Using Gifted Education Strategies With All Students

Spring 2001 Masthead

E. Jean Gubbins & NRC/GT Research Team
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Why and how do teachers change their teaching practices? Each year, millions, if not billions of dollars are spent providing professional development opportunities and buying teaching resources. Many teachers sit, listen, and simply return to their classrooms to do exactly the same things that they have done for years. Administrators and curriculum specialists often plan professional development activities, but little research exists on what it takes to make substantive change in teaching practices. Our research team (Karen L. Westberg, Deborah E. Burns, E. Jean Gubbins, Sally M. Reis, Susan Dinnocenti, Carol Tieso, Sunghee Park, Linda J. Emerick, and Lori R. Maxfield) investigated not only what happens if you try to extend the pedagogy of gifted education to regular classrooms, but also, what happens when you attempt to upscale an innovation? “… {H}ow do you take an innovation-what appears to be a promising practice-and spread it more than 50 miles from the place where it originated?” (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, p. 7).

First, we will highlight the tasks and findings from the multi-stage quantitative and qualitative study. Second, we will provide a brief explanation of the professional development module, followed by comments from liaisons and teachers as they reflected on the training process and materials. Detailed quantitative and qualitative results will be available in the NRC/GT research monograph documenting all phases of the study.

Overview the 5-year Research Study

The multi-stage quantitative and qualitative study required many tasks, including instrument development, field tests of assessment forms, pilot studies of professional development materials, interviews, observations, and focus groups. Each task also required many steps. Highlights of tasks and key findings are outlined below:


Designed, implemented, and analyzed a national survey of professional development practices in gifted education. Created survey items that were examples of high quality, successful professional development practices. Analyzed national survey data from three samples: random sample of teachers across the country (n=1,231), sample of educators associated with the NRC/GT’s Collaborative School Districts (n=100), and sample of purchasers of the NRC/GT videotape modules (n=205). Prepared article highlighting results of the national survey. Presented survey findings at local, national, regional, and international conferences and workshops. In general, the findings indicate that professional development opportunities in gifted education are limited in nature, degree, and scope (Westberg, et al. 1998).

Key Findings

  • A very small proportion of school districts’ total professional development dollars is spent on gifted education topics (4%).
  • Gifted education specialists rarely provide professional development training to other faculty members within their school district.
  • The majority of districts do not evaluate the impact of their professional development practices in gifted education on teachers and students.
  • Peer coaching between classroom teachers and gifted education teachers is seldom (25%) or never (28%) used to provide professional development.


Designed, implemented (19 districts), and analyzed field-test results of four professional development modules (i.e., complete training packages) on conceptions of giftedness, curriculum modification, curriculum differentiation, and enrichment learning and teaching.

Key Findings

  • Trainers evaluated the training materials as high quality.
  • Trainers requested more examples of strategies to help them with their coaching responsibilities.
  • Trainers wanted samples of completed forms.
  • Trainers recognized the reluctance to change teaching practices among some staff members.
  • Trainers viewed administrative support as an important element to keep the focus of the innovation.


Redesigned the piloted professional development modules and created one, large module with all the training materials, which became known as the “BIG RED BOOK” (all but the NRC/GT videotapes and handbooks were in a 4-inch red notebook). Implemented a 2-year study of using gifted education strategies with all students in regular classrooms. Worked with over 30 school districts. Delivered training to local elementary and middle school teachers by organizing a group of local liaisons. Organized control groups within the same districts, but not in the same schools, and the control group teachers continued with their normal classroom routines. Developed multiple documentation techniques, including portfolios, anecdotal report forms, logs, and instruments. Developed instruments focusing on classroom practices, assumptions about giftedness, implementation strategies, students’ activities, and stages of implementation of the innovation. Maintained written, e-mail, and telephone communications.

Key Findings

  • Liaisons successfully adopted the training materials in the four professional development modules.
  • Liaisons recognized the increase in their depth and breadth of knowledge in how to modify, differentiate, and enrich curriculum.
  • Teachers appreciated opportunities to discuss their curricular approaches with the liaison and other teachers.
  • Liaisons requested samples of completed forms that illustrated how other teachers changed their instructional and curricular approaches.
  • Liaisons needed more examples to share with teachers as they addressed specific content areas in various grade levels.


Analyzed all quantitative and qualitative data from the 2-year intervention study. Prepared drafts of chapters for the technical monograph. Redesigned the professional development module based on the intervention study.

Key Findings

  • Liaisons successfully used the NRC/GT professional development module with local teachers.
  • Liaisons became local experts as a result of their knowledge and experiences with modifying, differentiating, and enriching curriculum.
  • Liaisons recognized the need to differentiate training for local teachers. Just as the students were not all at the same level of expertise, neither were the teachers who agreed to participate in the intervention study.
  • Teachers learned how to enhance or change some of their instructional and curricular strategies. Not all teachers were as successful with the strategies. Some persevered; others did not continue as participants.
  • Teachers benefited from the long-term nature of the study.
  • The learning curve for teachers and liaisons varied.
  • Teachers responded positively to the strategies as they reflected on the positive responses of their students.
  • Teachers and liaisons who were supported by their administrative teams found it easier to support the implementation of an innovation.
  • Experimental group teachers changed their classroom practices, as compared to control group teachers.
  • Students who worked with experimental group teachers reported positive changes in their class activities.
  • Teachers raised their level of expectations for student work. They recognized that students were ready for challenging work.
  • Change “hurts.” It is a realization that what you are comfortable with may not be the best approach for you as a teacher or for your students.
The Module as a Training Program

We prepared a professional development module, consisting of background information on the NRC/GT, and we shared research findings from previous studies focusing on instructional and curriculum practices in regular classrooms. We developed over 85 transparencies with accompanying scripts. Four topics were introduced: conceptions of giftedness, curriculum modification, curriculum differentiation, and enrichment teaching and learning. In addition, each liaison received NRC/GT videotapes, handbooks, and articles that extended discussions on the topics.

We invited elementary and middle school teachers of the gifted and classroom teachers from over 30 districts to serve as liaisons. As they prepared for the training of local teachers, liaisons studied the professional development module described above. In essence, two interventions were occurring: training of liaisons and training of teachers who, in turn, worked with their students.

Liaisons as Trainers

Liaisons assumed a huge responsibility as local trainers. Even if they viewed themselves as minimally or highly experienced, they immediately recognized that they needed to review and study all materials intensively. One liaison said:

I panicked . . . . We were in an unusual situation because I think all the other districts had one person, and ours-there were two, and that’s another story. So, we did have the luxury of having each other, and we planned a time to sit down and go through the book, and we thought, “Oh, a couple of hours we’ll get through it.” After four hours, we decided we were going to have to meet again, and I think again and again. I think we met many hours trying to get ready. . . . (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, pp. 39-40)

The professional background of the liaisons varied. Some were quite familiar with identification, programming, and curriculum models in our field through formal coursework and years of experiences; others were self-taught and eager to learn more. One experienced liaison commented:

I found that while we went into this very willing and ended it very willingly, . . . it was a learning curve for me, as well as for the participants. Having been in the field for quite awhile, I thought I knew everything in terms of the strategies. . . . But {not} actually delivering it in that kind of format. The materials in the book were rich. We now use them all the time with other training models and training sessions that we do in our school system. And so, the material was wonderful, but there was a lot of it . . . . I had to sit down and pour through the material, and organize it in a way that I thought was clear for the people on the receiving end. Because I believe teachers can be some of the hardest audience, you know. And so, I didn’t feel comfortable getting up in front of the group unless I felt I really knew that material. (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, pp. 38-39)


Curriculum: Activities or Events

We knew from our earlier NRC/GT studies and the research conducted by others in the field of gifted and talented education that the academic needs of young people were not the cornerstone of planning and implementing curriculum. Oftentimes a series of activities or a collection of discrete skills served as lessons. One liaison shared the following reflection about what goes on in elementary schools:

You are probably familiar with teachers who have units on the apple, watermelon, and the pumpkin. Do you know what I’m talking about? My biggest challenge was with the group of first grade teachers who . . . had their training in the spring, were determined they weren’t really going to do any implementation until fall because you can’t start anything new until you think about it over the summer, and start in September, okay? So, that was their mindset. They couldn’t change direction in the middle of the year, or so they perceived. And so, when I went to work with the first grade teachers, their big overall unit of which they {included} everything-math, science, social studies, reading-revolved around the watermelon in September, and pumpkin in October and [apple in] November. And I’m not lying. It’s a stretch of the imagination even to think it, but that’s what it was. And so, I spent a lot of time meeting with . . . teachers. {The gifted teacher and I} were trying to get them to look at . . . big ideas. . . . {I}t was a real struggle for them. That was a whole new way of thinking. {The teachers needed to look} at modifying “their idea of curriculum.” (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, p. 49)

When you think about how some teachers might approach their curricula, you understand how the notion of holidays, activities, worksheets, workbooks, and educational games can fill the hours of the school day. We needed to break down this mindset in some cases. In other cases, we needed to provide the rationale for upscaling the curriculum and include enough examples of how-to-do it; and in still other cases we just needed to help teachers critique the quality of their available instructional resources and develop high-quality alternatives. Therefore, professional development was the focus of our research. As noted in National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent:

Teachers must receive better training in how to teach high-level curricula. They need support for providing instruction that challenges all students sufficiently. This will benefit not only students with outstanding talent but children at every academic level. (United States Department of Education, 1993, p. 3)


Curriculum: Critique and Creation

Liaisons were responsible for demonstrating a series of strategies often associated with the gifted education literature. Of course, these strategies did not necessarily originate in our field, but they have become part of the parlance for explaining why students need curricular options to really meet their needs and challenge their talents and abilities. We asked liaisons to help teachers focus on questions such as the following for modifying, differentiating, and enriching the curriculum:

Curriculum Modification

What is the quality of the curriculum? Does it focus on big ideas or concepts? Is it repetitious?

Curriculum Differentiation

What are the academic needs of your students? How can you create or adapt curriculum opportunities to meet these needs?

Enrichment Learning and Teaching

What do students already know? How can you use formal and informal assessment techniques to assess their knowledge and compact the curriculum? What types of replacement strategies are appropriate for students who have mastered the curriculum? How can you accelerate the content? How can you extend and enrich the curriculum?


Assessing Classroom Practices

Assessing classroom practices at a distance was quite a challenge. Paper instruments were the proxies for our “presence” in classrooms near and far. Since we could not and did not want to be on-site to observe and shape the intervention, we developed a wide variety of instruments that would hopefully elicit critical details, documenting the implementation process. Our eyes and ears were the liaisons and teachers. Of course, we used additional data collection techniques to ensure that we captured as much information as possible, including frequent updates via phone calls, anecdotal reports, informal discussions at conferences and workshops, lesson plans, student products, and selected site visits towards the end of the intervention. Collectively, all of these data provided the “observation window” of the extent to which the pedagogy of gifted education can be used with all students.

Teacher Change

Analyzing the quality of their own teaching was critical to change and growth. It was important to ask questions such as: What do I do well? What needs to be improved? How do I improve my teaching ability? Obviously, teaching is both an art and a science. Sometimes teachers were overwhelmed with the new content and strategies, new models of teaching, or new assessment techniques. Metacognitive strategies that promoted reflection on teaching helped teachers understand the need for change. One liaison offered an explanation of the difference between the before and after of using the “BIG RED BOOK”:

This is just a general before and after kind of a question with the teachers I worked with, but I think in general what you talked about-the big idea-understanding-they realized when they started to look at what they were teaching and how they were teaching and how they were going to change it for whatever method they had chosen-they had to reflect upon what it was they were teaching, and why they were teaching it. And I think that was a big before and after. I think they learned through that process that sometimes they were doing things that didn’t have a great purpose or a great understanding behind it. And that creates that self-reflection, I think that was the biggest before and after overall. (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, pp. 49-50)

“Some people have changed a little and some people have made a sea of change” (Emerick, 1999). Individuals involved in the innovation determined the extent of change. So many personal, motivational, and attitudinal variables affect the extent of their own change process. While admitting that the implementation process was “exhausting” and “too much,”

two {teachers} stated emphatically that “the real difference . . . is looking at student work and seeing what students are getting out of it.” One stated, “I’m really trying to work with different things. I’ve used things that I’ve developed . . . so I’m using those ideas and I’m broadening {them}, too . . . .” (Emerick, 1999, p. 3)

Another teacher confirmed that she changed her approach to teaching. “I also have done lessons on goals, reaching goals, and what are goals, and how . . . obstacles get in the way of accomplishing goals” (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, p. 52). Projects, as a way of documenting what students have learned, have also changed-no more word searches, fill-in-the-blanks, or worksheets. Students were now engaged in hands-on activities that challenge their knowledge and increase the expectations for truly understanding and using new content and skills.

Teachers recognized that students became more independent as learners, as they acquired skills of search and techniques for posing questions and finding answers. One liaison offered the following comment about the students:

As far as [the] students, it’s made them become much more independent as learners, and it’s given {them} many more choices. And what we expect the students to do to use higher level thinking skills, and make decisions-really the study teaches us to do the very same thinking. It’s been quite an intellectual exercise for the teachers. (NAGC Conference Transcript, 1999, pp. 53-54)

One teacher devised a “mantra of change” by reviewing what she learned throughout the study and listing the types of strategies that would now be her approach to extending gifted education strategies to all students:

I will continue to pretest and activate background knowledge before the start of every unit.
I will continue to assess my students’ interests as well as knowledge level.
I will continue to assess my lessons for the following: Do products assignments differ. . .? Do my work groups offer flexibility. . .? Do my students feel challenged by the material presented?
I will continue to discuss, debate, gather differentiation ideas with co-workers. (Teacher #535) (Dinnocenti, 2001)

This study of gifted education strategies yielded a considerable amount of knowledge. For this article, we chose to share some comments from liaisons and teachers because they were the key people in the intervention. As a group, they once again confirmed the tenet that change is a process that requires support, reflection, and human and material resources. It also requires an element that is not always obvious at first. Students’ reactions to the innovation served as very strong motivators to stay with the change process.

Dinnocenti, S. (2001). Summary of teacher portfolios. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Emerick, L. (1999). Qualitative data for the extending gifted education pedagogy to the classroom study. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
National Association for Gifted Children Conference Transcript. (1999). NRC/GT study of extending gifted education strategies to all students. Storrs, CT: NRC/GT Transcript from NAGC Conference.
United States Department of Education. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Westberg, K. L., Burns, D. E., Gubbins, E. J., Reis, S. M., Park, S., & Maxfield, L. R. (1998, Spring). Professional development practices in gifted education: Results of a national survey. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented Newsletter, pp. 3-4.


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