Teaching Gifted Students

With all the buzz in education today revolving “inclusive” classrooms and differentiating instructions for students with special needs, there should be more talk about how to challenge gifted students more in the inclusive class environment… but there isn’t.

Gifted students have special needs, too. They need to have challenging, thought-provoking activities and instruction that will motivate them to keep working. Gifted students also have the same developmental needs as all other children, too. Like their non-gifted peers, they need age-appropriate social and emotional development, and they have every bit the right – same as students with learning disabilities or other impairments – to a least-restricted environment, or LRE, as mandated by federal law. What does this mean? One, that skipping a grade, especially when dealing with the youngest children, is not always appropriate for the gifted child.

The good thing is, differentiation for inclusive settings works both ways: it serves the needs of the lowest-functioning students, as well as the highest-functioning students. While traditional education focused on a core, “average” student body, leaving other students to fall through the cracks either out of inability, difference in learning style, or just plain boredom, the concept behind differentiation is that lessons can be designed with flexibility to handle many learning styles and levels of ability. One method of differentiating instruction for gifted students is called “curriculum compacting.”

What is curriculum compacting? Quite simply, it is acceleration of the curriculum for gifted students. Teachers who write lessons for curriculum compacting write for a baseline, going the speed that the average student is expected to learn new material at, while leaving room to make adjustments for students who go faster or slower. Gifted students benefit from this instruction method because, when they prove that they can handle a higher level of material in a particular unit, the teacher will give them more challenging material to tackle instead of just taking them through the paces most other students must go through. So, if a student happens to excel in, say, the history of the Iroquois, then instead of reading the textbook passages and completing “busy work” worksheets, they may read a more in-depth text on the subject and create a poster based on what they have learned, which in turn can be presented to classmates either in a presentation or simply by hanging it on the wall. If that same student has more difficulty with Latin America, for example, they will not be required to do the same level of work in that case, but can instead do what the majority of the class is working on. This is great, because it does not rely on parents insisting their children are gifted, standardized test scores, IQ scores, or anything like that. It relies on proven ability and interest, unit by unit, or lesson by lesson, while avoiding skipping grades or separating students, tracking, etc. Students feel less forced, less bored, and hopefully more willing to learn.

To determine which students need extra help or can instead take on more challenging tasks, teachers can create assessments to discover students’ background knowledge and ability levels prior to teaching a unit. Teachers really should be doing this anyway, if even in a less formal way, such as brainstorming sessions or class discussions, usually making use of a graphic organizer. However, ungraded quizzes or journal writing are great assessment tools for teachers who want to use curriculum compacting. Quizzes are best for assessing background knowledge, which is a fairly strong indicator of acheivement. Journal writing, on the other hand, can be used to assess not only background knowledge but also subject interest, writing abilities, literacy levels, and depth of understanding. No matter which method is used, it should be fairly quick and painless.

If you have a consultant teacher in your classroom or are otherwise co-teaching, make use of him or her to split up the class on occasion. The consultant teacher, or CT, may take a diverse group of students and teach the lesson somewhat differently, mixing low and high acheiving students in a small class environment that benefits both. Always remember, of course, to mix up lessons to deal with different learning styles. For examples of learning styles and possibilities for instruction, refer to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, a must-read for all teachers, and of course, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains for ideas on how to build on students’ pre-existing knowledge and skills.