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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Part II: Meeting the Needs of the Gifted & Being Accountable, Too

By Madlon Laster — April 19, 2013 6 min read
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Madlon Laster, Ph.D., a retired teacher and reader of this blog, is today’s guest blogger. Madlon taught in the United States, Tehren and Beirut during her career. This blog is Part II in a series of II (Part I).

Wonderland’s Red Queen ran frantically to stay in place. When gifted students stroll with regular classes, they fall far behind their potential. Their minds “go to waste.” Can we meet gifted students’ academic needs when all teachers are accountable to teach for best test results?

I really do remember some things from my undergraduate classes if something nudges recall. Our el-ed prof used to tell us that if a student asked us something, and we didn’t know the answer, we should say, “Let’s look it up.” Thus we weren’t underscoring our ignorance, but modeling our willingness to keep learning.

When accountability and the gifted came up as a question, I wasn’t sure I knew the answer. I’m retired, I escaped the Teach-to-the-Test Cliff. I missed out on “accountability.” My next step was to ask someone who would know. Our Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction was a colleague I had worked with on a four-teacher team, correlated and integrated for shared students when we weren’t teamed, and then worked again as a two-teacher team. I asked George Craig III of Winchester City Schools, and he filled in the blanks!

In identifying gifted students, we observe traits and accomplishments. Students “Learn to do, by doing” (John Dewey), and Benjamin Bloom gave us the taxonomy for teaching. First students need knowledge, and as they comprehend it, they apply it to a situation or problem. Using the knowledge, as understood, to apply it to a project increases comprehension and builds retention. Rote learning still works for some things, not all.

What to do?

Differentiation is proving to be one of the best solutions to meet the needs of a wider range of students; where does that take the teacher?

A Shift in Thinking
We cannot see our roles merely as teaching, testing, and recording results for the standards we want students to meet. Standards are set for given levels and time periods. These parameters have often led experienced teachers to forego time-tested units and activities that combined fun and learning, and to focus on “covering the material” addressed by each of the standards. There was a push for heterogeneous classes. Teachers wanted all students to meet the standards, but gifted students often met the standards. They needed to be pushed beyond them.

Two dramatic shifts in thinking must occur if gifted students are to be able to develop their thinking skills. First, standards cannot be isolated as singular objectives; and, second, standards cannot be thought of as a level simply to be reached, but as a point through which all students have passed or will pass. If we see each standard as something in a list to be checked-off, gifted students in particular will not develop their thinking skills further.

English and math standards are the skills we can apply to all other subjects. Other disciplines provide context and meaning, allowing for application and evaluation. A bar graph constructed in math class with arbitrary data is not the powerful experience it would be if constructed with data from observing results of growing plants in different environments. The same bar graph has application and evaluation components when used in social studies class to represent population growth across the parallels of latitude that define the United States.

With this in mind, we see the teacher’s task is to “construct viable and meaningful learning activities that incorporate the standards"(GCIII). Teachers must relinquish the role of leading all students to the same standard. They must recognize which students will achieve the standard as the end result of the learning activities, and which students will continue to build on the standards as a result.

Learning activities will be guided by the standards, not a slave to them.

In the differentiated classroom, activities provide multiple opportunities for students to apply what they are learning. Students not yet meeting the standards require more direct-teaching to understand a process or concept. The gifted learner, building on the standard, will need the teacher for indirect support, usually conferencing. The teacher may ask pointed questions when learning is not clear, provide directions to the next step, and challenge the student(-s) to solve a situation.

Managing a differentiated classroom requires skill and patience on the teacher’s part. Very few students have been exposed to a differentiated classroom where learning takes several different forms and results in different product outcomes. Most students are comfortable with the attitude: “Give me a piece of paper and tell me what to do.”

Consider a common science topic in middle school settings: “The student will investigate and understand the natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems, including (1) the health of ecosystems and the abiotic factors of a watershed; and, (2) the location and structure of the locale’s regional watershed systems.”

In a well managed classroom the standard is seen as a point through which all students will pass and understand. With gifted students, teachers must understand that they have already acquired and can manipulate the skills of reading, comprehending, summarizing, drawing conclusions, making tables and graphs, and gathering information. These skills were learned in reading and math. The teacher must design activities for them that build on the skills, and require them to use the terms and concepts in the science unit.

Imagine planning for reading and interpreting topographic maps to understand elevation change and flow of water. Abiotic factors they are going to consider and use include: water supply, topography, landforms, geology, soils, sunlight, and air quality and oxygen availability. The unit will include nonfiction pieces in print or available in an internet search. Local maps locate factories, farms and homes to guide their understanding of run-off effects. They will investigate oxygen levels present in aquarium samples. Students will be required to put together models of new communities and defend the impact of different environmental factors they introduced.

Through conferencing with individuals and groups of students, we can guide them into complex thinking situations and applications they may miss. At the conclusion of the activities, they are able to demonstrate their knowledge of interactions with watersheds.

In too many cases of differentiation, when we judge their skill levels are too low, students are precluded from participating in thought-building exercises. Actually, all students possess the ability to think and analyze, but some are deficient in selecting input information. All students, regardless of reading or writing skills, can analyze, synthesize and evaluate. For English as Second Language and some special learners, activities are designed to involve more picture than print material. [George Craig says, “An extensive list of ideas for instruction is available by searching through the works of Jay McTighe and Carol Tomlinson.”]

Seriously consider each child, individually; see what his or her needs are. We’ll succeed in providing for the student most of the time. Highly gifted students, if emotionally mature, can be moved to upper level classes. Highly gifted high school students could skip high school, or attend a course or two on a campus while in their own high school program. Younger teens on college campuses aren’t unique. Wasn’t there a TV program about a 12-year-old college graduate going to medical school. We have a precedent in Doogie Howser, M.D.!

Learn more about Madlon here.

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.