Group kids by ability and subject not age, says gifted-education professor

Thinking ahead: Let children with higher intellects break free of age groupings, says Miraca Gross. Flickr/ACPL.

Schoolchildren should be classed by intellectual ability in subject groupings rather than lumped together according to age, says Miraca Gross, the University of New South Wales’ Professor of Gifted Education.

In the interview below, Professor Gross says that grouping kids by chronological age is the product of an impractical view of human development. She also says that gifted kids often physically develop faster and that they deserve their own specialist schools just as much as highly musical or athletic kids do. After two decades at the University of NSW, Professor Gross retires at the end of this year.


Miraca Gross, Professor of Gifted Education, School of Education, Director of the Gifted Education Research, Resource and Information Centre (GERRIC), University of New South Wales

How do you identify a gifted child?

In Australia we’re very good at identifying kids who have high ability in sport, athletics, music, and we’re pretty good at art. Where we’re not so good is identifying kids who are academically talented.

Most of us agree on what musical giftedness is - they can play well - same with art, same with sport, same with athletics. But there is controversy over what we mean by academically gifted: do we mean someone who is performing very well academically in class, or someone who has the capacity to perform well but for some reason isn’t doing it? And then we have the kid who is very bright but has a learning disability like dyslexia who can think very well but has extreme trouble getting stuff down on paper. That kid may be very, very, intellectually able but her disability is blocking the translation of her intellect into into performance.

It’s an interesting area and it’s fraught with difficulties. If we were talking about intellectual disability you wouldn’t be asking me if one flash-in-the-pan indication that a kid is struggling would mean that he is intellectually disabled.

So what we’re looking for is, across a reasonable period of time, the child showing that she thinks at a level more like kids who are older, or the child who has flashes of insight that she’s able to share with her teacher. It’s a pattern.

Very bright kids often start reading before the entry to school. That’s a very good indicator because the parents can’t sit a four-year-old up on a couch to read. If the kid is able to read she’s able to read. So if you’ve got a kid in kindergarten or preschool who’s a very fluent reader - quite a bit beyond the level of age-peers - that’s a very good indication of high intellectual ability. Also if she spontaneously teaches herself basic maths, addition and subtraction, that’s a good indicator. Kids who are very bright and very intellectually, academically, mature for their age can be good candidates for acceleration.

How should schoolchildren be grouped for classes?

Unfortunately, schools are organised by age rather than subject areas. In secondary school you’ve got departments which are organised by subject or by discipline, so you’ll have the maths department or the science faculty, the English faculty or foreign language faculty. However, there is quite strong organisation by chronological age: 12-year-olds are educated separately to 13-year-olds. It’s not so much that slaves to tradition as [that we are] taking a view that all children of a certain age are going to be at the same developmental level - and that’s just not a practical view to take. Some kids who are in years four to five at school are as mature as a year 6 kid; we want to be able to make her a member of a year 6 class because she wouldn’t have any difficulty with that level of academic work.

In sport and athletics, weight, size, and height have a direct impact on how the kid is going to perform. But in academic work, weight, size, and height don’t make any difference at all. For example, if you’ve got a kid in year 7 who is very bright at maths, his size doesn’t make a darn of difference. If we’re dealing with the education of kids who are intellectually retarded, we don’t look at their height: we look at their capacity to learn and we compare that with the capacity to learn of an average kid. Equally with gifted kids, we don’t say OK I’d love to think about putting this kid up to the grade above but he’s still only average height for his age. We shouldn’t worry about that. We’ve got to be awfully careful when we’re looking at one sort of definition of kids and using it compare to average kids or intellectually disabled kids, that we don’t make comparisons that are not necessary or valid.

Are intellectually advanced kids emotionally mature enough to cope socially when they are jumped up levels?

Emotional maturity in kids tends to be correlated with their intellectual ability rather than their chronological age. A kid who is six but is more like an eight-year-old in the way she thinks is probably more like a seven or eight-year-old in the way she feels. Just like with the intellectually disabled kids: a kid who is 10 but thinks like an eight-year-old generally feels more like an eight year old. With kids, the way they think - the self-talk - and they they feel are very closely correlated - much more so than how it is in adulthood.

Do gifted kids get bullied when they land in a class of older children?

Their reception by an older peer group largely depends on how the older kids have been prepared by the school for the arrival of younger kids in their midst. What many schools do is give the younger child visiting-rights in the older classroom for a few weeks. Say you’ve got a year 5 class and there’s going to be a year 4 kid, a younger kid, coming up to be in that class - what the school often does is say “OK, the younger child will visit the older class on Fridays.” Then when the older class adjusts to that, they say, “OK, what if we have Madeline with us on Thursdays and Fridays, rather than just Fridays?” And the older kids say, “OK, why not?” It’s the psychology of getting the older class to adjust to the younger child that gets rid of the danger of bullying.

We do it in sports teams. A child who has greater aptitude in sport can be playing with the older kids, and after the first surprise of “Oh, there’s a younger kid here,” they see how well she can play and it’s no big deal. It’s exactly the same with the academics. If the older kids see that the younger kid isn’t going to slow things down and be useless, they’ll say, “OK, that’s no big deal.”

Is the age divide more problematic if the older peers are reaching puberty?

That’s less of a problem than people think. This is going to sound strange, but there’s a lot of research than shows this. Girls who are intellectually very bright menstruate earlier than their age peers. Boys who are very, very bright also have primary and secondary sexual changes coming a little bit early. We don’t know quite why that is but we have known it for the best part of 100 years. You tend to find that if you’re allowing a girl to accelerate [up levels at school] you’re putting her in with kids with whom she’s going to start having her periods at about the same time rather than early, and that works well.

Are teachers generally smart enough to do the best for gifted kids?

It’s not so much the intelligence of the staff as how much they know about gifted education and gifted kids. If I was the principal of a school and I was going to accelerate a kid into a class above, I would put her in with a teach who already knows something about gifted kids and is not going to work on stereotypes but rather is going to work on sensible expertise. More and more teachers now have training in gifted education. My centre alone, GERRIC, over the last 20 years has trained almost 2000 teachers in an 80-contact-hour course. I would like to see the good things that are happening, happening in every school across the state, and across the country.

Do gifted children come from gifted parents?

In general, yes. Sometimes children who are very slow have parents of average ability, but sometimes children who are very slow come from parents who are slow learners. Sometimes you find a gifted child comes from a family of fairly average ability but often you find a gifted child coming from a family where the parents are very bright, too. There’s no absolute rule. If parents are not particularly interested in fostering a child’s abilities, the child might not feel permitted to show that she thinks very well.

The most important thing for parents is not to be worried if their child is not showing the same developmental stages as other kids but is going through them faster. Some parents worry a bit that if their child is talking earlier than some other children that they may burn out in later life. That’s just not true. They don’t need to worry.

How important a measure is IQ?

IQ is enormously important in helping us understand whether a child is intellectually delayed or intellectually advanced. So if a school or teacher thinks that a child might be developmentally delayed and is progressing much slower than usual they will get a psychologist to give the child an IQ test, because that allows us to see the degree of slowness that the child has. Similarly, if a child’s progressing faster than usual, intellectually, it’s a good idea to give an IQ test because that gives us a measure of how much beyond her age peers she really is. If a child has an IQ of 120 that means she’s in the top 10% in her capacity to think. In music, art, sport, we don’t calculate enhancement with IQ, but with intellectual ability the IQ test is a very, very useful instrument: not just to see if the child is bright, but how bright the kid is, and how far beyond her classmates she really is. It enables us to present the child with a curriculum that suits her needs rather than one that is designed for just most kids.

Was the push a decade or so ago to spread the study of philosophy in schools an example of a curriculum suited to gifted kids?

The philosophy for children movement was generally regarded as something that was good for most, if not all, kids. Certainly children who were keen, analytical, evaluative thinkers, probably got more out of philosophy for schools, but I certainly wouldn’t want an enrichment program like philosophy for schools to be kept only for the gifted kids. It’s not a matter of giving gifted kids entertaining, challenging, satisfying curriculum as if the others are getting a boring, unchallenging, unsatisfying curriculum. That’s the last thing we’d want to see happen.

Have you noticed a change in the incidence of gifted children over the years?

I haven’t seen a greater incidence of gifted kids, just like I haven’t seen a greater incidence of intellectually disabled kids over the years but I have seen a greater awareness of the needs of developmentally disabled kids and gifted kids. Teachers are much more aware than they were 20 years ago of the range of individual differences in our classrooms and they’re much more responsive to that range.

Is there merit in having separate schooling for gifted kids?

I wouldn’t think of selective schools as separate schools. There is the Conservatorium High School which is a school for children who have towered in music and the performing arts. We don’t talk about that as if it is segregation, because we accept that for kids who have got certain types of talent they may need to have a special education. In NSW we’ve also got schools for kids who have talent in sport and in athletics and we don’t worry too much about the separateness of schooling for that, so why shouldn’t we have schools for kids who’ve got particular aptitudes in what’s extremely serious: maths, English, science, languages? That doesn’t worry me; I don’t think of it as separate education. I think of it as special education with a curriculum designed for kids who differ in a particular way. For gifted kids that means faster learning and learning at a higher level of complexity.

Comments welcome below.