The Power of Invisibility Assoc. Prof. Tracy Riley, Massey University

(call me) Invisible

Call me invisible.

I go through school

A distinct personality of my own.

I’m not normal or average.

I’m just me, but I’m not known or unknown.

People know who I am but don’t think much.

People say sometimes the best things are unseen.

So call me invisible.

The poem above was written by a 14-year old young woman, Margaret, who may or may not be gifted, yet sees herself as anything but normal or average, as she demonstrates the complexities of invisibility. Kathryn Schulz, in a 2015 New Yorker article, asked a series of questions about the meaning of invisibility, wondering if it is a condition of transparency, being cloaked, or just overlooked. And readers of this blog might wonder, what does invisibility have to do with gifted learners? As Kathryn explains,

Invisibility looms large in the kingdom of childhood … and yet … invisibility is consummately grown up matter. As such, the story of invisibility is not really how to vanish at all. Curiously enough, it is a story about how we see ourselves.

We need to understand the ways in which gifted learners in New Zealand have become invisible, mainly through measures that do not acknowledge their diversity, and despite promises of visibility through a policy that mandates appropriate educational responses to their special abilities and qualities.

Douglas Adams wrote, in his book, Life, the Universe and Everything, that “The technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex … it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it.” While I am not proposing we do away with giftedness, I am acknowledging the complexities of factors that make gifted learners invisible in our education system, as evidenced in our policies, outcomes for learners, educational practices, research and professional capacities and capabilities. These complexities are, in turn, the potential measures of care and attention to gifted and talented learners. We need to take care not to use any of these measures singularly, or even a combination of them, to determine visibility of our gifted learners. Most data measures are only partial considerations of giftedness, with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy. Relying on these measures alone might lead to pedagogical approaches that may be inappropriate for gifted learners.

Nonetheless, we can look at:

• National and international policies related to human rights, education and well-being

• Measurements of student achievement

• Identification and provisions

• Research demonstrating effectiveness and impact

• Teacher education and professional learning


Gifted students’ rights to an education that identifies and responds appropriately to their strengths and is promised through our National Administration Guidelines, and is a matter of equity. Equity in education refers to access to and participation in learning, and this call for equity makes gifted education a human rights issue. In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that “… the education of the child shall be directed to the development of the child’s personaility, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.” Since 2005, through the National Administration Guidelines, gifted students, including those who are not achieving or at risk of not achieving, are promised visibility and a curriculum adjusted to their needs, but one must question if this promise is fulfilled.

Our limited research evidence on provisions indicates that the National Administration Guidelines are not being upheld by schools nor monitored by the Ministry of Education or Education Review Office. The Ministry’s Learning Support section does not include gifted in its (recently increased) funding and supports of over $300 million dollars per annum; in fact, one would struggle to find who in the Ministry of Education is responsible for giftedness. This is despite ERO reporting that 80% of schools are “mostly inclusive” – without a mention of gifted learners. This invisibility of giftedness in policies and practices extends to our measures of those, namely, our measures of achievement.

Measurements of Achievement

Before exploring the outcomes of achievement measures and where gifted students are visible within those results, it is important we understand the limitations of tests of achievement:

• These are rather blunt instruments, not precisely measuring abilities.

• They do not measure differentiated outcomes, which are expected of gifted students.

• They are limited for gifted students because of ceiling effects, which mean they do not test high enough to capture advanced knowledge and skills.

• There are inconsistencies in administration and interpretation between teachers and schools, particularly for internal assessments and overall teacher judgements.

• Methodologies for determining progress can vary, and for gifted learners continuous progress in learning is not always afforded.

• Additional learning support during testing may be inadequate or not appropriate, especially those who may be gifted with a learning disability.

Thus, the measures of achievement we tend to rely upon in our schools is very limiting for gifted learners full stop, but especially for gifted learners who may be different in the ways they learn, their areas of strength, and how they progress and demonstrate their abilities.

Nonetheless, the evidence is clear that “All countries and economies have excellent students, but few have enabled all students to excel” (PISA, 2015, Volume 2, p. 6). In a recent New Zealand Herald article, Professor Emeritus Warwick Elley challenged the decline in international testing, reporting that in the 15 year history of participation in PISA – the Programme of International Students Assessment – New Zealand’s average score in maths has dropped more than any other country (down 42 points), reading has dropped 20 points and science is down 15 points. The Herald reports that we are closing the gap in New Zealand, but we are doing so “ because our top students have slipped more than our bottom students.”

• Dropped from 21% to 20% top performers in at least one subject (2012 to 2015)

• Dropped from 8% to 6% ‘all rounders’ (2012 to 2015)

• Advanced readers declined from 19% to 14% (2000-2012)

• Mathematics performance at level 6 from 7% to 5% (2003-2012)

• Science declines at level 5+ from 18% to 13% (2006-2012)

Professor John Hattie describes this drop at the top at ‘complacency’ – we have rested on our laurels as a high achieving nation. Similar results are found for assessments like TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) for which our mean scores have increased in 20 years, but not at the rate of other English speaking countries. TIMMS results also indicate that 26% of our students are ‘high achieving’ and only 6% are considered ‘advanced’ (compared to 45-50% advanced in Singapore and Hong Kong, 17% advanced in the UK, 14% in the US and 9% in Australia). As reported in the Herald on 18 March, “It's the trend, not the level, that is the main concern.”

Another worrying trend is the slow growth in student achievement as measured by National Standards, with the Ministry reporting growth of around 1% since 2013. National Standards are reported by schools, with performance at, below, well below or above the standard. There is no reporting for students well above the standard, and, in fact, in Ministry topline reporting, those students performing at and above the standard are combined into one reporting line. As a parent of a gifted child wrote in a blog several years ago:

There is no further learning. School have used it as an excuse to do nothing, “He is already where he needs to be by the end of year six so no need to worry about his learning.” Well he isn’t learning in class – he can already do it!

Similarly NCEA excellence results decline through schooling: NCEA 2015 results show that 16% of year 11 students achieved excellence compared to 13% at year 12 and 6% at year 13.

The Excellence Gap

These slippages in performance are highlighted further in the gaps we see across high performance across diverse learners. For example, students with high potential, but in low income areas, are less likely to reach advanced levels of academic development. This ‘excellence gap’ - high poverty levels, not surprisingly, resulting in lower achievement – must be assumed to exist in New Zealand where 1 in 4 children are living in poverty and 1 in 5 children are performing below expectations.

“It is a story of demography predetermining destiny, with bright low-income students becoming what one research team referred to as a “persistent talent underclass” (Plucker et al., 2015). Plucker and his colleagues identified the excellence gap by examining three key elements:

1. Inputs (identification of able students, allocation of resources, policies, and tracking of student achievement)

2. Student participation (opportunities in and out of school, acceleration, equity of participation)

3. Outcomes (percentage of students achieving highly, excellence gaps in representation of low-income and other students at high level)

We cannot conduct a similar exercise in determining how wide the excellence gap in NZ might be, because of the invisibility of our gifted students created by the lack of policy and data collection by the Ministry of Education, and all the aforementioned factor. We must, however, work towards closing the excellence gap by

• making high performing students more visible,

• removing barriers that prevent students from moving at the pave that matches their achievement levels

• ensuring high ability students have access to advanced educational opportunities, and

• holding schools accountable for the performance of high ability students.

These visibility factors can only be made possible through ongoing teacher education and professional learning. Raising awareness at pre- and in-service levels for all teachers is a necessity we must meet, yet, in the Ministry of Education’s accredited providers list only 2% of providers use the key identifier of ‘gifted’ in describing their specialisation, and most universities do not offer in-depth study at undergraduate or postgraduate levels. This is despite evidence from the preferred Ministry of Education providers of profdessional learning and development, Te Toi Topu, reporting in 2014 that, “an effective lever for raising school wide achievement because it has an explicit focus on identifying and nurturing student potential.”

Becoming Visible

I have shared just some of the ways in which gifted learners have become invisible in our education system in New Zealand, and there are many other possibilities to explore: identification practices, provisions, funding models (or lack of funding models) – but my investigation left me pondering, why are gifted learners invisible? What lies beneath it? Is it our she’ll be right attitude? Or is it our yeah right humour? Are gifted students simply off our radar and simply out of our sights? What are the cloaks of invisibility at play here?

You don’t look through an invisibility cloak, you look around it.

To make something invisible, hide the light that bounces off it.

Invisibility is a superpower, and it is indeed the fantasy of many children and adults. It has captured the creative imagination of many scientists who continue to develop technology to create invisibility – the only way to make something invisible is to actually hide the light that bounces off it … and that is perhaps what we are seeing in New Zealand. But let us not forget the light of giftedness. To be made invisible, one is first visible and can become visible again. How might we, as professionals in gifted education use the power of invisibility to transform?

This blog has been taken from the giftEDnz Te Manu Kotuku Lecture. The full lecture can be accessed on YouTube.

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

Created By
Tracy Riley


Created with images by Christopher Crouzet - "The Invisible Man" • harshad0717 - "reflection" • 3dman_eu - "refugees economic migrants financial equalization help stock" • Pexels - "accuracy achieve achievement aim aiming arrow black" • ann_jutatip - "child 3" • Matthew Wilkinson - "Concern" • MaxAce - "stairs gap crack" • ed_davad - "harry potter figure toy macro close-up"

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