Monday, 18 July 2016

Gifted Education and 'Woo'

text: Gifted Education and 'woo' , Picture: stethoscope and medical forms

In the last few weeks there have been 'shocking' headline articles [1] in my state of Victoria about a gifted education provider used by at least 30 schools. The 'shock' is due to the founder's unusual non-mainstream, non-scientific (and pretty out-there) ideas which were taught without either their parents or the school's knowledge. There were a lot of very upset people - both in the medical establishment, in the schools and in the general public - pulling their hair and wailing about standards, speculating about the 'reasons' [2] and generally lamenting about 'woo' being taught without reflecting on how this incident revealed and illustrated some of the deeper issues that currently plague gifted education in most Victorian schools [3].

Sadly, that this happened isn't really a surprise. It was almost inevitable. Because, when it comes to gifted education, almost all schools already deal in woo.

'Woo' [4] is usually defined as an idea that on the surface sounds plausible, but when compared to what the scientific evidence actually shows, is usually only a placebo effect at best, and at worse, it can be very, very harmful.

That's pretty much the state of most gifted education in Australia - feel-good solutions that make a marginal effect on helping kids but are not backed up by any of the 100 years of research [5] on gifted education [6].

Why is this the case? Part of it - a rather large part of it, is that in most schools, the teachers and administrators have no training in either what giftedness looks like, or on the evidence-based methods that could be implemented to help students [3]. Gifted education is largely relegated to masters-level courses that the majority of teachers don't get the opportunity to complete [3].

Not only do most teachers at present not know a thing about gifted education, a recent paper in 2016 by McBee et al.[7] showed that if teachers were involved in the nomination process for identifying gifted kids, the chances of successfully identifying the gifted kids and not accidentally identifying the non-gifted as gifted were extremely low.

Teachers not only were terrible at spotting gifted kids, their decisions also made spotting gifted kids harder for the qualified medical professionals.

Whether they like it or not, teachers and school administrators without training are terrible people to put in charge of figuring out who should go in a gifted program, or even if a gifted program is good. If you can't even figure out who the gifted kids are, and what their needs look like, how the heck can you make a decision on what education options are best?

One of the reasons for this is quite simply cost. It costs money to train teachers, or have trained professionals on staff or on-call (and there is currently little incentive for any individual teacher or school to engage in this training)[3]. It's easier and cheaper to bring in a third-party provider to offer 'gifted services' - if the parents can pay for it. The fact that this is deeply discriminatory against children from low - SES backgrounds [8] is often dismissed using the wonderful 'myth' that giftedness is only related to a parent's income, and 'isn't real'. And it's a nice, self-fulfilling prophesy [9] - if you don't look for poor gifted kids, then there are no poor gifted kids in the programs, ergo, there are no poor gifted kids.

In Victoria, the parents of gifted kids in public school are expected to pay extra for these classes - despite solid evidence that proper gifted programming is not an 'extra', but is essential for the academic and mental well-being of gifted students [10]. It's a nice get-out-of-educating kids card that lets them say they are providing services, even though extra-curricular activities without curriculum compacting and acceleration have been shown to be the second worst option for useful gifted accommodations (If you're curious, the worst is doing nothing - it's not a very high bar to cross) [5].

And you know what? Most of these extra-curricula programs are fun - there can be a lot of great stuff in them. And it makes the kids happy to do something - anything - that isn't relearning material they already know.

That doesn't make it good. It makes it a placebo.

When teachers and school administrators:

just to name a few examples, then, no matter how good their intentions, they are working from a position of extreme ignorance.

This makes it hard to tell the difference between evidence-based education solutions, and woo.

The only surprise about the recent scandal in gifted education in Victoria is not that it happened, but that it took this long to happen.



1. Anti-vaccination advocate offering school program for gifted children, T. Jacks, The Age, June 2016
2. Another scam for the vaccine-hesitant, J. McCredie, MJAInSight, 27 June, 2016
3. Parliament of Victoria, Education and Training Committee Inquiry into the education of gifted and talented students, June 2012
4. "Woo", Urban Dictionary
5. A Nation Deceived, How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, The Templeton National Report on Acceleration, 2004
6. A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students, 2015
7. The Impact of the Nomination Stage on Gifted Program Identification: A Comprehensive Psychometric Analysis by McBee, Peters, and Miller, Gifted Child Quarterly, 2016
8. The “gifted” system in US schools is broken, racist, and completely fixable, M. Nisen, Quartz, Sept. 2015
9. Darn Those Mythological Gifted Kids Who Are a Construct of Our Social Norms, K. Humble, Gluten-Free Mum, Oct. 2014
10. Exceptionally Gifted Children: Long-Term Outcomes of Academic Acceleration and Nonacceleration, M. Gross, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 2006
11. Iowa Acceleration Scale, A Guide for Whole-Grade Acceleration, K-8, Great Potential Press
12. Professional Development Package for Teachers, GERRIC, School of Education, University of NSW

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