Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gifted Education: What is it? - Part II

by Katherine Varga 

Accelerated Education vs. Gifted Education:
With the diverse needs of so many students to meet, it is difficult to recognize the needs of small groups within our child population. One classic example is the tendency to assume accelerated education is equivalent to gifted education. Accelerated education is when a student is exposed to curriculum and concepts ahead of their expected grade level.  Examples of accelerated curriculum in our schools include honors classes, Advanced Placement (A.P.) classes, skipping grades and early college entrance.  For intellectually gifted students who find themselves bored and uninspired by their curriculum, research completed by the National Association of the Gifted supports the use of accelerated curriculum as a very beneficial option.  Accelerated education can offer the gifted child much needed new challenges and make more efficient use of the time the child spends at school.

It needs to be acknowledged that there are many children who do not qualify as intellectually gifted, but whom could be described as intelligent and hard-working students that deserve a rigorous and high quality education. Every child, regardless of their intellectual capacity, deserves the very best education we can provide for them.  In many cases, accelerated education may be a good option for these high-achieving students. However, the difficulty in our education system arises when we teach hard working and motivated students the same as the intellectually gifted students. When teaching mixed ability classrooms, teachers report it takes several more repetitions of new information before they can move on to new concepts.  Many gifted learners process the world differently from many of their peers, including processing in multiple directions, skipping steps, relentless question asking, and perfectionism. They are often able to engage in higher order analysis and evaluation far earlier than their same age peers. For these reasons, gifted education needs to be geared towards these learning styles in addition to having advanced placement curriculum. Classrooms with homogeneous gifted enrollment move more quickly through material and can engage in more complex learning processes. The Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, once said, “Success consists in being successful, not in having potential for success.  Any wide piece of ground is the potential site of a palace, but there’s no palace till it’s built.” Our intellectually gifted students have an enormous potential to create and contribute to the future of our society. They are our palace builders. We should not hold them back.  

Perhaps there is nothing more important for gifted education than having highly trained, creative and flexible teachers. Researchers spend a lot of time identifying what types of teachers work best for gifted students. In 2006, Carol Fertig, an expert in gifted education, compiled a list of teacher qualities most likely to be encompassed by an excellent teacher for the gifted.  Her lit review was titled, “What are the Characteristics of Effective Teachers of the Gifted.” Some teacher qualities included the following:

~A teacher who is also gifted
~A high level of proficiency in their subject area
~A love of learning which mimics that often found in gifted students
~Level-headedness, emotionally stable
~Sensitivity to students’ individuality
~Strong teaching skills
~Creating a non-threatening learning environment
~Having broad interests
~Preference for teaching gifted students

Teachers who are masters of their content are able to meet the academic needs of their gifted students. Teachers who thirst for knowledge themselves and who have been successful in their own careers provide excellent role models for gifted students. Gifted students often appreciate having teachers who they feel really understand how they see the world and how they learn.

Gifted programs are notorious for providing a rigorous program that in many cases equates to hoards of homework. Some children describe spending endless hours on homework, from the time they get home from school until late hours in the night. We think of lawyers and CEOs who spend 60-80 hours a week at the office as a little imbalanced, so why would we ask our children to spend 60-80 hours a week engaged in heavy studying? World famous violinist Itzhak Pearlman shared, “For every child prodigy that you know about, at least 50 potential ones have burned out before you even heard about them.” Children, from elementary to high school, need opportunities to nurture relationships and explore their own interests. Many gifted children thrive on creating, and creating takes a lot of time and energy. Homework may be necessary, but an excess of it should never be confused with a truly rigorous and intellectually stretching program.

Gifted academies, where a small number of students are completely isolated from their typical peers without the same extra curricular resources, may not be the best choice for our students. Gifted students need exposure to decent sports teams, quality arts programs and a variety of clubs which support creative problem solving, the development of their many diverse talents and provide leadership opportunities. In addition to being very attractive to competitive universities, well-rounded gifted children can find a haven in high quality extra-curriculars, where the demands are lower and they can associate freely with both their gifted and typical peers. In such arenas, children develop and fine-tune social skills, very necessary for their future vocational and emotional success. Teaching our children how to manage a good balance between high quality academics, social opportunities and extra-curriculars will benefit their development for years to come.