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Educators Learn to Identify, Teach Gifted Children

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October 16, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In “Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting our Brightest Young Minds (2005),” Jan and Bob Davidson point out the “quiet crisis” in education: gifted learners are ignored and bored in the classroom.

With the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago, more emphasis has been placed on helping low-achieving students succeed. Exceptional learners are frequently left to their own devices.

School districts, often strapped for funds, pare what they consider “nonessential” programs such as music, the arts and the gifted education specialist from their budgets.

These are among several reasons that the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) now offers Advanced Teaching: The Gifted for training educators to identify gifted students in their classrooms and adjust curricula to their needs.

“This is a natural fit for us,” said Dean Penelope L. Peterson. “Two of our school's great strengths are teacher education and our programs for gifted and talented students offered through our Center for Talent Development (CTD), one of the nation's handful of centers for research and education of gifted children.”

And one of the best, said Rena F. Subotnik, director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

“The Center for Talent Development is nationally recognized for the quality and variety of programs offered to gifted children and adolescents. That's because CTD has an outstanding staff and conducts ongoing research to ensure that only the best practices in gifted education are employed.”

CTD has offered testing and support for more than half a million families with gifted students since 1981. The center is accredited as a special function school for the gifted by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the first center for gifted education in the country to receive this distinction.

Educators, school districts and the general public differ in their definition of the “gifted” learner, often characterizing these students as “brainy” or “perfectionist” or the first child to raise a hand to answer a teacher's question.

Northwestern, however, has an expert in the field. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, CTD director with more than two decades of experience in designing and conducting gifted educational programs, said, “A gifted child is one who is able to think and reason at a higher level than other children his or her age. These children can learn at a faster rate and need a curriculum that will challenge and motivate them to achieve.”

Not only do these students require a specialized curriculum, but they also need a supportive classroom environment and talented teachers attuned to their needs who can challenge and motivate them.

Peterson and Olszewski-Kubilius began planning the gifted focus for its Advanced Teaching concentration in 2004, and the first two courses were offered in 2005-06.

The Advanced Teaching Program is offered to K-12 teachers and administrators who already have teaching certification and experience in the classroom. Classes are offered in the evenings, on Saturdays and during the summer. Participants can opt for a master of science in education degree, consisting of 15 courses including the six core courses, or an advanced teaching certificate requiring just the six core courses.

These six courses, taught by Olszewki-Kubilius and others, comprise the gifted focus, which emphasizes the areas of differentiation, academic challenge, gifted education, intelligence and creativity.

While the program focuses on the gifted learner, its coursework addresses how to challenge learners of all ability levels. Two of the six courses -- Differentiating Instruction and Differentiation Instruction from an Advanced Perspective -- teach students how to adapt the curriculum to different learning levels in the classroom. Other courses, Theoretical Foundations of Creativity and Giftedness, Special Topics, and Leadership and Advocacy, provide a broad base from which students can deal with not only classroom issues but also advocacy for talent development at the local, state and national levels.

The classroom provides a “community of learners” -- students who are, themselves, active teachers -- with the opportunity to interact and brainstorm about how to teach all students more effectively.

The singular aspect of Northwestern's program -- and its strength -- is the opportunity for the Advanced Teaching students to work directly with gifted youngsters taking summer and weekend classes at CTD. Students complete a 40-hour practicum experience with gifted and talented CTD elementary, middle and high school learners. The practicum seminar provides the opportunity for students to discuss their field experience with their peers and reflect on these experiences in the light of research and educational theory.

“The Gifted practicum allows me to put into practice theoretical knowledge by working with students enrolled in classes at the Center for Talent Development,” said degree candidate Erica Nathan-Gamauf. “Another strength of this program is the opportunity to work with professors who are very active in the field of gifted education; readings and discussions are always current and applicable.”

In addition to learning how to identify and teach to different kinds of learners in the classroom, students in Advanced Teaching: The Gifted learn how CTD evaluates gifted students across the country, including those in Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

The center assesses nearly 30,000 children nationwide through off-site testing. Whereas most school districts rely on standardized grade-level achievement tests, such as the Iowa test, CTD research shows that students who score in the top 5 percent of those tests may vary widely in their abilities and educational needs. While using tests such as the SAT and ACT, CTD also considers teacher and parent recommendations, observations and nonverbal tests that measure how students think and reason, for instance those requiring students to solve a puzzle by identifying the missing piece.

Nonverbal testing is used to identify Evanston/Skokie minority elementary students who excel in science and math to participate in CTD's Project Excite Program that provides enrichment classes to prepare students for honors classes by high school age. “Gifted science and math students are the inventors of the future,” said Peterson.

Topics: University