All teachers are teachers of the gifted. Myth or fact?

New Zealand researchers, teacher educators, policy makers and advocates have long stood by the statement that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted.” But, is this statement a myth or a fact?

Let’s begin by examining the difference between myths and facts.

Facts typically have some sort of scientific evidence to back them up. Myths commonly start with a story, passed on verbally through generations, that usually begin as a way of explanation. Myths explain something for which there may not be a ready scientific explanation. Just because something is a myth does not mean it is false: a myth cannot be disproved, just as it cannot be proved. A fact, on the other hand, can be disproven.

So, what scientific evidence do we have in New Zealand to support the statement that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted”?

My response to that question is “none.”

We have no scientific evidence that gifted children are in every classroom and learning centre in New Zealand, because we have no official definition of giftedness and no data are collected on learners identified as gifted.

What we do have is a series of assumptions, based on scientific evidence supporting the existence of giftedness, that has created a myth that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted.” These assumptions, however, are logical, and supported by the Ministry of Education:

  1. Giftedness applies to a range of learners with many different abilities and qualities - intellectual, academic, creative, social, leadership, culture-specific, visual and performing arts, and sports.
  2. And giftedness is evidenced in all societal groups, regardless of culture, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, or disability (learning, physical, or behavioural).
  3. Therefore, giftedness is socially and culturally constructed.
  4. And all classrooms and centres have gifted learners in them.
  5. So, chances are, all teachers are teachers of the gifted.
Myth or fact? Can we prove or disprove that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted”?

Or can we only claim that it is highly likely that all teachers will at some stage in their careers teach gifted learners? I think that the statement “all teachers are teachers of the gifted” is a myth created by a story that confuses research evidence with advocacy efforts.

As Plucker and Callaghan explain, some of the “widely held tenets in gifted education are not well supported empirically, or the evidence is quite mixed.”

The belief that all teachers are teachers of the gifted is not necessarily rooted in evidence, but it does tell a good advocacy story.

The myth that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted” has been perpetuated to raise awareness and increase engagement with the specialised knowledge and skills teachers need to work with gifted learners successfully. And, over time, it could be argued that by perpetuating the myth that every teacher is a teacher of the gifted, we have created a lack of awareness of the need for specialised knowledge and skills and, thus, decreased the demand for advanced study and specialisation in gifted education in New Zealand.

Gifted education is a specialist field of study.

What I have seen in the last decade, and blogged about earlier this year, is a decline in the number of specialist courses in gifted education at postgraduate level, a deterioration of content on gifted in pre-service teacher education programmes, and a decrease in enrolments in the specialist university programmes that do exist. Alongside this decline in formal teacher education programmes, I note a decrease in Ministry of Education funded, specialised professional learning and development. There has also been no targeted funding for research on gifted education practices which creates a thinning evidence basis upon which to develop specialist knowledge relevant for New Zealand.

As this year’s position statement on specialist teachers of the gifted states,

Our organisations believe that the need for all teachers to understand the nature and needs of the gifted does not obviate the need for specialist teachers.

We believe specialist knowledge and skills should be acquired through a professional pathway of formal pre- and in-service teacher learning alongside ongoing professional learning and development.

The position statement outlines the roles of specialist teachers of the gifted which require knowledge and skills related to three key capabilities:

  1. knowledge of the cognitive, social and emotional differences in learning and development between and among gifted learners;
  2. understanding of the factors that influence developmental and learning differences in the gifted, including culture, socioeconomic background, disabilities, gender, learning environments and experiences, and ethnicity;
  3. skill in how to identify and respond appropriately educationally, socially and emotionally to these differences in learning and development.

As the position statement makes clear, gifted education specialists should have opportunities to undertake advanced coursework and research. Specifically, the Ministry of Education is called upon to provide funding support for teachers to increase their qualifications through undertaking advanced coursework.

Funding for advanced study in gifted education is needed.

It is difficult to prove or disprove that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted” - and the myth will continue to self-perpetuate without intervention. As a country, we will continue to make decisions in teacher education and professional learning and development based on assumptions that detract from the need for specialisation in gifted education.

The myth that “all teachers are teachers of the gifted” distorts any debate for specialisation in gifted education. The myth must be debunked.

Yes, most gifted students spend most of their time in mainstream classroom settings, taught by regular classroom teachers without specialisation. But the Ministry of Education has committed to a continuum of services for gifted learners, upheld by legislative commitments to identify and provide for their needs. It is time for the Ministry of Education and the education sector at all levels to recognise the in-depth knowledge and skills of specialist teachers of the gifted, and to support their ongoing learning and development as valued members of the teaching profession.

All teachers may teach gifted learners, but not all teachers are teachers of the gifted. That is a myth.

This blog was written by Associate Professor Tracy Riley.

The views expressed are her own.


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