing a forum for the development, comparison and revision of National Quality Standards.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Professional Development

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges we face

Within any particular country, the incidence of gifted education-specific initial training and professional development will depend in part on the relative priority given to gifted education in that jurisdiction. Since the priority generally attached to gifted education is relatively low, this means that high quality development opportunities are likely to be comparatively scarce.

With initial training there is the additional problem that too many topics are vying for attention within a very limited training period. If it features at all, gifted education may be addressed with extreme brevity.

That may be no bad thing, since it is arguable that relatively more experienced teachers with a larger range of classroom experience may be better able to grasp the complexities of differentiation at the extremes of the ability range. But, if coverage is delayed until later in a teachers’ career, participation is more likely to be voluntary, meaning that a significant proportion of the teacher force may never develop the knowledge and skills they should desirably possess.

Top-down national or state training programmes are increasingly rare, because the cost is prohibitive and there is often an ideological preference for bottom-up solutions driven by schools through inter-school collaboration. It is argued that training by teachers for teachers is more likely to be relevant and satisfy identified development needs.

That may be true, but there is a concomitant risk that professional development will reflect known practice rather than best practice, and may be overly focused on what works in the classroom. By failing to provide a proper understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of effective practice, such professional development may not secure reflective gifted education practitioners.

Moreover, bottom-up strategies depend on a comprehensive and effective network comprising all schools, with sufficient expertise distributed within the network to enable every single school to benefit. There is a significant risk that some schools will not do so, especially if the network is not centrally co-ordinated. Limited investment in quality assurance can mean that some providers within the network are of questionable quality.

It is likely that most countries that have invested in professional development packages have done so without reference to existing materials already produced elsewhere. Since the issues associated with gifted education are broadly common, there is likely to be significant duplication and unnecessary expenditure. There are also relatively few examples of collaborative effort to produce jointly useful materials.

The default model for providing professional development remains face-to-face interaction between a trainer and a group of trainees, though online or blended provision is now increasingly common.

Postgraduate courses in gifted education are provided by many higher education institutions worldwide, but are much more prevalent in some countries than others. Face-to-face and blended courses are typically offered as full-time or part-time options requiring attendance at a specific location which may be geographically distant from the participant.

Face-to-face conferences provide opportunities to access valuable professional development but are fundamentally inefficient, since the number of participants is limited by the accommodation and the number of topics by the range of presenters available.

Informal learning opportunities are similarly restricted by the number of colleagues one comes into contact with so, unless there are frequent chances to move outside the normal working environment, the individual will encounter relatively few colleagues, most of whom will work in that same environment. Hence the personal learning network is limited.

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Current Response via Social Media

There are several online postgraduate courses in gifted education, most of them based at American universities. Hoagies lists about twenty providers, including five or so offering online and/or blended options, but other online postgraduate course listings seem to include some provision not covered by Hoagies.

This offering from the University of Connecticut is typical of such online provision. There is some interaction:

‘You will explore the material you are reading through sychronous and asynchronous online discussions. Some [classes] may use streaming video/audio and simulations.’

But this is not at the cutting edge of learning driven by social media.

In Europe, ICEP Europe offers an online Certificate in Teaching Gifted and Talented Students which is much the same. As far as I can establish, the ECHA Diploma and Certificate courses are not offered in online or blended format.

IPEGE, the International Panel of Experts for Gifted Education, drawn from Germany, Switzerland and Austria published in 2009 a document Professional Promotion of the Gifted and Talented that proposes common content standards for Masters level and more basic professional development courses. It does not mention mode of delivery, so should be assumed to apply to all modes, online provision included.

Gifted educators are amongst those benefiting from social media to expand their PLNs. Some educators believe that social networks have the capacity to replace old-style professional development but others are more wary.

This post compares Twitter to Marmite – because educators either love it or hate it.

This paper by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning sets out a more reasoned case for social media’s contribution to professional development, including several case studies.

It concludes:

‘The people and organisations profiled in this report have all found that using social media has brought rich rewards. Through blogging, tweeting and participating in online forums they have been able to access the thoughts and ideas of education professionals across the world. They have been able to reflect on their own practice, and to use that reflection to shape their teaching. They have found new ways to engage with their pupils, parents and the wider community, and to use the insights they have gained to improve the learning in their school.

Social media will not provide a silver bullet. Engaging with colleagues in this way can be frustrating, time-consuming and demanding. Challenging yourself, or being challenged by others, on the way you approach teaching and learning is not for the faint-hearted. But if school leaders and policymakers are serious about raising teaching standards, the potential of social media to engage, support and inspire teachers should not be ignored.’

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How can Social Media Further Improve Professional Development?

As long as the use of social media continues to increase, one might reasonably expect more stakeholders in gifted education to become active and persuaded of the value for their own professional development and that of colleagues too.

It is incumbent on advocates for the power of social media to make the case – and hopefully this Symposium will play some small part – but it would help if organisations like ECHA were to commit themselves fully to this cause, and preferably not by establishing closed communities available only to ECHA members, but in an open and inclusive fashion.

Perhaps the ECHA diploma and certificate should be available online – and perhaps candidates should be actively encouraged to use social media for interactive support. (The ECHA diploma network already operates its own Facebook page, though this operates largely as a news broadcaster for members of the network, which is closed.)

The idea of an observatory, discussed above, would have major benefits for professional development worldwide, first and foremost by spreading knowledge and understanding about practice in other countries. If this were linked directly with a social curation and learning platform, there would be substantial two-way benefits.

Users would be invited to submit materials relevant to professional development that are freely available online. Those materials could be catalogued according to country of origin, date of publication, language, media (eg written, video, multimedia) and topics covered. Research could be included. Users could be invited to review and rate resources, again using the Amazon model.

Users could also be invited to draw these resources together into professional development ‘learning pathways’ which could be incorporated into larger professional development programmes, or initial training, or even be accredited and used as stand-alone courses. Groups of gifted educators worldwide could learn together by interacting with these materials and with each other. Specialist tutors could be trained to lead such activity.

If this rich online professional environment was coupled with the equally rich gifted education environment outlined above, the synergy thus created would directly benefit both endeavours.

The professional development benefits could also be extended to school improvement if learning resources were linked directly to quality standards and school improvement plans derived from them. It would not be impossible to develop a whole school improvement programme driven by gifted education with built-in formative and summative evaluation.

There would also be potential to accredit formally the learning undertaken by gifted educators through other social networks. For example, a Twitter user might submit a log of his Tweets, including engagement through relevant #chats, as evidence of learning, understanding and thought leadership in the field.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Research

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges we face

From my (admittedly biased) perspective there are several problems with the current research environment for gifted education:

  • Useful research is inaccessible because there is no single dedicated online repository of the kind described above. Much of it is located in academic journals which, although they now permit online access, typically levy an exorbitant charge for reading even a single article. Sometimes the research may be accessible after a timelag, but not always, and often the timelag is far too long so the research is outdated once it can be accessed free of charge. (There are, of course, some honourable exceptions.)
  • The other principal form of research dissemination is the academic conference, which is inefficient for the reasons I have already cited, expensive to attend and rarely provides delegates with a full record of all the keynotes and presentations given (or does so only at a price). It is pleasant to meet colleagues face-to-face once in a while – and some real value can be derived from personal networking – but these benefits are rarely lasting. Conferences are like occasional feasts, with far too much consumption packed into a tiny window, when they should ideally be staging points in a much richer continuum of engagement.
  • From an outsider’s perspective, gifted education researchers often seem to work in relative isolation from each other. It may be a caricature, but I suspect the ‘pantheon of gods’ rarely if ever convenes as a pantheon, whether physically or virtually, since that would compromise their status. Academics with seniority and big reputations may allow a coterie of younger researchers to sit at their feet, but there seems to be little systematic interaction of this kind within the research community between experienced and younger researchers.
  • Conference keynotes are invariably dominated by the pantheon. They tour the circuit dispensing the ideas on which they built their reputations, while more junior researchers and other stakeholders compete for tiny audiences much further down the bill. Conference audiences are complicit in this since they are drawn to attend conferences by the big names, apparently regardless of whether they have something new to say. Consequently, old ideas are slow to be challenged and replaced, different models are regarded as mutually exclusive and the gifted education community makes no real effort to achieve broad consensus.

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Current response via Social Media

Gifted education researchers are slowly being tempted to engage with social media, but not always for the right reasons. There is still a school of thought that advocates the use of blogs and Twitter as secondary tools for ‘marketing’ research – no doubt a means to drive an audience towards the journals and conferences where serious ideas are presented and discussed.

Several US-based centres are active on Facebook and Twitter, but this role is typically undertaken by the communications lead rather than by the academics who lead the centres. Rather than using social media to convey and discuss new ideas, they deploy it to sell places on their summer schools, or books written by their academics.

A few habitués are dedicated to sharing and discussing gifted education research, principally via Facebook and Twitter, but most of us are not academics in the strict sense. We confine ourselves largely to open access materials, since authors and publishers can do their own marketing – we are not in the business of generating profit for them. (I nearly always avoid priced resources, unless I have written them myself, and I do not follow people or retweet messages that seem exclusively focused on self-publicity or income generation.)

Several useful research-related social media tools and networks are now available, including Academia, Mendeley and ResearchGate. But few gifted education researchers use them.

At the time of writing, Academia lists 154 people with a research interest in ‘gifted education’ (though there are smaller groups associated with slightly different terms) and 39 people with a research interest in ‘giftedness’. They are almost exclusively graduate students, young academics and those already involved with other forms of social media. Not one of the ‘pantheon’ is active.

Academic conferences in gifted education remain resolutely traditional in format. I tried to introduce a different mindset when part of the Organising Committee for the 2007 World Conference in Warwick. I have made similar overtures to the 2013 organising committee, so far with no perceptible success (though they have set up a conference blog, which is a small step in the right direction).

A few of us are offering live Tweets from ECHA 2012, but there are too few to provide any meaningful coverage of the event. As far as I am aware, this Symposium is the only session offering any specific connection with social media, whether as a subject or a medium of communication.

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How can Social Media Further Improve Research?

In December 2010 I wrote a post ‘An International Online Network for Gifted Education Researchers?’ setting out the case for such an entity. Having explored the options, I suggested that it made sense to use ResearchGate as the platform, proposed further consultation and concluded with a suggestion that fell on deaf ears:

‘One option that emerges naturally from a social networking approach is to devolve, distribute and democratise the task, by inviting the gifted education research community to undertake the process voluntarily through researchgate.’

No-one took up the suggestion; nothing happened.

But if an observatory cum repository cum social learning environment could be developed, it should certainly incorporate research. It could give priority to effective dissemination of high quality research, the professional development of young researchers, and collaboration between researchers and with the other stakeholder groups in gifted education. It could provide the basis for an international think tank dedicated to solving the problems that we face in contemporary gifted education.

In the short term, we could make excellent progress if every delegate at this Conference were to commit to using Facebook and Twitter to share their presentations and papers. By such means we might entice a cross-section of delegates to experiment with social media as a means of engagement – with each other and with the wider gifted education community – between now and the next Conference in 2014.

For the concept of a PLN surely has just as much to offer the researcher as it does the educator, does it not?

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Windows courtesy of GP Junior

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The weaknesses of a social media approach and obstacles to progress

It would be quite wrong to portray social media as a panacea. It will not solve entirely the problems I have identified in this post and it may pose new problems that we do not face in our current transitional scenario.

For I am making an assumption, on the basis of the evidence cited above, that the influence and reach of social media will increase dramatically over the remainder of this decade and beyond.

It is unlikely that education – even comparative backwaters like gifted education – will be left behind, especially since huge organisations like Newscorp and Pearson have identified online education as an investment priority.

But it will be incumbent upon the gifted education community to ensure through advocacy that gifted education is at the forefront of such developments, rather than an afterthought.

There are significant problems to rectify and issues to address if progress is to be made. They include:

  • Resources: Although very significant progress can be made by relying on free software and services, the opportunities for customisation are relatively limited unless fruitful partnership can be established with companies willing to invest to capture the gifted education market. Moreover, those who run free services will often plan towards a subscription model to achieve longer-term sustainability – free services do not always remain so.
  • The pace of change: Social media is evolving with great rapidity, especially in the education market. It would be very easy to adopt an approach or a partnership agreement that led up a blind alley, so any development strategy needs to be flexible enough to permit horses to be changed midstream.
  • Fragmentation: The nature of social media is such that a huge choice of opportunities exists. Unsuccessful enterprises go quickly to the wall while exciting new services appear at the same rate. A wise social media strategy will embrace a few different providers anyway, because no single service covers every element required and users have different preferences that need to be satisfied. But that raises the difficulty of how to bind and hold the different elements of a strategy together – a difficulty that is compounded if there are too many elements in play.
  • Linguistic diversity: Although quality has improved dramatically in recent years, we have not yet reached the position where a written document can be  translated instantly and perfectly into any other language, or where two learners without a common language can communicate sufficiently to learn together (except maybe in areas like maths and music).
  • Safety: Sadly, the internet is not a fully safe environment, especially for children. While it is imperative that they are protected from harm – whether from predatory adults or from their peers, via cyberbullying – this acts as a brake on innovation, requiring safeguards to be installed that may run counter to the optimal conditions for learning. This trade-off is unfortunately inescapable and must be planned for from the outset.
  • Resistance: It is certain that participants in this Symposium are a highly biased sample. While one would like to think that everyone in the gifted education community is open to persuasion, there will be those who oppose the use of social media, or who argue that the benefits are over-rated. This doesn’t entirely correlate with age, but older people generally seem more resistant. Those who remember a largely computer-free world may be less likely to espouse social media than later generations who have grown up with it.

It is common for critics to argue that they haven’t the time to engage properly with social media, that they are too busy already. But that is often because they regard social media as a bolt-on extra, an extravagance that they must fit in alongside all other demands, rather than something they can integrate fully into their lifestyle, in work and at leisure, and so improve significantly their productivity. Engagement with social media demands a time investment, but the investment yields added value, as well as scope to save time elsewhere. The social media enthusiast gives – and receives commensurately in return.

 

Last words

What then are we to conclude about the contribution that social media can make towards resolving the problems we face in gifted education? For me, the learning points are these:

  • The problems I have identified are longstanding and significant, but not insurmountable.
  • Gifted education needs to adapt if it is to thrive in a globalised environment with an increasingly significant online dimension.
  • Social media form part of that environment and also offer one promising means to address these problems.
  • Social media will not eradicate the problems but could support progress by virtue of their unrivalled capacity to ‘only connect’.
  • Gifted education is potentially well-placed to pioneer new developments in social media but is not properly aware of this opportunity, or the benefits it could bring.
  • We have not yet effected the transition from ‘early adoption’ to mainstream practice, but we need to begin to accelerate that process very soon, otherwise we will be left behind.

In the UK we are striving to establish an online social media hub for GT Voice, intended to form part of a global network representing all key stakeholder groups in gifted education.

Progress has been painfully slow as we struggle with very limited human and financial resource, the not inconsiderable fissures within the gifted education community, sheer apathy and an enduring desire to be spoonfed by others rather than networking together to effect real change and improvement.

We will continue that struggle, but would be aided considerably by joining a bigger movement to bring greater coherence to gifted education throughout Europe. The European Talent Support and Resource Centre is an excellent opportunity to make such a connection.

But, if it is to be successful, the Centre must devote itself to a distributed model, building capacity by developing nodes in every country and relying extensively on social media to establish connections between them. It will not succeed if it is – or if it is perceived to be – a mechanism for centralising power and influence in Budapest.

The Centre could supplement its own budget through a co-ordinated bid for network funding under the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme, but the deadline is fast approaching and this opportunity will soon have passed.

I have a nagging fear that, somewhere in Hungary, plans for the Centre are already formulated and signed off by the bodies that are providing the initial funding – whereas the better approach would be to open up the planning process at the earliest possible stage, so that we can secure collective buy-in and ownership across the Continent.

As part of that planning process, I propose a multinational working group to develop a pan-European social media strategy for gifted education, drawing on some of the ideas suggested in this Symposium, for incorporation into the business of the Centre and the international network surrounding it.

For I firmly believe that effective use of social media is a necessary condition for the success of that network.

Moreover, social media can make a substantial and lasting contribution to the scope, value and quality of gifted education, to the benefit of all stakeholders, but ultimately for the collective good of gifted learners.

No, ‘can’ is too cautious, non-assertive, unambitious. Let’s go for WILL instead!

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GP

September 2012

Can Social Media Help Overcome the Problems We Face In Gifted Education?: Part One

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This post:

  • reviews some of the key problems we face in securing effective gifted education
  • examines how – in the context of increasingly globalised gifted education – social media are helping to address those problems
  • proposes ways in which social media’s contribution might be enhanced and strengthened and
  • considers whether and to what extent social media might contribute towards the resolution of those problems.

The post is divided into two parts, with Part One providing a foundation for the arguments advanced in Part Two

It sets out my broad approach to this issue, explains the key concepts relating to gifted education, social media and globalisation respectively and provides background information and data about social media usage, especially in a European and educational context.

While I have tried to maintain a consistent and logical argument, you may find this somewhat more discursive and opinionated than my usual posts. I want to be provocative to promote discussion, but there is nothing here that I do not personally believe. I may be guilty of want of tact, in which case I plead guilty as charged.

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Background

Until now this blog has devoted little attention to the current and potential contribution of social media to gifted education, despite comprising one very small element of the social media revolution that is already impacting upon it.

The organisation of a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education – part of  the imminent 13th International Conference of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) in Germany – provides the perfect opportunity to rectify this omission.

I outlined our plans for the Symposium in my last post, introducing the participants and the abstracts of our presentations.

We intend that it will explore:

  • The extent to which social media have been applied to gifted education;
  • The benefits and the risks that social media can bring, whether for learners, parents, educators or policy-makers; and
  • How this field is likely to develop over the next few years.

We will discuss what further collaborative action might be undertaken by the gifted education community in Europe and beyond, to capitalise on the potential for social media to build and maintain valuable connections between them, for the benefit of all involved.

Our treatment will be located within the wider context of research on gifted education and social media respectively, but we will be focused primarily on the development and support of effective practice.

I have invited all presenters to publish their contributions a little way ahead of the event, to allow the other participants to familiarise themselves with the arguments they advance, and so come better prepared to take the discussion forward (but I recognise that this may not be possible for everyone given that the Conference takes place immediately after the holiday season).

I will upload materials and presentations and/or post links from this Blog so that everything that is published before the Symposium can be easily found.

There will be a Twitter Wall inside the Symposium, so that – technology and reliable free wi-fi permitting – some of the power of social media can be harnessed to support the event. We will invite those physically present to live Tweet highlights of the presentations as well as their own contributions.

We have also arranged a special edition of Global #gtchat powered by TAGT (the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented) to coincide with the Symposium, so that those among the worldwide gifted education community who are active on Twitter can follow proceedings and hopefully take an active part in the live discussion.

For my part, I have decided to set out my contribution to proceedings as a fairly typical Gifted Phoenix blog post. This will provide the basis for a much briefer 10 minute presentation during the Symposium itself. But industrious delegates will have been able to familiarise themselves with the full, unadulterated version – and so be able to discuss that more substantive text if they wish.

Birds courtesy of GP Junior

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My Abstract, Biases and Hypothesis

 

Abstract

For ease of reference, here again is the abstract that summarises my contribution:

‘Within education as a whole we are only beginning to utilise the huge untapped potential of social media to revolutionise learning, professional development, advocacy, research and policy-making.

The global gifted community is starting to realise that social media can provide part of the solution to many of the issues that it has been wrestling with for decades.

But the number of enthusiastic ‘early adopters’ is still relatively small, the majority are not yet fully engaged or persuaded and a few feel excluded or even directly threatened.

This presentation analyses the problems and priorities faced by the global gifted community, as seen through a European lens. It examines how social media might be harnessed to address these and reviews the progress made to date.

It identifies concrete action that could be taken to secure further and faster progress. It also isolates some of the key risks associated with a social-media driven approach and considers how those might be mediated or circumvented.

Participants will be strongly encouraged to share their own perspectives and experience, regardless of whether they are experts, beginners or somewhere in between.’

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Biases

I bring my own fair share of subjectivity and personal bias to this treatment, and it is important that I make a clean breast of that at the outset.

This analysis of the issues faced by the global gifted community will inevitably be Eurocentric, given my geographical location, though my perspective is fundamentally the globalised view of gifted education that serves as the leitmotif of this Blog.

It will also be influenced by my background as a policy-maker: one who understood part of that function to involve promoting engagement within and across the gifted education community, drawing in all the key stakeholder groups, as well as networking with and learning from the experience of those with similar responsibilities throughout the world.

Although I approach these issues from a broadly academic perspective, I am relatively more sceptical about the contribution of ‘proper’ academics than any other group within this community. That may be because – with honourable exceptions, some involved in this Symposium – I perceive them to be rather more concerned with their personal academic theories and reputations (and sometimes the reputations of their institutions) than they are with working collaboratively to resolve the common problems that we face.

Sometimes it feels as though the gifted education community is over-dominated by a pantheon of academic gods, each demanding that we worship at his or her shrine. Of course it may be a fault in the worshippers, rather than the worshipped, that this situation has come about.

I also start from the contestable premiss that our collective efforts to secure effective transnational collaboration in gifted education to date have been sadly deficient, especially in recent years.

Hence I am rather critical of ECHA’s track record, and that of the World Council, which places me in a somewhat difficult position relative to those organisations and others like them, especially when I am utilising their conferences to advance my views!

This may be cause to label me an outsider, even a maverick. But, paradoxically, my core message is an inclusive one, for part of the problem I see with these organisations is that they rely too heavily on a traditional closed membership model, which seems to me rather outmoded and out of kilter with the more inclusive, open-access, networking principles embodied in social media (at least up to the point where they collide with an imperative to generate subscription-based income).

These organisations also appear to be over-dominated by the academic contingent, somewhat to the detriment of the other stakeholder groups within the wider gifted education community, which weakens their overall impact.

I should also warn of possible bias when it comes to the social media I espouse and those I hold in somewhat lower regard. As will be apparent from my own digital ‘footprint’ I see great value in blogging, microblogging (via Twitter), learning platforms and collaborative platforms or online ‘hubs’ (such as the low-budget option we are developing for GT Voice).

I am somewhat less convinced of the value of Facebook, Linked In, Google+ and Second Life, though I recognise that they can make a valuable contribution. I see huge potential in social bookmarking and curation tools, as well as a variety of other useful applications.

But I believe that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. The trick lies in using these various instruments as seamlessly as possible, to create an accessible, effective and supportive social media environment.

I am sure you will hold a quite different perspective, but don’t let that prevent you from engaging with what follows! I have striven to hold these biases in check during the remainder of this post, though you may still see a trace here and there.

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Hypothesis

My fundamental hypothesis is that social media may well offer our best chance of realising E.M. Forster’s famous injunction to ‘Only Connect’, so linking together socially and geographically dispersed individuals, organisations and stakeholder groups, for the mutual benefit of all.

(The referencing of Forster’s epigraph in this context is not without precedent, as this early paper on ‘Computer-Mediated Association and Community Networks aptly illustrates.)

This is important because the fundamental weakness of the gifted education community lies in its fragmentation, its over-emphasis on points of difference and disagreement rather than points of similarity, and its overall unwillingness to collaborate to achieve broadly positive outcomes.

Some parts of the community are also bedevilled by insularity, failing to recognise that their part of the world does not have the monopoly on effective policy and practice and that they can learn from the experience of other countries, provided that they avoid the worst excesses of ‘policy tourism’.

I am not messianistic about the capacity of social media to generate a new world order in gifted education. I recognise that there are significant obstacles to the realisation of this outcome, some of which may prove insurmountable. But I do think that we can make significant further progress by building firm and sustainable social media foundations that will be beneficial to the future development of the European and global gifted education communities.

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Chipmunk courtesy of GP Junior

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The Meaning of Terms

This post brings together three complex concepts, each of which can be hard to pin down, namely gifted education, social media and globalisation. Relatively few readers are likely to be fully familiar with all three, and my interpretation may be somewhat idiosyncratic, so it is important to clarify what I mean by these terms.

 

Gifted Education

I tend to use ‘gifted education’ as a convenient shorthand for all activities associated with the identification, education and support of gifted learners, however that population is defined (and of course there are multiple definitions, with huge variation in the span and pitch of abilities accommodated, as well as the evidence of their existence required).

I use ‘gifted learner’ to mean all the beneficiaries of such activity, regardless of their age and whether they are receiving formal education, though children and young people of school age are foremost in my thinking.

I intend ‘gifted education community’ to include all those with a primary interest in giftedness, as well as all those engaged in some capacity with gifted education (and we know that those two factions do not always co-exist harmoniously, even in a social media environment).

Some might argue that my use of the terms ‘education’ and ‘learner’ is misleading, because they do not apply to some activities and settings I want to include. But that reinforces a tension between two parts of the community which seems to me reconcilable, if we can accept that all of us are engaged with education and learning in the broadest sense.

This is a broad church indeed, and the definitional variations I have mentioned make this even more pronounced. Sometimes it seems that the only common feature within this community is disagreement.

But part of my premiss is that only through collaboration can we accumulate sufficient power and influence to achieve the broadly common outcomes sought by the many different elements within the gifted education community. More specific preferences may have to be sacrificed for the common good. Social media can help to support such collaboration, helping us to circumvent the fragmentation that will otherwise undermine our collective efforts.

In this post, I have divided the gifted education enterprise into five areas, each of which is (stereo)typically associated with a particular stakeholder group, shown in brackets below.

These groups feature significantly in my subsequent treatment of problems and solutions. But I have avoided categorisation by group because each area is not entirely defined by the dominant group and, conversely, the activities of each group are not entirely defined by the area in which they typically feature. For example, it is quite reasonable to accept that teachers contribute to all of the five areas below.

The list is ordered alphabetically – no inference should be made as to the relative importance of the five components, all of which are critical to the success of our collective endeavour:

  • Advocacy (parents) incorporates all activity designed to raise awareness of the needs of gifted learners and those involved with their support – as well as the full range of personal and social benefits that investment in meeting those needs can secure – and lobbying to persuade those in positions of power and influence to address those needs and so generate those benefits.

This may be undertaken through organisations and networks specifically established for the purpose, or through more general governance arrangements (whether the governing body of a single school, a national parliament or something in between).

The most basic form is one-to-one interaction, typically between a parent and a teacher. It can take place face-to-face, online, or even in a blended environment. It may be highly formal, entirely informal or located at any point between those two extremes.

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  • Learning (learners) incorporates all activities and services that contribute towards the formal and informal education of gifted learners. In the case of learners of school age, the formal dimension will likely involve some element of compulsory schooling or its equivalent, typically but not exclusively provided through some form of differentiated classroom teaching, whether in a selective or mixed ability setting. Home schooling is of course an exception.

There may also be a significant element provided through additional extended learning activities that take place outside school hours, in the evenings, at weekends or during school holidays.

The distinction between formal and informal – already blurred to some extent through these out-of-school activities – becomes even more indistinct within an increasingly significant third component, namely voluntary, independent learning, now typically undertaken online and facilitated by social media.

The degree of independence varies, in that such online learning may be entirely separate from formal education, or fully integrated with it, or loosely connected.

The balance between these components can also vary enormously. In some blended learning models – often gathered under the general term flipped classroom – the independent online component is dominant, reversing the more traditional model in which face-to-face classroom learning predominates and is supported by additional online interaction.

One might expect the educational experience of gifted learners to require relatively more customisation and so typically include more out-of-school and online activity. Given that assumption, gifted learners are an important customer group for online learning providers to satisfy.

If we can also assume that education in future will be provided increasingly through online environments, then gifted learners can and should be at the forefront of that transformation.

But regardless of the balance, it is critical that these different elements are fully integrated and mutually supportive. If any part of the educational menu is perceived as second-order and ‘bolt-on’, the learner will suffer as a consequence. It follows that the organisation and recording of learning is essential to avoid fragmentation of the individual learner’s education experience, and social media can also support this.

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  • Policy-making (policy makers) denotes the development and delivery of all services designed to meet the needs of gifted learners and their families, as well as those engaged in associated advocacy, professional development and research.

This is likely to involve selection and assessment of different policy options, resource allocation, choosing a delivery mechanism, implementing a delivery process and evaluating outcomes. Policies and programmes must satisfy the political requirements of the entity responsible for approving them. They must also fit snugly in the wider policy context, supporting broader educational and social objectives wherever possible.

The communication of policies – how they are perceived by stakeholders affected and by the wider population – is a critical factor, and much of this engagement now takes place online. Policy makers are encouraged to use social media to conduct preliminary research, to consult stakeholders and as a feedback channel to inform the wider policy development process.

Although policy-making is assumed to be owned by those formally responsible for the design and delivery of services, whether at local/district, state/regional or national/federal level, that is not always the case. Concepts such as crowdsourcing and open and contestable policy-making are paving the way towards a much more distributed model.

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  • Professional development (teachers) comprises the initial training and subsequent development of all those engaged in educating and meeting the needs of gifted learners. This is not confined to teachers, though they will form the majority of beneficiaries. Other educators and paraprofessionals will also feature, some of them working directly with gifted learners, others engaged in related activities such as school leadership or academic research. Parents and carers may also benefit and there is a ‘training the trainers’ dimension too.

As with learning, professional development incorporates formal programmes that can be undertaken face-to-face, online or in a blended format. Provision may range from a full postgraduate degree at one end of the spectrum to a module requiring an hour or so for completion at the other.

And professional development is also making increased use of social media to provide the basis for collaborative interaction in a rich, multimedia online environment. As online and blended options become more popular, one might expect traditional face-to-face models to decline in popularity.

Meanwhile, social media also host a substantial and increasing volume of voluntary, independent professional development undertaken through personal and social learning networks (of which more below). And the distinction between these two strands is becoming increasingly blurred as those undertaking both at once build links between them so that formal and independent learning become mutually supportive.

This increasing reliance on social media and social networks is congruent with a widespread shift in the delivery model for professional development, away from top-down centralised models and towards devolved, bottom-up networked solutions that depend principally on educators supporting each other. Social media can help to combat the disadvantages of this distributed approach by extending its geographical reach and helping to ensure consistent quality.

Because educators are, by definition, at the forefront of pedagogical innovation, they too have a strong interest in pioneering these developments, testing out new approaches to learning on themselves.

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  • Research (academic researchers) includes all activity devoted to the production of knowledge about how best to meet the needs of gifted learners and those supporting them, as well as evaluation of the costs and benefits of doing so.

It may be undertaken in a formal context – typically a university or think-tank – and the product may be a research paper, report, lecture, presentation or book. Such research may be expected to inform advocacy, learning, professional development and policy-making but, if it is to do so, it must be shared openly with the relevant stakeholder groups rather than remaining in locked repositories.

Through the open access movement there is increasingly pressure to ensure that the outcomes of academic research are fully and freely available online, so that knowledge is not restricted to those in formal research environments and others with the ability to pay. Social media provide the means to distribute such research outcomes widely

But research may also take place in a different organisational environment, such as a third sector organisation, or be undertaken by advocates and/or educators working individually or collaboratively (including via a social network). It may be published through social media, perhaps in the form of a blog post or a wiki.

This democratisation of research, enabling those outside higher education settings to generate, publish and disseminate their findings, parallels similar developments in the other facets of gifted education already summarised above.

Whereas roles and responsibilities were once rigidly defined and allocated to specific subsets of the gifted education community, social media are beginning to bring about a more inclusive scenario – one which calls into question the relationships between different stakeholder groups that previously existed.

This provides an opportunity for those who were once in relatively subservient positions – or felt themselves to be so. But it also poses a threat to those who were formerly in positions of greatest power and influence. If I am right that the academic element has been over-dominant in the gifted education community, then social media may provide a means to rectify that imbalance.

But policy-makers and educators will also need to resign some of their former influence in this new environment. Indeed, as noted above, none of the five areas I have defined is any longer the province of a single stakeholder group. We must all work more closely together to make progress in each of the five.

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Lizard courtesy of GP Junior

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Social Media

This term is also convenient shorthand, typically used to describe the online environment, including the various platforms and tools that people use to interact, through the publication, curation, sharing, discussion and collaborative development of different kinds of content.

In the last few years there has been a tendency to use the alternative term ‘web 2.0’, as a synonym, distinguishing social media from the earlier, non-interactive phase of internet development, but this seems now to be yesterday’s jargon, especially as various attempts have been made to delineate a new ‘web 3.0’ phase (so far without much consensus over the meaning of the term).

Strictly speaking, the human interaction undertaken via these social media is more accurately described as networking. When using social media one sees constant reference to social networks and personal networks and, in an educational context, the word ‘learning is often added. But it is hard to find straightforward explanations of what exactly these two phrases mean.

This is my current imperfect understanding:

  • Social learning network synthesises two different concepts that predate the internet and sets this hybrid in an online context. One is the idea of networked learning, achieved through communication between members of a learning community; the other is the social network, originally describing any social structure comprising individuals and groups. The latter phrase is now more commonly used to describe online interaction between a group of users who share a common interest and/or use a common platform.

A social learning network is essentially a group of users who form such an online community for the purpose of learning. There is an ever-increasing range of social learning platforms which embrace a variety of different models. Some are more accurately described as teaching networks, because they feature a fairly traditional teacher-student relationship; others are designed to support collaborative peer-to-peer learning.

A subset that receives particular attention is caught by the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Some MOOCs are hosted by traditional universities and there has been a spate of recent high profile launches. Enthusiasts regard MOOCs as precursors of fully scalable free online higher education which could rival more traditional cost-bearing university-based courses.

Others are less sure, with some critics suggesting that a certain adherence to traditional lecturer-student relationships is out of kilter with the core principles of networked learning. Commentators are beginning to highlight more of the downside.

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  • Personal learning network (PLN) is a popular phrase amongst educators who are active social media users. Essentially it describes participation in networked learning from the individual’s perspective, being the network of other people that the individual interacts with for the purpose of learning. It can also be interpreted as including the platforms and tools the individual uses for that purpose, though that is sometimes conceived of as a separate ‘personal learning environment’.

Such learning is self-directed and typically informal. Lalonde describes it thus in his thesis on The Role of Twitter in the Formation and Maintenance of PLNs (I have removed some of the academic references to improve the flow):

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning. These people may assist you in your learning by acting as a guide, direct you to learning opportunities, and assist you with finding answers to questions.’

Lalonde adds this helpful gloss:

‘…PLNs also appear to differ from similar informal learning constructs, such as a Community of Practice (CoP) or a Network of Practice (NoP) in that both CoPs and NoPs are bound by a common practice, or specific domain of knowledge or interest..

…While people may follow similar people within their PLN, the PLN is an autonomous construct that is uniquely created by each individual to serve their specific learning needs. Therefore, there is no collective intention driving the development of the PLN as there is with a community, but rather a personal intention on the part of the person constructing the PLN…’

A PLN – or, more accurately, a PLE – may be constructed on the basis of several different tools and platforms, though most people come to rely principally on one or two. It is of course preferable that time and effort is invested predominantly in the most effective routes and that one aims for synergy between the tools/platforms selected.

To take a personal example, I rely predominantly on microblogging via Twitter and this Blog, though I also make less intensive use of Facebook and Linked In. I deploy various secondary tools to support this approach – eg Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Bitly, Memolane – and, from time to time I test out other tools to see whether they would be valuable additions. Because of the development of GT Voice, I am also exploring the interaction between that social network and my own PLN.

The 2012 edition of the NMC Horizon Report for Primary and Secondary Education identifies the use of PLEs as an innovation that will become influential, entering the mainstream within the next two to three years.

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 Globalisation

My hypothesis is predicated on the argument that we are living in an age of globalisation, that globalisation is bringing about globalised education and, that being the case, we are entering a phase of globalised gifted education. Many of our former assumptions about what we can achieve and how need to be recast to fit this new environment.

Globalisation has a general meaning and a more specific economic definition. In general terms it describes a process of increasing integration and interaction regardless of geographical distance and national boundaries. The pace of globalisation has increased as a consequence of improved transport and communication, especially online communication.

Economic globalisation is the process by which national economic markets have become increasingly interdependent. In some areas of economic activity they have already merged into a single world market; in others, that is rapidly becoming the situation.

This has been attributable partly to the increased ease with which the means of production, especially human capital, can be moved physically from one place to another. But improved online communication has also meant that human capital does not always need to move physically to the location in which it is applied.

This is particularly the case in the so-called ‘knowledge industries’ which rely on highly-skilled labour. IT itself is one example; education is another. Many countries have invested heavily in the development of highly-skilled labour with a view to creating a ‘knowledge economy’ which can thrive in a globalised environment.

Education (alongside training) is both the means by which such labour is developed and one of the segments of the knowledge economy, employing a workforce that is engaged in educating the current and future workforce and the production and application of knowledge through research and innovation.

Education is no longer confined by national and geographical boundaries. Learners can more easily move to a learning environment outside their own country, learning providers are establishing bases in different locations around the world and the internet provides a mechanism for increasingly sophisticated distance learning. This applies as much to gifted learners and gifted education (and also related professional development) as it does to any other field.

Some countries have realised that they must invest significantly in gifted education to feed the pipeline of highly-skilled labour that will drive their knowledge economies. Several of the ‘Asian Tigers’ fall into this category, notably Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are other notable examples.

They have recognised the economic value of investment in gifted education in a globalised environment. Other countries, including many of the leading Western economies, seem to prefer a strategy to raise the overall standard of their educational provision while simultaneously reducing achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other learners.

Given the latter emphasis, the rationale for gifted education in those countries may be articulated more in terms of equity and social mobility than in terms of economic investment. Or, where there is no rationale and no investment, the debate may be dominated by the significant gap between the needs of gifted learners and the capacity of the education system to meet those needs.

So some countries are investing in gifted education as a direct consequence of globalisation, but gifted education is also on the cusp of globalised delivery.

As social media create an increasingly sophisticated online learning environment, international exchange will no longer be confined to traditional academic conferences, franchised operations (such as CTY) and occasional opportunities for gifted students to attend summer schools abroad.

But it is not just learning and professional development that are becoming globalised. So are advocacy, policy-making and research. The introduction of online social media is both a driver of globalisation and our most effective means of response, across all five areas of gifted education outlined above.

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Robin courtesy of GP Junior

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How widespread is use of social media?

Before we go further, it is important to offer some further context for those who are relatively unfamiliar with the current reach and sophistication of social media.

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History

This is not the place for an extensive treatment of the historical development of social media since its earliest origins, but those seeking to understand the timeline and key stages of development can gain at least a broad understanding from this selection of infographics available online:

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Scale and Scope

It is less straightforward to convey succinctly to those not closely engaged a clear impression of the current scope of social media – the vast range of tools and platforms available and the way in which they can interact to create a holistic online environment.

I can only exemplify the former by referring unfamiliar readers to this online directory which provides details of and links to several thousand different applications.

These two infographics attempt a taxonomy of social media covering some of the most-used tools and platforms:

Two further infographics give a sense of how these different services mesh together from the perspective of the user:

  • This describes six types of activity undertaken by social media users, providing details of the extent of participation by age in the USA for each of them; and
  • The Social Media Effect is a simple flowchart illustrating how different social media tools and platforms can support each other.

This final infographic – Social Web Involvement – is the best illustration I can find of the huge number of people who use social media for different purposes in different parts of the world. This data is already three years old and the figures provided are likely to have increased significantly between then and now!

(The charts show interesting disparities between different European countries and we shall investigate that further below.)

This more recent Comscore Report from Autumn 2011 provides some mind-boggling statistics illustrating the scale of use and the pace of change:

  • Social networks have 1.2 billion users aged 15+ worldwide – 82% of the global online population
  • Social networking is the most popular online activity accounting for 19% of all time spent online, up from just 6% in 2007
  • Social networking is increasing in every country surveyed – 43 in all
  • The percentage of the online population using social networking has reached 98% in the USA and ranges from 86-98% in the 18 European countries surveyed
  • European females spent an average of 8.2 hours per month on social networks; European males spent an average of 6.3 hours per month.
  • People aged 55+ are the fastest growing group of social network users with 86% of all those active online in Europe now social network users
  • Between 2010 and 2011, use of instant messenger services by 15-24 year-olds declined by 42% and use of email declined by 22%; meanwhile, use of social networking increased by 34%

This post provides statistical key facts and infographics for seven of the leading English language social networks including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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More about Social Media Use in Europe

An Autumn 2011 European Commission study on adult Media Use in the European Union (27 member states) reports that:

  • 35% of all Europeans use online social networks at least once a week and nearly 20% use them on a daily or almost daily basis. However 44% said they never used online social networks and a further 11% said they had no access.
  • There are significant differences according to age: 56% of 18-24 year-olds use online social networks on a daily or almost daily basis, as do 29% of 25-39 year-olds, 14% of 40-54 year-olds and 4% of those over 55.
  • But there are only minor differences according to socio-economic status (as measured by employment) with 23% of managers, 25% of white collar workers and 20% of manual workers using online social networks daily or almost daily. Some 60% of students fall into this category.
  •  The Netherlands reports the highest usage – 56% of people use online social networks at least once a week. They are closely followed by Latvia (55%), Denmark 54% and Sweden 54%. The lowest usage occurs in Romania (22%), Portugal (24%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Germany (27%).
  • The biggest increases in usage by this measure since 2010 are reported in Luxembourg (+11%), Greece (+10%), the Czech Republic (+10%) and Austria (+9%).

As far as children are concerned, a September 2011 Report by the EU Kids Online Network published results of a survey of 25 European countries, concluding that  77% of 13-16 year-olds and 38% of 9-12 year-olds have a profile on a social networking site.

A supplementary analysis from the same source shows significant variance between countries.

  • The highest percentage of 13-16 year-olds with a social media profile is in Norway (92%), Slovenia (91%), Czech Republic (90%), Denmark (89%) and the UK (88%).
  • The parallel figures for 9-12 year-olds are: Netherlands (70%), Latvia (65%), Denmark (58%), Poland (58%), showing that there is significant variance between these two age groups.
  • The lowest incidence of social media profiles were found amongst 13-16 year-olds in Turkey (61%) and Romania (63%) and amongst 9-12 year-olds in France (25%), Germany (27%) and Spain (28%).
  • Gender differences are small – overall, 58% of boys and 60% of girls have a personal social media profile.

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Magpies courtesy of GP Junior

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In 2010 the European Commission published Learning 2.0 – The Impact of Social Media on Learning in Europe which uses survey evidence from 2008 and 2009.

It found that:

  • In 2009, across 27 countries surveyed, an average 31% of the population aged 16-74 used the internet ‘for seeking information with the purpose of learning’, up from just 8% in 2007. The proportion varied significantly between countries, exceeding 60% in Finland and Iceland.
  • In 2009 5% of the population used the internet to pursue an online course. The percentage per country ranged from 1% to 18% (Belgium)
  • In 2008, 35% of the population and 57% of internet users made use of the internet ‘for advanced communication services related to social media’. For 16-24 year-olds, these percentages rose to 73% and 83% respectively.

A sense of how quickly things are shifting can be obtained by comparing these figures with 2011 data from Eurostat, which shows:

  • 38% of all 18-74 year-olds participating in social networks within the last three months; 80% of 16-24 year-olds and 83% of students met this criterion. The overall percentage ranges between 72% in Iceland and 25% in Romania;
  • The overall percentage of 18-74 year-olds pursuing an online course remains at 5%, but the highest national rate has reached 14% (in Finland). Moreover, 8% of all 16-24 year-olds and 10% of all students are pursuing an online course.  The countries recording the highest percentages for students engaged are: Finland (50%), Lithuania (37%) and (perhaps surprisingly) Romania (22%).

In the UK, ONS Data for 2011 shows that 57% of adults who accessed the internet in the last three months did so for social networking purposes, with the percentage reaching 91% amongst 16-24 year-olds. Seven percent of adults accessed the internet to undertake an online course, including 9% of 16-34 year-olds and 45-54 year-olds.

The 2010 Report also drew on two commissioned research studies of the incidence of learning based on social media, concluding:

‘Within formal Education and Training… a great number and variety of locally embedded Learning 2.0 initiatives have been identified across Europe, which illustrate that social media can be, and are being, used by Education and Training institutions to:

  • facilitate access by current and prospective students to information, making institutional processes more transparent and facilitating the distribution of educational material;
  • integrate learning into a wider community, reaching out to virtually meet people from other age-groups and socio-cultural backgrounds, linking to experts, researchers or practitioners in a certain field of study and thus opening up alternative channels for gaining knowledge and enhancing skills;
  • support the exchange of knowledge and material and facilitate community building and collaboration among learners and teachers;
  • increase academic achievement with the help of motivating, personalised and engaging learning tools and environments;
  • implement pedagogical strategies intended to support, facilitate, enhance and improve learning processes.

The research on learning in informal (online) learning networks and communities… concludes that social media applications provide easy, fast and efficient ways to access a great diversity of information and situated knowledge. They also provide learners with opportunities to develop their competences in collaboration with other learners, practitioners and stakeholders. Additionally, they allow individuals to acquire competences in a holistic manner, embedded in real-life contexts; and effectively and efficiently support competence building in a lifelong learning continuum.

Research on informal learning activities in online networks and communities further suggests that informal Learning 2.0 strategies facilitate the development of key competences for the 21st century.

To sum up, both research lines point to the fact that social media can lead to innovations in four different dimensions. Firstly, social media allow learners to access a vast variety of (often freely available) learning content, which supports learning and professional development in a lifelong learning continuum; contributes to equity and inclusion and puts pressure on Education and Training institutions to improve the quality and availability of their learning material.

Secondly, social media allow users to create digital content themselves and publish it online, giving rise to a huge resource of user-generated content from which learners and teachers can mutually benefit, also encouraging more active and pro-active approaches to learning.

Thirdly, social media connect learners with one another, and to experts and teachers, allowing them to tap into the tacit knowledge of their peers and have access to highly specific and targeted knowledge in a given field of interest.

Fourthly, social media support collaboration between learners and teachers on a given project or a joint topic of interest, pooling resources and gathering the expertise and potential of a group of people committed to a common objective.

These four dimensions (content, creation, connecting and collaboration) have been labelled as the four C’s of Learning 2.0 in IPTS research.’

This December 2009 presentation by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre exemplifies how the 4Cs were then being embodied in online practice.

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(Not Much) More about How Educators Use Social Media

The social media learning environment has improved radically since 2009, providing far more choice and a far richer multimedia experience.

But, while there is an abundance of material online describing how innovative educators are using social media to support pupil learning and their own professional development, it is surprisingly hard to find reliable survey information about how teachers more generally are utilising these techniques and tools.

I can find no recent and reliable survey data for Europe, or even the UK, though there is some limited material relating to US and Australian practice. The Australian sample is very small, while the US survey dates back to 2009.

 

Here ends the first part of this post. In Part Two we will examine more closely the challenges faced by contemporary gifted education, how social media is helping to frame our response and what steps we might take to maximise its contribution.

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GP

September 2012

ECHA Conference Symposium: Social Media and Gifted Education

 

The 13th International Conference of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) is taking place from September 12-15 2012 in Munster, Germany.

One of the sessions is a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education. It is scheduled for Thursday 13 September from 14.15 to 15.45 local time, which corresponds to these times elsewhere in the world.

The overarching Symposium Abstract says:

‘We will explore:

  • the extent to which social media have been applied to gifted education;
  • the benefits and the risks that social media can bring, whether for learners, parents, educators or policy-makers; and
  • how this field is likely to develop over the next few years.

We will discuss what further collaborative action gifted educators in Europe and beyond might take to capitalise on the potential for social media to build and maintain valuable connections between gifted learners and educators, for the benefit of all involved. Our treatment will be located within research on gifted education and social media respectively, but we will be focused primarily on the development and support of effective practice’.

There are six participants, five of them offering presentations

Given the focus of the Symposium, it seemed especially important to build in a social media dimension, to illustrate the value added to a traditional conference setting.

So we have agreed that there will be a Twitter session during the final hour of the Symposium. This will involve:

  • A link to a special session of Global #gtchat powered by the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.
  • A special #echa hashtag for this session, which we also hope to use to livetweet from the ECHA conference as a whole (the session will therefore form part of the Conference feed).
  • A Twitterwall inside the Symposium, enabling those in the room to project their Tweets to other participants, and those participating at a distance to interact with those in the room.

The abstracts of the five presentations are set out below. As presentations are prepared and published, I will provide links to them from here.

Depending on the progress we make, it may be possible to engage in social media-driven discussion of the issues raised ahead of the Symposium. We can then use those contributions to help frame part of the Symposium proceedings.

Anyone interested in participating in the discussion – whether in Munster or at a distance – is most welcome to use the comments facility on this Blog. All ideas and suggestions for how we might shape this process are welcome.

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Abstracts of the Five Symposium Presentations

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Social Media Networks and the Talented Youth – Peter Csermely

Social media networks provide contact options having a width, ease and safety unprecedented before. These networks turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge and tacit networks into explicit networks. With well structured net-platforms both communities and their databases (video sharing, links, lists etc.) will be self-organized saving enormous time for talented people and their mentors when trying to find the right information and contacts. Such platforms also have the possibility to form the public opinion of the talented people, their parents and the talent support community.

Talented people especially need these novel forms of social contacts, since

1.) their attention is more multi-focused than others’;

2.) they are often too sensitive to risk the possible humiliation of face-to-face first contacts,

3.) they often have a peculiar daily schedule not shared by the majority.

Despite of these unique opportunities, we are at the very beginning to use social media networks to provide special options for talented people. There is ample room for presenting the “Me-World” for others, and there are more and more special e-courses for the gifted. However, there are very few options for the self-selection of a talented community, and for joint creative project-works of talented people, especially in a cross-country, cross-continent manner. Talented people need both a stable net of trusted contacts and surprise. Therefore, we have to design these networks giving both the “strengthen me with the joy of meeting those who think likewise” and the “surprise me with a new contact option, which gives me the excitement of novelty” options.

The above are some of the goals that the newly formed Budapest Centre of European Talent Support will try to accomplish.

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How Social Media Can Help Us Overcome the Problems We Face in Gifted Education – Tim Dracup

Within education as a whole we are only beginning to utilise the huge untapped potential of social media to revolutionise learning, professional development, advocacy, research and policy-making. The global gifted community is starting to realise that social media can provide part of the solution to many of the issues that it has been wrestling with for decades. But the number of enthusiastic ‘early adopters’ is still relatively small, the majority are not yet fully engaged or persuaded and a few feel excluded or even directly threatened.
This presentation analyses the problems and priorities faced by the global gifted community, as seen through a European lens. It examines how social media might be harnessed to address these and reviews the progress made to date. It identifies concrete action that could be taken to secure further and faster progress. It also isolates some of the key risks associated with a social-media driven approach and considers how those might be mediated or circumvented.
Participants will be strongly encouraged to share their own perspectives and experience, regardless of whether they are experts, beginners or somewhere in between.

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The Importance of Global Gifted Education through Social Media – Roya Klingner

Global networks are increasingly a part of our work and social life today. This presentation examines the importance of networking in the field of gifted education at the regional, national, and in global levels. It describes types of networks through Social Media. Incentives and preconditions likely to make successful networking are examined. I will explain my experiences in Secondlife, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Google plus.

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Social Networks: Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice – Javier Touron

In just a few decades, social networks have expanded beyond all expectations. Instant messaging, whether of everyday chat or serious insights, via smart phones and computers of all sorts, whizz round the world on e.g. Facebook and Twitter, and pictures and images through Flicker and Pinterest. This hyped-up communication, though, is not only a means of social conversation or making business deals, at least for those who have access to it, the social media are a vital influence on the means and outcome of education.

Teachers and parents in their many thousands share their experiences and daily practices in how to help children develop. But it is strange how those who work with the gifted and talented seem slow at catching on to the potential of these vital means of communication. Researchers and thinkers are lagging behind.

In my presentation, I will look at the roles and contributions that scholars of gifts and talents should be able to offer to the web community. In particular, I describe how ECHA and other associations should respond and adapt to the new demands of the populations we are aiming to serve. Our institutions could be the authoritative voice that helps administrators and politicians improve legislation and policy, as well as act as a beacon for teachers and schools. I will illustrate these points through my personal experience as a new Blogger-Facebooker-Twitter user.

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Cyber Mint Communities – Albert Ziegler

In this contribution to the symposium “Social Media and Gifted Education” a complementary perspective is taken. Though social media is usually very broadly defined as all web-based and mobile based technologies that can be used to turn communication into interactive dialogue between participants, the meaning in the field of gifted education is quite restricted. It usually refers only to the information transfer among gifted educators, advocates, giftedness researchers, etc.

However,social media can of course also be used in gifted education. In my contribution I will report of a joint project with Heidrun Stoeger from the University of Regensburg. We founded a virtual community that presently consists of 100 so-called Cyber Mint Communities (CMC). Each of these CMCs, in turn, consists of six participants: three girls talented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and three women working in the field of STEM (professors, engineers, etc.). In the virtual community a wide range of computer-mediated communication is possible that is intended to foster a participatory culture in online STEM activities.

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GP

July 2012

A Brief Commentary on Systems Thinking in Gifted Education


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

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

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

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

The Abstract reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

GP

April 2012

 

How Useful is a Systemic Theory of Gifted Education?

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

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

The Nature of Giftedness and Gifted Education

The target paper says that research into giftedness has:

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

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

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

The paper says that:

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

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

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

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

Systems Thinking and Quality Standards

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

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

The Quality of Research

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous and Concluding Comments

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

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

References

 


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

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

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

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

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