What is Giftedness?
There is no one answer according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC); “giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures. Even within schools you will find a range of personal beliefs about the word ‘gifted,’ which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance.”
Meredith Hafer, Academic Director of Greenwich Education Group and Head of School for Beacon School, states that it can take a mere 10 minutes to identify exceptional students "through an informal metric of conversation.” Hafer explains, “it could be her luminous intellect, witty asides, unflinching expertise, or eccentric observations; it could be his encyclopedic knowledge, kaleidoscopic daydreams, emotional attunement, or streetwise insights.”
However, the process to determine which students should receive gifted education goes well beyond “subjective assessment," especially since educators all have their own personal biases that can influence identification. So how should schools determine who gets access to gifted programs?
An Open, Individualized, Enriched Educational Model?
Hafer suggests that rather than focusing on only gifted students, resources instead should be channeled towards “reforming educational infrastructure” to provide individualized education for all students, utilizing new technology that facilitates personalized learning. An educator for seven years, she states, “there are certain observable, measurable traits that indicate that a student needs a higher level of challenge and a more advanced, enriched, and accelerated curricular approach.” This is the essence of individualized education: meeting students where they are and pushing them to go further.
For example, in any given 5th grade class, a teacher may be dealing with twelve grade levels of reading ability, from students who are still struggling with phonics to students who are stealing books off of their parents' bookshelves. By teaching to the middle in order to reach the greatest number of kids, they are not able to engage advanced readers or to push high average readers to take their skills to the next level.
While traits can be broadly categorized as either cognitive or personal in nature, Hafer believes in the adoption of a comprehensive method that extends beyond traditional assessment. “In order to cultivate the diverse gifts in our student populations, we need to adopt a more inclusive approach to gifted education. High ability students who are checked out and underachieving still need gifted education—their cognitive profiles demand it. On the other hand, gifted education can be appropriate for students who have lower IQs and test scores but demonstrate strong personality traits such as perseverance, curiosity, and enthusiasm for learning.” The key is developing school-wide systems to engage students at all levels by offering rich opportunities for advancement and enrichment.
Big Tent Approach
As Hafer explains, such an “approach to gifted education does not imply a watered-down curriculum or one-size-fits-all programming. We need a highly rigorous inclusive model with individualized opportunities for every student.” James Borland, a professor of education and coordinator of programs in gifted education at Teachers College, Columbia University, once observed, “a one-size-fits-all curriculum makes no more sense to me than would a one-size-fits-all shoe.”
Hafer agrees with Borland; “the idea of gifted individuals is in itself untenable; all students need immersive, engaging, appropriately challenging learning opportunities. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I work in a private school that is designed to deliver individualized programs and cultivate the unique passions of each student. The difficult part is making this achievable for all students with a responsible, responsive model that can be implemented on a large scale.”
T-squared: Technology and Teachers
The key is utilizing technology to drive individualized education coupled with the teacher in the classroom to create a synergy for all students. Hafer suggests, “Technology should be implemented strategically to increase the amount of productive time that individual students get with teachers. If teachers spent less time presenting material to students, they would be free to spend more time directly working with them on applied tasks—analysis, synthesis, problem solving, creative work—and pushing them to hone their thinking skills.”
For example, in a so-called "flipped classroom", teachers utilize online resources such as Khan Academy and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to deliver content outside of class and devote school hours to discussion, work shopping, problem solving, and collaboration. Adaptive technology also allows students to move at their own pace, enrich their learning by pursuing their interests, and demonstrate mastery in different media.
Hafer predicts, “by reimagining the structure of the classroom as well as the role of the teacher, we can move beyond static gifted programs and open the door to dynamic, limitless learning.”
Meredith Hafer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.