How to support gifted students to reach their full potential

By Alexandre Rutigliano

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Each country defines giftedness and gifted students differently and responds to their needs in various ways. Many countries provide acceleration and enrichment strategies to support inclusion of these students in education
– More teacher- and school-capacity building is vital for achieving inclusive gifted education
– Gifted students are not a homogenous group, and identifying them requires training and socio-cultural sensitivity

All education systems are required to teach a wide-variety of students and help them achieve their potential. The term “gifted education” refers to educating students who have higher-than-average intelligence, talent or potential. But the question then comes: How do you measure these? And how can schools support gifted students? In general, giftedness is not well understood, which means that education systems can be challenged to help gifted students. Thus it is important to first define giftedness and then outline gaps and successful practices from around the world to learn from each other and improve practice.

Definition of giftedness and policy approaches for gifted education

Giftedness has traditionally been understood as higher-than-average intelligence as measured by Intellectual Quotient (IQ) tests, often associated with certain subjects such as mathematics or music. But definitions are changing. Research now suggests that giftedness goes beyond IQ. It encompasses multiple forms of intelligence such as creativity and empathy. Gifted student’s full potential can be unlocked thanks to adequate opportunities and support in education.

OECD countries use different terms to describe gifted students. For example, Germany and Spain refer to some students as being “gifted”, and in Australia and the United Kingdom they are labelled “gifted and talented”. France puts the emphasis on student development and refers to them as “students with high potential”. Countries also approach gifted education differently. In Korea, gifted education is a separate education policy area, with its own framework, and dedicated schools. In other countries, gifted students are incorporated into a broader category, usually that of students with special education needs. In some contexts, such as Finland, there is no direct reference to gifted students, and schools must be able to respond to the needs of all students without highlighting personal characteristics. However, what is common across nearly all OECD countries is the availability of acceleration and/or enrichment strategies to give gifted students the opportunity to learn at a faster pace and have access to richer curricular contents and learning activities outside the classroom.

Teacher and school capacity to support gifted students

Teachers are at the forefront of inclusive education, and they play a key role in identifying giftedness and in implementing learning strategies and monitoring gifted education. As such, countries develop initiatives to support them. Some, such as Colombia, publish extended guidelines and orientation documents, while others clearly describe the role of teachers in policy (e.g. Lithuania) or legal frameworks (e.g. Korea). Nonetheless, there remain many gaps in initial teacher education and continuous professional learning. For example, a 2017 study found that, among the 30 European countries surveyed, around 70% of teacher respondents had not attended in-service training in this area.

International networks and national civil society organisations, such as in Portugal and the United States, can be instrumental in developing policy and supporting schools in implementing inclusive practices. They play a key role in raising awareness and, often, training teachers on acceleration and enrichment strategies. They might also strengthen capacities built by official teacher initial education and professional learning entities by providing training on teaching methods such as differentiated pedagogies, which are key for improving gifted students’ outcomes.

Promoting inclusive practices in gifted education

An inclusive gifted education would mean that all gifted students are adequately supported and their individual needs are being met. It would need to recognise that these students are not a homogeneous group. Lack of school staff training, insensitivity to cultural differences and other biases often lead to the underrepresentation of certain student groups in gifted programmes. A 2018 study conducted in Toronto, Canada, showed that male students had higher chances than female students to be identified as gifted when they had a similar ethnic and socio-economic background. Also, students from some ethnic groups are more likely than others to be identified as gifted. To address exclusion dynamics in identification and learning processes, it is important to take into account students’ socio-cultural contexts. A good example of this is New Zealand’s Gifted Education Package, which includes Māori knowledge and practices in identification and assessment methods, as well as the participation of Māori educators in the design of an adapted curriculum.

Importantly, an inclusive gifted education can benefit all students. In many countries, gifted education is mainly provided in mainstream schools and/or classrooms. School-level strategies such as mentoring, counselling, differentiated pedagogies, the use of digital technologies and student collaboration have proven to be particularly effective in increasing the education and well-being outcomes of gifted students and, often, the whole class.

Despite many examples of good practice, there remain significant gaps in the field of gifted education. Improving the evaluation and monitoring of the inclusion of gifted students in education systems will help policy makers better understand their needs. This is an important step towards designing more inclusive education policies for all.

Read more:

Photo: Shutterstock/