A Classic, Different Education
In the field of gifted education, there are two terms: gifted, and education. In recent decades, our work has focused intensely on what it means to be gifted, but less intensely on what it means to be educated.
And yet, it is being educated that is the goal. Being gifted is not the goal; it is the condition that makes high education possible.
For personal and national reasons, we want gifted children to become learned adults, with the knowledge and capacity of mind to enjoy rewarding lives and to guide the country through a rapidly shifting and possibly perilous future.
This requires a different education, not the same education had by all, with different emphases.
A true gifted education would be appropriate for and designed specifically for gifted students. As such, much of it would be wrong-highly inappropriate-for other students, who would be swamped and miserable in such an environment.
And some of this different education for children of the very highest ability is not attainable, at all, to other students, however hard they may work. Consider that highly gifted students sometimes reach levels of mathematics in middle school that most students never reach, even in high school or college. A middle school student who makes an 800 on the SAT is doing something that very few students can do, regardless of age or effort.
The kind of high mathematical mind and instant intuitive understanding that gifted math students demonstrate can not be taught. It is an internal function of their abilities. It is already visible when they are still in the early elementary grades, and it calls for a full educational response from us. As a society, we owe every child-not excluding the gifted child-an education that fits. And if we do not exclude gifted kids from the dream of education, they will go places that are unknown in the normal context.
We are perfectly comfortable with this standard of achievement in the athletic arena.
Content matters. If curriculum is to be a profound engagement with the world, it is essential that it really be the world with which one is engaged. To waste critical education hours on content that is thin, shallow, common knowledge, or false is a tragedy. The words of A Nation at Risk, the report of the 1983 U.S. Department of Education's National Commission on Excellence in Education, are still relevant:
History is not kind to idlers. The time is long past when America's destiny was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources and inexhaustible human enthusiasm, and by our relative isolation from the malignant problems of older civilizations. The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors.
Curriculum for gifted children must focus on quality content. Even though the affective domain is crucial and must be involved, the affective domain is not its own curriculum. There are more magnificent truths to learn about the world than we could ever have time to learn, and so our curriculum should be designed to maximize class time for high educational goals.
It is appalling that American colleges are offering junk courses such as "Vampires: The Undead" (University of Pennsylvania) and "The Biology of ER" (Purdue University). Other prominent schools have courses on juggling, witchcraft and UFOs. There are junk courses and junk units. I remember a high school teacher who assigned his gifted history class a research paper on the Bermuda Triangle.
If a paper on ER or the Bermuda Triangle does not constitute profound engagement with the world, what does? Listen to the words of James Gallagher, in the winter 2000 edition of GCQ; the title of his article is "Unthinkable Thoughts: Education of Gifted Students":
The critiques leveled against the triviality and irrelevance of some of our "differentiated" programs for gifted students need to be taken seriously. General education teachers and teachers of gifted students both need models of differentiated units that stress advanced content and mastery of thinking processes, such as those developed by VanTassel-Baska (1997) in science and Gallagher and Stepien (1998) in social studies to help them challenge their students.
This does not mean that there should not also be continued attention given to special efforts at enhancing creativity, problem solving, problem-based learning, and the like, but that the mastery of these skills has to relate to significant and relevant content in order to be meaningful and useful to the student.
What questions should we ask when we choose significant and relevant content:
1. Is it knowledge? Does the lesson teach anything that is actually knowledge? Will the students know something afterward that they do not know now? Would it be regarded as knowledge by others? One way of testing this question is to ask, Could a student's answer be wrong? If the answer is no, then there may not be enough knowledge in the lesson. Not all activities teach!
2. Is it academically necessary? Much knowledge is prerequisite for advanced study. Algebra is valuable in its own right, but it is also a requirement for subsequent mathematics and science. Traditional grammar, the orthodontia of the mind, enables students to use language correctly in every other context. Foreign language is more necessary than ever. A Latin-based vocabulary is essential to all English-speaking students who pursue advanced academics.
These thoughts remind us that we must beware of educational trends, such as the suppression of ability grouping or the dogma that schools should not teach grammar or vocabulary. American education is just now emerging from its whole language winter, and little peeps of language study are beginning to be heard in the land.
3. Will it educate THESE students? Does the lesson contain things that these students do not know? Will it change the state of their education? Will they feel that they have learned something? If the lesson involves review, remember the statistic that some students require thirty or more repetitions in order to learn, average students require ten to fifteen repetitions, and gifted students require zero to three repetitions.
4. Is it global? In a rapidly increasing global environment, students need as much knowledge as possible that connects them with the rest of the world. Is what we propose to teach global--known as knowledge around the world? Are there references to it in the culture? Will students encounter it when they travel? Will they find it in a museum? By this standard, mathematics, science, world history, and foreign language have great meaning to students.
5. Is it at international grade level? Forget the categories and stereotypes we use to age-grade our content in the United States. Are we writing a curriculum that the rest of the world teaches a year or two earlier? Do we have a valid reason for waiting? Are we underestimating what students can learn?
Let's take another look at results from the 1998 TIMSS Report: On the math/science test, the general math scores of our students were lower than those of fourteen other countries. The advanced math scores were lower than eleven other countries. The general science scores were lower than those of eleven other countries. In physics, the U.S. students were last. The TIMSS report noted that our 11th grade curriculum is regarded, internationally as 9th grade level. When the TIMSS Report came out, Peter Rosenstein wrote, in NAGC Communique:
In recent weeks, Microsoft and other high-tech companies have asked Congress to lift visa restrictions on foreign nationals to permit them to work for U.S. companies because they cannot find qualified American students to fill the positions.
Under the effects of Horace Mann's grade level notion, we have succumbed to the idea that big words are high school or college level, and yet earlier authors routinely used them in children's animal books, which with no ill effect have continued to enthrall children of all ages ever since. Age-graded vocabulary is an illusion. Very young children routinely learn the species names of the dinosaurs, and any little child who can say and understand San Francisco Forty-Niner or Tyrannosaurus Rex can say and understand the word serene. Let's compare our curricula to international grade level.
6. Is it enlightening? Does the lesson enlighten students' minds with truths about honor, justice, fairness, democracy, multiculturalism, equality, or a altruism? Will it increase their sympathy? Will it ennoble their tolerance? Books such as The Narrative of Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait have the powerful combination of being written by some of history's most famous individuals, being brilliant accounts of important events, and being enlightening stories that infuse readers with a sense of universal human value.
7. Is it counter-ignorant? Will studying the lesson protect students from fraud, deceit, or swindle? Will it refute popular myths and stereotypes? Our culture is rife with commercial distortions of science and history. The so-called Bermuda Triangle was made up by a hack author in a fiction article for Argosy men's magazine. Carl Sagan tells us that the British crop circles were a hoax by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two blokes from Southampton, who in 1991 announced they had
been making crop figures for fifteen years.
It is good if our curriculum protects students from mercenary authors who exploit youthful credulity by presenting science fiction as science.
8. Is it permanent? Will it still be valid when the students grow up? Will they be able to help their children learn it? There are many things to learn that are only temporarily true, and some of them must be taught, but there are others that will be valid for as long as the students live.
There is a popular notion that knowledge is accumulating so rapidly and becoming obsolete so immediately that it is bootless for gifted students to spend time memorizing facts. We must not be lulled by this simplification. It is still possible today to spend one's educational life in the disciplined study of permanent knowledge. Students who concentrate on world and national history, foreign language, geography, mathematics, science, grammar, vocabulary, and famous literature and poetry will benefit from it all of their lives.
9. Does it require a teacher? We want to use our talents where they are most needed. When it comes to educating gifted students, we should ask, Is the content really a necessary use of school time? Is this something that students would probably learn on their own? Is it soft or popular content that the world will teach them anyway? Or is it the kind of content where the students really need us?
It is one of our greatest experiences, as educators, to teach the motivational content of our subjects--the great stories, the beauties. It is the special opportunity for grammar teachers to show students why grammar is beautiful and fun, and it is the special privilege of the calculus teacher to show why calculus is exciting. If we do not do these things, there is no one left in society to do it. When we write curriculum, we must think long and hard about its motivational content, and write it in motivational words that will communicate with both students and colleagues.