By Katherine Varga
Many people assume gifted education is simply providing accelerated or additional school work. Unfortunately, this philosophy often produces developmentally inappropriate gifted education, overworking children with unnecessary and destructive workloads. This type of gifted education focuses intensely on “academics” while neglecting the all around needs of the child such as providing for adequate music, sports and social opportunities. This philosophy also assumes gifted children learn best independently without the advantage of mentors to actively guide their learning progress.
Many gifted learners process information differently from their typical peers. Statistically speaking, with I.Q.s around 130 and above, gifted students are as far away from average students (I.Q.s around 100) as children who qualify as mentally challenged in typical special education programs (I.Q.s around 70 and below). Likewise, research suggests it is just as important to have alternative teaching methods for gifted students as it is to have alternative methods for special education students (“Tips for Teachers,” 2012). Some teaching methods used for typical students may stunt the academic development of gifted students. Without appropriate gifted education, we are educating our gifted children to be average and are losing out on some of their great potential.
How do gifted students learn differently?
While no two gifted children are exactly alike, research has identified some commonalities in learning style shared by many gifted students. Some points will be expounded on at another time, but here are a few examples:
Gifted children tend to be global learners instead of serial learners (Munro, 2008). Serial learners tend to read through details without seeing the overlapping main concepts. Global learners look for patterns and scan information rather than over focusing on details. This ability to see the big picture helps them to comprehend ideas more thoroughly and understand a broader depth of implications. Education focusing on the development of higher order thinking skills and practical applications are more appropriate for gifted learners long before many of their peers are ready for this type of thinking.
Serial learners attack problem solving by methodically going step by step through a process modeled by a teacher (Munro, 2008). In contrast, gifted students prefer finding solutions on their own and often rebel or feel uncomfortable with very rigid methods of instruction. Gifted students tend to answer quickly, often unaware of how they come to answers. Unchecked, this fast thinking can become a weakness. When encountered with a very taxing problem, gifted students, used to instinctively knowing the answer, have difficulty taking themselves through a methodical process needed to find an answer. They make small errors resulting in incorrect responses. This tendency can be especially evident when gifted students reach high school and concepts increase in difficulty. Without having a lifetime of practice learning how to systematically problem solve, not having learned study skills, students find themselves frustrated with their performance on difficult tasks. Going from the top of their classes to average can be emotionally confusing and destructive to their self-concept and result in apathetic behavior towards academics. In addition, perfectionistic expectations brought to upper grades, reinforced by an academic history of relatively easy success, keeps some from fully engaging in school when risks are required (Roewell, 1984). Failure, a new personal concept for many gifted children, becomes a stumbling block many typical students have long since learned to overcome. Gifted children see their failures as faults intrinsic to who they are rather than due to the difficulty of the task or other external factors. Gifted education should be challenging enough that gifted students encounter difficulties much earlier in their academic journey than high school or later. Appropriate gifted education would allow students to problem solve where possible, teach them how to break whole solutions into smaller parts, and foster an environment where failures are seen as part of a learning process rather than the end of the world.
Typical students come to new lessons with some limited information on a topic, whereas gifted students often connect new information to a wide web of information they already know (Munro, 2008). Sometimes the connections made by gifted students seem irrelevant to the topic because they tend to think in many directions at once. Gifted children can be criticized for their creative thought when its true origin is not understood or appreciated by the teacher. A well-intentioned, but naïve, teacher can teach students the multi-dimensional way in which their brains connect ideas is inappropriate and unacceptable. Typical children often answer questions in the classroom, whereas gifted children tend to ask questions (Munro, 2008). Teachers who are not expecting many questions or who do not have the academic knowledge required to answer these questions adequately can inadvertently discourage gifted children from asking questions and seeking more information. Gifted education requires teachers who are truly masters in their subject area (VanTassel-Baska, 2005). Pieces of paper that indicate endorsement in one area or another are likely not sufficient to effectively measure the level of mastery achieved by a potential teacher of the gifted. Likewise, a curriculum with flexibility is also necessary to accommodate questions and various directions for study (VanTassel-Baska, 2005).
These are just a few ways in which gifted education needs to be significantly different from the education models currently offered. The purpose of gifted education is not to create an elite group who look down on their peers, but rather to recognize gifted students do indeed learn differently and would greatly benefit from instruction targeting their unique learning styles. “Busy work,” easily resented by gifted students who can see the lack of practical purpose, will never replace an appropriate and thoughtful education geared towards the development of an intelligent, independent-thinking, problem-solving, balanced and happy child.
Munro, J.. (2008). Understanding How Gifted and Talented Students Learn. In Melbourne Graduate School of Education: Studies in Exceptional Learning and Gifted Education. Retrieved July 18, 2012, from http://www.edfac.unimelb.edu.au/eldi/selage/documents/GLT-
Roedell, W.. (1984). Vulnerabilities of Highly Gifted Children. In Reoper Review, Vol 6, No. 3. 127-130.
Tips for Teachers: Successful Strategies for Teaching Gifted Learners. (July 25, 2012). In Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Retrieved July 25, 2012, from http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10075.aspx.
VanTassel-Baska, J. & Stambaugh, Tamra. (2005). Challenges and Possibilities for Serving Gifted Learners in the Regular Classroom. In Theory Into Practice, 44. 211-217.