In the past few decades, we have become much better at understanding the needs of our low-achieving students and meeting those needs. We have learned how to differentiate our instruction — rather than simply modify our expectations–, and we are much more willing and able to engage students using different modalities. We also are doing a far better job at staffing our schools with special-education personnel who oversee the progress of these students and offer appropriate advice and support for teachers and parents.
Without a doubt, there remains much room to grow in this regard and better meet these children’s needs. However, there is another population within our schools that I worry about, in some ways more than the low achievers. My concern does not stem from the fact that they may complete their formative education without basic life skills. Nor do I fret over their self-esteem and social standing. Rather, it is an unease that emerges from our complicit willingness to under-serve them.
The group that I refer to is our gifted-education children, the high-performers in our classroom that can handle more — much more — than we typically offer.
Consider the following common scenario. The teacher begins with some instructional inputting, whether in the form of whole-class teaching, cooperative group work, etc. In order to understand the material and complete the assignment, much of the class requires multiple reviews of the content. All the while, the gifted student sits. She grasped the idea or information the first time and has been subjected to endless review of the concept anyway.
This student may wait (im)patiently, hoping that the class will soon move forward with the next piece of information, task, etc. She may become a glorified teacher’s aide, asked to assist her classmates in learning. Perhaps she will be asked to do a run to the office or some other non-learning classroom activity, such as organizing papers or feeding the class pet. Or the teacher may simply let her read on her own until the class is ready to move forward.
Of course, none of these approaches offer the student what she really needs, which is robust engagement. She should be afforded the opportunity to learn the content quickly and then move on to deeper learning experiences. In most cases, it’s about using Bloom’s Taxonomy to assign tasks that demand higher levels of cognition. While her peers are still engaged in achieving knowledge and deepening comprehension, she can begin the processes application, analysis, etc. The key is that expectations are set from the outset, for the teacher as well as the student, that every instructional moment be used to the fullest.
Teachers sometimes tell me that this approach is not fair, or at least does not seem to be fair to the student and her parents. Why should she be asked to do more just because she processes and works quickly? My answer to them is that fairness is not measured by a “one-size-fits-all” standard. If anything, we do our children a grave disservice by placing them all together and setting a singular standard for everyone. Fairness, I tell them, is all about giving each child what she needs to actualize her potential. This consideration should never be comprised in the false pursuit of equality.
If we are to take the next step in the differentiated revolution, a movement that sees each child as being capable of learning and deserving of focused instruction that meets their individual needs, then we need to not forget about our most capable students, the ones who for so long have not been able to experience the kind of robust learning program that will help them realize their enormous potential.
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