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. 


  1. Hi Justine, that was a really honest and enjoyable read! I loved how you reflected on your past teaching and ideas about giftedness. I think many of us have been there too. It definitely was a challenging topic but I liked how you have given the 10 unique needs from Ian Bryd as a way to look at supporting our students.

    1. Thanks Bex. Sometimes these posts can be challenging to write and I think that's where we can experience powerful learning if we're prepared to challenge our thinking and learn from and with others. I love having my thinking challenged - hope it makes me a better learner and teacher.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Justine... I am quite a wee bit behind you in this journey but have gone through a similar change. I love how you say all children are gifts... they are indeed. My thinking is also that all children have gifts that may be opened at different times but that doesn't mean that we are all gifted. In the same way that we are not ALL on the 'spectrum'... if we think that way it gives us permission to not address the specific needs of our tamariki, a get out of jail free card of sorts... it may make our planning and teaching 'easier' but does not make the learning any easier at all for those for whom 'doing what works for everyone' does not work. This is a great post, challenging misconceptions through being honest about your own learning journey, thanks for sharing this with the rest of us, the work you are doing is a call to action and a challenge for many of us. Thank you x

    1. No such thing as 'behind' on this challenge. It's meant to be flexible to fit in with our crazy lives. I love your comment about the 'get out of jail free card' and I think you're right. Meeting the needs of all of our students - including our gifted ones - is our privilege but until we have more open and honest conversations and until there is effective professional learning around this group of students, I'm really concerned that they are going to miss out. I know they are already missing out. You just need to read the student voice surveys and parent surveys that I recently have to see that we have a big problem in Aotearoa.