A review of Comprehensive Curriculum for Gifted Learners
Bruce N. Berube
University of Connecticut
Comprehensive Curriculum for Gifted Learners, 2nd ed.
Allyn and Bacon
Comprehensive Curriculum for Gifted Learners (2nd ed.), by Joyce VanTassel-Baska, is an excellent resource in helping teachers develop challenging curriculum for gifted and talented students in their classroom. The book is unique in that it focuses exclusively on curriculum development and is geared toward all grade levels. Three curriculum models are emphasized throughout the book and each is explained in detail in the first chapter.
The emphasis of the “content mastery model” is on the acquisition of knowledge and skills that pertain to a particular subject area. The curriculum is determined in advance, and the goal is to have gifted students progress through that curriculum at their own accelerated pace. With the content mastery model, students are often pre-tested on a particular unit of study to determine what they already know. The information that the student has already mastered is usually eliminated from the unit, and the student is left to pursue the topics that he or she does not fully understand. There are several reasons why the content mastery model has not been implemented to challenge gifted learners. It is often difficult for a teacher to manage a classroom in which many students are progressing at their own pace. Also, educators often oppose using the model because the only modification that is made focuses on the pace of instruction, not the content that is taught. Gifted students do not examine an area of study more fully, they simply do it faster. Although there are some drawbacks to the content mastery approach, many excellent programs have been developed based on its key premises. A good example of this model is the Center for Talented Youth program (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University. The emphasis of this program is on recognizing students with outstanding talents in the field of mathematics. Beginning in the seventh grade, those students who score within the top three percent on standardized achievement tests are invited to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to determine their mathematical precocity. Those who score at or above 500 on the math section of the SAT are allowed to register for a 3-week summer program in which they study advanced topics in mathematics that suit their interests.
The “process/product model,” as the name suggests, is geared toward developing the skills necessary for students to conduct first-hand investigations of topics that are of interest to them. Emphasis is placed on developing solutions to real-world problems and concerns. The student produces a product that reflects what he or she has learned about a topic and usually presents the results to an interested audience. This approach is different from the content mastery model in that what is investigated is determined by the student, based on his or her interests. There is no set curriculum. As opposed to having students move quickly through material, emphasis is placed on in-depth study of a particular topic. The basic format involved in such an investigation would be as follows: 1) selection of a topic of interest and a problem related to that topic, 2) review of literature related to the problem, 3) acquisition of the skills necessary to investigate the problem fully, 4) development of tentative solutions to the problem, and 5) the creation and presentation of a product which reflects these tentative solutions and what the student has learned.
The third approach, known as the “epistemological model” or the “concept-based model,” places primary emphasis on the understanding of systems of knowledge as opposed to particular factual information. The themes and principles that have influenced human thought throughout history are given primary attention. The importance of relating these key issues to a variety of subject areas across the curriculum is stressed. The function of the teacher is to pose questions to the students that will stimulate discussion and lead to higher levels of understanding. An example of this approach is Lipman’s Philosophy for Children program.
I have spent a significant amount of time describing these three models because they form the foundation of each of the chapters that focuses on particular subject areas. A question that immediately arises after reading about the three models is: “What model is appropriate for each subject area?” The answer to this question is both simple and complex. No one model is appropriate for a subject area to the exclusion of the others, although one model may work particularly well. For example, because the skills in mathematics are often taught in a sequential manner, the content model, with its emphasis on acceleration, may be the appropriate model for most learning situations. On the other hand, the epistemological model might be emphasized in social studies or the humanities where the importance of the key social and philosophical ideas that have shaped history are to be found. The author’s primary goal is to incorporate all three models into each subject area so that they form a cohesive whole. As she states, “The synthesis of the content, process/product, and concept models has provided a clear direction for new curriculum work” (p. 12). In the following paragraphs, I will describe how a synthesis of the three areas developed by the author has been incorporated into the area of science.
The science curriculum discussed below was designed to meet the needs of students in grades K-8. The first step in developing the curriculum was to focus on the important concepts that are interwoven into many fields of science. The concepts selected by the author include: scale, systems, change, models, evolution, and reduction. The author uses the “system” concept to illustrate her point. The next step is to elaborate on the important generalizations that are involved in the concept. Such generalizations for the concept of systems include: “All systems have identifiable elements and boundaries” and “All systems experience input and provide output” (p. 203). The generalizations are then applied to particular fields of science such as biology or geology. Units are constructed on particular topics in these fields such as ecosystems or rocks and minerals. During the actual lessons of each unit, scientific processes are developed through hands-on experimentation. Particular content also is covered in each unit. Finally, the main concept is applied to nonscience areas such as economic systems in which particular processes and content are once again taught.
It may at first seem a bit overwhelming for a teacher to develop units that incorporate all three models of teaching in an effective manner. Before jumping into the particular subject areas, the author presents an in-depth outline of how curriculum is best developed. The plan is divided into seven stages which include such important subjects as assessing needs, establishing curriculum development teams, and evaluating what has been developed. One aspect I found to be particularly useful was a description of the steps needed to modify present curriculum to meet the needs of the gifted. Also, suggestions on how to create original units are included. Make no mistake about it, the process of developing curriculum, as envisioned by the author, is no easy task. It would take many hours of hard work and preparation to construct the type of curriculum the author is suggesting. The rewards of developing such a curriculum, however, would be many.
One of the few drawbacks of the book is that it is geared toward experienced teachers who are familiar with curriculum development. I would have liked to have seen more suggestions for inexperienced teachers about how they could attempt to modify the curriculum. Also, very little emphasis is placed on developing a challenging curriculum for all students. Many of the suggestions that are presented could be used with the majority of students, which the author does not stress. Overall, the book is excellent and a “must read” for those teachers who are concerned with making significant changes in the curriculum to provide for the talents and gifts of their students.