What do academically struggling students have in common with gifted and talented students? A lot more than we give them credit for.
All young children share the gift of an intrinsic desire to learn. Go into any school in the country and you will see children of all backgrounds filled with anticipation.
As they grow, many students gain experiences outside the classroom and textbooks: a big sister teaching her siblings how to read, a son translating for his immigrant father, a teen keeping the accounting records at a local store. The lifelong talents bestowed through these experiences are valuable beyond measure.
And even students who struggle the most to succeed in school have gifts that often are untapped or unrecognized. Testing has squeezed out many of the outlets students need to identify and develop innate talents. Why are we reducing opportunities to write poetry, investigate global issues, or problem-solve in school?
I bring this up because of recent articles that have argued that improving the performance of low-achieving students diminishes opportunities for the most academically talented students. This is the wrong perspective. All students must be challenged to reach their potential. Providing for the academically least and most among us is not an either/or proposition for schools. We can and must succeed on both accounts.
To do this, we must we see all students as gifted and talented. That doesn’t mean all students will be placed in gifted programs or advanced learning situations. But the sooner we share the gifted and talented strategies that embrace student experience, elicit strengths and interests, and engage challenging investigations of real-life issues, the sooner we will cultivate and see the accelerated learning that is both needed and possible.
This is particularly critical as states phase in new and more rigorous Common Core State Standards for math and language arts. While the standards alone will not help us meet our learning goals, these higher expectations combined with strategies that focus on explicit teaching and application of higher-level thinking skills can get us there.
The question for policymakers and educators is how will they provide all students with the enrichment and opportunities that enable them to demonstrate their intellectual potential? To be treated as the gifted and talented students that they are so that they find ways to reach the higher standards with the help of their teachers? That is what all students have in common: the need to be recognized as individuals with strengths and talents upon which educators can build.
Some major shifts must happen to move our schools in this direction:
First, our expectations for students must prioritize intellectual development and self-directed learning and not just literacy skills. To do this, we must not focus exclusively on under-developed skills but instead create assessments that identify students’ strengths and encourage individual learning growth.
Districts will have to give teachers new flexibility. Teachers must be able to provide enrichment and promote self-directed learning based on students’ strengths as a way to build student skills. Professional development should help teachers activate, guide, and assess this learning process while reflecting the latest research from cognitive science and neuroscience.
Second, policies must support individualized plans for student-generated, teacher-guided learning goals. This is critical to getting the student investment, ownership, and responsibility needed for student-directed learning. The goals would include identification of student interests and strengths for meeting instructional outcomes; identification of skills to be developed; and opportunities for mentoring, application of skills, and/or internships.
Finally, cultural connections must be made and teacher-student relationships strengthened if teachers are to understand what students bring to the classroom and are able to do. Teachers often say that they feel unprepared to meet the needs of students of color or economically disadvantaged students. We also know that student motivation to learn is directly contingent upon teachers’ belief in the potential of their students and their own ability to elicit and guide this potential. Until those barriers are removed, students’ many gifts and talents will remain dormant and, eventually, be lost.
Beginning today, policies that attempt to address underachievement must focus on the individual and his or her vast, innate potential to learn. We must end the proliferation of practices that lump students into programs of generalized, narrowly focused instruction, as if all the causes for the underachievement are the same; and as if low-achieving students have no gifts or talents. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the intellectual capital from which our country would benefit.
Yvette Jackson is the CEO of the nonprofit National Urban Alliance for Effective Education and author of The Pedagogy of Confidence. She is the former director of gifted programs and Executive Director for Instruction and Professional Development for the New York City schools. Dr. Jackson is an expert on instruction and teacher professional development who writes/lectures frequently on what schools and teachers can do to raise the performance of underachieving students in urban communities.
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.