M. Sue Whitlock
School District of Upper Dublin
E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
The mission of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) is to plan and conduct a program of high quality research that is theory-driven, problem-based, practice-relevant, and consumer-oriented. An examination of professional development practices in gifted education is a component of the mission of the NRC/GT. A recently completed study, Extending Gifted Education Pedagogy to the Regular Classroom, was designed to investigate the impact of various professional development activities on educators’ practices. Districts involved in the study had to provide a local liaison who had gifted and talented responsibilities and at least five teachers within one building who would agree to participate in the study for 2 years. The teachers had to implement at least one new differentiation practice in their classrooms and provide requested documentation. Over 30 school districts throughout the United States were selected to participate.
The School District of Upper Dublin, located in a suburban area northwest of Philadelphia, was involved in the study. The gifted support supervisor acted as the liaison and trainer for five middle school teachers. The teachers’ class assignments included two regular classroom teachers, two learning support teachers, and one gifted support teacher. In February 1998, the liaison presented a professional development module on modification, differentiation, and enrichment strategies to the teachers during a 5-hour workshop. That day the teachers developed an understanding of the research questions and received extensive information about the strategies from which they could choose. The group considered what available strategies they already had in their classrooms and selected the new strategy they wanted to add to their repertoire of resources. They attempted to identify what support they would need to implement the strategy.
The five teachers decided to work on the same strategy, a differentiation strategy that would provide alternative activities for the students in their classes. They appeared to have two reasons for choosing the same strategy. They could support each other in their efforts and the strategy seemed needed throughout their curriculum.
For the time of the study, the entire group met at least once a month for an hour or more to continue training on identified areas of interest or need in relation to the study. The meetings made use of the many training materials provided by the NRC/GT, as well as the various materials developed by Carol Ann Tomlinson for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Additionally, the teachers met informally to discuss aspects of their work either among themselves or with the liaison. The liaison also went into several classrooms and observed the students or helped the teacher with an activity.
The teachers recognized early in the first year that although they had selected one strategy for the study, they needed the other strategies as well. Before long they were working on modifying units and trying other ways of differentiating. As the second year began, the liaison became very aware of her need to differentiate for each of the study participants, since they were at different levels of expertise. Two still wanted to refine the chosen strategy and the others were eager to try to add more complexity to the activities.
As the study came to a close, the participants realized that what they had mastered represents a starting point for what they still want to do. They had worked hard to master one strategy but recognized a need to continue to work on other strategies. Three of the five members have continued to read work about differentiation and are sharing their resources with others. There have been comments from several of them that this long-term opportunity should be available to others on the staff as well. It is the intent of the liaison to work with the staff development director to consider frameworks for offering this training to other interested staff in the future.
“As a result of using differentiation strategies in my classroom, I have seen a rise in student enthusiasm and student involvement that directly correlates to the choices a student can make.”
“There are unexpected benefits to this study. I am writing out lessons in a more organized way and putting a better structure to what I do.”
“Differentiation has given my students a sense of empowerment that they were not used to, or even knew they had.”
“My greatest success in using differentiation was to watch my students take charge of their learning.”
“Pre-assessment has become a way of life for me. It is so much easier to identify my students’ needs through the use of this tool.”
“I have changed my way of thinking in relation to planning lessons, pretesting, and how I approach projects.”