An Introduction to Education for Gifted Youth

A simple perspective for parents, students, and educators…..

Some school districts in the United States have within themselves clearly defined, highly focused, and annually funded programs aimed at the gifted child. Some schools exist as institutions for only the gifted. Some schools simply cannot afford any “special programming” aimed at the gifted. The types and kinds of education for the gifted run the entire gamut. The truth is, however, that virtually every school, knowingly or unknowingly, provides education for the gifted.

How does that happen? One might maintain that any school district that provides art instruction, a mathematics team, an orchestra, a computer club, music instruction, a softball team, a wrestling team, a drama club, or a community service squad is providing education for the gifted child.

An academic examination which identifies the types of gifts and talents that children exhibit would surely include the following: athletic talents, artistic talents, talents involving quantitative analysis, talents involving speaking and writing, talents of personal leadership, talents involving spatial relationships, abilities to create new forms, abilities to create new solutions, and so on. Most educators would agree that every child has one or more gifts and talents, or at the very least, would agree that every child has gifts or talents that stand out from his/her other abilities.

Funding education for the gifted and talented student has some serious barriers for most school districts. First of all, this funding is not mandated by federal law like that of special education (as it is commonly known). In these times of tight budgets, funding for all kinds of education is under the highest scrutiny. So expanding programs for the gifted and talented may be rare, and starting programs may be equally difficult. Secondly, truths and myths abound about programs which are intended to serve the gifted Developing programs for the gifted is difficult. Selecting students for the programs is under great scrutiny. All too often tests designed for identifying the talented and even teacher recommendations do not always uncover some fine candidates. Some programs are seen as only furthering the education of the already advantaged without enough identification and selection of those other equally talented students who “are diamonds in the rough.” A host of situations may mask their gifts and talents.

If one agrees that both funding programs and satisfying the communities that programs are really finding, choosing and serving the talented is truly difficult, then what is a community to do? Are the cards stacked against education for the gifted and talented students? Is this a losing battle? Are there any doable solutions?

Go back and re-read the second paragraph. Aren’t interscholastic sports programs really programs for the athletically gifted? Aren’t high school math teams really programs for the mathematically talented? Aren’t school drama performances, musicals, and holiday art and music celebrations really showcasing talents? Further, these latter performances often uncover talent! But is that all? No, think about the after school programming that exists in many districts. These, too, engage the interests of students and often uncover or develop talents in students……..elementary school jump rope clubs, middle school chess clubs and high school year book teams are examples of this kind of offering.

These are not enough, though. There are other ways for classroom teachers to get to the core of responding to the “special needs” of the gifted and talented student. Differentiated instruction is one solution. Differentiated instruction may have several definitions, but here it will be presented as a method of teaching which develops tiers of student assignments intended to tap a very wide range of capabilities and interests within a single classroom. Teachers who understand that they cannot “teach and assign” to the middle have carefully crafted core concepts which will be taught to all students - regardless of their capabilities and interests. Then the personal learning that takes place in the form of student assignments is both wide and deep, hopefully engaging and challenging every member of the class. If a teacher is not already familiar with the concepts connected with differentiated instruction, this is a perfect time to learn and achieve the satisfaction of engaging every student in a way that he/she can manage. A class taught to the middle leaves two groups shortchanged and in this day of accountability, that is simply not acceptable.

Finally, the kind of higher order thinking and problem solving that abounds in classrooms reserved for only the gifted and talented can just as well exist in every classroom. One of the best ways to expand teaching of the gifted and talented is to equip the classroom teacher, every classroom teacher, with the methods and means to guide this higher order thinking and problem solving. And, like the vitamin pill that is taken every day, instruction every day of some kind of challenging thinking and doing will bear fruits in virtually every student in the classroom. Again school districts that cannot afford to set aside special classes, rooms or buildings for the gifted and talented can take the program to all students through the professional development of this kind of expertise in all its teachers.

In summary, do not despair if your district does not have some “classy” classroom for the talented students. Virtually every school district is already serving many gifted and talented students through their existing co-curricular activities. Further, teacher who are “gifted” in presenting the diversity of differentiated instructional activities and/or using the teaching techniques found in classrooms for the gifted and talented are providing a compelling case that teaching of the gifted and talented can go on every day in every classroom. Further, who knows how many more gifted and talented students will develop from these very special procedures?