Teaching the Gifted

October 7, 2014

By Louise Hindle

Louise is IEA’s Academy Coordinator. A British import, Louise graduated from the University of Manchester with a B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature and Language, completed her post-graduate teacher training at The University of Cambridge, and recently completed her dissertation in Educational Leadership and Innovation with the University of Warwick. Louise has 20 years of experience in education as a high school literature teacher, lead teacher, administrator, adviser, and consultant. She is also the parent of three fun and active school-aged children.

Louise teaches a group of gifted students at an IEA Academy Genius Day

Somewhere in the middle of England, somewhere in the mid-nineties, my former self – three years into my teaching profession as an English Literature teacher, new in my role as second-in-faculty – landed the golden opportunity to teach the brightest 10th graders in the school, the ‘top-set’. This 10th grade top set, as we called it, comprised of thirty-two specially selected boys and girls all destined, according to their assessment data, to achieve the highest grades possible in English Literature state examinations. My former self assumed this would be the ‘dream ticket’, that I would be confronted with eager minds, self-motivated, confident young people with similar abilities. After all, if they’d been identified as the ‘top set’, teaching would be straightforward, without barriers, without learning challenges. These kids were high potential, they were gifted, therefore teaching them would be easy – right? How wrong I was, and how quickly I learned to address these misconceptions.

Teaching is challenging at any level. As a profession, I believe it is one of the most physically, emotionally and intellectually exhausting roles out there. There is an assumption, however, that teaching high potential or gifted children is ‘easier’. It is remarkable to me that even in 2014 educators, from classroom teachers through to leading administrators, adapt a totally different language when describing the needs, or lack of them as they view it, of the gifted student. The language used when discussing the gifted is remarkably indifferent at best and presumptuous at worst. Indeed, both the language used and, at times, the pedagogies adopted assume that the gifted have ‘innate’ abilities, ‘fixed’ abilities, in need of little direction or challenge. The gifted will mysteriously ‘find their own way’, will ‘learn independently’ and will remain ‘naturally’ curious, self-motivated and fulfill all of their potential, achieving to the highest standards despite us. Teachers and administrators will merely facilitate this growth and focus their efforts on other, more needy children.

Such a mindset forgets that gifted children are like any other child with needs – it’s just that their needs are different. Yet numerous 21st century school systems continue to assume that their needs are easier to address, easier to manage and easier to ignore. Teaching the gifted is not easy. I learned this through personal experience as a teacher, and I continue to learn this in my role at IEA. To begin to explain, let’s go back then to that mid-nineties self and consider what I learned, how I learned it and why it continues to impact my role today.

Thirty-two 15-year-olds were selected, all with higher abilities in English and English Literature than the other 230 students in their cohort, but that is where the similarity ends. Let’s consider some real young people, with fictionalized names, from that class who helped to challenge my misapprehensions about the homogenous mass of the gifted:

Gareth: brilliant orator, voracious reader, highly conceptualized response to all texts but initially unable to write more than a paragraph and express himself in writing. Why? Writing was physically difficult. His thoughts travelled faster than his motors skills, and his motor skills continued to lag behind.

Dana: extremely driven, reserved, anxious, challenged by spelling and her visual memory.

Timothy: he doesn’t care, and his family is not in a place to help him. Meanwhile he tries his best to get demoted, to misbehave his way out of the situation, and because he’s clever, he knows how to misbehave and does so in interesting and innovative ways daily. To Timothy, English is a girls subject – and since no one has encouraged or valued his opinions to date, why should he believe or care now?

With a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, I could begin to quench the gifted child’s thirst for knowledge in this class, and I had the intellectual confidence to answer their questions, but the range of their needs, emotions, anxieties and abilities was far greater and much more challenging than I’d ever imagined it would be.

An Academy teacher helps learning come to life through an experiment
An Academy teacher helps learning come to life through an experiment

Today, as in the mid-nineties, I am most challenged by the most able. Of course preparing for the intellectual challenges, anticipating the questions, the trajectory of a classroom conversation and the depth of knowledge sought remains a delight. Gifted children need teachers with content knowledge, content they can immerse themselves in, connect with, have telescoped or have explained in a way which is honest and meaningful to each of them at that moment in time. But, teachers of the gifted need to be more than a walking encyclopaedia, they need to have a whole range of other tools in their trade…..

Teachers of the gifted need to:

  • Be able to assess where each child’s abilities reside so that students can experience meaningful intellectual challenge through pedagogies appropriately matched to their learning style.
  • Help children make connections with each other, to develop the confidence to share knowledge with each other and have the confidence to confront gaps in knowledge.
  • Accept that gifted children may have other physical and emotional challenges to deal with and that this doesn’t make them less gifted, just gifted in a different way.
  • Be mindful that whilst gifted children may have the vocabulary and intellect of a person beyond their years, they are still children who thrive on praise and encouragement, whilst still needing to know that there are boundaries, limits and expectations.
  • Be prepared for strong emotions when gifted children face academic challenges and don’t know how to proceed.
  • Connect content in deep, imaginative and real ways, being reflective, student-centered and clear about learning objectives.
  • Be like any other excellent teacher – proud of their profession, dedicated to catering for the needs of each individual learner in their classroom with high expectation of their intellectual, social and moral conduct.

We have just celebrated World Teacher’s Day, and I know many teachers may have momentarily raised their heads from their marking and preparation and smiled wearily at this accolade. When asked, we will all be able to recall a teacher who made an impact on our lives, for better or worse. We should all be mindful that with teachers, there is no other profession and that the gifted, with all of their needs, deserve a great teacher, a gifted teacher, just like any other child.

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