2nd Thematic ECHA Conference: Plenary presentations

The 2nd Thematic ECHA Conference organised in March 2021 addressed its topic, Closing the Achievement Gaps in Gifted Education, by showcasing its various aspects from the point of view of talent support. In addition to the presentation of best practices, to symposia and roundtable discussions, we had the opportunity to listen to plenary presentations by renown experts of the fields concerned, who introduced us to the latest research results day by day.

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-Kubiliust, 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. 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.

Talent is a special kind of natural resource that is available in every country.