In 2017, the Center for Talent Development is proud to celebrate its 35th anniversary as an international leader in serving gifted and talented students.
So, it’s particularly fitting that this issue of Talent features Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, CTD’s founding director and renowned authority on best practices in curriculum for gifted and talented learners. Dr. VanTassel-Baska is perhaps best known for her development of the Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM), an approach for teaching gifted students in a way that is sensitive to their learning needs. The ICM is based on research that indicates―for optimal development―gifted and talented students require the combination of advanced content; problem solving, critical thinking and creativity; and the application of those skills to a project or product.
Based on the ICM, Dr. VanTassel-Baska and the team at William & Mary developed comprehensive, award-winning curricula across all major disciplines and grade levels, used to teach hundreds of thousands of high-ability K‒12 learners around the world for the past 25 years. The team then followed up with those practitioners to find out how this curriculum model has worked for them and their students. To help us understand how the ICM model adapts to the classroom, Dr. Kimberley Chandler, director of curriculum at William & Mary, also provides her insights in this issue regarding best practices in language arts and how we should prepare today’s gifted and talented students for tomorrow’s jobs.
One of our many goals at the Center for Talent Development is to conduct research and to identify best practices for serving advanced students, both inside and outside the classroom. Whether you’re an educator or parent, I encourage you to seek out programs for your students that reflect the principles, research, and best practices explored in Talent.
We look forward to helping the academically talented students in your life reach their potential at one of our weekend, summer, or online programs soon.
Director, Center for Talent Development
Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska is the Jody and Layton Smith Emerita Professor from the School of Education at William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA. A former teacher, state gifted coordinator, and founding director of both Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development and the William & Mary Center for Gifted Education, Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska is the author of more than 30 books and 600 articles, book chapters, and reports, and is the recipient of numerous awards. She spent her career serving gifted and talented children, with the past 25 years dedicated to designing and developing award-winning content-based curriculum. The 3rd edition of her highly acclaimed book, Content-Based Curriculum for High-Ability Learners, co-edited with Catherine Little from the University of Connecticut, has just now been released.
“Lifelong learning is the application of new knowledge to existing schemata of concepts,” says Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska.
This philosophy provided the underpinnings of Dr. VanTassel-Baska’s Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM), which she developed more than 30 years ago. The ICM is a multi-disciplinary framework for delivering curriculum to gifted students, based on research that suggests the most effective curriculum for gifted students includes three important dimensions:
“To serve gifted and talented learners best, these dimensions shouldn’t compete with one another, nor should we choose one over the other―we should use all of them in an integrated way to provide the richest curriculum base we possibly can,” says Dr. VanTassel-Baska. “It’s not sufficient to merely accelerate students, nor is it sufficient to focus only on higher-order skills, nor to have students engage only in project-based learning or seminar-based discussions.”
Because she feels so strongly about the ICM integrated approach to curriculum , Dr. VanTassel-Baska focused her efforts over the past 25 years, using ICM as the foundation to design standards-aligned curriculum units through the William & Mary Center for Gifted Education. Experience has found that the ICM model is appropriate for core areas, such as language arts, science, math, and social studies, and flexible enough for developing foreign language, the arts, and affective curricula as well. Because the units are content-based and organized around higher-level skills, student experiences are combined, compressed, and compacted—yet remain in sync with national and state education standards, such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or the College and Career Readiness (CCR) anchor standards. Companion tools for classroom instruction include Jacob’s Ladder, a reading comprehension and higher-level thinking program developed for use in Title I schools, and various models that elevate thinking such as the 8-Step Research Model, and Paul’s Reasoning Model.
Ongoing research and data collection on the effectiveness of the ICM and the William & Mary curriculum units for students and educators is important to Dr. VanTassel-Baska. Through the years, the curricula have been tested with different types of populations in many types of settings, including Title I schools and inclusive classrooms. Results have included growth gains in reading comprehension, literary analysis, and critical thinking across grade levels and socio-economic lines for the language arts units and significant gains in scientific thinking for the science units.
Thus, being attuned to new research and new perspectives provided the impetus for co-editors Drs. VanTassel-Baska and Little to update their book, Content-Based Curriculum for High-Ability Learners, and re-release it in 2017.
“We asked practitioners who’ve been using this curriculum model for 25 years to talk about what has worked well for them—and their voices are heard in this new edition. This provides an important way to frame the curriculum in ways not previously explored,” says Dr. VanTassel-Baska.
“We also know more about the flexibility and utility of the model now more than ever,” she says. That includes extending the model both upward into college and downward into early childhood. Extending the curriculum to the university level provides continuity between high school and college, and a framework for how to organize university honors courses. New features extend the focus beyond cognitive development, and offer a curriculum for affective development, particularly the guidance and counseling of gifted learners.
“‘Leadership’ is also a topic that has not been given a lot of attention, as it doesn’t exactly fit with common core, yet is very important to high-ability learners,” Dr. VanTassel-Baska says. “As a concept, there are common generalizations around leadership, which gifted and talented students need to understand. One of the underlying generalizations is that leadership varies by field, so it’s important for students to understand being a leader in science may not require the same skills as a leader in politics, for example. While some skills are common to both professions, they are not always the same.
“Leadership also requires vision: People who are effective leaders tend to be more visionary than those who are not. By studying people like Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, students come to realize that a vision can persuade and motivate people to social action.”
When districts use the ICM-based William & Mary Curriculum over a multi-year span, high-level concepts may be reiterated, but the nature of the learning is not redundant. For example, students may study the concept of change for multiple years in language arts, but the nature of what they understand about the concept expands exponentially and becomes more integrated as they delve deeper into it over time.
“As with any mega-concept, the applications are endless—and new applications emerge as new discoveries and ideas evolve. There is a never-ending supply of ways students can study concepts that will challenge and interest them over the years,” she says.
When schools decide to implement new curriculum, Dr. VanTassel-Baska recommends that the facilitation of a new approach be gradual over time. It’s important to provide materials to demonstrate the change, organize professional development for teachers, and collect research data to show the new approach works with gifted learners in different classrooms at different stages of development in different areas.
“I feel strongly that districts need to develop a scope and sequence for gifted learners all the way through their educational journey, so that the accrual of appropriate curriculum is available at every stage of development. Research suggests that if students are exposed to differentiated units of study over multiple years, they grow more than if just exposed to it in one year. There is significant advantage in continuing to engage in more challenging work over time,” says Dr. VanTassel-Baska.
Dr. VanTassel-Baska also suggests that alternative assessments need to be developed and implemented to gauge student achievement, such as performance-based or portfolio-based approaches, rather than traditional standards testing models.
Overall, Dr. VanTassel-Baska is proud of the accomplishments the gifted education profession has made to date. “I feel strongly that our field has made so much progress based on very little funding and resources—that it’s miraculous in what we’ve been able to achieve,” she says. The research accomplished through the Jacob Javits grant program and organizations such as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation have made a huge difference in the lives of many high-ability students in many districts, particularly in underserved areas.
However, as a society, we have more work to do in providing appropriate educational opportunities for gifted and talented learners.
“It’s frustrating that we still haven’t obtained widespread acceptance of addressing the needs of gifted and talented learners. We need a plan at the local level that is executed with regularity in addressing their needs. There needs to be a system to facilitate change. One-offs are not effective.”
However, thanks to the commitment of scholars, educators, and parents like Dr. VanTassel-Baska, there are more opportunities for high-ability learners to achieve their potential than ever before.
“My feeling is that if you put out a full curriculum buffet at the table, you at least give students the opportunity to choose from those options the things they are most interested in, attracted to, or proficient in—setting the stage for positive things to happen,” she says.
“But if you don’t provide those opportunities, the likelihood of growth happening is diminished considerably.”
Dr. Kimberley Chandler, director of curriculum at the William & Mary Center for Gifted Education, spends her days developing curricula for high-ability learners and educating administrators and teachers on best practices for teaching gifted children. She shares her insights on the latest trends in language arts curricula.
Tell us about the William & Mary Language Arts Curriculum and why it’s unique.
There’s a wide range of language arts curricula being implemented in schools today, including some still based on the basal (“base” or “basic”) reading approach introduced in the 19th century. This approach focuses on short stories or books, with workbooks, assessments, and activities for a specific reading level. However, research has shown that gifted learners need more than rote material and THE regurgitation of facts.
At William & Mary, we’ve developed a comprehensive, K–12 curriculum spanning multiple grade levels, specifically for use in gifted classrooms; it is based on overarching concepts and focuses on all the skills students need, such as literary analysis, argumentative writing, oral presentation skills, and research. We’ve conducted our own research that indicates that these units are effective over time.
What are the skills gifted and talented students should be practicing in their language arts classes?
It’s essential for gifted and talented students to read, analyze, interpret, and formulate their own ideas about what they’re reading and to make connections to other disciplines. They need to explore the feelings of the characters, structure of the work, and the main ideas being presented. And, all children, particularly gifted children, should be learning how to conduct research. I’m shocked to find out that some secondary students are not being taught how to conduct research in today’s classrooms.
Today, many students come away from their current literature classes with a superficial understanding of the material, with no literary analysis skills. Or, they are forced to read chapter by chapter as a group and then answer a lengthy list of questions. This kills the love of learning.
Why is it important for gifted learners to connect to other disciplines?
A gifted child has the ability to think in complex ways. Students need to be able to take the analytical skills learned in language arts and apply them to other disciplines like social studies, science, and math. That provides a genuine versus contrived experience and allows them to delve into understanding high-level concepts.
For example, the William & Mary language arts units are organized around overarching concepts, such as change, perspective, utopia, and time. These concepts are relevant to all disciplines. Using the combination of overarching concepts, advanced content, and critical thinking, all part of VanTassel-Baska’s Integrated Curriculum Model, a language arts unit has relevance in the real world.
How can parents of gifted students find out more about their child’s language arts curriculum at school, particularly if they feel it might not be meeting the needs of their child?
It’s important to always start with your child’s teacher; they are the first point of contact. Request a conference and say, “I’d like to know more about what you’re doing in language arts.” Don’t say, “My child is bored.” At the meeting, get a good understanding of what is being implemented both at the district, school, and classroom levels. Ask to see the course syllabus. Listen for what the teacher is asking children to do: Is it substantive or busy work? Parents should not be afraid to politely ask probing questions about what types of fiction their child is reading, how the teacher is assessing comprehension and connections, and what they should expect to see coming home.
What advice do you have for parents to support or enrich their child’s language arts curriculum at home?
For parents to be successful, the teacher first needs to communicate what he or she is trying to accomplish.
Parents or guardians should read the novels their child is reading and talk with them about what they’re reading at school. Are there particular issues being brought up in the literature? As families watch TV or participate in social media, parents might discuss issues that tie to concepts their child is studying.
Also, I believe it’s important to get children to practice writing whenever possible. One way to help a struggling writer is to have them correspond with a family or friend over e-mail. Help them understand there are different types of writing—e-mail, blogs, instant message, formal papers—and model appropriate writing styles. Also, as you read with your child, point out interesting features in the author’s style and encourage your child to emulate them in his or her writing.
Any advice for those who have reluctant readers?
One of the hardest things about reading instruction is that it might be hard to get a child engaged in a classic novel, for example, but he or she can zip through a book on World War II in minutes. That’s why it’s important to understand a child’s passions and to find the right balance between their passions and material they need to cover in school. Helping them understand what’s interesting about a certain genre and how reading reinforces those passions can create an important connection. We need to keep in mind that it’s not a teacher’s job to make every child love every piece they read, but to help them appreciate it.
What’s on the horizon for language arts in the next 10 years? What should administrators, educators, and parents prepare for as we look ahead?
Non-fiction is moving to the forefront, so we will see more non-fiction pieces and analysis in our language arts units.
Also, technology is one of our biggest challenges right now. There’s a difference between just posting existing materials online (substitution) and fully integrating technology into the curriculum. To integrate technology fully, there are many factors to consider: analyzing the implications of an ever-changing web, ensuring the vibrant discussion component translates to an online format for a K-12 audience, providing a variety of engaging activities, and leveraging other available technology.
There are some wonderful tools available on the web, which serve as companions to our units. For example, No Red Ink conducts diagnostic, prescriptive grammar testing, based on individual student interests; Typing.com teaches keyboarding skills; and Newsela offers non-fiction selections differentiated by different Lexile levels.
Providing fully integrated technology into language arts curricula will be a monumental accomplishment. An online language arts curriculum offers tremendous promise on multiple levels: All gifted children, even those in rural areas where access is difficult, will have language arts programs tailored to their needs, and those gifted and talented children who may otherwise go unnoticed will have the opportunity to be identified.
Ultimately, what are we trying to do for our students and children? What’s the end game?
We’re preparing today’s students for jobs we don’t know will exist even five years from now. So, whether it’s 2017 or 2090, basic skills—reading, analyzing, interpreting, and writing―will always be important. Our job is to foster a love of reading and to develop those basic skills that will translate to any career or field.
From an idealistic perspective, my hope is that children will develop a love of reading. There is a tremendous amount of wonderful literature out there—both fiction and non-fiction—that children should be exposed to and learn to appreciate.