In determining how to adapt the Standard Course of Study to the needs of academically gifted learners, one of the most important questions to ask about an objective is, “who cares?” In other words, what careers, individuals, or institutions actually deal with that objective in real life? Looking at academic content from these actual perspectives yields rich, rigorous, challenging learning for those who are ready to go beyond proficiency. It also provides a reason to learn, and addresses the students’ perennial question of “When will I ever need to know this?”
When approaching any lesson for a class with a spectrum of skill levels, a teacher needs to consider how the objective should be presented to students who are not quite ready for the grade level’s curriculum, students who are at the grade level, and students who are ready to go beyond. Pre-assessment — both formal and informal — is necessary to determine the present needs of individual students. The teacher can then determine what level of instruction is needed by which students. For those high-end learners who demonstrate early understanding and mastery of the concepts that must be learned, choices may be centered around real-life perspectives that relate to the Standard Course of Study objective.
Many current educational strategies and approaches build on this concept. These strategies include Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which requires students to assume the role of real-life professionals in approaching a situation that needs a resolution. In PBL, students must adopt the habits of mind of a particular profession, learning the language, concerns, and techniques associated with it. They must ask questions from the perspective of that adult role — which are not necessarily the questions they would raise as students.1 In designing The Parallel Curriculum: A Design to Develop High Potential and Challenge High-Ability Learners (NAGC), the authors included the “Curriculum of Practice Parallel” for just this purpose as one of four ways to differentiate curriculum to challenge all learners — particularly the gifted.2
WebQuests are another strategy designed to put students into real-life roles and perspectives to solve problems. Students choose their role and access information about a problem relevant to that role. In Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension, Jeffrey Wilhelm advocates incorporating real-life perspectives into role plays, text-structure tableaux, and other enactment activities.3
Why would adopting professional perspectives be particularly appropriate for gifted learners? First of all, exploring careers that require sophisticated thought can help students determine if they have the interest and predispositions to consider pursuing those careers. Exposure to the requirements of being a chef, for example, might prompt a gifted middle-school student to pursue cooking classes on an extracurricular basis. Looking at a curriculum objective from the perspective of a legislator might encourage a high-school student to seek an internship in politics.
Secondly, this approach requires a higher degree of abstract thinking; it asks students to suspend their own perspectives and adopt those of people with whom they do not share background and experiences. One of the most frequently cited characteristics that distinguishes academically gifted learners from their age peers is their ability to reason at higher levels of abstractness. Therefore, gifted students who understand the curriculum objective concretely are usually ready to apply it abstractly.
An additional characteristic of academically gifted learners is their tendency to display intense interests at an early age. Looking at skills and objectives from multiple real-life perspectives allows students to follow their own passions. For example, a student might not be interested in history until she is encouraged to examine history from the perspective of an artist, statistician, or museum curator.
Finally, while some students in a class may be acquiring knowledge and understanding about a particular curriculum objective, advanced learners may be ready to synthesize and evaluate that same learning on the level of an adult in a specific field of study, thereby allowing for respectful differentiation built around the same Standard Course of Study objectives. In short, any student who has mastered the objective as it is stated within less time than other peers should be exploring real-world applications of that objective.
Does this mean that students who do not share the characteristics of academically gifted learners should not experience real-life roles? No. All students should experience these roles at some time in their learning, but not necessarily at the same level of sophistication or at the same time. Academically gifted learners are by nature more abstract and complex thinkers; in order to be appropriately challenged, they need to adopt the habits of mind of adults in complex real-world settings.
Does it mean that incorporating real-life perspectives is the only appropriate way to differentiate instruction for academically gifted learners? Certainly not. There are many other criteria used for creating or choosing appropriate curricula for academically gifted learners, but using perspectives is one of the more interesting — and more often overlooked.
The perspectives approach also has the advantage of being applicable across all disciplines. For example, instead of drawing a cell as it’s already depicted in a biology text, a student might adopt the role of a scientific illustrator who must communicate to a real audience some aspect of a cell that cannot be easily photographed. Instead of writing a book report, a student might adopt the role of a book critic asked to review a book, a bookstore owner determining whether or not to stock a book, or a school board member deciding whether or not a controversial book should be required reading for students.
Who cares? The answer might lead toward opportunities to energize learning and make it authentic for those who have already acquired the basic skills.
Preparing for differentiation is often daunting for teachers. However, the strategy of incorporating perspectives can become a natural way of thinking with a little practice. In creating appropriate alternative experiences for high-end learners centered on real-world roles, the following steps may be helpful.
So what does it look like when the lesson plan or activity is constructed? Let’s consider a case study of one middle-school assignment before and after it was reconstructed around perspectives. Because this middle school had an international emphasis, teachers assigned each student three regions in the world — one county in North Carolina, one state in the United States, and one country. Students were asked to bring in an article about one of their assigned regions every other Friday.
While the assignment itself was well-intended, the end result was disappointing to the teachers. One student who had been assigned Rockingham County, the state of Washington, and Turkey brought in the racetrack results from the Rockingham Speedway for three consecutive assignments. In an interview, this student insisted he had searched the internet and print publications each week, but this was all that was in the news for these regions. When asked to show evidence of his search, the student proved quite proficient and resourceful. But despite his considerable efforts, he simply had not found current news related to the other regions.
After careful thought and discussion, a different assignment was created, one that still required the assignment of the three regions but incorporated real-life perspectives about those regions from the viewpoints of journalists, historians, U.S. ambassadors, musicians, philanthropists, biographers, medical advisors, educational advisors, architects, and chefs. For their regions assignment every other Friday, students chose a perspective and a region and completed activities selected by the individual student from the following contract:
The multiple perspectives from which students could choose allowed individuals to select perspectives related to their own interests. As a result, the students created interesting, in-depth products in which they had clearly invested a significant amount of effort. Because the students naturally gravitated toward perspectives about which they were passionate, they invested more time in their assignments — a marked change from their previous approach of selecting the activities that required the least amount of effort. As long as a product of some sort was turned in every other week, students might invest four to six weeks on a single assignment.
Consider each of the topics below, and think about some of the typical assignments teachers may use for each. Contrast that with the perspectives-based assignment in the document provided.
|Bill of Rights|
|Book study: A Cricket in Times Square|
By having students adopt the thinking and working habits of adults who are contributing to a better society, teachers can differentiate instruction for gifted students in a way that both acknowledges students’ passions and builds on curriculum learning objectives. Creating opportunities for students to apply academic ideas to authentic situations results in greater student engagement and more thoughtfully created products. In the process, these opportunities prepare students for challenging, exciting careers.