Gifted learners: The heart of the matter

Associate Professor Tracy Riley, Massey University

The Government’s announcement last week committing $1.2 million for gifted children is a long awaited response to calls from advocates for the Ministry to support identification and provisions for learners with exceptional abilities and qualities. This commitment is a high watermark in the ebbs and flows, or peaks and troughs, of gifted education, a highly politicised field. And gifted learners are at the heart of the funding.

Past support for gifted education

In the 23 years I have worked as an academic in gifted education in New Zealand, this funding allocation marks a 3rd cycle of commitment.

In the late 1990s, we saw the development of a handbook which provides guidance for gifted education practice and pedagogy, complemented by the TKI Gifted Education online community. These are still in use today. In the early 2000s, a working party report to Government enabled specialist programmes for learners, professional development for teachers, and research (for scoping and evaluation). Importantly, in 2005, the National Administration Guidelines were amended, as part of this second wave, to recognise gifted learners as having special needs that should be identified and developed through differentiated learning opportunities.

I refer to these developments as two peaks, because while one built upon the other, each had their own momentum and, between them, a sense of disconnection in their discrete directions.

Yet, the disconnect between the initiatives of the early to mid-2000s and last week’s announcement is much more pronounced: it has been nearly a decade since there was any targeted funding for gifted education. During that decade, we saw a shift to ‘include’ gifted children in a way that diminished recognition of their special learning, social, emotional, and cultural needs. Between 2009 and today, gifted education provisions, including initial teacher education and advanced in-depth study opportunities, have declined, possibly due to a perceived lack of importance and need. However, advocacy, professional development and research have sustained themselves, largely without Government support, and ensured some foundation to build upon today.

A new wave of support

The Government has now committed funds for services directed to gifted children and young people through four key initiatives:

  1. Supporting the infrastructure for one day a week programmes to provide greater access for more students
  2. Awards for students to participate in out of school activities
  3. Funding for online programmes, and
  4. A contestable programme for events and opportunities for gifted learners.

Running alongside these initiatives, the Ministry of Education has:

Gifted learners have also been included in the draft Disability and Learning Support Action Plan.

This wave of Government support is markedly different from earlier initiatives in its focus primarily on providing for learners, mainly outside the regular classroom.

A learner-centred funding approach is equitable in its recognition that learners will need different interventions to have their needs met. For gifted learners, the Ministry has long recommended a continuum of provisions, beginning in all classrooms, extending to schoolwide approaches and out of school, community-based, national and international provisions. From an equity perspective, all gifted learners should have access to provisions that match their needs, and the opportunity to participate for the development of their gifts and talents, alongside like-minded peers. The funding model announced last week assumes a strong base knowledge and understanding of giftedness, as it is highly reliant upon teachers, schools and communities, parents, and the students themselves being aware of what is available and why those provisions are important for gifted learners.

The funding provided will ensure equity of access to and participation in some programmes for some gifted learners in New Zealand.

Nonetheless, this funding is a boost, a step up for gifted learners in New Zealand, and it will be important that in its implementation measures are taken to ensure as little inequity as possible creeps in. Because of its reliance on gifted learners’ awareness of, eligibility for, and access to specialist programmes, events and opportunities, there is potential that the funding will be variably used, influenced by factors like locale, culture, age, school size, teacher expertise, school philosophy and socioeconomic status. We know from previous studies in New Zealand in gifted education that provisions for gifted learners vary greatly dependent upon each of these factors. Inequities already exist and we need not magnify them. It will be essential that in the implementation of this new funding support, there is careful attention paid to who accesses the funding for what purposes, and that ongoing evaluation of its effectiveness and impact is undertaken.

Keeping watch on the new wave

The reason for evaluating the effectiveness is not only to keep any inequity creep in check, but also to create sustainable funding for gifted learners, based on evidence. We need to understand the Government’s return on investment and be in a position to articulate it back to them. Stepping back, we also need to understand the answers to four key questions posed by Professor James Gallagher, as necessary in shaping policy for gifted learners:

  • Who receives the resources? Which children will be identified as gifted students and become eligible for the differentiated services?
  • Who delivers the resources? There is a need to identify the qualifications of the persons who will be the education intervention specialists and how they will be evaluated.
  • What are the resources that are to be delivered to the gifted student? What is the goal of intervention?
  • What are the conditions under which resources are delivered? How are they delivered?

Some of these questions are being answered through the funding initiatives.

We know, for example, that learners in one day a week programmes will gain access to a specialist curriculum delivered by specialist teachers through well-established programmes of delivery. We also know that these programmes, as they currently stand, are designed to meet the needs of a discrete group of learners – MindPlus, for example, serves creative and academically gifted children between ages 6 and 13 in some major cities in New Zealand. Therefore, any funding boosts to grow provision, and, in doing so, better ensure equity, is needed and no doubt welcome by all advocates (including me!).

This new funding directed at gifted learners for accessing and participating in opportunities outside school may reflect the lack of what Gallagher refers to as “sufficiently developed” infrastructure and support for gifted education in schools “to mobilise resources effectively to utilise them in the best way in serving gifted students.” Conversely, it might reflect an assumption that schools are indeed meeting gifted learners’ needs effectively (but I would like to see the evidence). But most likely, the new funding is simply a limited resource that necessitates funds being directed towards a limited number of students. And that is ok, so long as we carefully assess the effectiveness of the funding, endeavouring to unpack and understand specialist provisions, their impact on gifted learners, and the specialist knowledge and skills of professionals who effectively work within them.

Not surprisingly, as an academic, what I am calling for is research and in-depth specialist teacher education to complement the funding initiatives.

I believe the Government and Ministry of Education need to commit to more active engagement with tertiary providers to ensure specialist preparation of teachers of the gifted and ongoing research into the effectiveness of provisions for gifted learners. Universities need to be working alongside gifted education agencies, schools and early childhood centres, and professional development providers to ensure a well-connected infrastructure.

In order to make certain this latest round of funding is both equitable and sustainable, research and in-depth professional learning must be supported in tandem with the initiatives for gifted learners. Yes, gifted learners are at the heart of funding, where they should be, but to keep their opportunities alive and pumping, it is my hope for funding to be extended to research and advanced, in-depth professional learning and development.

Gifted learners are the heart of the matter.

This post originally appeared here. It is reproduced by permission.

Tracy (2).jpgTracy Riley is Associate Professor and Dean of Research at Massey University. Creating educational environments that nurture gifted and talented children and young people to develop their individual passions and potential as adaptive, responsive and engaged citizens is at the heart of Tracy’s research. Aligning with the University’s research theme of 21st century citizenship, her research is people-focused and aims at enriching our future lives by ensuring future generations of creators, innovators, thinkers and problem-solvers. 


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