Carolyn Callahan

CAROLYN CALLAHAN

Carolyn Callahan, professor at the Curry school of education and the University at Virginia.

Looking for gifted and talented students and looking for characteristics of gifted and talented students has to be carefully divine.  Because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of using only descriptors that would fall into one ethnic group or into one social group.  So I think the identification or the indicators of giftedness depend on say how do we look at traits that we could cut across any ethnic group and social group and say these are universal indicators and I think one of them is a reasoning ability. The ability to be analytic to look at a problem and and see the important factors.  See the important critical variables that one would use in solving the problem.  Another critical variable is being able to see the problem.  Knowing that these are issues that need to be dealt with these are important concerns or important issues.  Another indicator would be the ability to perceive in the environment um and analyze all perceptions into a total picture and see the big picture of things.  The ability to deal with large ideas, abstract concepts would be the kinds of things in what ever language what ever background what ever community you might live in, being able to use that thinking ability and that perceptual ability with in that environment would be critical indicators of giftedness.

Identification is critical in being able to adapt the indicators of giftedness to the identification tools that you wish to use.  And perhaps some of the mistakes that are made in identification should be addressed.  One is relying on a singlitic indicator of giftedness.  One of the critical variables in identification of gifted students is looking at multiply indicators of giftedness. The second is sole reliance on test indicators.  Or what we would call standardized tests indicators in being able to identify gifted students we should use objective information that we might get from test indicators but also more subjective not less valid not less reliable but more subjective indicators which we might gain from gathering performance assessments that we might gain information by looking at the ways in which portfolios are put together.  Coming up with very specific criteria or indicators of giftedness when we look at performance assessments or looking at portfolios (sirens).  Looking at things like classroom um assessments where children are asked to perform certain tasks in a classroom and seeing which children exhibit the kinds of characteristics that we would consider as indicators of giftedness.  But relying on a broad range of information so that identifications doesn’t become simply a question of saying yes you’re gifted or no you’re not gifted but what are the traits what are the characteristics that suggest you have specific needs as a learner so that we can use identification instrument and information as assessment information that will lead teachers to not just getting a note in a child’s folder that says this is a gifted child but also says these are the things that you should addressing in this child’s learning because identification has told us these are the learners needs based on the characteristics that we identified.

Acceleration’s perhaps the most complicated and controversial issue in our field.  As we think about accelerating children all of the specters come up of all the one or two examples that we’ve heard about where a child had a bad experience by being accelerated.  Unfortunately we don’t hear the good experiences people only usually talk about the bad experiences that people have.  But that’s lead us to think very carefully about the acceleration process and I think there are four or five indicators I would consider extraordinarily important.  One is obviously um the ability of the child to cognitively handle the kinds of instruction that’s going to occur at whatever grade level that child’s going to be accelerated to.  And that may mean a decision to radically accelerate meaning to but a child ahead a grade level, start kindergarten early, start college early.  But we may also consider subject matter acceleration where I might be accelerated in mathematics and go to fifth grade for my mathematics instruction but stay with third graders the rest of the time.  So what ever decision is made whether it’s radical acceleration then a child has to be successful in all subject area because they’re going to be with older children all of the time but if it’s subject matter acceleration with in the area where instruction will occur there should be specific evidence that the child can be cognitively successful.  The second characteristic that’s critically important is the social adjustment of the child.  Will this child be able to interact effectively with other children at the grade level at which he or she is going to be place and that means not necessarily if I’m going to be a seventh grader going into eleventh grade being able to date the eleventh grade girls but when I’m sitting in that eleventh grade classroom being able to carry on conversations and interact socially so that they don’t feel like an isolate with in that setting.  Um the third characteristic is being able to emotionally handle the separation from age peers.  That is I may want to be with my friends and that may be more important to me than a particular academic acceleration at this particular time so we don’t cause any kind of emotional damage to a child by acceleration.  And then one that people often think don’t of which I think is a critical vari—variable in the acceleration process is the receiving teachers readiness to receive the accelerated child.  I can’t justify putting a very young child in a teachers classroom who won’t tolerate younger children’s behavior and that might range from the fact that a child’s very cognitively advance but can’t sit still for more than twenty minutes at a time and he’s being placed in a seventh grade classroom where he’s expected to sit still for an hour and twenty minutes and the teacher won’t tolerate the fact that this kid’s got to get up and walk around every twenty minutes.  So that receiving teachers understanding of the developmental level physically, socially, emotionally, of the child as well as cognitive capabilities is as important as the child’s characteristics in making that match and it’s easy to say the teacher should understand and should do this but you can’t always change beliefs and attitudes.  So a match between the child and the teachers readiness to deal with the child is critically important.

I use the expression classrooms of winner, I’m sorry.  I use the expression classrooms of learners rather than classrooms of winners and losers because I think our classrooms have to change radically in our evaluation and in our consideration of what makes pupils learners or what makes students learners as we think about them.  And traditionally what we have said is what really matters is how fast you can learn something and our classrooms have become almost like race tracks and the winners are the kids who are in the top ten who cross the finish line learning the material that we had prescribed for what had been some six week period, eight week period.  The losers are the kids who don’t get close to the finish line and they’re always sent back to the beginning to start over again, maybe that’s even the best case scenario because they get another chance or they’re simply labeled losers and we decide they didn’t learn it we’ll go on to the next thing anyway.  What I would like to see are classrooms where every child has a goal set or a finish line set so that he’s got a chance of finishing with in the allotted time.  So that for the child who’s a struggling learner that child can win by attaining the goals that are set for that child with in six week time period.  But it also doesn’t mean that gifted learners get the same goals but they get goals that are within the framework of what they can conceivably learn during that time.  And I think some of the some things that also suggested to me is that gifted students who cross the finish line too early are also sometimes losers.  They lose because school’s not a learning experience for them and they learn out the lose out on the possibility of learning because they’ve spent their time whiling away the time during the school time instead of learning because there are new challenges for them so they appeared to be winners because they get good grades they appear to be winners because they get stars on their papers but in some ways they’re also losers. They’re not learners in that classroom and the struggling learner is often a loser because he doesn’t get an opportunity to learn because the time is not available for that child or the structure is not available for that child to be a learner.

Um I would say I want to put it in a framework and then I’ll talk about specific key features of of programs for gifted learners. The framework that I’d like to sort of set as a stage is that the major key feature is good curriculum and instruction and everything else is kind of um an ancillary part of all of that.  So I’m going to talk about the major key feature being quality curriculum and quality instruction.  Since everything else we do doesn’t matter if we can’t deliver on that part of a program and unfortunately it’s not the part that people look at first and not necessarily the part they spend the most time on.  The part they tend to spend a lot of time on are the decisions that I’ll call programmatic decisions that don’t always lend themselves to good curriculum and instruction.  The first one would be the whole notion of the identification process.  A good program has to have a good identification process because it should choose the kids who really have needs that need to be served.  But if all we do is identify and then don’t provide a good curriculum we have not served anybody very well.  So the the identification process is key but only as it feeds into that core.  The second area that or decision that needs to be made is how do we group and how do we deliver the instruction and the quality decisions there depend on the degree to which a school has the resources to provide the quality teachers the quality setting and the degree to which a philosophy of the school division matches the philosophy of grouping.  But grouping doesn’t make any difference if the curriculum and the instruction is not the same.  The research evidence is so convincing to me that grouping is a secondary issue to what you do when children are grouped and so grouping is an important decision and good grouping decisions depend on good curricular and instruction decisions.  The next decision that’s critically important I think for a quality gifted program is good teachers.  It’ important for any instructional program. Whether it’s for children with learning disabilities or children um I’m sorry, children who are gifted need teachers who are able to address their needs and the curriculum they need and the kinds of instruction that they need. And that means that the teachers who work with gifted and talented students are teachers who have the proper training and background and attitudes and beliefs and commitments to working with those students and they can’t be teachers who feel as if I go to work at eight I meet the kids and I walk out this building at three thirty in the afternoon and it’s all over.  They have to be teachers who think about teaching and think about instruction all the time.  Um and so that teacher is a critical I think a critical variable.  Another critical variable is the administration of the program.  And in many gifted programs the programs suffer because the administrator has fifteen other jobs to do at the same time that person is accountable for delivering the gifted and talented program.  And administrators of gifted and talented programs have another characteristic that I think is um detrimental to their effectiveness and that is anything any one asks them to do they say yes.  So they’ll try to run a gifted and talented program during the academic day and someone will say and would you also run olympic of the mind or would you also work with future problem solving or would you take on the um scholarship committee and would you be responsible for AP exams and would you be and they keep saying oh yes oh yes that’s related to gifted and talented so I will do it.  And the first thing they know they’ve they’re overwhelmed with the tasks and the academic day program has become secondary to everything else that they have to do.  So I would say administrative focus on the academic core of the program is critical for a successful gifted and talented program.  Um I think resources are important but I’m not as inclined to think we solve many problems with resources because we tend to get the resources rather than look at the curriculum first and say what resources do we need and one of the my sort of um I’d call it um things that really bug me is when I go to a conference and I watch people go to the booths and just go up and down the isles and buy things and I always want to stop them and say how does this contribute to your curriculum.  What goal and objective do you have in mind when you buy these materials?  Because I don’t think they come with a sense their curriculum I’m going to go look for the resources that’ll make my curriculum work.  It’s rather I found a book or I found some materials now I’m going to build a curriculum around them.  So resources are really ancillary and they should really follow the curriculum development and the instructional objectives rather than driving the curriculum or driving the instruction that’s there.  And then of course there are the one’s that we all talk about like money is key.  Being able to hire the right teachers get the curriculum developed provide the settings that we need.  I mean it’s not an insignificant kind of variable but it’s again ancillary to making the other components of the program work.  And then of course my big interest is evaluation of programs.  I don’t think if programs don’t look at themselves and don’t do careful critical evaluations that we’ve not served the kids or the program very very well.  And we often continue to advocate for gifted programs always on the basis of what the children’s needs are not on the basis of what we we’re able to do to meet their needs and so we go to legislators we go to our local school boards and ask for money saying gifted children have these needs and then after five years instead of going back and saying here’s what we were successful at accomplishing with these students we go back and say we need the money again because gifted children have these needs and we may not even be meeting those needs with the curriculum with the program we’re offering but we don’t look closely enough to say here’s what we’ve been able to do here’s what we still need to accomplish in order to really fully serve those students.

Pre-service teacher preparation is perhaps one of the weakest areas um in pre um I’m sorry let me start over.  Pre-service teacher preparation for teachers who will have gifted and talented students in their classrooms perhaps one of the weakest area of areas of all pre-service preparation.  Um maybe that comes about because of all it is that everybody in teacher education believes they need to do to just prepare teachers to survive but in our study of pre-service teachers what we’ve found is that very few pre-service teacher programs offer any instruction for teacher in preparing them to work with gifted and talented students at all and those that offer any thing will offer it as one week with in the special ed. course that everybody has to take or perhaps a passing mention of it in a methods class.  But the concentrated effort to focus on the needs at the high end learner part of the continuum are very very small relative to the emphasis on at risk struggling learners students who don’t learn easily and what we’re finding is that most pre-service teachers are not very well prepared to work with gifted and talented students.  Fortunately and surprisingly, I guess, they have very good attitudes about the needs of gifted and talented students.  So attitude is not as much the issue because our teacher preparation program seem to have done a good job of convincing people there are differences in students.  So their empathetic in the sense they recognize a difference but they’re not empathetic in understanding that means they have to adopt curriculum in anyway because they’ve also come away with the mistake in notion that these kids learn so rapidly that they don’t really need me as a teacher I just need to keep giving them stuff rather than I have to anticipate their learning needs and really construct a curriculum and instructional strategies responsive to those needs.  The other big problem is that um in our studies of pre-service teachers one of the things we’ve looked at is the degree to which pre-service programs prepare what I’ll call the gross-motor skills of teaching and in-service or staff development if it’s done well will develop the fine motor skills and gifted and talented I think always gets shifted to that fine motor skill development level.  When I think we should probably set the basics for it in the pre-service program.  Students may not get proficient at differentiation but they can learn compacting.  They may not get proficient at using alternative textbooks but they can get some experience in seeing the range of alternative textbooks that might be available.  They may not get proficient at being able to spot all the needs of the gifted and talented learner but they can learn to be sensitive to and proactive in response rather than reactive when the kid comes up and says I’ve finished those twenty problems what do you want me to do now and thinking well here’s a book you can go read it but proactively planning.  And I think if we s--  if we plant the seeds in pre-service training, even if we can’t develop proficiencies we can make them ready for the staff development and in-service that will follow later that will give them the specifics to do that.

Um as we think about endorsement of teachers to work with gifted and talented students I think we have to think very carefully about how we define the competencies they should have.  And I think we also have to make a very clear distinguish distinguish list of competencies all teachers should have from the competencies that gifted and talented students should have.  I believe all teachers that have a sense of humor for example and in the list of c--  of characteristics of teachers of gifted ----(?) should have a sense of humor.  Well if you don’t have a sense of humor working with other children you’re also in very sad shape.  I think the notion that you should have a mastery of you discipline is as important for students who are average learners as it is for students of teachers of gifted learners.  So I think we have to be very careful and say here are the competencies I want in all teachers so it doesn’t look like we’ve created an elitist program in which gifted kids get the good teachers and everybody else gets the bad teachers.  So that’s critically important.  So when I look at the competencies that I think are critically important I start to say what are the things that would distinguish me if I’m working with gifted and talented students well from what would distinguish me from working with all students well.  And I’d say one of them is knowledge of the characteristics of those students.  Not just at a surface level but a knowledge of how that effect their behavior and their learning so that I if I’m working with a teacher who is going to be endorsed in gifted and talented education I don’t want them to sight here are the twenty characteristics of gifted students but I want them to be able to say this characteristic suggests a need and that need suggests an instructional response.  So knowing the characteristics and needs are important but then the second is what are appropriate instructional responses to those needs and when do I use a particular instructional strategy to meet a particular need that the gifted and talented student has.  I think the teachers of the gifted and talented need to have a mastery of their discipline but they also have to have the willingness to go beyond what another teacher might know about history because the kids are going to push them to go beyond what other kids might push them to go beyond.  I think they have to be incredibly able to spend extraordinary amounts of time investigating new areas on their own because the curriculum is is going to demand that they do that because it will go beyond the traditional curriculum.  I think the social the understanding of social and emotional issues that gifted students may face I don’t believe that gifted students face more social and emotional difficulties but when they face them they may interact with a gifted issue which may in fact make it a more difficult issue for a gifted student at a particular point in time.  So I think an understanding of when that might happen how it might affect a gifted student would be an important issue.  I think that knowing of a wide range of instructional strategies that work for students who need to be independent learners, who need to be autonomous learners.  That will lead students to self-evaluation as well as outside external evaluation are critically important.  So pre-service, I’m sorry.  Staff development for teachers who are working towards an endorsement has to separate out just good teaching.  From good – teaching for gifted students built on top of good teaching.  It’s also very hard to provide endorsement that really addresses gifted and talented learners needs to teachers who haven’t learned to meet the average students learners needs because they don’t have a sense of good teaching in general.  So there’s a wide range of skills and some of them are more sophisticated level skills.  For example, all children should become more creative then when probably allow them to be.  But what’s creativity in a innovative producer who might be gifted verses what’s creativity in the ordinary sense that any of us would use it in our everyday lives.  So I’m not saying that teachers of the gifted shouldn’t allow should have the purgative knowing all about creativity but they should know it in a way that applies to the creative productive individual as opposed to some one who’s using creativity in the every day sense of creativity.

I believe that collaboration of gifted education with the other disciplines is perhaps the area that we have the most potential for making the most difference for gifted students.  We’ve tended in gifted education to take our programs away from general education.  We’ve tended to remove ourselves and make ourselves an isolated unit when in fact even in the best case scenarios we know that gifted students spend a good deal of their time with general educa--- in the general education program.  And if we’re really going to be effective at what we do we have to say what are those ways in which the curriculum that we develop and advocate for can be integrated with what is happening in the general curriculum, in the general education program.  And how can we take what general education is working on and make it appropriate for gifted and talented students.  How can work collaboratively.  I use the NCTM standards in mathematics as an example.  Their standards and their way of thinking about mathematics is very easily adapted to gifted and talented students because it’s based on problem solving and that’s what we advocate for.  But we can’t just say well those standards are good go teach them because we don’t know the teachers will be able to adapt them in ways that are appropriate for gifted and talented students.  We but we have a tendency to say we’re going to go teach math for two hours a week to gifted kids and then they’ll do math the rest of the week in their regular classroom instead of saying how do we sit down with the teachers in mathematics and make sure that we’ve adapted and adopted their standards in a critically important kind of way and we’ve helped them understand gifted learners needs within those standards and how they can adapt the standards to meet gifted and talented learners needs.  Um one of the things that a teacher said to me one time a regular education teacher said to me was, that she didn’t support gifted education because it made her feel inferior.  And it really took me back that some how we had given a message to a regular education teacher that she was inferior in some way rather than saying how do we help you and do you help us do the best job we can for a particular student and you may have insights into this child that we don’t have because you work with that child forty hours a week and we see that child two hours a week or I come in your classroom to work with you in a collaboration setting but you’re there everyday with the child.  So how do I learn from you and how do you learn from me rather than putting one group or the other in the upper position which I don’t think we ever want to do.  So I think that’s a collaboration is a critically important variable.  And not just at the classroom level.  Classroom level is one level.  The second level is school wide or district wide level.  The third level is how do we do it as professional associations.  How do we no just give lip service and say oh we should listen to the middle school educators and what they have to say.  But how do we make sure we really listen to the middle school educators and what they have to say and how do we contribute to the discussion not the argument that we might have with middle school educators.

If I could change one thing in education that would make the world better for gifted students.  Probably the thing that I would change would be the levels of expectations that people have for children’s learning.  I think that if I could make it so that people thought in terms of the maximum challenge and engagement for students instead of minimal level performance.  If I could get educators to think in terms of not just raising the floor but raising the ceiling then I think I would have made the biggest difference for gifted students.