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  • robertm131

A Very Good Thing: from 'gifted students' to Expert Learners

There was once a dark force called ‘gifted and talented’ education, and it was deemed to be a Good Thing. Children who were thought cleverer than others might be put on a separate table or be given different worksheets so a school could tick a box to say that bright children were catered for; even the ‘child genius’ would have something to do.

To ensure consistency of provision it was then thought to be another Good Thing to appoint a ‘G and T Co-ordinator’ (cue much ‘g and t’ merriment) to liaise with Heads of Subject and to report to SLT about good practice across the school. This model could and does work well in some cases, but much depends on the energy and the time allowance granted to the Coordinator, particularly given the tsunami of data which now washes through schools, awaiting interpretation.

In my book From Able to Remarkable (Crown House, 2019) I argue instead that it is a better fit in many schools for responsibility for stretch and challenge to fall in the remit of the Head of Subject. Having spent 15 years in that role myself I can see the objections, given that just about everything fizzes into a hard-pressed HOS inbox these days, but surely no one is better placed to observe, to track and to improve stretch and challenge within a school. Think of the good HOS in your school: they already know what is being done and what needs to happen, and by when. But, as I was writing the book, another light appeared on a distant horizon. The pale dawn of metacognition.

Who really knows about where they are as learners and how far and how fast they can move forward? Why, our pupils themselves. So, we model, they learn, they teach. Adults learn, students learn, students lead. Asif may be the highest-attaining mathematician in his class, but he is not necessarily the most expert learner. Yolanda listens, reacts, questions, asks Asif and others in her class to make their thought processes visible, does the same herself and explains to Calum…and virtuous mini-circles of Expert Learning are generated with their teacher in consulting, coaching and watchful eye mode.

The beauty of this model is that it does away with a pre-ordained elite of ‘gifted’ pupils in favour of an open-ended model based on endeavour and purposeful practice in becoming an Expert Learner, a potential open to every pupil. Evidence suggests that schools make children more intelligent. This is how. Some pupils may of course start from a higher position and have genetic advantages which everyone can recognise, but that doesn’t make them self-actualised learners. At my school we have pupils on MidYIS (Middle Years Information System) 150. They are literally off the scale. But they are not at all Expert Learners…yet. High Current Attainers are precisely that, not ‘gifted’ per se.

As I was drafting this, Tom Sherrington’s blog appeared: Solve Learning Problems at the Source: start back with what they know and build

It’s not for me to say, but I think that you can read Tom’s blog in parallel with my Expert Learner lens. Whether it’s explaining the workings of the water table or fractions, or practising detailed sketching in Art, when you as a teacher are starting with the expertise in learning about how to learn already in that classroom or lab you are allowing every pupil, not just a genetically-advantaged handful, the opportunity to smash through ‘their’ allotted place on the bell curve.

We are just in the early days of exploring how metacognition really works in our schools, but in daily classroom practice the prospect of opening up the potential of every pupil, regardless of label or data or background is enticing and exciting. Labels matter, but learning trumps labels, and Expert Learning trumps pedagogies based on outdated notions of gifted provision. That would be a Very Good Thing Indeed for our schools in the 2020s.

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