Part 4: Education for All and the Academically Talented Child
Before I start, I would like to comment on the notion that many people hold – even some teachers – that gifted children will do well no matter what and do not have special needs. A child who is capable of working two years above her chronological peers will be bored in a regular classroom and may look for ways to alleviate her boredom. One may be to see how much she can get away with in terms of poor behaviour or not doing homework or beating the system. Another might be to challenge the teacher on knowledge, procedure and any minutiae of school rules. Some students will take pleasure in figuring out how to be absent as long as possible without being caught. This may include everything from day-dreaming and reading books under the desk to playing hookey, disappearing off to the washroom and working the holes in the absentee system.
The students who decide to play by the rules may do their best to conform; this includes not doing much better than their peers and playing down their abilities. Either way, the students are not being themselves academically and being something you are not is stressful. There has been a lot written on the effects of stress so I will not go into the details of the potential ill effects such as dropping out, drug abuse and depression. Stress caused by this kind of frustration should be distinguished from healthy stress created by challenge students believe they can meet with serious effort and thought.
So yes, the academically talented student does have special needs that should be met. Gretzky wasn’t left to play hockey with boys his age who weren’t as good as him on the theory that he was so good he would do well anyway. All students need to be nurtured and have their needs met as much as we reasonably can. Academic talent needs it as much as athletic talent.
The purpose of Education for All is to promote the inclusive classroom. The concept of the inclusive classroom is that all children who can be taught in the regular classroom, should be. These children include most exceptional or special needs children and gifted children are included in the definition of exceptional. Ontario ministry requires that the default placement of children identified as exceptional be the regular classroom. (see Inclusive Education in Practice) If the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) chooses to place the child elsewhere, a written explanation is required.
Gifted Children in the Regular Classroom: the Default Placement
This creates difficulties for many children with special needs and gifted children are no exception. Most boards have three ways of providing for the academically talented child: the first is the default, placing her in a regular classroom. A skilled teacher, trained in teaching bright children and especially in techniques such as compacting the curriculum and contracts would be successful if the child in question was a good independent worker and thirsty to learn. Not all gifted children are either.
There are two or three advantages to this method. The first one is that the child may continue to attend the home school and make friends with children within walking distance. I believe that this is very important to children and necessary to the growth of their independence. My observations as the parent of three (now grown) children have brought home to me how important it is to children to have friends within walking distance.
The child’s capacity to work independently and propose her own projects will have the opportunity to develop in a regular classroom. Many gifted children are weaker in one academic area than another; being in a regular classroom would allow them to work with fellow students and perhaps turn to them for help on occasion.
There are often bright children who haven’t been identified as gifted who might benefit from compacting the curriculum and being allowed to pursue a subject in greater depth. The gifted child in the classroom may open the opportunity of enrichment to these classmates as planning for a handful of motivated students is usually not much more trouble than planning for one.
Finally, one gifted young man told me that when he started to work in the real world he felt frustrated because ordinary people couldn’t think as fast as he could. He understood that it was his problem and made every effort to be courteous while he learned to adapt. The problem was that having spent his formative years surrounded by bright schoolmates, parents, siblings and relatives, he hadn’t learned how to deal with all levels of intelligence. Cultures, religions, ideas, lifestyles – yes – but not a lower level of intelligence. Being taught in a regular classroom would have given him that skill. He is still working on it.
Education for All barely discusses the academically talented child in the regular classroom and other options are not discussed at all. Below are some traditional options and one which would require some flexibility in school organisation but result in providing enrichment for more than the top 2%.
Withdrawal is probably the worst method of providing for academically talented children. Usually this is done on the basis of a half day or less a week; the student is taken by another teacher for gifted programming. Many of these students are already aware that they are different. Being withdrawn from the classroom makes many children feel singled out and will add to a bright student’s sense of being outside the norm. She will often balk at a withdrawal program and prefer to stay in the class full time.
Although the theory is that the child should not have to make up for work missed in the classroom, the reality is that sometimes the timetable can’t be managed that way or the teacher does not buy into the theory. If the teacher sees gifted programming as elitist, then she will be less likely to go to the extraordinary effort of co-ordinating classroom work with the withdrawal timetable. In fairness she is stuck in a catch-22 situation: the student should not miss learning experiences in the key academic subjects, nor should he miss out on anything he might regard as fun such as gym or art. One should forgive a teacher for believing that all time in her classroom is educationally relevant and occasionally outright fun.
The teacher who does the withdrawal should be a specialist in giftedness, but too often a principal may be tempted to give the job to someone who needs a .2 or .1 position to complete her timetable. All the teacher needs to be qualified is part 1 of the special education certificate. There is much less flexibility in staffing today than there was twenty years ago, so shoehorning a teacher into this position is not necessarily indifference or ignorance of the children’s needs but a case of making do with the staff provided.
Withdrawals are usually done on a once a week basis. In theory, enrichment should relate to and enhance the curriculum but without very close work with the classroom teacher, this would be almost impossible for the withdrawal teacher. The withdrawal teacher may have several grades at one time and inevitably students with talents varying from the mathematical to the verbal. The compromise is that students end up doing individual projects such as family trees or creating a fantasy land or something else that will allow them to stretch. In the past, these projects were irrelevant to the assessment of the students’ academic levels. Perhaps there is closer co-ordination now.
The only truly positive thing I can say about this method is that it allows the child to stay at his home school and in the right circumstances may open the school to the Renzulli method, of which I will write later in this post.
The Congregated (Segregated) Program
This program brings academically talented children together in one classroom. The criteria varies but the frequent standard is the 98th percentile on an intelligence test or equivalent. This means that the child tests as higher in academic ability than 98% or 97.999% of all other children. This can be done with expensive one on one testing with a psychologist trained in testing intelligence or it can be done with a paper and pencil test which can be supervised by anyone. The choice depends on what is available to school boards. Most choose the latter but that, unfortunately, leaves them vulnerable to parents who can afford it pursuing the psychologist route if the paper and pencil test does not show their child to be qualified. (see Another Curious Statistic)This is an inequity in the system that school boards such as the Ottawa Carleton District School Board are aware of and to which they would like to see a solution.
Done properly with trained teachers who are hired by knowledgeable principals, the congregated program can be effective. The biggest problem is that students who are not used to challenge are often unhappy when they are required to think. Many programs provide more work or in depth knowledge without requiring students to work their way up on Bloom’s Taxonomy from learning facts and skills to analysis, evaluation and application. The programs end up being effective only in terms of allowing students to work with their intellectual peers. If that is all a program does then those who finger gifted programs pejoratively as elitist are justified.
A second problem is that the children usually must attend school at a distance from their own home. This makes forming friendships within walking distance of home difficult and group work outside of school dependent on parental transport. Without companions close by, their freedom to explore is restricted and the relaxed friendships bound only by their preferences rather than the availability of parent chauffeurs is impossible until their teens. By that time, many students will have lost the impetus to take the initiative in their social lives or the will to find transportation besides the parent chauffeur. I even know of students with university degrees who will not take public transportation.
One family who had four children in gifted programs ended up installing a second phone line just for the children as they needed it to discuss assignments as well as stay in touch with friends. Friends and family of the parents were unable to get through when there was just one phone in the house.
A third problem is that the children are visibly separate from the rest of the other students. They are singled out as enrichies or richies and seen as privileged and resented as such. The best schools make an effort to integrate all the students through sports, drama or music programs to avoid this kind of thing. A congregated class may reinforce any sense of entitlement the students or their parents might feel thus continuing the circle.
Finally, the younger children in the program must be bussed if the school is not within walking distance. This adds to the cost of the program, to the length of the child’s day and the isolation from the local community. Because parents do not belong to the community, their voices at school meetings are concerned primarily with the gifted program. In one school the parents of these children insisted that they be allowed to go straight to their classrooms from the buses in the morning, as the parents were uncomfortable with their children being on the playground in an inner-city school. This was in spite of the fact that there were teachers supervising the playground at that hour and that no other children were allowed in their classrooms. I don’t know whether the other parents ever picked up on the insult to them as their own children were walking past each others’ homes in this inner city on the way to school
The flip side is that parents of gifted children can be energetic in fundraising or willing to donate to school projects. The other students do benefit from the extras the money provides and in the attention paid to the physical plant when there is a congregated gifted program in place.
Acceleration – Out of Fashion and Now Returning to Fashion
Acceleration was probably the earliest form of handling academically talented children. People of a certain age will remember the children who skipped a grade. Sometimes it was done by putting them in the lower grade of a split class and the following year sending them on with the upper grade of the split. It had the advantages of moving a child ahead academically, but the disadvantage was that the child was no longer with his or her chronological peers. Sometimes it still did not provide the intellectual challenges needed and sometimes the child might have floundered in areas of weakness. Usually, these issues were considered in making the decision to accelerate a child.
For many years it was not considered appropriate to accelerate a child for the social reasons raised above. This got confused by many school boards into the idea that acceleration itself was bad; certainly acceleration in specific subject areas but not others created headaches for teachers in the receiving classes or schools. The teachers to continue the acceleration might not be available or it might prove difficult to arrange students’ timetables to take more advanced subjects. Teachers were told not to accelerate students in any subject area – even in mathematics where acceleration is appropriate and necessary to provide enrichment for the talented. I was even told that teaching above the grade level could be a firing offence.
Recently in Ontario, this kind of thinking has been challenged and acceleration has been reinstituted as legitimate method in providing accomodation for academically talented children in some areas. This does not mean that we have gone back to skipping children, as the principle that children should be with their age peers still holds. In most subjects, providing breadth and depth is sufficient challenge for a bright child. In math, some students will need acceleration whether the students are in a congregated gifted or regular classroom.
My own observation is that some elementary teachers are math phobic, not a surprise when you consider that the kind of interests and skills which drew them to young children did not require math. A teacher’s discomfort with math will make accelerating a few students more difficult, but perhaps this could be taken into consideration in choosing classrooms for talented math students. This takes us full circle back to the point that the teacher of the inclusive classroom will need training not just in teaching children with behavioural problems and learning difficulties but also academically talented children.
And Now for Something Completely Different: The Renzulli Method
This will be a very brief summary of the concepts developed by Joseph Renzulli. They do answer concerns about issues such as isolating academically talented children, dealing with children who have some very strong talents but are weaker in other areas, dealing with academically talented children who are not motivated or lack creativity and elitism. Implementing his ideas would require an enrichment teacher in each school and flexibility in school timetables but enrichment would not be as dependent on testing as it has been.
Renzulli’s model of giftedness rejects conventional concepts of IQ as a sole arbiter of ability. He considers that its use is best applied as a guideline to determine above average ability. He reckons that IQ alone does not predict performance and, indeed Terman’s longitudinal studies of people with high IQs bear that out. Terman’s subjects did go on to become doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers but they were not the iconoclasts, the paradigm shifters, the great businessmen or politicians of their generation. The people who were, were bright but not as bright.
So, the first part of Renzulli’s model is above average ability. The second part is creativity. Since this is a summary, I will simply comment that studies have shown that intelligence without creativity only takes one so far in solving problems or doing well in general. Oddly enough, many parents of academically talented students keep their children busy with structured activities to ensure their children make the most of their abilities. I am rarely believed when I tell them that the research shows that their children would be better off having more unstructured time to play and develop their creativity. Even a pick up game of soccer or baseball would be better because the children would have to negotiate their teams, rules and referreeing according to the space, number of kids, quality and character of players and equipment. They would have to be creative in coming up with solutions which everyone could agree to without taking up all of their play time.
The third is task commitment.We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. The hare was a gifted runner but the tortoise had task commitment and perhaps a creative enough mind to perceive that the hare’s vanity might slow him down. We know the tortoise will not have a hope at the Olympic podium because he lacks above average ability in running, but neither will the hare because he lacks task commitment and perhaps the creativity to consider the possible ways in which a tortoise just might beat him.
Below is a copy of the Venn diagram that Renzulli puts together from these three qualities of giftedness. As you can see, when the three overlap, gifted behaviour occurs. This is the answer to the many teachers of the gifted who have muttered, “I know wee Johnny is supposed to qualify for this class but I have yet to see any evidence of his gifts”. I know that this would have reduced one or two of my classes by half, at least in some subjects.
For a teacher it would be a satisfying model to work with but as a child’s abilities, creativity and task commitment often vary with the subject, there would be few students who would qualify for full time enrichment. Renzulli’s answer is a school-wide enrichment model.
The idea is that all children would get some enrichment in their areas of interest; this is where Education for All’s Learning Profiles and Questionnaires would be very useful. Other tools such as a learning style assessment would prove useful, too. Using these tools, the students would be placed in multi-grade clusters which would meet regularly (once a week?). All staff and parents would be encouraged to join these clusters.
There would be more than one level for a student’s involvement in the enrichment model depending on interest – talks or lectures might be sufficient for some students. Discussion groups for others and further research, model building or other development for others. There are detailed discussions of how programs are already working and how they might work. In the end, the model needs to be worked to fit with the school using it. What does have to be done is to train staff, assign a member of staff to it part or full time, depending on the size of the school and have that person do the two week training course.
There are lots of sites on the Internet about Renzulli’s model, a great number of articles in peer-reviewed journals and books to turn to if you want to know more about this form of enrichment. It is certainly worth exploring if you want to see as many students as possible develop their talents beyond what they normally would in a regular classroom. It is worth it if you want to see students of all ages and abilities learn to work together. It is worth it if you want to see the elitist stigma removed from enrichment and bright children. It is worth it if you want to keep children in their home school and reduce the financial, social and environmental costs of bussing.
For more information:
For the Zenn diagram demonstrating Renzulli’s model of giftedness
The Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness: A Developmental Model For Promoting Creative Productivity Joseph S. Renzulli
Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005
For a summary of long term studies on the academically gifted see
NEXT: Potentially Useful to Teachers: Charts and Tables Derived from “Education for All” August 28
Should Elementary Teachers Work Longer Hours And Be Paid Less than Secondary Teachers? A reply to Olivier’s comment. September 4