Gifted students are an interesting group. They are often not the most popular kids in the class, usually not the most outgoing, and are often self-conscious of their abilities. Due to honors-level classes and gifted programs, there’s a good chance the student is gifted in a content area outside the content area you teach. Nonetheless, the students who wear the title of “gifted” are capable of thinking in ways the average students are not. It’s not necessary to fully understand the quirks of the gifted mind, but it is necessary to realize these students get bored very quickly with the “one-size-fits-all” nature of the everyday coursework. Teaching gifted children is a challenge on its own, but teaching those students in a classroom of non-gifted children is going to take some extra time. There’s no way around it.
For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that you know who the gifted students in the class are, and what area of giftedness they possess. One of the first things you’ll need to do is have a one-on-one conversation with each of them. This isn’t counseling. It’s a conversation. Strangely enough, gifted kids often come into the classroom before other students do, and don’t usually mind staying a minute or two after others leave. Simply engage the student in a short conversation about their strengths and weaknesses. Just having a conversation, with a little nudge in one direction or another, will uncover the student’s area of gifted ability. Let them know that you will do your best to keep the course interesting and challenging, but without giving additional homework or making them do anything the other kids don’t have to do. Kids in this category are typically very sensitive to these things, and will sometimes suppress their abilities to fit in, or to avoid working harder than their peers. Having this conversation, though, sets the stage for regular conversations with the student. This is a major key to extending assignments to meet the abilities of the student.
Fostering advanced thought requires forming questions that reach the higher levels of thought. Most instruction in the average classroom focuses on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Knowledge, Understanding, and Application are commonplace, and the gifted student generally has the ability to know, understand, and apply what is taught. When offering assignments to a class, specifically including lessons that reach for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as options will present the gifted student with the opportunity to go beyond the others, without making him or her feel obligated to do so. A short conversation with the student after the assignment is given to encourage choice can apply the right pressure, but don’t push. Something like, “Which direction were you thinking of going with this assignment?” can have the student reconsider taking the easy road, which they often gravitate toward. Ask them what they think of the assignment, and if they had any ideas of their own. This can free the student from the limitations of the teacher’s creativity, and allows the student to take ownership of the assignment. Rather than doing something for the teacher, they are doing something they chose to do, and at a level they chose to be at.
Asking questions of a class with varying levels of ability usually results in the most outspoken students answering. As teachers search for the correct answer, or a variation of responses, the gifted students may be looked at by the others as always having the right answer. A great way to avoid this is to have all of the students write their answers on paper, or on a personal whiteboard. Then the teacher should select the students who respond out loud. Sometimes including the gifted student’s answer, sometimes not, lets the other kids know that they have to contribute without relying on the efforts of others, and takes the weight off of the gifted student. Remember, they have been gifted for years before your class, and the other students know this. During your next one-on-one, ask what the student wrote, and comment on it individually – away from the ears of others. This fosters thinking from the student that go outside the student’s comfort zone. Remember, they don’t want to be different in front of their friends. Encourage difference, but shelter it from the harshness of the social group that judges them. Once their confidence is established, they’ll be more relaxed in answering questions from unique perspectives.
Finally, teaching students with high intelligence requires pushing the information to the next level of understanding. The best way to do this is to provide reality-based problems. Make the student aware of some problems you are having with class dynamics, or in presenting a particular concept to the class. Get their input before the assignment, and their cooperation in teaching it. Maybe they’ll want to work with kids who struggle, or maybe they’ll see things from a different perspective that teaches you, the teacher, something you’d never considered. The secret is to let go of your control just a little. Allow the gifted student a little more leverage, a little more choice, and plenty of encouragement to think in ways they haven’t thought before, about things the average kids believe are random. But above all, show an interest in the student and his or her world, not just in their abilities as they pertain to your content.