Saturday / June 22

Teach to the Top: Finding and Developing Talent in Your Classroom

Over the last seventeen years in my roles as a gifted teacher and supervisor, I have often received emails like the following (a fictional composite):

“I wanted to take the time to thank you for allowing my son Jordan to participate in the gifted program. Now that he is in the reading enrichment class, he feels so much better about his academic ability. He will be a great asset to your group.”

I teach in a racially diverse district in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Parents like Jordan’s who advocate actively for their child’s involvement in enrichment and gifted education tend to believe that those programs are based on merit and that they need to make sure that school staff know how worthy their child is and how much the program would benefit from their inclusion. In my district, these parent advocates are also predominantly white.

In the 2011-12 school year, there were 3.2 million students identified as gifted. This is about 6.4% of all students. If we look at subgroups, though, 7.6% of White students are labeled as gifted, but only 3.6% of African American students.

There has been much discussion in the gifted education community about how to address this. Differing beliefs about giftedness and the role of gifted education strongly influence the potential solutions.

Paradigms of Gifted Education

Dai and Chen (2013) describe three predominant paradigms that have driven research in gifted education.

In the gifted child paradigm, giftedness is considered to be a fixed, innate characteristic of a person. Identification and programming is based on measuring that characteristic and sorting students into programs based on whether or not they have it.

In the differentiation paradigm, every child is believed to have some areas of strength and some areas of need. Education attempts to attend to each individual’s particular profile, with various services and interventions addressing those strengths and needs.

In the talent development paradigm, giftedness is more of an outcome than a characteristic. Programs emphasize early identification of strengths and create opportunities to develop that raw talent into exceptional performance.

In practice, most schools have a hybrid approach. Because the paradigms are based on different foundational assumptions, these hybrids are complex to implement and sometimes result in contradictory practices.

In particular, schools may promote differentiation, but then limit access to services by requiring participating students to be identified as gifted. IQ score, a core feature of the gifted child paradigm, is typically the criterion for passing this gateway.

Access and Opportunity for the Gifted Child

This presents a problem for equity in gifted education. If the gateway filters out different demographics disproportionally, then it is not equitable.

The concept of “equal opportunity” originated in hiring practices intended to choose the most qualified candidate regardless of irrelevant factors, such as race, religion, or relatives. The gifted child paradigm easily accommodates this: the criteria for admission are set, and the chips simply fall where they fall. To modify the criteria or make exceptions to them in the name of equity is unfair because it “waters down the program” and admits students who “don’t belong.”

In hiring, however, there are a limited number of available positions, and the hiring process is designed to weed out those less qualified so you can fill the slots with the best. Many highly-qualified people are turned down.

In education, by contrast, there is no scarcity of vacancies. We want to be able to find every child with a need and then meet that need. Different kids will have different needs, and they will manifest in different ways. Thus was the differentiation paradigm born.

Differentiation: Meeting Kids Where They Are

Recognizing and meeting individual needs is the explicit goal of the differentiation paradigm: find out where kids are now, identify the best way for them to learn, and apply those strategies and interventions in order to maximize their growth. There are differing opinions on its promise: some believe it cannot be done well, and others feel it is a highly effective practice.

Efficacy aside, there is a separate issue that directly affects its equity. In meeting kids where they are today, differentiation waves a hand at inequities in the playing field. Before their developing minds ever arrive in our classrooms, students have vastly differing experiences and learning opportunities. When they show up at the Kindergarten classroom door, then, some students are already miles ahead and others are still standing at the starting line.

In differentiating for the needs of high ability learners we have two main toolboxes: enrichment and acceleration. Enrichment is the stereotypical elementary gifted program: gifted students pulled out of the regular classroom a couple of times a week for fun and engaging activities. Critics contend that this is not meaningful learning. “Based on what I have observed in numerous pull-out programs,” says James Borland, “what passes for a curriculum too often is a hodge-podge of activities lacking anything resembling a scope and sequence. In most cases, there is little evidence that anyone has given any thought to what skills and concepts able students need that are missing from the regular curriculum and how those skills and concepts should be organized.”

Acceleration Works

So for “real” learning, schools may turn to acceleration. Though there are a number of different techniques for implementing acceleration, the general idea is that high achieving students move faster through the curriculum, either by skipping over things they have already learned or by compressing the time in which they learn it.

Research strongly supports acceleration. The Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa has produced two major reports in the past ten years on the value and efficacy of acceleration. According to John Hattie, acceleration is highly effective, coming in near the top of his ranked list of influences on student achievement, while enrichment does not reach the “hinge point” at which an intervention has a meaningful effect on achievement.

From an equity lens, though, acceleration is problematic because it magnifies the gaps that existed when students arrived on that first day of Kindergarten. Students who had that head start keep getting further ahead, and those students are predominantly white and middle- to upper-class.

There are several assumptions behind this research:

  • The only things worth learning are the things we’ve decided to put in the curriculum.
  • Education is a race to the end of that curriculum
  • The value of education is in its ability to increase achievement as measured by standardized tests

If these assumptions are valid, then acceleration is a valuable and useful tool. If not, then let’s reconsider enrichment in the context of the talent development paradigm.

Talent Development: Seeing Kids Where They Could Be

One key difference between differentiation and talent development is their time orientations. Differentiation focuses on the past and present. It asks, “What have students already achieved, and what can they do now?” Talent development is more future-oriented, asking, “What could students do if given the right conditions?”

Let’s consider new versions of the assumptions above and see what they imply for learners who are outside of the norm:

  • There are many things worth learning which are not part of the K-12 curriculum.
  • Education is not a race, but a journey.
  • The value of education is in its ability to give students the tools and habits of mind to meaningfully contribute to society.

Think of learning as an ocean. The curriculum is the established navigation lanes, and acceleration means traveling those lanes faster. For some students, this is the most appropriate option.

But if we decide to explore other parts of the ocean, we still have options: we can go wider, exploring interesting and important areas of the ocean we’ll never get to during the K-12 curriculum, or we can go deeper, staying in the travel lanes but exploring aspects of those lanes most students won’t see. This is enrichment, and it can be as well-planned and rigorous as the regular curriculum if we want it to be.

Finding and Developing Talent in Your Classroom

You may not have the benefit of working in a school or district that values talent development. If you have the opportunity, work with your administration to consider how this paradigm might play into policies and practices. But even if you cannot, you can implement a few simple things in your classroom to find and develop talent, and in the process create a more equitable learning space.

  1. Teach to the top. Too often we teach to the middle, average student and try to adjust in both directions. Instead, plan your instruction with your best learners in mind and then provide support and scaffolding where necessary for those who need it. Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis provide many strategies for doing this in their book Enriching Curriculum for All Students. You will be surprised at how often you find students who are capable of things you never expected.
  1. Use project-based learning and non-routine problem solving. When you teach only isolated skills and content, modifying instruction for high ability learners is extremely challenging. A project-based approach allows for much greater variation without the need for overly complex planning. Create a classroom culture incorporating non-routine problems so that advanced learners can take them as far as they like with little extra work on your part.
  1. Partner with your specialists. Specialist teachers in your school, including librarians, arts, speech, and gifted, have expertise that can help you find and develop the talents in your students. Work with them to plan activities and lessons. Invite them to teach a lesson in your class while you use the opportunity to observe and take notes about your students.

Ultimately, if you are always on the lookout for what makes your students unique, what strengths they have, and what potential they are showing, you can be the catalyst for developing their talents even if the system in which you work isn’t yet set up to recognize them. Studies have shown that if you teach students as if they are gifted, they will perform according to those expectations. This is most important for underserved students and those who don’t fit our traditional definitions of giftedness.

Dai, D. Y., and Chen, F. (2013). Three paradigms of gifted education: In search of conceptual clarity in research and practice. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57(3), 151-168.

Written by

Gerald Aungst has more than 50 years of personal and professional experience fostering curiosity in learning through play and making stuff. During the last 25 of those years, in his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, Gerald has worked to create a rich, vibrant, and equitable learning culture in schools. Gerald is currently a gifted support teacher in the Cheltenham School District in suburban Philadelphia. Gerald is also one of the organizers of Edcamp Philly and a founder of His book, 5 Principles of the Modern Mathematics Classroom, is available from Corwin. You can also connect with Gerald on Twitter at @geraldaungst.

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