What ever happened to striving for excellence? In schools today, it is now about striving for proficiency. Students are expected to perform at a proficient level on state assessments. Schools that aren’t meeting goals for proficiency are censured. There is no incentive whatsoever for schools to encourage students to perform at the advanced level. A student who scores perfectly on the state assessment counts exactly the same as one who barely crosses the proficiency threshold. But to many people, this is now what it means to strive for excellence
Robert Sternberg, in a recent issue of Educational Leadership, asks what it means for a school to be excellent. Too often, a school’s own definition of excellence is defined by the performance of a subgroup of students. The school looks solely at the improvement in performance of the bottom students, or the very top, or perhaps that group just on the cusp of proficiency. He argues that instead, schools ought to focus on excellence for all students, and that the numbers will fall into place as a result of that changed focus.
According to Sternberg (2008), in addition to the traditional 3 R’s, we also need to be teaching students Reasoning, Resilience, and Responsibility. I believe this is particularly important for gifted students, who can often learn the basics of academic content quickly but have more difficulty with these “Other Three R’s”. What if when we compact the curriculum for these children we were to focus our enrichment work on teaching these new skills?
Unfortunately, they can’t develop in a vacuum. All three skills (and, I would argue, all of the traditional three as well, past a certain level) require students to interact with others on a deep level. But how can we do that when we may only have one student in a classroom (or perhaps even in an entire school) who can move quickly into this area of learning? Certainly we want to provide these opportunities for all students on a regular basis. But Reasoning, Resilience, and Responsibility can be more of a centerpiece for gifted students who are capable of engaging them at a depth that other students may not attain until much later.
One solution to this is to provide more opportunities for gifted students to interact with their intellectual peers. Creating situations where this is possible can be a challenge, however. If there are only a few gifted students in a school, even when they are all together, the level of interaction is not high.
Online tools can provide a way to expand the connections for our gifted children. Andrew Torris recently wrote about how social networks and online collaboration can help educators to be more engaged with each other in their own professional development. Many of the same arguments he gives, and indeed, many of the same scenarios he describes, apply as well to gifted children in our classrooms.
I have recently experimented with using a wiki to allow students from multiple schools to work together and interact on a common project. There have been some successes and some challenges, and the level of interaction so far is not high. But even at this very basic level, my students have gotten a glimpse of the power of networking, and as my own professional network grows, I hope to find ways to add to my students’ network of colleagues.
Torris ended his article with a powerful video. I’m including it here also because it emphasizes the importance of sharing, collaboration, and learning to network. Watch it twice—once from the perspective of your students, and once with your own professional growth in mind. Then think: How can we begin to move back towards excellence, first in our own lives, then in our instruction, so that all students can gain meaningfully from their time in our classrooms?
Sternberg, R. (2008). Excellence for all. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 14-19.