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A Discussion of the Intellectual Exceptionality of Giftedness
Modern society has reached a stage of development where it is accepted that all children are entitled to an education that maximizes their potential. It is taken as a given that children with intellectual or developmental disabilities are valued to the same degree as their peers and their education should be modified to accommodate their unique learning needs. When it comes to children who are gifted however, society can react differently. There is a misconception held by many that since the gifted are so able, they should be able to thrive in any environment and their education should not require special attention. Ontario’s Education Act recognizes the special needs of the gifted. It requires school boards to treat giftedness like any other special need, recognizing that gifted students often have different learning requirements than the majority of their classmates and educators must respond to those needs through differentiated learning experiences so that the gifted child’s potential is encouraged.
This paper will focus on gifted children in the primary grades of learning.
What are the Characteristics and Needs of Gifted Children?
The essence of giftedness is an advanced development in one or more areas. Students who are gifted have the potential to perform at levels well beyond what might be expected for their age. Therefore, defining common characteristics is a first step toward identification, which will allow educators to meet their needs. Common indicators that are consistent in the learning styles of the gifted and have become accepted signs of giftedness include:
- A rich vocabulary and a love of words.
- A tendency to become absorbed in work that they find interesting and an ability to maintain a long attention span when engaged with work.
- An unusually fast rate of learning, particularly when the material is interesting or challenging, and conversely, a dislike of slow-paced work.
- A well developed memory.
- Reasoning skills at a level more usually found in older students.
- A preference for independent work.
The challenge, as indicated by Weber & Bennett (2004), is to determine whether these characteristics are consistently present or if the child is displaying one or more of these characteristics based on the learning situation or other temporal factors.
The accepted common characteristics of giftedness have moved beyond the exclusively intellectual domain; issues such as self-awareness and ability to adjust to new situations are now recognized as important characteristics of a gifted child. It must be noted that emotional factors come into play as significant component of a gifted child’s life. Gifted children see the world differently because of the complexity of their thought processes combined with an emotional intensity. Linda Silverman (2007) describes this combination of intellect and intensity as follows: “People often say to them, “Why do you make everything so complicated?” “Why do you take everything so seriously?” “Why is everything so important to you?” The gifted are “too” everything: too sensitive, too intense, too driven, too honest, too idealistic, too moral, or too perfectionistic.” Therefore, their needs are unique since their learning often follows a different trajectory than the majority and their emotional needs are often more complex than children in the range of “normal” abilities. It is the role of educators to meet the needs of the gifted intellectually as well as emotionally and socially.
How are Gifted Students Identified?
As giftedness is a complex exceptionality, Weber and Bennett (2004) outline a variety of models that have become accepted by educators for use in the identification of gifted students. The Enrichment Triad Model discussed by Renzulli (1977) is important as it addresses giftedness as a “dynamic exceptionality” and defines giftedness as the convergence of overlapping abilities or skills. Other models such as Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), and Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intellectual Giftedness (1997) as well as a number of other models are also described, all of which take into account more than a child’s test score on the traditional I.Q. test in their definition of giftedness. Regardless of the model, it has become accepted by educators that not only is above-average academic ability a factor, but the intersection of academic ability, task commitment, creativity as well as other relevant factors are required to define a child as gifted.
Many models are available to assist in the complex task of identifying the gifted child; however, it is teachers or parents who are the primary identifiers, with parents being the best identifiers of giftedness in their children. Silverman (2007) through the Gifted Development Centre, indicated that 84% of 1,000 children whose parents identified them using the Characteristics of Giftedness Scale tested in the superior or gifted range. Checklists for both teachers and parents have been developed to help in the identification process.
It is interesting to note at this point, that while there are many accepted models for the identification of the gifted which take into account the complexity of the giftedness definition, many jurisdictions in Ontario, including the Toronto District School Board, rely exclusively on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV) for the placement of children in their gifted learning programs. The reliance on this type of quantitative test raises issues such as cultural inequities and disadvantages based on socio-economic factors. Standardized tests also do not provide equity as not all gifted students perform well at school or on tests for a variety of reasons including interpersonal and environmental factors. The debate on the use of standardized testing is extensive and beyond the scope of this discussion, but is worth noting, none-the-less.
Effective Accommodations, Modifications and Teaching Strategies for Gifted Students
Gifted primary students in Ontario account for 12% of the number of exceptional students identified in Ontario, with the actual number being greater than 12,000 students (Weber and Bennett 2004, p.34). As a result, it is necessary to organize gifted children into one of three levels dependent on their level of ability. The amount of accommodation and modification the child receives is dependent on the level in which they are placed.
The majority of students fall within the Level One grouping, where the majority of their time is spent in a regular classroom. Level Two students may also spend time in a regular classroom but may be withdrawn more frequently or work independently more often. Level Three students would likely benefit most successfully in a separate classroom environment.
Since we know that gifted students often experience frustration as their learning may not be challenging enough or may be moving too slowly and repeated too often, a differentiated curriculum could be designed to address the gifted child’s needs for a more complex or fast-paced learning experience. Maker (1982) describes curriculum modifications for gifted students as encompassing four areas:
- Content modifications where the material should be abstract, complex and varied.
- Process modifications where assignments involve higher order, creative thinking and problem solving.
- Product modifications where work should involve real world problems designed for real world audiences and require deadlines as well as appropriate assessment and evaluation.
- Learning environment modifications should encourage independent learning.
Alternate ways of modifying the curriculum to meet the needs of the students are equally compelling. Curriculum compacting, tiered instruction, negotiated contracts, and independent study are other ways a teacher can modify or accommodate a gifted student’s learning whether it is in a regular classroom or in a separate classroom with a differentiated curriculum.
Regardless of the modification or accommodation used, the teacher must employ effective teaching strategies in order to focus on curriculum, stimulate positive learning behaviours and develop cognitive abilities. The Williams Model (1993) stresses flexibility, originality, curiosity and risk-taking as characteristics to be enhanced in the gifted teaching model to maximize learning potential. Three teaching strategies based on this model that could be used would be:
- Asking provocative questions about a topic to incite exploration and curiosity. For example: Antarctica is rich in resources. Should it be mined?
- Using examples of change to show the dynamics or alteration of things. For example: How did the invention of the paper clip change our lives?
- Asserting a paradox and allowing the students to explore the topic. For example: Discuss the statement “All is fair in love and war.”
To conclude, the teacher has an abundance of possible modifications and teaching strategies available to him or her to further the educational potential of the gifted child. However, as in the regular classroom, it takes a committed, extraordinary teacher to provide excellent education and meet the needs of the individual child.
A Writer’s Workshop for Grade Five Students in a Dedicated Gifted Classroom
The Writing Strand in the Ontario Primary Grades Language document (revised) outlines four
The students will:
1. Generate, gather, and organize ideas and information to write for an intended purpose
2. Draft and revise their writing, using a variety of informational, literary, and graphic
forms and stylistic elements appropriate for the purpose and audience;
3. Use editing, proofreading, and publishing skills and strategies, and knowledge of language
conventions, to correct errors, refine expression, and present their work effectively;
4. Reflect on and identify their strengths as writers, areas for improvement, and the strategies
they found most helpful at different stages in the writing process.
As we know, gifted children often display a rich vocabulary and a love of words, a long attention span when engaged with work, a preference for independent work and an ability to relate to adults more easily that other children in their age group. In order to accommodate these needs within the context of the curriculum expectations for writing, I am proposing a Writer’s Workshop. The Writer’s Workshop would require the student to write a play based on an Early Civilization as outlined in the Ontario Grade Five Social Studies curriculum document.
The following steps would be followed:
- To initiate the project, a writer would be invited in to the classroom to discuss the writing process.
- Characteristics of a script would be discussed including writing dialogue, describing scenery, how to create action in a play, etc.
- The children would be expected to create character webs, describe the setting, and outline the conflict that must be solved, as well as write a plot summary based on an Early Civilization.
- During the writing process, parent readers would meet with the writers to provide feedback and the children would reflect on their own writing with the parent readers.
- At the end of the writing process, each child would produce a complete play ready for staging.
- One play would be chosen to be staged in consultation with the teacher, the parent readers and possibly the visiting writer. The author would then become the director and the other children in the class would be actors, set designers, costume designers and lighting engineers.
The Writer’s Workshop would provide a vehicle by which the children could work on the writing skills and the knowledge of Early Civilizations that must be acquired by the end of Grade Five while addressing the exceptionalities of the gifted student. I believe it is a project that draws on Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad Model (1977) whereby above average ability, creativity and task commitment is required to complete the project well.
Writer’s Workshop Evaluation
Evaluation of the skills gained in the Writer’s Workshop would be based on their knowledge of Early Civilizations as well as to what degree the expectations for writing skills as set out in the curriculum documents were met. This learning experience enriches the requirements for writing skills and also allows the children to work on social skills that are often more difficult for the gifted child to master. Skills such as the ability to cooperate, solve conflict and problem solve are crucial life skills that would have to be used during the staging of the production. The project also fits naturally with many of the characteristics displayed by gifted children such as a love of words, a long attention span when engaged with work and a preference for independent work. As noted by Weber and Bennett (2004, p. 111) “Gifted students need to go higher, deeper, and wider in their pursuit of a subject pushing past the usual limits.”
The Standards of Practice and the Gifted Student
In my earlier paper on the Standards of Practice, I suggested that the circle diagram in the Standards document is an appropriate one. It provides the visual image that all of the standards taken together are necessary to complete the whole. This circle of commitment is particularly important in the education of gifted students as issues such as leadership; ongoing professional learning, professional knowledge and professional practice are key elements to the teacher’s success.
More than any other trait, however, it is the teacher’s commitment to students and students’ learning that must be highly developed in a teacher of the gifted. Teaching is a challenging profession that places often extraordinary expectations on the classroom teacher in any classroom. In the case of the gifted, given the potentially increased emotional needs a gifted student may place on a classroom teacher, as well as the additional academic modifications and accommodations that may be required, the belief that it is a professional obligation to help these students is required. Weber and Bennett (2004, p. 112) address this issue well when they state: “The needs of a student with a learning disability or a behaviour disorder, for example, are usually more immediate and more focused. But for the gifted, achieving potential provokes images of more distant horizons.” The gifted teacher must remain very committed to these distant horizons in order to “do right” by his or her students.
Teaching is a complicated process and teaching the gifted is exponentially more complicated. Through the identification and placement stages and the accommodation, modification and assessment process, the gifted students rely on the education system to provide the appropriate learning environment so that they can achieve their potential. It is our role as educators to view the gifted as children who need excellent differentiated programming in order to learn to the best of their abilities.
- Maker, J. (1982). Curriculum development for the gifted. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
- Ontario College of Teachers (2006 revised). Standards of Practice. http://www.oct.ca/standards/standards_of_practice.aspx
- Ontario Ministry of Education (2006 revised). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8. Language. Queens Printer for Ontario.
- Ontario Ministry of Education (2004 revised). The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-6. Social Studies. Queens Printer for Ontario.
- Silverman, L. (2007). What We Have Learned About Gifted Children 1979-2007. www.gifteddelvelopment.com
- Weber, K., & Bennett, S.(2004). Special Education in Ontario Schools. Palgrave, Ontario: Highland Press.
- Williams, F. E. (1993). The cognitive-affective interaction model for enriching gifted programs. In J. S. Renzulli (Ed.)Systems and models for developing programs for the gifted and talented. Melbourne: Hawker Brownlow.
- Association for Bright Children. http://www.abcontario.ca
- Gifted Development Centre. http://www.gifteddevelopment.com
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