Living on the margins of two cultures

It is increasingly obvious to us all living in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017 that we are a nation of many, many different cultures. The debates around immigration policies currently going on among our politicians is testament to this fact! For those of us who advocate for, and work with, gifted and talented children and young people it is important that we acknowledge this growing diversity in our population and that we consider multi-cultural concepts of giftedness in our definitions to reflect this diversity.

But I wonder how well we are doing this? In this blog, I want to query how well we really understand what it is like for the very diverse population of Asian gifted and talented students in our schools and centres? How much attention are we giving to the experiences of school for these children and young people?

The ERO report of 2008 stated that:

Gifted and talented students represent diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages, with a multiplicity of gifts and talents. Concepts of giftedness and talent vary across culture. Schools’ definitions and ways of identifying should reflect the beliefs, values, attitudes and customs of the school community. (p.16)

However, the report found that “for most schools, providing for this diversity was a challenge” (p. 51). Schools were not including multi-cultural concepts in their definitions of giftedness and talent and were not communicating with their communities in order to develop a broader understanding of what giftedness may mean for students from different cultures. More recent data comes from a national research project being carried out by a team of researchers from giftEDnz. Emerging findings show that less than one third of the schools who responded to the survey said that they included any reference to multi-cultural conceptualisations of giftedness in their definitions and that abilities and talents that were specifically related to culture were seldom identified by teachers and schools. So it appears that we may not have progressed very far since 2008 in terms of understandings around cultural conceptions of giftedness.

I think this presents a problem for gifted and talented young Asian students who could be seen to be “living on the margins of two cultures” (Nuthall, 2007). Tensions may exist between the culture of school and the culture of home for students of different ethnicities from that of the majority European culture of our schools. For example, how many teachers of Asian ethnicity are there in our schools and centres, I wonder?

I think too, that there is a prevailing discourse in society of the hard working, high achieving but not particularly social Asian student which is often reinforced by populist literature. But is this really the narrative for these able adolescents of Asian ethnicity? We actually know little about how these students think and feel about being positioned in this way because this is a group of learners about which very little research has been carried out.

Further, if there is a cultural expectation to achieve highly for some of these students how do they reconcile this with the NZ anti-intellectual discourse that is still evident in our schools (Tapper, 2014)? The high achieving Asian lawyer, Mai Chen, referred to this in her speech at the 2013 ‘Women of Influence’ awards, when talking about her schooling experiences in New Zealand:

“When you don’t achieve you’re dumb. When you do well, you’re up yourself” (Mai Chen, 2013).

Chen also maintains that although it is a fact that students of Asian ethnicity are represented in significant numbers in top achievement results across a range of areas, there seems to be what she refers to as a “bamboo ceiling” (Mai Chen, 2013) for these young people when they leave school and tertiary institutions as highly qualified young people. The top jobs are harder to get for Asian professionals.

All interesting wonderings, I believe, and wonderings which point to the ever growing diversity of gifted and talented children and young people who are experiencing school in Aotearoa New Zealand. If we are to really provide appropriately for this diversity we need to appreciate and understand the developing identities of all our culturally diverse young people. I would love to see educators from our field spend more time talking to, and learning from, gifted and talented Asian learners as they work to bridge the gap between their two cultures.

Written by Dr Louise Tapper, Chair of giftEDnz The Professional Association for Gifted Education.

Chen, M. (2013). Acceptance speech for Women of Influence Awards. Wellington, New Zealand.

Education Review Office. (2008). Schools' provisions for gifted and talented students. Wellington: Education Review Office.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Tapper, L. (2014). “Being in the world of school”: A phenomenological exploration of experiences for gifted and talented adolescents (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Posted as part of the 2017 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour #NZGAW, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.


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