Identify needs and develop the unique strengths of all our students, including the high achievers.
It's interesting that during the strategic planning process it was felt necessary to emphasis that this growth includes the high achievers. I guess that too often when we talk about special need, many teachers automatically think about those who are low achievers, however it is clear that high achievers can also be achieving far less than their potential.
As part of the afternoon's activity we discussed a reading by Carol Ann Tomlinson entitled What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well. Basically, high achievers need the same as all other learners: they need good curriculum and instruction, they need learning experiences that are conceptual, they need relevant content, activities that encourage them to process important ideas at a high level and classrooms that provide both structure and choice.
Many teachers believe it is necessary to "accelerate" the high achievers, but this is not always true. Pace is determined by the individual student's needs and while some learners may need a more rapid pace, others need a slower place so that they can go into their learning in more depth and breadth. Basically, meeting their needs involves content, processes and products that are more complex, abstract, open-ended and multifaceted than their peers, and engaging with all of this may well take more time.
I really liked the concept of "supported risk". Many high achievers are used to success - they get good grades easily and as such have less experience of failure. Sometimes when a teacher is presenting high-challenge tasks to high achieving students this can cause the student to feel threatened, as there is a greater chance of them not doing as well as they feel is expected of them. It's really important to support these students as they take academic risks.
When I think back to some of the gifted students I taught in the past, I realize that I was doing a lot of things wrong. Many teachers, with the best of intentions, come up with inappropriate instruction for gifted learners. For example:
- Asking them to do things they already know how to do, then expecting them to wait and do filler or piecemeal activities while the rest of the class catches up.
- Asking them to do "more of the same stuff faster".
- Asking them to do different work alone (for example sitting on a separate desk either inside or outside the classroom)
- Asking them to spend a lot of time tutoring weaker students.
The conclusion of this article is that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. There is a great analogy here: schooling is an escalator on which students continually progress - it is not a series of stairs with landings on which advanced learners wait.