For much of history, the educational paradigm has dictated that the student should adapt to the classroom. Children and teens were told to sit down, be quiet, remember what was said and repeat it. Implicit in this mindset was the belief that all students of the same age should study the same material, at the same pace, and that they should all learn it in the same way.
Thankfully, in many schools, this is no longer the case. Among the more important advances in education witnessed over the past thirty or forty years (and especially, of late) has been the growing recognition that:
- Rather than the student adapting to the classroom, the classroom should be adapted to the student
- Students learn both in different ways and at different rates
- Age-based grouping may not always be the most effective educational strategy
Students with learning difficulties, whose learning styles differ from those of the majority, as well as gifted students, have been among those to benefit from the understanding that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all education.
When it comes specifically to children and teens whose abilities place them within the gifted range, a variety of options exist for broadening, deepening and tailoring the syllabus. Some are classroom- and school-based approaches; others lie beyond the school gates. The main routes through which education can be modified to better suit the gifted fall under three headings: extension, enrichment and acceleration. Let’s visit each of these in turn.
Extension refers to the process of both deepening and broadening the syllabus. The aim is to adjust tasks such that they become more complex, or ask students to apply their own judgement or experience to a given situation or question. Examples include activities that require students to:
- Incorporate more information (or more abstract information)
- Problem-solve (often using examples derived from real-world situations)
- Use advanced critical and creative thinking skills
- Question more deeply
- Understand subtle distinctions
Whereas extension refers to ways in which to make the curriculum more challenging and meaningful for gifted students, enrichment means looking beyond the curriculum for appropriate learning opportunities. Most often, enrichment activities will be guided by a student’s particular interests, allowing him or her to explore those topics at high levels of difficulty and complexity.
Examples of enrichment opportunities include Saturday programs, university-run summer schools for the gifted and talented, field-trips, pull-out programs as well as extra-curricular activities. Also worthy of inclusion here are state-wide and national competitions such as science fairs, which are a great way for gifted students to stretch themselves and compete.
Academic acceleration, in some form or another, is the third way in which education can be tailored to the unique needs of gifted students. The process can refer to many ways of ‘speeding up’, including:
- Teacher delivery of the content at a faster pace and with less repetition
- ‘Grade telescoping’ – time compression of a year’s curriculum into fewer months, or in some instances, compression of the entire middle or high school curriculum into a shorter span of time
- Cross-grade grouping
- Grade skipping
- Advanced Placement (AP) programs
- Early college programs
In cases where student ability is far ahead of same-age peers (across a broad range of subjects), grade skipping by one or two years may be appropriate. AP and early college programs may also be highly beneficial, as they allow bright students to engage with challenging material that they may not otherwise have access to until they reach normal college age.
Technology has played a significant role in further opening up opportunities for gifted students to expand their learning. Some educational offerings are aimed specifically at gifted students, others at a far more general (and often adult) audience. Options in this realm include educational computer games, massive open online courses (MOOCs, for short), provided for free by many universities and other learning hubs, as well as the growing world of digital books downloadable to a PC or tablet, offering specialist content across a broad range of disciplines.
While no single model of educational tailoring is likely to suit all gifted students – even here, there is no one-size-fits-all! – a few general principles are likely to hold. Firstly, education should be made flexible – both in terms of content, but also in terms of depth, difficulty and speed of delivery. Secondly, inquiry-based and problem-solving approaches are likely to be well received, as such strategies allow high-achieving students to work in an open-ended way, pushing them to the limits of their abilities and knowledge, rather than requiring a set of defined outcomes.
Education shouldn’t feel like a bore or a burden. Hopefully, with an open-minded attitude and a willingness to adapt to students’ unique needs, it needn’t be.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Foam