ASCD's Education Update this month includes an article "Six Strategies for Challenging Gifted Learners" by Amy Azzam. As a parent of a gifted child, I read this article with thoughts of her and what I want her teachers to do to help her learn.
Strategy 1- offer the most difficult first. Instead of having students start with the easy practice problems, have them start with the hardest. In math worksheets and textbooks this is usually the last ones. If students can correctly answer the last 4 or 5 questions, they do not need to practice on the others. This is similar to Robyn Jackson's idea of having a red flag. Students who cannot pass the flag mark, need to do the assignment, students who have it, only need to do it if they want to. If students are successful, they could be assigned an alternate assignment. As a strategy, this is easy to apply to math assignments since most are arranged in order of difficulty. Other types of textbooks have a range of strategies for arranging questions. If we know what they are, we can select the ones we want everyone to be able to answer, the ones the struggling students need to use as scaffolds and the ones that are beyond what we expect. Make assignments based on that knowledge. Phrases like, "You need extra practice, so I want you to do questions a, b, and c," and "You don't need more practice with this so a) the assignment is optional or b) do questions c, d, and e."
Strategy 2- Pre-test. If students are able to achieve a certain score on a test before the unit is taught, they can be assigned a different set of activities. This does require extension activities be available. Students can be assigned deeper assignments. For example, if you are studying the Civil War, perhaps a student could be asked to read a series of personal narratives around an event and write a paper or produce an oral report on the particular event. If you are studying ecology, a student could investigate the Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spills and compare them in their environmental impact. If you are reading a whole class novel, perhaps the student could compare some aspect of the novel to another novel or movie that requires some evaluative impact. If you are studying how to find volume of polyhedrons a student could be asked what is the effect of increasing the height versus increasing the radius or apothem.
Strategy 3- Prepare to Take it Up. This is about the age old idea of differentiation. Have assignments at various levels for students to attempt. The levels can be student or teacher selected. This is clearly more work for the teacher because multiple assignments are required, but it can lead to more interesting assessment. True having three math worksheets- one with addition of two digit problems, one of three digit and one with four digit problems or one with base ten block images and one without, or leveled assignments from a textbook manufacturer- is easy. They are readily available. Coming up with different levels of an essay may be more challenging- one with graphic organizer scaffolding, one without. NOT ever one is one page and one is three pages. The essay could look at characterization of a major and clearly stated character versus one that uses more indirect characterization. Assignments could be look at just this text versus compare two texts. In New York the engageNY modules include many of these challenging assignments with scaffolding. Scaffolding could be eliminated or reduced. Additional scaffolding could be provided.
I remember kindergarten orientation when they talked about the new full day program. I asked about extending the academic rigor to meet my daughter's needs. One parent got up and remarked how the teacher had kept his child busy teaching other kids. As far as I know my young child had not gone to school to learn how to teach. The article even says, "Don't assume that by making gifted students tutors, you're providing a learning extension" (p. 3). The teacher offered to send home work that would be at her level. Unfortunately my five year old was tired after a day of coloring and did not want to then be stretched. This was not the teacher taking it up. This was me teaching my daughter. If I had wanted to home school her, I could have made that choice.
Strategy 4- Speak to Student Interests. My son's teachers utilized this strategy to engage motivation. His interest is antique bottles. The social studies teachers allowed him to periodically bring in one bottle and tell the class how it related to the time period of interest. Other teachers simply let him have the stage for ten minutes to share about his interest. He was engaged because he wanted that perk. Taylor Wilson, the youngest person to create nuclear fusion (see The Boy Who played with Fusion), talked about the joy of sharing his interests with his peers and with the world on TED talks. Being able to share his special interest validated his research and gave him a purpose for participating in less interesting, "slow-paced" classes that his age-mates were a part of.
Strategy 5- Enable gifted students to work together. My daughter talked about a time in first grade when she was consistently paired with another child who struggled. The teacher paired them up because my child was patient and capable and could help the other one through the assignment. She hated it because she ended up doing the majority of the work. On the other hand, she has participated in Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth program and loves being able to interact with a bunch of kids who think "fast" like she does. They can relate like kids, something she struggles with in our rural school district where there are not many high ability kids in her grade. While our gifted kids need to be able to work with everyone, they need to have a chance to "geek out" with their cognitive peers. We have sports teams for our best athletes and select music groups for our musicians, we need to have opportunities for our academically gifted to work together too. One study I read said that gifted kids are reported to not like group work. In one sense they don't. They don't like being paired with poor performers who they have to teach or do the work for. They enjoy groups with other highly capable students.
Strategy 6- Plan for tiered Learning. Again this is differentiated instruction. It may involve questioning at different depths of knowledge or providing different ranges of scaffolds to achieve a goal. Tomlinson talks about planning the lesson for your brightest student and then putting in place the strategies to make it accessible to the other learners. This might involve grouping for extra instruction, providing graphic organizers, vocabulary lists, leveled readings, text to voice or voice to text technology, or various other supports.
While many of these strategies fall under the differentiated instruction category and do involve extra upfront work, there are multiple pluses: students will be engaged if they have work at an appropriate level, they will feel respected for their unique abilities, and they will be learning- a right all students have. One of my favorite assertions is that "All students have the right to learn something new every day, whether they are in regular classrooms, or in special education, language acquisition, or gifted programs" (p. 4). We often forget this when we have the mindset that gifted students will get it and don't need to extra support or that it is unfair to enrich their education with extensions off the regular curriculum. It is no more unfair to do this than to have cut athletic teams or special ed support. We need to meet the needs of ALL our kids. This includes our gifted learners.