Food is critical to our physical bodies. Children need plenty of food in order to gain the nutrition they need to grow and develop properly. As parents, we constantly pay attention to how much and what kinds of food we provide our kids. If we are really on top of things, we might plan out our meals for a week or more so we know there will be a balanced variety of the important foods our children need.
The curriculum in a school is like meal planning for learning. We design a menu that is appropriate for most students most of the time. It has the right amount and types of content to provide a nutritious and balanced diet over the course of the school year.
But not all students have the same learning metabolism. Some gifted learners need more calories or a different balance of nutrients in order to be healthy. The regular curriculum won’t work for them. There are two ways we can adjust things to give them the right nutrition so they are learning well.
Acceleration is done when a student just needs to learn at a faster pace. The same amount of material is provided more quickly. In terms of food, this is what you’ve likely experienced if you have a teenager in your house: it becomes difficult to keep enough food in the house to satisfy them, and they eat whole meals in between their meals.
With the curriculum, there are a number of ways we can accelerate to get more learning in a shorter time. One is to allow a student to move at his or her own pace through the content. This is complex for a teacher to manage, however, and is only done when other options are inadequate or inappropriate. More frequently we will allow students to work on content that is a year or two above grade level. This might happen by placing the student in a different classroom for that subject, but more often it is done through individualized instruction by the gifted teacher and online resources.
For students who are extremely advanced, we might consider whole-grade acceleration, commonly referred to as “grade skipping”. In this case, a student might demonstrate the ability to do academic work in all subjects that’s above level. This is always a complex decision and we use a standardized tool called the Iowa Acceleration Scale to guide the school team in planning.
Doing more faster isn’t our only option, however. We can also meet needs by giving students a richer, more sophisticated learning experience. This is the equivalent of letting our teenager eat on the same schedule as the rest of the family but modifying the menu to get more nutrition into the same meals.
In the classroom, this means we might continue working on grade level topics, but will ask the student to do more complex things with the knowledge. Or we might reach out and try topics that aren’t part of the normal K-12 curriculum (i.e. giving the student new foods to try that aren’t on the menu). In many cases, we want to give all students the opportunity to try these new foods, so while they are a normal part of the plan for a gifted student’s diet, there will often be many other students who taste and try them as well.
Because enrichment allows us to give many students what they need without having to make extra meals or feed several completely different meals to different students at the same time, it is often the best tool in the curriculum kitchen.
In practice, most gifted learners need some combination of acceleration and enrichment. When we find a student with such complex needs, it’s a good indication that we need to get the team together regularly to create a detailed, individualized plan for his or her learning. This is the purpose of a gifted IEP and is one of the main questions we ask when deciding if a student is eligible for gifted support.