The DISCOVER Project: Improving Assessment and Curriculum for Diverse Gifted Learners

Fall 2005 Headmast

C. June Maker
The University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ

The world we have created is a product of our thinking;
it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.
—Albert Einstein

Need for Changes in Beliefs
For over a century, educators have limited their beliefs about intelligence and superior abilities to research and theories from psychology, particularly from the research on “individual differences” even though this research has mainly been conducted on groups, especially those from advantaged and mainstream cultural backgrounds, with generalizations made based on averages and “standard” deviations rather than individual behavior (Ceci, 1996; Nielson, 1994). Ideas, results of empirical research, and theories from cultural anthropology, sociology, genetics, neuroscience, developmental psychology, education, and the new field of cognitive science must be integrated into our thought systems to form a more complete view of the multifaceted, multidimensional phenomenon we call giftedness.

A New Framework: From Theory to Practice
It is important to transfer theory and research into classrooms and communities by designing an assessment and curriculum model integrating the theoretical frameworks proposed by Ceci, Sternberg, (1997, 1999, 2002), and Gardner (1983, 1994), which are excellent examples of integrated perspectives. According to Ceci, a prerequisite for cognitively complex behavior in a given realm is the possession of a well differentiated yet integrated knowledge base that gets operated on by efficient cognitive processes: “The knowledge and beliefs we possess in a specific domain . . . provide the raw materials for the operation of various cognitive processes during moments of problem solving. . .” (1996, p. 22).

To make Ceci’s, Sternberg’s, and Gardner’s ideas applicable in education and easily understandable to teachers, work on defining levels of content enabling students to see how facts and experiences are connected to “big ideas” (Maker & Nielson, 1995) was integrated with the early work of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976). Shirley Schiever and C. June Maker elaborated and extended this work to create a continuum of problem types that could be used to design assessments and curricula.

The framework of DISCOVER (Discovering Strengths and Capabilities while Observing Varied Ethnic Responses) was designed to create a better alignment between the definition of problem solving, its assessment, and its development in an educational context. In Csikszentmihalyi’s early research, the ability (and willingness) to structure an open-ended or ill-structured problem, or “problem-finding,” as it was later labeled, was the single trait that most accurately predicted the later creative achievements of artists. This research had a significant effect on the field of education for gifted students, leading to the development of numerous teaching models in which problem-finding was valued over the solving of already-defined problems or problems with known solutions (Gallagher, Stepien, & Rosenthal, 1992; Maker & Nielson, 1995). Using the DISCOVER Model, assessments and curricula include a balance of all types of problems, and incorporate all levels of content—from data to concepts, principles, and theories.

Since 1982, Maker focused on curriculum design and teaching and advocated the design of learning environments for gifted students that are learner centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community centered (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). DISCOVER was created to extend these principles and practices into schools with high concentrations of culturally and linguistically diverse, geographically isolated, and low income students—helping administrators, teachers, parents, and communities to adopt a “strength-based” instead of “deficit-based” view of students (Maker, 1993, 2001; Maker & King, 1996; Maker, Nielson, & Rogers, 1994; Maker, Rogers, Nielson, & Bauerle, 1996).

DISCOVER is one model for eliminating barriers and increasing facilitators in both identification and the design of curriculum and instruction for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in programs for the gifted. The definition of giftedness used in the DISCOVER framework is consistent with Ceci’s Bioecological Theory of Cognitive Complexity (1996) and Sternberg’s and Gardner’s theories of intelligence. Observation is presented as an important basis for decision-making across assessment and curricular contexts and consistent with these theories.

Barriers and Facilitators: Assessment and Curriculum
Test makers and publishers continue to insist their instruments have no bias—yet those who score at the highest levels do not include equitable numbers of children from culturally and linguistically diverse groups, and programs for gifted students continue to be dominated by those from mainstream, middle and upper socioeconomic environments and backgrounds (Coleman & Gallagher, 1995; Ford & Harmon, 2001; Hunsaker, 1994; Gardner, 1995; Maker, 1996). A definite problem exists with the use of these instruments and the practices associated with them (Clasen, Middleton, & Connell, 1994; Cummins, 1984; Ford & Harmon, 2001). New instruments and procedures must be created, used, and tested.

Since intelligence and giftedness are complex constructs, and our world is in a constant state of change, programs and curricula also must be multi-dimensional and complex. Frameworks for program and curriculum development, as well as the practices that result, must be reframed so they are consistent with new beliefs, recent research, and new identification procedures. If learning is viewed as a transformation of an individual’s knowledge and experiences rather than as an accumulation of new knowledge and experience, practices will be consistent with the latest information about how people learn (Bransford et al., 2000), and will be more culturally responsive to the changing faces of the children included in these programs.

The traditional and emerging paradigms (thought systems), that guide practice and research in education of the gifted, (Feldman, 1993; Treffinger, 1991) are quite different, and can be examined both to gain an important perspective on the reasons why certain groups have continued to be underrepresented in special programs and to generate alternatives with the potential to change this national problem. In the traditional paradigm, giftedness is seen as equal to a high IQ, stable and unchangeable, identified based on psychological tests, elitist in orientation, authoritarian or “top-down,” school-oriented, ethnocentric, and expresses itself without special intervention. In the emerging paradigm, giftedness is perceived as having multiple forms, being developmental and process-oriented, based on performance, collaborative at all levels, and field-oriented. Excellence rather than elitism is the focus, diversity is central to its mission, and the context in which giftedness is assessed and developed is crucial to its expression. The traditional paradigm includes many barriers to the identification and provision of appropriate services for children from diverse groups, and examining this perspective carefully can help educators understand why certain groups remain underrepresented in special programs for the gifted. The emerging paradigm includes many facilitators—beliefs and practices that can help in identifying and providing appropriate services for underrepresented groups—so DISCOVER was designed from the viewpoint of the emerging paradigm. The aim of the teams of researchers and practitioners (Maker, 1996) was to minimize barriers and increase facilitators both for identification and programming.

The DISCOVER Assessment
A fundamental belief in the equal distribution of abilities across diverse groups led to the creation of the DISCOVER Assessment. An emphasis on problem solving would be an important way to access the abilities of students from “at risk” populations. When testing a student’s knowledge, often we are assessing exposure, not the ability to learn the information. The ability to learn the information is the key. Producing sophisticated products also is influenced by exposure to ways of organizing and presenting information. Emphasis on use of effective strategies has the potential to “level the playing field,” enabling students who solve problems on a daily basis to demonstrate their abilities. “Little Claudia,” a 5-year-old Mexican American girl, who was responsible for dressing her 2-year-old brother and making sure he was taken to daycare before she went to kindergarten class, had extensive practice in problem solving. However, she was not exposed to advanced knowledge through visits to museums or a home environment with many sources of information, nor was she given opportunities to produce sophisticated products through special courses, lessons, or other opportunities afforded to children from middle and upper socioeconomic status (SES) families. Many children from diverse economic, geographic, and cultural groups face challenges similar to Little Claudia’s. Research on the DISCOVER assessment is showing that, without lowering standards or changing criteria, when DISCOVER is used to identify gifted and talented students, the ethnic, economic, and linguistic balance in the identified groups parallels the balance of these groups in the community (Maker, 1997; Nielson, 1994; Powers, 2003; Reid, Udall, Romanoff, & Algozzine, 1999).

Repeated assessments, revisions, feedback, and on-going data collection have resulted in a set of activities for each of four grade levels (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12), standardized procedures and directions, a behavior checklist to provide consistency in evaluations, and a “debriefing” process for increasing interrater reliability. Assessments are conducted in the familiar classroom environment. The students’ teachers are the facilitators. The observers who assess children are other general classroom teachers; specialists in education of the gifted, bilingual education, or special education; preservice educators; counselors; community members; administrators; and other experts. Students, in groups of 4 to 5 peers, are encouraged to interact and meet the challenges presented. Bilingual observers and teachers present instructions and interact with children in the dominant language(s) of the students.

The DISCOVER assessment, however, cannot be separated from curriculum and teaching strategies, especially when they are designed to be interdependent. After a DISCOVER assessment is completed, administrators, teachers, parents (and the students themselves, especially at the high school level) receive information about the students’ strengths (inter-individual and intra-individual) across the domains assessed, as well as very detailed reports of the problem solving behaviors observed during each activity. Problem solving behaviors are reported for each domain, core competencies within each domain, and for creativity and task commitment clusters. Teachers, parents, and students are assisted in the process of planning ways to build on student strengths as well as to compensate for weaknesses.

The DISCOVER Curriculum Model
In the DISCOVER Model “at-risk” students are viewed as being “at-promise” for success due to their problem solving strengths in diverse cognitive domains. When students’ strengths are identified and teaching approaches developed so that strengths are used as vehicles for developing academic and real-life skills, students from all groups, including those considered to be “at-risk” experience greater success in school (Maker, 1992; Maker et al., 1996). Children and their teachers and caregivers develop more positive and realistic beliefs about their potential to succeed. When academic skills are taught within the context of real-world problem solving, these academic skills take on new meaning, and students perceive them as relevant.

A consistent message of school reform efforts is that students in America’s schools must learn to think and solve problems rather than memorize facts and mindlessly apply algorithms. (National Academy of Sciences [NAS], 1996; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 2000). A second consistent message is that a “constructivist” (rather than a “reductionist”) approach is the most effective way to achieve the new national standards, and that certain key elements characterize this approach: (a) actively building new knowledge from experience and prior knowledge; (b) acquisition of higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills; (c) basic skills learned while undertaking higher-level, “real-world” tasks whose execution requires the integration of a number of skills; (d) information resources available to be accessed by the student at that point in time when they actually become useful in executing the task at hand; (e) fewer topics covered and explored in greater depth; and (f) students as active “architects” rather than passive recipients of knowledge (NAS, 1996; NCTM, 2000).

The DISCOVER curriculum is based on a constructivist philosophy, and involves using the principles of a good program for gifted students to enhance the learning and raise the standards for all students. Curricula and teaching strategies for gifted students are characterized by (a) integrated, interdisciplinary content; (b) higher-order thinking, appropriate pacing, self-directed learning, and complex problem solving processes; (c) development of unique products for real audiences; and (d) student interaction, interaction with experts, and learning environments with physical and psychological flexibility, openness, and safety. The environment is rich in resources, and the teacher usually acts as a guide rather than a dispenser of knowledge as the students make choices based on interest and ability (Maker, 1982; Maker & King, 1996; Maker & Nielson, 1995, 1996). These principles advocated for gifted programs characterize successful bilingual education programs (Cummins, 1984; Nieto, 1996; Ramirez, 1991; Tharp, 1989), effective schools (Heckman, 1996; Weissbourd, 1996), and early childhood programs incorporating developmentally appropriate practices (Bredkamp & Rosegrant, 1995; Maker & King, 1996). In addition to these principles, the DISCOVER curriculum model includes two other elements to broaden its applicability to students with diverse backgrounds and personal traits, including types of abilities. These two important elements are (a) arts integration, especially visual arts, music, creative dance/movement, and theater arts; and (b) development of a wide range of problem solving abilities.

There are several recommendations related to the DISCOVER model. Policy-Makers are urged to implement pilot programs in which the progress (success in the program or in regular classrooms) of students identified by various instruments is monitored, analyze these data, and report the results to others using or considering these instruments. Program Coordinators are asked to include many types of screening and referral procedures (such as performance-based measures like DISCOVER) to supplement teacher referral as a first step in deciding which children to test or examine further. An example of a recommendation for Principals is to interview or find other ways to elicit teacher statements or information to identify the beliefs of teachers, determine whether their views are consistent with the traditional or emerging paradigm, and initiate discussions and study groups to examine consistencies or discrepancies, and devise ways to resolve discrepancies. Teachers are urged to try the DISCOVER curriculum approach regardless of whether the school district implements the assessment.

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