Moving From Needs to Rights: Count me in!

Since 2002 UNESCO has published the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report annually. At the beginning of June 2017 the GEM Report’s Advisory Board met in Paris to discuss the success of the 2016 report. During the meeting they discussed plans for the 2017/18 and 2019 GEM Reports, and decided on the future theme of the 2020 report. A consensus was reached on the theme: Inclusion and Education. This is perhaps not surprising since the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) calls for inclusive, equitable and high quality education and lifelong learning for all by 2030. This is a laudable goal. But even a casual glace at some statistics brings into sharp focus the job that is still ahead of us in achieving this goal. Take, for example, the Education for All report from 2015. It reported, “in 44 of the 74 countries analysed, there is at least a 50-year gap between when all the richest boys complete lower secondary school and when all the poorest girls do so. And, if recent trends continue, girls from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa will only achieve this target in 2111, 64 years later than the boys from the richest families” (UNESCO, 2015: 13-14). These trends can be changed. It will take a concerted effort on the part of governments, teachers, parents and the international community, but it can be done.

But what of the gifted within these statistics on inclusion, equity and high quality education? Are these girls from the poorest families just not as clever as the richest boys? Or have the boys had access to good nutrition, literature, varied experiences, high expectations, values and systems that support boys and education in a way that the poor girls can only dream of and so these boys are able to flourish within the school system? If we are serious about tackling this inequality then we have to consider how we view learners and the diversity they bring to the classroom. In addition, we have to examine how systems and structures might routinely and systematically perpetuate inequity and/or inequality.

"...learning and teaching, rights and inclusion of the marginalised and excluded – should strike at the heart of gifted education and indeed at the heart of all education"

It seems to me that gifted education has often, unfortunately though perhaps understandably, been synonymous with affluence and conceptualisations of “elitism”. This has done the field, and importantly, young people, no favours. My colleague and I have been at numerous meetings where we had been scheduled 20 minutes of time only to leave two hours later. Why did these “diary discrepancies” happen? Because prior to these meetings educators, individuals and companies we were meeting with assumed we were “going to talk elite”, to talk about “advantaging the already advantaged”. So instead when we talked about learning and teaching, rights, and the inclusion of those who are marginalised and excluded these meetings naturally extended.

The idea that the gifted are somehow “advantaged” requires to be challenged – as does the view that they will be “OK” without any consideration or support simply because they are gifted. These issues – learning and teaching, rights and inclusion of the marginalised and excluded – should strike at the heart of gifted education and indeed at the heart of all education. If we decouple gifted education from these fundamental educational issues then we will have done gifted education and young people an immense dis-service. People must start to understand that supporting gifted young people is an integral part of inclusive education systems. It is important that they realise that being gifted is irrespective of ethnicity, culture or location and is not dependant on finance (although finance may allow access to opportunities). Once this is understood and accepted people will begin to see gifted education as a rights based issue and not a needs based one.

"Moving from a “needs based model” to a “rights based model” suggests that all should benefit from and receive challenging and appropriate learning."

Perhaps one of the ways we can move towards SDG 4 is to start to view diversity alongside inclusion. This would allow for individuals to be recognised and valued as unique. This might mean reconceptualising how we think of giftedness. As the world seems to lurch ever onwards towards standardised high stakes testing, conceivably we need an alternative view. A view that sees differences as just part and parcel of what it is to be human. An emphasis on competitiveness and comparison and sifting and sorting has not served learners, including the gifted, well. Much like the phrase “the deserving poor”, suggesting there are somehow “undeserving poor”, we can end up trying to decide who “deserves” appropriate opportunities and challenging learning activities. Moving from a “needs based model” to a “rights based model” suggests that all should benefit from and receive challenging and appropriate learning.

As with defining degrees of learning disability, defining degrees of giftedness can be counter productive and lead towards a compensatory pedagogical approach rather than a complementary pedagogical approach. A compensatory approach has been described as “a pedagogical approach aimed at normalisation” (Head, 2011: 63). This implies “them and us”: those in the mainstream (us) bringing groups, who are being treated badly or who are in some way different (them), in from the margins so they become “like us”. This negates diversity and attempts to make us all “normal”. Alternatively, a complementary approach “begins with and maintains a perspective based on ability and the value of the students’ own experiences and beliefs” (Head, 2011:63). Within this approach, each learner is viewed as unique. Where this is the starting point for developing complementary pedagogy then the learning experiences of the gifted learner, and indeed all learners, will become “the markers of a dignified and just society” (Head, 2011:70).

"...a complementary approach “begins with and maintains a perspective based on ability and the value of the students’ own experiences and beliefs” (Head, 2011:63)."

According to UNESCO (2015:33) “indigenous children in high-income countries often face disadvantage, and the gap in learning outcomes with the rest of the population has been persistent”. During my recent visit to New Zealand I was curious to learn more about the Maori population and their understanding of what it means to be gifted. It struck me that, for example, the focus on whakapapa (how we and/or things relate to each other) was incredibly helpful and something we would all benefit from, as was the ethos of working for common good. The current dominant Western ways of thinking don’t seem to have brought about a more equitable society despite legislation and policies that aim to do this. Is it time for a change of focus; new ways of thinking about giftedness, pedagogy and inclusion? Would the fusion of ideas from indigenous cultures with prevailing western dominated understandings help us to produce more equitable societies and more compassionate and caring communities? Would this support people who would collectively seek to address the issues we face in the 21st century?

It will be interesting to see what the 2020 GEM report about inclusion and education highlights and includes. I suspect it won’t be gifted education and perhaps the report will lack something because of this. But if we, as a global community, want to tackle the worrying statistics at the start of this blog, then we have to get out of our silos and work together. Gifted education must engage with the global debates not because gifted individuals have all the answers and will be “the leaders”, not because gifted young people are more important that any other group of learners but because gifted young people, like all young people, have a right to education.

Written by Dr Margaret Sutherland of the University of Glasgow.

"...gifted young people, like all young people, have a right to education."

References

Head, G. (2011) Inclusion and Pedagogy from McMahon, M.; Forde, C. & Martin, M. (eds.), Contemporary Issues in Learning and Teaching London: Sage Publications.

United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation. (2015) Education for All 2000-2015: Achievements and Challenges UNESCO: Paris.

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

Credits:

Created with images by Anthony Quintano - "Fearless Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal New York City Wall Street" • HeyDanielle - "Heart" • MDGovpics - "All Staff Meeting" • kalleboo - "Maori showboating"

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