Advanced learners left behind


By Karen Littell

  First of two parts

There is a population of children whose needs are not uniformly being met in Sonoma County. This population is difficult to name or describe, as it includes children who harken from all cultures, every socioeconomic status, all neighborhoods and many types of schools. The state, the nation and the world often refer to them as “gifted,” and this label has invited considerable misunderstanding and debate. But regardless of what we call them or how we feel about them, there are children out there whose educational needs are not being met, and they need our help. Their needs are significant, well-defined and important.

Educators have a term called “Zone of Proximal Development,” or “ZPD.” This refers to the range of skills that any given student is able to learn at a given time if they receive appropriate educational guidance and encouragement. Material that the student has already mastered – or that the student can easily learn on his own – falls below his or her Zone of Proximal Development. Material that is too advanced – that a student is not yet ready to learn even with guidance – is above his or her ZPD. Every student has the right to a free and appropriate education. And this means they have a right to be taught within their ZPD.

Children come to the classroom with varying levels of interest, readiness and ability, and thus with varying Zones of Proximal Development. Regardless of whether or not they bear the “gifted” label, one child might be more advanced in math, another in English and another so very passionate about science that he or she positively soars in class. Since each child needs to be challenged and engaged at his or her level, or ZPD, in order to learn, it is the responsibility of our educators to respond accordingly.

When a child is not engaged within their ZPD, there are risks that begin to accrue – they might become bored, frustrated, depressed, disengaged, disinterested and/or unmotivated. They might stagnate. They might feel unaccepted, out of place and not validated. They might lose trust in their school or begin to lose touch with their own sense of identity. The lack of educational fit might make them feel like something is wrong with them. Some children who are not being adequately challenged report that they feel like school is killing their spirit. Some parents report that their children are losing their spark, losing their thirst for knowledge, or losing their prior insatiable curiosity and fascination.

Some students, whose academic needs are not being met, begin to display disruptive behaviors that are a problem for the teacher. They are then referred for disciplinary measures, and a downward spiral can ensue. Often, their only “problem” is that their needs are not being met.

Is it reasonable, or moral, to punish an advanced math student for refusing to do problem after problem like the rest of the class, when assessments show that she or he is years ahead of the class? Is it right to force a student who already understands a concept to listen to the same explanation over and over, and then punish him when he or she talks, or doodles, or fiddles or reads a book under the table?

Over and over, they are told to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. At an utter loss, perhaps they hide their hands under the desk and start peeling their cuticles or carving the desk or breaking pencils. Then we think they’re troubled or anxious or disturbed.

But the diagnosis is simply “extremely proficient at math.” It is the school that needs remediation, not the child. It’s really a lot like forcing a champion swimmer to “learn” in the kiddie pool, or making a virtuoso pianist play “Chopsticks” over and over again.

And then there’s the predicament of helping others. Gifted children are often asked to spend some or even most of their class time helping others to catch up. Let’s clear something up here, because this is important. Helping others is a virtue. But during class time, children of all abilities and levels are in school first and foremost to learn. Receiving an “appropriate education” means they are challenged at their own level – their ZPD. It does not mean that they become the teacher’s assistant.

Let’s return to sports or music to better understand this. Would you want your child to spend her advanced or “travel team” soccer practice each week helping kids on a beginner team? The soccer player might well choose to offer help to less-advanced students sometimes, but it is not reasonable to expect them to do so on a regular basis during their own designated learning time. If you approach your child’s teacher about the need to provide more challenging school work, and you are told that your child is “learning by helping others,” or that tutoring others offers “an opportunity to reinforce concepts” that he or she already knows, then he or she is not being taught within his or her ZPD, and the school is neglecting its mandate to provide a free and appropriate education.

Truly differentiated instruction for all students is key. How do we ensure true differentiation in the classroom? If you are a teacher, seek consistent training in differentiation, including mentorship and peer observation. Go to demonstration classrooms, or watch videos by master teachers that show the nuts and bolts of how differentiation happens. Advocate for programming that meets the needs of advanced learners. If you are a parent, discuss this with your children’s teachers, administrators and, importantly, your school board, whose job it is to listen to you and meet your children’s needs. If you are an administrator, make changes, and start by seeking training in differentiation for your staff.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the Northern California CAG Symposium will offer 60 workshops on differentiation and enhancing the Common Core State Standards, taught by experts from throughout California. There will be sessions specific to math, language arts, social studies and science, and workshops for elementary, middle and high school teachers. There will be workshops that focus on meeting the needs of gifted English learners and other underserved populations. Educator sessions will teach differentiation strategies that benefit all students. Parent sessions will address many aspects of parenting gifted children.

This event will be at American Canyon High School. The cost is $85 ($60 for CAG members) and includes the keynote address, a choice of four workshops, refreshments and lunch. You can register at www.cagifted.org. CAG is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of advanced learners.

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  Karen Littell, MSW, is currently serving her fourth year on the board of the California Association for the Gifted. She developed the Northern California CAG Symposium to increase the capacity of parents and educators to keep gifted children engaged and challenged at school and thriving at home.

In Part 2, Littell will delve deeper into why differentiated instruction is so important for all students.