Challenge all students.

One of the many things we’re working on at our district is the implementation of a program for students who are identified as academically talented (gifted).  While we have a vision for what we want the program to look like, we still decided to reach out to other districts with gifted programs in order to see if we could come take a peek at their program’s structure and instruction.  One nearby district graciously allowed us to come and see what they did at grades 3-5, allowing us to see their 3rd grade honors program and their magnet school (school within a school) at grades 4 and 5.

We saw some pretty awesome things – instruction was steeped in inquiry and problem-solving, with the expectation that students learn cooperatively but learn to be independent, and metacognition and the habits of mind were more than just posters on a wall.  They were infused into assignments and discussions.

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Not once did we see lectures and the old “advanced kids get more stuff faster.”  Teachers were never the end-all and be-all of the classroom.  Kids were asked to do all the mental heavy lifting, integrating technology, with students told to “figure it out” with the resources posted in Canvas for them.  And it was obvious that the students were used this way of doing school, because they eagerly dug in, explored, and figured stuff out on their own and with each other.

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It really seemed that the program embodied the motto I saw on every teacher’s classroom wall: “Home for your mind.”

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I absolutely loved what I saw.  Real learning was the rule, not the exception.

But as someone who has taught AP and advanced classes and “basic” classes and team-taught classes and regular classes…the question that kept traipsing across my mind on the drive home from this visit was this:

Should this type of learning environment just be reserved for gifted students?

I didn’t get a chance to see the non-gifted classrooms in the building, so I can’t speak to the instruction that was going on in those rooms. But I ask that question above because, in too many schools, what I saw in those classrooms is usually only reserved for those gifted students, because people feel only “those” students can “handle it.” In my opinion, that kind of thinking devalues and underestimates the students who aren’t identified for those specialized programs.  That type of learning will work for all students, although it may involve a lot of reprogramming and practice and time and patience on the part of both students and teachers.

Because we’re supposed to be challenging all students, aren’t we?  And I mean “challenge” in the current best practice-real learning sense, not the “memorizing more stuff that won’t be used after the current grade level/class” challenge of old.