Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Differentiating for Gifted Kids Is Harder

Every once in a while, someone, usually a parent, will complain that teachers don't care about their gifted child or else they would provide appropriate learning experiences for them.  They know that teachers don't have a lot of time, but they insist that, if they really cared, they would MAKE time for them.  While I don't disagree with the idea, the fact is, it does take time - a LOT of time.  It takes more time to differentiate for the gifted child than it does for the learning disabled child, and here is why.

1)  No Appropriate Materials
Materials for teaching are always in short supply.  Many teachers resort to buying some of their own supplies of things they find especially useful in the classroom - extra books, markers, colored pencils, rock collections for a geology unit, costumes for a social studies play, etc.  Even textbooks are often in short supply.  There is one set of science textbooks for 3 classrooms, or the social studies textbooks haven't been updated for 10 years.  Materials to use with gifted kids are usually non-existent, unless the teacher has purchased them him/herself.  This leads to several of the other problems.

2)  No Appropriate Learning Objectives
The goals and learning objectives for your regular students are published and explicit (usually).  There are resources to help with struggling students, both materials and people.  But what about the gifted students?  In my long years of teaching, both regular and substitute, I have rarely found any serious effort to address goals and learning objectives for gifted students.

Developing appropriate goals and learning objectives takes a LOT of time and expertise.  That is why they have curriculum committees and textbook selection committees.  How many districts have a "Gifted Student Standards" Committee?  A learning goal committee for gifted students?  Part of the problem is that gifted students are often widely varying in abilities and needs.  Another part of the problem is that it requires not only knowledge of gifted students, but also extensive knowledge of the subject matter.  This subject matter can be far beyond what most classroom teachers are familiar with.  They are adept at breaking down subject matter for which they are responsible.  But extending subject matter beyond what they are familiar with is far more difficult.   

I have worked with a few mathematics curricula that have explicitly developed activities for "extended" learning.  These activities are intended to be used with the gifted students.  I have never seen them used, but at least they are there.  I have rarely seen objectives for gifted students in other academic subjects. 

3)  Finding Appropriate Materials
Yes, the Internet is wonderful and yes, there are wonderful lessons out there.  Finding those lessons takes a lot of time.  Even if teachers have thought long and hard about what additional objectives they would like to have the gifted student(s) achieve, finding appropriate materials and lessons takes time.

There are a lot of bad lesson plans out there; there are a lot of good lesson plans that would be great for most kids; there are fewer lesson plans that would be great for the gifted students, but are not appropriate for everyone.  Why is it important that they NOT be appropriate for everyone?  Because if everyone in the class can do, enjoy, and learn from the activities, they should be part of the regular curriculum and should not be considered to be differentiation for the gifted student.  Too often, activities in pull-out gifted programs turn into "fun and games for smart kids" - activities that most of the kids in the classroom could have done, but they don't get to, because they are not labeled gifted.  I know, because my own pull-out classroom sometimes resembled this.  There is a danger to this.  The danger is that people will push to have kids participate in these fun activities, even if they don't really need gifted education.  Why not?  They are fun, motivating, and the results don't really matter in terms of grading or learning objectives. 

4)  Teaching and Presenting to Gifted Students
One parent suggested that, in the age of computers, just allowing the gifted students access to computers could keep them busy, motivated, and learning.  Perhaps.  Busy and motivated are especially easy.  Learning?  Possibly.  But what are they learning?  They are learning that learning is usually just fun and games.  That if they have to work hard at it, it isn't as much fun, so why should they do it? 

Perhaps it is simply from my own life, but even as a highly gifted child, I would not seek out difficult learning experiences.  I would not challenge myself.  Perhaps some gifted students do.  Many will not.  Many will not seek out appropriate learning experiences and may even rebel against being required to do something appropriate for their ability level.  Many parents and teachers will defend this as a matter of choice.  We could offer algebra to 7th graders, but if Student X, who is ready for algebra, doesn't want to take it, we will just let him stay in the regular classroom, doing work he has already mastered.  Why do we let smart kids choose to not work hard?  Do we let any other students opt out of difficult material?

If the objectives for the gifted students are well thought out and the materials and lessons planned, when are they presented and by whom?  When does the teacher actually teach the gifted student(s)?  Book groups are usually easy.  The groups can be varying in size and different objectives are generally seamlessly incorporated.  Math groups can sometimes be similarly arranged, though the most frequent alteration in presentation is that students actually switch classrooms for math groups, with one teacher taking the bottom group, one teacher taking the middle group, and one teacher taking the usually larger "top" group.  This top group is not only usually larger than any of the other groups, but it is also not really adequate for the gifted math students.  Typically, the material that is presented is just the standard curriculum that is a bit faster, so they can get ALL of the pages done, not just the bare minimum.  Sometimes, it is the standard curriculum accelerated by one year.

If, instead, the teacher is trying to differentiate for the students that are particularly gifted in social studies or science, it is much more difficult.  Typically, what will happen is that there will be projects for these subjects.  But designing projects that include both the regular curriculum and the learning objectives for the gifted students is difficult.  Instead, what usually seems to happen is that teachers hope that students will seek their own level in their projects.  The objectives and learning standards are vague enough so that they can be construed to be applicable to all ability levels.

5)  Assessing Gifted Students
This shouldn't be a difficult problem, but it often engenders great debate.  Should the gifted students be given As just because they have, indeed, mastered the regular curriculum?  Or should they be graded on the goals and objectives that were developed for them?  On what is a grade to be based?  Should it be what would be expected of any age student who attempts the given material or should the age of the student be taken into consideration?

6)  School Support Personnel
When asked to differentiate for struggling students, a teacher will generally have many different people in the school to turn to for help.  There are literacy specialists, behavior specialists, language learning specialists, learning disability teachers, math specialists, aides, and a number of other people who come to help, both at the school and the district level.  When teachers need to differentiate for gifted students, there are rarely people who are designated to help them.  There used to be a few gifted specialists, but these are rapidly disappearing from most schools.  I worked as a gifted specialist at a middle school.  I was hired for 7 hours a week.  When the specialists are rarely there and are not considered significant members of the staff, teachers cease to rely on them - or to even know how to use them.  

Differentiating for gifted students is actually HARDER than differentiating for struggling students.   There are probably other reasons than just those outlined above.  I know this won't satisfy the parent whose child needs something more and isn't getting it.  It shouldn't.  But we have to support different ways of helping teachers take care of gifted students.  Blaming them for not differentiating for their gifted students doesn't mean that they can. 

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