Gifted education podcast

This audio paper was originally published 9 August 2020.

Join Dr Ben North, Dr Carina Dennis and Cate Stilwell as they discuss gifted education and CESE's research in this area, including the Revisiting gifted education literature review.

Dr Ben North is an Evidence Implementation Lead in CESE's Capability Building Team. Dr. Carina Dennis is currently the Deputy Principal at James Ruse Agricultural High School. Cate Stilwell held the position of Opportunity Class Teacher at Greenacre Public School between 2012 and 2020.

Dr Ben North, Dr Carina Dennis and Cate Stilwell discuss gifted education at Greenacre Public School in 2018.

Intro: Welcome to the CESE podcast series, produced by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation or CESE, part of the NSW Department of Education.

Carina Dennis: We’re filming live from Greenacre Public School in south-west Sydney. My name’s Carina Dennis. I’m Head Teacher, Teaching and Learning at Sydney Girls’ High School. I’m joined by Dr Ben North from CESE and Cate Stilwell, Assistant Principal from Greenacre Public School. And we’re talking about Revisiting Gifted Education.

Carina: Ben, I’d like to ask you, please explain – what is a gifted student?

Ben North: So gifted students are traditionally those students with the potential to achieve very highly. And often an advanced developmental potential in a certain area or domain. So in a school sense, they’re often the kids who have the capacity to achieve in let’s say the top 10%. The exact number is contested and different researchers use different definitions. But we’re typically seeing those students with really advanced developmental potential in their learning. Carina: So what is so different about the teaching strategies that we would use with gifted learners?

Ben: I guess one of the things with our gifted students is that, because they have the potential to be advanced in their learning, or they sometimes are definitely advanced and they are ahead of other students the same age – they may have some different learning needs, in that if you’ve got a student who’s already mastered the skills and content that’s being taught in class, then effectively they’re not learning anything new; they can already do it. So that often breaks down into what’s required in class, is that additional challenge. Students often learn best when they are challenged comfortably, you know, they’re trying to learn – they’re given the chance to learn new things to be extended from where they currently are. But if you’ve got a student who is already ahead of maybe the syllabus or the teaching program, then that’s when you need to take a different approach.

Carina: What’s new from the current research?

Ben: One of the big things that I think has happened in the last 10 years, there’s a much bigger focus on effective practices in gifted education. And that really centres around the topic of talent development. So talent development is a term that’s used quite broadly to think about how you take students who might have an existing level of achievement, but they’ve got really high potential. What are the things, what are the learning practices and habits and how do we help those students become high achievers? It’s one of our key things in NSW in our Education Act, is that all students have a right to an education that helps 2 them meet their potential and work towards growing and improving so that they can do the very best that they can. In talent development research and study, that’s that real focus, is looking at well we’ve got some students with really high potential here; how do we help them become the highest achievers possible?

Carina: Do you think there are any students who maybe would benefit from more opportunities to be enrolled in gifted education programs?

Ben: Yes. And that’s another big thing too as well, though it’s not a new problem. There’s just been a lot more research done recently and it really centres around the equity issue. Sometimes gifted education and students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not always matched up in practices. And we see that with more recent research into the underrepresentation of students from some backgrounds in gifted education programs. Some of the most recent work of the last 10 years, and even the last couple of years has really focused on – well why is this? We know that there might be students who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Well why are they consistently unable to maybe access the programs that will give them the greatest chance through here. What we see with a lot of students from say lower SES backgrounds is that they often rely very heavily on school to provide the learning opportunities that they need to develop their talent. They may not have the resources outside of school, either because of busy parents or parents who maybe don’t have as much educational experience themselves to get that additional help. So for us in public education, that’s a real challenge but it’s a big honour and privilege to work with such students because we know that there’s so much work that can be done, and in many ways that means that we have a doubly important task because we know that we are those who can really help a lot of kids get the best outcomes that they can.

Carina: And Cate, you have a lot of students in your school who come from a diverse range of socioeconomic groups.

Cate Stilwell: That’s right.

Carina: What’s your experience in that context? And how do you think this new literature review might have sort of helped accommodate some of the practices that we could be using in schools?

Cate: Yes, well without having professional development and looking at the research it’s very easy to overlook these students. We have refugee students here as well, students who are still developing their English. And with their parents, as you said, their parents may not speak English, which makes it doubly hard for them. And it’s good to be able to look for characteristics and other markers that they may need more help, and to give them that help.

Carina: And some of these recent studies have shown us that if they’re not picked up early - these disadvantaged students aren’t picked up and identified as needing programs to support their gifted needs, then they just fall further and further behind in terms of achieving their potential. And we can really see that opening up of that excellence gap if you like, between the socially and economically advantaged versus those who are not.

Cate: Yes, well it’s very easy for them to just go underground really and not be noticed in a class. Or they’ll be treated as if they were just maybe below average ability. So without knowing what you’re looking for, it can very easily get overlooked.

Carina: From the literature review, what are some of the key themes that come through in terms of how we can best turn potential into actual talent and development?

Ben: What’s really interesting is that we sometimes see in more popular stories that researchers or – people sometimes like to say it’s one thing – there’s just one reason. And for example the 10,000 hours rule was popularised a little while ago, the idea that with 10,000 hours of practice anyone can become great at something. And often with such things I like to say it’s just a little bit more complicated than that. It’s not always just about practice. But that’s going to be a factor. Certainly what we see in particular, one of the really key factors is about the quality of learning experiences, and that’s where the teacher’s role comes in. Now as a teacher it’s great to see – you know, it’s really wonderful to see that really great teachers are a solution here. Because I mean they are the solution to many things in education, but it shows just how important that role is. So having quality learning experiences that are challenging enough, that help extend and stretch students, getting good support, quality feedback, use of things like formative assessment to help teachers understand where students are at in their learning and then try and extend them from there. They’re just some of the factors that come into play.

Carina: Really providing gifted students with challenge at the right time is critical to their development as I understand?

Ben: Yes. It’s – what we see with a lot of bright kids at school is that they can become easily bored. For a lot of gifted students they might be capable of working at a level well beyond their age level. So you might have an eight year old student, but realistically and cognitively they’ve got the capability of a 10 year old or maybe even a 12 year old in some cases. And that means that they need to be challenged at that level as well. If they’re not getting learning at the right level then a lot of kids will become very bored and start to switch off and possibly disengage from school.

Ben: One of the things that I think is interesting from the lit review in particular, was there’s an area of gifted education that has a really strong research base. And even looking back at it again, it was great to see that there’s even more work done. And that centres around academic acceleration. So that’s what we get when students – we’re trying to match the learning to where the students are at in their development. But like you’ve both mentioned, sometimes that’s – for these students who are literally a year or two ahead of their syllabus. So in some cases it’s appropriate and shown to be really highly effective practice for students to potentially skip ahead in a subject or sometimes all of their subjects.

Carina: Some people raise concerns about whether it’ll have any impact on the 4 social or emotional aspects of the student’s wellbeing. Is there any evidence to suggest that grade skipping or acceleration would have any impact on a student’s social or emotional wellbeing?

Ben: In reality, the evidence base for academic acceleration is extraordinarily strong. And the overwhelming majority of studies show positive academic outcomes. But even other neutral to positive social and emotional outcomes as well. Sometimes it’s – this is a reflection of the fact that, for a lot of students, they build friendships based on common interests. And if you’re a kid who’s a little bit further ahead and you’ve got very different interests to kids the same age, it might be harder to make friends with students your own age. But if you’re sort of at least at and matched with the same level as other students, then it gives you the chance to share common interests with kids and build the friendships.

Carina: In your opinion Cate, what do you think the best strategies are for supporting gifted learners?

Cate: Well training staff is the start of it. That underpins everything. And once they know what to look for. They can be encouraged to try a variety of things: very high expectations, formative assessment to make sure they’re okay at grade level and then teaching above, not stopping at grade level but going above and beyond, higher order thinking in everything you do. I tell them with their program to look at it and say where’s the higher order thinking? And make sure that’s always in there. I did professional development with the staff in 2012 when they first decided to have the extension classes. We did three sessions, one on just what is giftedness in general, one on identification and then one on how do you provide for them after they’re identified? And that developed a dialogue in the school. People are always talking about it. They’ll come to me and say they feel a child would be good in the extension class. And there’s a real conversation happening around gifted.

Ben: Carina, what about in your school, in leading professional learning in your role?

Carina: Yes as Head Teacher Teaching and Learning, a big part of it is providing the opportunities for our gifted students to be able to extend and expand the breadth of their knowledge. I think taking the point you raise earlier about the need for formative assessment to find out exactly what the student already knows and to then be able to give them opportunities to learn at a greater level of complexity and abstraction and pace that matches what their needs are, being mindful that gifted students are all individuals, they’re all different, and that some are ready to move more quickly through certain programs than others. Others have different interests that will take them into extension activities that are quite distinct from other gifted students. In our school we have a range of different programs that we have to try and support our students in that regards. We provide opportunities for them to seek more depth in their learning through additional projects that they can undertake that 5 enable them to look more deeply at certain aspects that they’re interested in. Sort of fun, friendly problem solving competitions that they can either do internally within the school or enrol in externally, that give them a chance to have open ended types of questions. And just also more general extension and enrichment programs around debating, chess club, and activities that really give those students to work with other like-minded peers who share those interests and want to take their own learning further.

Ben: Yes, fantastic. Cate, I know your school’s got quite a lot happening in terms of extra-curricular and enrichment activities because you were telling me about it before. And I almost lost track. There were so many things happening. Can you tell us a bit about what your school does there?

Cate: Well we’re in the public speaking competition - the multicultural public speaking competition. And we have had state winners last year and this year. We’ve had Atlassian, the Software Company, come in and run a six week program called Hack in a Box with us, with volunteers from Atlassian. It was fantastic. We have after school chess. We play against private schools and public schools in the district. We do Maths Olympiad and the ICAS testing of course. Tournament of Minds.

Ben: So why are those programs so important in a school like yours, where you’ve got a very diverse range of students, some from more disadvantaged backgrounds?

Cate: Well as you said previously, the parents may not have access to a lot of this sort of thing or for any extra-curricular activities. They’re probably not going to school holiday things and weekend things. So it’s really important that we step in and provide it for them, including driving them to chess.

Ben: Yes that’s really exciting because I mean I think they’re really good examples of those sorts of opportunities to learn are needed for students to reach high achievement. And that’s where we in schools can really make that difference.

Carina: Do you see teachers at your school looking more and more towards the literature to find out what kind of strategies work best?

Cate: Yes we’ve really been encouraging that especially this year, to see what the research says and then what is best practice from the research and then to implement that in all areas of the school.

Carina: I think teachers are starting to see it as empowering in many ways.

Cate: Yes.

Carina: And really embracing the evidence as a way of shaping their practice and – I guess sometimes supporting it and sometimes challenging their thinking and maybe looking at it with fresh eyes in terms of what might be a better strategy.

Cate: It makes you feel confident that you are doing the right thing.

Ben: Yes I really see that and I feel that too. I’ve worked with so many teachers who work incredibly hard and put in immense amounts of hours, time, effort and passion. And you want to make sure that all counts.

Cate: Yes. Yes that’s the right thing.

Ben: Yes. Absolutely. And that’s what teachers want. They want the best for the kids. We need to make sure teachers are equipped with that best evidence and best research, just so we can make the greatest difference we can.

Carina: And in the literature review it’s really exciting to see that a lot of that research is from Australian scientists and researchers and educators. Some of the cognitive load theory that is discussed in some of our readings is definitely coming out of some great work done by one of the Australian universities.

Ben: Absolutely. It’s good to have that mix of – obviously there’s some really strong international research and it’s great to see some important work happening in many countries. But at the same time, we need to be able to see and adapt that to the context in Australia, which can be quite different. I know schools can be quite different, but that’s our job as teachers, is to adapt the research to the needs of the kids in front of us and the specific context of our students, and to be as informed as possible in that is going to help us do the best job we can.

Ben: One of the more interesting things in the recent research has really shown the importance of how teachers kind of go about implementing the greater depth and breadth of learning with bright kids. Certainly I was probably taught originally that gifted kids maybe didn’t need any scaffolding or any structure in their learning. You know, they could just go free and teach themselves. But what’s been interesting to see is that that’s not the case because really bright kids, just as much as anyone, really get just as much out of scaffolded, explicit teaching, good clear learning experiences, having the teacher there to teach them, not just teaching themselves, especially when first learning skills, knowledge and content. But then once mastered, then that gives you the opportunity to go into greater depth and do some self-guided projects or some sort of inquiry and research. A lot of it comes down to some really important research done into an area called cognitive load. And that’s a theory that centres around that as humans we have a working memory where information is taken in and processed, and then sort of thought about and consolidated to long term memory. And cognitive load theory is one of those things that also applies to bright kids. What we see is – we often see a very common level of working memory between bright students and average ability students, but the difference is, for a lot of advanced students, is they’re possibly able to process things faster or can be more efficient in the way that they store information to long term memory. So for that reason it’s important that students aren’t overloaded in their learning. Good, structured, clear tasks with clear expectations – hopefully high expectations – are just as important for bright kids as they are for any other 7 student. What’s different though is that for some students who are advanced in their learning is that they may take fewer repetitions to master skills. They can move through topics faster. And so at that point there we get an effect called the expertise reversal effect. That’s essentially if you just keep kids practicing too long with too much support and don’t start to take the scaffolding away like Cate said in the scaffolding metaphor, then that can actually be detrimental to learning. So that’s when you need to open it up and create a bit more openended learning.

Carina: So what are some of the strategies that can be used to reduce the cognitive load for gifted learners?

Ben: So generally the strategies form the broader umbrella of explicit teaching. And that is having really good, clear, linear, structured learning activities. So scaffolding is an example. Worked examples can be, where we’re sort of reducing the focus and the information and just sort of looking specifically on specific skills. And master them first, before then building in more facts or more complicated scenarios. They’re all kind of good examples. What we want to try and do is ensure that students have got the support in their learning. And I guess – I really want to stress that this is sometimes contrary to some of the previous practices that we did, where it became almost easy for – okay, we’ve got a really bright kid and they’re ahead of the class; we’ll just send them to the library and they can just do their own research and learning. And like what Cate sort of said, they need teachers.

Carina: Yes.

Ben: You know? I truly believe all students deserve a good teacher and good teaching and good learning experiences. And bright kids are no different. And I think it’s important that we keep that in mind, that although there are certainly times where we want students to do some self-directed learning and to do some projects and some research, that ultimately it’s really important that they’re not 10 year olds just teaching themselves the whole way. And that’s why we’ve got expert teachers.

Carina: Cate, do you have any examples where you’ve used strategies to try to reduce the cognitive load for gifted learners?

Cate: Yes. We enter the Maths Olympiad competition every year and for my new year fives, who’ve just come out of year four in a regular school - it’s quite a challenge to them when they see those questions. And I’ve tried various ways of helping them. And I’ve found, even better than a worked example was to just teach the strategies in isolation and then give them a question and say – for this question you need this strategy: this is a guess and check question, this is a work backwards question. And then I can withdraw that and they do very well in the Maths Olympiad competitions.

Ben: So I guess it’s probably like what you just said there Cate, there’s a fair bit of expert knowledge here that’s required to talk you through it. And that’s why teachers are so important to do this. I know for myself in my pre-service teachers education, across four year of a Bachelor of Education degree I think I 8 had about 45 minutes of study was on gifted education and how to teach bright students. And a good 20 minutes of that 45 minute class was spent arguing over some of the topics as well. So I guess that’s a challenge, especially if teachers haven’t necessarily had the training or the experience and practice in these skills.

Carina: I think often we learn something early on in our professional training that sticks with us and we carry through. And there’s that need for constant professional learning, to stay up to date with the best effective strategies for teaching gifted learners. And I think that underscores the importance of ongoing professional learning, not just for early teachers but ongoing professional development for teachers who are even at more senior stages. You have quite an extensive professional learning program for supporting gifted education at your school. Could you tell us more about that?

Cate: Yes. We try to bring it in as often as we can whenever there’s a development day. Where there’s time to bring that in, we’ll do that. And at this time of year when we’re starting to form classes for next year, that’s another opportunity to really start looking into identification, what sort of kids would benefit from moving in through our extension classes. So it’s really important to keep it going.

Ben: I guess that’s an good point about revisiting it too, is because this is the sort of thing where research is changing.

Carina: Yes.

Ben: We’re finding out new things. And even from what I did – sort of postgraduate study 10 years ago in this, there’s new things. You know, new research is coming through. And I think we really owe it to our students that we are equipped with the best strategies and we’re giving them the best chance in all ways to be supported in their learning and their development. And that sometimes means that we’ve got to really keep our skills sharp. It’s what we owe to the kids.

Carina: And Ben, I know you feel passionate about trying to debunk some of the myths that exist sort of broadly, but even within the professional area, for teachers. Like sometimes some of the myths even pervade our own profession. And I think you feel quite passionate about trying to turn those around.

Ben: Yes. It’s where we’ve got to be really critical and think about the research and evidence because sometimes what we see shared on social media – on Twitter or on Facebook – they might be certain statements that sound good or they feel right, but they might not be supported by the research. And that’s a real frustration. Certainly in the gifted education field we often do see sort of some myths that relate to who these students are and why. One of the ones that most – probably frustrating for me, is the belief that our brightest kids are always really bright, shiny children. They’re the Sheldon Coopers or the Hermoine Grangers that we see in fiction. But by and large – they’re kids and they come from all backgrounds and they come from all levels of the state, all levels of the country as well. And it’s important that we don’t take any pre- 9 existing notions into how we work with students.

Carina: There’s that old saying I think about you see as much heterogeneity within gifted students as you do within the whole population, that they’re a very heterogeneous group of students and you can’t -

Ben: Oh totally.

Carina: - sort of summarise them by one set of profile.

Ben: Yes there’s a huge range in through there. And they’re not always going to be nice teacher-pleasing kids who do really neat bookwork and have nice handwriting and always do their homework on time. They’re still kids. They’re children. And they all need that sort of support. That’s why I’m particularly excited about some of the equity questions. What we do see in a lot of the data is some real gaps in achievement between students from different backgrounds. So that’s often what’s referred to as excellence gaps. And that’s the gap between students from different backgrounds in terms of their patterns of achievement. And unfortunately we see that in Australia too, just as in America. We’ve got students from certain groups in society where a larger percentage of those students will be those who get the higher marks or achieve in the higher bands on some assessments and some data sources compared to students from other groups. We talk a lot about Closing the Gap for example, for Aboriginal students. But it’s important that we don’t just take a preconceived notion that we’re just trying to lift up achievement for certain groups such as our Aboriginal students, but that we have some really bright Aboriginal kids there who too also – we want to support on to the highest levels of achievement as well. And that can be the same for students from refugee backgrounds, from low SES backgrounds, whatever they might be – all of our students deserve the opportunity to do the best that they can.

Carina: And that would be students with disabilities as well in terms of -

Ben: Yes.

Carina: - providing strategies for identifying them and supporting them in their learning.

Ben: It’s an odd one, but there sometimes you do meet people who find it hard to maybe reconcile that you can maybe have a student that has really high academic ability but they also have a disability of some sort. So those gifted students with disability are often those who sometimes are not picked up in assessments or there’s a greater focus on maybe assisting or supporting the disability than there is supporting their area of talent. And what we see with a lot of the gifted students with disabilities is they need both. They may need the additional help and support to assist with their learning, because otherwise the disability might be something that inhibits their learning and makes it harder for them to show their full range of achievement. But these students as well will need the same level of support in many ways as others, to achieve and to be 10 extended and pushed in their learning just the same.

Cate: Yes, you have to be careful not to leave them out of the extension classes, so that it needs to be built into your identification practices.

Carina: And that comes back the professional learning that you -

Cate: Yes.

Carina: - were saying earlier Cate about the need to help staff feel comfortable both identifying and then supporting the needs of gifted learners with socioeconomic disadvantage or – as you’ve said, students who come from refugee backgrounds or have additional disabilities that require further consideration.

Cate: Yes. They need to know that giftedness and disability can exist at the same time in the same child. And once they know that, then they can see it and start looking for it.

Ben: And that access question is an important one because I mean the research shows us that if students are unable to access the advanced learning then they tend not to be able to get the advantage and gain from the more challenging things and it becomes a bit of a circular issue. Ensuring you’ve got the real – better equity of access is an important thing here. And that’s going to be a key thing for us I think, and a key challenge in education, it so make sure that we’re giving students the opportunities to learn and helping them – really provide the chances so that really students, regardless of background, have got the opportunity to meet and reach their potential.

Carina: You raise a really interesting point there because I was reading the literature review that talk about that kind of cumulative effect that disadvantage can have. And I recall that idea of the headwind effect.

Ben: Yes, yes.

Carina: Can you explain that?

Ben: So it’s like – the headwind effect is a way of describing that for some students there are just greater challenges in life. It’s like running into a headwind. But for some kids, they’ve got a stronger headwind than others. You know, it is making it harder for them to progress. And that can help explain why some students from some more disadvantaged backgrounds, through the course of their educational journey – may not achieve as highly over time as others. And that’s something we’ve got to be mindful of, that we’re not sort of continuing to reinforce that headwind by denying students the opportunity, but rather really actively seeking ways in which we can help kids from different backgrounds in their learning.

Carina: What are some of the other factors, outside the school, say with the parents or the community that might have an impact on the learning of students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Ben: Yes. There’s a lot of variation is one of the things to say. And it can really differ from family to family and from different settings. What we tend to see though, is some students from disadvantaged backgrounds, if – a lot of the research tends to show that families that have a high level of education in the family’s history for example – it can be little things like there are more books in the house, more academic activities happen more regularly, even visits to museums or the theatre or extra-curricular activities might be a more regular part of life. But on the opposite hand it’s sometimes harder for families who don’t have those opportunities or haven’t had those opportunities previously, especially when there’s other demands in life. If you’ve got children for example whose parents work really long hours or weekends and stuff, there’s limited opportunities for them to go and access after school activities or to go and do those extra sort of enrichment activities. That’s often why families and students from disadvantaged backgrounds really rely more heavily on the school to provide the learning opportunities.

Carina: The research literature tells us that grouping and tracking can be very, very controversial. What is the current thinking around the benefits of grouping?

Ben: Yes so grouping for teaching or instruction is an example of a really contested topic. And the research is very interesting because there’s some mixed outcomes here depending on what it is and how it’s done. In general there’s some research to generally indicate that your almost very classic models of streaming where you just simply separate kids out into five classes like A, B, C, D, E and then teach them all the same – might not be that necessarily an effective practice. And there’s probably some good reasons why. It’s because we’re not then necessarily using the classes or the groups to help meet the needs of students. Where the research is quite strong though is about really purposeful gifted education programs that might use a class. So things like an extension class for example. They’ve been shown to be quite effective, especially when the class is purposeful: they’re specifically trying to meet the needs of the students in the class. And in particular, that’s where the differentiated learning happens. They’re able to group more of the students together so that – who maybe share a common stage of learning, and that can make things like extension and enrichment a little bit easier for teachers to facilitate. It’s really about the learning. And as teachers I think we understand that – is that it’s the learning that is done in the classroom that is going to be what makes a difference for students. So if we’ve got a group of advanced learners, we need to make sure that the learning is qualitatively different, it’s challenging, it’s going to extend them beyond where they currently are, and avoid the issues of boredom or disengagement that might ensue.

Carina: And some of the flexibility in grouping as well in that students can perhaps move in and out of groups, depending on where they are in their learning and the power of formative assessment in maybe changing the groups when necessary.

Cate: Yes it needs to be flexible. Even with our extension classes it’s flexible. If 12 someone’s not happy there, we can move them. If we think someone really needs more we can move them in. So flexibility is key.

Ben: As a high school teacher, every time I go into primary schools, I’m always impressed at how primary school teachers are able to have different groups operating and different tasks and things like that, especially around reading and literacy and numeracy.

Outro: You’ve been listening to the CESE podcast series, produced by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, part of the NSW Department of Education. For more great publication and podcasts on effective practices in education, visit the CESE website at You can subscribe to our podcast series on your favourite podcast app so you don’t miss an episode.


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