Welcome to a collection of thoughts, questions and interesting links relating to giftedness ..............
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Motivation and performance pay for teachers

During this year I have read a lot about motivation, initially as part of a project I was undertaking but also because I find if fascinating understanding what makes us behave the way we do.

Periodically I get a newsletter from Dan Pink, the author of Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us (and another book worth reading called A Whole New Mind). Today’s newsletter included a snippet about motivation and ‘merit pay’ for teachers, specifically looking at whether we should link teacher pay to test scores. I had followed the discussion earlier in the year on this topic and at time Pink had commented the he ‘couldn't see a way to construct a so-called "merit pay" scheme that was good for students, fair to teachers, and consistent with what we know about motivation’.

So when the latest newsletter moved from conjecture to mentioning the results of a 3 year study, the first of its kind to systematically examine the effects of merit pay on student achievement, it had my attention.

The study was conducted in the USA at Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives. The purpose of the Centre is to address what it believes is one of the most contested questions in public education:
Do financial incentives for teachers, administrators, and schools affect the quality of teaching and learning?
What did the study find?
Overall, performance bonuses for teachers had no effect on student’s achievement. (p 36)
‘Merit pay’ is currently on the agenda for Australian teachers. I am not a political creature as a rule and this occasion is no different. My interest is in providing information and encouraging people to think, ideally with some soundly based information to start from.

Just because performance based reward systems are common in the workplace, it does not mean they are effective, or that they lead to the desired (or expected) result. Some of the most effective workplaces (in terms of results and staff satisfaction levels) have in place systems that seem at odds with the popular perception of how to get the best out of people.

Perhaps the important thing is to be clear about what we want (or expect) as a result of rewarding teachers (or students for that matter, but that is a topic for another day). If it is ‘better’ teachers, greater commitment to or ongoing development within the profession, that is one thing. If it is to see an increase student’s achievement level that may well be another.

While the Fact Sheet on performance pay for teachers in Australia mentions assessing a teacher’s contribution to the school community, support for other teachers, teamwork, involvement in extra curricular activities and further professional development as well as student achievement, it is easy to see how the media attention generated by the My Schools website might actually give the community the impression that it is all about student results, that better results indicate better teachers.

It strikes me that the ability of any single teacher to ‘add value’ (show improvement in student achievement) might be influenced by all the teachers the child has had previously. A child does not arrive in a new classroom as a clean slate. They bring attitudes, level of engagement, learning habits and patterns of skills that have been built up over time. They also bring the influence of their circumstances outside of school, the family relationships, home environment, the value that is placed on education in their culture or community, and even their economic circumstances.

Some of the best work teachers do isn’t evident straight away.  If merit pay becomes tied to achievement, we might be missing the mark and overlooking some of the best teachers.

If you are intersted you will find the Vanderbilt report here and an Australian report on performance pay for teachers here. This one distinguishes between merit pay, knowledge- and skills-based pay, and professional certification.

Friday, October 8, 2010


"The biggest mistake of past centuries in teaching has been to treat all students as if they were variants of the same individual and thus to feel justified in teaching them all the same subjects the same way."  Howard Gardner

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Another Opinion

An article appeared in the Opinion section of the West Australian on yesterday focussing on gifted children. It looked promising, the title “Labelled, judged and left to cope” would seem to represent the situation for more than a few gifted children in the education system, but I was sadly disappointed there after. I think it is such a shame when ‘giftedness’ remains something of a conversation stopper in many circles and when so many people have trouble even using the ‘g’ word, that an article which fuels such confusion about gifted issues makes the general press.

While I don’t have a problem with the right to hold an opinion, I do believe that if a person is as passionate about gifted children as the author purports to be, the opportunity for an article like this could better be used to promote positive community perceptions of gifted children and their needs. My disappointment arises from the fact that the outcome of the piece appearing on p 21 of the West is likely to result in yet more families facing the same myth-conceptions and barriers to getting their child’s particular learning needs met as others have faced in the past.

There is a clear distinction between giftedness and talent in the model the various education systems base their policy documents on. The terms are not interchangeable. Using the words as if they are adds no clarity to discussions. It only encourages the community to think that 'gifted' always equals 'high performing student'. The reality is that many of our most intellectually gifted students are not performing highly.

The 2001 Senate Inquiry Report “The Education of Gifted Children” found that “there has been little progress for gifted children since [the previous inquiry in] 1988”. It agreed that gifted children have special needs in the education system, noting that “for many their needs are not being met; and many suffer underachievement, boredom, frustration and psychological distress as a result” (foreword). It went on to note that an estimated 75% of gifted students are underachieving (performing below their level of potential).

Our most gifted students are the ones least likely to have their ability recognised or needs met particularly without someone advocating on their behalf. In the last month or so a number of families with highly gifted (and beyond) children who have not managed to secure a place in a selective program at high school have contacted me. It is not as a result of lack of ability, but more likely as a result of the lack of opportunity to develop that potential into ‘talent’, for them to become one of the high performing students.
Finding gifted students is not always easy but regardless of whether we label them ‘gifted’, ‘talented’, ‘bright’, ‘good at’ or use any other label that comes to mind or becomes culturally important, they still have learning needs which are different to other kids the same age.

The concept of a highly able child being given more work rather than different work is, unfortunately, common. It shows a lack of understanding of perhaps the most central characteristic of giftedness – ease and speed of learning. When gifted children are expected to complete (correctly) simple material before being offered something that is more engaging or more appropriately challenging, the extra work becomes both a reward and a punishment. It certainly isn’t ‘acceleration’ when the child has to go back to the simple work again the next lesson. If we drove our car in that fashion we would probably be shepherded off the road but in a very short time we woudl almost certainly find ourselves the mechanic’s (if we are lucky, a talented one whose skills are within the top 10% of mechanics available to work on our car).

Work at an appropriately challenging level and appropriate pace is a right of every child in the education system. It is provided for in the Curriculum Framework Overarching Statement which all schools in WA are bound by as outlined below.

3. Inclusivity
The Curriculum Framework is intended for all students in Western Australian schools. Inclusivity means providing all groups of students, irrespective of educational setting, with access to a wide and empowering range of knowledge, skills and values. It means recognising and accommodating the different starting points, learning rates and previous experiences of individual students or groups of students. It means valuing and including the understandings and knowledge of all groups. It means providing opportunities for students to evaluate how concepts and constructions such as culture, disability, race, class and gender are shaped.  (p 17)
More work’ is not acceleration. It is more work. If a child has demonstrated that they have completed the curriculum at a particular level then there is not ‘more’ they can do, at least without repeating something they have already shown they know. Moving on to the next step in the development of knowledge is not doing ‘more’ work, it is doing ‘different’ work. Appropriately challenging different work one would hope.

Confusing ‘more work’ with acceleration is only likely to compound reluctance of schools to put into place a successful strategy supported by more than 70 years of research showing it to be successful. Acceleration is a placement decision, it provides a closer match between the learner and the curriculum they are offered. It is considered to be the least utilised but most useful strategy for meeting the needs of our intellectually gifted children. Strangely, we have no hesitation in using the same strategy for talent development in sport or the creative arts (music, dance etc) where children are moved on through the stages as they demonstrate readiness.

That there are few high school aged children at university is subject to debate but actually says more about the reluctance of schools to allow students to work on content at a level that meets their needs, than on the success of acceleration as a strategy. In the last 5 years I have seen a significant shift in the willingness of schools to accelerate students. While there are still too many schools where parents are wrongly told it is ‘damaging’, ‘doesn’t work’, or the ‘policy prohibits it’ (none of which are true in the general sense) there are now a large number of students I have worked with who have been accelerated. In a few years time we will start to see these young people become students of 'high school age' who are studying at university. While many have only been accelerated a single year, a handful have been radically accelerated and will be very young by the usual standards when they complete their high school years, probably very successfully. A couple of years ago one of the coveted General Exhibition award winners was only 15 years of age.

Acceleration isn’t all about the academic side of things though. It also provides the child with the opportunity to interact with others at a similar intellectual level, the chance to continue to develop social interaction skills in a meaningful setting, to collaborate, to learn the skills of learning, to be required to think, reason, justify, construct an argument……….. Just imagine where those sorts of skills could take, not only the child, but also our society.

I agree that systematically building thinking skills (‘value adding’ as it is referred to in the article) can only help our children, all of our children. After all they will grow into a world we can’t even imagine let alone prepare them for and well developed thinking and reasoning skills will be essential tools for managing the unpredictable.

While a teacher may only come across an exceptionally or profoundly gifted child once or twice in their career, virtually every teacher has one or more gifted child in their class every year. Without training and support, they may not even realise they are there. They may well be seduced by opinion and remain unaware of the facts.

Regularly it seems, I become disillusioned, frustrated at the lack of progress in the area of appropriate education for gifted students. While some enlightened teachers and even some schools have made a great difference for the gifted children they encounter, I am still frequently called upon to answer the same questions and correct the same misconceptions. Parents continue to meet many of the same road blocks and misinformed decision making that first led me to learn more and begin advocating for the needs of gifted children 15 years ago. When I read articles like the one today, I wonder if any progress has been made at all.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Which is more important? What a person is now, or what they will become?

It is interesting to consider the way we look at the world. When you think about it, we are not very consistent. On the one hand we don’t doubt that a young child will ‘become’ something, and learn skills they need to navigate the world (primarily reading and writing), yet we more often doubt that our teens will have what it takes to change the world.

A little while ago I read a post by Seth Godin reminding us that we would do well to look beyond teh easy path. 

Here is a little of what he had to say

“It's absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, "this kid can't read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He's a dolt and he's never going to amount to anything." No, we don't say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things. Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, "this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create...”
He goes on to make the point that we invest much energy on 'practical' skills that prepare a person for a life of following instructions but  that we (schools and community) are relentless in avoiding the more difficult work necessary to ensure a person can push through and reinvent themselves into someone who makes a difference when they need to.

When I read his final statement (see below), it was gifted kids who struggle for one reason or another to show their strengths in the classroom that first came to mind. Too often they are ‘written off’, their potential doubted, the harder road of finding opportunities to help them unlock that potential not explored.

Godin asks “And isn't it even worse to write off a person … merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?”

It's a good question.

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