Homework Gifted

Differentiating Homework for Gifted Students

As part of Mary St. George's New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week Blog Tour, this post addresses homework for the gifted student.

Admittedly, as a classroom teacher, I avoided differentiated homework for many years. The idea of finding, assigning, grading, and following-up with multiple assignments seemed prohibitively time-consuming. Until I tried it.

This post begins with essential understandings and ends with some practical ideas.

Essential Understandings

1. Homework for gifted students should not be 'more of the same'. If you want your class to spend their homework time reviewing the process of adding fractions, gifted students will not learn anything additional if you give them 20 computation problems while the other students do 10.

2. The homework objective should align with the class objective. Let's say you're studying groups of people native to your country of origin. You want the class to use a few websites or book pages to locate information critical to the understanding of the natives' culture. You have a student in your class who is a font-of-all-knowledge on the topic. Assigning the student to research modern Estonia won't lead the student to a deeper knowledge of native cultures. Asking the student to make a video portraying his or her knowledge of the culture may help the student learn more about tech skills than native culture. You want to further this child's understanding of native cultures - the same objective you have for others.

3. You don't need to create a new differentiated assignment each day for each subject. You can't. You just can't.

4. Make sure the student (and parents!) know that the gifted child is not expected to spend any more time on his or her assignment than you expect of the rest of the students. One of my favourite Australian phrases is "Have a go." Some gifted students will pressure themselves to find a correct answer the next day (After all, the other students have to have all their answers correct the next day). Ask the gifted student to work on the alternate question or topic for 20-30 minutes. The next day, the student can tell you what he or she thought about or tried. If you have multiple gifted students who did the same alternate assignment, they can meet together to come to share thinking and come to consensus on an answer.

Option 1: Add a thought-provoking question.

In my ground rules example, I mentioned a homework assignment for practicing the addition of fractions. With gifted Year 5 students, the directions change. Say,

"Instead of doing all of these problems, pick two - just so I know that you know you remember how to add fractions. But I'd like you to spend the remainder of your homework time thinking through one of my dilemmas: We teachers tell you that fractions and decimals are the same. I'm not sure if that is true. When I add 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3, I get 1. When I add 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating] + 0.333 [repeating], I get 0.999 [repeating]. Those aren't exactly the same. Can you help me figure out why? What happens to the extra 0.001?" - or

"We've been working on the rules of divisibility for 2, 3, 5, 6, and 10. Can you figure out rules for 4, 7, and/or 8?"

Many teachers get stuck on the idea that students have to turn in something to be graded. If a gifted student has grappled with a difficult question, write anecdotal notes about your conversation(s) with them. You're holding them accountable by having the follow-up conversation.

Option 2: Give the student choices as to how to extend knowledge

Returning to the example of the student who could give a college lecture on many aspects of native culture, consider giving the student a few other homework choices that deepen knowledge or add complexity. The conversation goes something like this...

"Look, Jung Ho, I now that you already know everything in the reading assigned for tonight. I'm wondering if there is anything else you might like to know.

  • If I set up a Google hangout with an historian or a person of Aboriginal descent, what questions would you want to ask that person? How 'bout you spend tonight thinking about those questions and we'll discuss them tomorrow?" - or
  • I've been thinking about the apologies made to the Aboriginals by the Australian government. Have countries like New Zealand, South Africa or the United States made similar apologies? What, if anything, might they need to apologise for? Would you say the colonists' treatment of native Australians is better or worse than the treatment of those native to New Zealand, South Africa or the United States? Would you like to look into that?" - or
  • I watched the All Blacks do the haka before yesterday's football game. It made me wonder about all the ways the Maoris' culture is similar to or different from the culture of the Aboriginals. Would you like to look into that?" - or
  • I've been thinking about all the explorers who encountered native cultures from different countries. If you were a native, which explorer would you have most wanted to 'discover' your country? Which one would you dread the most?" - or
  • "When I was in Mexico, I went to an art gallery and saw pictures of the native Mexicans' encounters with Cortez. The natives were visibly oppressed. Then I went to Spain and saw Spanish artwork of Cortez's encounter with the Mexican natives. The natives were smiling. Would you like to look into some artwork depicting colonials' encounters with natives and see if you notice other things?"

Option 3: Work with the student to develop a learning contract.

The beauty of a learning contract is that the student both plans it and completes it. Your input is critical, but the onus of the contract (especially for older students) lies directly on the student(s).

Homework contracts may contain any of the following:

  • Overarching question
  • List of sources to investigate
  • Journal pages to document investigations and thinking
  • Presentation format or picture of the end product
  • Timeline of due dates (most important!)

Projects can seem overwhelming for some gifted students. Also, gifted students sometimes get so engrossed in reading and research that they never get to information synthesis or presentation.

You'll want to hold the student accountable for an end product but also allow the due dates to be fluid. As students continue to research and think, a final project may morph into something completely different. Your goal is to make sure students are working and to push their thinking.

Option 4: Make worksheets two-sided.

Worksheets are most prevalent in math. One side of a sheet could comprise computational problems that help students review the day's lesson. The other side could extend the concept with a problem-solving situation or a thought-provoking question.

As much as possible, align the mathematical strand with the problem-solving concept. One side might be the addition of decimals. The other side might ask students to make an organised list to find the number of possible combinations of coins could pay for a $5 load of laundry.

The key is that students can choose. Many students not identified as gifted will want to 'have a go' with the challenge problem. Some parents will require their child to do both sides, even if you're explicit that students should only spend x-number of minutes per night. It doesn't hurt them.

Final Thoughts

If you ask students to do 'more of the same' or you require them to do things they already know, you teach them that homework is pointless. You want to teach gifted students that homework can be valuable for them too.

Need more ideas? Check out Dr. Sarah Eaton's post on Alternatives to Traditional Homework.

What ideas do you have for differentiating homework?

Meet C.J. Wilson. He’s a fourteen-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who likes video games, going to the movies and playing neighborhood football with his friends. An accomplished swimmer and diver, C.J. also plays soccer and runs track—activities that, along with homework, gobble up most of his evenings. On the rare night he’s home, he eats dinner with his parents and younger sister Rachael, watches a little TV, or goes online with his laptop. He’s the picture of a typical American high school freshman. Except that C.J. isn’t typical.

He’s intellectually gifted, and he represents a population that is sometimes overlooked in increasingly crowded classrooms. Educators strive to inspire all of their students, but when they’re limited by district curriculum requirements (read: NCLB tests) and have fewer funds for more advanced materials, teacher’s assistants, technology, or professional development (read: major education budget cuts), it can be challenging. But it’s exactly this kind of challenge that draws most educators to the profession in the first place. Gifted students absorb material quickly and can take on extremely rigorous projects—with some creativity, you’ll find that looking for new ways to motivate and engage your gifted students can be fun, and that you’ll be motivated and engaged right along with them.

Challenge Gifted Students Or They’ll Do it For You

Like most gifted students, C.J. is a straight “A” student with a soaring I.Q. He’s also three grades ahead in math, he consistently scores in the top percentile on state assessments, and he took a college-level Astrobiology class online “just for fun” back in seventh grade. He started reading Dr. Seuss at age three, graduated to chapter books like The Magic Tree House series by five, and at six progressed to Harry Potter novels and The Washington Post.

“He’d ask me what different words meant that he’d read in the newspaper,” Kim Wilson, C.J.’s mom, recalls. “When he asked me what ‘rape’ meant I realized I had to take certain sections out before letting him read them.” Students like C.J. are intellectually curious, highly motivated to learn and are often capable of much more advanced curriculum than what’s required at their grade level. But they need to be challenged, or they’ll become bored and sometimes disruptive.

Either they’ll zone out or they’ll act out, says Del Siegle, Ph.D., a professor in gifted education and department head of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut and past president of the National Association of Gifted Children. Educators need to figure out the cause of disruptive behavior and make sure it isn’t boredom before assuming that the kids don’t care or are problem students.

“Gifted kids need intellectual stimulation, or they’ll figure out ways to find it on their own” says Siegle, who taught a gifted and talented program for public school children in Montana for eight years. “When I was a student and bored in class, I’d count the number of times the teacher said ‘um.’ I’ve had kids tell me that they’d count their teeth with their tongue to keep their minds occupied. Other kids will simply act out.”

C.J. isn’t a troublemaker, but he admits that if he’s bored in class, he’ll find his own challenges—like trying to make everyone laugh, or figuring out how far he can push the limits of his teacher. But that wasn’t until middle school. In elementary school, he thrived.

Step on the Gas and Accelerate

In Fairfax County, Va., where C.J. goes to school, gifted students are placed in the Advanced Academic Program (AAP). There are four levels, and C.J. tested into the highest level and has been taking Level 4 AAP classes since third grade.

My elementary school teachers were phenomenal and I was always engaged,” he says. “And then I hit middle school.”

What he ran up against was seventh and eighth grade science and English. “I was horribly bored in those classes,” he says.

Fortunately he continued to be challenged by math—the subject that he says “got him out of bed and to school in the morning.” He took Algebra 1 in seventh grade, which was taught by a former Virginia Teacher of the Year who he and his classmates thought was “awesome.” He took Geometry the following year, and the class moved quickly and covered a lot of ground. “It was tough,” says C.J. “but we learned so much.” The teacher had them complete almost four times as many sections over the school year than was required by the state standards.

Acceleration is one of the main strategies for motivating above-average students, says Siegle. “If you know they understand the curriculum, accelerate them a little. Go more in depth. Or go to more advanced content.”

But while C.J. was blazing through math, he was stagnating in science. Not only did C.J.’s eighth-grade science teacher not accelerate the content, he repeated what the kids already knew. He was on the right track when he assessed their understanding of the curriculum at the beginning of the year—he had them take Virginia’s Standard of Learning test for science during the first week of school. But when the entire class got almost perfect scores, he went ahead and taught them the curriculum again anyway, and “not even as well as we’d learned it the year before,” says C.J. The teacher was probably restricted by state rules governing curriculum for certain grades, but with a little ingenuity, he could have gotten around them to add rigor to the class.

It helped that C.J. sat next to his best friend to pass the time. He also admits that he slept a little and doodled in his notebook. He still aced all his tests, but because he’s truly fascinated by science and was thirsty for real scientific knowledge, he took the Astrobiology class online, as well as an online Physics course. “I wasn’t getting any of it at school,” he says with a shrug.

He wanted his teacher to build on the content and to give him something challenging to do with it. “He could have assigned us a research paper on a topic, or asked us to make a model of a cell and not just do another work- sheet,” C.J. says, adding that the class would do four or five worksheets on experiments they only read about but never actually performed. What’s worse, C.J. says the teacher often had to fill in the gaps of his own knowledge with student knowledge.

“If he didn’t know the answer to one of our questions, he’d always ask my friend Zach, and Zach always knew it.”

The Five “C’s”

Siegle isn’t surprised that C.J. was bored and frustrated in his science class. He and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have found five “Cs” that are essential for motivating bright students, and C.J.’s science class was missing several of them.

“First is control—they need to feel they have the power to change the situation if they’re not learning. Second is having a choice in what’s taught, so they can have authentic learning with minimal repetition, but often district and state guidelines restrict choice,” he says. “Third is challenge—relearning old material isn’t challenging. Fourth is complexity—they want depth to uncover the layers of a concept or idea. The fifth “C,” however, is caring teachers. We’ve found that this can actually override the other four Cs if they feel their teacher actually cares about them and wants to engage them.”

If an educator feels trapped by district restrictions on what can and can’t be taught (many districts don’t allow educators to use textbooks for higher grades, for example) they can expand curriculum and classroom learning by reaching out to other experts, Siegle suggests, like community mentors, or retired professionals from scientific fields. They can also ask for guidance from educators in higher levels of science, like high school physics or chemistry teachers. The Internet is another excellent and constant source for online mentoring and ideas for experiments.

“Our knowledge as educators isn’t fixed,” says Siegle. “There’s no reason we can’t also learn a lot of material over the course of a year just as our students are learning it. Sometimes the best learning environment is a collaborative learning environment, and I encourage educators to work and learn together with their students.”

It’s no surprise that C.J. has his own ideas for how his classes could be improved. He suggests that teachers pick one day to teach the material, and the next day give the kids who have grasped the material a discussion topic while the educator goes to help the other students.

“Even in the gifted program, some kids aren’t on the same level,” C.J. says. “You just can’t teach the same things the same way.”

He’s right. It’s called differentiation — the process of finding the best ways to teach concepts to kids with different learning styles and paces. Some ideas for accomplishing differentiation are to form a cluster of kids who like to concentrate fully on one concept, another cluster of kids who learn better with a variety of concept examples, and one where they want to verbally dissect the concept. Ask more advanced kids to find their own examples of the concept and to explain it to the rest of the class.

“Learning and the paths to get there are different for different kids,” Siegle says. “It’s crazy that we organize schools by birthdays rather than by what students know and how they learn.”

He also says the concept of a “flipped classroom” works well with gifted students—have kids learn at their own pace at home with recorded lessons posted online or in take-home print outs. The next day, the teacher worked with students on what would have been “homework assignments” and projects in class, leaving the more advanced kids to work on their own or in groups and providing extra help to those who need it. Another idea that Siegle suggests is “curriculum compacting,” which is replacing content with enrichment, acceleration, or activities like peer tutoring or helping the teacher with correcting papers.

Find Out What Makes Your Students Tick

What’s key, says Siegle, is finding a student’s interest and tapping into that.

“Teachers have to figure out where kids are and take them to the next level, and it’s difficult with wide variety of skill levels, but if you pay attention to students’ interests, you can tie interests to required curriculum, and use their interests to feed into the projects.”

When C.J. took an elective technology course, it was clear that he was interested in software. His teacher asked him to load the software on all the classroom computers and to help other students who needed assistance with a video game design they were working on.

Recognizing that students complete work at different rates, she gave them all one deadline for a year’s worth of projects, including a carbon dioxide dragster made out of balsa wood and powered by a CO2 cartridge. “We learned more in that project about velocity and acceleration than in two full days of seventh-grade science lectures,” C.J. says.

He finished his projects ahead of the deadline, and his teacher asked him to help her on some of her own projects that she was developing for future classes, and also to help other students with theirs. “Nobody was able to slide,” C.J. says. “She wouldn’t let us get away with anything less than perfection.”

Perfection might be a strong word—educators don’t let students get away with less than their best, but many gifted students like C.J. are the classic Type A “perfectionists” that strive for excellence and thrive on competition.

“When I’m in class with kids who are a little behind me, it keeps me on my toes trying to stay ahead,” he says. “When I’m with kids who are above me, who have raised the bar really high, I’ve got to reach it, or at least come close.”

This year C.J. will have plenty of opportunity for competition. He’s a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school that has a very selective admissions process and has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the best public high school in the nation from 2007 to 2011.

“I absolutely couldn’t wait for this!” says C.J. “I’ve been challenged since the day I first walked in the door.”

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