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Passion for teaching with Penina Kiss

October 27, 2022

Penina is currently working as a Learning Partner for High Potential and Gifted Education at CSBB.

What drives your passion for your interest in gifted and talented students?

My greatest joy when visiting schools is chatting with students and teachers. Being able to recognise high potential and giftedness in school children (and adults!) has continued to drive my passion in this area. Their cognitive, creative, affective and behavioural characteristics are so much more apparent when you’ve had gifted education training. I’m very grateful to the experienced mentors I still learn from and work with today.  I also enjoy speaking with teachers about the children they identify, and collaborating with them to cater for the needs of their students – that’s what inspires me the most.

What career path led you to working with gifted and talented students?

I started my career as a secondary science teacher and eventually became a Science KLA Coordinator. In that time, I’d recognised cognitive differences in the students I taught, however, the ones who captured my curiosity were those who were verbally competent in sharing their responses to higher order thinking tasks but were unable to put their thinking into written assessments, especially exams. Most of these students were in classes that required additional support, but the rigour of the class work was well below their verbal abilities. This disparity piqued my curiosity even more, motivating me to complete the Mini COGE (Certificate of Gifted Education) course with a small group of colleagues. I enjoyed it so much, I proceeded to complete the full Certificate of Gifted Education post-graduate course at UNSW. After that I took on a few school leadership roles in pedagogy and curriculum, where I was able to put my learnings to good use by building teacher capacity in gifted education across KLAs. This led me to become a system leader in the Sydney diocese, so to continue my journey of study, I completed a Masters in Gifted Education at UNSW.

How do you recognise a gifted and/or talented student?

In Australia, it is widely accepted that students may be considered gifted (including high-potential learners) or talented or both. Talented students, however, tend to be more recognisable since their ability (in one or more of six domains) has already been transformed into performance or products we can see, usually by lots of deliberate practice and access to opportunities such as subject specific programs or specialist tutors/coaches. It is the gifted students who have not yet been identified who might be discovered by teachers using a checklist list of cognitive, creative, affective and behavioural characteristics to shine a light on their abilities, otherwise they go on to underachieve in school and perhaps, life in general.

Some of the most recognisable traits for cognitive ability are; being a voracious or early reader, possessing a large vocabulary, intellectual curiosity (asking why and how) and having a keen interest in solving problems, especially abstract or mathematical ones. Common affective characteristics are; unusual emotional depth, intense sensitivity and empathy towards others, high expectations of themselves and others, and a strong sense of social justice. Creative traits include; keen sense of humour, high ability to use imagination and fantasy, flexibility, an openness to a variety of interests and a preference to not conform with social norms. Some typical behavioural characteristics are; boundless enthusiasm, constant questioning, non-stop chatter and high levels of frustration.

How do teachers support gifted and talented students?

Once gifted and talented students are recognised, teachers can cognitively identify their abilities and achievements using a range of instruments, such as AGAT or CogAT (for ability) and PAT R and M (for achievement). Affective, creative and behavioural data may be subjectively gathered from observations or work samples. This data helps teachers plan for the specific needs of gifted students with diverse needs such as differentiating the rigour, (eg. depth and breadth), complexity (eg. cross-curricular tasks) or pace (eg. subject acceleration) of program content and skills. This ensures gifted learners can equitably access and engage in the curriculum to meet syllabus outcomes like all students.

Sometimes gifted students are identified as twice-exceptional (2e). This means they are gifted with a psychometric/medical diagnosis that requires additional support. This could be a highly creative gifted student who has ASD and/or anxiety or, a student with high intellectual ability who also has ADHD and/or dyslexia. There are many different combinations that require varying degrees of need, so a team approach amongst teachers is vital for the care of these students. With 2e students, it’s best for teachers to go with a ‘strengths-based’ approach. This means ensuring their greatest strengths or gifted abilities are used regularly to help support the gaps they need filled. This is critical in keeping them engaged in their learning as well as supporting their wellbeing.

What motivates gifted and talented students?

For the most part, gifted students like to be engaged in work that aligns with their strongest abilities and extends their current knowledge and skills. They like frequently operating in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development with like-minded peers. So, a student who has high ability in mathematics may regularly enjoy the company of other strong mathematicians who work at the same rigour, pace and passion as they do. The same could be said of creative learners who might prefer the regular company of other divergent thinkers who like to solve abstract problems with innovative solutions. Like all students, gifted learners appreciate the opportunity to have a say in how their learning could be tailored to suit their needs. Confident, approachable, empathetic, and open-minded teachers who promote student voice and advocacy also motivate gifted students to thrive in their learning environments. These teachers build amicable and respectful relationships with their gifted learners and have the added attribute of feeling secure in not having all the answers while giving these students autonomy to learn at the pace and depth they require.

Why is it important to support and challenge children who are gifted?

The gifted population have needs that are specific to their high abilities so when they are not met, they may underachieve at school which can manifest into other issues at home and in their social lives. If a student with high ability in reading has been asked to read the same book as his peers, and he finishes it earlier than the rest of the class, it would be unfair to make him re-read the book until everyone else in the class finished. It would also be inequitable to make a high ability math student do more of the same math worksheets while waiting for others to finish their work. Feelings of resentment, boredom, frustration, and inequity start to generate, especially if this were a regular occurrence, day after day, week after week, year after year. This impacts a student’s mental health and wellbeing, which could result in isolation, withdrawal, bullying, school avoidance, amongst other immediate concerns. Relationships may break down between their teachers and peers, which could spill into the home. School is no longer considered safe by these students, so engagement and learning is futile.

Training in the basics of gifted pedagogy, especially the cognitive and affective needs of gifted students, is vital to help these learners thrive in the classroom. When supports and challenges become part of the daily routine for the gifted, there’s a more achievable balance between learning and wellbeing for both the teacher and the students.

Do you have any anecdotes you would like to share?

One of my fondest memories was case coordinating a 2e student in a secondary school. When he was finally identified and included in the college’s full-time gifted program, his expression to me after one term of being in the class was, “Miss, I’m so happy, I finally belong.” He’s now thriving at a prestigious musical institution. Still warms my heart to this day.

Another favourite anecdote was when the mother of a Year 3 student shared in a parent/teacher meeting that the latest book her son had read was ‘Animal Farm’, a book that is generally analysed in high school English classes. After some further investigation, it was clear the youngster understood the conceptual themes of the book since he was passionate about history. To top it off, he said he preferred the text to the film!

Thank you Penina for providing a fascinating insight into your work with Gifted and Talented Students.