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Rigor vs. Challenge: A Different Way to Look at School Advocacy for Gifted Students

Gifted Education and Support

Rigor Vs. Challenge
A Different Way to Look at School Advocacy for Gifted Students

Profoundly gifted students are frequently at odds with traditional school models because they can handle input of richer content when compared to their same age peers. However, their output (particularly written output) doesn’t always accurately reflect their cognitive abilities. For example, teaching a student math equations and expecting them to turn in a completed worksheet may seem like a straightforward way to demonstrate learning. However, highly gifted individuals are often able to intuitively understand higher order math problems but unable to show the steps for how they got to the correct answer.

This asynchrony can be problematic in the United States school system that was designed to standardize learning. All students receive the same input material (information, dates, formulas, etc.) and are asked to produce the same products, such as worksheets, essays, tests, etc. A student‘s ability is judged almost exclusively on their output of products. Thus, students are often asked to demonstrate higher level output before they’re allowed to advance to higher level material. In this system, high achievers, or the students with the best products, rise to the top, and profoundly gifted students aren’t always recognized.

Because a profoundly gifted student with advanced input capacity may be under-supported in this system, parents often feel compelled to advocate for change. This is when the conflict between input and output becomes clear. Many parents and students want a change in input (i.e. they want richer, more advanced content), but often schools are more willing to change output. A change in output is less disruptive to the system overall because it typically requires less time, fewer resources, and less instructional support.

It’s for this reason some of the most common gifted and talented support models do not change the main input (in this case, curriculum) a student is receiving. The enrichment model, such as pullouts and independent projects, adds more input on the side but doesn’t disturb the main flow of curriculum content in the classroom. The choice menu model only changes the product a student creates. Some of the more informal interventions ask the student to do more with the same content. (i.e. rather than writing a two page paper, write a three page paper). These models may create a more rigorous experience for a student but not necessarily provide a more challenging experience to meet their cognitive abilities.

“Rigor” and “challenge” are often used interchangeably in the gifted community, but it’s helpful to distinguish between the two. Rigor is about output. Challenge is about input. Rigorous models that are product-oriented and focus on “more” rather than “different” have limits. There are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy and effort a student can expend. We can all benefit when we are pushed to create better products, but a student can only take their output so far without a change in input.

It is unrealistic to expect a student be able to expand upon their current skills without receiving the scaffolding and explicit instruction to comprehend a higher order of thinking. Rigor without challenge can be demotivating for students as it is exhausting to put your energy into worksheets that aren’t in an area of interest or have no real rewards for their completion. This may make gifted services feel more like a punishment because they receive more work but are still in the same standing as their age-peers who do less. Students who see that the school system values the product but not the process may develop perfectionist tendencies on turning in “perfect products” rather than real learning experiences.

One way input can be changed is by giving students access to different resources and types of instruction related to depth and complexity, richness, or level. Some educational models that may increase a student’s access to challenging material are curriculum replacement, subject acceleration, and grade skips. Challenging input can also be a change in how information is accessed, either by the pace or instructional model. Models that allow a student to access materials at their own pace include telescoping and independently studying curriculum.

These models that provide challenge also have their limits. For instance, although grade skips can be successful in granting students access to more advanced material overall, their asynchronous development may create challenges as their input capacity might not be the same in all subjects. Writing challenges are a common example of this in the PG community.  Thus, a student may need more than just access to the next level of material. They may also need a change in pace or form of instruction.

Part of the ongoing problem for this kind of advocacy has to do with the social contract of schools. All families in schools give up some control and personalization of their student’s education. In return, schools give students access to learning materials, instructors, and a community of children. In light of these challenges, many families in our community have to reevaluate the educational fit at their student’s school, often through a lens of the least-worst option. It is one of the most common challenges for families we work with to find the gifted utopia with an educational model that’s able to meet their student’s asynchronous interests and needs.

Fortunately, school is just one part of your student’s life. You do have control of what happens outside of school and the challenging work your student is exposed to through online enrichment, summer program, hobbies and more.


Lori Langone

I've been homeschooling my DYS for the past two years, with an eclectic mix of resources. This article has helped me understand that challenge is about instructional inputs to my student, and rigor is about his output. I'm trying to find ways to help his rigor increase, so he can rise to greater learning challenges. This isn't easy.

Chantelle Sharbino

I did not know there was a difference between rigor and challenge. After reading this article, I am excited to gain this knowledge. I do think that a teacher can have both in their plans for a student. It's getting to know your student to gage how much of challenge and rigor needs to be provided at the time.

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Please note, the Davidson Institute is a non-profit serving families with highly gifted children. We will not post comments that are considered soliciting, mention illicit topics, or share highly personal information.

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