In the world of education, the needs of the very brightest learners can all too often be overlooked because it is assumed that they’re the lucky ones. After all, their intelligence gives them a head start in life, doesn’t it? We may tell ourselves, “These smart kids don’t even need teachers because they can just teach themselves.” We may also think, ”Bright kids will always succeed; if you have the blessing of brain power, you can adapt and thrive at whatever you choose to do.” The reality can be a far cry from this idealised perception and there is a plethora of global research to show how, sadly, the lowest achievers can often be the smartest kids in our schools. How can educators identify these students, and how can they be challenged appropriately in our school systems? A school’s approach to how it supports its most able students speaks volumes about the pedagogical expertise of the faculty, and how uniqueness is valued in that learning community.
Each school community should consider the following three issues when reflecting on its pedagogical approach to advanced learners:
1) What language will the community use when describing and discussing such individuals?
‘Gifted’ is often the label used to name and describe students who have learning needs that go beyond their grade’s typical higher ability group. However, being academically advanced is not a gift when you consider the confusion, isolation and frustration experienced by those who develop asynchronously. Removing the word ‘gifted’ from our educational communities should be our first step towards understanding the learning needs of our academically advanced students.
2) How will the community identify students who require additional challenge?
What is considered advanced or exceptional in one school community will be different to another. The identification of mastery should take the same approach though and this depends on the mindset as well as the expertise of the teaching community; providing learning activities that allow exceptionality to show itself is key. Deliberately perplexing and arduous learning experiences are necessary to channel a student’s intellectual horsepower, particularly their critical thinking. Creative and limitless opportunities for inquiry and self-expression allow for the fruition of differing perceptions, new ideas, and the connection between seemingly disparate emotions and issues. Furthermore, providing learning experiences at a pace that is faster than that of the rest of the peer group is often a necessity for advanced students as they can present an insatiable thirst for learning – which is often hidden when attending effortless and uncomplicated lessons day after day, all year round, which can become more about endurance than learning. Those students who do not have the stamina to maintain focus, manners, interest, enthusiasm in the face of what they feel as monotony, may be described by onlookers as intolerant, withdrawn, argumentative, apathetic, rude, isolated, disaffected…and much more. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the bright student are sometimes viewed negatively by their peers and teachers, or that unfavourable labels and incorrect diagnoses can be seamlessly attached. If teachers provide closed-ended tasks, with scaffolded processes and outcomes, at a slow pace, then identifying advanced students will be problematic.
3) How will the learning community best provide for those individuals who require additional challenge?
Providing a personalised curriculum for the academically advanced learner in a mixed-ability group can be an incredibly complex path to navigate, more complicated than those whose competencies develop in a more synchronous manner. Stretch and challenge for academically advanced students—which includes subject-specific extensions, or better yet, extensions that are transdisciplinary and open—need very careful consideration. Educational provisions must go beyond the traditional higher ability group and provide something supplementary to what their typical, grade-level curriculum and environment can offer. (There is also an argument that we should remove grade-level curricular for the benefits of all learners since one size should not fit all, but that is for another blog post.) For the teacher, the academically advanced student will likely have a sense of learning urgency. Their insatiable thirst for new material and challenges can be exhausting for the adult to manage, often leading to a feeling of spinning an excessive number of plates – all for just one student. The craving for more complicated tasks means teachers need to plan for supplementary depth and breadth, often taking the form of tangential curricular topics. This demands for teachers to be adept in their subject matter, which can provide implications for professional development needs.
Quick fixes (and not necessarily long-term effective provision) may include moving a student into another ability group so that he or she can learn according to their strengths, and not their age. Schools can take practical measures to address this approach by aligning primary and high school schedules to allow say, mathematics, to be taught at the same time, meaning that teachers can be fluid in their placement of students. Mixed-age learning between two or more grades could become the norm. Flexible teaching schedules can utilise the expertise of teachers so that the secondary science specialists can work with the primary teachers to plan for extension activities, or that the social studies coordinator may help a teacher to plan out a project with a particularly advanced student in mind. Of course, this type of support will be of benefit to all learners as teachers are then able to focus more on individual needs. Not every school will allow for this type of flexibility in its scheduling though, and it may be better suited to a primary school model.
Going one step further, specialist teachers may undertake pull-out instruction – a literacy coordinator working with a group of highly able readers on writing based on personal interests, or novel studies, for example. Similarly, a marine science coordinator could work with a group of fast-paced learners on an extension project once they have achieved mastery on their grade’s class topic of environmentalism. Going further still, some schools write alternative curricular offering broader and deeper enrichment opportunities to nurture students’ areas of strength, often requiring extensive time during the usual school week to dig deeper into complex and thought-provoking projects. For example, a small teaching team could offer a specialist STEAM programme for advanced mathematicians, combining personalised instruction with the social and collaborative application of content and skills. And then there’s the extra-curricular opportunities for extension and enrichment – higher level thinking groups for those students who just crave the opportunity to think and talk about big ideas that are close to their hearts can be highly effective vehicles of challenge.
Providing for exceptional thinkers and learners who are organised by grade level can get more complicated if the student is working two, three, four years beyond their biological age as sometimes increasing the curriculum demands are not suited to their maturity and meta-cognition. In these cases, teachers need to look within their wider school community to find the right challenge and support, and also beyond: mentors, experts, specialist programs and outside agencies can be essential challenge mechanisms so that personalised curriculum is carefully planned for. There is also the global community as well: skyping with an expert from a university on the other side of the world can make the brain neutrons fizz for students who can not obtain that level of relativity in their more immediate community. Creating online networks with like-minded peers living in different cultures can also provide a sense of belonging and identity, if it is not available in their intellectual locality. Maybe, the PBL approach is the best model, whereby all students are challenged at their level and pace, according to their interests, and immediate needs of their communities? Furthermore, our conceptual understandings will remain meaningful and relevant to our continued human growth but all too soon, technology will replace the need for the human brain to compute in the way that it does now – knowing how to use technology to create and meet our needs will be all that we need to know in the future. In this case, the issue regarding how to provide for the academically advanced may soon become obsolete.
For advanced students (as with all students), success in school depends on strong and open communication between learners, parents and teachers, flexible working attitudes, taking time to understand individuality, and a call to action for everyone to consistently strive for excellence. As the world is changing at a faster pace than ever before, focussing on how individual strengths can be cultivated so that their best can be unlocked, as opposed to closing the gaps in areas of weakness, is a mindset that we all need to embrace if we want a society of leaders, innovators, artists and entrepreneurs. Continuing to identify areas of improvement in an effort to bring everyone into grade-level standards, enforces and reinforces a system of singularity rather than uniqueness. In the words of A.J Juliani, ‘The world as we know it is created by chefs. The cooks are along for the ride.’ For every educator, we have to ask ourselves this: are our classrooms and schools creating cooks or chefs?
Ultimately, meeting the needs of our highly-abled learners can often feel like we’re solving a complex jigsaw puzzle: it can be a long process, there can be many components to piece together, and various compositions may be tried before we are all satisfied that the fit is right. But as the movers and shakers of our planet are generally, in whatever shape and form, exceptional human beings, it is in the interests of our global success to nurture these individuals; this will allow for them to unleash their cognitive prowess for the prosperity of all human beings. As such, it’s an area in which we should all invest in.