Towards a Network Approach to Talent Development:
The European Talent Support Network
Csilla Fuszek1, Peter Csermely2, Colm O´Reilly3, & Albert Ziegler4
1Budapest European Talent Centre, Hungary
2Semmelweis University, Hungary
3Dublin City University, Ireland
4University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany
Abstract: The paper summarizes the theoretical background and initial experiences of the network approach in gifted education and talent support providing a system-based view and a broad perspective of the complexities in talent development. The paper summarizes the first six years of the development of the European Talent Support Network (ETSN), an umbrella organization of cooperating institutions of gifted education and talent support spanning many continents. The establishment and work of the Youth Platform of the ETSN is also described. Located within the exosystem of talents the members of the ETSN aim at synergies on all systemic levels ranging from the talents´ actiotopes to decisions within the political, cultural, economic, and social macrosystems. Gifted education and talent development will thus be not any longer just the challenge for the few persons in the immediate environments of the talents, but truly the joint mission of a vibrant, synergistic Network.
Key words: European Talent Support Network; gifted education; networks; talent support, Youth Platform of the European Talent Support Network
The year 2012 marked a breakthrough in the philosophy of talent development. The European Council for High Ability (ECHA) made some first steps towards a network approach to talent development. It culminated in the foundation of the European Talent Support Network (ETSN).
In the following article we first elaborate in what way ECHA´s network approach represented a major step forward in the promotion of talents. After that we outline the history of the ETSN and conclude finally with a short outlook for the future.
The Network Approach: A Quantum Leap in Talent Development
Traditional models of talent development have often focused primarily on the talented individual (e.g., Gallagher & Courtright, 1986; Galton, 1869; Terman, 1922). Very little was written about the personal context of the individual. A nice illustration is the history of Renzulli´s (1986, 1990) popular Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness. It constituted a milestone in the scientific understanding of extraordinary achievements. Its merit was to move the field of gifted education beyond a narrow understanding of giftedness as intellectual giftedness and enabling a more holistic view. Indeed, the Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness included creativity and motivation as equal factors to intellectual giftedness. Nevertheless the model still contained exclusively personal variables and only in the later extension of the Three-ring-conception of Giftedness by Mönks (1990) were environmental variables like the parental home added to the model.
Currently environment is seen as an important component of any model of giftedness. (Shavinina, 2009; Sternberg & Davidson, 2005). As a forerunner of this development Csikszentmihalyi (1996) maintained that excellence is not located in the person, but rather in the system formed by the person and its environment.
Various concepts have been suggested for the analysis of this personal lifeworld. Examples include the concepts of an actiotope (Ziegler, 2005; Ziegler & Stoeger, 2017) and the concept of a microsystem (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983). However, as welcome as the inclusion of environmental variables has been, a closer look at these models reveals that the environment is usually limited to the immediate (social) environment in which the gifted individual acts, e.g. school, peers, and family. Such a close-up perspective misses several macro variables which are undoubtedly relevant for talent development. These comprise, for example, financial resources that governments dedicate to gifted education or the societal appreciation of extraordinary achievements in domains like mathematics, music, and sports (Ziegler, Chandler, Vialle, & Stoeger, 2017).
In this context, a network approach might provide a broader perspective on the complexities involved in talent development (Csermely, 2017). Indeed, borrowing from the terms coined by Bronfenbrenner, a network approach would be much better suited to capture at the same time the microsystem and its superordinate systems: mesosystem, exosystem, and the macrosystem. Whereas microsystem refers to the environment that most immediately impact the child’s development including peers, family, neighbourhood, school, etc., the mesosystem refers to interactions between the various microsystems. For example, research has shown that in addition to the isolated influence of parents and teachers, the quality of their relationship has a substantial impact on students´ success at school (Sebastian, Moon, & Cunningham, 2017). The exosystem comprises the environmental systems that do not have an active role in the individuals´ immediate environment. For instance, a local parent’s association might do some advocacy with their city council. As a consequence the city council might decide to sponsor a school for the gifted. The macrosystem finally describes the overarching culture in which individuals live. It can influence talent development profoundly. For example, giftedness is valued in Taiwan and regarded with scepticism in Japan (Dai & Kuo, 2015). Consequently it is much more likely in Taiwan that a city council would decide to fund a school for the gifted.
Taking a more systemic perspective (e.g. Ziegler & Stoeger, 2017), the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) had decided to establish a talent support network on a European level. Though it would be– theoretically speaking – located in the exosystem of talents, it aims to improve talent development on all systemic levels.
In order to accomplish this ambitious goal, ECHA had to break new ground. Gifted associations like ECHA, the International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence (IRATDE) or the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children (WCGTC) have always had individuals as constituents. However, ECHA felt that supporting talents from an exosystemic level that reaches also the microsystem, mesosystem, and macrosystem would constitute a new departure in talent development. Thus, in the newly found European Talent Support Network (ETSN) individuals would not be the members, but rather, institutions and organizations like schools, university departments, counselling centres, parents and teacher associations.
Today, only a few years after this idea has been born, several hundred institutions and organizations across Europe have self-organized themselves into a network dedicated to the support of talents: The ETSN. In the following section we trace its history.
Short history of the European Talent Support Network (2011-2017)
The idea of the ETSN (Network) emerged at the Hungarian EU Presidential Conference on Talent Support held in April 2011 in Budapest. The opening presentation of Professor Peter Csermely introduced the achievements of the Hungarian Talent Support Network looking back on a past of only 4 years and interconnecting as many as 450 Talent Points already at that time, and pointed to the long-term benefits of collaboration between the civil and the public sector and of linking formal and informal education. He highlighted the potential positive effects of making the talent support activities visible and transparent on national educational policy. The Final Declaration of the Conference adopted by the almost 300 attending experts stressed that it would be worthwhile to align and organise the relevant European efforts and aspirations into a network to increase the weight of talent support in European educational policy and in EU tenders.
Today, six years later, we can say that the Declaration was the first strategic step of the development that led to establishment of ETSN. This was accompanied, as a matter of course, by strategic planning. The key moments of networking include systematic management (coordinated network-creating), the evolution of network nodes (node-hub connections), the quality of the links established in the network and the measures aiming at network development, i.e. the development and execution of a network development strategy (Van Aalst, 2012). Many of these, as we will see, can be identified in the unfolding European Talent Support Network.
In 2012 European Talent Centre – Budapest was formed, inter alia to foster the networking of European talent support activities in cooperation with ECHA, to present the potential benefits concurrent with networking and to come to an agreement concerning the various networking concepts. The first document laying the basis of the Network and presenting the linkages of the European Talent Centres and European Talent Points, the nodes of the Network, was prepared jointly by several European professionals and it was released in autumn 2014.
This first document was adopted almost unanimously by the General Assembly of ECHA at its 2014 Ljubljana Conference, and a so-called Qualification Committee was also elected there. Its function is to accredit European Talent Centres. The seven members of the current Committee are talent support professionals of 7 countries. The document underlined that the ETSN should be a dynamic network of continuously developing cooperative contacts between organisations involved in the field of high ability and also that it would not compete with the school system, but rather help it identify and support talented young people. After another six months of consultations, the Qualification Committee announced the first “Call to Be a European Talent Centre” on the ECHA website in February 2015.
Twenty-eight quality applications were received from 19 countries in response to the first call – a clear sign of the increasingly widespread demand for networking in Europe and its topicality in the talent support field. Based on the applications, the Committee selected the first 14 European Talent Centres in the summer 2015. The European Talent Support Network was officially founded on 29 September 2015, in the Brussels European Parliament building, in the presence of senior EU officials and MEPs, and the representatives of the Talent Centres held also their first meeting there. The meeting of the representatives adopted the guidelines prepared for designing the criteria set of European Talent Points. The key feature of Talent Centres is that they organise activities in the field of high ability in a region or a whole country; Talent Points, on the other hand, organise local activities in the field of high ability and they are registered by a Talent Centre acting on the accepted selection guideline, but finalising it and adding their own criteria for Talent Point registration.
Several joint activities, programmes and tenders have been launched since the first meeting in Brussels, including the call for setting up European Talent Points announced for the first time on the website of ECHA and the sites of several centres in English and in the native tongue of the country concerned in November 2015. In 2016, the “Call to Be a European Talent Centre” was announced again by the ECHA Qualification Committee, and the second round opened the way also for including so-called “Associated” Talent Centres from outside Europe. As a result, by May 2017 the Network already comprised 20 centres, including 18 in European countries (Austria (2), Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Ireland, Lithuania, Hungary, Germany (2), Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia, Spain, Slovenia and Turkey) and two in non-European ones (India, Peru). Thanks to the European Talent Point applications, the Network has been enriched by around 300 Talent Points of 38 countries. The Network envisages the further growth of the number of Talent Centres and Talent Points in 2017.
Given the sudden expansion of the Network, the need for a strategic management committee had become obvious by the second half of 2016. A Network Council was established, it has five members and it is responsible for the strategic management of the ETSN. At the election held with the active participation of the whole Network, Prof. Albert Ziegler was appointed Chairman of the Council set up in October 2016.
Joint efforts have led to launching the common website of the Network in June 2017: https://etsn.eu/. The website displays the map of the institutions making up the Network, with the key data of the participating Talent Centres and Talent Points under https://etsn.eu/map-of-etsn/
Another fine example of joint work is the EGIFT project coordinated by the Irish Talent Centre where other Talent Centres participate in an exciting, three-year cooperation programme with their European peers. Funded through Erasmus Plus, the EGIFT aims to plan, assemble, pilot and produce a massive, online open course (MOOC) on five key aspects of learning about giftedness.
Another outstanding achievement in the context of common efforts is the currently approximately 60-strong Youth Platform of the ETSN gathering talented young persons interested in the education of talents, delegated by the Talent Centres and Talent Points. The members of the Platform met in Vienna in 2016 and in Budapest in March 2017. The attendees for the Budapest meeting came from 17 countries and represented 20 nationalities, and their collective efforts have already produced 4 international projects.
The European Talent Support Network is a continuously transforming and developing system, with the European Talent Centres that are its hubs and the European Talent Points being nodes acting as equal members. As it was said earlier the criteria of becoming a European Talent Centre are defined jointly by the ECHA Qualification Committee, and those of becoming a European Talent Point – meaning first of all registration as Talent Point – jointly by the Talent Centres. Registration, however, needs to be approved individually by the European Talent Centre concerned.
All European Talent Centres do excellent professional work in several talent support fields, but they are quite different in many respects. Some are non-profit, others for-profit organisations; some are public entities or even background institutions of national ministries, others are NGOs. The set of activities of individual European Talent Points may also be different: some tend to focus more on teacher training, others on working directly with young talents. This diversity is crucial to the strength of the emerging European Talent Support Network.
The main tasks of the Talent Centres include, in addition to their own quality work, network-creating and the supply of relevant professional information of high quality to the Network members. That is, within the Network, the European Talent Centres assume more responsibility for coordination and information supply at regional, national or all-European level. This, in turn, requires the exchange of best practices and an alignment of the various talent support concepts and of talent support activities in the same region. Participation in the European Talent Support Network requires community thinking, with each country contributing to articulating and achieving the common goals from its own perspective.
The first declared objectives of the ETSN are: to increase the identification and different types of support of highly able young people in Europe; to boost research activity in the field of high ability and help transfer findings to practice especially into education; to extend the current sharing of best practices (from policies to educational know-how) in the field of high ability; to help to increase membership of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) further by increasing the number of people knowing and acknowledging ECHA’s activities; and to demonstrate that people involved in the field of high ability have reached a “critical mass” at the European level, which needs to be taken into account when discussing EU and national policies in Europe (such as in education, research, innovation, social affairs, public health, etc.) related to high ability.
Currently, the European Talent Support Network materialises in the common activities of its members. In practice, this means for example joint designs of calls for tenders, network-creating or the supporting of the Youth Platform of the ETSN. In the joint projects, the lead role is played – depending on the project content – by the European Talent Centres in turns. The ETSN is a so-called complex network including institutions as members, but it also relies to a large extent on the 30-year-old network of professionals coming from various talent support fields within the European Council for High Ability (ECHA). The ETSN gives countries who may not be as well-known so far in the field of talent support opportunities to introduce themselves, to join the network and to take part in the common activities.
At first, Network members must invest voluntary work in network-creating for the members to experience the benefits of network-based activities later on, instead of considering the Network no more than an administrative framework. In the longer run, however networking offers many potential advantages to all concerned. It can accelerate the substantive exchange of best practices in talent support, increase the number of international research projects, ensure more efficient intra-regional resources utilisation and promote creative productivity through the cooperation of talented young persons. Throughout Europe, a growing number of young talents will be provided attention and support through the European Talent Support Network, that is, the declared objectives listed above may come true.
Though the ETSN is still in its infancy, we hope it is in actuality a growing system. Thus, taking part in the ETSN means Talent Centres and Talent Points getting involved in a growing hub of activities with institutions and organizations that share the common interest of supporting talents to live up to their potential.
Located within the exosystem of talents the members of the ETSN aim at synergies on all systemic levels ranging from the talents´ actiotopes to decisions within the political, cultural, economic, and social macrosystems. It is designed in a way that information and mutual support can flow freely horizontally on the same systemic levels and vertically up and down the systemic levels.
In order to reach its goals the growing network of Talent Centres and Talent Points needs to leverage a variety of tools that are without the reach of a single entity. For example, getting access to mass media might be impossible for a Talent Point, but might be comparatively easy for a network representing thousands of organizations and maybe hundreds of thousands of individuals within these organizations.
More and more frequently change cannot be attained on a national level only, but demands advocacy on an international level. Thus, a lively European Talent Support Network will coordinate and align more and more institutions and organizations to contribute to collaborative change efforts on all levels ranging from the microsystem to the macrosystem on a European level.
We want to conclude this contribution with a simple equation: The more institutions will join the ETSN, the stronger will be the Network and the more visible will be the many benefits of the cooperating Talent Centres and Talent Points. Indeed, synergy effects will occur in all areas and on all levels of activities. Gifted education and talent development will thus be not any longer just the challenge for the few persons in the immediate environments of the talents, but truly the joint mission of a vibrant, synergistic Network.
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 Lianne Hoogeveen (Netherlands), Csilla Fuszek (Hungary), Brone Narkeviciene (Lithuania), Colm O’Reilly (Ireland), Ugur Sak (Turkey), Margaret Sutherland (Scotland),