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Chapter 7: B-1. An Educational Approach for Teaching Highly Capable/Gifted Students


What is at issue in meeting the needs of gifted students is the achievement of what the Office of Overseas Schools' Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children and Youth (1998) has called the Optimal Match approach (borrowing the term from the late Halbert Robinson). An Optimal Match approach applies to all children and all educational settings. It involves matching challenges to student readiness, pace, and level of learning, recognizing that all students learn best what they are just about ready for, what encourages them to stretch their minds - not so much as to be aversive, not so little as to be boring. An optimal match approach to teaching and learning is a way of flexibly organizing instructional settings so that all students are working at their challenge level, but there is no one right or special way of teaching that does, or doesn't, fit in with achieving such goals.

Basic steps in making educational adjustments for gifted children, then, involve:

  • Careful assessment of multiple areas of competence and maturity - those in which the student is advanced, average-to-above-average, or even behind. This process can involve standardized ability and achievement tests as well as ordinary classroom assessments and observations. Parents are also a very good source of information, as are previous school records. The practice of "out of level" testing is very useful here - administering measures (standardized measures, chapter tests from material not yet taught, etc.) at a higher level than usual for the student's age to avoid ceiling effects. Achievement at the 97th - 99th percentile, or at the 95th-100% on a chapter test, does not assess how much more difficult material the student may have already mastered or tell you what the student is ready for next.

  • Assessment of the match between the curriculum and the student's readiness, prior experience and knowledge, so that he or she need not be re-taught material already mastered, but will not neglect important knowledge and skills not yet learned. Student motivation decreases when expectations or task demands are too high or too low. For example, a teacher might administer a chapter test before teaching the material to assess what students (not just the identified "gifted students") already know. This process is called "compacting" (Reis, Burns & Renzulli, 1992). The time saved by not "teaching" what has already been learned can be put to use in more appropriate ways.

  • Selection among a variety of approaches within and outside the school setting to provide an appropriate adjustment for the student's demonstrated pace and level of learning in each area. There exists a variety of strategies to adjust instruction, including presentation of more advanced work (e.g., working with a higher grade level, skipping chapters, using a more advanced text, working independently or in small groups); enrichment or expansion of the curriculum to material that would not otherwise be covered (although this should ordinarily be more advanced than is typical for grade level); mentoring and special projects; out-of-school activities.

It is useful to distinguish between activities that make a fundamental adjustment in the child's school experience (i.e., affect the experience of the six-hour day, substituting more appropriate for less appropriate material in the regular classroom, in a more advanced classroom, or a resource situation), and activities that complement the child's school experience (e.g., after-school clubs, special lessons, or contests). Some activities such as correspondence or summer courses can be used either in a complementary or a fundamental mode. While both fundamental and complementary approaches can be very useful, this manual mainly addresses fundamental modifications that assist in achieving an optimal match, within the school day.

  • Achieving an optimal match approach requires flexibility, ingenuity, and compromise, but it does not dictate any particular teaching style or strategy.

Achieving a Differentiated Educational Approach for Gifted Students
The following characteristics are certainly not unique to the education of gifted students, but deserve special consideration in designing learning experiences for these students:

  • Careful assessment so that teaching can be targeted to what the child is ready to learn next

  • An expectation for high performance, doing one's best, revising and improving work even when it is better than that turned in by most other classmates

  • Providing opportunities for "true peer" interactions with other same-age peers who are about equally bright or with older students, sometimes adults

  • In forming cooperative learning groups, clustering more competent students together

  • Presenting complex, abstract content; rephrasing principles and concepts being taught to the class in a more formal or comprehensive mode for the brighter students

  • Suggesting problems or ideas that take some pondering and can't be answered right away

  • Telescoping learning time

  • Emphasizing higher-order thinking and rewarding the student who struggles with a complex, open question

  • Extending the regular curriculum (upward and outward)

  • Emphasizing conceptual content so that students are able to generalize their insights

  • Pushing for in-depth learning

  • Encouraging divergent thinking and achieving the same solution through multiple pathways

  • Teaching study skills, time management (often lacking when previous challenges have been lacking)

  • Individualizing when it is needed

  • Structuring independent study; teaching the skills necessary for independent projects

  • Drawing up, with the student, learning contracts that facilitate individualized or small group work but do not disrupt the classroom

  • Assuring that gifted students do not become "assistant teachers," although a bit of peer tutoring may be healthy

  • Creating an annual individual plan that makes use of multiple resources (not a full IEP, just a plan)

Possibly the most valuable resource for teachers, especially at the elementary level, is Susan Winebrenner's (1992) Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom. Although it does not sufficiently emphasize ways to enhance depth and conceptual complexity, it is full of excellent ideas of ways to compact and extend the work of the classroom without driving either teacher or student crazy! An excellent guidebook for helping students to conduct original research is Looking for Data in the Right Places, by Starko and Schack, (1992). Social science research methodology and the "how to's" of qualitative and quantitative analysis are presented in a clear manner for students.

The twin strategies of acceleration and enrichment go hand in hand in devising approaches for the gifted child in the regular classroom or the resource room. In the absence of a history of extra instruction, students who are advanced in a given domain have a faster pace of development than that of other students of the same age (in at least that domain). It follows that acceleration - a faster or more advanced instructional approach - is called for to match their developmental trajectory. Such acceleration can take place within the curriculum (i.e., moving to a higher level - provided that plans are in place for suitable instruction when the student reaches the next grade level so that he/she isn't expected to repeat) or it can take place parallel to the curriculum in topics or domains not usually represented, or with advanced literature that will not ordinarily be covered. Parents can often be expected to assist in this process by helping to provide special materials.

It is essential, however, that the student be involved in planning as well. After all, such adjustments may seem to the student (and his/her classmates) to represent "more work," and few self-respecting youngsters are likely to opt publicly, in the presence of peers for that. The differentiated assignments should be a substitute for other work, not just a greater quantity of work, and should be in an area of high interest for the bright student, who will then be more willing to engage and stick with the challenging parts. It also helps to have two or more students working together, for there is strength and social benefit in numbers and they can problem-solve together more creatively than they could do alone. It is also useful to present such extensions of the curriculum as "experiments, to see how they will work," so that if the planning is faulty or the project does not meet the (sometimes exaggerated) expectation of the students, modifications are seen as positive next steps rather than evidence of failure - by all parties.

Tips for Managing a Classroom to Provide Open-Ended Experiences for All Children
As should be clear from the above, there will be times when whole-class instruction is most appropriate to achieve an optimal match, as well as times when children need to be working alone or in small groups. Some tips for adapting whole-class instruction to make it possible for more advanced children to flourish are:

  • Wait time: "I'm interested in what everyone in this class is thinking, so I'm going to wait until everyone has thought through this problem."

  • Alternatives while waiting: Give speedier children other problems to work on while they wait, or ask them to come up with more than one way to solve the problem.

  • Address different conceptual levels: Ask questions at various levels of difficulty, including a few you don't think anyone in the class can manage. Some children you didn't expect to tackle the harder ones may surprise you!

  • Exploration time: When introducing new material or an experiment, allow some "messing around" time first. Use their explorations as the basis for curriculum development and decision making, as their questions emerge and the children teach each other.

  • Ask big questions: Children are often intrigued by big, open-ended questions that do not have a single, definite answer. These are questions that invite children to theorize and become intellectually curious. Examples: What is a pattern? Do patterns exist in our heads or in the numbers and shapes? What if we didn't have an alphabet (or a number system)? Why do we need words? Where did our spelling rules come from?

  • Talk to students about all the different ways our minds work: Some children have minds that work quickly or memories that allow them to recall facts right away; others need more time but can often come up with thoughtful responses. Some children want to be in the right ballpark while others want the precise answers. Encourage the children to observe themselves and each other and discuss what they find. When is one way better than another?

  • Create a feeling of security: Make every child in your class feel free from the danger of being "wrong" as opposed to having made a "good try." This is particularly important for bright students who are accustomed to always being right (with not very much work), and for those tackling complex ideas for which they don't have all the skills or vocabulary in place to express what they are thinking.

  • Use students' independent work to enrich the class: Unless students are overly shy, often the work they have done in their special projects is likely to be of considerable interest to their classmates. Indeed, the presentation may need some extra preparation and become a secondary project. Their classmates may be intrigued enough to volunteer for some independent work themselves.

The Resource Room or Self-Contained Class
Although smaller schools will seldom be able to provide special grouping for gifted students, some larger schools may find it useful to bring groups of gifted students together for part of the day (or even all of the day, in some instances) because it can be very taxing for teachers to provide for their needs simultaneously with providing for everyone else's. (Moreover, gifted students have a way of completing new projects so rapidly that planning for them becomes burdensome.) Unless the curriculum is simultaneously differentiated in the modes suggested previously, however, simply bringing bright students together will not accomplish the goals intended. A coherent and challenging curriculum is needed. Furthermore, it is important, if a resource room or pull-out mode is utilized for part of the day, to integrate what goes on there with the activities of the student's regular classroom, to assure that the add-on material actually helps the student to move ahead developmentally.

There is abundant evidence that, even with the best of intentions, regular classroom teachers adapt no more than 20% of the curriculum for their brightest students. Some teachers are not able to manage that. Schools may, therefore, want to opt for a combination of approaches when they can.

Cluster Grouping
Although the research evidence so far is scanty, the practice of cluster grouping is growing in popularity in the U.S. in those schools that do not use pull-out or self-contained modes for educating gifted students (and even some that do). This practice simply means an informal placement of several brighter students into one classroom in schools that have more than one classroom per grade. This permits them access to each other and facilitates appropriate cooperative groups as well as permitting the teacher to work with several students as opposed to a single individual in the kinds of adaptations described above.

Grade Skipping
In some settings, grade-skipping is the best solution for a particularly advanced student. Like other potential solutions for a less-than-optimal match, it should probably not be rejected on principle but given thoughtful consideration.

The following chart was prepared for teachers trying to meet the specific needs of highly capable children within an inclusive setting.

High Capability[2]

Child Behaviors of Concern (Elementary)

Possible Underlying Difficulties

Strategies/Experiments to Try[3]


Child at risk of boredom


Level of capability ahead of classmates


• Avoid "teaching" what child already knows:

    • use informal classroom assessment
    •  examine records of previous school
    • give chapter tests before teaching
    • compact what you teach, e.g. half as many problems
    • compact what you teach, e.g. half as many problems

• Expand and deepen curriculum by:

    • Assigning more advanced reading or projects on the same topic
    • Asking child to find real-life examples of same concept
    • Extending assignment (e.g. class studying _, ask child to figure what would be a quarter of a dollar, an hour, year, moon, apple, pound)
    • Encouraging child to find aspect of topic to explore in depth and report to class 

• Probe for "big ideas" underlying what rest of class is able to grasp

• Use acceleration methods, such as:

    • Enabling child to work ahead in book
    •  Letting child go to higher grade class in area(s) of strength

Bright child works slowly

May not have acquired automaticity in skills

• Utilizing on-line or correspondence courses


• Find a mentor on faculty or in community


• When assigning work groups, place most capable children together


• Require practice (number facts, spelling)


• Teach keyboarding skills early and use computers to lighten fine-motor load


• Break assignments into shorter segments

Bright child won't turn in work (often does OK on tests)

Believes that "smart" means not studying


Believes work expected to be perfect

• Discuss difference between capability as what one was born with, vs. "hard work makes you smarter." "Use it or lose it!"


• Reward effort rather than just level of attainment


• Explain that you want to be teacher, not just audience

Shows peaks and valleys of abilities

Likely to be normal variation because talents are so



• Help child appreciate own differences in aptitudes, limits, and interests


• Teach deliberate strategies to problem-solve when baffled

Bright child seems "lazy"

Possibility of underlying learning deficits

• Look for problems that child may have with low level skills that are covered up by abilities in higher-level thinking and address these directly (as with other children with deficits

Note: An excellent resource is Susan Winebrenner's Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom (1992), Minneapolis, Free Spirit Press.

[1] This section on teaching highly capable children was prepared by our colleague on the steering committee for this project, Nancy Robinson, Ph.D. We are indebted to her for her contribution.

[2] This chart was prepared by Nancy Robinson and Barbara Keogh, members of the Advisory Council for Exceptional Children and Youth.

[3] As with all children, but particularly relevant to Highly Capable students, there is a need to optimize the pace of instruction to match the child's developmental pace.

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