Teacher professional development for gifted education: A celebration, a model, and a caution

Justine Hughes, giftEDnz

The past few weeks saw the exciting announcement from the government around increased recognition and funding for gifted education.  Dr Tracy Riley of Massey University has blogged about the latest developments and provided a succinct background of the history of provision for our gifted learners over the past 20+ years in her post, Gifted Learners: The Heart of the Matter.  This post is recommended reading and focuses on what is needed in order for provisions to be successful – and equitable for our learners. As in the title, the learners are the focus of Dr Riley’s post. Andrea Delaune has also considered how the announcement provides for (or doesn’t provide for) gifted young (before school age) children in her post And the Gifted Young Child?

To give another side or perspective to the recent announcements, this post will focus on what is needed in order for educators to meet the needs of this unique group of students. I consider the current professional learning and development landscape, highlight the importance of teachers’ own efforts to sustain and maximise the benefits of professional development, and then highlight some cautions for the future.

Professional learning and development

What do teachers really need in order to support gifted learners? And what’s on offer so far?

Te Kete Īpurangi (TKI) – This is continuing to be updated and provides a wealth of professional learning and development resources for schools and other professionals.  It’s exciting to see the changes on the site and I would absolutely recommend this as one of your resources to add to your tool box or kete.

Awards for Gifted Learners – this new initiative will provide opportunities for gifted learners to undertake special and unique learning opportunities either on their own or as part of a group.

Increased funding for one-day schools (MindPlus through the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, NZCGE) – these exciting learning environments provide a tried and trusted experience for learners to be challenged in their learning.  They provide a crucial environment where like-minds can connect. This is a key aspect of provision for the social and emotional development of our gifted learners.  There is also a wealth of resources available for Professional Learning and Development (PLD) from this organisation.

Other PLD is able to be accessed through the Network of Expertise – Gifted Aotearoa, a collaboration between some of the main organisations involved in gifted education in this country (REACH EducationNZCGENZAGC).  These organisations, along with giftEDnz, are access points to invaluable PLD.  They are currently offering a range of initiatives – but how do we as professionals take responsibility to sustain this learning once we’ve finished a course, qualification or programme?

The key idea here is taking responsibility for our own learning – just as we expect our younger learners to do.  These PLD provisions will only be as effective as possible if there is sustainability built into what is offered but it is unfair to leave it solely to the organisations involved.  This is where communities of practice really come into their own – especially blended communities of practice.

Supporting sustainability through blended communities of practice

So what is a blended community of practice and how does it differ from a community of learning?

A community of practice (in general) is a group that is owned and created by the members in the group. It is not a top-down model. It is a learning environment that matches what we know to be the most effective for our students and applies these principles to our teachers’ learning.  Teacher agency is at the heart of a community of practice approach; the group is ongoing and constantly changing to meet the needs of the learners.  It’s an environment where everyone learns from and with each other – no hierarchy – everyone has expertise.

Blended communities of practice have both an online and a face-to-face component. They have proven to be the most effective in changing practice. They offer asynchronous learning (any time, anywhere learning) and learning that is owned by the community members. This blog post outlines the basic premise of a CoP and what is needed in order for a CoP to be successful, showing how this can work in relation to blended CoPs.

So why the caution in this post?

Although it’s exciting that we have a government that acknowledges that our gifted learners have unique social, emotional and learning needs and is prepared to put its money where its mouth is, we need to also do our part in ensuring that there is much open and honest discussion around this area of education. Communities of practice provide safe spaces for this robust dialogue so that we are all stretched and challenged in our thinking.

We can’t continue to sit back and adhere to that old chestnut that “Every child is gifted, they just unwrap their gifts at different times” or we will be failing to provide a learning environment for a group of learners with research-based unique needs.  This is a matter of equity.  Yes, all students have gifts, but not all students are gifted.  We need to stop ignoring the wealth of research that backs this up.

The recent announcement of increased funding and recognition is a powerful step in the right direction but it absolutely must be backed up by professional learning and development at all stages of teacher education – from pre-service to inservice … and it must have sustainability built into it or it will just be another PLD provision that has a start and end point before we move on to the next area.  This is not an easy ask and this is why it is so crucial to get it right this time.

Gifted learners have unique social, emotional, academic and cultural needs and the area of gifted identification is very broad.  There is no quick fix after many years of  piecemeal approaches to gifted education and PLD in gifted education.  The government has stated that there are more announcements to come, and hopefully sustainable PLD will be a part of those announcements.  We’ve got some fantastic organisations willing to provide the PLD, it’s how we sustain and support those learning opportunities that will be key to changing practice for our learners and teachers.

JustineJustine Hughes is a primary teacher and former Deputy Principal. She completed her Masters in 2015 focusing on Communities of Practice. She also has a Postgraduate Certificate in Digital and Collaborative Learning from The MindLab at Unitec and is now working towards her PhD.  Justine has a particular interest in teacher professional learning and development and government policy to meet the learning, social and emotional needs of gifted and talented children. She is currently the co-chair of giftEdnz.

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