No Treading Water Here!

OFSTED have recently stated that bright children are being “systematically failed” by England’s non-selective secondaries. These findings, however, were certainly untrue of the schools that I was lucky enough to visit during my two-week professional enrichment as part of my PGCE at the University of York. I had the opportunity to focus entirely on gifted and talented provision on a series of visits to a mixture of independent, academy and maintained schools, and therefore had the opportunity to compare practices and see what, if any, differences existed.

Certainly, there were certainly no opportunities for ‘coasting’, or as OFSTED puts it, “treading water” in any of the schools I visited. Rather, students were provided with inspirational teachers to develop their passion for learning, but also faced with challenging ideas, activities and questions to stretch them.  While there were differences in the basics of provision between the independent and state schools – in terms of class size and the general ability in each class – the nature of support for the gifted and talented was surprisingly similar throughout. Below are some of the common approaches that I came across, which could all be used within a mixed-ability classroom:

1. Creativity

Nearly all teachers that I observed provided opportunities for creativity within their lesson to challenge their ‘gifted and talented’ students. My own mentor simply provides the students with a set of objectives (for example, to show the differences between the suffragettes and suffragists and the reactions to these groups), and then sent students off fulfilling these objectives, giving them the option to address them in any format they chose. This allows the students to show off their abilities to their best: work produced including guides to becoming a suffragette and a suffragist, a newspaper article, and a video with a voice over. A similar approach was taken in other lessons that I observed: in a R.S. lesson choice was given to students about whether to write an essay or poem and then reflect on this in a piece of writing, and in another R.S. lesson in a different schools, students were challenged to create their own starter activity for their partner then to complete. This opportunity for flexibility, not only gives students the chance to ‘shine’, but also encourages them to feel more passionate about their learning as they can approach in a way that engages them most.

2. Independent thinking

This is also linked to another common theme that I found of learning being turned on its ‘head’ to challenge. Instead of the teacher giving the students the answers, students were given a problem to solve for themselves. For example, in a science lesson students were given the opportunity to design their own experiment to test for rusting. In another school, in an English lesson, students had to come up with their own criteria for what makes a good newspaper article, and then use this to peer-assess each other’s work.

3. Questioning

This was used unanimously in classes that I observed to stretch the most able. Teachers knew their students well, and aimed higher level questions at students that needed to be stretched, as well as getting students to develop their responses by further questions.  Students who asked questions, were answered with questions, and therefore as a result were able to come up with their own answers. This again turned the focus of the learning back onto the student.

4. Group work

Students were given opportunities for testing their own learning through group work.  A panel of ‘gifted and talented’ Year 8 students told me they really enjoyed working within mixed ability groupings, as it gave them leadership opportunities, and therefore the chance to be in charge! Furthermore, many said they liked the opportunities that they got to coach and teach other students, as this enabled them to really test their own understanding. One of the teachers I spoke to also reflected on how to vary group work for different effects; sometimes she also ensures that ‘gifted and talented’ aren’t always in leadership roles, to allow them opportunities to develop their teamwork skills.

5. Extension tasks

Finally, in nearly all lessons, a series of extension tasks where often available, which stretched and challenged the most able. This varied from ‘extension questions’ at the bottom of worksheets to providing students with an opportunity to choose which themes of gothic literature they were going to search for in a text by putting them on a ‘difficulty’ scale (again providing students with choice). Furthermore, another teacher told me how she differentiates homework by providing different tasks to different students – sometimes even as simply as taking out the first 3 steps of a question, so the more able students are immediately challenged.

Gifted and Talented work outside the classroom

Furthermore, in York, provision for the gifted and talented goes beyond the classroom. The ISSP project in York offers ‘gifted and talented’ students a real opportunity to not only be inspired but also to challenge themselves. Some KS3 students get the opportunity to challenge themselves with A-level standard Maths. Others get the opportunity to take part in an oral history workshop with real life war veterans. Among the students I talked to, there was a real excitement about these projects. At one school, I met with a group of about 20 students who all seemed incredibly keen to take part in the ISSP’s GCSE Latin programme. Furthermore I met with a student who was already part of the project: she relished the opportunities the project gave her to have a challenge outside school, despite having to give up several hours on a Monday evening to it.

It certainly seems to me therefore, that instead of ‘gifted and talented’ students being failed, by contrast, their educational needs are carefully addressed both within the classroom and outside it. This went beyond trying to get students to a certain level or grade: teachers wanted students’ to gain a passion for learning and for their subject through giving them opportunities to express their individual talents and flare. I finished my two weeks inspired; and I’m sure was surrounded by students who felt the same.

Sarah Jackson, PGCE Student 2012-2013