The Challenges of Gifted and Talented Education for Schools

15 November 2018

According to Françoys Gagné’s Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (Differentiated Model), young gifted children have the potential to develop capacities for high-level performance in one or more areas. However, the extent to which gifted children are able to develop their potential depends on a number of factors, including the support and teaching they receive at school.

Gifted and talented students, also known as ‘academically advanced’ students, are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning opportunities drawn from the Australian Curriculum and aligned with individual learning needs, strengths, interests and goals. However, according to Dr Jae Jung of the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, gifted students are "the ones who are most neglected in our education system”.

What is a ‘Gifted and Talented’ Student?

According to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), gifted and talented students:

  • vary in abilities and aptitudes — they may demonstrate skill in a single area or across a variety of domains, and some may also have a disability
  • vary in their level of giftedness — in essence, two students with ‘gifts’ in the same field will not necessarily have the same abilities in that field
  • vary in achievement — while having gifts is often associated with high achievement, the level of achievement varies across high-potential students and over time, and some gifted students experience difficulty translating gifts into talents, consequently underachieving
  • are not always easily identifiable – their visibility can be impacted by cultural and linguistic background, gender, language and learning difficulties, socio-economic circumstance, location, and inconsistent engagement in the curriculum
  • exhibit an almost unlimited range of personal characteristics — there is no standard pattern of talent among gifted individuals, so they have varied temperament, personality, motivation and behaviour
  • come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, socio-economic levels and geographic locations.

In short, gifts and talents can come from anywhere. Although a number of different definitions have been proposed over the years, there is no universally accepted definition of what characterises a student as having particular gifts or talents. The ACARA states that in contemporary Australia, Gagné’s Differentiated Model provides the most generally accepted definition of both giftedness and talent.

Gagné’s Differentiated Model provides research-based definitions of giftedness and talent that are directly and logically connected to teaching and learning. According to Gagné, gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in one or more of the following domains of human ability:

  • intellectual
  • creative
  • social
  • physical.

Talented students are considered to be those with skills that are distinctly above average in one or more of the above domains. Talent is stated to emerge from giftedness through a complex developmental process and via a number of influences, including the teaching and learning opportunities.

Gagné’s Differentiated Model recognises that giftedness is a broad concept encompassing a range of abilities, and that it must go through a transformative process in order to be considered a ‘talent’. Gagné highlights the necessity of adequate school support for students to develop gifts or increased abilities into talents and achievements.

The Gifted and Talented Training Gap

Gifted and talented children reportedly make up 10 per cent of the population, but teachers may spend as little as 45 minutes over a four-year education course learning about their needs. Researchers cite this lack of teacher training as a key reason why many schools fail to cater for the needs of gifted students. According to Dr Kate Burton, a gifted children researcher at Edith Cowan University, teachers in training might only learn about the needs of gifted students “in one lecture, just off the cuff”, with limited in-depth discussion. Education researcher Eileen Slater has stated that gifted students can spend as much as 50 percent of classroom time waiting for their classmates to catch up to them when completing work.

Lesley Henderson, a lecturer with Flinders University’s College of Education and president of the Australian Association for the Education of the Gifted and Talented, has commented that only a small number of teachers actually has a background in this kind of teaching, which she surmises may contribute to negative attitudes in relation to the concept of gifted education:

“They may rely on common stereotypes, that gifted students will look after themselves, gifted students don’t need anything special…”

Schools have been warned that failure to adequately challenge gifted and talented students poses serious risks to their educational and social development; lifelong consequences can include:

  • becoming disengaged, underachieving and exhibiting perfectionism
  • developing selective mutism
  • pathological fear of failure
  • mental health difficulties or self harm
  • incorrect diagnosis with ADHD, autism or bipolar disorder
  • misuse of drugs and alcohol.

Results also indicate that academically advanced Australian students are not performing well comparatively with the advanced students of other countries. In tests conducted as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2000-2015, the number of Australian students in the top two assessment bands fell from 17 per cent for reading, 20 per cent for maths, and 15 per cent for science, to 11 per cent for all three subject areas.

Schools' Obligations to Gifted Students

State and territory education departments have issued policies for government schools in relation to teaching gifted students, such as South Australia’s 'Gifted and Talented Children and Students Policy' and New South Wales' 'Gifted and Talented Policy'. These policies must be taken into account by government schools and provide guidance on identifying gifted students and supporting them to achieve their learning and social potential.

While non-government schools are not mandated to adopt the education department policies, failure to properly recognise and address the learning needs of gifted students may be a breach of duty of care obligations, particularly if these students develop behavioural or other conditions as a result of boredom and disengagement. This may also be in breach of a school's registration requirements.

It is a requirement of school registration in most jurisdictions for a school to demonstrate that it provides an educational program and learning framework that cater to the learning needs of all student cohorts, including gifted students. For example, the WA Guide to Registration Standards and Other Requirements for Non-Government Schools states that the facilities used by a school must be sufficient and appropriate for the delivery of the curriculum. Sufficiency considerations for the school’s facilities include whether resources, equipment and furniture are provided to support the learning and full engagement of all students in school activities, including students with disabilities, students at educational risk (unable to participate in mainstream schooling), and gifted and talented students.

Teachers also have personal responsibility for the development of gifted students. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers explicitly require all teachers to be able to differentiate their teaching methods in order to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities.

How Should Schools Manage the Needs of Gifted Students?

The capacity for each school to develop programmes tailored to the particular learning needs of gifted students will be dependent on various contextual factors, including their funding, quality of facilities and size of staff/student cohorts. However, every school should be providing support for its gifted students – and the teachers who teach them.

All schools should develop and implement policies and procedures for gifted students, including with respect to education, personal development and wellbeing. Key inclusions in these policies and procedures could include:

  • procedures for identifying gifted students
  • implementing provisions for differentiated educational instruction in school settings, including in the classroom and in off-site locations such as excursions
  • introducing additional extra-curricular programs, including across sport, robotics, debating and arts subjects
  • introducing individual management plans for gifted students, including with respect to their learning and behaviour
  • providing counselling and pastoral care services targeted at high-achieving, or under-achieving, students
  • promoting gifted education professional development, training and mentoring opportunities for teachers appropriate to their career stage
  • implementing clear procedures for student acceleration (moving them up an enrolment year) and controlling the risks to individual development which can occur as a result.

Kieran Seed

Kieran is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. In his position, Kieran assists with drafting and review of governance, risk and compliance content programs and client-requested policies, while also writing regular articles for School Governance. Kieran’s key focus areas are student duty of care and school registration. Kieran studied at the University of Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of International and Global Studies majoring in Government and International Relations.