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Brain Research Fuels Drive To Alter Teaching of the Gifted

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Salt Lake City--New research on how the brain functions is adding further evidence to support the idea that gifted and talented children should be taught in ways that develop their creative potential as well as their ability to analyze facts.

The research, outlined for educators at an international conference here, has found that the parts of the brain controling intuitive, creative, and rational functions are all interconnected. As a result, according to researchers, students learn better when all the mental processes are engaged.

"Students must balance all their abilities, not just the linear-rational, which we have focused on," said Barbara Clark, professor of education at California State University at Los Angeles. But though educators have argued for years that schools should stress multiple-skills learning, she said, the fact that standardized tests typically measure only linear-rational abilities has meant that those abilities are emphasized in programs for the gifted.

But that heavy analytical slant, said Calvin W. Taylor, professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah, can actually harm students who are gifted in creative and problem-solving areas.

The development of areas of creativity is more vital for gifted pupils than for anyone else, he said, because they are so often "programmed to fail."

"We tell them that they'll excel in everything, and then they don't," said the reasearcher.

Nearly 2,000 participants from 30 countries were drawn to the Seventh World Conference on Gifted and Talented Education here last month. Only the second such meeting to be held in the United States, the conference was sponsored by the London-based World Council for Gifted and Talented Education.

Skills and Content Linked

The conference took place in the context of an escalating war of4words over the value of content-based educational methods.

Scholars such as E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, have criticized schools for focusing on skills development to the detriment of content.

But like Mr. Hirsch, who says in his best-selling study that "facts and skills are inseparable," the conference participants argued that instruction in skills must be linked to instruction in content.

"You can't teach process isolated from content," said James J. Gallagher, former director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina. "You need to have content.''

"Students can do divergent thinking on nonsense," but a more effective strategy, he said, would be for teachers to ask, for example, "'What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?"'

Brain Research

The brain research discussed at8the conference has established the fact that all parts of the brain--not just those considered to be the center of rational activity--contribute to understanding.

Linda Jensen Sheffield, professor of education and mathematics at Northern Kentucky University, noted, for example, that the so-called "reptilian" brain, which controls autonomic functions such as heart rate and body temperature,also includes the area known as the reticular formation, which determines what sensations people pay attention to.

In addition, the cerebellum, or emotional part of the brain, can trigger responses in the cerebrum, or rational part. If the cerebellum is "enjoying" the stimuli it is receiving, she said, it is more receptive to new information.

The implications in such findings, said Ms. Clark, are that teachers should engage students' emotions, physical being, and intuitions, as well as their reason.

For each lesson, students shouldel10lread about a subject, see visual representations of it, and act it out, she said. If they are learning about the brain, they can "be" neurons.

"Students learn that way until they come to school," Ms. Clark said. "It is we who started the separation."

"We see the most amazing understanding, once children put themselves in the time and place they are studying," the researcher added. "Itcompletely changes what the text reports."

Teachers also benefit from the "whole brain" instruction, Ms. Clark said. "The teacher shares the learning and the excitement. She becomes more creative and can use her own personality."

Not Yet Caught On

Ms. Clark and others noted that good teachers already use the "whole brain" approach, even if they are not aware of the physiological justification for it.

But despite the recent research emphasis on multiple-skills learn4ing, the idea has not yet caught on widely, they said. Some pointed to the fact that the gathering here was the first to focus on creativity in the 14-year history of the World Council.

"Creativity has not been sufficiently addressed," said A. Harry Passow, the Jacob H. Schiff professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College and president of the council. "Schools need to do much more along those lines."

In addition, other participants noted that while the teaching of thinking skills has long been part of the literature in gifted education, much of the pertinent research in that area has yet to be implemented in most classrooms.

"We have 'miles to go and promises to keep' as far as the delivery of effective thinking-skills instruction goes," said Carol L. Schlichter, professor of education at the University of Alabama.

Reforms Needed

Implementing new teaching strategies for the gifted will require reforms in teacher evaluation that encourage or allow instructors to try new methods, said Mr. Gallagher of the University of North Carolina.

"The evaluation of teachers, done with good intent, can force teachers into patterns of behavior that are not productive," he said.

Teacher evaluators usually favor orderly classrooms, he said, but that may be inappropriate if teachers are working to develop creativity. "Order is good, but under certain circumstances, a certain amount of 'creative noise' is a wonderful thing."

Standardized achievement tests should also be revised to measure creative and problem-solving skills, as well as analytical ability, Robert J. Sternberg, ibm professor of education and psychology at Yale University said.

"We need to know more than what tests are telling us," he said. "Intelligence must be conceived more broadly."

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