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Virginia Journal of Education


'All Children Led Ahead'?

Helping gifted students soar.

by David Winship

I’ve been in education all my life and come from a long line of educators.  Over the last 30 years, I’ve taught gifted students, raised two daughters who were identified as gifted, and coordinated a rural school district’s gifted program.  Through these decades, I’ve seen, contributed to and struggled with how we teach gifted children -- as a parent, teacher and administrator.

We all have gifts. We unwrap them at different times and in different ways. Individual potential is not always evident, does not always look the same, and does not always manifest itself at the same time.  Our challenge with gifted education is to identify individual gifts, provide opportunities for “unwrapping” those gifts, and provide the environment within which those gifts can develop.

An important feature in the identification of gifted students is the manner by which we evaluate their abilities and efforts. The state requires that we use a multiple criterion approach, one not relying solely on a single test score. Tests are valuable in determining both how a child thinks and reasons, as well as what a child knows.  However, tests don’t show the whole story. Behavioral observation, by both teachers and parents, and student products are valuable elements in the evaluation. In gifted evaluations, tests don’t identify students; people do.

Testing is big in schools these days, and the biggest test of all is the Standards of Learning test.  The SOL tests are created to see how much of what is taught is retained by students. A criterion-referenced test can be considered a concrete ceiling test, one that does not allow students to demonstrate what they know or know how to do, only testing whether the student has learned what has been taught.

The magic 600 score of perfection is being reached more and more by our students who are well prepared for the SOL tests. There are “600 Clubs” with plaques in the hallways of our schools recognizing students who achieved perfect scores. The students are proud. The school is proud. The parents are proud. They are all rightfully proud for these students learning what they were directly taught. The most we ask of students is to make a 600. A high score on a criterion-referenced test does not mean the same as a high score on a norm-referenced test. The criterion-referenced test is not an indicator of gifted potential.  It is an indicator of “good studentness.” This is a reason that one could term gifted education in Virginia as “No Child Left Ahead.”

I’ve heard from many administrators and teachers over the years, particularly from those who have a hard time justifying the extra effort for appropriate educational opportunities for gifted students, that “they will make it anyway.”  That is only partially true. Gifted students will make something anyway. They will have accomplishments, but they may not reach their potential.  They may not make it is in a socially acceptable manner. They may not be “left ahead.”

The gifted student who is unchallenged may very well find his gifted abilities expressed in other ways, ones which we don’t particularly want to see. We have students who have decided that if they’re going to have to endure fifth grade material when what interests them is 10th grade or 12th grade topics, or what interests the high-schooler who already understands algebra is calculus or computer programming, these students will simply shut down or go their own way. Some will fail unchallenging or uninteresting subjects as they pursue their own passions.

We are doing some things right in gifted education. We do recognize that compacting the curriculum and offering opportunities for independent, focused study are valuable. We do accelerate students by offering courses further along the sequence. However, we sometimes stumble when we don’t have the next courses in the sequence available. Magnet schools and Governor’s Schools are our ultimate pull-out programs. Gifted students with these opportunities, whether on-site or online, have valuable, appropriate experiences.  Yet these opportunities are not available everywhere.

The most successful avenue we’ve found for gifted education is the one we use in our athletic programs. Those students who are recognized as having kinesthetic gifts, which translates into athletic ability, are engaged in separate training programs which nurture their abilities. They’re regularly lauded for their accomplishments and have regular opportunities for showcasing their abilities. When their gifts are nurtured to the fullest of their abilities, the opportunities for further developing beyond high school are presented. If all our academically and artistically gifted students had opportunities like those modeled by athletic programs, we would truly be teaching our gifted students.

Teachers often struggle with gifted students, partly because they present in such varied ways. Sometimes gifted behavior is hard to notice when focused on following the prescribed pacing timetable to cover content before the SOL tests. The gifted child that challenges the regular classroom teacher can be a difficult child, the in-your-face student who is constantly asking off-the-subject questions. The distracted child who needs to pay more attention is often more interested in pursuing what the teacher mentioned five minutes ago, but which has long been forgotten by other students. The bored, troublesome child who needs discipline does not respond to standard discipline because he needs to develop internal discipline, not receive external, punitive discipline. The quiet, shy child at the back of the room never answers because she already knows the answer and figures she’ll let another student answer.

We have students with gifts and abilities ready to be unwrapped, nurtured and developed.  Given the appropriate attention and opportunity, they will gain the skills and knowledge to realize their individual potential. Our challenge is to correct the course from “no child left ahead” to “all children led ahead.” Here are some ways you can help that happen:

Teach students, not subjects. Remember this, whether you teach third grade or algebra. Gifted students, if they’re interested, may have learned more recent developments than you know. Use their interests as springboards for furthering their (and your) learning.

Projects, involving both process and product, are a way of students expressing and you assessing their knowledge. A key element of project-based inquiry learning is to provide opportunities for students to pursue their own interests. A good example of this is interdisciplinary reading with science and social science assignments.

Important elements in project-based learning:
• Projects are tangible; they can be reports, demonstrations, experiments, presentations.
• Projects should take time. They should be done in stages, including outlines, drafts, feedback, correction/improvement, and delivery.
• Projects involve skill development as much as knowledge. For this reason, there is a potentially steep learning curve which can be frustrating and a real learning experience for a gifted student who has previously “gotten it” easily.
• The most important part of the project may be the process rather than the product.

Use gifted projects as opportunities for piloting activities that may be appropriate for all students. Some of my best programs, particularly in social studies, were initially presented for a gifted audience, then adapted for the mainstream classroom.

“Personal best” is a valuable athletic mindset, a concept in track events that bears transference to gifted education. For a student to recognize that what she or he is learning is for their own self-interest, self-improvement, and self-worth is a valuable lesson.  This allows the student to recognize that there is “room for improvement,” which likely will be the most constructive comment that a teacher can give to a gifted student. This also assists in the development of internal motivation, which is the only motivation that really works, as well as internal discipline, which is also the only discipline that really works.

Failure is an important learning tool for all students, particularly gifted students who are often perfectionists.  Children need to learn, from the earliest age, how to fail. Many students have developed a fear of failing, partly because passing and failing are the only options in our educational system. We’re getting better at recognizing that there are different learning styles and different intelligences and these differences may be spread throughout your classes.

Differentiation: I think we’ve all been through a variety of professional development programs on this. I recognize its difficulty, because it can become “one more thing.” Consider it “one different thing.” Remember the value of pre-testing. Evaluating what students already know and don’t know guides the remainder of the lesson. If you can carve out opportunities for compacting the curriculum because students already grasp some concepts, you have time for project and in-depth learning. The shelves of most libraries are valuable sources for differentiated instruction. Many of the nonfiction books, particularly the historical ones, are often unused but still have very useful information. Allow the different projects to be in lieu of, not in addition to, the regular assignment. This is what differentiated instruction means.

Rubrics can be introduced early as a tool for development, improvement and evaluation. Uses of multiple criteria for evaluation, a tenet of gifted education evaluation, can also be a valuable “yardstick” within the classroom. Recognize that a single test is not going to determine or evaluate what a student knows or is able to do, and have criteria as to how the student is going to be evaluated.

Skills for learning are required for independent study and, for some reason, we usually expect that the student gained those skills earlier. But it takes practice. In self-directed and project learning, the important aspects of editing and self-correcting can be very difficult for students. Many gifted students who are cruising through school have become very hurried and, in the process, very sloppy. This shows in their handwriting, their visual presentation, and their inquiry. Someone has to help them sharpen their skills. Encourage and require drafts and re-doing and editing. Encourage and require sketches and mock-ups before the final product. Please, please, do not post projects with misspelled words.

Know your students’ past and anticipate their future. This considers what they have already learned and experienced in previous grades, including what activities have been successfully matched to their learning style and abilities. Know that in the future, if compacting and acceleration have occurred, you will have to accommodate and continue the acceleration. This may require school-wide and school system adaptation, but it will work for the better in the long run.

Reality—what a concept! This is for all classrooms: Tie your lessons to daily relevance. If students can see a use for the day’s lesson or can relate to something they learned during the day on the bus ride home, you have hooked the student into learning. Otherwise, lessons can be random activities lost in a sea of stimulation.

Emotions are real.  This is a point that influences all other suggestions. The social and emotional needs of gifted students are very real, sometimes heightened, and often hidden. Gifted students’ heightened sensitivity to the needs of others may indicate that they have a heightened need for attention themselves. Often, the students’ peers will be ones who will alert adults to this need. Alertness to changes in mood and attitude is something all teachers need. Social stigmas and social perceptions within students’ still-developing brains mean they sometimes act in unexpected ways. We must respond in an understanding and, hopefully, supportive manner.

Winship, a member of the Washington County Education Association, is retiring this year after 29 years as a K-12 librarian and county-wide elementary gifted education facilitator. He also serves on the state board of the Virginia Association for the Gifted.

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