Stretching Young Gifted Children’s Abilities: The Tiger Woods Approach
Two Kindergarten teachers are discussing the likelihood of giftedness in very young children. “Sure, some of them seem gifted. They’ve been in nursery school since they were two!” exclaims Teacher A who doesn’t believe preschoolers or even kindergartners can exhibit giftedness at so early an age. “They’re not gifted; they’re just ‘school wise.’ The other kids will catch up to them before long.” Teacher disagrees. “Gifted children think, feel, and learn differently from others—whatever their age—so we need to apply best practice here and each them accordingly,” she states emphatically. For instance, do you think limiting Tiger Woods, at age five, to attempt only age-appropriate golf shots would have been best practice for him?”
As many administrators will admit, early giftedness has been a controversial issue for years. While young children with unusual aptitude in sports, music, and other arts have been accelerated without hesitation, youngsters with exceptional academic abilities have not. What’s more, they have been trapped in education’s lock-step system of completing each and every grade sequentially, needlessly repeating material they knew before they ever entered a school setting. Put simply, many of our most capable young learners are discriminated against because they are smart! What does this say about our schools value human capital?
Then, along comes No Child Left Behind which punishes these bright youngsters even more. Because they can learn very quickly or, in many cases, already know their grade-level curriculum content, these children are merely making time in the classroom instead of using their advanced aptitudes productively. We know seat time doesn’t equate with learning, but placement in an appropriately challenging getting certainly can.
NEW EXPERIENCES, NEW SKILLS
Early education for the whole child cannot reduce to teaching facts and skills,” asserts Mary Ellen Freeley, a recent past president of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD; Education Update, August 2007, p.2). “The goals of early childhood education should include helping children to make decisions, solve problems, and get along with others.” Since young children showings signs of giftedness often use these skills already, they need a qualitatively different set of learning experiences that will teach them new skills commensurate with their abilities. Very bright youngsters need environmental stimulation through curricular enrichment, encouragement, and the support of knowledgeable, well-trained teachers who understand them.
Meet Josh. Strong-willed, intensely curious, and tenaciously persistent, Josh loves to learn. He’s thrilled with the 100-book challenge his kindergarten teacher has assigned; a fluent reader, he is confident he’ll met this challenge easily. Josh is eagerly anticipating math, too, but, since he already knows how to add and subtract single-digit numbers, his math curriculum must be advanced beyond the standard kindergarten content. But “advanced” doesn’t mean giving Josh more work at the same level; a “more of the same” approach is without question the worst strategy for gifted students at any age! In fact, children learn quickly to hide their talents to prevent being assigned more of the same mind-numbing exercises! Dr. Jerome Bruner, a pre-eminent voice in the shaping of education, stated, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest for to any child at any stage of development” (The Process of Education, 1960). So, what are the qualitatively different learning experiences that will teach Josh and other young gifted children new skills commensurate with their abilities?
STRETCHING CHILDREN’S STRENGHTS DEFENSIBLY
For children exhibiting signs of giftedness very early, teachers must nuture their strengths by stretching—not pushing—their capacity to learn to a level that’s just a little uncomfortable for them. They know so much already that if they don’t stretch them into new territory, they’ll simply wallow in their comfort zone and not advance commensurate with their true potential. For example, we administrators hear about high-scoring graduates who, having cruised effortlessly through high school, hit the wall of college expectations so hard it knocked them out—out of college, that is. Behavior problems, too, occur frequently in high-ability youngsters if they are not accelerated appropriately when they need to be (Baum, Cooper, & Neu, in A Nation Deceived, Vol. II, 2004; p. 111).
Critics of acceleration often fail to distinguish between advancing gifted students for their own intellectual growth and feeding them isolated facts, an undeniably senseless practice whenever it occurs. “Kindergarten has become the new first grade,” says Kathy Hirsh-Paske, a Temple University psychology professor who authored Einstein Never Used Flashcards. “We’re so afraid that if we don’t shove in facts, the children will fall forever behind…” (Baltimore Sun, August 26, 2007). Recommending that we stretch our bright young children like Josh is not to say we force-feed them facts. Advancing our young gifted children must be done defensibly.
Defensible acceleration of bright young children must include time for both academic advancement and play, integral to a child’s physical, social, and intellectual development. Play is far more important than we may realize. In this seminal article, “The Importance of Play” (The Atlantic Monthly, March 1987), Bruno Bettelheim, eminent child psychiatrist, cited Freud’s view of play as “the means by which the child accomplishes his first great cultural and psychological achievements; though play he expressed himself” (p. 35). Bettelhemi himself credited play as a valuable means of coping with home problems and other concerns. He observed that “Play teachers the child, without his being aware of it, the habits mostly needed for intellectual growth, such as stick-to-itiveness, so important to all learning” (p. 36). Above all, he maintained, children need room to play—“to move no only one’s elbows but also one’s mind, to experiment with things and ideas or one’s leisure… to toy with ideas” (p. 37).
AN ENABLING CIRRICULUM: INQUIRY, DISCOVERY, AND PROBLEM SOLVING
The basic skills and direct instruction emphasis in today’s schools cheats many young students out of the enriching topics that teach a child to use inquiry, discovery, and problem solving—elements essential to bright children’s cognitive development.
Past president of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), Dr. Barbara Clark reminds us that exceptionally bright youngsters ask frequent and sophisticated questions, are complex thinkers, connect seemingly disparate ideas, and are persistent in pursuing their own interests (Parenting for High Potential, March 1997, p. 9). They require inquiry-based learning that—through questioning techniques—stimulates students to look beyond the surface of what they are learning. This is a modern-day application of the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand,” shared with parents by Dr. Robin Schader, NAGC’s Parent Resource Specialist (Parenting for High Potential, May 2005, p. 17).
In Nurturing the Gifts and Talents of Primary Grade Students, Dr. Susan Baum, specialist in primary-level gifted education, recommends a four-pronged “enabling curriculum” for our young gifted children.
Baum maintains that although “teachers often light a spark in children, [they] may forget [their] equal responsibility to nurture the flame” (1998, p. 165). An enabling curriculum of these four components and facilitated by a highly-skilled, experienced teacher of gifted young children builds a strong launching pad form which our bright youngsters can soar.
TIPS FOR ADMINISTRATORS
We administrators need to take lesson from the Tiger Woods experience of matching talent and opportunity. Implementing an enriched curriculum should enable our bright youngsters to apply their advanced talents to new opportunities for stimulating their intellectual growth and development. The skills of (safe) experimenting, taking risks, hypothesizing, and comparing outcomes with predictions are as critical as the content-specific skills they learn. Inquiry, discovery, and problem-solving skills span all disciplines and prepare these bright children for lifelong learning.
The following tips may help you get started.
Baum, S. M. (July/August 1986).“The Gifted Preschooler: An Awesome Delight.” G/C/T, 43-45.
Early Childhood Division. National Association for Gifted Children. 1707 L Street, Suite 550, Washington, DC 20036; http://www.nagc.org.
McCluskey, K. W. (March 2000). “The Importance of Being Early: A Case for Preschool Enrichment.” Parenting for High Potential, 8-13.
Smutny, J. F. (Ed.) 1998. The Young Gifted Child: Potential and Promise, an Anthology. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Permission to reprint this review was granted to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development by the California Association for the Gifted.
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