Ignite the Spark is a collaboration between the NSW Department of Education and GERRIC at the UNSW School of Education.  This annual conference focuses on approaches to differentiation in the classroom, whole school, and community of schools’ contexts to support students’ learning. 



Developing talent: Differentiating for high potential and gifted students across all domains

In 2021 DET's new High Potential and Gifted Education Policy gives this year's Ignite a particular focus: talent development. We will bring you presentations and panels from school teachers and leaders, Australian and international researchers, and Australian gifted support organisations. Presentation topics include:

  • Capturing learner curiosity
  • Subject-specific approaches to differentiation
  • Supporting gifted and high potential learners with disability
  • Whole school approaches to acceleration and identification
  • Underachievement in gifted and high potential learners
  • Using online learning to support gifted and high potential learners and harness global-local connections

Presentations will be in a variety of formats, from Practical Project Presentations and Pecha Kuchas to Research Presentations, and will cater to various audiences, from early career teachers to experienced teachers and school leaders. Presentations will include Primary, Secondary, Government and non-Government school contexts.



Our full program is below on this page.

Please note that participants who register with Gold Virtual tickets will have access to recordings of all presentations at a later date after the conference, so you don't have to worry if there are multiple presentations you wish to attend in each session.

2021 Keynote and Panel

We are proud to announce our Keynote Speaker, Dr Susen Smith.

Dr Susen Smith is GERRIC Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the School of Education, UNSW, Australia. She has held a variety of leadership, consultancy, and educator roles from early childhood through to tertiary and adult education. Susen’s research interests include differentiating curriculum and pedagogy for underachieving gifted and multi-exceptional students and their social and emotional learning, and she developed the Model of Dynamic Differentiation (MoDD) to cater for the diverse needs of all students. She has been a visiting scholar at many international universities, guest editor of the Australasian Journal of Gifted Education (AJGE), and is published in the Roeper Review and Gifted Child Quarterly. She has keynoted internationally and most recently edited the Springer International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent in the Asia-Pacific. You can view Dr Susen Smith's UNSW Researcher Profile here.


Keynote Presentation:

Talent development and wellbeing of high potential and gifted students: Differentiating in the social-emotional domain

I taught Kahlia in fifth grade. I remember her because of her natural leadership skills: she was very articulate, had a wicked sense of humour, but exhibited compassion and protectiveness towards sensitive peers who were struggling. When he was in Year 8, I taught Greg: he had such advanced pro-social skills that he could communicate with people of all ages – peers, teachers, parents – with confidence and charm, and more often than not, he got his own way due to the eloquence of his persuasion.  Conversely, at times he swung between charming and aloof, and could employ a sarcasm that alienated his peers.

According to the NSW DoE High Potential and Gifted Education Policy, both students could be considered high potential and gifted students. More specifically, Gagné would say that these students are gifted in the social-emotional domain. While these students may exhibit many social-emotional characteristics, and display behaviours that suggest they are very confident, happy, and empathetic individuals, there are many factors that may inhibit their development. However, the potential development and wellbeing of gifted students in the social-emotional domain can be scaffolded utilising several relevant social-emotional learning strategies. In this presentation, I will provide student stories as a foundation for illustrating their characteristics, competencies, and associated behaviours. Combining the research while following the guidelines of the NSWDoE’s High Potential and Gifted Education Policy, I will reinforce an holistic strength-based approach to nurturing the social and emotional learning and practice needed for supporting the wellbeing of gifted students in the social-emotional domain. 

Panel members:

Susan French PSM: Principal, NSW Coordinator of the Australian National Schools Network, member of the Secondary Principal's Council and Strategic Projects Officer.

James Kozlowski: Principal, Endeavour Sports High School and Vice President, NSW Sports High Schools Association.

Ian Barker:  Relieving Principal, Conservatorium of Music, Sydney. Completing Ph.D on Creativity in Music and Music Education.

Ben North: Relieving Chief Education Officer, School Performance at NSW Department of Education.


Session 1

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, novice to intermediate experience

Presenters: Chris Robertson, Carolyn McMurtrie, Serena McLean and Silvia Rudman


Connecting globally to thrive locally

Aurora College is NSW’s first virtual school for selective, rural and remote students. We take risks, trial new ideas, and challenge boundaries and assumptions to harness students’ talents from rural and remote NSW. This presentation demonstrates how Aurora College has harnessed student talent through the provision of online masterclasses, short courses, HSC Study Days, mentoring and residential programs. All these activities seek to build aspirations, challenge students and connect them with experts they never thought they could reach due to factors such as prohibitive costs, local contexts, restricted access and geographical location. Evaluations, data, images, anecdotes and case studies will be used to highlight the benefits of Aurora and demonstrate how student talent has been developed over time.

Format: Research Paper

School level: Early Childhood, Primary, K-2

Target audience: Classroom teachers, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Susan Ward


Challenges, mistakes and effort: focusing young gifted learners on metacognition in addition to skill development 

In my research, I have found that from an early age, gifted children can become over reliant on teacher feedback and less interested in engaging with other forms of feedback, in short, they can become ‘teacher-pleasers’. So how can the focus be shifted from a passive reliance on teacher feedback to a more actively engaged student who gathers feedback from more than one source and who is involved in their learning journey? This session provides practical examples of how formative assessment strategies can be introduced from an early age and used in a powerful way to build independence during writing activities. Mathematics tasks that have been designed to focus the student on metacognition and engagement, in addition to skill development, will also be shared.

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenter: Estee Stephenson and Pip Currey


Mathematical talent development in Stage 5 

A supportive learning environment is fundamental in developing intellectual gifts into talent. The practical project presentation will demonstrate how a comprehensive independent school is supporting mathematical talent development through curriculum compacting and curriculum telescoping for a cohort of 24 homogenously grouped Year 9 students. The presenters will share information on the administrative development of the program and curriculum development. In the program development component, information will be provided on the project planning process, gaining support from the school executive and parents and meeting NESA and other compliance factors. The curriculum development section will provide examples of standardised, formative and summative assessments used within the program and discuss differentiation strategies, including the use of the Maker Model, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Kaplan’s Content-Process-Product Model.

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Carla Trott


You may already know it, but can you show it?

This mantra used in the Music classroom at the Conservatorium High School acknowledges students’ high level of ability to perform individually on an instrument, and their strong understanding of verbo-linguistic music theory terms and definitions. However, surface and theoretical knowledge is not completely reflective of skills required to be an expert musician. Talent development in the Music classroom needs to reflect the nature of the subject; it is a skill-based subject and multi-faceted. Students are regularly required to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously and master complex creative and social skills to reflect the true sense of music making. Developing these practical skills and understandings experientially can challenge students who easily master verbo-linguistic communication and learning. Effective differentiation and the use of an accelerated and compacted spiral curriculum where a sequential, aural-vocal approach to learning is regularly delivered.

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: K-12

Target audience: Classroom teachers, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Vivien Wong


My experience teaching and counselling an exceptionally gifted high school student with ADHD and ASD has taught me that talent development is a partnership that starts with a foundation of trust between teacher and student. I discuss how the milieu - such as family, community, and opportunities - can both limit and stretch the talents of a gifted student, and how to build trust with gifted students through strategies including active listening, teaching through the ‘language’ of the gifted area(s), and being open to mentor’s own limitation in the ability to fully understand the struggles of the mentee.

Session 2

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: K-12

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenters: Jo Quinlan and Claire Hoare


Realising High Potential in Maths

This session shares the school-wide, multifaceted approach to catering for high potential learners in Maths used at Barker College. The multi-criteria approach combines  a range of qualitative and quantitative tools to identify high potential learners. The identification process further informs decisions about the range of teaching and learning strategies used to support high potential and gifted learners realise talent.

Differentiation strategies discussed include:

  • Developing pull-out programs
  • Co-teaching and mentoring classroom teachers
  • Leveraging resources

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: K-12

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenter: Annelise Woo Ruiz


ZEST Living and Learning Projects

ZEST Living and Learning Projects is an enrichment structure that was designed to best cater for our high potential learners in a way that;

  • promotes lifelong learning and curiosity;
  • fits in with our academic, co-curricular, and organisational structures; and
  • develops essential enterprise skills that are used beyond school.

ZEST Living and Learning projects provide deep enrichment for students who have an intense curiosity or high-level engagement in particular subject areas or ideas that are not covered in regular school curricula. Students work on individual or small group projects in an area of choice and are provided with mentors who can help them reach academic rigour in their thinking and product via regular meetings throughout the duration of the ZEST project.

Format: Practical project presentation 

School level: Primary

Target audience: Leading teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenter: Sarah Williams


Developing a Whole School Approach to Talent Development

This presentation aims to provide a practical approach to a planned commitment to reviewing and implementing whole school talent development across all four domains, grounded by the new NSW DoE High Potential and Gifted Education Policy. Sarah will share Newington Public School’s journey in reviewing current school practices, as a quality example of where schools can ‘spark’ and/or ‘fuel’ their journey to ensuring the needs of high potential and gifted students are met intellectually, physically, social-emotionally and/or creatively. It starts with a simple but highly effective matrix method to engage all staff in schools in analysing current practice based on the 5 key actions to develop a sustainable school model in HPG Education. This encompasses whole school professional learning, pilots and trials, utilising networks, and program development as part of the review and implementation phases. The ultimate aim of this presentation is for school leaders and/or teacher experts leading within their schools to leave with some practical advice on facilitating quality talent development within their own school’s contexts. Some knowledge of your current whole school practices and/or policy will ensure you get the most out of this presentation.

Format: Research paper presentation 

School level: Primary

Target audience: School leaders, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Nicole Barnett


Differentiated instruction and talent development for gifted and high potential learners in mixed ability classrooms: Resulted from an exploration into the practices and experiences of Primary school teachers in one NSW independent school

Research into classroom practice of Differentiated Instruction for gifted and high potential learners is varied. Although teachers often hold positive views and recognise the importance of differentiating instruction for gifted students, research shows that most are underutilising the instructional practices outlined in the literature, and using them in ways that are limited and ineffective. Although a lack of training in the area of gifted education is often identified as a key challenge factor, mixed results in the positive impact of professional development suggests that teachers’ ability to modify instruction in a way that more fully aligns with gifted students’ need for greater academic challenge appears to be linked to school level contextual factors. This presentation unpacks the findings from a qualitative investigation that examined the current understanding and use of differentiated instructional practices as well as the perceived challenges of seven Primary School teachers who are employed at an Independent school in Sydney’s West. Findings from the investigation are helpful in providing school leadership teams with contextual evidence and direction for strategic school improvement plans in the area of talent development for gifted and high potential students.

Format: Research paper presentation 

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, novice to expert experience

Presenter: Wendy Powles


What factors influence the acceptance or avoidance of a learning challenge by naive gifted underachievers?

The habitual underachievement of very able students in the school in which I teach mathematics has long been of concern to staff but the problem has proven an obdurate one. The college is tagged disadvantaged and student performance in NAPLAN results and VCE outcomes is well-below the norm. I investigated what is occurring when the students I targeted in this inquiry (whom I term naïve gifted underachievers) are confronted by a learning challenge in mathematics. The presentation will explore the characteristics of these gifted underachievers, student insights and processes, results and resulting discussions. I will cover a potential working hypothesis supported by the findings that may help explain what is going on when these students hit a learning challenge and an interpretation of my results that can be used to create effective interventions in the classroom to help support these students to greater learning independence and success.

This presentation would most likely interest teachers or school leaders concerned with gifted student underachievement generally, but also teachers who teach at ‘non-academic’, schools who may have similar types of gifted underachievers in their own classes. 

Session 3

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: Preschool - 12

Target audience: Leading teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenters: Sarah Williams, Dan Skehan, Sarah James & Kylie Peters


Acceleration: One of the most effective interventions in supporting talent development 

This presentation aims to provide a committed and practical approach to acceleration as an effective talent development process across the domains of potential: creative, intellectual, physical and social-emotional, grounded by the new NSW DoE High Potential and Gifted Education Policy. The team will share an acceleration process model as a quality intervention to assist in meeting the needs of gifted and highly gifted students, pre-school to Year 12. This session will also explore a range of support measures that could be planned and applied to ensure acceleration is used effectively as a form of talent development, whilst also meeting students’ other needs e.g. disability. It entails an easy-to-follow process that follows the journey of acceleration from nomination to ongoing review through 5 clear phases, supported by the development of an optional tool to provide further guidance. This approach is from a holistic point of view of meeting the needs of gifted and highly gifted students through acceleration and across domains. The team will explore this high-stakes decision-making process involving key stakeholders, with advice underpinned by the High Potential and Gifted Education Policy 2019, NSW Department of Education, as well as actual school examples from preliminary trials at early entry, primary school and high school levels. The aim of this presentation is for participants to leave with some practical advice on facilitating quality talent development, through acceleration, within their own school’s contexts. Some knowledge of your current whole school practices and/or policy will ensure you get the most out of this presentation.

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, intermediate to expert experience

Presenter: Maja Milatovic


Talent development and transdisciplinarity: a case for challenging boundaries 

Reflecting the shifting educational terrains in an increasingly globalised world, a particular area has gained increased importance in recent years: transdisciplinarity. This presentation will cover definitions of transdisciplinarity in the context of curriculum development with an emphasis which focuses on problem solving, talent development and using talents to effect meaningful change in the rapidly shifting terrains of the 21st century. This presentation aims to analyse and evaluate the benefits of transdisciplinarity for developing gifted learners’ talents for future, technologically enriched educational contexts. This presentation argues that transdisciplinarity allows for more collaboration and nurturing of divergent thinking, and suggests that challenging disciplinary boundaries has the potential for more inclusive pedagogical practices for developing gifted learners’ talents across schooling contexts.

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, novice to intermediate experience

Presenters: Charlotte Wells & Greg Longney


Every class is mixed-ability and there's gifted students in every class: Reshaping Stage 4 English to differentiate for gifted students

This presentation details the development of a differentiated curriculum at one Sydney school. The presenters completed Professional Learning in gifted education in 2020 which led to the realisation that changes needed to be made to English programs to allow greater scope for differentiation, and discussion around text choice and student voice. This has led to the development of new strategies across Stage 4 English. The presenters will explain the rationale behind the changes being made to the programming of the English courses, the process of training English teaching staff to understand the needs of high potential and gifted learners, and the meticulous steps that have been taken, and are being taken, to reshape English courses. This includes how high potential and gifted students are identified and grouped in classes, revised teaching and assessment practices, and the outcomes for students. The presentation will also deal with the complexities involved in moving from well-established teaching, class-grouping, and assessment practices, the many misconceptions about giftedness, and managing the expectations of students, staff, and parents. The presentation is a story of enthusiasm for change, of awakening to the realities of what many students are capable of achieving, and the leadership and teamwork required to bring about meaningful change for the betterment of our students.

Format: Pecha Kucha

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers, intermediate to expert experience

Presenter: Fiona McCrossin


Classroom behaviours of a mathematically gifted student with ADHD, and individual support strategies for academic development: A case study

BIOTech Futures Challenge 2022 will see teams of high school students from Years 9 to 12 working to solve current problems in medicine, health, energy and the environment, under the mentorship of academics. The Challenge is the initiative of the Australian Research Council Centre for Innovative Bioengineering and has been increasing its reach since its inception in 2019. The 2021 Challenge saw students work on over sixty problems, including: bone regeneration without the use of implants; treatment of chronic kidney disease; provision of exercises for neurodevelopment in children with cerebral palsy; use of smartphones in limb prosthetics; use of telehealth to manage diabetes in rural Australia; biomembranes for purifying water; 3D printed corals for reef restoration; and the use of photovoltaic cells to capture bioluminescent light for electrical energy. This presentation will include examples of student work from past Challenges, together with clear processes for student participation in the 2022 Challenge.

Session 4

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: K-12

Target audience: Classroom teachers and school leaders, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Helen Baber


It’s a journey, not an event: Full-year acceleration for talent development

Full-year acceleration (or grade-skipping) is a highly effective intervention for gifted students, although not a common action taken by schools to support optimal talent development. It is often dismissed by educators due to personal preconceptions and professional misunderstandings, despite an abundance of evidence of its efficacy as an excellent provision for suitable candidates.

This presentation draws upon the literature, personal research, and professional experience to investigate the ‘why’, ‘who’, ‘how’ and, most importantly, the ‘what now’ after the time of acceleration. In this session we will bust the myths and give you tools to take back to your school to improve your HPGE practice.

Format: Research paper presentation

School level: K-12

Target audience: Classroom teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers, novice to intermediate experience

Presenter: Hedda Whitfield


Illustration of practice: Film department of education high potential and gifted education - Tilly Jones: - Composer, a gifted musician with disability

Tilly is a highly gifted music student who lives in out of home care and has multiple disabilities. Her story is one of triumph over adversity. Fostered by a family who were alert to her musicality and persevered with her talent development. Tilly chose to focus on musical composition as a career choice due to her inventiveness and passion for chamber and orchestral performance, and abilities in piano, cello, clarinet and even bananas.

This presentation includes perspectives and insights into identification, talent development in intellectual, creative and physical domains, learning partnerships (with student, family, school and community) and pathways to higher learning.

Format: Practical project presentation

School level: Secondary

Target audience: Classroom teachers, intermediate experience

Presenter: Jessica McCarthy


Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast

Much like Alice in Wonderland, the journey we take our students on can take many different directions. Up, down, big, small, or somewhere in-between. To unlock a student’s talent, we need to design a unit of work that promotes curiosity and enables them to create their own journey. To unlock a student’s talent, a unit of work needs to cultivate innate strengths and promote exceptional levels of achievement. Sometimes letting go of what you think a learning product should look like can lead to the most wonderful outcomes that you don’t expect. How can we design and assess a task that asks provocative questions that have no answers? This presentation will showcase units of work that have been designed with no end in mind. With open ended questions that allow students to build their own inquiry. Rubrics and marking strategies will be discussed, as well as how this model can fit into any classroom and promote the talent of not only gifted and high potential students but also the underachievers and the disengaged.   

Organisational units