This isn’t my first run at the difficult topic of acceleration. In February 2015, I addressed how acceleration was a (Not So) Simple Fix, and more recently in a post about Math and the Gifted Learner, I reflected on acceleration as one of the options available to students who were gifted in math. Having been involved in many accelerations and conversations about acceleration over the past few years, it is rare that I have a straightforward, rubber stamped, “this child is perfect” for acceleration meeting. Here are some of my observations from full grade accelerations.
- Sometimes the testing does not look like we would expect. I have had situations where the cognitive testing has not matched up with the off-level or achievement testing. While the IAS (Iowa Acceleration Scale) allows for some flexibility on this, it is important that the team discussion take a careful look at demonstrated levels of achievement and what might be contributing to a lower cognitive score, particularly if there are gaps in subtests so appropriate supports can be put in place if necessary.
- The interpretations of the testing results may vary. As the gifted specialist, I get to work with different psychologists as we review applications for acceleration. I have worked with psychologists who have recommended acceleration to parents based on testing results that fall below the IAS recommendations. I have had psychologists recommend against acceleration when the testing supported what was outlined by the IAS but they felt that the cognitive flexibility results were lower than they would like to see. While testing is only one part of the process, it is important to weigh everything out carefully during sometimes difficult conversations.
- The other interests of the student. Students who are actively involved in competitive sports may find that they are disadvantaged at certain points in their development. One student recently pointed out that the only drawback to acceleration has been the fact that being one of the smaller players on the team has felt like a disadvantage. While they are likely to grow out of it, it may have a longterm impact if this sport is part of a career goal.
- The receiving school and teacher. Never accelerate a child into a situation where the receiving school and teacher are not supportive. Even when they are supportive, monitoring expectations is important. It may take time for a child to adjust academically and socially to the grade skip. Teachers sometimes have expectations of how a gifted child “should be” that differ from the child who is being accelerated behaves. Sometimes students are comfortable with other students knowing they’ve been accelerated while others want it kept very low key. Other students have experienced frustration that the fact they’ve been accelerated isn’t acknowledged as an accomplishment. As students get into the higher grades, a single grade acceleration usually goes unnoticed, students who have been accelerated more than a single grade will continue to need advocacy and support as they are in a sense a “visible minority” and will need to continue to manage perceptions.
These observations around acceleration get complicated when they become part of the news like the recent article in the Business Insider that is interested in defining a certain measure of success for a particular group of gifted students. The article draws on research that supports acceleration and creates a sense of urgency around the necessity of challenging our youth while focusing our perceptions of “genius” on a particular set of variables. While it tracks the success of 5000 students at or above the 99th percentile, the actual number of individuals who constitute 1% of the total population of the US is well over 3 million people who, I imagine, are as diverse as any group of 3 million people. Those of us who work with an even larger group of students (the top 2.2%) get caught up in the urgency in unexpected ways while working to act in the best interest of the gifted.
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One of the most difficult conversations that I have had with educators and parents over the years has been around the topic of acceleration. You would be amazed by the number of “I knew someone who skipped a grade and it was the worst thing…” stories that I hear when the subject comes up. It seems as though everyone knows someone who skipped a grade and then failed miserably in life. Interestingly enough, the research does not bear this out. I know this because before I began considering putting together an acceleration procedure for our district, I had to get past my own assumptions about acceleration and embark on a massive hunt for relevant research. If you are interested in seeing the research for yourself start with this meta-analysis by Steenbergen-Hu and Moon or Hattie’s Effect Sizes from Visible Learning. And of course you need to take a look at A Nation Deceived by Colangelo, Assouline and Gross. But don’t stop here. Keep looking.
Once you’ve explored the research the most important thing to know is that while acceleration is considered one of the most straight forward and cost effective educational interventions, it is far from a quick and simple fix. Since we’ve approved the procedure in our district I have had the opportunity to sit on several acceleration review committees and work with a number of accelerated students. This is not an intervention that is appropriate for all gifted students neither is it a magic pill for those who are accelerated. The Iowa Acceleration Scale has proven to be an excellent guide for steering the conversation with parents and teachers through many difficult questions. Are they socially mature enough? How might this impact other children in the family? How might being younger than all the other students in their class impact them at higher grades? Does the teacher and school support this intervention? What support will need to be provided in the year(s) to come to adequately support this student?
If giftedness were simply about advanced cognitive abilities rendering a child able to do work that is well above their grade level, acceleration would be a “no-brainer”. All we would have to do is find the appropriate “level” and place them there. But giftedness is so much more complex than that. These are students who are struggling to balance their expectations of themselves against the expectations that they perceive from the people and world around them. These are children who sometimes allow us to see the intensity of their sensitivities but oftentimes do not. These are individuals whose strengths may be diverse, asynchronous and well out of our range to adequately assess and understand. So even if we do accelerate it is important to remember that this in itself is likely not enough. Ongoing support and counselling with people who understand giftedness will be important. When you don’t fit neatly into the system, it can help to understand why you may not fit in and how to cope with the “difference” that most people will not be able to understand.
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If there are rock stars in the field of educational research, John Hattie is definitely one. His seminal work “Visible Learning” which was published in 2009 has been called “the Holy Grail” for teachers. If you want to know what will make an impact in the classroom, he’s gathered together the effect sizes from more than 800 meta analyses (more than 16 000 studies) into a list that is both affirming and at times surprising. You can view his list here. (Note where acceleration appears.) Make sure you read the preamble regarding what Hattie would consider a significant effect size.
I had the chance to attend a PD day with John Hattie at the beginning of this school year where he spoke to his work to give us some direction as we continue to meet our goals of engaging students to become ethical citizens with an entreprenuerial spirit…Alberta Learning’s triple E agenda. I think the message I found most surprising was his assertion that 90% of teaching was based on surface learning and as he looked through the research, most studies reflected this focus. I couldn’t help but wonder about how surface learning impacts our gifted students…from the ones who actively work to know all that is possible to be known to those whose need to question can create considerable psychological tension. Given that I had just returned from the Dabrowski Congress as well as subsequent PD from Lynn Miller on anxiety where she indicated those with high IQ tending to suffer more from anxiety…I kept wondering if all of these things be linked somehow.
While I mused for some time over whether asking good questions and digging into curriculum could avert anxiety, I was cautioned against finding a “Dabrowskian curriculum” as going past a uni-level and perhaps even a surface understanding of the world, tends to be a personal journey. I began reading Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates and this past week I got to the chapter where they address feedback, which Hattie has placed near the top of his list alongside formative assessment for having impact on student learning. The chapter not only addresses how we can support our students on this “personal journey” but differentiates clearly the type of feedback required for students of varying ability.
While teachers may have a different conception of what constitutes good feedback, Hattie and Yates tell us that students want feedback to focus on their goals and giving them what they need to get where they want to go: “how to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.” (p.70) While novice learners require corrective feedback and proficient learners require process feedback, highly competent learners require sincere efforts to extend and apply knowledge even further. (p. 66) In providing this kind of feedback, the teacher must have some understanding of where this child wants to go and a good understanding about what could come next and not succumb strictly to praise. In citing Carol Dweck’s work on praise Hattie and Yates reiterate that praising students at this point for their ability can paradoxically raise self-doubt. (p. 69) But don’t imagine that all gifted students want to be rocket scientists either. In a final word in the chapter they write, “The feedback you offer your students provides the tools they need to be able to perceive the immediate path ahead, and so decide that it is really worth the effort. Since effort is a limited commodity, it cannot be squandered on things doomed to fail, or chasms too wide to bridge.” (p.70)
This will be the first installment of what I learned at the NAGC.
The opening keynote was Chester Finn Jr., former professor of education, an educational policy analyst, and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education. He is currently the president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C. He recently wrote a book called Exam Schools with Jessica Hockett where they take a look at a number of mostly public high schools across the US that through a rigorous admission process cater to academically minded university bound students. He contends that America’s “no child left behind” policy only served to “raise the bottom” and neglected the academically, high potential students. Basically, gifted students have been gypped. He also gave ten reasons why he believes that this is happening:
1. Our nervousness about perceived “elite education”.
2. A mindset that says high ability kids will do fine regardless of the education system.
3. Widespread belief that equity concerns center around socio-economic status, special needs and cultural groups…not gifted.
4. We are schizophrenic about whether giftedness is a special need.
5. Universities are awash with applications to attend leading us to believe students are well educated.
6. Our (US?) immigration policies have made it possible to import talent.
7. The field of gifted education has been hazy and avoiding a clear definition.
8. Our field needs more research about what really works for gifted students.
9. Gifted education has been meek in advocacy.
10. Gifted education suffers from a lot of bad ideas…one of them is differentiation.
Chester Finn Jr. received the NAGC President’s Award for outstanding contribution to gifted education because of his work in Exam Schools. Some of the suggestions that he made were interesting.
1. Instructional innovation will foster innovative students.
2. There is a lot of pressure to remain conventional…we need to look at idiosyncratic approaches to learning that students are able to choose.
3. We need to find ways to give credit for non-test evidence.
4. We have to get away from the notion that “best students” are in a limited supply.
While his comments were very well received there were a couple of lingering questions that seemed to be echoed throughout the conference.
1. Is academic success the only kind of success we need to concern ourselves with in the field of gifted education? Most would agree that gifted children are complex learners that require a broad spectrum of support. 2. What should our definition of “gifted” be? The current definition posted by NAGC is here. It is a broad definition (10%) encompasses our need to raise the ceiling but fails to identify the broad spectrum of abilities in that 10% range.
My first mentor in the land of gifted education told me that gifted children were like all other children except moreso. It’s very similar to what Annemarie Roeper of Roeper School and Roeper Educational Review said: Giftedness is a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences. What kind of educational experience will serve these students best? Maybe it’s some kind of an idiosyncratic program that Chester Finn Jr. referred to. But some of the other sessions that I attended had some interesting suggestions as well. Stay tuned for reports on my visit to Ricks Center for Gifted Children, words of wisdom from Temple Grandin and more from Joseph Renzulli on school-wide enrichment!
A friend posed this question to me a couple of months ago and I’ve thought about it a lot since then. We often think of gifted underachievers as students who aren’t getting great marks…but 95%? Across the board? How can that be underachieving? And then there is the question that naturally follows: if 95% will get you a scholarship and the university of your choice, why worry?
I could probably do a PhD on just this question alone as it begs so many more: What does it mean to truly know something? Does passing a test mean something has been learned? If we can do much more than is expected, should we be expected to do it? What does a grade really tell us? How do we make grades meaningful? What is the purpose of grades? Should we be grading at all? What is the impact of an “undeserved” grade whether it be low or high? These are questions that most educators grapple with on a daily basis as we endeavor to make the work in our classrooms meaningful in addition to maintaining accountability.
This year as my students set goals, many of them cited a certain GPA as their goal. For some it was the honour roll, for others it was first class honours and others had a number like 95%. When they came in to update their goals in their last session almost every one had achieved the grade goal they set out. When I asked if it had been a challenge most of them responded “not really”.
How do we learn to dream really big when fitting in is so much easier? Can we expect a classroom to offer more? Many of my students have found their challenges and passions outside of the classroom in individual pursuits: music, sport, art, dance, theatre and more. But for the student who is still searching to find their passion, how can we get them excited about what lies beyond the 95%? Because it will make the idea of university so much more enticing if they do.
One of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years at Christmas is that despite all my good intentions, all my research into what makes a great gift for a child, the gift that my children play with the most tends to be the thing they asked for in their letter to Santa. It doesn’t matter if what I bought was recommended by teachers and parents from around the world, if it wasn’t what they asked for, it often ends up in a corner. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t had times where we’ve explored new games or activities with success, but over time I’ve learned to expose my children to the possibilities and then listen.
Maybe that’s why I like this article by Lannie Kanevsky so much. In the Fall 2011 Gifted Child Quarterly, Dr. Lannie Kanevsky of Simon Fraser University asks 646 grade 3-8 students how they like to learn. She compares the responses from 416 students identified as gifted to the 230 responses from students not identified as gifted to see if there are any significant differences. The results are interesting. There are certain things that all students want, differing only slightly in degrees. And then there are the things that gifted students want significantly more than other students.
So what did all students want (or as she puts it, really like)? Here are the top ten:
10. Doing activities that have more than one right answer and more than one way to find it.
9. Working with kids who learn as quickly as I do when I’m learning in a group.
8. Knowing how I will be graded before I begin.
7. Using computers to find new information through the internet and databases.
6. Learning with a partner who learns as quickly as I do.
5. Learning when I get to choose the way I learn (from books or experts; groups or alone; worksheets or projects.)
4. Doing projects in a group when I get to choose my group.
3. Learning about topics I choose. It might be ANYTHING!
2. Doing projects with a partner when I get to choose my partner.
1. Learning at my own speed.
What did gifted students particularly like? (More than a 10% difference.)
8. Understanding the way ideas are connected.
7. Choosing the way I will show what I’ve learned.
6. Understanding things the way experts do.
5. Working in groups sometimes, working alone sometimes.
4. Finding creative solutions to difficult or weird problems.
3. Understanding complicated ideas and problems.
2. Doing activities that let me learn something new that is different from what anyone else in my class learns.
1. Learning about weird topics that I wonder about. They are things that we don’t study in school.
There you have it! Pared down from a list of 110 possibilities it’s great information for those of us who are working to engage students in meaningful learning as we move into a new year! I hope 2012 is a great learning year for us all!
Since our gifted education program began, one of the most difficult areas of need to address has been math. When I ask students to set goals, one of the top requests revolves around wanting to move ahead in math. When I talk to teachers about these requests the conversation generally leads to the need for understanding and mathematical thinking versus acceleration. As I was told earlier this week when speaking to a math consultant, a fast processing speed does not necessarily equate to true mathematical giftedness. When I consult the literature I am told that higher levels of engagement come when the appropriate level is found.
Another factor seems to be whether the student and/or the teacher are mathematical thinkers and truly engaged and interested in math theory and the perplexing problems that math has yet to unravel. Several students have indicated that even though they want to experience acceleration in math, it is not an area of passion. But can you develop a passion about something when you don’t take the time to really “dig in”? I have also encountered teachers who have told me that while they feel comfortable teaching the math at their grade level, they don’t feel comfortable when a student asks to move beyond that level. Can we expect all teachers to be expert mathematicians?
And so I am constantly on the look for good resources. I came across an article at Prufrock Press this week where math teacher Thomas Tretter talks about the four ways to modify math for gifted students: acceleration, enrichment, sophistication and novelty. In this article, he focuses on how developed a math program for students based on sophistication, with lots of great examples and discussions.
When Dr. Janneke Frank visited Grande Prairie last winter, she indicated that the number one modification for gifted students is acceleration. If you read “A Nation Deceived” put out by the Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration at the University of Iowa in 2004, it argues that we are holding back our brightest students even though the research supports the practice. So why has the practice of acceleration been discouraged?
It turns out that this topic can be a lightning rod for responses. Bring it up in a conversation and almost everyone “knows someone who…” There is often a deep concern over the question of maturity and dangers of young students being grouped with older students. The conversation also turns quite often to the topic of “enrichment” and how differentiating for students would eliminate the need for acceleration. So what do we do for our students who able to work far ahead of their grade level?
A quick reading of the Inspiring Education document and the possibility of personalizing education for all students may hold some answers for these students. As curriculums are being rewritten to allow students various “ways of knowing” and metacognitive components to encourage an understanding of the value of “process” as well as a stronger foundation in larger concepts…will this meet the needs of our gifted students?
That is what I am hoping to find out when I attend Dr. Miraca Gross’ workshop in Calgary on November 16 and 17th in Calgary. Anyone who is interesting in attending can contact firstname.lastname@example.org