Interview with Margaret Sutherland, Senior Lecturer of University of Glasgow
Who are the key elements in education?
I think children are, children everywhere, one of the key elements of education are teachers. The context, however, is very important when thinking about teachers: where they are and how they were trained.
What differs in each country in terms of teaching and learning and gifted education?
There are some things that we know about learning and teaching and these are common things across countries. We know how learners learn and so on. But then we also know that within countries there are very specific things that have to be done and very specific goals at a national level. So, the context is extremely important. Each country has its own national curriculum, different resources, policies, and legislation, not to mention the cultural differences. In the case of gifted education, it is crucial to see and understand how the given country views highly able people. Is there a national program to support them? There might be, but equally, there might not be because education, and education for the gifted, is interwoven with a country’s philosophical and political views, its cultural history and its economic base. So responses have to take account of these things.
Is it important for the teachers to find a forum where they can share their experiences?
It is hugely important. We need to help teachers to work together because teaching can be very isolating. We need to learn how we can talk to each other, collaborate and where we can share our problems and experiences. When you come together and share, it makes you stronger and it can really help you.
Is there a forum to give assistance to teachers in Scotland? How does talent support work in practice in your country?
There are many ways teachers are supported in Scotland. For example, we have Education Scotland, a Scottish Government executive agency charged with supporting quality and improvement in Scottish education. We also have teacher led groups such as Pedagoo and TeachMeet – practice-sharing, not-for-profit movements run by teachers for teachers. Issues relating to learning and teaching are discussed in these forums.
The Scottish Network for Able Pupils) (SNAP) has specialised in teaching and learning for highly able pupils for over 20 years. There are gaps between research, policy and practice, and we are trying to bring those things together to help teachers. SNAP has offered support and advice to the Scottish Education system in three main areas: publications, staff development and national conferences.
On a practical level SNAP aims to offer a network of support to schools and teachers through sharing ideas and practise, provides forums for debate and discussion, offers advice to schools and teachers on how to provide appropriate challenge for their highly able learners, acts as a critical friend for school-based innovation and offers advice and information to policy makers.
What can teachers do in everyday practice? What are the layers of talent support?
Teachers should work collaboratively with others in order to give adequate assistance to highly able learners. Effectiveness of leadership within the school is also a crucial component. I mean the way school leaders decide to organize learning and how support is offered can be hugely influential in the level of support a learner received. Different ways are needed to support and organize the learning process for all. We are essentially asking for an individualized education and a universal system, this is what makes it difficult. If you look at for example, the principles of inclusive pedagogy, it is about how we support all, and not how we support some.
Are there principles that you can use in different places or you must set up your own teaching strategy everywhere?
I think there are some principles around learning and learners, and we need to look at the literature around how learners learn. We also need to look at the literature about what makes a good and effective teacher. So, there are common things that we can take but we have to take into account the national curriculum, culture and learning environment.
You are one of the authors of the online program called EGIFT, which is designed mainly for teachers working in the field of gifted education. This educational material aims to teach and support professionals dealing with highly able people. What made it difficult to compile the teaching material?
Writing something for an international audience is challenging. I think we have to be very careful that we don’t let any particular voice or narrative dominate. There are countries that publish a lot in the field of gifted education, but others can find it difficult to adopt some ideas. Just as policy borrowing is problematic, practice borrowing can be just as difficult. For instance, some of the things that happen in America do so within a specific system and context. We might find it quite hard to implement things in the same way in the Scottish context. It is also challenging to write in such a way that could be accessible and understood wherever you are across the globe.
What are the advantages and perspectives of EGIFT?
The fact that it is online and free is good because it can be literally for anybody who is interested in gifted education and has internet access. Right now, we are heading towards the end of this project and we are focusing on getting to that point. Of course new ideas emerge and so hopefully we can update once it is embedded, if the funding provides opportunity.