Education Opinion

Curriculum Compacting

By Tamara Fisher — November 01, 2007 5 min read
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Professional development – What thoughts and feelings do those words conjure up for you? Excitement? Boredom? A chance to improve your skills and learn new, interesting teaching strategies? A painful time of listening to someone talk about a topic you already have a handle on?

We’ve all been there at one point or another – sitting in a required professional development class listening to someone go over Bloom’s Taxonomy or some other concept/strategy that we’ve been using effortlessly for years because we’ve already learned about it and incorporated it into our methodology. We grumble our way through the session, irritated that we have to sit on our butts “re-learning” a topic we could have taught just as well ourselves, if not better. Partly we’re irritated because we have SO much else to do! Many teachers would categorize a situation like this as wasted time.

Clarification: My hypothetical example above does not pertain to ALL professional development!

I use the example, though, because it is a great way to help teachers relate to and understand what a gifted kid is experiencing when the material being taught in class is not at the right readiness-level for the child. We don’t like it when someone else puts us into that kind of a situation, yet we routinely do the same to the gifted students in our classes and we expect them to just take it – graciously, no less.

In part, we’ve been set up. Most college teacher preparation programs don’t teach future teachers how to adequately meet the needs of the gifted students who will end up in our classrooms. Consequently, we walk into teaching without a very important toolbox.

I brushed up against this topic last week, and today my goal is to give you the handiest of tools for your new toolbox: Curriculum Compacting. You could equate it to an adjustable hammer :o) And its best feature is that it’s free!

Curriculum compacting involves a few important steps, all with the aim of allowing students who have already mastered content the opportunity to move on and learn new content and/or to explore the topic in greater depth.

A tip before you begin trying this strategy: Start small. Try it out first with a class/topic/lesson/subject you feel comfortable attempting this on. Be within (or close to) your own comfort zone for your inaugural steps. This will help you to develop confidence in the strategy and in your ability to implement it, which will enable you to branch out from that point on.

So, what do you do? Well, first you must determine which of your students are possible candidates for curriculum compacting. You’ve had enough time in the school year thus far to develop some idea of which students complete their work faster (yet still relatively accurately) compared to others, which students you can’t seem to keep busy, which students seem to have a wealth of outside information, and which students consistently score well with little apparent effort. [Side note: Some gifted kids who would be great candidates for compacting won’t show up in these ways because they have already “checked out” in school. We’ll talk about reasons for that, ways to spot it, and strategies for dealing with it in a future post.]

Your next step is to pre-test these potential candidates. You have two basic options here: pre-test everyone or pre-test the handful of students you think actually have a shot at this. There are pro’s and con’s with each option, such as the fact that no one feels left out if you pre-test everyone, yet doing so also creates more work for you as the teacher (more pre-tests to grade). You can decide for yourself which route is the best for you to take here.

The pre-test can be the one from the book (or whatever alternative curricular materials you’re using), or it can be one that you create. It doesn’t have to be extensive. With spelling for example, it can be as simple as pre-testing the kids on the week’s words before they’ve been given the list. With other subjects, the pre-test should cover the main objectives that you want the students to learn in the unit.

By examining the pre-test results, you’ll be able to see which students have already mastered all of or large portions of the content. Continuing with our spelling example – If a child scores a 100% on his spelling pre-test before you’ve even given him the list to study, before he’s written the words ten times each, before he’s used each of them in a sentence, before he’s looked up all of their definitions, and before studying them at home with mom & dad – then why the heck does he have to still jump through all those hoops throughout the week? He shouldn’t have to. He’s just proven to you that he has mastered that content. Now you can compact his curriculum.

In the case of spelling, he could be given a harder set of words, ones he hasn’t mastered yet, and still do the same assignments with them. But for other subjects, the compacting process can be more thorough, differentiated, and in-depth. Let’s say a student shows through her pre-test that she has mastered six of the science unit’s eight objectives. Well, in this case, the student has mastered much of the content, but not quite all of it. For the portions she hasn’t yet mastered, she will be learning right along with the rest of the class. But for the portions she has mastered, she can now “buy time” (so to speak) to explore the topic in greater depth, do an independent project on a subject of interest to her, work with a mentor who can expand her horizons on the topic, move ahead in the curriculum, write that book she’s been itchin’ to produce, etc. A thousand possibilities present themselves, and just which one(s) the student pursues will depend in part on available resources, available space, available time, the child’s interests, your own flexibility level, etc.

The essence here, though, is that the child should be allowed to LEARN. If this child were forced to sit through all of the lessons on the content she has just proven she’s mastered, then what exactly is she learning? That school is for jumping through hoops whereas real learning takes place when she gets home and can read her encyclopedia and conduct experiments in her homemade basement laboratory? School should be for learning, too! But unless we use strategies like curriculum compacting, it will continue to be a place where gifted kids mark time, re-learning information they had the first time.

You don’t like to re-learn something you’ve already mastered, do you? Yet it’s ironic, isn’t it, that we place roadblocks in front of kids who want to learn something new. Let’s start tearing down those roadblocks!

Anyone wanting to learn more about curriculum compacting can visit this site and this one for additional details. I also highly recommend the book by Sally Reis, Deb Burns, and Joe Renzulli.

Give it a try! Let me know how it goes…

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.