‘Gifted’ and talented? Why setting by ability limits student outcomes

As a new book throws into question whether any child is born ‘gifted’, Danuta Tomasz, Cognita’s Assistant Director of Education, Europe explores why labelling can lead to under, rather than over, performance.

With exam results’ days looming, thousands of students and their parents, will be anxiously waiting to see what the years of schooling have led to.  It’s always tempting, in these cases, to put a bad set of results down to an inability in a certain subject: ‘I knew I wouldn’t do well in x, y, z because I’m just not very good at it’. Yet a growing body of research is clearly pointing to the fact that ability is only a small part of what leads to success or otherwise. The other, more significant, is also far more mundane: it’s simply how much work or effort you have been prepared to put into something.

Carol Dweck, the originator of the mindset approach, identified two basic attitudes to learning which can make the difference between success or otherwise: fixed and growth. Her basic premise is that people who believe that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work are more likely to gain success than those people who believe that it is talent alone that creates this.

In the fields of sport and music, the truth of her argument has been powerfully corroborated. Prof Anders Ericsson, co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, meticulously explores the working habits of people considered to be stars in their field and shows that each and every time their achievements are down to their grit and tenacity to practice, practice, practice. But not just any practice. It has to be deliberate practice; the sort that makes you focus down on the bit you find really hard and do it over and over until you get it right. It’s the sort of practice that sits behind the sporting mantra of ‘no pain; no gain’. Matthew Syed reached the same conclusion in his book: Bounce almost 10 years ago, and the idea popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers even earlier.

All this is well and good. But what does it mean for our pupils and students?

The good news is that educational research shows that teachers make the single biggest impact on a pupil’s outcomes. With good and effective teaching, borne from excellent subject knowledge and high expectations, a pupil can get up to a grade difference in their results than a pupil taught by a less effective teacher.

But a continued predisposition in schools to set or group pupils according to ability more or less determines the outcomes for those pupils despite the otherwise stated intentions. A tendency to couch feedback in positives, such as the WWW (what worked well) and EBI (even better if) leads to girls, generally, ignoring the WWW and concentrating on the EBI and boys doing the converse –which, ironically causes girls to consider themselves less able in a subject and boys more able than they actually are.

So what can we do to create the right environment for, what Deborah Eyre calls ‘high performance learning’ at school and at home? We need teachers with a growth mindset approach and, in schools where there is setting, the recognition that their expectations will be the single biggest determiner of their pupils’ outcomes.

We need pupils prepared to accept the discipline of what it means to get better at something: practice until you get it right.  They need to understand that this can be painful, can take a long time and at times, be very boring.

Parents wanting to support their children should provide them with concentrated, undistracted time, to do home learning and study. A ban on digital gadgets at these times is crucial. Encourage but avoid over-praising unless it is deserved; help children to recognise when something really is or isn’t good enough.

In all cases, encourage the development of a can-do attitude.  Or, in the words of Carol Dweck: ‘Can’t do it – YET’.

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JUL 27   /  
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