by Richard Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century
I’ve never met a teacher who went into education thinking, “I’m going to teach gifted kids!” When I started teaching, I fell into the field of gifted education purely by happenstance. My first degree was in theater, so I had to find a job that could afford me the pleasure of being in front of an audience and creating characters every day. What better place to have a captive audience than being a teacher. During the job application process, I was encouraged to apply at a “gifted and talented” school because I had a talent focus (theater). Long story short, I was hired at J.J. Hill Magnet School for Gifted Children in St. Paul, Minn. Over the next 10 years, I taught sixth-grade and first-grade gifted students. During that time, I learned a lot of lessons about how to work with gifted students. Over the next two month’s blogs, I’d like to share my 10 lessons learned about working with gifted students. Here are the first five, with the second five coming in my post next month:
Lesson One: Gifted students are kids first
Gifted kids can come off sounding like little adults. They possess a great deal of knowledge about many topics, use sophisticated language for their age, and may often prefer older friends, sometimes adults. These characteristics can confuse teachers into thinking that they also possess the sophisticated emotional levels of adults. The most important lesson I learned about working with gifted kids is that I can’t focus only on their intellectual ability; I also had to keep focused on them being kids first. Many times, their emotional development will be right on target with their chronological age, which may seem to contradict their intelligence level. In some cases they may be asynchronous, where their emotional level is not at age level, which can be stressful on them and those around them. This asychronicity (when emotional level does not equal intellectual level) can be difficult for gifted children to handle or comprehend. Therefore, as one of the adults in their life, I had to constantly keep in mind their development as a child. I still needed to nurture them, assist in their emotional development, and offer an approach to learning that included a sense of wonder and play.
Lesson Two: I will never be smarter than my gifted students
It’s true, gifted kids know a lot. Whether they are holistically gifted (in most if not all subject areas) or targeted gifted (very advanced in a single or dual content area), I had to let go of the need to control knowing more than my students. Gifted students characteristically gain a lot of factual and procedural knowledge rapidly and can regenerate/regurgitate that information like wizards on Jeopardy or in Trivial Pursuit. Life is more than Jeopardy or in Trivial Pursuit. Life is about using the facts and procedures effectively to solve real complex problems. Having that understanding, I then changed my position in the classroom from the “sage on the stage” (I told you I was a theater person) to more of the “guide on the side.” I had to step into a different role with my students. I had to admit to the students that I didn’t know everything in a content area and that my job was to guide them toward finding answers to meaningful questions they had about the topics. This adjustment in the way I was thinking ultimately made me a much better teacher. I became their learning facilitator, not their font of knowledge. I helped them develop greater sophistication in their knowledge. They also acquired more complex thinking strategies because they had to solve problems where one right answer (the regeneration/regurgitation reflex) wasn’t effective. I learned that I may not be smarter than them, but I was wiser.
Lesson Three: There is a difference between being gifted and talented
Previously I suggested that gifted kids can either be holistically or targeted gifted. Well, there is more to this thing called gifted than just those two descriptors. After teaching gifted kids for a couple of years, I decided to work on my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus on gifted education. During that time I learned a lot about the conceptual nature of giftedness through such luminaries as Feldhusen, Ford, Gagné, Kaplan, Renzulli, Rogers, and Sternberg, just to name a few. Each of the experts had a little different perspective on the terms gifted and talented, but all were focused on the highest achieving (or likely to be achieving) students. It took me a very long time to wrap my head around what it meant to me as a classroom teacher, because we used the terms so interchangeably. After working with so many students, I finally grasped my own meaning of these kids we call “gifted” and “talented.” To me, gifted students are those with very high IQs or other performance/ability measures that document their extreme cognitive differences. Talented students are those who enjoy or are passionate about a subject area, work hard at learning it, and are consistently at or near the top of the class. Other general differences are:
- Gifted students have significant documentation of cognitive extremes, whereas talented students show their achievement during the learning process.
- Gifted students many not always be your most compliant students, whereas talented students are often “teacher pleasers” and play school well.
- Gifted students can be obnoxious/difficult/quirky/socially maladjusted/stubborn/independent (see next month’s post for more on these), whereas talented students don’t often rock the boat during class and are amenable during instruction.
- Gifted kids often don’t know how to work hard—largely because they never needed to, thus not learning how to—whereas talented students work hard because they have learned how to from the very early years.
- Gifted students’ abilities come from an indescribable place (some might suggest it is innate to the individual) very early in their lives, whereas talented students develop their prowess over time and their talent may not be fully developed until later in life.
- Gifted students ask questions that may not be easy to answer, whereas talented students answer questions posed by others.
- Gifted students may also be “holistically gifted,” having strong abilities in the core academic areas of reading and math, whereas talented students are most likely to be strong in one or two areas either academically or in the performing arts, sports, leadership, and so forth.
Lesson Four: Not all gifted kids are creative and not all creative kids are gifted
Similar to lesson three, I needed to unpack and define the differences between a gifted student and a creative student. When I was a student, I had a difficult time in school. In fact, I repeated fifth grade due to poor academic performance. My teacher and parent felt it was best for me to have another run at the curriculum and have an additional year to mature (I was young compared to my grade-level peers). It worked, but it did not put me at the top of the class. I did feel more socially mature and more equal to my new classmates, however, I still felt awkward academically. I tended to gravitate toward the arts field (music, theater, and dance) because there wasn’t always one right way to do things and I learned better through preparing for performance. I graduated high school taking an arts-focused route and went on to college to pursue a degree in theater. After graduating from college, finding work in the real world was difficult. Additionally, I didn’t want to perform a routine job that involved crunching numbers (using math) or having to be static most of the day. Therefore, I went into sales where I was able to act and perform, but I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I eventually landed in the classroom (after attaining a post-bachelor degree in education) where I found that my talents and “creativity” could be nurtured and explored. I found that creativity can stand alone or be in combination with gifted or talented.
So, from my personal and professional experience, to add to the list above:
- Creative people may not be at the top of the class—but they can be gifted or talented.
- Creative people try and try and try and try . . . you get it . . . and make a lot of mistakes and learn from them.
- Creative people ask questions they are willing to find the answers to.
- Creative people like making up their own rules or directions.
- Creative people enjoy coming up with new ways to do things.
- Creative people sometimes don’t fit in the classroom that seeks one right answer/orderliness/rule followers, etc.
- Creative people may enjoy working with others but need to learn how to collaborate and not dominate the process.
- Creative people need to learn content to be truly creative.
Lesson Five: As a teacher of the gifted, I needed specialized professional development to do my job well
With all the complexities, and more that I will cite next month, teachers who work with gifted, talented, and creative students must get specialized training. After floundering around in my classroom for the first year, I realized I had so much to learn about how to best meet the needs of gifted, talented, and creative kids. Seeking my master’s degree was a great process, but I could have used much more job-embedded and sustained professional development. Advanced learners’ needs are unique. Addressing those needs through curriculum and instructional practices is essential for them to achieve to their highest potential and be successful in life. Just as with students who have exceptional needs on the other end of the IQ spectrum, teachers should have continuous concentrated training to most effectively work with this specialized group of students.
Up next month, my lessons on gifted kids will include:
6) Social maladjustment
7) Need for social and emotional support
8) Parents’ need for support
9) Teachers’ need for advanced levels of differentiation
10) The joy of teaching advanced students
Do you have a lesson you’ve learned from working with gifted, talented, and creative kids that you’d like to add? Or, is there a topic you would like to explore in more detail? I welcome your responses, questions, and comments!
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., is an internationally known educational consultant and author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. Dr. Cash has worked in all levels of education from a classroom teacher to district administrator and post-secondary instructor. Visit his website at http://www.nrichconsulting.com.
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Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Teaching Gifted Children in Today’s Preschool and Primary Classrooms by Joan Franklin Smutny, M.A., Sally Yahnke Walker, Ph.D., and Ellen Honeck, Ph.D.