I went for a half-day on Friday to the New England Conference for the Gifted and Talented, and I had a pretty good time. Dr. Ron Mallett, the physicist whose work on time travel has been so interesting, and whose motivations for that work no less interesting, was one of the speakers for the keynote panel in the morning. So was Liz Pape, the founder of the Virtual High School, and Yolande Smith, who is a vice president of the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, CT. An impressive rank of leaders, all told. I was pleased to go.
I wound up learning the most in a session run by Rachel McAnallen of UConn in Storrs, though. She taught a workshop titled “Without Geometry, Life is Pointless.” Using toothpicks and paper plates, popsicle sticks and pens, she had us building three-dimensional models of Sierpenski Tetrahedrons, isocahedrons (known as d20s, for those of us with Dungeons and Dragons experience — mine started in the Gifted and Talented wing of my elementary school during the after-school program) and other models of the Platonic solids. I was deeply impressed. She used a lot of materials from this gentlemen, Bradford Hanson-Smith, whose work should be known to many more math teachers — or so I think.
Throughout the sessions, though, one essential question nagged at me:
We know that these kinds of enriching activities work to promote learning in ‘gifted and talented children’, and that they raise those students’ test scores… so why don’t we do instruction this way for every kid?
I thought it was scandalous that no one seemed to be asking the question besides me. The whole conception of “Gifted and Talented” programs seems to hinge upon the ‘us vs. them’ Enlightenment-era model of the mind that Sir Ken Robinson warned about in this video.
How do we get past this division, and get this kind of instruction to every student in school?
Nathaniel, I strongly disagree!!! I think all kids want to learn and actively participate but the routines and structures the collective “we” have put in place is a hinderance. If kids are disengaged, it is our responsibility, as educators, to find ways to changed that. I believe the reason we don’t teach with more activities like the geometry activity described, is our acceptance of the routines and structures “we” have in place. Grading is a perfect example. How do “we” grade a hands on activity? Students, parents, colleagues, and administrators expect grades. We have guidelines about what the grades mean, how they are applied to our work in the classroom, and how they are reported, BUT are they an accurate measure of the learning in our classroom. Grades will not go away…but I think “we” have a great deal of education to do with all who have a vested interest on grading vs. assessment. The other huge hinderance is our perception of the standardized testing cycle. “We” analyze data resulting from standardized testing and other benchmarks, down to the minute level. Then we provide remediation on the perceived deficit skills. I propose that once we analyze our data, we look for the big ideas/concepts that students are missing and build rich, hands on activities. Students will engage and make the learning connections needed.
I think the main reason is because these activities often need active participation. By definition gifted and talent students often want to learn and will participate. This isn’t true in all classrooms.