Anyone for a G & T? The unintended impact of the gifted and talented list

It used to be pretty standard in schools, still clinging on in around 32% of schools according to a quick Twitter poll (n=266), to have someone working in a role known as either the Gifted and Talented or More Able Provision Coordinator. They are in charge of a list. A list of pupils who were labelled by teachers as being either gifted or talented in a certain subject. The selection criteria? The fact that they were better than most other pupils at it or particularly interested in it. The pupils go on the list and the G&T coordinator (a role which should be strictly limited to pubs and bars) tracks their progress, raises awareness of their prodigiousness and maybe organises a few special sessions to “stretch” them over the course of the year. (I’ve heard of one London school where selected “G&T” students wear a different coloured tie to other pupils: presumably, recognition of their superiority!) They can then celebrate the fact that these pupils have made more progress than their peers and all thanks to the list. Can a list really do this?

Well, maybe, yes…

The teachers of these pupils would probably have higher expectations of them, just because of that G&T label. That knowledge is likely to have, subconsciously, changed the behaviours of the teachers towards those pupils and this will have been displayed in the language they may have used with them. They would probably reserve their most challenging questions, suggest effective study strategies and relentlessly strive for these “gifted” few to realise their full potential.

Unfortunately, this also created a lower expectation of those mere mortals in a class: those who did not possess the gift, the ones without the “natural talent” for geography or science or whatever… you just wouldn’t expect them to outshine the pupils from the list.

The Gap Widens

Having varied expectations of pupils will only lead to a greater division in attainment. No one rises to low expectations, the Golem Effect, and those pupils we think of as low ability are less likely to be given the opportunities to change our beliefs about them. Our language and behaviours display our beliefs about our learners.

The language we use won’t just affect the pupil who is being spoken to, its impact will ripple outwards to others. If you say to a successful pupil in your subject “Fantastic answer, you really are a natural at this!” you create the idea in their peers that there is some inherent factor, that they may not have, which is essential for achievement. This will be especially pronounced in schools which make a big deal of the “gifted”. I think it’s mainly that term, gifted, that creates the problem here with the idea that some lucky few have been bestowed with subject specific knowledge and the other 95% haven’t. Sorry guys.

To be honest, the term more able is pretty dodgy too! If you have to identify the top 10 or so pupils, per year, number 10 will be only marginally different (if at all) to number 11 but one gets the label, and the higher expectations that go with it, and the other doesn’t. This is not logical thinking.

High expectations for all, with the awareness that pupils will learn at different rates, has to be the default setting for teachers. Everyone can rise to high expectations, the Pygmalion Effect, but some will require more extensive scaffolding to get there: mitigating shortcomings in their working memory.

The Prodigies

But what about maths or music prodigies? Are they gifted? They have exceptional abilities, equal to adult professionals, at a young age. If they aren’t be born with these talents, how do they manifest?

According to the psychology journal, Intelligence (Volume 44, May–June 2014, Pages 11-14), “recent studies have begun to tackle this enigma, and a few traits have surfaced as key underpinnings of prodigiousness across domains: an average or higher IQ, extraordinary working memory, and a heightened attention to detail”.

For most child prodigies, there will be a time when they no longer outshine their contemporaries in their professional field. Ultimately, their exceptional working memory simply speeds up their ability to learn but, over enough time, their peers will catch them up. The increased knowledge in long-term memory can make up for the relative shortcomings of an average working memory. Very few prodigious individuals make the leap from child prodigy to adult creator and stay ahead of the field.

An exception to this argument against natural gifts may be when a genetic, usually physical, factor enhances the rate at which skills in a domain can be gained. For example, in a study on professional baseball players, Laby et al (1996), found that around 80% of professional baseball players can see at 20 feet what the average person can see at 15 feet an obvious advantage for that sport which cannot be learned.

A study titled ‘Innate talents: Reality or Myth?’ from Howe, Davidson and Sloboda (1998) concluded that “An analysis of positive and negative evidence and arguments suggests that differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training, and practice are the real determinants of excellence”.

Nature v Nurture

I would argue, based on all this, that nurture plays a much greater part than nature. Genes may offer different pupils different advantages but these play only a slight role in their ultimate success. The former professional basketball player Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues didn’t have much going in terms of natural advantage given that he was five foot nine inches tall but he played in the NBA for over a decade and enjoyed a very successful career. He knew that to succeed he would have to find many opportunities to practise and that’s what he did.

Micheal Phelps, the most successful swimmer in Olympic history has the natural advantages of being tall and possessing huge feet and hands. However, without the nurture of actually being taught to swim and being expertly coached in techniques he is unlikely to have made such a splash! (not sorry)

Ultimately, we need to work on the belief that all our pupil can succeed in anything they work on. Opportunity, experience and practice are what will make the biggest difference to our learners. Don’t create varied expectations by labelling pupils, burn the gifted and talented lists, don’t get hung up on whether a pupil is a HAP or a MAP! We need to make sure that the only barrier to them all achieving greatness is the limited amount of time they have with us.

As always, you can find me on twitter @MrTSci409, thanks for reading!

This has close links to a tes piece I wrote recently.


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