Gifted learners are too often missing in action within the inclusion framework, says education researcher Dr Louise Tapper.
Inclusion has such a positive ring to it. It is a ‘feel good’ word, a warm fuzzy – as opposed to its opposite, exclusion. I am sure that our young (and sometimes not so young) teachers don’t go into teaching to ‘exclude’ any of the children in their classrooms. On the contrary, it is my experience that teacher trainees have the highest of ideals when they set foot inside our teacher education institutions. They want to make a difference in children’s lives; to be that other significant person, along with a parent, who helps to guide their charges along the right course; to make sure that all children in their classes are catered for and supported – and, yes, included.
Teacher educators, too, are guided by an inclusive philosophy from our Ministry of Education (MOE) which has an overriding goal to “lift aspiration and raise educational achievement for every New Zealander”. This inclusive focus is outlined in greater detail on the MoE’s Inclusive Education Community website on Te Kete Ipurangi, where it is stated that inclusive education means that:
“All children and young people are engaged [at school] and achieve through being present, participating, learning and belonging.”
and that an inclusive school is one where:
“Students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed and their learning needs are addressed”.
So why am I beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable that when courses at teacher education institutions have words such as ‘inclusive’ or ‘diversity’ or ‘children with special learning needs’ in their prescriptions, these same courses frequently do not actually include anything about the special learning needs of gifted and talented students? It seems that ‘inclusive education’ increasingly means ‘including students with special educational needs’, as long as those ‘special educational needs’ are aligned to some kind of disability.
Of course, it could be argued that all students have special educational needs at some time or other in their educational experiences. It is certainly vital that all students are included to the extent that they are provided with appropriate educational opportunities and support. However, it is also realistic to recognise that some of our students, such as those with disabilities, are ‘priority learners’ and that for them inclusion (to the extent that their needs are being appropriately met) in the activities of a mainstream classroom is not always as straightforward as it is for other students. Thus, it is equitable that there is a raft of courses at New Zealand’s teacher education institutions in areas around supporting children with learning, behavioural and physical disabilities.
Inclusion and the gifted learner
But if we are to truly adhere to the MOE’s inclusive philosophy, it should be recognised that gifted learners are priority learners too. Gifted learners, too, have special educational needs. Inclusion is about belonging, about a respect for the uniqueness of every individual, about equity. A truly inclusive and equitable philosophy would support the view that, along with those students who have special education needs related to a disability,
“Gifted and talented children and youth have a right to be acknowledged, recognised and catered for within New Zealand’s inclusive education system” – – giftEDnz, 2015 Position Statement
The three national associations working to support gifted and talented children and young people in Aotearoa New Zealand – giftEDnz, NZAGC and NZCGE – periodically release joint position statements on issues relating to gifted education. In September 2017, a new joint position statement on supporting effective professional learning and development in gifted education was released. In this statement, we maintain that catering for the special educational needs of gifted learners should be included in teacher education courses, both at pre-service and post-service level. Our argument, outlined in this statement, is that:
“Sufficient depth of understanding about pedagogy in gifted education will strengthen the capabilities of teachers and leaders to integrate effective and fully inclusive practices within their schools and centres.”
So are inclusive education courses really ‘inclusive’?
Paradoxically, I was informed by the director of one teacher education programme (when I asked) that the philosophical stance of the MOE’s inclusion framework means not specifying courses aimed at a designated area of disability or ability (for example, not offering a course specifically aimed at teaching students with dyslexia, teaching students who are hearing impaired, or teaching students who are gifted) because such areas are included under the broad category of ‘inclusive education’. Yet an online search of New Zealand teacher education programmes brings up a plethora of courses on quite specific topics including dyslexia, the autism spectrum, challenging behaviours, at risk readers, supporting students from different cultural backgrounds, suggesting that targeted courses are in fact, happening. But, at the same time, there are very, very few courses offered on meeting the needs of gifted learners. And the prescription provided for ‘inclusive education’ courses at teacher education institutions in Aotearoa New Zealand is commonly along the lines of “supporting the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities in mainstream educational and community settings”.
It seems that, in New Zealand’s teacher education and professional development provision the rhetoric for ‘inclusive education’ is around developing “teachers’ knowledge and skills in supporting the academic and social development of students with diverse learning needs” – but then there are very few courses available that align with this principle but support the diverse learning needs of gifted children.
So, where are the gifted and talented learners in teacher education courses on ‘inclusive education’? It seems that this group of learners with special educational needs are too often missing in action within the inclusion framework. Further, courses on literacy and numeracy for teacher trainees seem to frequently have a focus on learners who are struggling in these areas. But is there a course section included on the high ability reader? On the exceptional mathematician?
Inclusion or exclusion – where to next?
I am concerned that gifted learners are, in fact, being excluded in such courses and that teacher trainees are therefore ill-prepared to support – and thus, include – gifted and talented learners in their classes when they begin teaching. Without training in the area of gifted education, there is a risk of teacher practice around educating gifted children being influenced by misunderstandings and stereotypes that have no basis in evidence based-research and theory.
The inclusive philosophy is an admirable one and there is no doubt that this philosophy aims to ensure the well-being of all learners in our schools and centres. Inclusive practices are emphasised in New Zealand’s [email protected] project, which argues for
“A deep pro-active approach to creating a climate of inclusiveness and respect for cultural and other forms of diversity”.
This pro-active approach around inclusive practice could be further supported if teacher trainees are exposed to an understanding of the needs of the diverse group who are the gifted and talented learners in our schools and centres. Although inclusion is widely adhered to as a theory, in practice I suggest that many teacher education providers might like to self-evaluate their ‘climate of inclusiveness’ when they structure their courses, in order to safeguard the well-being of all learners.
Support needed at policy level
Finally, I would argue that a lack of support at governmental and ministry policy level around promoting the needs of gifted and talented children and young people hinders the development of pre-and post-service courses in this field at teacher education institutions. As Riley and Bicknell (2013, p.2) conclude,
“…the support for gifted and talented education by the [New Zealand] Ministry of Education has declined, with cuts to funding and support since 2009”.
In fact, Riley went further in a recent blog post claiming that, despite mandated policy around catering for their needs (NAG 1,c iii), gifted learners in New Zealand have become “invisible”. Greater support at governmental level is needed in order to enable teacher educators to include professional learning that prepares teacher trainees with the skills needed to provide for the special educational needs of gifted learners.
Note: My personal observations of teacher education providers are couched in general terms and I am not referring to any one particular institution in Aotearoa New Zealand. These ideas encompass my overall impressions about the lack of appropriate coverage from the majority of providers. I accept that there is variable provision nationally.
This article originally appeared in Dr Tapper’s blog written for Ipu Kerereu The Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education.