Developing the next generation of innovators

Issue: Volume 93, Number 2

Posted: 10 February 2014
Reference #: 1H9ctt

The latest PISA results provide valuable insight into how we’re providing for our most gifted students.

In December 2013, the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results were released by the OECD.

PISA provides an international comparison of student achievement. It assesses the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. The latest results (from 2012) include data from 65 countries/economies.

The report showed that New Zealand has a slightly larger proportion of high performing students compared with the OECD average. New Zealand has almost twice the proportion of all-rounders (top performers in all three areas of reading, mathematics, and science) than the OECD on average.

The OECD suggests that these are the pool from which countries will get their next generation of innovators:

“The rapidly growing demand for highly skilled workers has led to a global competition for talent. High-level skills are critical for creating new knowledge, technologies, and innovation, and as such, are key to economic growth and social development. Looking at the top performing students in reading, mathematics, and science allows countries to estimate their future talent pool.”

So our future talent pool and global competitiveness could be increased by supporting the continued high achievement of our top performers and increasing the proportion of students performing at high levels.

However, the PISA results also show that there has been a decrease over time in the proportion of New Zealand students achieving at the highest levels:

  • Top performing readers decreased from 19 per cent to 14 per cent (between 2000–2012).
  • Top performing science students decreased from 18 per cent to 13 per cent (between 2006–2012).
  • Top performing mathematics students decreased from 
  • 21 per cent to 15 per cent (between 2003–2012).

Whilst New Zealand’s ‘future talent pool’ is still higher than average, the declining proportion of students in the top performing group is a concerning trend.

International research also shows that gifted students are at risk of underachieving. Statistics indicate that half of gifted students do not reach levels consistent with their tested abilities (Rimm, 1994).

A recent study from Victoria, Australia, followed 36,000 students between years three and ten for six months and found that the top 25 per cent of students made the least progress – their scores flatlined. This was in strong contrast to students in the bottom 25 per cent, whose results showed an improvement rate between five and six times greater than expected.

Lead researcher Professor Patrick Griffin was puzzled by these results and held workshops for teachers to discuss strategies for teaching students with different abilities. He noted that teachers had lots of ideas on how to cater for low ability students but very few ideas on how to cater for high ability students. He suggested three possible reasons for this:

  • National focus on students who were underperforming, leading to a lack of focus on high ability students.
  • Assumption by teachers that high ability students can learn independently.
  • Advanced skills were not being taught to high ability students.

These findings emphasise the importance of differentiated teaching for diverse (all) students, including high ability or ‘gifted’ students.

Students can be talented in academic and non-academic domains, such as arts, sports and culture. The PISA study only measures 3 domains of academic performance: maths, reading and science.

Source: PISA 2012 - New Zealand Summary Report(external link), Ministry of Education (December 2013), p22.

Increasing the proportion of gifted and talented students?

The Ministry of Education provides professional learning and development (PLD) and resources to support teachers to identify students’ gifts and differentiate teaching within the classroom.

The Ministry’s gifted and talented website(external link) has a wealth of resources on how to identify gifted students, differentiate teaching and assess learning. It also has links to other websites, services, and support for gifted and talented education.

In December 2013, the site was refreshed and a wide range of new resources added (see the feature box). This included new material on how to identify and accelerate the learning of underperforming gifted students, with case studies from two schools who are achieving accelerated progress with their gifted students.

We look at one of these case studies, from Mission Heights Primary School, below.

Case study: Mission Heights Primary School


Mission Heights Primary School (MHPS) in Auckland has a roll of approximately 600 students, with about 80 per cent of students from ESOL backgrounds. The school is made up of many new migrants. The ethnic make-up of the school is 35 per cent Indian, 34 per cent Asian, 3-8 per cent Māori, 4 per cent Pasifika, and 15 per cent Pākehā. The school emphasises personalised learning for each student. Students’ gifts are nurtured through the school’s learning advisers and ‘ACE” programme.

Every student has a learning adviser and every staff member is a mentor and coach to a group of students. The advisers remain with the student throughout their stay at the school. All students have multiple teachers but the learning advisor remains consistent. This consistency enables learning advise to develop a strong relationship with their students, getting to know each child’s passion and talent through their relationships. Student’s gifts are typically identified by the adviser and the teachers.

The ACE program allows for flexible learning chosen around the Abilities, Curiosities and Essential needs of each student. Children are able to choose their Abilities and Curiosities subjects, with some input from the teachers. Data is used to identify Essentials according to the needs of the child – what areas need to be boosted or what subjects need to be extended.

Any ACE course includes students across different year levels. The school believes that going to different teachers at different times triggers learning for students who may otherwise become bored. Staff members also believe that exposing students to different ways of learning and with different people allows for excellence. Students are working together, at the right level, regardless of age and based on their talents and passions.

Five Mission Heights Primary students, nominated by the school as top scholars (‘gifted’) in maths, writing, and language, were interviewed for a case study. They ranged from Year 2 to Year 6, and all were achieving accelerated progress. Specifically, these gifted students’ achievements were well above their year-level classmates at the end of 2012 in Math Global Strategy Stage Assessment (GloSS) and/or e-asTTLe, and these same students were achieving well beyond the expected rate of progress for six months.

No ceiling for learning

Teachers were asked what had been the most helpful for their gifted students’ academic success last year (2013). One story shared is below, which highlights aspects of what both the students and teachers noted as necessary for gifted students to succeed:

Mathex is about maths problem solving [competitive event] … Teachers up in the junior college make up the maths problem solving questions.

In the first years, we just took Year 6 teams [to the Mathex event] … They were our top mathematicians – stage 8 mathematicians. We were in our first years of our ACE programme. We didn’t really know our kids. But it was still really hard for us to say ‘this kid is gifted’. It was solely a Year 6 programme.

2011 was the first year we opened Mathex up. I don’t care what age they are, it is just the four that I think will do the best job [that get put into the competition]. It is about taking the kids and letting them be able to do what they are capable of doing. They can feel like we are acknowledging their skills and talents. And giving the opportunity for students to excel. They choose how high they go.

Last year, our Year 5s beat our Year 6s. Now our current Year 5s are better than them!

Story by Robyn [teacher], Jenny [teacher] and Cheryl [teacher].

One student believed that the competition within groups helped him achieve, particularly when this competition challenged his abilities – at the right level and quickly.

Opportunities to practice and be challenged

At the beginning, I had some problems with problem solving.

At Mathex, I practised these problems. It was really like racing and intense. It wasn’t a situation where it’s not calm. You don’t spend like 10 hours on a single question. You finish the questions quick.

I got really good.

Story by Ivan [Year 6, gifted in maths], drawings by Jasper [Year 4, gifted in maths]


Mission Heights Primary School’s approach highlights how deeper understanding of students’ abilities and differentiated learning opportunities can help students to succeed. Differentiation of teaching to meet the needs of students is not new – teachers do it every day. It is just as relevant for students at the lower end of the achievement spectrum as for the higher end. The key is how it is done to meet the needs of students in respect of the level that they are at.

If our most able students are to achieve the best results possible, they will need to have regular opportunities for stretch and challenge. Renzulli (1998) famously noted that “a rising tide lifts all ships”, referring to the fact that in schools where gifted students are supported to achieve, the achievement levels of all students tends to increase. Teachers who differentiate the curriculum for their gifted students are therefore not only helping these students to stay engaged and motivated, but are also more likely to provide high levels of challenge for all students.

The Ministry’s Gifted and Talented PLD and website provide support for teachers to identify and understand gifted students’ needs, and develop teaching strategies/approaches to lift their achievement and engage them more deeply in their learning.

Taking a considered, differentiated approach will foster higher achievement for all students, and help create the highly skilled future workforce to support our country’s economic growth and social development.

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” ― John Dewey.

More information

Mission Heights Primary School participated in the Ministry of Education’s Gifted and Talented Professional Learning and Development (PLD) programme. More information about Gifted and Talented PLD(external link) can be found on their website. 

Access to other resources for supporting gifted and talented students(external link).

The writing team included GATE researchers, academics, facilitators, teachers and the president of NZAGC who is also an educational psychologist. A huge thanks to all involved!

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:44 pm, 10 February 2014

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