Debate: Between academic excellence and precocity, knowing how to make a difference


Gifted, intellectually precocious (EIP) or high potential (EHP) children: these names are increasingly common in discussions about education. This goes from the observation of a not insignificant number of pupils concerned in France, to the criteria of detection and support of this profile with particular need.

This subject comes up at school: in the teachers’ room where a teacher, having difficulty with a pupil, wonders if the latter is gifted; during exchanges between teachers and parents where the latter talk about the precocity of their child to justify the problems raised by the school.

However, this profile of students is not the only one with special educational needs. The risk of over-media coverage of a profile is to make others fall into oblivion. This risk is particularly high for students who are excellent academically but who do not have high potential.

Need of recognition

The terms used to designate people showing exceptional intellectual aptitudes are numerous: in France we speak of gifted, precocious, geniuses or very recently of zebras; in the United States, it is “gifted”, “dotato” in Italy and “high ability” in Europe. These adjectives are used to qualify

“A child who demonstrates the ability to perform, in a certain number of activities, performances that most children of his age fail to achieve”,

and tending to learn “effortlessly and at a particularly fast pace, exhibiting insatiable curiosity and excellent memory”.

The comparison with other children of their age creates the first point of attachment when we are interested in this student profile at school. But the second lies in the fact that a certain number of these pupils encounter academic difficulties , sometimes hampering their progress in their course.

There is therefore a need for national education to recognize the existence of children with high potential and their need for educational adaptations. The presence of this title in the education code shows that they are officially and institutionally recognized.

Excellence and precocity

Throughout France, teachers are likely to welcome intellectually precocious students, and therefore have to support them during their schooling. What difference do they make between excellence and high potential in the respective peculiarities of their needs?

As part of a national survey aimed at primary school teachers in priority education collecting more than 1,500 responses, we asked them about their perception of excellence . In our sample, very few consider academic excellence to be synonymous with precocity (of the order of 1%). Here are the terms they use:

“In this questionnaire, I considered children with very high academic success, known as“ gifted ”, and not those who work a lot at home. “

“For me, in short, the subject of this questionnaire on excellence is actually precocity. “

The vast majority therefore differentiate between the two. They identify for them different educational responses depending on the profile with a specific orientation towards specialized structures when it comes to high potentials.

“Of course, I am only talking about excellent children and not gifted children where there, the structure of an ordinary class does not suit. “

It is through these comparisons that teachers define what an excellent student means to them.

The very great academic success results from the great adaptability of the child who must know the codes, the constraints and the expectations of the institution and the teachers.

“The successful student is neither a bean, nor a gifted person, nor a genius: just a child who evolves faster than the rest of the class. “

There are therefore different profiles of precocious pupils and of excellent pupils: a precocious pupil is not necessarily excellent and vice versa.

Forgotten by the system

Too much media coverage of the notion of precocity, like all the labels that we place, can obscure certain profiles, such as that of the excellent student.

Indeed, teachers, particularly those working in priority education (target of our survey), face many recommendations around their essential role for the future life of students. They are asked to fight against dropping out of school, to counter failure and overcome difficulties, but also to take into account those “suffering from handicaps, learning difficulties and social inequalities”.

Added to this is the ideal of the teacher who can change lives . This creates significant pressure that can go as far as real professional unease .

Teachers find themselves forced to make the choice of students to favor, when the equitable distribution of time between each is not possible. These labels go with these prescriptions that they induce and lead those who do not have to be left out by depriving them of the attention they deserve.

This is the conclusion of our work on excellence in priority education, with the risk described by professionals of making excellent students (not labeled therefore) forgotten by teachers and teaching.

Governance by numbers

Today, it is still the WISC test ( Wechsler test suitable for children, fifth version since 2016) which is the benchmark for measuring student performance in the school context. Here we find the recurring debate around the relevance of comparative tests, as there is for the PISA (International Program for the Monitoring of Learning) surveys.

Indeed, the fact that there is a number of students with a high score on this test who fail at school and other excellent students with a score within the standard is important information. So we don’t take a lot of risks by claiming that the WISC test is not foolproof.

Please note, the purpose here is not to deny the existence and especially the need to take into account and a specific adaptation of teaching practices to the particular profile of high potentials, or even to demonize the test. The Wisc is necessary to identify the EIP because it makes it possible to detect those in school failure who have a high potential. But it is not in the framework of excellence because it does not identify it.

Here we come to the idea, defended by Alain Supiot in his work on governance by numbers , of the danger of overestimating the role and status of these numbers. If society and, therefore, teachers, give too much value to the result of this test, they risk focusing primarily or even exclusively on EIPs, to the detriment of others, including excellent ones who would be identified as non-EIPs. The latter, if they are not early, risk suffering from a lack of support, which is essential to allow their potential to be expressed.

Author Bio: Caroline Hache is a Senior Lecturer at Aix-Marseille University (AMU)