Julie D. Swanson
College of Charleston
“The journey is the reward.”
Peter Senge, 1990
Early on, a teacher of the gifted imparts to his/her students the idea that there are many approaches to solving a problem and many right answers for most questions. As teachers of the gifted, we often emphasize the process of learning with our students, rather than focus on the end product. However, when we conduct research projects, we usually take an opposite tack. We focus on the end product, the final results of the research project, rather than extrapolating lessons throughout the project’s life. This article relates the story of a different, more reflective view of one such research project. What follows is a description of the process of searching for answers, the journey of tackling an issue about which one cares deeply, and what is gained through the process.
Funded in September 1992 by the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act, Project SEARCH, Selection, Enrichment, and Acceleration of Rural Children, had two major goals similar to a number of other Javits projects. The first was to develop a method of identification for gifted students who were underrepresented in our pilot schools: students who were poor, rural, and African American. Once a more sensitive procedure for identifying giftedness was devised, the next goal was to develop a model which nurtured the gifts and talents of these students. Project staff hoped that through an inclusive model in the regular classroom setting gifted students would bubble up to the top—that is they would become more easily identifiable through their performance (Swanson, 1995).
The project grew out of the local school district’s efforts to identify more African American children for the gifted and talented program. Data indicated that the chances of White, middle income students being identified as gifted were much greater than the chances of African American students of poverty. Further, students in suburban schools were more easily identifiable than students in urban and rural schools. The decision was made to focus the search in rural schools serving students of poverty and to experiment with several nontraditional approaches to uncovering gifts and talents.
Three pilot schools, located in the rural South, were selected for the project before plans for the research were clearly articulated. The principals agreed to participate, without really knowing what would be required. The principals agreed because they thought the project would help their students. All of the pilot schools were Schoolwide Title I, rural, and majority African American.
Based on a review of the literature and with input from pilot teachers and SEARCH’s advisory board, project staff developed a nontraditional screening procedure to use for identification. All students were screened individually in their kindergarten year with four assessments: the Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices (Raven, 1976), Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement (Torrance, 1981), a teacher assessment checklist (Orth, 1986), and a peer nomination interview (Hensel, 1991). Three cohorts of students were identified as potentially gifted based on results of their individual assessments, and these targeted students were followed throughout the project. The percentage of each school population identified ranged from 10-15%.
Along with the identification component of Project SEARCH came the development of an ongoing, sustained program of teacher training. Summer institutes, workshops and professional meetings, ongoing coaching/consultation with a master teacher, whole group meetings, and classroom demonstrations provided teachers with the opportunity to learn new strategies, implement the new strategies in their classrooms, reflect on their practice, and engage in dialogue with others in similar contexts. Curriculum was developed and piloted in classroom demonstrations and became the basis for assisting teachers in deepening their understanding of what “gifted and talented” lessons might look like with their students.
One of the early issues that project staff and pilot teachers had to struggle with was the non-prescriptive nature of the teacher training. While the project staff came into the project with clear notions about the presence of giftedness in all segments of the population, they did not come in with a recipe or cookie cutter approach to finding and serving these under-identified students. Working through the ambiguities of multiple possibilities, and allowing for an evolution of ideas was essential but extraordinarily difficult. The pilot teachers were accustomed to being directed and told what approaches worked best. They had a difficult time shifting to the role of decision-maker and problem-solver.
The model for nurturing the gifts and talents of Project SEARCH students gradually evolved out of the teacher training, pilot curriculum, and identification components of the project. Developing an inclusive model was much more difficult than anticipated. Working to change classroom practices of a diverse group of teachers, each with his/her own philosophy of education, was a process that took time and sustained effort. The level of learning and change that occurred depended on the teacher’s receptivity and the school environment’s support for risk-taking.
If this article sounds similar to what you do with your students in your gifted class, then you’re beginning to understand this journey. Undertaking a project such as this requires an understanding of the organic nature of change and a high level of patience and persistence. Mistakes are inevitable and must be used as springboards for learning. As Michael Fullan says in his discussion of change, “Problems are our friends” (1993).
The first mistake of Project SEARCH staff was belief in a magic bullet: the first Summer Institute. The proposed plan was based on the premise that the pilot school teachers would gather together during the first summer of the project and develop the model that would be the foundation of Project SEARCH. What happened? Only a handful of teachers and one of the three principals participated in the institute. Thus, lesson one was revealed: Teacher ownership is crucial.
The next mistake was underestimating the effects of a non-prescriptive approach. Project staff strongly supported the assumption that a non-prescriptive, context-responsive approach works best. However, when everyone is making his/her own path, finding his/her own way, how is progress towards project goals best assessed? How does a project end with results that are generalizable or replicable when the approach is non-prescriptive? How can teachers be convinced to shift their roles from trainees to learners? Project staff came to understand that clarity with teachers about how the teachers’ classes would look and feel at the end of the project was essential. Teachers began to see what needed to be different about their teaching as their understanding of the desired project outcomes deepened. This mistake helped project staff devise a pilot curriculum that could be used across project classrooms. The pilot curriculum enhanced the nontraditional efforts used in identification and strengthened teachers’ understanding of “gifted and talented strategies.” The next lesson was that a nonprescriptive approach requires ongoing communication and strong support and encouragement for teachers.
From these mistakes, we created systems that successfully identify poor African American children and promote the use of gifted and talented strategies in regular classrooms. One Project SEARCH teacher commented, “Participating in this project is like getting paid to get an education.” Project staff found substantive evidence that rural African American children are gifted and identifiable, but the process takes time, labor, and multiple ways of looking at children. A promising identification practice that emerged was the use of student portfolios. Student work samples were collected across project classes from tasks in the pilot curriculum. Establishing a rubric and assessing these portfolios was another way to find exceptional students.
Identification and labeling students as gifted began to lessen in importance as this project progressed. Many in gifted education are advocating for a broadened view of giftedness, but most continue to focus on methods of identification. Why not focus more on curriculum and instruction? Why not shift to a focus on building on students’ strengths? (Renzulli, 1994). Why not work to improve the intellectual quality of the student’s experience (Newmann, Secada, & Wehlage, 1995)? Project staff began to see the critical need to provide rich, challenging curriculum and instruction for all children, including the gifted. Challenging the student who scores in the 96th percentile on a Torrance test of creativity is just as important as challenging the student who has an IQ of 146. Providing for the student who can read and write music is as crucial as accelerating the first grader who is ready for algebra.
When it comes to changing teachers’ practices, schoolwide involvement is essential. The culture of the school ultimately shapes the classroom environment. Recognition of the classroom teacher’s reality means recognition of the obstacles a teacher faces when trying to change his/her practice. These realities include a lack of time for preparation and reflection and the measure of a teacher’s worth by his/her “control” of his/her students (Lieberman & Miller, 1990). Teachers’ fear of failure is an obstacle for experimentation with innovative instruction. Strong support must be in place if the teacher is to step into the unfamiliar territory of new and innovative teaching strategies.
While Project SEARCH’s results were not based on a flawless research design, the changes that occurred were quite positive. The consulting teacher model developed as part of the project has continued to be used in project schools, supported by the local school district’s Title I monies. The model is viable for students in the top quartile as well as the bottom quartile. The project’s standardized tests scores indicate some positive achievement gains, supporting the use of this model with all students (O’Tuel, 1995). In fact, when federal funding of Project SEARCH ended in September 1995, the local Title I director funded continuation of the consulting teacher, the teacher training, and support materials. This continued support and partnership with Title I has benefitted gifted students as well as students who are low achievers.
Another positive change has been the local district’s use of the Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices as another tool in the identification process. The Raven’s has helped to identify more gifted African American students and gifted English-as-a-Second-Language students. The project has resulted in increased interest around the state in identifying underrepresented gifted students. Further, the local district has planned and implemented a summer enrichment program for potentially gifted youngsters, including those in Project SEARCH. The project staff secured outside funding for a third summer institute for project teachers and G/T teachers from around the state. Some teachers participated for the third summer in a row!
The changes in teachers’ practices have been more subtle. Several of the teachers have emerged as leaders in their schools. Two teachers enrolled in Master’s degree programs during the project. One teacher who had been very traditional in her instructional approach has embraced the “gifted and talented” approach of the project’s consulting teacher, and they continue to work together closely. Model classrooms have been established in each of the project schools to serve as places in the school for teacher professional development through modeling and coaching.
What is gained through a project such as this? How do projects like this strengthen efforts for gifted education? Aside from the direct impact on students, the most valuable aspect of this project is the education for those involved. Over 30 teachers and principals had the opportunity to learn about how to do a better job of teaching their potentially gifted students. The partnerships formed among classroom teachers, G/T teachers and staff, and Title I teachers and staff created a more focused effort in improving the education of all students, including those who are gifted and talented.