Young, Gifted and Underachieving

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Young, Gifted and Underachieving: Examining the role of mentoring in assisting underachieving highly-able students achieve their educational potential
Pauline Laurenson

Under the supervision of Dr. Joe O’ Hara, School of Education Studies, Dublin City University

Table of Contents




List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1 Introduction

    1. Background 1

    2. St. Mary’s Secondary School 2

    3. The Learning Schools Project 3

    4. The Historical Context of Gifted and Talented Education 8

    5. Exceptional Ability and the Irish Education System 9

    6. A Surge of Interest 11

    7. The Government Position 12

    8. The Economic Climate 13

    9. The aims and objectives of this study 14

    10. Conclusion 15

Chapter 2 Literature Review

2.1 Introduction 16

2.2 Defining Gifted and Talented 16

2.3 George T Betts and Maureen Neihart- Profiles of Gifted Children 19

2.3.1 Type 1- The Successfuls 20

2.3.2 Type 3- The Challengings 20

2.3.3 Type 3- The Undergrounds 21

2.3.4 Type 4- The Dropouts 21

2.3.5 Type 5- The Double Labelled 22

2.3.6 Type 6- The Autonomous Learner 22

2.3.7 The Usefulness of Betts and Neihart’s Profiles 22

2.4 Reasons for Underachievement among Gifted and Talented Pupils 23

2.4.1 Motivation- Intrinsic or Extrinsic? 26

2.4.2 Self-efficacy 27

2.5 Positive Psychology 28

2.5.1 What is Positive Psychology? 29

2.5.2 Positive Psychology and the Mentoring Process 31

2.5.3 Criticisms of Positive Psychology 33

2.6 Metacognition 34

2.6.1 Linking the literature and practice 37

2.7 Mentoring 37

2.7.1 The Relationship between the Mentor and the Mentee 39

2.7.2 Qualities of Effective Mentors 40

2.7.3 Structure 43

2.8 Mentoring: Benefits for Adolescents 44

2.8.1 Social and Emotional Development 45

2.8.2 Cognitive Development 45

2.8.3 Identity 50

2.9 Criticisms of Mentoring Interventions 51

2.10 Education Management Theory 54

2.11 Communities of Practice 54

2.11.1 Boundary Practices and Boundary Objects 55

2.12 Distributed Leadership and Communities of Practice 56

2.13 Distributed Leadership 57

2.13.1 A Framework for the Study of a Distributed Leadership Perspective 58

2.14 Criticism of Distributed Leadership 62

2.15 Conclusion 66
Chapter 3 Methodology

3.1 Introduction 68

3.2 Action Research Defined 68

3.3 Research Paradigms 69

3.4 Positivism 69

3.5 Naturalism 72

3.6 Critical Theory 74

3.7 Action Research 76

3.7.1 Advantages and Disadvantages of Action Research 79

3.8 Using Action Research 80

3.9 McNiff’s Model of Action Research 81

3.9.1 What Issue am I Interested in Researching? 82

3.9.2 Why Do I Want to Research this Issue? 82

3.9.3 What Kind of Evidence Can I Gather to Show Why I Am Interested in this Issue? 82

3.9.4 What Can I Do? What Will I Do? 82

3.9.5 What Kind of Evidence Can I Gather to Show that I Am Having an Influence? 86 Data Collection 87 Focus Group Interview 88 Parent Focus Group 89 Student Focus Group 90 Interview 92 Types of Questions 94 Student Questionnaires 95 Parent Evaluation Sheet 98 Learning Journal 98 Teacher Reports 99

3.10 How Can I Explain That Influence? 100

3.10.1 Data Analysis 100

3.10.2 Validity 102

3.10.3 Self- Validation 102

3.10.4 Peer Validation 103

3.10.5 Learner Validation 103

3.10.6 Triangulation 104

3.11 How Can I Ensure That Any Judgements I Make Are Reasonably Fair and Accurate? 104

3.11.1 Ethics 105

3.11.2 Research Bias 106

3.11.3 How Will I Change My Practice in the Light of My

Evaluation 107

3.12 Conclusion 108
Chapter 4 Data Analysis and Findings

4.1 Introduction 109

4.2 Management and Analysis of Data 109

4.3 Gifted and Talented Provision 114

4.3.1 The Usefulness of Betts and Neihart’s Profiles 115

4.4 Reasons for Underachievement in Gifted and Talented Pupils 117

4.4.1 Motivation 118

4.4.2 Organisation and Study Skills 122

4.4.3 Lack of Self-Efficacy 124

4.4.4 Lack of Self-Discipline 126

4.5 A Twice Exceptional Student 129

4.6 Metacognition 130

4.7 Positive Psychology 135

4.7.1 Positive Psychology to Improve Self-Efficacy 135

4.7.2 Self-Discipline 138

4.8 Mentoring 139

4.8.1 A Caring Relationship 140

4.8.2 Structuring of Mentoring Sessions 141

4.8.3 Confidentiality 143

4.9 Practicalities of Mentoring 145

4.9.1 Space and Privacy 146

4.10 Management Theory 148

4.11 Communities of Practice 148

4.11.1 Boundary Practice 149

4.11.2 Boundary Object 150

4.12 Distributed Leadership 151

4.12.1 Distributed Leadership and Communities of Practice 151

4.12.2 Leadership as Practice 152

4.12.3 The Many not the Few 153

4.13 Conclusions Regarding Distributed Leadership and Communities of Practice 154

4.14 Conclusions 155
Chapter 5 Conclusions and Recommendations

5.1 Introduction 156

5.2 Gifted and Talented Pupils; Teacher Knowledge and Information 157

5.2.1 Recommendation 157

5.3 Reasons Gifted and Talented Pupils Underachieve 158

5.3.1 Recommendation 159

5.4 Conclusions and Recommendations Regarding Positive Psychology 160

5.4.1 Recommendations 161

5.5 Conclusions and Recommendations Regarding Mentoring as an Intervention 161

5.5.1 Recommendation 162

5.6 Conclusions and Recommendations Regarding Communities of

Practice 163

5.6.1 Recommendation 163
5.7 Conclusions and Recommendations Regarding Distributed

Leadership 164

5.7.1 Recommendation 165

5.8 Overall Conclusions 165

5.9 How Will I Change my Practice in the Light of my Evaluation? 168

5.10 Summary of Findings 169

Bibliography 158


List of Appendices
Appendix A Parent Information Sheet

Appendix B Parent Consent Form

Appendix C Student Information and Consent

Appendix D Ethics Application

Appendix E Letter to School Board of Management

Appendix F Copy of DRT Test

Appendix G Copy of CAT3 Test

Appendix H Minutes and Transcripts of Mentoring Meetings

Appendix I Teacher Feedback: Cyclical Reflections and Final Reports

Appendix J Student Data: Sample Interview Transcripts and Questionnaires

Appendix K Parent Data: Focus Group Minutes and Feedback Sheets

Appendix L Reflective Journal

Appendix M Extracts from metacognition resources

Appendix N Mentoring Handbook

Signed Declaration

I hereby certify that this material, which I now submit for assessment on the programme of study leading to the award of MA in Education Studies is entirely my own work, that I have exercised reasonable care to ensure that the work is original, and does not to the best of my knowledge breach any law of copyright, and has not been taken from the work of others save and to the extent that such work has been cited and acknowledged within the text of my work.

Signed: ____________ (Candidate) ID No.: ___________ Date: _______


I extend my sincere gratitude and appreciation to my supervisor, Dr Joe O’Hara for his support and valuable guidance throughout the study.

I wish to thank all the teachers, students and parents who participated in the study. The commitment of the teacher mentors was admirable and their support very much appreciated.
Finally, and most importantly, I owe a deep gratitude to my family and friends and in particular my parents who have always supported my educational endeavours. A special thanks to my great friend Caitriona for her proof reading skills, patience and attention to detail. And, of course, very special thanks in particular to Iain, my husband, for patiently delivering cups of peppermint tea to our chaotic study and for coping without access to our ‘shared’ computer particularly as the deadline loomed large.


Young, Gifted and Underachieving: Examining the role of mentoring in assisting underachieving highly-able students achieve their educational potential.
The education of gifted and talented pupils is a topical issue and one of growing concern to many parents and teachers. This was of particular concern in the school in which I was a teacher.
The school determined students as being of high ability when they scored in the top ten percent of the school population as indicated by standardised tests they completed prior to and upon admission. These tests were the Cognitive Abilities Test 3 and the Drumcondra Reasonsing Test. Teachers were also encouraged to identify students who they perceived to be highly able in their subject area.
The aim of this study was to examine reasons why pupils of high ability might underachieve and to address these issues through the use of a mentoring project. The mentors used positive psychology and metacognition strategies in an effort to get the students to achieve their potential.
Another aim of the study was to consider how a project of this nature might be managed in a large secondary school with limited resources. The use of a distributed leadership model of management in conjunction with a community of practice was examined as part of this study. An action research model was used to conduct the study which focussed on a small group of pupils in one school.
The overall findings suggested that there was merit to mentoring as a potential approach with these students. The students responded well to some of the positive psychology and metacognitive strategies and enjoyed the one to one support the mentoring offered them. However, the study also looks at other ways that some of the more successful strategies might be shared with the students given the labour intensive nature of one to one input in a time of scarce resources and concerns regarding its sustainability. In terms of managing a new initiative in a large secondary school, the distributed leadership model in conjunction with communities of practice was deemed an efficient and effective means of implementation.

List of Abbreviations

CAT 3 Cognitive Abilities Test 3
CTYI Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland
DCU Dublin City University
DRT Drumcondra Reasoning Test
ICEP Irish Centre Education Psychology
LSP1 Learning Schools Project 1
NCCA National Council for Curriculum and Assessment
SDP School Development Plan
SESS Special Education Support Service
SLSS Second Level Support Service
TES Teacher Education Section

Chapter 1

Introduction and Context

    1. Background

This project took place in St. Mary’s Secondary School1, a secondary school situated in a large town in rural Ireland. It attempted to address to the needs of underachieving but highly able students through the use of mentoring. For the purpose of this study, students who achieved in the top ten percent of the school’s population based on two separate standardised test results were considered to be highly able. This is in keeping with the NCCA’s (2007) guidelines which are explained in further detail in section 2.2 of chapter 2.

The need to focus on this group was identified after the school had participated in the first Learning Schools Project (LSP1) which was a project funded by the Teacher Education Section (TES) in region 4 of the Education Centre Network. Established in 2004, the TES’s remit includes initial teacher education, initial teacher induction and continuing professional development (CPD) throughout teachers’ careers. Education Centres are funded by TES and their principal activity is to organise the local delivery of national programmes of teacher professional development on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The other partner in supporting schools in LSP1 was the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) also funded by TES. The SLSS provided subject specific as well as generic professional development supports for teachers. For the purpose of CPD provision and support, the network of education centres is divided in to six regions and region 4 refers to Kerry, Cork and Limerick schools and LSP1 was a project unique to region 4. The Learning Schools Project is now in its third cycle (LSP3) but references here only relate to the first project which is now referred to as LSP1. It was through LSP1 that the school identified gaps in its provision for more able students. Further details of the LSP1 will be outlined in section 1.3 in this chapter.
A distributed leadership model and communities of practice were used to structure and organise this mentoring project and these will be discussed in sections 2.11, 2.12 and 2.13.

    1. St. Mary’s Secondary School

St. Mary’s Secondary School which was opened in 2001 is an amalgamation of two schools. The school has a population of 1,150 students, a representative cross section of the school going population in the town where it is located. This is indicated by the almost normal curve of results from the Drumcondra Reasoning Test (DRT) and the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT3) that students complete upon admission to the school. The results of these tests are collated and in an average year the school population has approximately 10% of the students in the 0 – 10 percentile category and 10-15% of students in the 90-100 percentile range (30 or more students a year). The school has students, therefore, with a wide spread of ability levels. As such curriculum and teaching must cater for a wide range of ability in particular in 1st year classes which are mixed ability.

In the initial period following the amalgamation, the school concentrated on addressing the needs of the 0-10 percentile group, in response to parental request, students’ needs and legislation. A review, as part of the school development planning process, by the School Development Plan (SDP) coordinator in 2007, using the booklet “Looking at our schools: an aid to self evaluation in second level schools” (Department of Education and Science, 2003) brought us to reflect that we had not given sufficient attention to the 90-100 grouping. While we had been encouraging students with over 95% in the DRT to apply for admission to the Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland (CYTI) programmes in Dublin City University (DCU) and we were providing challenge for more-able students through extra-curricular activities such as debating groups, young scientist, choir etc, we did not have anything formal in place in terms of addressing the needs of these students in the classroom setting.

    1. The Learning Schools Project (LSP1)

It was around this time that the school was chosen to participate in LSP1. LSP1, which was funded by TES, was an action research project undertaken over two years. The project’s aim was to support school based activities in order to promote the on-going development of the learning school. As the focus of our project, we chose the development of differentiation methodologies in the mainstream classroom aimed particularly at challenging the more-able students in the mixed-ability classroom. It was decided to focus on the incoming first years for the purpose of the project so that we could track the progress of a specific cohort of students.

As part of the project, a team of ten teachers completed an online course on differentiation methodologies for gifted and talented students. This course entitled ‘Teaching Gifted and Talented Students’ was run by the Institute of Child Education and Psychology (ICEP). The teachers were from a variety of different subject areas including English, Maths, PE, Home Economics and Woodwork. They also were at varying stages of their careers with some being relatively newly qualified and others having been teaching for over twenty years. Within the group, there were teachers who held middle-management posts such as year heads but there were also teachers who did not hold any posts of responsibility in the school. Following the completion of the course, the ten teachers met regularly to work on developing resources and to discuss the problems that arose when they were implementing these resources. The resources that were designed took the main principles of differentiation and attempted to integrate them in a subject specific manner. The project was led by the deputy principal, whom I assisted with the organisation and management.
The final report about the school’s involvement in LSP1, which was written by the deputy principal, deemed the project to be successful. These findings were based on feedback from the teachers, the students and their parents. The report stated that the teachers learnt a lot about differentiating the curriculum and the school believed that many of the students gained as a result. The report suggested that as a result of differentiating the curriculum appropriately, most of the schools more-able students were achieving appropriate levels of challenge in the classroom. Student feedback was obtained through a questionnaire and many parents gave positive informal feedback to the teachers and the principal at parent-teacher meetings. Despite this, there were still a small number of students who, according to their teachers, did not engage with the work they were doing in class. There was a group of approximately eight students who, although they were identified as being of high ability, were not achieving the outcomes that their results on both the DRT (Appendix F) and also the CAT 3 (Appendix G) suggested that they should. Furthermore, these students were identified as having a much higher than average reading age when they completed the D. Young cloze reading test that the Learning Support department administered during the first year. The D. Young test was mainly used to identify students who needed support because their reading ages were below average, however, the information regarding those with a reading age of higher that fifteen also proved useful as a means of cross referencing with the other tests as further evidence that the students were of higher than average ability. It was not used, however, as a means of identifying the initial cohort but it did prove to be useful additional information when building a picture of the students’ strengths. Many of these students were identified as having a reading age of older than fifteen years when they entered the school in first year aged twelve.
Teachers claimed that some of these students did not appear at all interested in school despite the teachers’ best efforts to engage them. Teachers claimed that others were disorganised and seemed to struggle to structure and organise their study. Some of these students were still arriving late to class, not listening, being disruptive, not doing homework and generally were considered to be underachieving. The more-able students who were self-motivated, organised and who engaged with school, therefore, seemed to benefit from the differentiated tasks however the other students did not engage with the tasks at all.
In one of the final meetings for the Learning Schools Project the teachers discussed their disappointment regarding the students whose needs they felt the project did not address and how best to engage them. In the course of the discussion, the idea of mentoring these students emerged. It was thought that through one to one contact the students could begin to realise their potential. The team of teachers all agreed that they would be interested in mentoring a student but were unsure as how to structure the mentoring, when and where it would take place, what areas they could cover as a mentor. I decided that because so many of the teachers involved in the project felt that these students really would benefit from one to one input, that this would be an area worth investigating.
The literature that the teachers had encountered as part of the ICEP course as well as the information in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) Guidelines, which all teachers in the group had a copy of, suggested that mentoring could have a positive impact on the students. The parents of many of these students were also concerned about their underperformance in school. This was communicated informally to staff members at parent teacher meetings.
Having no formal training in mentoring myself, I set about researching the topic as well as researching how a project of this nature could be managed in a school such as ours. I looked at the various social and emotional needs of gifted and talented students. While this project focused in the main on academic mentoring, the group of teachers involved all felt it was important to be aware of any social and emotional issues that could be impeding the students from attaining their potential.
Around this time, the Special Education Support Service (SESS) began to officially explore the provision for exceptionally able students in the Irish education system. As St. Mary’s had already been working in the area of gifted and talented provision for two years through LSP1, they were selected to work with the SESS in developing strategies for meeting the needs of the more-able students. The SESS was aiming to devise a model of provision that could be suggested to other schools that were looking for help in providing for the needs of their more able students. The involvement of the SESS meant that there was external support for this project. Through the SESS, we were able to offer an after school training session on metacognition to all the teachers involved.
As a result of the research I completed into both the needs of gifted and talented students and into mentoring processes, I decided that the mentoring should focus on helping students to structure their studies more efficiently. The idea of using metacognitive strategies to do this was very appealing. Metacognition refers to getting students to think about their own thinking; how they learn and how they structure, regulate and monitor their learning. I felt that metacognitive awareness could be useful for the students who were struggling to organise themselves and who did not know how to study. I decided that students’ attitudes towards school should also be tackled as much of the literature suggested that many more-able students viewed school in a negative light. This idea was supported by the negative attitudes that many of the students being mentored displayed in school. I also felt that getting the students to focus on their future and the best possible outcomes for their possible future selves could be beneficial. The next step was to look at strategies to tackle these issues with the students.
Because it had worked well as part of LSP1, I decided that working as a small group- or a community of practice- would be a model that would be beneficial to use. I felt that this would be particularly useful as I was trying to develop a new programme with few resources and the feedback and advice from my colleagues would be invaluable. I looked particularly at Spillane’s model of Distributed Leadership (DL) as a guide as to how this community of practice could operate. Spillane’s DL model looks at leadership being stretched over individuals in the school. In order to find out more about each of these approaches and how they might function, I had to embark on reading and research into school management and continuing professional development (CPD) in schools.

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