gifted education

What makes a gifted student?

At the SMH Education Summit earlier in 2024 the Education Minister of NSW, Prue Car, announced a new policy to cater for high-potential and gifted students. While well-intended, the number of schools hosting Opportunity Classes increased without changing the total number of competitive places, still only 1840. Yet, the total number of children who sat the entry tests in 2023, was around 15,300. A shift in places will make no change for those students who are missing out and cannot get the support they seek.

The announcement made for an eye-catching headline, but in terms of policy, it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Frustratingly, there have been few changes in Gifted Policy in more than 30 years, specifically since the introduction of KLAs in 1991. Core to this problem is that gifted students fit outside the “mythical middle” that most, if not all, current educational practices attempt to cater to.  

Motherhood statements

Mantras of acceptance and diversity are motherhood statements that articulate aspirations acted on in varying degrees. An underlying culture of inertia is unhelpful in creating disruption or change to the status quo: The postcodes have changed, and cards have been shuffled, but the problem (and the deck) remains the same.

What’s policy got to do with it?

It appears that policy has little to contribute to connecting theory with practice given that we are still working with a policy and ideas that are essentially three decades old. There is an obvious disconnect between the policy messages, the reality of what students need, an ever-evolving social world, and what is happening in our classrooms. 

An additional point missed by those who have commented on Car’s announcement is the assumption that these places, no matter the postcode, are for gifted and high-potential students. This belief overlooks the performance-based culture of our education system. 

We must make considerable progress in translating good intentions into meaningful educational change.

Why is performance not the most important thing? Who are the gifted?

In this country, performance doesn’t always reflect ability. In many instances, performance reflects opportunities, much of which is afforded by private funding and unequally distributed wealth. While some gifted students will succeed in their application for government-funded opportunities, i.e. opportunity classes, many will miss out as their peers will be selected based on their performance – oftencoached and honed through parent-funded tutoring. This effectively dismisses potential and provides further opportunities for those with the funding and external provisioning to achieve academic success. 

Historically, gifted appears to be linked to diverse education principles, which are characterised by diagnoses that can act as enablers and barriers to students fulfilling their potential. Gifted education policies in NSW still refer to the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) as a way of aligning these documents with an equitable ethos of education.  Unfortunately, this source document does not mention ‘giftedness’, ‘talent’, ‘high potential’, or ‘twice-exceptionality’. Therefore, outside of students whose achievement is so significantly masked by disability, no additional provisions need to be  offered. 

Outstanding promise

Gifted students have outstanding promise to contribute to Australia’s intellectual capital and growth. Yet, they are left behind as the opportunities espoused for gifted students are, in fact, for students who perform, regardless of whether they fit the definition of gifted.  

Likewise, with the search for one definition of giftedness, there is no agreed-upon understanding of gifted education. Subjects’ syllabuses cite potential considerations for gifted and talented students. Numerous documents, such as the Gifted and Talented programs in the NSW Department of Education and several Independent schools, cite Gagne’s theory of giftedness and talent as a core model. Some of the more useful, such as the position paper to the Newman Gifted Selective Program of Sydney Catholic Schools, cite a series of observable identifiers for giftedness in children, as a starting point for investigating the capacities of individual students.  

What can be done?

To recommend another model, a reshuffling of an archaic policy, or indeed another policy change is unlikely to make a difference to the education and success of gifted students. That’s particularly true  if it is interpreted without expertise, not systematically implemented, or worse, shelved entirely. 

A system for procedures and strategies must be collaboratively developed, widely publicised, and implemented with support. 

There must also be more accessible professional learning opportunities for teachers to understand that giftedness is not an all-in-one-encompassing definition. 

Nearly half of our teachers have no experience with gifted students

Despite the extensive resources and information available in the current DET HPGE policy, 47% of teachers still report that they have no experience with gifted or high-potential students (NSW Department of Education, 2023). This demonstrates that policy alone is not the solution. Changing policy or reshuffling within a system can be ineffective, despite best intentions. 

Instead, policy needs to be coupled with adequate teacher education, and provisions and planning as part of implementation, so our best and brightest are enabled to reach their full potential and contribute to society more broadly. Recent work on the impacts of educators’ professional learning shows teachers are more motivated to address student needs once formally recognised (Sims et al., 2021; Jha, 2024). 

There are many examples of highly motivated teachers who are assisting our brightest science students well. The introduction of Science Extension in 2019 was a promising curriculum innovation giving students an authentic, open-loop experience of science as it is practised. Here, non-linear, non-coachable tasks with novel problem-solving scenarios (in mathematical concepts and differentiated instruction) have effectively extended and engaged students beyond what most thought was possible while at school (in Maths). Unfortunately, current policy has interfered with the full intention of the course. Students are once again required to sit a high-stakes exam to conform to exam-driven learning expectations. Despite this, our students have succeeded as an army of researchers, many of whom have contributed to our body of knowledge while still attending school. They have experienced firsthand that our exam-focussed system is irrelevant compared to what they have and can achieve. 

Conclusions and Next Steps

To create meaningful shifts in reform, the reform must cause ripples throughout the educational system. This includes creating aspirational goals, and transparent and visible achievement by transformation agenda, not a piecemeal approach to improving on what is already in place. 

The approach to gifted students needs to be redesigned to position the student as part of a system of support and engagement networks. The above diagram is a suggestion for what this might look like (Jawerth, 2021). This consideration catalyses a more holistic view of gifted education as it currently stands. 

Give students wings and they will fly. 

Photos of Kelly-Anne Jawerth and David Nally

Kelly-Anne Jawerth is a science specialist teacher, has held roles in syllabus development and writing and has taught in schools across Sydney. She completed her PhD in 2021 on policy development and reform for gifted and talented science education in NSW.  David Nally is an HSIE specialist teacher and has held roles as Social Sciences and Gifted and Talented Coordinator, across schools in Sydney.He is completing a PhD on Post-Truth, the impacts of its related issues (such as misinformation) on education, and how history educators can address them. 

Why you can’t identify gifted students using NAPLAN

Some schools rely on NAPLAN results to identify gifted students, a trend that is leading to many high-potential learners being overlooked and neglected. New research outlines the mistake of using this standardised assessment as the only identification tool for giftedness when it was never designed or intended for this purpose.

There are over 400,000 gifted students in Australia’s schools (approximately 10% of school students), but there are no national identification practices or national means of collecting information about Australian school students who are gifted.It has been over 20 years since the last national inquiry into the education of gifted and talented children in Australia. Despite two senate inquiries (one in 1988 and one in 2001), there are no national initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of ongoing problems in identifying and supporting the needs of gifted learners. It is a national disgrace that gifted students are among some of the most underserved and neglected students in our schools.

The Contentious Belief in NAPLAN for Identifying Giftedness

In education, we constantly strive to uncover and nurture the gifts of our students and develop these into talents, hoping to unleash the full extent of their potential across their lifespan. In Australia, the National Assessment Program–Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) plays a controversial role in evaluating student performance and guiding educational policies and practices. However, there exists a contentious belief that NAPLAN data alone can accurately identify high-potential gifted students. In this blog post, I delve into the fallacy of exclusively using NAPLAN data to identify gifted students. 

A Snapshot of NAPLAN

NAPLAN is a nationwide standardised assessment, conducted annually in Australia, designed to assess the proficiency of students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, in key learning areas, specifically reading, writing, language conventions, and numeracy. Its main goal is to gauge the effectiveness of the education system and pinpoint areas that may require improvement. NAPLAN was never designed, intended, or validated as a tool to identify giftedness. It was also never designed to make leagues tables for comparing schools.

What is giftedness?

Gifted students typically exhibit advanced cognitive abilities, exceptional problem-solving skills, and have a high capacity for critical thinking. They often demonstrate creativity, strong motivation to learn (in areas of interest), and an insatiable curiosity. In Australia, the terms gifted and talented are often used as synonyms where in fact they have separate meanings. Giftedness is defined using Gagné’s Differentiating Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT). In this Model, gifted individuals are understood to have (sometimes as yet unidentified) potential to excel across various domains, including intellectual, (e.g., general intelligence); creative (e.g., problem-solving); social (e.g., leadership); and motor control (e.g., agility).

On the other hand, the Model associates the term talent with performance, accomplishment or achievement, which is outstanding mastery of competencies in a particular field. The term talented is used to only describe individuals who are among the top 10 percent of peers (e.g., leading experts in their field) in any of nine competencies, including academic (e.g., mathematics); technical (e.g., engineering); science and technology (e.g., medical); the arts (e.g., performing); or sports (e.g., athletic talents).

Giftedness seems to be a misunderstood word in Australia. It is often incorrectly construed as referring to people who apparently ‘have it all’, whatever the elusive ‘it’ might be! Anyone who has any experience with giftedness would know that this is an elitist and unrealistic view of gifted learners and indeed, gifted education. In Australian education systems that are based on Gagné’s Model, giftedness focuses on an individual’s potential and ways to foster that potential through programs and practices that support the development of giftedness into talent.

Identifying Giftedness

The quest to identify gifted students has been a long-standing objective for education systems that seek to be genuinely inclusive. Research recommends that we should aim to identify exceptional potential as early as possible, providing tailored education to further nurture abilities. Naturally, the notion of using standardised test data, such as NAPLAN results, can be appealing because of its relative ease of implementation and data generated. But giftedness is not always demonstrated through achievement or performance. Rather, what NAPLAN may identify is some form of talent if we are using Gagné’s definitions.

Giftedness can coexist with other exceptionalities, such as disabilities, where a student is said to be twice-exceptional (or a gifted learner with disability). The twice-exceptionality stems from the two exceptionalities—individuals who are gifted (exceptional potential ) and have coexisting disabilities (e.g., learning, physical, or emotional), and therefore, require unique educational support that addresses both exceptionalities.

Why is Identification Important?

Many students can have their educational needs addressed in a typical classroom, but gifted learners often need specific interventions (e.g., extension, acceleration), or something different (e.g., specific curriculum differentiation), that engages their potential, in areas such as creativity, problem-solving, and curiosity, to develop these natural abilities into competencies and mastery.

There remains a persistent myth that gifted students are so clever that they will always do just fine on their own, without specific support. Yet, we would never expect a gifted tennis player, or a gifted violinist to do “just fine” on their own—the expectation would be for expert, tailored coaching along with extensive opportunities for practice and rehearsal to develop the student’s potential. Coaches focus on the individual needs of the student, rather than a standardised teaching program designed to suit most, but not all. Still, in Australia many claim to have misgivings about introducing anything ‘special’ for gifted students, while not having the same reservations with respect to athletically gifted or musically gifted students.

What Happens if Gifted Learners are Not Supported?

Failing to support the unique needs of gifted students at school can have significant and detrimental consequences on the students and on education systems and societies. Gifted students who are not appropriately challenged and supported may become disengaged and underachieve academically. Some researchers have estimated that 60%-75% of gifted students may be underachieving.

Becoming bored in the classroom can cause disruptive behaviour and a lack of interest in school, leading to problems such as school ‘refusal’ or ‘school can’t’, disengagement and school ‘drop out’ (estimated at up to 40% of gifted students). This perpetuates a cycle of missed opportunities and undeveloped potential. Furthermore, without appropriate support, gifted students may struggle with social and emotional challenges, feeling isolated from their peers because of their unique interests and abilities. This can lead to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

When gifted students are not recognised and supported so that their giftedness can be transformed into talents, they may develop feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. This can lead to decreased self-efficacy and self-confidence. Failing to identify and support gifted students means missing out on nurturing exceptional gifts that deprives the world of potential future leaders, innovators, medical researchers, and change-makers.

Gifted students from diverse backgrounds, including those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, may face additional barriers to identification and support. NAPLAN can be particularly problematic as a misused identification tool for underrepresented populations. Neglecting identification, and subsequently neglecting to address gifted students’ unique needs perpetuates inequity.

Societies and education systems that do not embrace inclusion and equity to the full extent risk continuing cycles of exclusion and inadequate support for giftedness. The OECD makes it clear that equity and quality are interconnected, and that improving equity in education should be a high priority. In Australia, priority equity groups never include giftedness or twice-exceptionality, and fail to recognise intersectionality of equity cohorts (e.g., gifted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students), further compounding disadvantage. When schools fail to support gifted students, these learners can become disengaged and leave school prematurely, impacting social wellbeing and economic growth, and representing a missed opportunity for education environments to be truly inclusive. Inclusive education must mean that everyone is included, not everyone except gifted learners.

The Fallacy Unveiled: Limitations of NAPLAN Data to Identify Giftedness

While NAPLAN may have some merits as a standardised assessment tool, problems have been identified and there have even been calls to scrap the tests altogether. So, it is vital to recognise NAPLAN’s limitations, especially concerning the identification of high-potential gifted students. Some key factors that contribute to the fallacy are the narrow assessment scope, because NAPLAN primarily focuses on literacy and numeracy skills. While these are undoubtedly critical foundational skills, they do not encapsulate the full spectrum of giftedness. Moreover, the momentary snapshot provided by NAPLAN of a student’s performance on a particular day may not accurately represent their true capabilities. Factors such as test anxiety, external distractions, or personal issues can significantly impact test outcomes, masking a student’s actual potential.

Giftedness often entails the capacity to handle complexity and to think critically across various domains. Standardised tests like NAPLAN do not effectively measure the multidimensionality of giftedness (from academic precocity, or potential to achieve academically, to creative thinking and problem solving). Relying solely on NAPLAN data to identify gifted students overlooks those who have potential to excel in non-traditional fields or those who possess such unique gifts.

Embracing Comprehensive Identification Practices

To accurately identify and cultivate giftedness, we must embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach for the purpose of promoting inclusive and supportive educational environments, and for developing talent. Using data from multiple sources in identifying giftedness, including both objective and subjective measures (i.e., comprehensive identification) is the gold standard.  

Comprehensive identification practices involve using multiple measures to identify giftedness, with the expectation that appropriate educational support follows. These identification practices should be accessible, equitable, and comprehensive to make sure identification methods are as broad as possible. Comprehensive identification may consist of student portfolios showcasing their projects, psychometric assessment, artwork, essays, or innovative solutions students have devised. This allows educators to gain a deeper understanding of a gifted student’s interests, passions, abilities, and potential.

Additionally, engaging parents, peers, and the student in the identification process can yield valuable perspectives on a student’s unique strengths and gifts, activities and accomplishments, which they may be involved in outside school. This may offer a more well-rounded evaluation. Experienced educators who have completed professional learning in gifted education could play a crucial role in recognising gifted traits in their students. 

By appropriately identifying, recognising, and addressing the needs of gifted students, we can create inclusive and enriched educational settings that foster the development of gifted potential in education environments that are genuinely inclusive.


Michelle Ronksley-Pavia is a Special Education and Inclusive Education lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies, and a researcher with the Griffith Institute for Educational Research (GIER), Griffith University. She is an internationally recognised award-winning researcher working in the areas of gifted education, twice-exceptionality (gifted students with disability), inclusive education, learner diversity, and initial teacher education. Her work centres on disability, inclusive educational practices, and gifted and talented educational practices and provisions.