Developing talents on the highest level
Sir Karl Popper Schule is an integral part of a public school named Wiedner Gymanasium located in the 4th district of Vienna. It is a special branch with experimental status for highly-gifted pupils comprising grades 9 to 12. There are two classes per year with by 24 pupils in each, one science oriented (called “Realgymnasium“ in Austria), one humanities oriented (called “Gymnasium“). 188 pupils are attending this school at present, 405 have already graduated. Admittance is based on the results of internationally acknowledged test methods conducted by an external institution.
The concept – a learning culture which supports giftedness
This school sees itself as a “learning system“ as defined by Karl Popper. Continuous development based on experience and internal and external evaluation is the most important principle.
According to data gathered in scientific evaluations, the overall success of this experimental school is not only due to the positive effects of the classical instruments of gifted education, but can be attributed to the dedication of its teachers.
Gifted education as understood at Sir-Karl-Popper-School is, consequently, not a question of (systemic) structures or knowledge (methodological competencies), but a pedagogical attitude. The strongholds of this attitude are open-mindedness and the appreciation of the learner as well as the respect for the uniqueness of the learners. Teachers respect their pupils as unique individuals with specific talents and acknowledge their right to experimenting and asking new questions. This requires a high amount of tolerance, permanent training on the job and the willingness to learn. The concept constitutes a paradigm shift: from teaching as the key issue (methodology, didactics, pupils as passive receivers) to learning (discovering, asking questions, self-organisation, construction of knowledge, mathetics). The most important goal is the success and the learners' self-efficacy (the feeling of accomplishing, succeeding). Teachers have to have a high degree of awareness - in addition to their role as “experts“ teachers also have to the fulfil the role of “trainer“ and “coach“ (a learning companion).
It is one of the most widespread misunderstandings about high giftedness still prevailing in society that the highly-gifted have not got any problems and if they had some, they could easily deal with them on their own. Or that highly-gifted children would automatically turn into an elite of future Nobel prize winners.
In reality the remarkable potential of these people may not be used by themselves or society if they are not adequately supported. There is still no conclusive evidence, but one can assume that a general intelligence quotient is no scientifically sound concept. One must rather differentiate between different kinds of intelligence (numerical, figural, verbal intelligence etc). Only a whole battery of internationally tested and standardised tests can provide an insight into the potential of a person. In the context of schooling it has to be stated that marks do not correlate with intelligence. Thus, honours students cannot qualify as highly gifted, and those with average marks or even below ones as ungifted.
Personal responsibility of the learner
Learning processes are being personalised when the learners find their own ways of learning and by co-creating teaching.
In particular this is implemented by “Contracting“ in all subjects in the first month of the school year, i.e. a consensual written agreement on methods and marking. The teachers communicate their criteria for performance.
Focus on the individual learner, assignments (individual learning plans), and working arrangements assisted and supervised by the teachers provide the learners with a high degree of autonomy.
The learner collect their reflections upon their personal learning paths and steps they have taken in institutionalised “Coaching“ lessons in the form of the so-called “Begabungsportfolio“. (Cf Talent Portfolio)
Life competency as a pillar of the school system
Pupils who do not attend Religious Instruction, must attend the alternative subject Ethics.
In grades 9 and 10, pupils attend the compulsory subject “Communication and social competency“. In grades 11 and 12 additional electives focus on Communication in the context of education, leadership, leading styles and on systemic theory. In grade 10 pupils apply compentencies acquired in the subject KoSo in a multi-disciplinary project called “kompetent sozial“ (socially competent). This means that within one week of the school year pupils work in different institutions which care for people with special communicative needs. In the preparational phase they themselves establish contacts to these institutions and prepare for possible difficulties in communicating. After this week they reflect upon their experiences together with a group in the subjects “KoSo“, Religious Instruction and Ethics.
In grade 12 pupils work on their own expectations and ideas on future professional practice in a two-day seminar-like session.
Classical instruments of gifted education
Enrichment does not mean more of the same, but enhanced quality. The quality of knowledge and understanding is more important than its quantity. Thus, enrichment is an integral part (and guiding principle) of learning and manifests itself in concrete extra-curricular offers:
In the first year pupils are equipped with the basics for scientific and inquiry learning. This will be sided by an introduction to scientific work and techniques of presentation.
In grade 10 pupils are introduced to library research in different Austrian institutions (School library, City Library, University Library, National Library)
Research work is studied from a multi-discliplinary perspective. The results of this work will be presented at a “Scientific market place“. By writing (pre)scientific texts pupils are prepared for a paper which will be a compulsory part of the future Austrian Matura (i.e. the school-leaving exam).
Extra-curricular practice in the last two years try to prepare or take the first steps into university life. In the context of the “Universitätspraktikum“ (a practice phase at university) pupils attend lectures or seminars of their choice. Attendance will be reflected in a protocol.
“Experts go Popper“ is a series of lectures and workshops given by scientists and experts from different contexts. “Popper Goes International“ implies that (groups of) pupils (of grades 11 and 12) attend national and international conferences and report back to their classes.
To prevent enrichment from putting excessive time pressure on pupils, accelaration will provide time and space for other activities. In the course system of the last two years curricula are compacted in history, geography, biology, physics and chemistry.
Partially skipping grades is made possible in the revolving door model.
The written final exam can already be written in French, Latin and Spanish at the end of the pre-ultimate year.
Gifted pedagogy in terms of individualised and personalised learning will reach its limits in heterogenous groups. Therefore occasional grouping according to interest and talent is required.
The modular system of the Sir-Karl-Popper-Schule offers learning surroundings comparable to universities.
The choices offered by the system lead to increased autonomy and prepare for university studies.
Individualisation - Personalisation - Commitment
Individualisation is seen as a pedagogical principle. Phasing of individual work, “Labs“, and a series of extra-curricular workshops at the beginning of the second term support individualisation. Structures such as these and the open, learner-focussed attitude of the counselling teachers make for individualised learning processes. This takes into consideration learning styles, learner types, individualised learning paces, interests and preferences. The learner is at the centre of pedagogical action. Support is provided according to strengths. Gaining knowledge is an elementary constituent of the evolving personality.
Such a School of the person (in G. Weigand's sense) provides learners with the possibility of gaining the authorship of their own lives. (personal pedagogy). As a person the learners interact with their social surroundings. Individualisation as defined as as personalisation needs commitment.The product of this individual learning process must consequently have an impact on school life.