Dr. Ann Lupkowski Shoplik
Reprinted from C-MITES Information and Resources, 2004
What can be done to challenge and enrich the education of academically talented students in the regular classroom? Let us first consider a variety of options for those students:
- Tutor Other Children
This option is NOT recommended. Although it seems like a good idea to have bright students tutor others who are having difficulty, it is not a good use of their school time. Students who tutor others already know the material with which their classmates are struggling. They don’t need more practice with two-digit addition, for example, because they mastered it years ago. Students should spend their classroom time learning new material.
- Work Ahead in the Textbook at His or Her Own Pace,
Usually Isolated in the Back of the Classroom. This option is also not recommended. Although the student might be allowed to move ahead at a faster pace, he or she might experience feelings of isolation and probably will not learn the material well or to any great depth.
- Work on an Independent Study Project
This option is recommended as a supplement to the regular curriculum, but it is not meant to be a substitute for curriculum compacting and proper pacing. Students can use their time to investigate a topic on their own with the teacher’s guidance, or perhaps that of a community mentor.
- Work on the Same Material as Other Students, Only in Greater Depth
This approach avoids the problem of students being given more of the same work (also known as “busy work”). Instead, students have an in-depth experience at each level of instruction. Instead of developing a separate program for the gifted, the teacher matches in-depth activities with each level of the existing curriculum.
- Explore Enrichment Topics in the Regular Classroom
This option could be provided using centers. For example, most students in the class might be expected to complete Centers A, B, and C, while Centers D and E are available to students who have the time, interest, and motivation to work on additional materials. It would be ideal if students completing Centers D and E could substitute that work for Center A, B, or C. Examples of enrichment topics in elementary mathematics include: probability and statistics, estimation, mental arithmetic, spatial visualization, algebra, geometry, and discrete mathematics.
- Compact the Curriculum
Compacting the regular curriculum opens up more time for gifted students to study enrichment topics. It also helps match the pace of learning to the abilities of the student. Three basic questions asked during the compacting process are (1) What does the student know? (2) What does the student need to learn? and (3) What differentiated activities will be offered to meet his or her needs? We can address the first two questions using standardized or teacher-made tests. Teachers and students can work together to determine appropriate enrichment topics in the relevant subject area. An explanation of how to compact the curriculum is provided in Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner (2001, Free Spirit Publishing).
- Work on Assignments in Small Groups with Other Advanced Students
This option, known as “homogeneous grouping” or “ability grouping” can occur when an entire classroom is composed of students of similar abilities, or when a classroom of students is divided into groups based on ability. This grouping arrangement requires careful planning by the teacher. It can be a marvelous way to meet students’ needs, because the pace of the curriculum is matched to the pace of a small group of learners rather than to the whole class. Thus, talented students are given challenging activities, and they are not forced to wait for everybody else to catch up.
Homogeneous grouping is not popular in the United States today, mainly due to concerns about limiting opportunities for those not in the highest level groups. This problem can be avoided with proper planning, however, and research shows that ability grouping is one of the preferred options for academically talented students. The advantages include: grouping students with similar interests and abilities, giving them assignments at an appropriate level of difficulty, and allowing them to work at a pace matched to their abilities.
- Move Up a Grade In One Subject
This can be another good option for students who are particularly talented in one area. Whole-grade acceleration can also be considered if the child is talented in all subject areas. Advantages include being exposed to more challenging material. The potential disadvantage to this acceleration is that the pace of the new class might still be too slow for quick learners. For more information about acceleration, see the Iowa Acceleration Scale (Assouline et al., 2003, Great Potential Press).
- Participate in Mentor-Paced Programs that Replace the Regular Curriculum
This option is described in detail on page 10 (“The DT-PI Model”). It is ideal for those students who are exceptionally talented and need much more challenge and acceleration than the regular curriculum offers. These students are typically capable of working at least two grade levels above their age-group. Students work with a mentor in a program designed for the individual student.
Now that we have considered some of the options for educating talented youth in the regular classroom, let us turn to some of the issues that the regular classroom teacher might encounter:
- Students have varying abilities.
Since students’ abilities vary, programs offered to them should be varied; the curriculum can be matched to the abilities of students by adjusting the pace and the depth at which the material is presented. Skipping a grade in science might be the most appropriate option for one student, while doing enrichment activities and independent study projects might be the most appropriate for another.
- Students might be gifted in math, but not in other subjects.
Many students are gifted in math, but do not have equal strengths in other academic areas. In some cases, these students are not in their school’s gifted program. This makes sense if the gifted program is tailored to students gifted in verbal areas, but it is important not to deny mathematically talented students opportunities because they are not labeled “gifted.” This discussion holds true for students gifted in other academic areas as well.
- The gifted program might not meet all of the mathematically talented students’ needs in mathematics.
The gifted programs in many schools are verbally oriented, and little time during the academic year is devoted to the study of mathematics. The mathematics that is studied might be covered in a random fashion (for example, challenge problems and enrichment sheets unrelated to each other). The gifted programs will meet mathematically talented students’ needs only if the students are permitted to move ahead in the mathematics curriculum at an appropriate pace and depth, not if they are given random enrichment activities.
- "Acceleration versus enrichment" is a false dichotomy.
Good acceleration contains some enrichment, while good enrichment is accelerative. Proper pacing and the opportunity to study the subject in depth are both needed for the curriculum to be matched to students’ abilities.
- Students who accelerate will not necessarily have gaps in their backgrounds.
Students accelerated in math have already demonstrated mastery of most of the topics taught at their current grade level. The task is to determine where the gaps are and to fill them in before the student moves ahead. This can be accomplished by using teacher-made tests, tests provided by textbook publishers, and/or standardized tests. Students first complete the test under standard conditions, with one important change: they put a question mark next to items of which they are unsure. The examiner grades the test and hands the students a list of items they missed, skipped, or marked with a question mark. Students then try those problems again in unlimited time, while showing all work. This is a powerful diagnostic tool for teachers, and it helps point out misunderstandings and gaps in a student’s background.
- Students can be extremely talented in mathematics, but still make mistakes in computations.
Studies have demonstrated that mathematically-talented youth perform significantly better on conceptual tests than on computational tests. These students seem to show a good intuitive grasp of mathematics, but they lack the same level of skill in computations. They might make mistakes in computations because they have developed bad habits such as not writing down their thought processes while solving problems. Perhaps their computational skills have not caught up to their advanced conceptual understanding of mathematics, because they have not learned the appropriate terminology or algorithms. These students should be challenged by learning new concepts while polishing their computational skills. They should not be held back because of a relative weakness in computations.