Gifted Learners in the Regular Ed Classroom

The nice thing about a blog is that I can post my fondest desires for education, and it will either fly away like bubbles in the wind or hit home for anyone who reads it.  Today is one of those days I feel like sending bubbles out to the universe.  Here goes...

Gifted learners in the regular ed classroom deserve to be challenged at their level and not receive just more of the same.

During my time in the classroom, I had the opportunity to work with a wide range of ability levels.  I see you nodding your head. I know many of you have shared that same experience.  In the schools I was in, gifted students were sprinkled around like the sugar on the top of a donut.  Teachers were up in arms if they didn't get their fair share of the gifted learners.  They saw them as a group that would drive their test scores up with little or no effort on the teacher's part, thus, giving the teacher more time to work with the students who just didn't get it.

Often, the battle for who snagged the most gifted students didn't end with the teachers.  Parents would wonder why the gifted kids were pulled out of class for "special programs." Or worse yet.  Why were these kids grouped together in one classroom, and why couldn't their son/daughter be in that class?

Consider this fictitious letter to the editor:

Editor: I am writing to express my grave concerns with homogeneous grouping for gifted students in my child’s district. Our country was founded on the principle that all men (and, in this case, students) are created equally. I believe that all children are gifted in some way. By allowing homogeneous groups to occur, we teach our children that some kids are “better” than others are. I feel it’s important to have a balanced number of high, medium, and low students in a classroom, so there is a role model available for the students who don’t quite “get it.”

Having smart kids dispersed throughout all the classrooms gives teachers extra help that they need in a couple ways: (1) the high kids don’t need as much teacher supervision as some of the other learners, thus, freeing teacher time for those students who need more help and (2) the high kids can help their classmates, taking some of the load off the classroom teacher. Imagine how those high students will feel when they realize they’ve helped their classmates succeed. Finally, if those gifted kids get finished faster, they can do some extra credit or help out in another classroom. I just don’t think they need special treatment by being grouped together—a regular student's concerned parent.

Hmmm, seems to fit in our "everybody wins" philosophy, but I offer this response:

Dear Concerned Parent: I applaud your understanding of our founding fathers’ purpose in creating a new nation. Thinking further, one of our country's best features is that everyone has the opportunity to advance to his/her highest ability. While all children have talents, giftedness is an entirely different matter.

Homogeneous grouping for gifted students allows them to have a support system in the classroom, someone to bounce off their ideas.
A gifted student has special needs, not unlike a child who has difficulty with math or reading. I’m sure you wouldn’t expect a non-reader being placed in a regular reading group or a math student who doesn’t understand when it’s appropriate to add, subtract, multiply, or divide in an algebra class. Those students are grouped together for help in the areas in which they struggle. The difference is that gifted students can read and understand literature way beyond their grade level. Their math skills and ability to problem-solve place them in an advanced state of mathematical understanding.

 These students deserve the opportunity to have their academic needs met at the level they are functioning. It is much easier for one teacher per grade level to plan those advanced lessons for a group than for all the teachers at that grade level to plan for one or two advanced students in their classrooms. Just as you’d want your child to have peers he can relate to in his classroom, gifted students need academic peers that understand where they’re coming from. While gifted students can understand teacher instruction and work independently, they still need the coaching and feedback the rest of the class is afforded. It is not their responsibility to become additional teachers in the classroom. They are there to learn, just as the rest of the students are.

As far as “extra credit” is concerned, think of this: You are very good at your job and always finish your work quickly and accurately. Your reward for this is that your boss gives you more work (or extra credit, if you will). I’m guessing your response would be to slow down and get done what’s assigned for one workday. But what if your boss said he would offer you more training for advancement because of your diligence? More than likely, you would be eager or intrinsically motivated to continue the higher level of work for the appropriate reward. Gifted students operate the same way. They want to advance by learning beyond what is expected, not just do more of the same.

Homogeneous grouping for gifted students allows them to have a support system in the classroom, someone to bounce off their ideas. It helps cut down on teachers' planning time when gifted students are in one room instead of being scattered throughout all the classrooms in the grade level. It alleviates discipline problems from “bored” students, allowing them to spend time doing what she was hired to do: teach. 

Homogeneous grouping does not create an elite class of students; it merely meets the high-achieving group's educational needs, just as pull-out classes for special education meet the other end of the learning spectrum's needs. GT Liaison

I was a building liaison for gifted learners since the inception of the program in our district.  I was never able to convince the staffs I worked with the logic of grouping gifted learners together.  It's my hope for the future that we stop treating gifted learners in the regular classroom as a commodity and, instead, give them the same opportunities to excel at their own rates as everyone else has.

"A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit."  Caine & Caine

5 Teaching Strategies to Engage Your Students

Teaching Strategies that work for all kids.
I have found the best way to engage learners is to make it real for them. The five teaching strategies listed below offer varying levels of independence and exploration for kids. And really, it makes teaching so much more fun to see kids fired up as they make connections in their learning. 

1. Cooperative Learning/Group Investigations


A teaching activity in which the teacher purposively uses small group interaction to forward new learning and accomplish academic and social skills.

My Recommendations

Groups should be flexible, ideally, 3-5 students, created by a teacher, students, or needs-based. It's important to set group standards and have students self-reflect on their participation and the group's function.

Benefits: Collaboration among students; deeper thinking and understanding; enhanced feelings of empathy for others.

2. Differentiated Instruction


Student-centered, whereby teachers provide appropriately challenging learning experiences for all students. Provides multiple approaches to content, process, and product. Assessment is ongoing to develop the next steps. Purposeful student movement/talking. Flexible grouping.

My Recommendations

Students become engaged learners when they are appropriately challenged with meaningful lessons. This method creates a reasonable range of approaches to learning much of the time so that most of the students find learning a fit most of the time.

Benefits: Students take responsibility for their own growth/needs. Collaboration between teacher/students ongoing to develop appropriate lessons. Builds on what students already know.

3. Simulation/Role Playing


Simulation: An inductive teaching method in which students assume the roles of people engaged in complex, real-life situations. 

Role Play: The involvement of students as participants and observers in a simulation of a real-world situation.

My Recommendations

Students learning best by emulating real life. Simulation is an effective method for making real-world situations, past or present, come to life for students as they become part of the event. Role-playing is fairly easy to employ and can be used across multiple subject areas with a fairly quick preparation time, depending on the complexity of the task.

Simulation Benefits: The increased likelihood that concepts and principles induced from the simulation will be transferred and applied to the real world. 

Role-Playing Benefits: Growth and understanding related to content; students' understanding of others' beliefs and values; problem-solving skills.

4. Inquiry-based Learning


An inductive teaching strategy in which the teacher poses a task, problem, or intriguing situation, while students explore the situation across small changes in the data set and generate insights about the problem and/or solution.

My Recommendations

Inquiry-based learning uses real-life issues with real-life data to solve problems. Closed inquiry gives the teacher control of the question. Open inquiry gives control of the question to the students. 

Benefits: Increased self-awareness; awareness of different points of view; enhanced curiosity; increased understanding of concepts and principles; enhanced ability to solve problems.

5. Creative Problem Solving & Problem-Based Learning


An inductive teaching method in which the teacher presents an ill-structured, novel, and complex problem for students to investigate and solve collaboratively with teacher guidance and coaching.

My Recommendations

This would be the most ambitious method but allows for the most autonomy for the students. Because of the problem's ill-structured nature, data and resources may not be readily available, creating additional challenges. The teacher is truly a mentor or consultant, as students follow a scientific method approach to problem-solving.

Benefits: Acquisition of new knowledge, concepts, and principles; enhanced problem-solving ability.

Cooperative Learning, Differentiation, Simulation-Role Playing, Inquiry-Based, PBL

I created a copy of 5 Classroom Teaching Strategies as a handy teacher reference sheet, which you can get right here

I'd love to hear how you use these strategies in your classroom!

"No practice is truly a best practice unless it works for the individual learner." Carol Ann Tomlinson