Magazine article NATE Classroom

Can Anyone Be Gifted?

Magazine article NATE Classroom

Can Anyone Be Gifted?

Article excerpt

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I had the enormous good fortune to attend a comprehensive school. I got the A Levels I needed to be where I am today, but the most important lesson I ever had was Victoria Sandwich in first year Home Economics. Each week the lesson structure was the same: a demonstration by the teacher, individual stirring and mixing, and when all was done and washed up, the teacher would come round and look at our finished products. We didn't get grades but she always picked out who that week had produced the best cooking. And in Victoria Sandwich week, it was a boy called Terry.

Terry would have a statement now, but then he was 'remedial', and sometimes he was in our mixed ability classes and sometimes he had special lessons somewhere else. He baked the best cake, and when I told my mum this, full of my own surprise, she said 'Why wouldn't he?' and in that moment I learned something very important from my mum, and from the teacher who was willing to value everyone in the class and to recognise their achievements irrespective of what they might have done yesterday or might do tomorrow. In its choices and symbolic valuings, my schooling taught me to believe that every child is good at something, if only sometimes.

My school wasn't alone. In a recent article Jenny Diski (Diski, 2009) describes what it was like to be a teacher in that era, when staffrooms 'were increasingly inhabited by people who urgently wanted to work with children, who believed they were diamonds, all of them, potentially, and saw it as their job to fight with or ignore the institutions in order to make new forms of education happen'.

Working many years later as an English teacher in specialist residential Gifted and Talented education, I lost count of the number of discussions with colleagues about how to measure gifted pupils, what to call them--gifted? talented? gifted and talented? more able? able and gifted?--and then what to do with them. It's a complex area, ethically and practically, but there are some very simple answers to these questions. Assume all children have the potential to be gifted in some area or in some aspect of what you will be doing with them. Don't call them anything. And teach every lesson, except perhaps in the last three weeks before a public exam, as a live 'happening' not a foregone conclusion.

There is an empirical basis of research to these apparently contentious answers. Joseph Renzulli surveyed a large body of research evidence into all manner of qualities and attributes considered relevant to conceptions of 'giftedness' (Renzulli, 1986). From this he concluded that 'giftedness' is not an innate quality but a set of behaviours operating in an environment that allows them to flourish. If it is a set of behaviours, in an environment, then we might reasonably predicate our work on the assumption that these things are amenable to development.

Renzulli identified three 'rings', or sets of behaviour, that intersect to produce the kinds of 'giftedness' that society values. First, there is ability, and for giftedness to emerge two kinds of ability need to be developed--general and specific - and then there are two further rings, task commitment and creativity. Renzulli's definitions are provided here, along with examples of how we might think about developing these capacities, bit by bit, in our teaching of English. We don't know where this will pay off. Not everyone will become Stephen Fry. Not all arenas for the display of talent are replicable in schools: it took a world war for Winston Churchill's talents to emerge. But by re-examining the disturbing popular idea that talent arrives in our classroom fully-formed and intact, is somehow 'naturally' more prevalent in white middle class children, and only counts if it comes in our subject-shaped bottle, we might find that a lot more of the children sitting in front of us are perfectly capable of baking an excellent Victoria Sandwich. …

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