Catherine Rawlinson and Robyn Boswell: Students, teachers need support

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Gifted learners are found in every classroom, in every school and across all cultures and socio-economic groups.

The Budget has removed support for professional development in gifted education, which has previously been available to teachers. Those of us who work in this field are deeply concerned about the risk these funding cuts pose to meeting the needs of gifted and talented students in schools.

Many years of advocacy by parents and educators finally resulted in a government commitment, gazetted in the National Administration Guidelines in 2005, to require schools to identify and cater for the range of gifted and talented students in each school. This commitment resulted in positive outcomes for a wide range of learners in many schools. We are proud of what has been achieved so far.

Indeed, New Zealand has a growing reputation internationally as a leader of in-school provisions for gifted and talented learners. At numerous national and international conferences in the past few years, gifted education advisers and academics have received international acclaim.

New Zealand is praised for its strong professional development that has built a much-needed knowledge and skills base for school administrators and teachers in classrooms. Next month, researchers are presenting papers at the World Conference for Gifted and Talented in Vancouver, highlighting New Zealand's unique approach in supporting teachers and resulting in improved educational outcomes for our young and gifted. Feedback from a paper presented in Paris last year confirmed and reflected the respect of experts from other countries.

New Zealand teams in the International Future Problem Solving programme, a programme for gifted students, have achieved outstanding results. Affiliate directors from other countries, who are all gifted educators, ask what it is that makes our students so successful.We are able to point to the support that teachers have been given to raise the achievement of their students to a high international level.

There is now a serious risk that teachers will not be adequately supported to cater for their gifted learners, who comprise a significant proportion (10 to 15 per cent across a range of learning areas) of the students in their classes. Ironically, this comes when practices supporting gifted learners underpin the directions in the recently released New Zealand curriculum.

Teachers work hard to provide for all the learners in their classrooms, but teaching gifted students requires specific knowledge, skills and strategies. Gifted students often have a wide range of variance in cognitive, social, emotional and physical development, and tailored learning techniques are needed to support their individual strengths and interests. Although there is evidence of an increasing number of teachers taking an active interest in this area, the 2008 Education Review Office report, School's Provisions for Gifted and Talented Students, indicates there is a very real need for ongoing quality professional development for all teachers. It is therefore illogical that in spite of best evidence from its own reviewers, the Government will cut professional development funding from December.

The cornerstone of successful provision for the gifted has been in-depth, in-school professional development. Losing this piece of the puzzle jeopardises future provision. It is unfair to assume that teachers can cater for these students in their classrooms with little or no specific professional support. Given that a significant amount of research shows it is a myth that gifted students will make it on their own, it seems indefensible that we are condemning many of our brightest students to mediocrity or even failure because their teachers' best efforts are not being supported by the highest quality of funded professional development.

It is every student's right to a personalised education, but without professional development for their teachers, many of our young and gifted are at an increased risk of spending their days in a learning environment which is not tailored to meet their individual needs and does not provide them with sufficient, high level challenges.

We have seen the remarkable difference that teachers can make for these students when they receive quality professional learning support. Our gifted students and their teachers deserve this support.

* Dr Catherine Rawlinson is a senior lecturer in education. Robyn Boswell, QSM, is a gifted education facilitator at the faculty of education, University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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