GifTEDed

If I include my PGCE as part of my teaching career, I’ve just moved into my 20th year in teaching. My teacher training is memorable only for excruciating lectures on the 1944 Education Act, a total inability on my part to make any children be quiet and listen to me and thrice weekly doner kebab lunches from KBC kebabs on St Andrew’s street in Cambridge (an experience which caused me to put on about 25lbs in a few months, which I suppose might have been a subconscious plan to make myself more physically imposing and hence intimidating in the classroom).

The two most enjoyable things during these twin decades have probably been cricket coaching and Trivium teaching. I have many happy memories of the former – trips back on the coach having negotiated just the right amount of beer post-match to be able to make it back to base in comfort; facial skin like scrunched tracing paper after a blazing sunny afternoon and a win secured late in the day even after choosing not to trigger the opposition opener who looked like he might win the game on his own. 

The latter joy (Trivium) is an internally designed and taught course, developed with the assistance of many colleagues at my previous School. The basic idea is that every pupil is taught an ‘extra’ subject during their first year at the School, without constraints of syllabus or examination. This Trivium course simply needs to be founded in intellectual and cultural content, ideally with some coherent theme(s) running through it, and should introduce pupils to ‘best that has been thought and said’ (a phrase which three years ago sounded dramatic, but now feels a bit hackneyed, so apologies for that).

Introducing boys and girls to Arendt, Hopper, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Grant Wood, Eliot, Chinua Achebe, Picasso, Britten and Conrad was a wonderfully liberating experience. I was never quite sure what was going to resonate and some things I thought were nailed on ‘winners’ fell rather flat whilst other things from left-field ended up being far more successful, but I never felt that it was anything other than educational time well-spent. Introducing children to wonderful art, literature and ideas can never be anything other than time well-spent and even those sessions where all I got was blank expressions still felt to me like I was sowing seeds for the future, in the knowledge (hope) that they would germinate some time hence.

One of the most important things for me was that all pupils were a part of this course. A key problem with identifying ‘gifted’ children is that once identified, it’s impossible to remove that label/stigma. On the understanding that academic progress is rarely linear, there is always likely to be mistakes made around the ‘join’, where the least able ‘gifted’ kid is likely to be less developed academically than the most able ‘non-gifted’ kid in a couple of years. Like Zeno’s ‘bald man’ paradox, it is impossible to say when not-gifted flips into gifted, so why do it? In any case, despite the fact it was generally the case that Trivium was more enjoyable to teach in the Scholarship classes – they tended to take the ideas and run and their work was more self-extending – it was also apparent that many of the potentially very impressive academics were held back by their own (or their parents’) rather boring view of education as simply a means to an end. Interesting views and questions are not exclusive to the most cognitively developed.

I was proud that we developed an inclusive and diverse course, choosing not to patronise pupils by trying to find cheap wins with ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’ content. Education is full of the terms ‘raised standards’ and ‘high expectations’ but this was a concrete example of what those terms mean. We didn’t just talk about it, we did it.

I’m now looking to build a similar model at my new School, and I’m very pleased to have secured the services of several excellent teachers to help develop a programme of academic enrichment. We will start with the brightest and most intellectually curious boys, but the long-term plan is to develop an extension ‘curriculum’ for all. I sense it will require a little time, because what I am proposing goes against the most common model of ‘gifted education’ in Australia.

As well as being the most enjoyable teaching I have done in 20 years, planning my Trivium course was a lot of work, and I expect this was the case for every teacher involved. With no set syllabus, every individual course needed to be developed from scratch. I expect there was a real fringe benefit of improving the quality of teachers, given that they needed to re-engage with the learning process themselves. Reading, sharing thoughts, committing a fair portion of one’s holiday to the collation of material and ideas: all of this led to an advancement in the intellectual discourse in the common room.

The alternative model of gifted education has none of these fringe benefits. The prevailing orthodoxy involves the identification of children with high cognitive ability, who are then hived off into special classes (sometimes with more than one year group put together). These classes have twin foci: nurturing the pupils’ interests and providing daily ‘challenge’. Notwithstanding the fact that every pupil should be challenged every day (and for some the challenge can be organisational, behavioural or rooted in academic maturity), the approach of allowing these children to simply learn more in a self-directed manner about those things in which they already have an interest seems to relegate the teacher to a mere bystander, or at best an occasional encourager. 

If I’d been exposed to this approach, perhaps all I’d be interested in now would be the Roman Empire and the ships of the Royal Navy. Children require expert teachers (and parents) to introduce them to things they are unlikely to discover in the usual scheme of things. Children require knowledge to be made coherent, to be scaffolded and to have context explained. The real experts in ‘gifted ed’ should be hugely knowledgable themselves, though able to allow the pupils to make connections themselves where appropriate. Otherwise, we’re simply accompanying pupils on their ‘learning journey’, which doesn’t sound much like teaching, any more than is sticking on a TED talk.

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