Sunday, October 28, 2018

Refocusing Learning and Teaching

(Apologies in advance for the strange variations in font - Blogger kept crashing and not matter how many times it's edited, the strange variations remain).

Day 23 of the giftEDnz blog challenge is all about shifting our focus...are we too focused on assessment? Have we narrowed the curriculum too much?

Over the past 8 years since the introduction of National Standards, we have faced an ever-narrowing curriculum and learning and teaching focus. The pressure on teachers to show that their students are achieving has been enormous and there is little evidence that this intense focus made any impact on achievement levels. Anecdotally, we had many students who were not engaged or motivated in their learning. Some schools worked well with the standards and worked incredibly hard not to narrow the curriculum, others had an enormous focus on standards without connection to real learning.

Refocusing on the New Zealand Curriculum - Effective Pedagogy

Teacher Actions Promoting Student Learning - Effective Pedagogy

These are all things dear to teachers' hearts. There is one area on this list which I think warrants further open and honest discussion and it is that of teachers needing to 'inquire into the teaching and learning relationship.' I'm going to reflect on this in another post but I'm wondering if we've gone too far with the incredibly in-depth inquiries we are expecting of our teachers? Some of these inquiries are so in-depth that they are almost mini theses. If we're going to refocus on learning and teaching, we also need to address what is happening in this area as well.

Of course we need to reflect on our practice - that's one of the most powerful aspects of what we do to make sure that our learners are progressing, but does it need to be done in the depth of detail that is currently occurring alongside the evidence that must be recorded for Practising Teacher Criteria.  We know that reflective practice is what leads to changes in practice but we need to be realistic to ensure that the focus is not on too much on this and shifts our focus from the students. Of course, it’s absolutely necessary and they all work in together to help us meet the needs of our students but, like anything, we need to make sure that there is a balance.

The Key Competencies, Vision and Principles

The Key Competencies were intended to be the driver of the curriculum with the learning areas providing contexts that would link to real-world learning connections. Too often they have become a checklist to be ticked off with little depth and connection. The NZC has often become the place where we go to get the appropriate Achievement Objectives. If we can go back to the original intent of the NZC and understand how the Vision, Principles and Values form the overarching structure with the Key Competencies and Learning Areas underpinning these, then we have the start of a winning formula to increase motivation and engagement in learning for our students and a chance to really improve the learning environment for all, including our teachers who will be able to again focus on what they signed up for. Perhaps we could have fewer behaviour issues as well. A simplification of all of the complex problems we face, I know, but it's a starting point.

We have the chance to take a broader view of learning and teaching but there is much-needed professional learning and development around the NZC and its original intent. Yes, we still need assessment - that guides our 'where to next' and ensures that we're meeting the needs of our students. However, it needs to have a purpose and to not always be focused on a test. There are so many different ways to assess how our students are achieving and their voices needs to be at the centre of this. By refocusing on the NZC we have a chance to put creativity and passion back into learning and teaching."These principles put students at the centre of teaching and learning, asserting that they should experience a curriculum that engages and challenges them, is forward-looking and inclusive, and affirms New Zealand's unique identity." New Zealand Curriculum (2007, p. 11).

Image Source: Roman Nowak - @NowakRo on Twitter

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Changing Thinking to Create Equity - Are We Up to the Challenge?

Today's post - Day 21 of the giftEDnz October Blog Challenge - is all about equity and is inspired by the article below and the accompanying visual image which was also the subject of a Twitter Chat discussion.

The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you're using

Many of us have seen this graphic above (circulating for about two years) and we've often used it in education when we're advocating for the needs of our students, in this case, our gifted students.  But it's an incorrect expression of what should be happening for students who are in a minority group.

There is a distinction between equity and equality and it's a very important one if we are to meet the needs of ALL of our students.

So what is the difference? Don't they both achieve the same outcome?  No, they don't.  The article explains it very well and I've summarised it below.

Graphic 1 - Equality
Everyone has access to the same number of crates and is using them to attempt to see over the fence. The only one benefiting from the crates is the middle student. He can now see.  The first student is tall enough that he doesn't need the support and the crate for the third student doesn't work or change their situation.

Graphic 2 - Equity
In the second graphic the students all have what they need in order to be able to participate.

So how does this relate to gifted education? What does it mean?

In Aotearoa New Zealand, all of our students are fortunate enough to be able to access education and there are systems in place to make sure that they can participate.  However, not all systems meet all individual needs and there are adaptations that need to be made and learning that needs to happen in order for it to be a truly equitable system. Gifted education is just one part of it.  There are many others which will be discussed in a later post.

What if we made a third change - and removed the fence (barrier) altogether?

We need to stop talking about the 'achievement gap' and reframe it as an 'opportunity gap'.  Seeing it as an achievement gap is deficit thinking, in my view, which is also a central view in this article.  This type of thinking implies that it is the abilities of the students that are causing them to not achieve when it is a far bigger issue of opportunity.  If we don't offer the same range of opportunities, then this is where issues of equity will always arise.  This ('achievement gap') is a distraction that stops us from acknowledging and focusing on real issues.

"As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap” because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded."

The suggestion in the article is that we look at and identify the real issue or problem/barrier and work to address this. So what is the real issue or barrier in addressing the needs of gifted and talented learners in Aotearoa New Zealand?  My thinking so far is that it centres around the following areas:

  • a lack of professional learning and development at all levels of teacher education from pre-service to in-service which leads to
  •  a lack of understanding and acknowledgement that gifted and talented learners exist
  • knowing how to identify gifted and talented learners - knowing what to look for
  • knowing how to effectively differentiate learning and teaching programmes
  • understanding that there are many categories of giftedness and that we need to be particularly aware of cultural differences and twice-exceptional learners
  • teacher expectations and beliefs - and deficit thinking - which goes back to the first point of the need for effective, and sustained, professional learning and development that leads to changes in practice.  One-off courses will not do this unless they have sustainability built into them.

The final graphic in the article is the one below - where strategies aren't put in place to create equitable situations which may not be sustained.  It is the complete removal of the barriers.  I know that some of the points above could lead to these barriers being removed for ALL our gifted students.  Are we up to the challenge? I believe teachers always have the best interests of their students at the heart of what they do and they are always up to the challenge of learning more.  But they can't do it alone. It's time for the government to see this as a priority and help us remove the barriers for this group of students.

Are We Challenging Our Gifted Learners?

Day 19 of the giftEDnz October Blog Challenge focuses on ways to challenge our gifted learners.

6 Strategies for Challenging Gifted Learners

This article discusses many of the same issues we face in Aotearoa New Zealand - how to identify gifted students, which programmes, which definition...the list is pretty much as long as you want to make it.  What it basically boils down to for me, however, is teacher awareness and understanding along with knowledge of the possibilities of giftedness.  I think if we can start from this place of awareness then we are much more open to being able to recognise giftedness in its many forms.  If we are coming from a place of assumptions and judgement of what a 'typical' gifted learner 'looks like' then I think that's the point where we are running into trouble and there is huge potential for gifted students to not be identified and have their specific needs met.

The article covers six strategies for challenging our gifted students. These are listed below.  I've chosen to reflect on each one and what it might look like in our learning environments based on my previous experiences.

1. Offer the most difficult first
 This is about compacting the curriculum for our gifted students.  If a student is able to demonstrate understanding in maths when they've completed a set of problems accurately why would we make them do more 'practice' worksheets - or any worksheets?  At this point, they need extension learning activities that link to real-world contexts so that they can apply the knowledge and understanding that they already have.  We also have to be incredibly wary of using them to support other learners all the time.  Some support and help is great and builds tuakana-teina but if this is happening too often then there is no further learning and development for the gifted student and this is also one way that these students can become bored and turned off learning.

2. Pre-test for volunteers
This is really interesting.  If you have an area that needs to be covered and that will have a post-test or assessment at the end, then offer this to volunteers at the start.  If they complete it without any difficulty then they already know what they need to learn in that unit so why would we make them complete it?  Differentiation is about providing DIFFERENT learning opportunities, not more of the same.  Our gifted students can still be learning in the same curriculum area but at a different level of complexity or with a different focus.

3. Prepare to take it up
This is similar to number two but it focuses on options.  Always have options available for those who need them and make sure that some of the options are at a higher level of difficulty or complexity and have a wider range of contexts rather than a narrow focus.  Also, allow for choice and for the students to be able to develop their own learning paths.  I've always expected this to happen and it works really well with the teacher guidance and support when and where needed.

4. Speak to student interests
Student interest is everything in learning and teaching. We still need to expose students to other possibilities and options they may not have thought of - or may not have thought they'd be interested in - but also encourage their own passions and interests.  There is always a way that this can be done even if you are in a learning environment where the curriculum planning is quite prescriptive.  There are always ways that you can get around this and meet the needs of the students while still following the requirements and expectations of our schools.  Ask the students - they will always come up with amazing ideas in this respect!

5. Enable gifted students to work together
This is so important.  It's the concept of like-minds and gives our gifted students a chance to connect with students who are on the same 'wavelength' as they are.  This is particularly important for their social and emotional development. Ideally, schools will have cluster-grouped students so that they have like-minds whom they can bounce ideas off and collaborate with.  There is much research to support the importance of this.  This doesn't mean that multi-level grouping is not also important for gifted students.  They can have a powerful effect on helping raise the achievement levels of all students and being able to challenge thinking. Multi-level grouping also helps gifted students become confident in learning with other students with different abilities. Like most things in education, it's all about balance and meeting individual learning, social and emotional needs.

6. Plan for tiered learning
A lot of this one is all about teacher expectations.  When planning, it's suggested that we plan for more complex learning and understanding and then differentiate and teach from that point.  By doing this we are keeping our expectations high and showing our students that we have high expectations for them and their learning. This can be incredibly powerful and you will often find that students you may not have expected to have a high level of understanding in a particular area actually do.  It is also in these situations that you can often identify possibly gifted students whereas if your expectations and planning were aimed at a lower level, you may have missed identifying a particular student.

The final part of this article contains a chart for teaching and learning with gifted learners and it's a valuable one so I decided to share it here.

What do you do in your teaching and learning programmes that challenge your gifted learners?  What would you add to this?  What do you think you could do differently?

Dos and Don'ts of Teaching Gifted Students

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Don't Miss the Ability Because You Only See the Disability

Day 17 of the giftEDnz Blog Challenge!

Why So Many Gifted Yet Struggling Students Are Hidden in Plain Sight

This prompt, which is all about how our gifted students can be hidden in plain sight made me wonder about the times over the years when I've encountered these students.  As a teacher, you're always observing and reflecting on your practice.  You start to become attuned to individual behaviours and characteristics of your students.  You know - or you suspect - when a child is possibly gifted or operating at a different level to their peers.  I use the term 'operating' as 'achieving' has connotations of always being about an assessment and can really limit the possibilities of diverse giftedness in our students. It can also then limit your own thinking and narrow your focus which we can't do if we want to meet the needs of these students.

The difficulties arise when you have a student who you know without question is possibly gifted but they also have a learning disability.  The parents have talked to you about their special talents, you also recognise and celebrate these but then you come up against the bureaucracy or other teachers who perhaps only see the disability rather than the ability.  This is deficit thinking and it's not helpful for the students, their families or the teacher who believes in them and knows without question that they are gifted.  In fact, this type of thinking can be dangerous as it limits the possibilities of what we can offer a student in their learning and also of what they can achieve.  We also run the risk that these students become our disengaged students who may exhibit behaviour problems and also risk being our underachievers.

We have to challenge our understandings and sometimes also our beliefs. So many of our gifted students will remain hidden unless we do so.  That becomes a question of ethics for me. We have to expand our thinking about who gifted students are. There are many underrepresented groups in this country along with the twice-exceptional.  Our Māori and Pasifika students, students from lower socioeconomic groups, underachievers and those who don't have English as their first language. Until we acknowledge this and push back against the assumptions, then many will remain hidden. They often become statistics in mental health and in our justice system. I've often wondered how many of the inmates in our prisons are gifted.  I think we have an ever-widening gap in excellence or giftedness in this country.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Getting Back to the Heart of What We Do

It's Day 15 of the giftEDnz Blog Challenge and we're halfway!! 

One of the things I've loved the most about the challenge so far is the way it's challenged my thinking and encouraged me to think deeply about specific areas of gifted education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Social and emotional needs matter in learning and teaching - both students' and teachers'.

The focus of this post is on the unique social and emotional needs of our gifted students. The prompt challenges us to reflect on our practice and think about how we meet these needs in our learning environments.  How do we acknowledge these differences in our day-to-day rush of learning and teaching?  At this present time, there are so many issues in education in this country.  Teachers have so many pressures coming at them from all directions so how do we manage to make sure that we are focusing on this area of need - for all of our students as well as our gifted and talented?

Sometimes we need to take a step back from the negativity and refocus on our 'why' - the 'why of what we do and why we became teachers. (I've blogged on this before here).  Not always easy in the current environment but this can act as a welcome antidote to all the other issues - it can, in fact, also be a way that we take care of ourselves. (A great post to read is from the research of Meg Gallagher).  Going back to the beginning and making sure we haven't lost the passion for what we do is, I believe, the first step in making sure we can meet the social and emotional needs of our students.

In terms of our gifted students, there are specific things we can do to make sure that their social and emotional needs are being met.  I've summarised what I believe is important and have been guided by my experience and a post I read from SENG (Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and which was also the prompt for today's post - 28 Acts of Kindness for the Gifted.

28 Acts of Kindness for the Gifted

Caring for the Social and Emotional Needs of our Gifted Students - some ideas based on my experiences and learning to date about this unique group of individuals.

  • Provide opportunities for them to connect with like minds.
  • Be aware of and acknowledge that they DO have unique social and emotional needs - learn all you can about these.
  • Know them as individual people first and students second.
  • Help them explore what it means to be gifted - the good and the not-so-good, so that they have the skills needed to navigate the seas of giftedness (there's always rises and falls, it's how we deal with them that matters the most).
  • Celebrate and encourage their passions and who they are - expect them to be themselves and not hide their giftedness.
  • Be empathetic - put yourself in their shoes.
  • Use mindfulness techniques to help them develop strategies to manage their emotions and perfectionism.
  • Focus on the products of their learning not on how gifted they are.
  • Be the scaffolder they need to help them go further in their learning.
  • Let them express their emotions - don't expect them to hide or minimise them.
Krissy Venosdale

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Happens When We Deny That Gifted Kids Exist?

This post combines Days 11 and 12 of the giftEDnz Blog Challenge as they were quite similar prompts which work well together and respond to the work of Jo Boaler.

No, It's Not Time to Ditch the Gifted Label - Gail Post, PhD

The first one - "No, It's Not Time to Ditch the Gifted Label" was written by Gail Post, PhD, and takes an in-depth look at a recent video and commentary by Jo Boaler.  Don't get me wrong, I love much of the work of Jo Boaler and agree with her on many points.  However, I think in this instance what she is saying runs the risk of being misinterpreted and used as a reason to 'ditch the gifted label'.  Apart from all the research that is evidence that giftedness exists and that problems arise when it is not acknowledged, we just have to listen to all the voices of the children who are gifted and who have not had their learning, social or emotional needs met to date in the education system.  For all the carefully-chosen students in Boaler's video, there are so many more who see this from a totally different perspective.  This is not to negate the feelings and beliefs of the students in her video, it is just to caution that, like anything we see and hear, we need to be objective and keep in mind that there is always more than one side to a story - just as we remind our students to do.

"Unfortunately, this heart-rending video overlooks research about gifted children and gifted education. It perpetuates stereotypes about gifted people, the gifted label, and the myth that everyone shares an equal amount of ability and potential. And although some gifted children may receive conflicting and distressing messages about their giftedness from parents, teachers, and peers, this should not indict the label itself." Gail Post, PhD

The NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children, US) also responded to Boaler's stance in a summary from their STEM Network Working Group:

"Refraining from offering suitable curricular challenges to students who are ready for them, whether called gifted, talented, exceptionally promising, advanced, or something else because other students are not ready for or do not have an interest in them is not ethically justifiable." NAGC 2018

This statement, which is also discussed by Post, raises a crucially important point.  It is a matter of equity that the needs of this group of students are met but is it also a matter of ethics as outlined in this statement?  I think it is.  It wouldn't be ethical to deny a student with Aspergers or dyslexia an education that meets their needs and yet we keep denying that giftedness and the specific and unique needs of giftedness exists and insisting that all students are having their needs met in our system.  My concerns around this are that we are only identifying a small portion of the population and the identification process is too narrow which means that we are missing so many gifted students who are multi-exceptional, twice-exceptional (2e), underachievers or who may not have English as their first language or are not identified as gifted through a cultural lens.  Our lens is very focused in one direction and dimension.

The second post has this title: "Gifted Children Do Exist. Here's What Happens When We Deny It."  This is a powerfully written piece by Ginny Kochis teacher and parent that explores what happens when we deny that gifted children exist.

Gifted Children Do Exist. Here's What Happens When We Deny It.
This post is a personal account but also links to research and the areas that affect gifted students if we deny that they exist.  It also links to Boaler's work and discusses the areas where there are flaws.  Some say that Carol Dweck also agrees with this stance through her Growth Mindset work but this is not strictly true.  While she does have issues with the term 'gifted' she does not say that giftedness does not exist but that we need to praise the process rather than the label as focusing too much on the label can mean that students don't develop a growth mindset that can take their learning even further. The clip below from Dweck (2015) explains her thinking.  I think it's important for us as educators to question what we see and hear, particularly when it comes from popular academics, and go back to the source so we know what is the correct information - just as we expect our students to do.

Giftedness is not a badge of honour or a term of superiority - it is often quite the opposite for many gifted students - gifted students are wired differently if we want to look at it this way.  They are not better, they are just different but they do have unique social, emotional and learning needs.  They are part of a neurodiverse group of students which includes our students with additional learning needs, our Aspergers students, our dyslexic students to name just two.

Would we deny an equitable education for any other group of students?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

All Children Have Gifts But No, Not All Children Are Gifted

This post from the Day 10 prompt of the giftEDnz Blog Challenge has definitely been one of the most difficult and challenging to write to date.  I've chosen to reflect deeply and confront my beliefs and assumptions over the years and share why I changed from initially quite firmly believing the quote that inspired today's post.  The image is below and you, like me, will have seen it and heard similar expressions many, many times over the years.

I'm really not sure where this originated and it sounds fantastic in principle.  But it's wrong.  Yes, all children absolutely are gifts and they have unique skills and possibly talents, but not all children are truly gifted.  Gifted students have unique social, emotional and learning needs. 

I began my teaching career in 1999 and we had little experience or sessions in gifted education and gifted students and how to meet these unique needs.  In fact, I can remember that we were often told information that wasn't a hundred miles away from the above quote.  Our learning suggested that we were quite capable of meeting the needs of all our students in our classes because we would personalise and individualise the learning.  This is absolutely correct with one important was crucial that some of our learning covered the growing area of students with special and particular learning needs.  Looking back, our programme was informative and challenging but it didn't provide enough, or in some cases, any information on gifted students. Did they not exist? Would their needs be the same as any other student?  Surely, we were told, if we were teaching to the individual needs of each student and developing personalised learning programmes which, in the main I always did, then those needs would be met no matter what.

While it is true that most individual learning needs are met if we have differentiated and individualised learning programmes that meet the student where they are currently and help them move to the next step, what happens when it doesn't work like this?

During the first few years of my career, I was relatively confident in my ability to be able to meet the learning needs of my students. They had individualised learning programmes and each student was achieving - most were experiencing accelerated progress which as we know continues to be the great focus in our schools to this day (more on how problematic 'accelerated learning' can be in a later post).  I believed I could - and was - meeting all their needs in my learning programme. Wasn't I now an experienced teacher whose students always achieved?

I was mistaken and quite wrong in some areas.

I did not fully understand the unique social and emotional learning needs of my gifted students - and I did have these students over the years. It was very obvious to me who these students were in so many different areas of the curriculum.  I've never been one for hanging my hat on academic achievement as a way of identifying giftedness.  For me, it's often the ones who are flying below the radar, the ones who come up with the most amazing ideas or have incredibly interesting and insightful conversations, among other indicators, or the ones who are seen as having 'behaviour issues'.  I'm always concerned when I hear teachers say that they don't have gifted and talented students.  You do and you will have, but it can be a lack of professional learning and development and perhaps a school environment that has too narrow a definition of giftedness and hasn't developed policies and procedures to be able to identify these learners.

I was a bit stuck and I'd reached a crossroads.  Did I really believe that saying - that 'all children are gifted, they just unwrap their gifts at different times'?  Deep down I knew I didn't.  As my experience grew, so did the understanding grow that I had students who had different needs and they weren't really being met through mixed ability grouping and personalised learning.  Only some of their needs were and these were largely academic.  I was using innovative practice and was a very early adopter of digital technologies to support and extend learning as far back as when I began teaching in 1999.  My students were connected locally and globally. Wasn't that enough? In a word, no.

So what do you do?

The questioning of my beliefs and practice has always been a part of who I am as a teacher but became more of a drive to learn more when I moved schools in 2003.  There didn't seem to be a great deal of professional learning available so I started reading everything I could get my hands on and also talking with two colleagues who ran the gifted and talented programme at my new school.  A few years later I enrolled in courses at Massey University (which still offers some of the best and most sustainable professional learning around).  Unfortunately, I had to withdraw very early from the programme as I was promoted and was being stretched too thin.  I did, however, read every article in the study guides and used these to continue to improve my knowledge and understanding of this group of students and how I should be - not could be - meeting their needs more effectively.  The key understandings I was missing were around the social and emotional needs.

Gifted students have unique social and emotional needs (along with learning needs)

Below is an excellent summary of the social and emotional needs of gifted students as summarised by Ian Byrd from Byrdseed (I recommend that you follow him on all of his platforms. His website has fantastic resources).

Summarised, these unique needs are:

"1. Be aware that strengths and potential problems can be flip sides of the same coin.
 2. Gifted students’ physical, emotional, social and intellectual growth is often uneven.
 3. Gifted students may doubt that they are actually gifted.
 4. Gifted students may face social challenges not just from peers, but parents           
      and teachers as well.
 5. As they get older, gifted students may take fewer risks. 6. Gifted students can have surprisingly heightened emotional sensitivity.  7.  Gifted students are often shy, know they’re shy, and know that shyness is often looked  
      down upon. 8.  Gifted students’ abstract intuition may conflict with teachers’ desire for concrete thinking. 9.  Gifted students needs cannot be met by one style of learning.
10. Gifted adults wish they were better informed about giftedness as children."  Ian Byrd

I changed my practice to make sure that these needs were being met, that students had opportunities to learn with like-minds (a key to supporting the social and emotional needs of gifted students).  I had always worked with mixed-ability groups since I began teaching but there is so much evidence for this to be balanced by making sure that there are opportunities for gifted students to learn and interact with like-minds that it can't be ignored.  (This is a reflection for another post).

No, not all children are gifted and until we are able to understand and acknowledge that this is a fact supported by evidence, then we will continue to have a group of students who are missing out and that is not an equitable situation.