For people unfamiliar with gifted education, it can be difficult to imagine how teaching gifted children is any different than traditional education, perhaps with lessons a few steps above grade level or moving faster than the curriculum in a traditional classroom.
But in fact, the entire way teachers approach their work in a classroom that specializes in gifted education is different. It’s even different than the typical pullout gifted and talented program available at some well-resourced traditional schools.
“It’s very much about high cognitive ability versus high academic achievement,” says Leslie Hosey, Lower School Director at The Roeper School, which is located in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. “Gifted children really think more deeply about meaning and purpose.”
What that means in the classroom is that students will take on a project and use a variety of disciplines to think critically about it, while coming up with a creative way to present what they know. One of the hallmarks of a gifted child is asking a lot of questions and needing real answers to them, and such children need their learning to be connected and relevant to the world around them.
Looking at things from different perspectives than their own is key, says Stage IV (fourth and fifth grade) teacher Laura Evans. “If my students don’t find purpose in what I am doing, they are just not going to buy in,” she says. “They really need a theme or an issue that is real-life.”
Roeper uses a teaching method called the Integrative Curriculum Model (ICM), largely developed by gifted education researcher Joyce VanTassel-Baska. VanTassel-Baska was on the board of the Roeper Review, the school’s scholarly journal of gifted education, for many years and recently visited to speak to Roeper parents and teachers about gifted learning. Her model has three dimensions: Content Mastery, where a teacher assesses what a student already knows and what they need, so the material can remain challenging; Process and Product, where a student brings to bear her creativity, research skills, problem solving and questioning skills; and Concept Development, where a student understands the broad and overarching concepts behind a particular aspect of knowledge that cuts across subject areas.
In Evans’ class, that meant students who did a project about butterflies this year did not simply learn about how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, but also about the meaning a butterfly has in different cultures, their migratory patterns, and then they created art inspired by butterflies. “We keep it very open-ended,” Evans says. “We don’t have expected outcomes; they can select the outcome. When you set a bar for students they will meet that bar; when you set the sky as their limit they are going to keep going.”
That freedom to explore doesn’t mean students can ignore the skills they haven’t mastered, however; skill development is an important part of the curriculum. Teachers, thanks to small class sizes, are able to assess each student for what he or she knows and how they know it and develop skills in a much more individualized way.
Gifted learners have a deep desire to be connected to their community, as well. One of Evans’ classes made a migration guide for people newly-arrived in Michigan from other countries, to help them connect with resources that can help them get settled. It’s the need to be a citizen of the world, and to consider multiple cultures, opinions and perspectives when learning about something, that spurs that kind of thinking.
The most important outcome for a Roeper student is not awards and accolades, but an ability to see the world through different eyes. “George and Annemarie Roeper founded this school after they fled Nazi Germany, where they saw brilliant people using their intellect to destroy the world,” Hosey says. “If our students’ time here doesn’t result in a sense of inner empathy and connection, then we have failed.”