Attention gifted and talented pupils! Did you reach your educational potential?


Imagine asking Usain Bolt to slow down and wait for his competitors to catch him up in an Olympic race. This would be considered unfair, as it prevents Bolt from reaching his full potential. Yet I’m sure many of us could think of a child at school who knew all the answers, and were asked to slow down to ‘let others have a chance’. This may improve the learning environment for the less competent classmates; however it is often goes unquestioned what impact this has on the high-achiever. We wouldn’t expect Bolt to wait for others to catch up, so why should gifted students be asked to do the same?

According to the Department for Education and Skills (Mouchel, 2005), a gifted student is someone who has intellectual abilities significantly higher than peers of the same age. A student is ‘gifted’ if their abilities are in traditional academic subjects, and ‘talented’ if their abilities are within creative arts or sports.

These children, if given appropriate academic nourishment, will likely become an invaluable resource to the development of society. Therefore it seems logical that schools should focus on allowing these children to reach their potential. However, focus in schools is often on obtaining the highest percentage of A*-C grades, allowing schools to climb the league tables. The different grades within the A*-C range are usually of less concern. This potentially causes education systems to put less effort into students achieving the top grades where possible (i.e. A*). Furthermore, an article from The Guardian suggested our society is a victim of the ‘C-grade culture’. This is where the focus on boosting C/D grade students to increase the school’s overall percentage, may reduce the efforts towards gifted pupils’ success. An investigation by Ofsted (2013) highlights this, where 65% of children who were high achievers at primary school, did not achieve an A or A* in their English or Maths GCSE.

Gifted children are often not prioritised within education, leading to disengagement and underperformance if they are not challenged adequately.  An example of this is imposter syndrome, where the child perceives themselves as less able than others recognise them to be. Imposter syndrome is seen in high achieving students, when they are not intellectually challenged (Brems, 1994; Gross, 2006). Despite previous initiatives to improve provisions for gifted and talented students, Ofsted reports (2009) still found that many schools, despite their efforts, were not doing enough to benefit the high achieving pupils.

When there are several high achieving students at a school, a commonly used solution is the use of ability-based sets in core subjects. This homogenous grouping style is advantageous in preventing higher-achieving pupils being held back by peers, and allows student who are struggling to get the specific support they need. However, there are those against grouping pupils, believing it causes unfair elitism for those who are gifted (Gottfredson, 1998). One must also consider talented students in non-core subjects, which are often not grouped by ability.

A more controversial solution is acceleration. This is when a child is advanced throughout the curriculum at a faster pace than their peers, by skipping years of education. According to the support organisation PEGY (2013), this method is rarely used. This is despite evidence highlighting its success, because of concern for the psychological well-being of the child. In contrast, some research suggests acceleration is the most efficient way to satisfy and challenge gifted students (Gross, 2006; APA, 2003).

Acceleration can also occur without the child having to advance an academic year group.  This involves the school developing a school-specific gifted and talented programme. The students’ needs are identified and acted upon by teachers, in order to successfully challenge the group of gifted children (Ofsted, 2009). However for optimal results, perhaps these specialised programmes should be specific to the individual, not the school. Individualised education programmes are primarily used with children who have intellectual disabilities (Frontczak & Bricker, 2000), outlining their specific academic needs so they can reach their potential. Should this specialist programme not also be provided for gifted and talented children? A child with a gift for maths should be accelerated differently from a child with a talent for art, and this individualistic approach helps recognise and maximise the child’s particular strengths.

It is clear that finding an appropriate solution to suit gifted and talented pupils is a perplexing and challenging task, due to ethical issues of elitism, in addition to individual differences between students. However I personally believe these students deserve individualist support from relevant professionals in order to achieve their true potential.  Therefore trying to find an equilibrium, where high-achieving students benefit without any detriment to other pupils, is something that needs to be established within the education system. As psychologists we are aware of the impact individual differences can have on academic performance. Each student is their own person, and should be able to cross the finish line at their own pace.


12 responses »

  1. I agree that teachers hold a lot of responsibility in regards to the education of their students, but I also agree that it is the education system and the set curriculum that is failing teachers and students, not the teachers failing students.

    Schoenfield (1988) reveals that even when the teacher manages the class well and teaches everything required students still do not gain the in depth understanding of the subject they deserve. Students leave education especially at GCSE level with a superficial understanding of subjects. As you suggest gifted students especially want and deserve more than a superficial understanding, they want to be taught to the highest standard they can understand. This indicates that it is not the fault of the teachers; they are teaching everything required of them (and a lot of the time more), but the fault lies with the education system.

    Taking into considering the set curriculum teachers are required to teach Tomlinson et al (2003) conducted a literature review that suggests a mixed class of various levels of intelligence can work but teachers need be aware of how to implement different levels of instructions and amounts of work to effectively challenge all students within the class. This indicates that if teachers are equipped with the right skills they can challenge the academically gifted alongside struggling students, but only within the limits of the curriculum. Implementing this would mean that students of all capabilities would be challenged to different levels.

    Shoenfield, A.H. (1988). When good teaching leads to bad results: The disasters of a well taught mathematics course. Educational Psychologist, 23, 145-166.
    Tomlinson, C.A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C.M., Moon, T.R., Brimijoin, K., Canover, L.A. & Reynolds, T. (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: A literature review. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27, 199-145.

  2. When investigating special education schemes it is interesting to look at the identification process leading up to a student’s enrolment into the program. Identification of gifted and talented students sometimes relies on teachers’ recommendations. Teachers may be less skilled at identifying gifted and talented students than specialists, possibly due to a focus on weaknesses rather than strengths of individual students (Powell & Siegle, 2000). However other methods for identification have their own flaws. For example if using an IQ test there may be a bias towards certain populations, as with using an IQ test for any purpose (Reynolds & Suzuki), and this skews the eligibility criteria to be considered for such extra support. As the purpose of these programs is to cater for all students of a higher than average ability, the issue of identification methods must be taken into consideration.

    Whilst it is important to recognise that gifted and talented students may require extra provisions to stretch them to their full potential, it may also be worth considering the disadvantages of encouraging growth in all areas of the students’ interest. Berger (1989) highlights the fact that, particularly as a student advances through the education system, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain interests in all areas of excellence. This could lead to a detrimental effect in academic achievement, and a lack of sense of direction such time as it becomes necessary to choose a career path. This may be avoided by using the individualised learning plans you mentioned. This provision would also prevent gifted and talented students, who have abilities and interests in a wide variety of areas, being viewed as a homogeneous group, which has been identified as an issue in many schools.

    A potential explanation for Ofsted’s findings that 65% students did not achieve an A or A* could be that students are only gifted at certain times, and under certain conditions, as highlighted in this article.

  3. Bonita that is an interesting point about difficulties in identifying gifted pupils, which I hadn’t considered. To extend on your point, Betts & Neihart (1988) suggested there are 6 different types of gifted pupils, some of which are harder to recognise in the identification process. For example, the ‘Underground’ gifted child will try and hide their abilities, whilst the ‘Challenging’ gifted student is often frustrated with unchallenging work and is troublesome. Students such as these are less likely to be recognised as gifted students than those who are hardworking, despite having the same level of intelligence.
    I also agree with you that individualised education programmes will allow children to gain a sense of direction in their area of strength. However, Renzulli (2004) suggested that in some schools, the programmes are already specialised to a particular area, such as maths. Therefore in these cases, the gifted children are chosen to join the programme because of their ability in maths. The children mould into the programme, whilst in an idealistic world the programme should change to suit the child. Thus, it is clear that the current gifted and talented programmes are not always robust in identifying the correct students, and are not individualised to meet the pupil’s needs. This needs to change!

    Betts, G. T., & Neihart, M. (1988). Profiles of the gifted and talented. Gifted child quarterly, 32(2), 248-253.
    Renzulli, J. S. (Ed.). (2004). Identification of students for gifted and talented programs (Vol. 2). Corwin Press.

  4. Isn’t the very nature of intellect that someone else can’t acquire it for you? The question I ask is how does getting the best out of gifted students sit with student centred learning?

    Emerick (1992) researched qualitatively the turnaround of teenage ‘gifted and talented’ pupils who had been under achieving. Every student interviewed recognized that a change in self concept had been key to their success. These students came to recognize that academic achievement was to satisfy oneself instead of others, and described that being able to reflect and understand factors in how one learns was key to self propelled advancement.

    I don’t think Einstein went to a gifted or talented class. If instead the teacher instils the self concepts described by Emerick (1992) then the gifted child will carry her own learning. If a one on one teacher is mentoring this student on to excellence, how robust are that child’s intellectual capabilities if her intellect cannot stand on its own two feet? The placement of pedagogy for give gifted learners needs balanced application, but part of being gifted is to get things done autonomously.

    Emerick, L. J. (1992). Academic underachievement among the gifted: Students’ perceptions of factors that reverse the pattern. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36(3), 140-146.Retrieved from

  5. To add to Chris’s point, teachers should be role models for children to do the things that they enjoy, as this is intrinsic motivation. Children can only understand things at the pace of brain development, which becomes more focused and abstract through till adulthood (Piaget). Katie Bradford commented on another blog that “starting formal education earlier doesn’t always get you ahead of older counterparts, but in fact, may hinder academic achievement and positive attitudes to learn later on.[(Castle, Riach & Nicholson, 1994)]” This happens when formal education is prioritized over the social and emotional learning achieved through play (Elyatt, 2013). Katie also said “that the earlier introduction didn’t improve children’s reading development, and may have actually been damaging. The children who started learning to read at 5 developed lesser positive attitudes to reading and showed poorer text comprehension that those starting at the age of 7 (Castle, Riach & Nicholson, 1994)”.

  6. Although I agree with you that it is unfair on the higher achieving students to not be challenged, separating students into ability based classes could lead to self—fulfilling prophecies, both good and bad. Rosenthal (1985) tested children in a primary school using an IQ test. At random, Rosenthal picked a small group of students who he then labelled as ‘academic spurters’. Later in the year, Rosenthal tested the children’s IQ and found that those labelled as ‘academic spurters’ had their IQ rise an average of 12 points. This displays to us the impact self-fulfilling prophecies can have on the achievement of children. For those children who are expected to achieve highly, this can only be a good thing. However for those individuals who perhaps aren’t as gifted, this could be quite damaging. Separating students into ability based classes could lead to a decline in motivation in the lesser able students.
    Rosenthal, R. (1985). From unconscious experimenter bias to teacher expectancy effects. In J. Dusek (Ed.), Teacher expectancies, pp. 37-65. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

  7. In recent years, focus has begun to move to children who are not only academically gifted or talented, but also have learning or behavioural difficulties. However, regardless of this recognition it is not always dealt with appropriately and students still underachieve

    Reid & McGuire (1995) show that many gifted and talented students are dropped from specific programmes because of their behaviour. This highlights a problem in the education system; it is all well and good developing programmes such as acceleration or ability based sets to facilitate academically gifted students but what about those to whom it is not entirely suitable? should they just be rejected? That seems a little unfair.

    A study by Neu (1993) found that students with behavioural problems often become worse when they are under challenged or bored. In addition to this, another study also found that when under challenged, some students often displayed similar symptoms to those of ADHD, (Cramond,1995). Does this mean they should be disregarded as well?

    As mentioned in the above post with reference to Frontczak & Bricker, (2000), maybe the best way to go about approaching gifted students both with and without learning difficulties is to be individual specific; identify the needs of each student in order to establish the most appropriate method of learning. This method is already used for students with learning difficulties so why not extend it to include gifted and talented children too?

  8. By promoting gifted and talented students to move on in years either by themselves, or as a minority I believe they are missing one key aspect of learning that can be undertaken in the classroom, this is via peer learning. Damon (1984)(1) identified several different benefits of this style of learning, some of these were; self esteem, taking part in challenging tasks in a realistic group setting, fostering pro social behaviour, and so on. By taking the gifted and talented student out of the classroom setting so that they can excel individually means that they are missing out on these key skills.
    Manion and Alexander (1997)(2) conducted research to show that meta cognition; recall and sorting strategies were increased through the use of peer collaboration. These academic abilities are vital for higher-level learning, which not only are being developed and refined by the gifted and talented students, but the academic benefits are also available to those that would be considered on the normal learning curve.
    Overall it is important to recognize that the learning of information and facts is only one of the key roles of the schooling program, by keeping gifted and talented students in the classroom assists with views of their own self concept (Craven, Marsh and Print, 2000)(3), and with understanding different norms within society.


  9. Pingback: The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education (Albert Einstein) | hcrettie

  10. Pingback: The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education (Albert Einstein) | Science of Education

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