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Keeping the bright sparks burning

How do we keep the flame alive for the kids at the top of the bell curve?

How do we keep the flame alive for the kids at the top of the bell curve?

When I was at school in the 70s, I never heard of anyone with nut allergies. Did they not exist back then? Or perhaps the afflicted were just left to deal with their own problems while the rest of us munched on our peanut butter sammies.

I suspect it was the same with gifted kids. Apart from the odd streamed classes, back then we were all taught the same way and those who struggled, on either end of the bell curve, would just have to deal with it.

Now, as all parents know, nut products are banned from the lunchbox. But are we any better at catering to other students with extra needs?

There are those who’ll scoff, “Every parent thinks their child is gifted!” but that's not true. Most parents would never imagine their kid is anything other than normal – because giftedness isn’t normal. What do you do with a 10-year-old who reads Hemingway, Rushdie and Poe, with full comprehension and thoughtful interpretations? Or a teen who obsessively teaches himself physics as a hobby?

For ease of classification, schools will simply label the top 10 (or five, or two) percent of achievers on standardised tests as gifted, but to be truly gifted means your brain works differently. Everyday schoolwork, with repetition and rote learning – and everyone going at the same pace – can be a killer for these quirky kids.

But surely it's their kind of left-field thinking that will one day be vital to our new economy. Everyone has something to contribute, of course, but my money is on the extraordinary brainpower of the gifted for the radical changes needed to boost New Zealand beyond our reliance on the primary industries.

Professor of human development and counseling at Waikato University Roger Moltzen’s research interests are the psychology and education of gifted individuals; he sits on the Ministry of Education’s advisory board and believes gifted kids need to have their abilities identified and nurtured. Such kids regularly push the boundaries of creativity and entrepreneurship.

Compared with the 70s, we're better at identifying these kids, but is that doing them, and our future, any good?

In 2005, a Ministry of Education guideline required schools to identify children with special needs, including giftedness, and implement strategies to meet their needs. In 2008, the Education Review Office released a report on schools’ provisions for gifted and talented students. The results were a mediocre, at best: of the 261 primary schools and 54 secondary schools studied, only 48 percent were found to be effective in promoting positive outcomes for their gifted and talent students. Moltzen says we could be doing better, and that gifted children are slipping through the cracks.

“New Zealand schools overall do a reasonable job. Some are excellent, some have made significant gains in the past 15 years but research shows we have a long way to go.”

At primary school age, gifted students have more obvious opportunities. Cluster grouping, as opposed to streaming, ensures top achievers stick together. The Gifted Kids Programme and One Day School, which students attend for a day a week, let them study challenging topics in depth. And clubs such as Explorers allow the young and gifted to mingle with true peers.

At first glance, gifted teens don't have as many options – their experiences depend on their individual schools. And universities? “At university they should have their needs more attended to because that’s what universities are designed to do,” says Moltzen. “But as an academic I can’t say we’re doing a great job. That is the challenge for universities; how do they support learners who are quite different?”

He says more research projects on gifted children – individual studies and PhD theses, for example – are starting to come into the arena now but there are no studies in the pipeline by the Ministry of Education.

Furthermore, information about where these kids end up as they leave high school starts to get really thin on the ground. No one really knows what happens to the gifted when they grow up. But surely the only way to know if our educational system is on the right track is by checking the results?

Marilyn Stafford of the Gifted Education Centre agrees. The organisation, which started One Day School in 1995, aims to keep tabs on past students but as a non-profit charitable trust, budgets and resources are limited. The centre wants to look at such tracking, which is easier to implement now than ever before.

“The feedback we want from either parents or children as they grow up is that their time at One Day School was worthwhile. In some cases it’s pivotal.”

Chairperson of advocacy group GiftEDnz Tracy Riley says that while tracking of gifted students could be problematic (for one, what definition of gifted to use?) it would be worthwhile.

“To my knowledge, no one has done an economic analysis. It would be really interesting if they would: if we invest money in their education, what would the outcome be?”

It's not all about business. Moltzen says many other countries focus on gifted education with only their nation's economic future in mind. No-one needs that kind of pressure. Life as a gifted kid can be lonely, boring and frustrating. Giving them some real support means they’re challenged, accepted and understood.

As Rose Blackett, president of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, says, "It's all about what makes you happy."

And who doesn't want to see a kid – any kid – happy? Forget about tomorrow’s need for some innovation for a moment: judging by some of New Zealand's more alarming statistics, we could at the very least do with a big influx of happy.

The rocky road to gifted education

1975: NZAGC and Explorers Club begins

1995: The Gifted Education Centre (then known as the George Parkyn Centre) opens.

1996: One Day School opens.

1998: The Ministry of Education establishes an advisory group on gifted education.

2000: A booklet is produced for schools on identifying and supporting the gifted and talented.

2000: Gifted Kids Programme launches.

2001: The MoE establishes a working party on gifted education. One result saw advisors offering schools professional development and support.

2005: Under a National Administrative Guideline, schools are required to implement provision for gifted and talented students.

2008: The Education Review Office evaluates the quality of provision for gifted and talented students, with average results.

2008: Advocacy group GiftEDnz launches.

2009: Government cans the MoE school advisors.

2011: In the most recent of a series of budget cuts, allocation for gifted education is reduced to $1.27 million.