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Addressing highly able and gifted students

Rosienne Camilleri discusses the importance of serving and honouring exceptionality in the Maltese education system

The terminology used to describe or refer to students at the higher end of the ability spectrum often triggers awkward reactions or negative connotations.

‘Gifted’, ‘talented’, ‘highly able’, ‘precocious’ and ‘exceptional’ seem to be perceived as labels that promote elitism and privilege.

Recent educational efforts to create inclusive schools in Malta have somehow been more intent on providing support, modifying the curriculum and accommodating the needs of children who struggle to reach expected levels of attainment because of a disability or learning difficulties.

Serving children of high potential and giftedness in schools − which are meant to meet the needs of all children − is seldom regarded as a priority, probably due to a general feeling that one would be ‘giving more’ to those who already have an access of privileges.

Lack of concrete action policy

This may be one of the reasons why, to date, in our country, there is a lack of concrete action policy that provides clear guidelines for the recognition, support and nurturing of the gifted and talented, their teachers and parents.  Many parents and educators feel at a loss when faced with a child who is already functioning, at least cognitively, at a level that is much more advanced than his age peers. 

In reality, one can argue in favour of more focused attention on the education of these students on two fronts: from a rights-based perspective that treats each child as an individual with a right to an education that is suited for his/her ability and needs, and from the point of view of an economic advantage that may result from honouring the needs of the gifted and talented students. Not to mention arguments linked to motivation, behavioural issues, engagement and full participation versus underachievement and disillusionment, as well as issues on social justice and discriminatory practices.

The aim is certainly not to label children and young people, especially since we know that, in educational circles, a label is only valid and necessary in as much as it serves the individual in positive ways.

The focus is to recognise high potential and giftedness, encourage its development and allow children and adults to see it as one facet of what constitutes their more holistic selves rather than be defined entirely by it. But who are we really talking about? How is giftedness defined?

“The aim is certainly not to label children and young people”

A definition

Looking through the plethora of definitions found in literature on the subject, the complex nature of giftedness and high ability becomes evident. Although there is no one definition that is universally accepted, there is a shared understanding that gifted individuals demonstrate an outstanding level of aptitude or competence in one or more areas of endeavour (which includes but is not restricted to general intellectual capabilities, specific academic abilities, leadership capacity and creative or artistic talents), and have the capacity to learn at a pace and level of complexity that is more advanced than their age peers.

If we had to talk in terms of percentages, one would generally be referring to the top 10 to 15 per cent of a particular cohort in a year group, although this largely depends on the definitions and philosophical stances adopted with regards to intelligence, ability and talent. More conservative statistics focus on the top 2 to five per cent of a population, mostly referring to the highly and profoundly gifted with an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 145 or higher.

The term ‘twice exceptional’ is also used to refer to those who may have brilliant minds or exceptional aptitudes in one or more domains combined with physical impairments, psychological disorders or learning disabilities.

A main distinction is also made between an already manifest gift or talent and giftedness in terms of childhood potential that must be nurtured for it to develop.

Additionally, it is also important to mention that social, economic, cultural and political factors impinge on what is valued and recognised as high ability and talent in a particular sociocultural milieu. This highly impacts the educational experiences that are made available and provided for this heterogenous group of individuals.

“Gifted individuals demonstrate a strong sense of empathy and a heightened sensitivity towards social issues and injustices”

Compiling a list of characteristics that is common to such a diverse population is therefore not a simple feat. It is, however, possible to observe a range of gifted behaviours that may be manifested partly or wholly in one individual.

Some of the distinctive elements that could serve as a starting point to recognise high ability and giftedness in children and young people are an early achievement of developmental milestones, keen observation of the environment and active eliciting of stimulation from their surroundings, an ability to acquire new concepts easily and quickly, early comprehension and advanced speech, having an inquisitive mind with a tendency to pose questions in addition to answering them, creative and flexible thinking and reasoning, as well as being highly interested in delving deeper into particular topics, at times ones that are not usually appealing to their peers.

Gifted individuals also demonstrate a strong sense of empathy and a heightened sensitivity towards social issues and injustices, asynchronous development and a preference for the company of older children or adults. 

More inclusive approaches

Internationally, the field of gifted education has shifted away from the idea of ‘panning for gold’ as described in the latest SAGE Handbook of Gifted and Talented Education (2019) using intelligence tests, IQ scores and rigid cut-off points to a trend towards ‘seeking the philosopher’s stone’, where more inclusive perspectives and approaches focus on creating opportunities and contexts that allow each child and young person, including those with a high aptitude, to demonstrate their potential and develop it fully.

In the case of the Maltese islands, we seem to have lagged behind in developing support systems that allow educators, families and other stakeholders to facilitate the recognition, development and nurturing of children’s emerging abilities, high potential and giftedness.

Our National Curriculum Framework (2012) promotes a nationally shared vision of quality education for all with the aim to empower all learners to work towards their full potential as lifelong learners through more flexible and diverse routes to learning.

Nevertheless, an external audit report on ‘Special Needs and Inclusive Education in Malta’, issued in 2014, criticised the current system for failing to meet children’s right to equity and full participation for all. This was mainly attributed to a lack of concordance between policy and practice.

There is a mention of gifted and talented students in recent local policy documentation on the Learning Outcomes Framework (2015). The latter aims to provide more freedom in the development of programmes that move away from centrally-imposed content-based syllabi towards a framework of knowledge, attitudes and skills-based outcomes on 10 levels of achievement within a differentiated learning context, where different students in the same classroom would progress at different rates through these levels of attainment. This is, undoubtedly, a good starting point and a more inclusive stance which should benefit all learners, including the highly able and gifted ones.

“Without a specific policy that targets the needs of this diverse group of learners, the education of those who are able to reach higher levels of aptitude and performance is left entirely in the hands of the individual schools and teachers”

Moreover, the ‘Policy on Inclusive Education in Schools: Route to Quality Inclusion‘ (2019) recognised “learners who are gifted, talented or manifest high ability” as part of the Cognitive & Learning Diversity component of the Diversity Wheel. The latter is aimed to punctuate the much-needed shift from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ to a more socially just educational model that is responsive to diverse needs, including those of the highly able and gifted learners.

However, without a specific policy that targets the needs of this diverse group of learners, the education of those who are able to reach higher levels of aptitude and performance is left entirely in the hands of the individual schools and teachers working with them, notwithstanding the fact that up until this very year, no initial teacher training was available to equip prospective educators to cater adequately for the academic, social and emotional needs of the highly able and gifted students.

One needs to mention the fact that there are a number of local initiatives geared towards the needs of this group of learners, including the High 5 Challenge for young mathematicians and Brillantini tal-Kitba for middle school students with advanced writing skills in Maltese (organised by the National Literacy Agency).

More recently, the Julian Pathfinder Foundation, a non-governmental organisation created in memory of Julian Spiteri who tragically passed away in April 2021, is offering several enrichment opportunties for primary and secondary/post-secondary students who fall within the highly able and gifted spectrum of potential and ability. InventaLand Programme provides a space for bright young minds to interact, explore and learn about topics of interest in science, innovation, and technology, whereas Julian’s Tech Startup Challenge is a residential initiative that offers secondary school students opportunities to engage with several technological themes such as ‘Bionic Inventions’.

The opening of two secondary schools that select and educate students who are talented in sports and the creative arts respectively is also a clear indication of a recognition that gifted and talented students may require special provision for their abilities and talents to be nurtured.

On a mission

Over the past four years, the Faculty of Education within the University of Malta has embarked on a mission to provide more specific training in the field of gifted education through a number of initiatives including a new module for trainee educators enrolled on the undergraduate degree programme in Early Childhood Education and Care and a Masters by Research degree in Gifted Education. Additionally, learning support educators (LSEs) reading a degree programme in ‘Facilitating Inclusive Education’ are also required to study a unit on supporting gifted and talented learners in inclusive classrooms.

Apart from building and improving on the current local initiatives that have been sprouting lately, our country needs to engage in a national debate and develop a support system in the form of a local association and a centre for giftedness and excellence in education that focuses on creating awareness, eradicating myths and misconceptions, providing training and support for educators, leaders, professionals, students and families, and influencing policy.

More sustained links between policy and practice, as well as between different stakeholders who impact or are impacted by educational efforts and initiatives for the gifted and talented, must also be strengthened. Local educational entities are also encouraged to increase research that is focused on creating an evidence-base platform that can be used to evaluate current practices and steer the educational ship in the right directions for the ultimate benefit of all learners, including the high able and gifted ones.

The Facebook page Reaching for the Stars: High Ability and Giftedness – Malta seeks to be a point of reference and to serve as a stage for raising awareness, creating a knowledge base and building a network to promote the recognition and provision for the needs of the gifted and talented in Malta. 

A workshop exploring ways of supporting gifted children is taking place on July 7. For more information, click here.

Dr Camilleri is a resident academic senior lecturer and researcher within the Department of Early Childhood and Primary Education and coordinator for the Masters of Research in Giftedness in Primary Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Malta. She may be contacted at rosienne.camilleri@um.edu.mt.

Tips for parents: BRINGING OUT THE BEST IN YOUR CHILD

  • Give them your full attention when they are excited to share a thought or idea with you;
  • Be aware of the lack of synchrony between your child’s cognitive, physical and social/emotional skills;
  • Be your child’s accomplice in his/her pursuit of a particular interest;
  • Enrol them at your local public library;
  • Provide new challenges that match their interests and talents;
  • Be a safe harbour when they feel frustrated or anxious;
  • Take them out and about for nature walks, museums and treasure hunts;
  • Encourage them to take risks and make mistakes;
  • Praise their efforts and perseverence rather than high grades;
  • Don’t overshedule your gifted child;
  • Teach them to be independent: don’t do anything for them they are able to do by themselves;

Keep in mind that your child is first and foremost a child who needs to be seen, loved and accepted for who he/she is.

More education-related articles are accessible through this link. For more Child stories, check this space.

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