For Mother's Day this year, The Learning Curve asked six delegates to the annual Mom Congress to send us their educational wish lists. These "mom blogs" constitute an honest look at what's lacking in our school systems, a maternal reprimand of the current discourse, and a description of the dream school of the future.
My wish is for every child to be allowed to go through school learning at their actual instructional level, instead of being automatically arranged by chronology and averages. Each child has different skills, different needs, different abilities in different areas, and I wish that our educational system would be responsive to these differences instead of trying to fit each child into the “average” box because of what their birth date dictates.
Whether it is far behind or light years ahead, I would like each child to be educated at the pace that is right for them. To actually differentiate is different than passing along the buzzwords "differentiated instruction.
Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), said it best at Parenting Magazine's 2011 Mom Congress Education and Learning conference: “Each child has a right to learn something every day.”
I particularly long for this because of the emphasis our education system places on meeting minimum basic standards. I understand why this emphasis is important and I fully support making sure that each child has certain basic skills across the board. But, as an advocate and as a parent, I am also concerned with the children who have not only mastered those basic skills but are also capable of doing much, much more; those whose needs are not being met in school and who might go weeks or months without learning anything new or being challenged in any way. I worry about how long they will remain excited and engaged by school, how long they have before boredom, frustration and disengagement take over their natural enthusiasm for learning and education.
When a child has mastered a topic, I want him or her to be able to move forward without having to wait until the rest of class has caught up. I want them to remain engaged and excited by what they do in school; I want every day to hold a new challenge. In short, I want every child to foster a lifelong love of learning and not be held back by teaching to the test.
Considering the number of children we have in our schools and even our individual classes, this may seem like a monumental request. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in April that class sizes are headed to 33 students next year. The NAGC estimates that about 3,000,000 gifted children sit in classrooms across the U.S. today, but because our federal education policy focuses on the minimum standards, the needs of these "smart kids" are far too often overlooked.
But there are creative day-to-day ways to change this. In her book, “Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom," Susan Winebrenner offers great curriculum-based ideas for differentiated learning. My favorite examples are the Most Difficult First strategy and Pre-Assessment.
In Most Difficult First, the teacher selects five concepts that are the most difficult in a unit. She can then offer the entire class or a select group the option to use the time to practice all the problems or concepts or suggest that some do the most difficult first.
If they are done correctly or with one error, students can move toward enrichment activities that involve the same or similar subject matter, but which expand their learning at their level. This allows them to show the teacher what they know and stay engaged in the learning process at the same time.
My next favorite strategy is the Pre-Assessment. The teacher allows students to volunteer to take a pre-test for the material he or she is about to cover. Students aren’t marked down for poor performance on the pre-test – it’s simply a way for them to show their teacher that they have already mastered an area of learning. If a student meets the mark for mastery -- ideally 80 to 90 percent -- he or she is released from that lesson.
This makes perfect sense to me. If you know 80 to 90 percent of the material without being taught it, then you can be taught the one or two concepts you didn’t know and work on an enrichment packet at your level for the rest of the instructional time.
Imagine how something this small can change a child’s day. What is the value to sitting and relearning what you already have mastered? How can you stay engaged in learning? How can your curiosity be fostered and developed if the message is: you already know this but it doesn’t matter, please sit still while the other 90 percent of the class learns it. This is the lesson that we are teaching, albeit subconsciously, to gifted children each day.
In addition to Susan Winebrenner’s suggestions, another exciting mark of progress in gifted education is the recently proposed TALENT Act, now before the House and Senate, which would amend the ESEA to include support for high-ability and high achieving students.
As a country, we need to make sure that our children are receiving a base level of education. But I challenge us to consider what we can do for children at the opposite end of the spectrum. What would a federal definition of “mastery” do for all of us?
My wish is for us to commit ourselves as a nation to educating our children to their highest ability, and that we stop failing our best and brightest.
Click here for more Mother's Day wish lists.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.