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PISA2018 2.4 Selective Schools and Exceptional Students

As is made clear elsewhere and in earlier writings, in PISA studies and not least in the study by Hong Son Nghiem (referred to in Part 3), independent schools deliver no advantage. Selective schools continue to be favoured, recently by NSW. Studies of selective schools are designed to appeal to “distinguished’” or high achievers. The argument has to be that through this they will go on to achieve to a higher level than they would otherwise. The research by Ho and Bonnor referred to earlier in respect of Indigenous students reveals them instead as hubs of concentrated advantage that contribute to growing inequality.

Comprehensive public schools which accept all who seek to enrol comprise a diverse mix of students and “not only retain their high-achieving students, and families committed to quality education, but they are better able to give all students the invaluable education that comes from learning side by side with peers from all backgrounds and all ability levels. Gaining an understanding and appreciation of this kind of diversity is one of the greatest gifts that schooling can offer our children and our society” as Ho and Bonnor point out.

In the environment of selective schools, “small children will feel pressure to maintain expectations placed on them at a very young age, while parents will feel more pressure to tutor their kids to get them into [such] primary schools.” Families can spend huge sums of money to coach their children for entrance exams. In New York, The Guardian’s Lucy Clark reported, “a citywide selective elementary schools program offers free accelerated learning to the city’s smartest kids whose academic brilliance is allegedly established by a standardised gifted and talented test taken as young as four … a whole industry in prepping and tutoring toddlers for the exam has sprung up. Toddlers can be signed up for two years of “academic enhancement”, parents can attend admissions workshops to get advice about how maximise their child’s chances, their three-year-olds can take practice exams, answering hundreds of questions that will prepare them for the test. This is open to all children of all backgrounds, but of course the expense of prep means access to this stream becomes less about being gifted and talented, and more about being wealthy and tutored.”

Wendy Berliner of the Education Media Centre questions the fixation with IQ. The proposition that specially gifted children can be recognized an early age and go on to fulfil those dreams is not true. The notion of the “gifted child” is highly contested. “The latest neuroscience and psychological research suggest most people, unless they are cognitively impaired, can reach standards of performance associated in school with the gifted and talented. However, they must be taught the right attitudes and approaches to their learning and develop the attributes of high performers – curiosity, persistence and hard work, for example – an approach Deborah Eyre (co-author with Berliner of Great Minds and How to Grow Them) calls “high performance learning”. Critically, they need the right support in developing those approaches at home as well as at school. Lewis Terman, a pioneering American educational psychologist, set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who excelled in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman expected they would. But he did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both physicists – whom he dismissed from the study as their test scores were not high enough.

There is a canon of research on high performance, built over the last century, that suggests it goes way beyond tested intelligence. On top of that, research is clear that brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged, and IQ isn’t fixed. Just because you can read Harry Potter at five doesn’t mean you will still be ahead of your contemporaries in your teens, Clark says.

Great Minds and How to Grow Them points out that children of advantaged families talk of the need to work hard and listen in class because education was a way to a better life. They referenced key adults in their lives who had encouraged these attitudes.

Children in poor home-learning environments talked of school success being down to ability and a sense of helplessness in the face of lessons they found hard. They didn’t think keeping going and working hard could make them improve, they though it was out of their control because they weren’t good enough.

Most people can reach levels of performance usually associated with the gifted and talented. The right attitudes and approaches, to their learning, which can be taught, are important, Berliner says. These are the attributes of high performers – curiosity, persistence and hard work. Winner of the Fields Prize for mathematics and Stanford Professor at age 31, the late Maryam Mirzekhani, did not show evidence of math brilliance when young but she did show curiosity and excitement by what she did. Albert Einstein was unexceptional in his youth; he valued character over intellect, he persisted.

A review by Benjamin Bloom for the UNESCO International Bureau of Education found “what was important in education was not that students should be compared, but that they should be helped to achieve the goals of the curriculum they were studying. Goal attainment rather than student comparison was what was important”. Bloom’s team looked at a group of extraordinarily high achieving people in disciplines as varied as ballet, swimming, piano, tennis, maths, sculpture and neurology, and interviewed not only the individuals but their parents, too. He found a pattern of parents encouraging and supporting their children, in particular in areas they enjoyed themselves.

When successful people reflect on their life they often mention the influence of a significant adult.