How to help gifted learners who are not completing their work
| October 02, 2017
By this time of the school year, some learners may be struggling to complete their work in certain subject areas (including some struggling learners). Although there may be evidence that this problem has been present in previous school years, this year's teacher will suffer frustration with these events.
To fully understand this dynamic, try to remember a time when you felt "trapped" at a mandatory in-service, class or other event at which you discovered almost immediately that you already knew all the content but were still required to stay to the bitter end of the event. I'm predicting that your primary goal became getting out of there early, at almost any cost!
That's exactly the way gifted or advanced learners feel about many classes they are required to attend when the content is targeted at the "typical" student of a certain age. When we consider that a practical definition of "gifted" may be the ability to learn material designed for students two or three years older than typical students at a grade level, you can understand some of their rather unpleasant behaviors in your class that they hope will communicate their frustrations to you.
Blurting calls attention to them, even as they are trying to let us know how advanced their knowledge is. Complaints such as, "Why do we have to do this work?" or "I already know this stuff!" often makes their teachers extremely unhappy. Getting the right answer without showing their work is another attempt for them to demonstrate their advanced learning abilities.
Their teachers might conclude that such students are lazy or not trying hard enough. If you have had a conference with their parents, you may have learned that this is a pattern that has been equally frustrating in other grades as well.
There are at least two interventions that are somewhat typical.
One is informing these students that there will be unpleasant consequences if their behavior continues in this manner. The problem with that approach, however, is that it often compounds the situation, rather than providing a solution.
Dr. Raymond Wlodkowski, a recognized expert in motivation for both students and adults, suggests that we should avoid a punitive approach in these situations. When educators make threats, such as failing grades, calling parents or staying after school for a detention, one of the most predicable student reactions is resentment.
The student may feel frightened, angry, not smart and/or totally misunderstood. These feelings lead to the student mistrusting the teacher and grumbling about the teacher's lack of fairness, or even that the teacher does not like the student. These thoughts in turn lead to a desire to "get back" at the teacher and may be expressed openly or more subtly as vindictiveness.
Of course, this leads the teacher to feeling frustrated and quite certain that even more sanctions are needed. As you can imagine, things escalate quickly into what may be called "the relentless cycle of threat."
A second option is to recognize that this student's claims may be truthful, and begin to offer "compacting of the standards" to all students who wish to try it. The term was coined years ago by Dr. Joseph Renzulli, who reasoned that gifted students get weary of all the work they are expected to do that actually represents "garbage" to them. They could throw it away and never miss it because they already know it.
Since trash is often "compacted" by garbage trucks, Renzulli thought the term magically fit these situations. I concur as I have seen it reawaken an advanced learner who had "tuned out" of the schoolwork, and actually increased their motivation to do some work that was more challenging for them.
The easiest way to start compacting is by using a simple and fair strategy called "Most Difficult First." Let's say you are a first grade teacher who has a student who appears to be able to read simple books. Instead of expecting her to do all the prereading skill work, circle on her work pages the three activities you think are the most difficult of all that is on that page.
In the upper grades, it's easy to do this with math or other skill work. After you have taught a lesson, and are allowing students to practice the skills, just write the numbers of the five problems from the assignment you consider to be the most difficult.
In both cases, students who get zero or one wrong, but four or five correct, can be told they are done practicing and go on to some extension work you have ready for this need.
Two notes of caution:
1. We never offer "extra credit" for students who finish an assignment ahead of others. Smart kids have figured out that this offer is no great honor. It feels just like more work than other students are doing.
2. We allow any student who wants to try to do just that. If they make more than one mistake, you simply tell them that they apparently "need more practice," so they should go back to the start of the assignment and begin there.
In this way, we are raising the number of students who might earn the right to do less practice, whether or not they have ever been formally identified as gifted.
Good luck. Please let me hear your thoughts with your comments.
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