How have I come to recognise and develop my talents which are my gift to my colleagues and pupils?
Kate Kemp, Gifts and Talents in Education Masters Unit, 2008.
Prior to writing this account I have to admit to have given little thought or consideration to the notion of gifts and talents in education. I have been aware of central and local government policy regarding able or gifted and talented pupils however in my work with permanently excluded pupils these policies have seemed to have little relevance. I have, however, been attempting to clarify my own values and beliefs as an educator through writing about my work and telling stories about some of the young people I have worked with. Through the process of writing I have hoped I would improve my practice and explain my educational influence.
Faced with writing my contribution to the MA unit ‘Gifts, Talents and Education’ I was somewhat at a loss as where to start feeling that I knew nothing about the subject. What I felt I did know something about was myself and my own personal journey and that I also had as ‘data’ the stories which I had already written. Whilst I was still mulling over where to start I came across the following quotation:
‘Everyone has some kind of gift. Being talented does not mean just being a good musician, writer or athlete. There are many kinds of talent. You may be a great conversationalist, or make friends easily, or be able to put others at ease. Or you may have a gift for telling jokes, selling things or living economically. You may be punctual, patient, reliable, kind or optimistic. Or you may love taking on new challenges, be strongly committed to helping others, or have an ability to bring them joy. Without doubt, you possess your special jewel, your own unique talent.’
Ikeda (2004, p41)
This passage, from an essay by Daiseku Ikeda, President of the Buddhist organisation to which I belong, immediately resonated with me. Amongst the beliefs I have been attempting to clarify for myself is that everyone has something unique to offer the world and that one of the purposes of education should be to help young people uncover for themselves what their unique contribution might be. I have considered this in my previous enquiry ‘Can I put the pupils voice at the heart of our request for support form’ (Kemp 2008) in which I explore the possibilities of ensuring that young people begin to recognise their own strengths (rather than having them recognised for them).
I therefore decided, using an action research model, to embark on my exploration of ‘Gifts, Talents and Education’ by considering what my ‘unique talent’ is and use this question as a lens through which to examine literature on the subject and my own professional and personal experience.
I have used the narratives which I had already written as data to which I have added commentaries which show what I have learned and what use I make of the learning.
Through these writings I believe that I have identified the following ‘talents’ which I wish to offer in my work as an educator:
I have come to recognise these talents through reflecting on my early experiences and on people who have played a significant role in encouraging me. I have also come to recognise them through the stories I have told about the young people I have worked with.
I am very conscious however that the living values I embody in my practice cannot be adequately communicated through the written word. These living values are embodied in my relationships and I have clarified them through writing the narratives below and in the Appendix. The statements above are signposts to the values embodied in my practice. My love for what I do in education is expressed through a flow of energy that must be experienced to be understood.
Whitehead (2008 a&b) has drawn attention to the significance of these flows of energy in explanations of educational influence.
An examination of the literature on ‘gifts, talents and education’ throws up a range of thinking and beliefs about the nature of ‘gifts and talents’. On the one hand there is the DCFS description of gifted and talented in which giftedness is described as high level ability in one or more academic subjects such as English or maths and talented relates to ability in practical subjects such as art, music or drama and where there are guidelines that schools should have a ‘gifted and talented register’. On the other there are the many inclusional approaches found in, for example, ‘Gifted Education’ by Balchin et al (2009). The contrast between these extremes indicates opposing ontological and epistemological beliefs.
The most recent guidance from the DCFS is clearly underpinned by the belief that gifts and talents are both identifiable and limited in numbers as demonstrated in the following quotation from ‘England’s National Programme for gifted and talented education :plans and reforms for 2007-2010.
‘We have revisited our description of the national G&T population. This comprises:
a. A nationally identified top 5% by ability in absolute national terms aged 11-19, who are unevenly distributed within and between maintained secondary schools and colleges. These are presently identified against the published eligibility criteria (though these will be reviewed in due course); and
b. A further group of G&T learners, aged 4-19, in each maintained primary school, secondary school and college whose ability is developed to a level significantly ahead of their year group within their institution (or who have potential to develop such ability) and who are identified by that institution.
………We collect information about our national G&T population through a termly School Census …….We shall be working hard to improve this figure during the next few years. Once we approach 100% of schools identifying, we expect the national population to exceed one million.’ (points 9 and 13)
Even were one million children identified this would still leave a very large number of children who are presumably neither gifted nor talented! Such labelling it would seem to me is detrimental not only to the ‘ungifted’ and ’talentless’ but arguably to those who have been identified. I explore this idea further in my narrative ‘One Trick, Two Drivers’ in which I use my personal experience of being identified as ‘gifted’ and place it in the context of Carol Dweck’s work on ‘fixed and ‘growth’ mindsets. (Dweck 2000) -of whom more later.
White (2006) explores the epistemological beliefs which underpin this notion of gifted and talented in his book on the ideological roots of intelligence testing. He describes the work of Galton who, in 1865, introduced his influential ideas that intelligence is innate and measurable. The influence of these ideas, written at a time of rigid class structured and notions of preordained destiny, played a huge part in providing the ideological rationale for what is described sometimes as the ‘test and place’ methodology. This in turn underpinned the 11+ and selective schooling.
It is clear to me and to, I hope, my reader that these fixed and limiting notions of gifts and talents are at odds with my beliefs as described at the beginning of my account. My own ontological and epistemological beliefs lie very firmly in the inclusional camp. ‘Gifts, talents and education: a living theory approach’ (Hymer et al 2009) contains many action research enquiries on the nature of ‘gift-creation’ and provide a definition of gift as being ‘something we freely give’ (p98).
I have found the definition which Marie Huxtable uses in her contribution to the book very helpful in broadening my understanding of the difference between inclusion and inclusionality:
‘I am seeking ways of improving the contribution I make through the lens of gifted and talented education by developing inclusive (integrating all pupils in the mainstream) and inclusional (a dynamic relational awareness of space and boundaries where all can be held)’ Huxtable (2009, p293).
The focus which all my narratives have on dynamic relationships I think bears this out.
I have also been intrigued by the journey described by Barry Hymer himself in the same book.
‘Over time, Barry saw his interests and energies shift from the identification and appropriate ‘management’ of ‘gifted learners’ (the given state) to the exploration and advocacy of approaches to ‘creating’ gifts and talents in learners-i.e. to nurturing and developing the dispositions, attitudes, skills and motivations required to realise achievements in any domain’ (p29).
It is unusual to come across such a comprehensive story of how someone’s ideas have changed and been influenced by those around them. I hope that some of my stories will be similarly interesting.
I mentioned earlier the work of Carol Dweck and, if I have learned nothing else from writing this account, I am grateful that the writing of it has brought her to my attention. She describes her central thesis in her contribution to ‘Gifted Education’:
‘We are exploring different ways in which thinking of intelligence as a fixed trait (a ‘fixed’ mindset) versus a malleable quality that can be developed (a ‘growth’ mindset) influences students’ motivation and achievement. In past work we have found that holding a fixed mindset makes students more concerned with learning (rather than looking smart) and leads them to seek challenges, value effort and shine in the face of difficulty’ (p308).
This idea gave me the explanation for the difficulties I found myself in when I went to secondary school and as described in my piece One Trick Two Drivers and its commentary. Sadly I am still, on occasion, debilitated by the ‘fixed’ mindset idea and indeed have been during the course of writing this account. I have reached points when I have said to myself ‘it’s too difficult, I can’t do it’. Fortunately through the encouragement of colleagues and my own determination not to be a ‘living contradiction’ I have gritted my teeth and continued.
These are some of the different perspectives on gifts and talents in educational contexts which I have considered in relation to myself and my beliefs.
In using a living theory methodology (Whitehead 2008) I will be clarifying my talents and values through a form of narrative enquiry. I have collected together a number of stories which I have written about myself, my work and in particular some of the pupils I have worked with. I have then added commentary to each story to make explicit the values and principles which the stories illustrate. I also reflect on the relationship between the values which I express and some of the different perspectives of gifts and talents which I have explore earlier.
Throughout the stories I try to explain to myself how I have been influenced and explore my own educational influence
My reason for using narrative is an attempt to exchange the constrictions of a formal, linear style essay for a multi- faceted composition which explores, in a dynamic and flowing way, how I have been influenced and how I influence others. I imagine these short pieces to be the surfaces of a polyhedron-all part of the same thing (me/my life) but different views of it. Clandenin and Connelly have, in a number of publications, explored teachers’ stories and, in 1994 introduced the idea of ‘stories to live by’:
‘As we listened to practitioners and conducted the work on which this book is based, we realized that the theoretical puzzle was to link knowledge, context and identity. We developed a further term to begin to make this link, namely ‘stories to live by’….. This thread helps us to understand how knowledge, context and identity are linked and can be understood narratively. ‘Stories to live by’, the phrase used throughout this book to refer to identity, is given meaning by the narrative understandings of knowledge and context.’ Connelly and Clandenin (1999, p4)
For me, the phrase ‘stories to live by’ expresses beautifully the meaning of my narratives in that they are stories which tell of the values and beliefs which I try to live fully in my work.
This account has been through a number of different versions. I shared earlier drafts with my colleagues at the Conversation Café-an improving practice group within Bath and North East Somerset Children’s Services. I sought validation from the group using Habermas’ (1976) four criteria of comprehensibility, rightness, truth and authenticity. The account has changed from being principally a number of narratives loosely strung together, which might have been interesting stories but were without specific reference to the assessment criteria of the Gifts, Talents and Education unit. My own reflections and those of the group have led me to make the account, I hope, more ‘comprehensible’. I became aware through writing my commentary on ‘Strength, Wisdom and Compassion of a contradiction between the notion of seeking to truly understand another and that of exercising critical judgement. This contradiction however is an authentic one and deserves further exploration which I hope to do in my next writing.
I have organised my writings around 7 narratives and commentaries, each of which shows how I have clarified for myself and others the talents, values and understandings I am seeking to express as fully as I can in my educational relationships. Because of the word limitation the narratives, which were originally the main text, are all now in the Appendix apart from the first –One Trick, Two Drivers. As the context became clearer to me and the commentaries more significant the narratives themselves, although still important, became more like data and therefore more suited to being in an Appendix. A description of each narrative follows with its accompanying commentary in italics.
1. In One Trick, Two Drivers I describe my personal experience of being labelled as ‘gifted’ and the detrimental effect it had on me and to a certain degree has still (see page 4). I reflect on my understanding of Carol Dweck’s notions of fixed and growth mindsets and how I relate this to my and my work.
‘I have taken on board the learning from these ideas and the consequent advice to praise children, not for their achievements but for the effort they have made’
2. In At the Centre I focus on persistence and on the importance of living with the idea that ‘there is no failure only feedback’.
It was John who first introduced me to the notion of ‘no cock-ups, only learning experiences’ an idea which is echoed by Matthews and Folsom in the previous piece and by many other writers and theorists not least Edison and practitioners of Neuro- Linguistic Programming. One of the ‘operating principles in NLP is ‘there is no failure, only feedback’. This notion is crucial in developing young people’s resilience; for them not to give up when things go wrong but to be able to view difficulties and disappointments as opportunities’
3. In About Anne I describe the talent, which I learned from Anne, of being able to truly listen and accept someone for who they are.
‘I learned from Anne the value of a talent which I try to develop in myself. This talent is the ability to come to an understanding of ’the other’ and in doing so recognise them as the wonderful individual they have the capacity to be. Something happens in the process of being truly listened to in a warm, non-judgemental way, that creates space for the person being listened to explore what they think and how they want to be’.
4. The Cuckoo Child is the first of two pieces (the other being ….and there she stood’) which I wrote some time ago for the Conversation Café.
I am next going to include a piece of writing I completed for the Conversation
Café group. This, and The Cuckoo Child are about young people I have worked with in the last few years and demonstrate, I think, qualities which I use in my work in order to help young people grow and develop
In this piece I reflect that:
‘there are few things more pleasurable than knowing you have made a difference to a young person’s life and, in some small way, helped them find ‘their thing’’
5. In …and there she stood I tell the story of another student with whom I have worked:
‘What pleased me about both stories was the satisfactory dénouement. In both cases the young people concerned had-as I like to describe it-found ‘their thing’. Finding ‘one’s thing’ is the closest I have come to describing in a colloquial way the Buddhist concept of ‘mission’ as described here by Daiseku Ikeda in the continuation of the passage at the start of this essay (page 1).
‘Without doubt, you possess your special jewel, your own unique talent. In the same way each of us has a mission that only we can fulfil. That mission will not be found somewhere far away, in doing something special or extraordinary. Even those people who seem to have led great lives have really only done what they felt they had to do in order to truly be themselves. We realise our purpose in life by doing our very best where we are right at this moment, by thinking about what we can do to improve the lives of those right around us’
Ikeda, (2004, p41)
To return to those two young people I think that the part I played in them ‘finding their thing’ was down to my persistence and genuine determination to help them ‘be truly themselves’ in the way that I have described in my earlier piece ‘About Anne’
6. In How it works I explain how I bring together, with energy and enthusiasm, ideas which I have come across:
‘Does it resonate with values that I already hold? Does it put into words something I already believe but have had difficulty articulating? If any or all of these things are true then it’s definitely worth exploring and adding to my ‘map’ of the world.’
7. In Strength Wisdom and Compassion I describe the qualities which I bring to my work, reflect on how I try to keep them flowing and my determination to not slip into ‘critical’ mode.
This is the talent I work hardest at developing as for me this is the most difficult. It’s very easy to be critical of other people but I feel that I have failed myself if I slip into judging others. All labels are limiting, as I discussed earlier with regard to ‘gifted’, but perhaps even more so if they are pejorative labels such as ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’. I truly believe, that everyone has the capacity to grow and develop and ’find their thing’, or mission and so it is harmful to label them. . In making this point about being ‘critical’ I am not denying the importance of critical judgement. For example, the values I use in accounting to myself are critical standards I apply to my own life as I seek to improve my practice and generate knowledge. I am thinking here of values such as strength, wisdom and compassion.
My narratives have come to have several purposes during the course of the writing of this account. To begin with they are stories which stand on their own as snapshots of people, ideas or experiences. However, as with pictures in an exhibition for example, when viewed together they tell a bigger story as they amplify the values and beliefs inherent in them. I also know that pictures in an exhibition can take on new and deeper meanings when accompanied by explanatory text to provide context and signposts to the significance of certain elements.
I hope that these stories are of interest as illustrations of how I have come to recognise and develop the talents which I bring to my work as an educator. I have continued to find the process of writing about myself difficult and constantly question why anyone would want to know what I think. However I then remind myself that, just as I have a deep and abiding interest in other people, it is possible that others might have the same interest in me. In a recent email Jack Whitehead wrote to me:
‘I know I feel most privileged when others tell me stories about their lives that matter to them’ (email sent 30.12.08),
As I entirely agree with this I must relate it to myself as well as others!
Finally have I answered my question ‘How have I come to recognise and develop my own talents which I offer as my gift to my colleagues and pupils?’?
How I have come to do this has been through reflecting on my own experiences and looking at what I have learned from that reflection through the lens of theories about gifts, talents and education. My reflections and learning have enabled me to identify the talents as described at the beginning of this account, and which I will continue to nurture and offer as my gift to my colleagues and the pupils with whom I work.
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