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Ability for All




10.05.20 – Darrell Priestley

A friend who is both a celebrated West End conductor and also teaches at the Royal Academy of Music once told me that some of the most rewarding aspects of his career have been those moments when working with students who had at first struggled to fulfil their potential, only to come through and achieve at the highest level in the end. This got me thinking about the term ‘Gifted and Talented’ which is used so much these days. It’s an unexpectedly tricky phrase, because it would tend to dismiss students who have real potential to come through and surprise you with their ability. As a teacher, my starting point is that everyone has something special to offer, but some just haven’t found it yet. In any case, there is a bit of a problem in identifying traits like gifted and talented, because they are simply things you were born with. Much more useful to praise things that can be changed, like ability level, which any child can work on and improve.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the late developer, or the child whose moment to shine has been temporarily put on hold as they struggle with all kinds of life challenges. Going unrecognised as others are picked out for praise isn’t the surest way to get students with hidden potential to believe in themselves and strive for better. But when we apply the label ‘gifted’ to a subgroup of children, we inadvertantly apply another label, that of ‘also-ran’, to the rest. Surely this must be wrong?

Being labelled as gifted is not all roses, either, in fact in some cases it could be a bit of a liability. To justify use of the term about someone, it should be possible to point to a sizeable body of evidence. Not a problem if you are describing Mozart or Bach, clearly, who both produced a prodigious amount of the finest music, but applied to a young person prematurely it could carry expectations that are almost impossible for them to live up to, thus guaranteeing much future disappointment for a child who is unfortunate enough to be labelled as destined for great things. The safest way to label such individuals without harm, surely, is to wait until their talent is fully established.

Helping young people strive to be the best version of themselves is delicate and nuanced work. I like to think that everyone has talents, each with their own unique mix, but I’m not sure we should identify and praise that necessarily, unless we need to find and invest in the training of future sports stars, say. Far better to identify potential, and to recognise the promise of greater things to come, and then work with young people to set concrete goals for attainment. The key difference being that, unlike identifying children as gifted and talented, this should include all children, including late developers, as no-one can change the talent they were born with, but anyone can improve their abilities.

Arriving at University in 1980, in the first week we were told by one of our lecturers that, having made it onto the course (Business Studies) we were among the top 2% in the country. I don’t know how I was meant to feel, but I didn’t attend University in order to belong to any elite, I did so because I wanted to achieve on my own account. That’s aspiration, and happily it was cultivated in me on my way up, both at home and at school. If we really must use labels in education, then they should be helpful to the greatest possible number of students. Using labels like ‘able’ and ‘promising’ can be more helpful than using the terms ‘gifted and talented’ precisely because they are not static, and because they still leave the students to which they refer with something to prove on a daily basis, while leaving no one excluded, because everyone should be encouraged to feel that they can move in this direction. ‘Able’ is a term that can apply to all.