Published in the ECHA Newsletter, Volume 25, no. 2, 2011, reprinted with permission.
From 8-12 August I visited the World Conference of the WCGTC, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, in Prague, Czech Republic. I learned a lot and met many nice and interesting people. Among them, the lovely Annette Heinbokel, editor of this Newsletter. We discussed learning, jokes in English, the “Wienerin in Madagaskar” (Google for Ida Pfeiffer, it’s an amazing story!), and much more. She asked me to write a piece for the ECHA Newsletter about my experiences in the conference.
I’ll start with a short introduction of myself. After studying physics and a few years of research in physics (education), I joined the Junior College Utrecht (JCU) for a job as education developer. The JCU is part of the Science Department of Utrecht University, and we collaborate with 29 secondary schools in the central part of the Netherlands. Together we develop teaching materials and pedagogical strategies for more challenging and engaging math and science teaching, in order to bridge the gap between school and university. Although we don’t use the concept of ‘giftedness’ as such, we are interested in promoting excellence. We test our materials in different programs, both at the schools and at university. The pupils in these programs are selected for their motivation and talent in math and science, and we use their experiences and feedback to improve our work.
One of the first things at the conference that struck me was the diversity of speakers and participants: there were academic researchers, teachers and teacher trainers, counsellors working with schools, teachers, parents or gifted children themselves, and policy makers working for government organisations, and from all around the world. I think this diversity is an important part of the conference, because people with different backgrounds and viewpoints can often learn from each other, and we need each other to make a difference. As Franz Mönks said in his keynote: no matter how sound the research and how good the plans, we need the attention and involvement of policymakers to get anything done. More generally, I think that to get a real and sustainable improvement in education, you need to have everybody on board: children, parents, teachers, curriculum developers, researchers, policymakers, school administrators… (Two years ago, a colleague and I presented a poster on that very subject at the ESERA conference for research in science and mathematics education. It shows our model of developing curriculum innovations and is available online via Slideshare.)
So diversity is great – but it may lead to everyone getting not really what they want. A lot of talks seemed to me to be somewhere between research talk and workshop with ready-to-use ideas. I saw lots of project presentations, where the speaker discusses the cool project they’re working on, and tell how great it is. Often they present some quantitative research as well, with the usual pre-test and post-test, experimental group and controls, p-values, correlation coefficients, etc. For me, those results can be hard to interpret, especially when it’s just one slide filled with a big table of numbers, and I didn’t always hear much of an explanation. What does it mean when the score on test A changed by 5% in the group ‘gifted’ and with 4% in the group ‘able’? And why did it change like that? Is there a plausible explanation? Or, to be more practical: what exactly did you do in your project that had a good effect, and that I could use in my own classroom?
The conference got me thinking about identification – both identifying the gifted, and identifying with the gifted. It struck me that so many people at the conference are themselves parents of gifted children: for them, the field is intensely personally relevant. (I wondered if there’s any data on that. Maybe an idea for a small research project?) This big personal relevance might increase the in-group feeling of “us against the world”: the outside world doesn’t understand what gifted children need, who they are, what they can and want… but we do! So there’s in a way a strong identification with the gifted.
On the other hand, a lot of research and a lot of talks were concerned with identifying and classifying the gifted (although I have to say that I also met a few fans of Borland’s ‘Gifted education without gifted children’). This classifying and labelling leads to the opposite of identification, the idea that ‘the gifted’ are qualitatively different, in almost every way, from us. See: the anecdote in a keynote about Steve Wozniak, who said he was popular as a kid, meaning he had three geeky friends. That’s a funny story: ‘normal’ kids wouldn’t say they’re popular with only three friends, right? And during the keynote by Gert Mittring, on mental calculation, I don’t think many audience members believed him when he said he could teach them to do calendar calculations (to find the day of the week for a random date) in an hour. I heard some incredulous laughter as the kids in the film calculated the square of 45 by using a trick that was explained by one of them on the blackboard: 45*45 = (40+5)*(40+5) = 40*40 + 2*5*40 + 5*5 = 40*40 + 10*40 + 25 = 50*40 + 25 = 2025. I don’t want to downplay the accomplishment, because it is remarkable what the mental calculators can do: they’re quick and creative in finding shortcuts and tricks for the calculations, and doing them all in their heads. But it’s maths, not magic.
The organisation of the event was fine, and I particularly liked the cakes in the coffee break! Of course Prague is a beautiful city, so that doesn’t hurt. A point of criticism then: some people who had their presentation accepted but didn’t register for the conference, did turn up in the conference book and on the schedule, even though they weren’t there in person. This caused all kinds of unannounced changes in the schedule of the parallel sessions, leading to people missing talks they wanted to attend. Apart from that, I missed a list with all the participants of the conference, with names, affiliations and maybe email addresses – but fortunately, many people are googleable nowadays. Overall, the conference had a nice friendly atmosphere, and I felt welcomed by the community. Many people seem really interested in what everybody else is doing. And although at some times it felt like everybody knew everybody else, people made sure I didn’t feel like an outsider for very long.