Ferreting Out Problem-Based Curriculum: An Interview with Shelagh Gallagher

April 9, 2019

by Hillary Jade, Program Manager

Dr. Gallagher at Yunasa West in Colorado

Shelagh Gallagher wears many hats – so many, in fact, that she has more great ideas than time to realize them. She is a Yunasa Fellow, an NAGC award-winning curriculum writer and consultant, a recruitment and program consultant for Diligence and Delight Learning Center in China,  an author, a professor, a conference keynote speaker and presenter, and mother to 20-year-old “light of my life” son Colin. A self-described “curriculum wonk,” Shelagh has naturally gravitated toward designing courses that “become an apprenticeship – not a place where you just learn facts.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shelagh Gallagher for her first-hand take on problem-based learning (PBL) curricula, her work with IEA and boccone dolche – her favorite pastry recipe.

How did you become interested in pursuing gifted education and pedagogy as a career field?

“I entered into my graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill thinking I would be a counseling psychologist for gifted and talented students – like Patti Gatto-Walden, another Yunasa Senior Fellow.” That all changed, however, when her studies and connections led her down a circuitous path of “exposure I’ve had to diverse people and perspectives on gifted education. It really had more to do with the programs and mentors I ended up working with.” Her first point of contact was June Maker, who focused on deep instruction and emphasized the importance of questioning and building lower-to-higher order thinking in lessons. Dr. Gallagher then spent time at Confratute with Sandra Kaplan, who focused on differentiated curriculum, and depth and complexity. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Gallagher took a position at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, whose mission of helping students become problem finders, rather than problem solvers, resonated with her daily during her three years there. She was then hired by Joyce VanTassel-Baska, during the early years of her development of the integrated curriculum model. “It was a winding path that led me to problem-based learning and ultimately investing so much of my career in it, but it’s a spot that makes sense to me. Now I balance my interest in the psychology of giftedness with curriculum, and really, the two blend perfectly.  One is the study of gifted students’ unique qualities, and the other is creating curriculum to help develop those qualities into a capacity for deeper insight into the world.”

Dr. Gallagher’s father, Dr. James J. Gallagher, was an international leader in both special education and gifted education. In the 1970s, James Gallagher was the chief architect in the development of the Individualized Education Program (I.E.P.) and created a national framework for early childhood special education. Throughout his career, and upon his death in 2014, James Gallagher was heralded as an early and influential leader in the field of gifted education, with contributions ranging from research to policy, and even his own curriculum unit on leadership.

What is it that particularly inspires you within the field of Gifted education?

Simply put, Dr. Gallagher loves good curriculum: “I love the idea of putting that in front of kids. High-quality curriculum,” she laments, “is something we need more of. There is still a lot of work to do to create a national infrastructure for gifted education and curriculum – particularly for minority and low-income students. Our work is far from finished.”

Beginning in 2015, Dr. Gallagher joined IEA’s public policy consortium. With the group, Dr. Gallagher supported the idea of IEA working with nationally-recognized polling firms to create a poll to determine America’s opinions regarding gifted education in the United States. IEA President Betsy Jones and Dr. Gallagher co-authored a report on the survey results titled America Agrees: Public Attitudes Towards Gifted Education. “The new policy initiative has been a very rewarding experience. It’s been a great opportunity to work with Betsy on the America Agrees report,” she said. Dr. Gallagher and IEA staff shared these findings at the annual National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Advocacy and Leadership conference in Washington D.C. this month, and both she and Betsy presented an extended analysis of the findings at the NAGC annual conference in Minneapolis in November 2018. To read the full report, click here.

Why did you decide to focus on PBL curriculum?

“I’ve always been a fan of Jerome Bruner and inquiry-based education. Howard Barrows’ PBL model was based directly on Bruner’s philosophy. The idea that it’s discovery-based, that it reveals to students the structure of the discipline, and that it focuses on leading students into significant content from an expert’s point of view has always excited me.”

When I ask Dr. Gallagher where she gets ideas for new PBL curriculum, she doesn’t skip a beat: “Fortunately – or not – the world is filled with problems. There is no end to the possibilities to create curriculum – often ripped from current or historic headlines.” All of her PBL curricula are fact-based and rooted in real-world application: “The world is my resource and I love how students can tackle actual problems to solve.” Anytime she needs inspiration, she considers what would make a child’s eyes open wider or what would “expand the vistas of their understanding of the world.”

Do you have any new curriculum on the horizon?

A hearty laugh breaks out. “Oh, I always have ideas percolating; however nothing official I can announce. I can tell you that I have 2-3 curricula that I’m dying to write. Hopefully, I’ll find time to tackle them soon.”

What do you love most about working with IEA and Yunasa?

“Yunasa is such a special place – and truly one of the highlights of my year. I love having contact with the kids, and I love the work we do with the kids to ground them and give them a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence. I experience them having such a sense of opening during the week. I love the colleagues I work with while I’m there.”

Dr. Gallagher with (from left) Yunasa Fellows Dan Tichenor, Amy Gaessar, Patty Gatto-Walden, and Michael Piechowski

What are some fun facts you think people would be interested to know about you?

“I paid my way through graduate school as a professional pastry chef, first at a high-end Southern-style restaurant, then at a gourmet retail store.” (Here, I can’t help but picture Dr. Gallagher in another hat: a chef’s hat.) When I ask her what her favorite pastry to make was, she didn’t hesitate: “Boccone dolche, which is Italian for ‘sweet mouthful.’ It’s comprised of three layers of meringue, in between which are a layer of chocolate, a layer of whipped cream, and a layer of strawberries.” Gallagher also sings in her church choir, which feeds her need to keep music a part of her life.

Her son, Colin, spent seven summers as a Yunasa camper in Michigan, enabling her to witness the transformative power of Yunasa and its programming in her own child. In 2018, Colin served as a counselor at Yunasa West and Yunasa Michigan and will return in this role in 2019.

In Fall 2018, IEA’s Academy program introduced Shelagh Gallagher curriculum into its course offerings with Ferret it Out: A Problem about Endangered Species and Animal Ecosystems, a course that is also running this spring due to popular demand. This summer, Academy is offering three Shelagh Gallagher curriculum courses: Black Death, The Penguin Predicament: A Problem about Animal Habitat and Survival, and It’s Electrifying! An Exploration in Water-Based Alternative Energy.

For a full list of Summer Academy classes, please click here.

All of Dr. Gallagher’s curricula is available to preview and purchase online through Royal Fireworks Press.

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