This year we celebrated five years of the voluntary support and advocacy website Giftedkids.ie. When we began there was little discussion, understanding or crucially teacher training around the issues confronting these students with a high potential for learning. Despite this cohort being identified as having special educational needs in the 1998 Education Act, little had been done at school level to help teachers identify and support their high ability students. This was a system failure not a teacher failure. The NCCA’s Draft Guidelines on Teaching Exceptionally Able Students was a very welcome cool drink in the otherwise arid desert of gifted education teacher training in Ireland. It focused not just on the academic needs of the different types of gifted learner but their social and emotional make up. Likewise the SESS’s Equality of Challenge Initiative, although a small scale pilot, was an important point in the road.
Our webinar series in 2010/2011 supported by the NCTE, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland also helped to bring teachers on board. The value of using online learning platforms to deliver training cannot be underestimated. Now it’s commonplace, but back in 2010 it seemed cutting edge. What’s fantastic is that the resources we built around those webinars are still going strong online, finding a new audience on a daily basis. For instance, our very first presentation: Characteristics of the Exceptionally Able: Faster, Earlier, Differently is currently at over 42,000 views on Slideshare.
So here we are five years later and with the rise of social media and the ease with which we can now all share information, resources and strategies through our various PLNs, the tide appears to be turning when it comes to gifted education. Indeed it cannot be underestimated how much technology has aided the cause of gifted education advocacy in Ireland. It has been a major catalyst for change with new advocate groups developing their own strategies for online engagement with parents and teachers. There is still a way to go, particularly with regards to teacher training, but feedback on our community forum shows that there is greater teacher awareness of the issues involved, with a real willingness to engage and challenge high potential students. At Giftedkids.ie we’re now looking at ways to use new technologies to connect teachers, parents and students online, developing web based apps to deliver targeted information and resources.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that when it comes to SEN advocacy, advocates have to win the hearts and minds of teachers. Without schools and teachers on board little can change. And, it is not enough to simply point out the problems, we need to provide workable solutions for the classroom. It has to be said that the term “gifted” is troublesome for many, suggesting as it does a possible value judgement that one group of students is somehow “better” than another. I am hopeful that we are getting over that particular semantic hurdle with a greater understanding of what it means to be exceptionally able and a widening of this definition to include children with additional learning differences (twice exceptional); with the focus on potential rather than performance.
However, all of this “good news” about a turnaround in Irish gifted education is primarily anecdotal in nature and research is desperately needed if we are to build on this goodwill and develop useful CPD content for teachers. Cue the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland who announced in May 2013 the first dedicated Centre for Gifted Research in association with the DCU School of Education Studies. Research areas of interest include the effects of special classes on high ability students, working with academically talented students from disadvantaged areas, gifted students with learning difficulties and online learning for high ability students. CTYI and the DCU School of Education Studies are currently collaborating with the Centre for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary in Virginia on a number of research projects. Their first major research project was announced this month; an online survey for Principals and Teachers aimed at getting an overall picture of gifted education in the average Irish classroom, with a particular look at teachers’ attitudes and understanding of high ability learners.
According to CTYI Director Dr. Colm O’Reilly:
“There has never before been a study of Irish teacher’s knowledge of and attitudes towards gifted children in Ireland. Last year over 5,000 students attended courses with CTYI across the country and there is also an even higher number of unidentified gifted students within the education system. This important group is often neglected by the Department of Education and it will be very interesting to find out from teachers themselves as to how these students are catered for in regular schools.”
Meanwhile Dr. Tracy L. Cross who is heading the research team outlined the importance of measuring teacher attitudes:
“Best practice when designing professional development begins with finding out what is already known and believed about the topic. Research indicates that training is important to effectively finding and working with students with gifts and talents. Through this survey, we will learn what Irish educators know and believe about these students, which will lead to effective recommendations for teaching them.”
The survey is now live and takes about 20 minutes to complete. The password requested at the start is wm. This research could help the development of teacher training in gifted education in Ireland and it is vital that responses should accurately reflect the general teaching populace’s views and understanding on teaching high ability students. It should all be there, the good, the bad and everything in between. So if you have a moment please complete and pass it on to colleagues because before we can move forward we need to know where we are.