When discussing education systems, the focus is usually on low-performing students. Often the reasons for a low performance are linked to the students’ disadvantaged socioeconomical or immigrant background: youngsters who struggle with their shortcomings, their motivation to learn and even to be at school. The other end of the spectrum is discussed less frequently.
What about the high performers, the so-called gifted students? Where do they fit in our school systems? Are they self-motivated achievers who know what they want and follow their calling autonomously? How can we find them, and where do we look for them?
Estonia participated in PISA for the first time in 2006. The modest Estonians were a bit confused about their remarkable results and high placement in this international ranking. One of the conclusions of our policy makers after this debut was that Estonia should have more high-performing students. Looking at the data, we felt that there must be talent that could be identified, and our system should do more to develop the potential that is hiding in the middle of the distribution. Twelve years later, the PISA 2018 results showed that we have made some progress: the shares of high-performing students have increased in all assessed domains.
Why is it important to pay attention and look for gifted children? Unfortunately, gifted children are often annoying or stay unnoticed because they ask sharp questions or feel bored during lessons. If the teacher follows the textbook and the regular curriculum, the gifted student can just “flow” from lesson to lesson and go through school without much motivation or effort. Albert Einstein did poorly in school. “It is often difficult to understand that the child has a special need. A gifted child is like a gentle plant, it needs care and nourishment for it to grow into a beautiful tree”, says a mother who is a psychologist and has a gifted son in Estonia. Her son started reading at the age of three, but once he went to school, his family started receiving complaints, and the boy had constant health issues and difficulties. The boy was bored and once the mother approached the teacher and said that he could (should) be given more difficult problems to solve, the teacher responded that his handwriting was very poor and that he should practice that instead. The parents placed their son in a different school and the situation changed. A few years later, he was this school’s top performer and participated in the International Science Olympiads.
The gifted children subject has been raised at the policymaking level in Estonia. The Estonian Education Strategy 2035 includes gifted students among students with special education needs, and quotes a strategic need to follow a holistic approach in their education. We should understand that high-achievers are the bright minds in our future, and it is in our society’s best interest to find them and help them develop their full potential.
If gifted children have been officially considered as children with special education needs, what is being done in practice?
Since 2016, a non-profit organization called Estonian Talent Centre has been actively promoting different trainings, seminars, and conferences on this topic. Parents of gifted children, teachers and psychologists can all join a network that cares about children development and understands that talent is very valuable for society. The centre is led by professors from Tartu University, one of oldest and leading universities in Estonia. In its turn, Tartu University has contributed to challenge the young and talented minds by organizing and delivering courses about different subjects for students who want to learn and do more than what their school offers. It is called Tartu Science School, and it aims to offer students challenges according to their needs. They organize systematic study programs all over Estonia. Students can find different online courses in a variety of subjects, and they also organize science camps during the school holidays.
How can a school system find the students who have potential from a young age?
When children start school at the age of seven, there are usually about 24 children in one classroom – all with very different knowledge, interests, and backgrounds. The teacher is expected to be able to consider the needs of every child and in most cases she (in Estonia teaching in predominantly a female occupation) deals with problematic students while the more capable ones are supposed to manage themselves.
Some schools start talent search at primary school level. A school in Tartu has launched a program called “pull-out programme” which started identifying a flair for mathematics in third-grade children. In their first year, they selected 17 students out of 110 and called it a “math club”. Participation was voluntary, lessons took place once a week for 90 minutes and a special curriculum was designed for these children. They worked on problem solving, geometry, robotics, modelling, programming, and other topics. At the end, they had to pick a topic and present it as a final work. It could be done together with another student or individually. The feedback was very positive: children found likeminded friends, they enjoyed being challenged and they were motivated.
There are many more initiatives, such as talent clubs and science fairs. Some schools focus on older students, but they all note that once students are given a chance to explore their interests, their motivation and willingness to study increases.
To implement our national strategy to develop the potential of gifted students, certain aspects have to be in place: a robust school curriculum, which marks the priorities and flexibility of the school, available funding, highly motivated and professional teachers who are experts in the subject they are teaching and parental support.
Another well rooted tradition in Estonian school system is the subject competitions or “Olympiads” that have existed since 1953. The students who participate in these Olympiads have extendedly studied and researched the subject of their interest. If they pass the school level of the competition, they go to regional or national level, whereas the winners will attend international science competitions. Elizaveta is a student from Narva who participated in Climate Science Olympiad in 2022, and among 55 000 participants got a bronze medal. She had to offer solutions about nuclear energy in Denmark and food insecurity in Zambia and Angola. It was all very exciting for her, but she noted that her favourite part of the event was meeting new people who are also interested in climate change. In 2022, students from Estonia went to around 20 international Olympiads. As in the example above the participating students note that participation in Olympiads is a very motivating way to gain new knowledge and meet the participants with similar interests.
Other events meant for talented children that are organized at the national level in Estonia are music, dance, and sport contests. Also, in the recent years there are very popular competitions for the vocational school students where they show their talent in the profession they have mastered.
In conclusion, gifted students are a valuable gift present at every school. These students are special and need guidance, support, and nourishment. “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious”, said Albert Einstein. Our job as educators is to keep up and feed the curiosity for as many curious minds as possible.