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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do We Know How to Teach Highly Able Learners?

By Peter DeWitt — June 15, 2012 6 min read
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The reality is that we need to look at this issue as achievement versus growth. Many highly able learners may achieve high grades without ever growing at all.

Teaching highly able learners is a topic that we often ignore in education. We discuss how to teach struggling learners and spend a great deal of time discussing how to meet the needs of special education students. However, when parents state that their children are gifted, some teachers (and a few administrators) politely smile and roll their eyes when the parents leave the room.

There are a few sad excuses why this happens. Sometimes parents will enter a new school and tell a teacher that their child is highly able, and then after testing and other authentic assessments, the teacher finds out the students is not highly able at all. There are parents who want their children to be gifted so they tell everyone around them that there child has special capabilities. In a nation that pushes children to the breaking point, some parents want their children to be more academically gifted than they really are because it helps them stick out in a crowd.

For full disclosure I have been a skeptic. After teaching for eleven years and being a principal for six, I heard my share of “highly able” stories. I often worry that we push kids too much too soon. They need to be Michael Jordan on the court, Tiger Woods on the field and Doogie Houser in the classroom (I’m showing my age). However, I began questioning my own skepticism when I began teaching. I began to feel uncomfortable that I was contributing to the problem and not being a part of the solution.

The truth is that if we have so many students who qualify for Academic Intervention Services (AIS) we must have students on the other side who qualify as highly able. Some times we cannot see it because the child who is highly able does not want to show us what they know. Other times, our own stubbornness blocks us from being able to see that a child has the ability to advance quickly or engage in academics at a much deeper level than their peers.

The issue becomes complicated when we look at the fact that children with special needs or those who qualify for AIS may get extra services by teachers other than their classroom teachers. Highly able children often do not get special services and it is left to their teacher to find engaging and authentic learning experiences for them. If a teacher is working in isolation, which using 21st century skills should never happen, or feels overwhelmed, they may not feel they have the time to search for these activities on their own.

Do We Know How to Teach Gifted Children?
I often wonder if highly able learners are snubbed because teachers are unclear on how to challenge them. Given high stakes testing woes, increased responsibilities and higher class sizes, some teachers are burned out and cannot meet the needs of their most gifted learners. So instead of finding something new, they give more of the same.

In addition, they tag the highly able learner as the “teacher’s aide” or put them with a group of struggling learners. That merely takes away the true learning experience from the learner and it makes them the co-teacher which is not their job. Their job is to be engaged in the learning process.

Recently I reread an article on giftedness by Carol Ann Tomlinson. Carol has long been a favorite writer of mine, and I feel that no one knows curriculum and instruction like she does. Tomlinson gives some great advice on how to teach gifted and talented learners.

She states:

  • Good curriculum and instruction for gifted learners begins with good curriculum and instruction. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop the talent of a highly able student with insipid curriculum and instruction. Like all students, gifted learners need learning experiences that are rich. That is, they need learning experiences that are organized by key concepts and principles of a discipline rather than by facts. They need content that is relevant to their lives, activities that cause them to process important ideas at a high level, and products that cause them to grapple with meaningful problems and pose defensible solutions.
  • Good teaching for gifted learners is paced in response to the student’s individual needs. Often, highly able students learn more quickly than others their age. As a result, they typically need a more rapid instructional pace than do many of their peers. Educators sometimes call that “acceleration,” which makes the pace sound risky. For many gifted learners, however, it’s the comfortable pace-like walking “quickly” suits someone with very long legs. It’s only “fast” for someone with shorter legs.
  • Good teaching for gifted learners happens at a higher “degree of difficulty” than for many students their age. In the Olympics, the most accomplished divers perform dives that have a higher “degree of difficulty” than those performed by divers whose talents are not as advanced. A greater degree of difficulty calls on more skills-more refined skills-applied at a higher plane of sophistication. A high “degree of difficulty” for gifted learners in their talent areas implies that their content, processes and products should be more complex, more abstract, more open-ended, more multifaceted than would be appropriate for many peers.
  • Good teaching for gifted learners requires an understanding of “supported risk.” Highly able learners often make very good grades with relative ease for along time in school. They see themselves (and often rightly so) as expected to make “As,” get right answers, and lead the way. In other words, they succeed without “normal” encounters with failure. Then, when a teacher presents a high-challenge task, the student feels threatened. Not only has he or she likely not learned to study hard, take risks and strive, but the student’s image is threatened as well. A good teacher of gifted students understands that dynamic, and thus invites, cajoles and insists on risk-but in a way that supports success"(National Association for Gifted Children).

Achievement vs. Growth
The reality is that we need to look at this issue as achievement versus growth. Many highly able learners may achieve high grades without ever growing at all. Other highly able learners may not be engaged at all and end up failing classes or doing poorly on academic work because they do not find it meaningful.

Using proper growth models, and high quality data, we need to make sure our highest ability learners are growing in the same way that we want our struggling learners to grow. It is not an easy job and it is one we need to discuss more. Although our time is limited and often taken away from us to meet mandates, it is worth our while to do so. We need to really look at why parents think their children are gifted and reflect on why some teachers may believe they are not. We don’t want these children to leave us feeling they were never engaged at all.

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MacAulay, Janine. Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board - Top Ten Things Everyone should know about gifted and talented students

Tomlinson, Carol Ann (1997). The Do’s and Don’ts of Instruction: What It Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well. National Association for Gifted Children

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.