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Planning Effective Curriculum Experiences for Gifted Learners

Gifted Programs

Planning Effective Curriculum Experiences for Gifted Learners

This article by Joyce Van Tassel-Baska discusses tips for planning quality curriculum for gifted students. She suggests four roles that should be performed, She also proposes seven premises upon which the curriculum should be based.

Author: Van Tassel-Baska, J.
Publication: Understanding Our Gifted
Publisher: Open Space Communications
Vol. 15, No. 1
Fall 2002

Strong and effective curriculum for the gifted is not easy to develop. It requires a collaborative team of people with appropriate expertise, an experimental setting where the trial and error of piloting and review can occur, and a mindset that is serious about program improvement. To allow for this, an investment of three years to design, develop, implement, and revise is acceptable. The following model is central to planning effective curriculum for gifted learners (Van Tassel-Baska, 2003).

The Instructional Design Model
A fundamental design model needs to be employed in developing curriculum for the gifted (see Figure 1). The model is meant to be systematic, yet recursive in its elements. These elements begin with an appreciation for who gifted learners are, how we identify them, and what basic curriculum dimensions are necessary for serving them (cell 1). After educators have a grasp of these issues, the model moves to an emphasis on philosophy and goals (cell 2). At this stage real planning may begin. First efforts need to focus on clarifying the fundamental purposes of a gifted program, how it fits in with a regular program of study, and what the important but broad learnings would be that gifted students receive. This phase of design needs to be done in a consensual way so that all relevant educators in a school district can agree with the outcomes of the planning effort.

At a more specific level, learning outcomes (cell 3) are derived from the stated student goals. These outcomes should be extensive enough to cover the intent of a given goal, yet be manageable in a program sense since each of them will need to be assessed to determine the level and extent of student learning that has occurred. Outcomes should be developed consensually among teachers working in the program at relevant levels. In a framework document, specification of outcomes can be across K-12, but in a scope and sequence guide, it may be useful to cluster the outcomes across proximate grade levels. Thus primary, intermediate, middle school, and high school outcomes may be treated separately. Further refinement by grade level may be done as needed.

Beginning with teaching-learning activities, resources, and strategies (cells 4-6), the model focuses strongly at the teacher level of classroom implementation via units and lesson plans. At this level, the use of archetypal activities linked to specific teaching models and the resources that employ them may be very helpful tools. No teacher has the time to develop curriculum for the gifted from scratch nor should it be encouraged, given that many good models and curricula exist. At this stage of development, it is important to ensure the linkages of these elements to the overall goals and objectives. One strategy to ensure the linkage is to identify at least one specific learning model for each goal in order to provide a pathway for coherent translation into classroom practice.

Classroom management techniques (cell 7) are also discussed as important elements of design. Attention to variables like grouping, pre-testing, and the use of contracts and IEP’s all contribute to the potential for successful implementation of a curriculum and also to the degree of flexibility employed in particular classrooms. Even a high-powered curriculum delivered in the same way to every student fails to account sufficiently for differences within the population. This is especially true for gifted students with special needs where flexibility in curriculum implementation is essential for success.

The last stage of the design model involves assessment of learning outcomes (cell 8). At this stage of the process/ we are interested in ascertaining how well students learned what they were supposed to learn, to what extent they grew and matured in the identified goal areas, and what aspects of the curriculum/instructional design process worked well and what didn’t. Student achievement, attitude, and teacher judgment all play into making the assessment stage of the process work well. Newer approaches to student achievement, such as performance-based assessments and portfolios, can be very helpful in judging how well the particular curriculum unit of analysis was implemented. Results of this stage of the process then should feed the next stage, that of revision and recursion.

Revision and recursion involves a careful evaluation by teachers and other educators of what has occurred as a result of implementing a particular instructional design module or unit of study. At this stage of the process, decisions should be made about the nature and extent of revision necessary to improve the model or whether other alternative models should replace it. Revisiting each cell in the design model is useful in deciding what revisions may be most appropriate. Assessment results may suggest a need for more activities to support a learning outcome, a more effective instructional strategy to teach a concept, or a broader array of resources. Careful assessment of each of these possibilities is important to improve learning the next time around.

Roles in Instructional Planning
Educators need to recognize that four essential roles must be performed during instructional planning (Kemp, Morrison, & Ross, 1998). These roles are not overlapping, but rather call for different types of expertise.

  • Instructional designer: A person responsible for carrying out and coordinating the planning work. This person should be competent in managing all aspects of the instructional design process. In school districts, this individual could be a gifted curriculum specialist.
  • Instructor: A person (or member of a team) for whom the instruction is being planned. This person should be well informed about the students to be taught, the teaching procedures, and the requirements of the instructional program. With guidance from the designer, this person should be capable of carrying out details of many planning elements and also be responsible for trying out and then implementing the instructional plan that is developed. This role would be an experienced teacher of the gifted.
  • Subject-matter expert: A person qualified to provide information about content and resources relating to all aspects of the topics for which instruction is to be designed. This person should be responsible for checking the accuracy of content treatment in activities, materials, and examinations. District-wide content specialists, librarians, or secondary teachers in relevant subject areas could assume this role.
  • Evaluator: A person qualified to assist the staff in developing testing instruments for pre-testing and for evaluating student learning. This person should be responsible for gathering and interpreting data during program tryouts and for determining effectiveness and efficiency of the program when fully implemented. This role can best be undertaken by someone on loan from the research and evaluation section of a school district or, in smaller districts, by an instructor from a nearby university.

Too frequently, gifted programs have expected the designated gifted specialist to carry out all of these roles. Clearly such an expectation invites failure.

Premises Underlying Instructional Design Process
Kemp, Morrison, and Ross (1998) also identified seven basic premises that are important to internalize in the process of engaging in the instructional design process. These premises, as they apply to gifted curriculum development, are:

  1. The instructional design process requires attention to both a systematic procedure and specificity for treating details within the plan.
    It is necessary to process the curriculum plan, while at the same time attending to a design that is authentic to the specific details of delivering a teaching-learning activity.
  2. The instructional design process usually starts at the course development level.
    Curriculum work is more coherent if it begins at the level of goal development and then branches off into specific areas of curriculum development.
  3. An instructional design plan is developed primarily for use by the instructor and planning team.
    Initial documents need to be “user friendly” for teachers. Study guides for students can follow at a later time.
  4. While planning, every effort should be made to provide for a level of satisfactory achievement for all learners.
    Even gifted learners have been shown to learn high-level material at different rates and levels of proficiency (Van Tassel-Baska, et al./ 2002). Thus, variation and flexibility in curriculum development must be exercised.
  5. The success of the instructional product is dependent on the accuracy of the information flowing into the instructional design process.
    Part of this refinement in the product can take place through having it critiqued by teachers early in the design phase. Another process is to “try out” sample lessons in classrooms, with designers present to record the “bugs” for revision work.
  6. The instructional design process focuses on the individual rather than the content.
    Characteristics of gifted learners in general tend to guide the development process of curriculum for them rather than a set notion of fixed content. Further tailoring of curriculum will need to occur for special needs students and the highly gifted.
  7. There is no single “best” way to design instruction.
    Individual teachers and educators are idiosyncratic in their approach to designing curriculum. While a common format is useful, different ways of achieving ends should be seen as a positive asset of the procedure.

One of the most neglected areas in our schools is adequate attention to gifted programs and the curriculum designs employed to deliver those programs. In order for such programs to improve, curriculum design features, roles, and premises need to be carefully considered.


Kemp, J. E., Morrison, G. R., & Ross, S. M. (1998). Designing Effective Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Van Tassel-Baska, J. (2003). Curriculum Planning and Instructional Design for Gifted Learners. Denver: Love.

Van Tassel-Baska, J., Zuo, L, Avery, L. D., & Little, C. A. (2002). A Curriculum Study of Gifted Student Learning in the Language Arts. Gifted Child Quarterly, 46, 30-44.

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