At the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE), we regularly hear from school leaders and practitioners who are striving to improve provision for highly able young people – but coming up against barriers to doing so, often due to widespread myths and misconceptions about this group.
Here are three of the most common, and the reasons they need to be discarded…
Myth #1. More able learners will do well regardless.
The reality… Just like any other student, more able learners benefit from guidance and support to develop their abilities. They should not simply be left to “find their own way”.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability in one or more fields translates to competence and/or maturity in many or all areas – including academic, physical, social and emotional development. More able learners may need help to overcome barriers such as socio-economic disadvantage, low cultural capital, gaps in their learning or underdeveloped language skills. Learners may have one or more special educational needs or disabilities alongside high learning potential or ability (dual and multiple exceptionality/DME).
In addition, many more able learners could benefit from specialised support for specific challenges that can come with high ability – such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and a range of internal and external pressures. All are likely to benefit from support and guidance in accessing relevant wider experiences and making decisions about future education and career options.
It is also important to avoid assuming that high ability equals high motivation. Highly able learners may become bored and disengaged due to a lack of challenge or appropriate support. Some may feel overwhelmed by competing interests, abilities and activities (in- and out-of-school). Some may be averse to challenging themselves or taking risks, and/or feel uncomfortable with being perceived as highly able.
Being able to attain high grades with minimal effort can also lead to independent learning and metacognitive skills being underdeveloped, meaning learners will struggle when they do eventually face challenge. Like all students, the more able need the right environment and support to develop effective learning behaviours and attitudes.
Myth #2. More able learners are “easy” to teach.
The reality… In fact, effectively responding to the needs of more able learners can be quite a challenge! More able learners need teachers who are highly knowledgeable in their subject, skilled in recognising and responding to their needs, capable of providing sufficiently challenging materials and support, and able to build a supportive and stimulating environment and relationship. Alongside professional experience, educators can benefit from specific training in this area, and schools should seek to ensure that all staff are equipped to recognise and effectively provide for the most able.
It is also a mistake to assume that high ability equates to model behaviour. More able learners can be prone to any of the same behavioural, emotional or social issues as any other student. As touched on above, they may also be prone to becoming bored/disengaged, which can lead to disruptive or frustrating behaviour. Teachers also need to be able to understand and respond to issues such as perfectionism, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, social difficulties, and various other sources of anxiety/stress which more able learners can face.
Myth #3. Focusing on the more able is elitist.
The reality… All young people – regardless of their background, context, attainment levels or any other labels – can benefit from and deserve to have their specific needs catered for. This is no less the case for the more able than for any other group. Their needs are no less nor more important than those of any others.
However, well-intentioned attempts to increase equity in education can – ironically – lead to the most able being neglected. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren noted in a recent review of existing research in the field: “[A]s governments in general tend to focus in particular on increasing equity and raising achievement among low-performing pupils, the needs of gifted children are often ignored in western countries.”
Misconceptions about elitism are often closely tied up with outdated views about ability (or “giftedness”) as inherent and fixed, and the more able as a very small and rigidly identified group. There is now widespread recognition that ability is fluid and developmental, and that identification and provision for the more able should be ongoing and holistic.
There is also a growing consensus that focusing on high-quality provision for the most able can lead to benefits for a much larger cohort – helping to raise standards, aspirations and outcomes for all learners, and contributing to school- and system-wide improvements. More widely, we all benefit from a system and society which seeks to ensure every individual has opportunities to develop his/her abilities as fully as possible.
Find out more…
Keen to be part of the solution? Join us at the NACE National Conference on 20 June to explore the latest research and evidence-informed approaches to effective provision for the more able, focusing on strategies to deliver a curriculum of challenge and opportunity for all.
For a fresh look at other common myths about more able learners, visit the NACE website, where you can also find information about available CPD and support for your school.
 Heller Sahlgren, G. (2018), What works in gifted education? Centre for Education Economics.
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