At NACE, we regularly hear from school leaders and practitioners who are striving to improve provision for highly able young people – but coming up against barriers to doing so, often due to widespread myths and misconceptions about this group.
Here are some of the most common, and the reasons they need to be discarded…
Myth #1. More able learners will do well regardless; they don’t need extra support.
Just like any other student, more able learners benefit from guidance and support to develop their abilities. They should not simply be left to “find their own way”.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability in one or more fields translates to competence and/or maturity in many or all areas – including academic, physical, social and emotional development. More able learners may need help to overcome barriers such as socio-economic disadvantage, low cultural capital, gaps in their learning or underdeveloped language skills. Learners may have one or more special educational needs or disabilities alongside high learning potential or ability (dual and multiple exceptionality/DME).
In addition, many more able learners could benefit from specialised support for specific challenges that can come with high ability – such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and a range of internal and external pressures. All are likely to benefit from support and guidance in accessing relevant wider experiences and making decisions about future education and career options.
It is also important to avoid assuming that high ability equals high motivation. Highly able learners may become bored and disengaged due to a lack of challenge or appropriate support. Some may feel overwhelmed by competing interests, abilities and activities (in- and out-of-school). Some may be averse to challenging themselves or taking risks, and/or feel uncomfortable with being perceived as highly able.
Being able to attain high grades with minimal effort can also lead to independent learning and metacognitive skills being underdeveloped, meaning learners will struggle when they do eventually face challenge. Like all students, the more able need the right environment and support to develop effective learning behaviours and attitudes.
Myth #2. All young people are potentially “more able” – so focusing on a specific group is pointless.
With developments in understanding around neuroplasticity, the impact of mindset, effort and environment, there is now widespread recognition that ability is fluid and developmental. However, it is still the case that some people have the potential to achieve particularly highly in one or more fields. It is important to recognise this and to ensure these individuals are given the opportunities and support to develop as fully as possible.
While more research is needed, there is evidence to show that certain approaches are particularly effective for more able learners – and that focusing on understanding and responding to their needs has an impact. For example, more able learners commonly have a capacity to learn at a significantly faster rate and in greater depth; educators need to cater for this appropriately. Research also suggests they are particularly likely to benefit from approaches in which independent learning is nurtured.
What is true is that identifying more able learners is a complex and ongoing process, requiring consideration of multiple sources of data and observation; a focus on providing regular opportunities for ability to be explored and shown; and an awareness of the factors that can lead to ability being hidden or underdeveloped. However, these challenges should not be used as an excuse to avoid attempting to identify and respond to high ability.
Myth #3. More able learners are “easy” to teach and support.
In fact, effectively responding to the needs of more able learners can be quite a challenge! More able learners need teachers who are highly knowledgeable in their subject, skilled in recognising and responding to their needs, capable of providing sufficiently challenging materials and support, and able to build a supportive and stimulating environment and relationship. Alongside professional experience, educators can benefit from specific training in this area, and schools should seek to ensure that all staff are equipped to recognise and effectively provide for the most able.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability equates to model behaviour. More able learners can be prone to any of the same behavioural, emotional or social issues as any other student. As touched on above (myth #1), they may also be prone to becoming bored and/or disengaged, which can lead to disruptive or frustrating behaviour. Teachers also need to be able to understand and respond to issues such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and various other sources of anxiety/stress which more able learners can face.
Myth #4. More able learners are a homogenous group; the same approach works for all.
Each more able learner is an individual, with different interests, needs and aptitudes. Some may thrive on independent learning, others may benefit from much more teacher input and/or interaction with peers. Some will enjoy taking on leadership roles, others will shy away from the limelight.
However, while it is important to recognise that there is no single “right” approach, it is equally imperative that this does not become an excuse to avoid offering targeted provision for more able learners. While individual needs and context will always be key, there is also research and effective practice available to help schools meet the needs of the more able – and all schools have a duty to do so.
Myth #5. Focusing on the more able is elitist and should not be a priority for schools/society.
The reality… All young people – regardless of their background, context, attainment levels or any other labels – can benefit from and deserve to have their specific needs catered for. This is no less the case for the more able than for any other group. Their needs are no less nor more important than those of any others.
However, well-intentioned attempts to increase equity in education can – ironically – lead to the most able being neglected. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren noted in a recent review of existing research in the field: “[A]s governments in general tend to focus in particular on increasing equity and raising achievement among low-performing pupils, the needs of gifted children are often ignored in western countries.”
Misconceptions about elitism are often closely tied up with outdated views about ability (or “giftedness”) as inherent and fixed, and the more able as a very small and rigidly identified group. As touched on above (myth #2), there is now widespread recognition that ability is fluid and developmental, and that identification and provision for the more able should be ongoing and holistic.
There is also a growing consensus that focusing on high-quality provision for the most able can lead to benefits for a much larger cohort – helping to raise standards, aspirations and outcomes for all learners, and contributing to school- and system-wide improvements. More widely, we all benefit from a system and society which seeks to ensure every individual has opportunities to develop his/her abilities as fully as possible.
What other myths and misconceptions about more able learners have you encountered? Share your experience: firstname.lastname@example.org
Heller Sahlgren, G. (2018), What works in gifted education? Centre for Education Economics.