Thematic ECHA Conference: ‘Closing the Achievement Gap in Gifted Education’
Szilvia Fodor – Csilla Fuszek
Budapest 23-28 March 2021
The idea of organising so-called bi-annual thematic conferences focusing on narrower topics and addressing a smaller audience re-emerged during the ECHA presidency of Professor Péter Csermely. The first tender was announced to that effect in 2016, and the first thematic conference, dedicated to creativity, was organised in 2019, in Dubrovnik. The second thematic ECHA conference took place online on 23-28 March. Its co-organisers, MATEHETSZ – in particular the European Talent Centre- Budapest – and Debrecen University spent months preparing for the event that has brought considerable international success.
The topic of the conference was the so-called school achievements gap. This was no accident: in Hungary, talent support provided to (multiply) disadvantaged children and the research of the relevant programmes from several aspects (psychology, sociology, education) looks back on a past of almost 22 years. The organisers believed the topic was of relevance both in Europe and globally, but they did not count on it becoming more topical than ever due to lockdowns/restrictions introduced to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had become clear by the autumn of 2020 that there was no point in sticking to the original tender plans: the content and structure of the conference had to be redesigned, since we had to think in terms of an online event organised in the online space, and find the most optimal solutions under the new circumstances. The following is an overview of the relevant details.
Structure of the Budapest conference
The international experience has made it obvious that the conference was to be as diversified and lively as possible, as it is not easy to sit and watch the screen for hours. The conference that was to last for 1.5 days was therefore extended to 5 days, with no more than a daily 3 hours of “new materials”. At lecture time, roundtable discussions started at 4 p.m. and lasted for a maximum of 3 hours, and they were repeated the next day in the morning to eliminate problems due to time differences. Three hours a day caused no difficulty to the participants, but feedback has shown that most could only join the conference on no more than 2-3 of the 5 days.
It is equally important that lecturers speak the language of the online conference, English in this case, well and understandably, and relay their enthusiasm for the topic through the screen. Many of the invited “plenary” presenters were world-famous researchers who have studied this field for years and are excellent presenters. Their name was a guarantee for having quality presentations.
On Day 1 of the Conference, after the opening, we welcomed Prof Márta Fülöp, an outstanding representative of Hungarian psychology, who discussed competition/rivalry, her special research topic for quite some time, from the point of view of the underprivileged gifted students. Her presentation shed light on the paradoxical situation that is a permanent experience of these children, i.e. the combination of outstanding performance relative to their environment on the one hand, and backlogs in many fields and frequent inability to perform well in competitive situations on the other. What makes the picture even more complex is that sometimes the student’s environment, the educators or the parents, respond to good performance with excessive enthusiasm and/or expectations, whereas in other cases they pull the child back or question the authenticity or legitimacy of the performance concerned. How can one appropriately cope with this situation in a competitive learning environment? The presenter answered the question by quoting some specific cases and highlighted the importance of motivation, coping and resilience that are probably crucial areas for dealing with underprivileged gifted students. After the presentation, Professor Fülöp logged in to answer questions. This topic provoked so many thoughts that she could not answer all the questions, so a special appointment was made with her: she logged in again on Day 4 of the Conference to provide exhaustive answers to all the questions.
On Day 2 of the Conference, participants could listen to two excellent lecturers. First to Prof Paula Olszewksi-Kubilius, teacher and researcher at Northwestern University, whose presentation focused specifically on best practices to support talents in a disadvantageous situation. The central concept of the researches concerned was the ‘opportunity to learn’, explaining the backlogs observable in the performance of underprivileged students. As pointed out by the presenter, it is crucial in this respect how we view the concept of “talent”; to what extent we consider it an innate, unchangeable or developable feature, and what identification practice we pursue on that basis. In connection with identification, she addressed certain practical issues such as assessment by the teacher, multiple criteria and local norms. She presented the impact analyse of Project Excite, Project OCCAMS and Young Scholars, and highlighted that their curricula give special emphasis to the psycho-social and affective skills, the development of appropriate habits, the meta-cognitive aspects, practical topics useful and relevant also in everyday life, the multicultural approach and close cooperation with the families.
The other lecturer of the Wednesday session, Prof Jonathan Plucker (Johns Hopkins University), drew attention to the excellence gap in addition to the achievement gap, and also the opportunity gap underlying them. First he presented the research report “Mind the (Other) Gap” published in 2010, the first document to call attention to the substantial achievement gaps existing between student groups. This research inspired many further studies, and Prof Plucker relied on their outcomes to re-interpret the original results from a perspective of 10+ years. Similarly to the previous presenters, he underlined the importance of appropriate talent identification practices, the necessity of having local norms, of teacher training and psycho-social skills. It was an interesting feature of the event that, instead of a Q&A session with the audience, Dr Szilvia Fodor (Debrecen University) talked with the presenter after the 30 minute presentation, and they discussed related interesting topics such as the extension of the notion of talent, specific talent identification methods and pedagogical and education policy tasks feasible in practice for an hour.
The Thursday (25 March) plenary presentation was held by Prof Frank Worrel (University of California, Berkeley), who was present in the capacity of university teacher and researcher and also as President of APA (American Psychological Association) and whose participation raised the prestige of the whole event. He reviewed the efforts to further diversity the talent support programmes, underlining the under-representation of underprivileged students. He pointed out, on the basis of the research results, that fair testing methods and assessment methods designed to offset distortions by the teachers are not sufficient in themselves to reduce this under-representation: comprehensive education policy actions are required to do so.
The last plenary session was that of Prof Péter Tibor Nagy who discussed the sociological aspects of entering the groups of the social elite. The presentation focused on the social aspects of talent support to assess the chances of underprivileged students to be admitted to the stages of elite education and employment. Given the complexity of this topic, it was not easy to see the correlations, but the domestic and international examples and statistics quoted by the lecturer gave a good illustration of the discernible trends and helped understand the social developments underlying talent support.
All in all, our experience was that although all lectures adhered to the basic topic of the Conference, i.e. Closing the Achievement Gap in Gifted Education, each presented a special perspective enriching relevant knowledge and, consequently, by the end of the Conference, the audience obtained a comprehensive picture of the psychological, pedagogical and sociological aspects of the core topic. The interactive sessions following the lectures where the audience could address direct questions to the presenters were particularly useful.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all 36 lecturers could take part at the studio recordings of the conference; Hungarian colleagues made up 30 percent of the whole group. Other lecturers and presentations came from the US, South America, the Far East, Kenya and Ethiopia and two persons came from India and from Israel, but the European continent was also represented by several countries in addition to Hungary, such as Greece, for example.
The combination of the presenters and the topic itself and the fact that conference participation could be offered free of charge thanks to the support of the Hungarian National Talent Programme resulted in what was an unprecedented number of registrations in the history of ECHA conferences: almost 700 registered. Another conclusion drawn from the relevant international experience is that a conference is successful if 50 percent of registered applicants actually log in. Data protection law does not allow to have exact data on the number of participants, but according to the estimates it was certainly up to around 50 percent.
Streaming was assigned to the competence of the Europe 2000 Talent Point in the first place, and the capacities of the school studio proved to be perfectly suitable to ensure continuous streaming at the conference. One risk factor of online conferences is the quality of connections from various sites (and platforms). The thematic conference strove to minimise live connections (there were 6 such instances in all), although these were no doubt the most fascinating moments of the conference. The organisers did their best to record at least half of the 14 hours of the conference in a studio to ensure visual mobility and save the excitement of having a quality meeting/discussion between presenters logging in from say three continents at the same time. Studio recording has also helped recall the atmosphere of live conferences.
Although we could not be physically together, this opportunity ensured connection and involvement. We hope that we’ll be able to talk and think about these important issues in person at the next thematic ECHA conference.
You can download the book of abstracts here: https://echa2021budapest.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/ECHA_Abstract_book_2021.pdf
You can look at the lectures here: