Notes from the Board Table: Expanding enrichment

“The words ‘gifted and talented’ are probably among the most controversial in the field of education,” says University of Connecticut Professor Joseph Renzulli in a recent discussion about enrichment instruction. Renzulli, the founder and director of UConn’s National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, says he regularly receives calls from parents and teachers asking for guidance with regard to deciding which students should be identified as “gifted.”

In fact, Renzulli notes a fundamental change in thinking has taken place in recent years.  Whereas “gifted” students used to be identified based on test scores — a child who scored 130 on an IQ test was considered gifted, but a child who scored 129 was not — we now know that gifted students reveal themselves in ways that don’t always show up on an intelligence test. As Dr. Renzulli notes, Thomas Edison, Louisa May Alcott and Walt Disney each received scathing grades during school, with Alcott’s teacher noting that she would never write anything with popular appeal.

Instead, today’s “gifted and talented” initiatives are much broader and more inclusive. It used to be that students tagged as gifted would be pulled out of class and offered instruction by an “enrichment aide.” Today, a “more is better” mentality has taken hold, in which large numbers of students are exposed to enrichment opportunities, and encouraged to pursue ideas or activities about which they are passionate.

Dr. Renzulli has developed a widely accepted “3-Ring Conception of Giftedness” model that involves interactions between three traits:

  • Above Average Intelligence: Most gifted students are found in the “above average” range of students, but not from the “superior” ranking, as measured by intelligence tests.

  • Creativity: Gifted students generate different approaches to problem solving and challenge traditional approaches.

  • Task Commitment: Gifted students generally demonstrate a laser-like focus on a particular task about which they are passionate.

Further, an ideal environment for gifted students would offer four characteristics:

  • Personalization of interest so that a student can pursue topics of interest, topics that are not part of a regular curriculum;

  • Authentic methodology in which a teacher provides the instruction to help a student pursue that outside passion.

  • No predetermined correct answers.

Audience beyond the teacher. A student must have an audience in mind beyond “just” satisfying a teacher. This can involve having a written work published, or entering a science fair or robotics competition.

So, what does “gifted and talented” instruction look like in Wilton?

Much of what’s taking place in our schools is based on a belief in broad access to enrichment opportunities. Long gone are the days of advanced instruction offered only to high-scoring test takers. Today, we offer opportunities for all students to tap into their passions, and the tools to develop those interests. We understand that just as one student may excel in an AP Calculus class, another student may show tremendous fortitude in a creative writing class, or performing in a school orchestra or jazz ensemble.

For example, students in Cider Mill and Middlebrook are involved in newspaper clubs, and perform all tasks required to create, publish and distribute their finished product.

Middlebrook students are involved in a new book-publishing project, and a new TV studio. Cider Mill students are engaging in enrichment activities offered during the new “What I Need – (WIN)” instruction period.

And our high school is a virtual laboratory of enrichment, with students engaged in  seemingly limitless opportunities including debate, coding, robotics, theater, art, international relations, journalism, world language, culinary arts and of course, our new student-driven television studio.

These initiatives are in addition to the highly differentiated curriculum learning that takes place within the classroom. Through differentiated instruction, each student is assigned subject matter aligned with his or her capability. In a typical Language Arts class, one student might be assigned to read a book considered at “grade level,” while another student could be reading a book two or three grade levels ahead. The goal is to offer rigorous instruction that challenges each student to the best of his or her ability.

You may recall that earlier this year, the Board of Education hosted a “community conversation” in which parents and community members were encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns. The number one issue on parents’ minds that evening was a desire for more and better enrichment opportunities. Clearly, in a high performing district like Wilton, we need to continually challenge our students and offer extra curricular venues wherever possible.

We have made progress in the past year, and will build on that going forward. Many of our teachers have proposed wonderful ideas for challenging and innovative enrichment opportunities, and of course our students have an insatiable appetite for exactly this level of instruction.

We’re all familiar with Garrison Keillor’s fabled Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” I don’t know about the first two claims, but with the right enrichment opportunities in place, we can be assured of the third.