The Research Files Episode 56: John Munro on gifted education

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Hello, and thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I'm Rebecca Vukovic.

My guest today is Dr John Munro, a Professor of Educational Psychology and Exceptional Learning at The Australian Catholic University. He is also a trained primary and secondary teacher and a registered psychologist. We sat down in Melbourne to record this episode, and it's one I really think you're going to love. The conversation centres around gifted learners – in particular, how to identify these learners, how to understand their learning needs and how to encourage them to reach their potential in the classroom and beyond. John offers some really interesting insights and practical strategies for teachers as well, so let's get started.

Rebecca Vukovic: Dr John Munro, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

John Munro: Thanks very much for the invitation Rebecca.

RV: So we're here today to talk about gifted learners in the classroom and there's a lot I'd like to cover, but I thought we'd begin by discussing how to identify a gifted learner. So on a very basic level, in any given classroom, how does the knowledge of a gifted learner differ from that of other students?

JM: Yeah that's a really good question. When, as a teacher, I present some teaching I expect most of the students to basically convert the information to knowledge. I give them information because I want them to know things from that information. There are some children in a class who do more than that. They actually form an understanding that has much more in it than what I had in the original information. They infer various ideas, they make links with other aspects of their knowledge and they generate what you might call an intuitive theory, that's an intuitive theory of action about the teaching. It has in it, many more concepts, it also has in it, possibilities and options that weren't mentioned in the teaching, and that then leads to questions that these students have as well.

And different students will do that in different ways. Some students, when you're teaching a class, you can tell they're actually just a bit ahead of you all of the time, they're moving with you but they're ahead and it's as if they've tapped into the text of the teaching session and they've inferred what the idea is, where you're going, what you might be going to say next, and all the time, they're moving ahead. And so they end up, over a period of time, knowing more than the regular students.

Other students infer in time and place, they create an image of what it is that I'm talking about in my teaching and they make links with other imagery knowledge, in much the way that Einstein did, or Faraday or any of the great artists or poets. And they bring to the teaching, or they potentially can bring to the teaching situation, questions that would lead to … ‘yes but what about?', or ‘where does this fit in?', or ‘I don't think that's correct there'. So they're not gifted students who are moving ahead of the teaching, they've been much more lateral and they're moved in directions away from the teaching but they still have ended up with knowing more.

And then you have the students who are much more practically gifted who take your knowledge – or take the teaching that you're providing – and they embed it in real life situations and see all sorts of real life things happening. The problem that often arises in classrooms is that teachers don't recognise these types of interpretations. They don't actually see that some students are learning in these ways and teachers, when they do invite responses from these students, will often say, ‘yes, look it's not where we're going, you'll learn about it next year, it's irrelevant' and so on.

They won't see the value of, at that moment, valuing the students' knowledge and then actually bringing the whole class along with them. So, gifted knowing in the classroom is displayed by some students making higher level inferences and theories about what's being said that the other students are not doing. And most teachers will think about giftedness in terms of IQ. Now, why do these students have a higher IQ? Because all the time if their lives, they're making these inferences, they're going further, they're trying out their inferences. IQ tests, for example, measure vocabulary. These students have a richer vocabulary because they've taught themselves more words. But a lot of people think that IQ causes giftedness – it's a consequence.

RV: Yeah and it's also important to note that a gifted learner is different from a student who is just say able or bright, isn't it? And what are those differences?

JM: An able or bright student is really able to be programmed easily by the teaching. They will be just behind me. When I'm teaching (and I still do a lot of teaching with students) there are some students who are just behind you, they're waiting for your teaching but you know they can easily convert it to knowledge and they're going to end up benefitting really well from my teaching and they will bring back to my class tomorrow what I taught them today. The gifted students add more and that is a really important message, Rebecca. If I know to look for it, I will see more in their knowledge and a lot of that knowledge won't be certainty, but it will be possibility.

RV: Yeah and before we get into some of the more practical strategies, I thought we'd just take a moment to dispel some myths about gifted learners. So what are some of the common mistruths or perhaps stereotypes of a gifted learner?

JM: Well, and you've suggested some already, that are they are only the high achievers, that they are going to be very well behaved. A lot of the particularly non-verbally gifted students, or the practically gifted students, who don't see their knowledge being valued in the classroom are anything but well behaved, prepared to sit and be programmed. I remember on one occasion having a boy in Grade 6 referred to me (I'm a psychologist) for an assessment and the boy wasn't referred because he was seen as gifted, he was referred to me because it was in July that year and the teacher said he was so badly behaved he still hadn't learned to put up his hand to ask questions. He'd call out. Now, there were a whole lot of behaviours that he showed. [He's] a man now, he's one of the world's leading economists, he's based in Cambridge. Now, when he was referred to me, his teacher couldn't believe that he was gifted. Now he also had learning difficulties, he had spelling problems as well, but he wasn't seen as the stereotypic ‘gifted child'.

RV: Interesting. And I've also read that gifted learners can sometimes attract less attention than their peers in the classroom. They can kind of go under the radar. Is that true?

JM: Yes … because teachers often don't see, what we might call, their alternative ways of knowing, the teachers are looking for, often, evidence of what they've just taught coming out in knowledge and as long as the gifted child gives that back to the teacher, often the teacher will be satisfied with that. These children, they do go under the radar, but often they'll also mask their gifted knowledge. Sometimes it's threatening, for them, to display their knowledge, particularly if they know their alternative interpretations are not going to be valued or respected. Because there's always a bit of them in their knowledge. Whereas in a regular class situation, if I provide students with information that becomes knowledge, the students essentially give me back what I taught them. Whereas with the gifted children, there's actually a bit more of them in it and so they're sometimes much more vulnerable to their display of knowledge not being valued.

RV: Yeah and that kind of leads into my next question about goal setting and expectations for gifted learners. Do they tend to still set those high standards of themselves and are they known to set those realistic goals?

JM: Again, it's a really great question, and it's one that's hard to generalise about. A lot depends, so much, as in all areas of life, so much depends on the context in which the things are happening. It's hard, I really believe that it's hard for a gifted student to turn off how they think and learn. It's part of them, Rebecca. It's how they do things. Whether or not they display the goal setting or the outcomes of the goals in situations will often depend on how they read that situation and the sense of a situation potentially being threatening for them, is often a real option. Because, remember, these students are not only inferring about what I'm teaching, they're inferring about where things are going, they're inferring about what contexts might come up. A lot of these students really worry about issues in the world and often they worry about them at an abstract level because they don't have the experiential knowledge to know that things are going to be okay and are able to be dealt with.

So in all of these cases, I just find with that question, it's really hard to generalise because we have to take on board the culture the child is in at that point. The peer group culture, the family culture, the classroom culture, and what the child knows about whether or not it's appropriate for them to even display their goals; whether or not there could be a threat involved.

RV: I'm getting the point that there's a whole set of unique challenges that come with this. And I'm wondering, what are those challenges – not just in their work at school, but in the social and emotional aspects of their life as well?

JM: Yes, we learn most of our social ways of behaving and we're seen as being social individuals. If we're able to learn the rules for interacting – so, in the peer group, if you learn how to interact effectively with your peers, you'll be valued by the peers. You'll be invited to birthday parties. You'll be seen as being an able, valued member of the group. We're talking about a group of children who often are not only programmed by others, but are also strongly self-programming. That's what's making them actually gifted. They're going beyond what the programming is teaching and they're actually self-programming.

Now, often the balance goes much further where you have some students who are very much self-programming and not so much being programmed by others and so those students don't get to learn social ways of dealing with things. They don't stand back and watch. They tend to be more impulsive, they leap in, they're not aware that other students are not seeing things the way they are. And when other students say ‘you're wrong' or feel a bit uncomfortable, we're with these students, they don't know how to respond to that.

So, in terms of social situations, these students do have problems and in the area of giftedness we talk a lot about what's called ‘asynchronous development', when we think about someone developing, we think about them developing in multiple areas at once in a pretty even way and we call that ‘normal'. In terms of the gifted students, often they'll be much better developed in some areas than in others, because they haven't had a lot of experience with like-minded thinkers, with like-minded peers, and they've been interacting with peers who actually see the world differently. It's hard for them to establish, like their water level for where to interact safely and … a lot of these students, can find social interactions difficult in particular – it comes back to the contexts again – in particular contexts.

Coming up, we'll be hearing more from Dr John Munro, but first, here's a quick message from our sponsor.

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RV: And John, here at Teacher, we conduct a survey every year asking readers what topics they've like to see covered in the future. And this year, many educators asked specifically for strategies to improve engagement for gifted learners. So let's talk now about how educators go about teaching gifted students. Where do you suggest they begin?

JM: Probably the first thing is that the teacher needs to have some idea of what gifted knowing and thinking actually looks like. Because if they can't see it in the classroom, they're not going to be able to respond to it. And even if they attempt to put in place differentiated teaching, it's to some extent going to be robotic. It's as good as a machine actually doing it. So, the teacher needs to be aware that there will be some students in a class who end up knowing more than what they're actually teaching.

I was teaching a Year 8 class on digestion and we'd got as far as the stomach and I said to the students, ‘has anyone thought of anything I haven't mentioned? Any ideas that haven't been mentioned?' And I was standing near the whiteboard and one of the girls said, ‘yep how do the glands in the wall of your stomach know how much acid to squirt out to break down the food?' Now I, that question hadn't entered my mind. I had no idea and as I was standing near the whiteboard I grabbed a whiteboard marker and I said ‘okay, can you tell me more about why you think that?' Whenever I teach a group of kids, I'll ask that. ‘Did anyone think of anything I didn't mention?' And when students answer, some students will answer just to be funny, just to disrupt things, but some students will really have thought about ideas I haven't mentioned. And I'm asking that and I'm running a risk but I ask that just so I can allow those students who are prepared to share any intuitive theories with me.

And as I said, she said, ‘how do the walls of the stomach know how much acid to squirt out?' And I said, ‘look why do you think that?' And she said, ‘well, you told us that if you have too much acid in the stomach you'll get ulcers and if you don't have enough, you won't break down the food'. And yes, I'd said that. And she also said, ‘I could have had a Big Macca's yesterday and a salad today and I would need different amounts of acid being squirted out. Now I know I don't have ulcers, so how do I know? Do my eyes assess the food?' She starts to bring up options. ‘Do my eyes assess the food? Are there indicators in my stomach?' And she said, ‘and because I don't think' … and all this in 20 or 30 seconds … and she also said, ‘I don't do it consciously so somehow it happens unconsciously', so she was tapping into the autonomic nervous system, even though she didn't know it existed at that point. And as she was saying it I was sketching on the whiteboard, the stomach with the lettuce and tomatoes, and the stomach with the Big Macca's and I drew little showers and … I had to say, ‘look Gina I've got no idea. I've only been teaching 50 years. I've got no idea of the answer to that question, but we might know more about it in five minutes' time'.

Now I happened to be in the school on the next occasion that that Year 8 class had science and who students, in addition to Gina, had pursued it on the internet. So that display of the knowledge, bringing in the other children, me not saying, ‘look that's irrelevant, that's silly, learn about that in Year 11', valuing it at that moment and saying, ‘this is really interesting, what do we think about this guys? What do we know about this?' Because I'm sure it was just after lunch, I'm sure none of the students over lunchtime had actually thought about that. And it was a way of actually showing that her knowledge had relevance.

So, as far as the teaching is concerned, I believe teachers need to do this. If we think of a regular teaching session, really early in the piece I'll stimulate the students' existing knowledge for the topic. Then, I'll discuss with the group as a whole the key ideas. And then we'll have some time when the students practice the ideas, pursue them further and extend them. When I have the ‘stimulating their knowledge' phase, I can notice those students who can tell me more complex questions that they think might be answered by the topic. I can say, ‘what ideas do you think we'll be talking about?' A lot of students will give me a list of regular ideas, some students will give me many more ideas. So I can see gifted knowing really before I begin the teaching. While I'm teaching the group of kids, I can embed in my teaching, in my 15 or 20 minutes of discussion, I can embed high level inferential questions. I can embed questions that ask students to tell me what they think the topic is. So I can embed in my teaching, and we have in our work about eight types of questions that we embed in our teaching that all the students can respond to but that some of the students will respond to in a much more elaborate way.

Then, when we come to look at the topic we're learning – if it were photosynthesis, I could have the regular children all pursuing the work that we've looked at, how leaves use light to make sugars and give out oxygen. But with those students who are in my class who I know are gifted, I can give them higher levels of that. I can ask them to think about how photosynthesis might happen in plants that grow under the water. If a tree is under a street light, is it likely to age quicker because it's photosynthesising more? I can have all sorts of topics that will allow my gifted students to pursue not the regular topic that all the children are learning, but a higher level one. And the last two or three minutes of my lesson, I can have all the students tell me what do they know now that they didn't know at the beginning of the lesson. And the gifted students will be able to tell me about possibilities and questions that I probably wouldn't have thought of.

I've got lots of examples of where I've been teaching a group of kids and that's how I would actually go about differentiating my teaching.

RV: And John I've read that gifted learners often express a mismatch between how they prefer to learn and how they're actually taught in the classroom. So, I was wondering how teachers can overcome that.

JM: I think if you know that you have gifted students in your class, it really makes sense to ask them how they prefer to learn. In one school that I was working in, two or three years ago, we videoed about 30 (there were about 300 boys in Year 8), we videoed about 30 boys each having 20 seconds to say to their teachers how they preferred to learn and how they would like to be taught in the future. We videoed what the boys said and shared it with their teachers for next year. The gifted students, because they know that they're learning differently, are often what you might call ‘naïve philosophers' – they've put together a theory about how they learn and many of them would love to share that knowledge, to have the opportunity to do that and we don't often give these students a voice in being able to do it.

RV: I'd like to change tack a little bit and I'd like to talk now about gifted learners with a disability or twice exceptional students – could you briefly explain what a twice exceptional student is and some of their general traits?

JM: Yes, this is a really important question because when you look at the history of the vast majority of disciplines that underpin what we teach at school, the most creative people in those disciplines were twice exceptional. Twice exceptional refers to students who are both gifted and who have another learning difficulty, or a difficulty learning. When I teach a group of children and if you imagine the bell curve, 70 per cent of the children are close to the mean, they're within one standard deviation of the mean on the bell curve. My teaching, without me differentiating it, usually targets that group.

Now, we mentioned earlier about students being programmed externally, being able to learn from the teaching. Two key subjects that the students have to learn from a very early age are literacy and numeracy. And you learn literacy and numeracy from your culture. If I write ‘CAT' on the board and you say ‘dog' or ‘rabbit', you haven't been programmed by your culture. There are some students who are not easily programmed externally and so they end up having literacy learning difficulties. And we know that a main cause of literacy learning difficulties is what we call phonological or phonemic learning skills, and they really relate to how a child thinks analytically about their language.

A lot of gifted students are gifted because they're not programmed externally. They're much more likely to, as we said earlier, to be self-programming. Now, that means, when they come to learn literacy, they have real difficulty learning to read and to write and to communicate or to use maths effectively. That impacts in the classroom on how they actually go about learning in literacy-type ways and also how they see themselves as learners. So they are the students, or they can be the students, who are both gifted and who have, for example, dyslexia or dyscalculia or dysgraphia. In some ways, it is easy to explain. My teaching, whenever I teach a group of kids, I assume they're going to be programmed by my teaching. The students who are easily programmed will learn well and … they won't have learning difficulties.

One of the issues that arises from twice exceptional students is, often, their learning difficulty masks their giftedness. They have real difficulties actually showing their knowledge and this is particularly true for the children who are either non-verbally gifted, or those who are practically gifted. They are the ones who are much more self-programming, able to do amazing things in their head but not learn from others. Some children who are twice exceptional have particular emotional problems. But to some extent those emotional problems can arise, again, through how they're programmed externally, what they learn about their world. In the case of some students, the second learning exceptionality, the learning difficulty, can come from physiological, biochemical, processes in the body.

But the twice exceptional students are ones who have an additional learning exceptionality and it's really important that I, as a teacher, give those students the opportunity to show their knowledge in other ways. We talk about multimodal ways of displaying their knowledge, allowing them to draw, or me as a teacher saying, ‘Rebecca, tell me what you see in your mind. Or draw it. Or act it out. Do things with it.' Because often that will allow the person who is twice exceptional to show their higher level thinking and understanding. And then of course the next step is that they can learn to write and whatever. And these days we have so many facilities for these students.

RV: And it's also about ensuring that students are given the appropriate level of challenge as well.

JM: The challenge is really important. And being able to set, or for me as a teacher, being able to do high expecting – being preparing to say ‘hey, that's great. I never thought of that. But what about …?', or ‘where does this fit in?', or ‘how does that link with this?', or ‘do you think it might go there?' I could encourage my students to dig more deeply in their brains, to look at ideas from other perspectives and these students really value that.

RV: And John I've been thinking a lot about gifted learners and feedback. Is there a particular way that teachers should give feedback to gifted learners that avoids that peer comparison?

JM: Yeah but as teachers, all the time, the feedback we give should, it should recognise what it is that the person knows. It should have some positive emotion in it so the students link positive emotion with the ideas, but also there should be a bit of direction – ‘but what about?', ‘where might it go next?', or ‘why do you think that?' So in terms of giving feedback to the gifted students, we need to bear in mind what we're giving feedback for.

In a regular classroom, I will give feedback when child has taken the information and given it back to me, when they've shown they've learned it. With a gifted child, I also need to give feedback … by looking for what they know now. Not how well has the teaching worked, because these students have actually gone a whole lot further than the teaching. And so I need to have them know that they'll get feedback for telling me all that they know or believe about ... what is their theory about it? What are the possibilities that they see? And I need to be prepared to give feedback for that. I will give feedback for that to any student, but I know the gifted students will be able to do that much better.

RV: And just finally, I'm interested in hearing more about the role of parents in all of this. Is there anything they need to be particularly mindful of?

JM: The greatest thing is just, I know it sounds really trite, but just that they love their child and they support their child and they want the best for their child. They need to be aware that their gifted child is going to face challenges in a range of directions, in a range of areas. The parents really need to be accepting of their child. And really, I know we talk a lot about unconditional positive regard, but as a parent myself I know that with my children I have to give them unconditional positive regard in the vast majority of areas of their lives. There may be one or two areas where I wouldn't but, generally, I would be wanting them to know. Because if they can't be themselves with me … and if there are times when they need to stop the world for 20 seconds and take back something or do something differently – which is important for the gifted students – and if they need to have time to learn how to plan and do things differently and to see options for themselves, I need to give them that time.

So from a parent angle, I know that there will be very few other situations in which someone will stop the world for my child and say, ‘we can replay that. You've got time to think. You've got time to plan.' And these students really need it. That notion that I mentioned earlier of asynchronous development is really important. The gifted children will often feel insecure about things that regular children won't. Because they'll be thinking of all sorts of possibilities that the other children aren't. I have to encourage my child to share those things with me and be prepared to talk and I have to be a very good listener and I also have to acknowledge that I don't know. The worst thing for a gifted child, I believe, would be to have a parent who knew everything because that's not how the gifted child works. And the second worst thing would be to have a teacher who operated in that way.

RV: So interesting. Well, John thank you so much for your time. Dr John Munro thanks for sharing your insights with Teacher magazine.

JM: Thank you very much for inviting me Rebecca, I've really enjoyed it, thank you.

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Think about your own teaching. How often do you ask students: ‘Did anyone think of anything I didn’t mention?’

How often do you liaise with gifted learners about the ways they’d like to be taught in your classroom? What impact does this have on their engagement in your lessons?

How do you work to ensure that gifted learners in your class are given the appropriate level of challenge, and opportunities to display their knowledge and learning?