Have you ever read an article or watched the news and wondered what precipitated an event or issue?
Why did Columbine happen? How did the standoff with David Koresh begin? The Oklahoma City bombing? Why is violence so prevalent in our society? What’s with all the protocols for the British Royal family? The lack of funding in education, how did that happen? The pro-life or pro-choice movements–what values brought about that split in thinking? Why did the city choose to put in a road a particular way that drives you nuts? A book you really got into–what made the author choose to write it?
You’re looking for connections. And for gifted learners, connections are everything.
Over dinner last night, my boyfriend and I got into a conversation about “sage on the stage” educators and how effective that style of teaching is. Our teachers at the high school level and in some college classes used a lecture format infused with some discussion to disseminate information to us, expecting that we would memorize information and be able to regurgitate it on tests.
I remember vividly taking notes, frantically writing down names and dates and events during lecture in my high school American History class. I remember making piles and piles of notecards to help me memorize who did what when and where because that was what had been communicated as important: the names, the dates, and the events. We didn’t discuss much that I recall (though others might remember it differently), but I know that this style of teaching, without an opportunity to process those names and dates and events in a way that created some sort of hook or story I could follow, some connection for me, created a loathing and disinterest of American History (and later American Literature because it was taught much the same way by a college professor) that still impacts me.
For a gifted learner, connections are how sense is made of things in the world. They want to know why about everything…and one question leads to others, often seemingly unrelated:
- Why do Peeps swordfight when you stick toothpicks in them and put them in the microwave?
- Why does the moon seem bigger or closer at certain times of the year if its orbit doesn’t change?
- Why does daylight savings time exist at all?
- Why are the Palestinians and Jews fighting?
- Why were some against slavery and some wanted it to continue? Why did Americans think it was okay to begin with?
- Why does a particular type of person become a beloved president by some and reviled by others?
- Why is race still such a big deal in the US? In other countries?
- Why does the economy going to hell in one country matter to any other?
- Why do people keep bringing up Ayn Rand and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when talking about what’s happening in our country?
I love teaching language arts, in part because I love words, but also because it touches every subject area. When I taught a novel, I often looked into what was going on at the time it was written or the time period in which it was set and encouraged my students to do the same to have a better understanding of the story. One can learn an awful lot about history through literature. We’d talk about the social structures within a book and the values of the characters and discuss why or how they said or did particular things. We made conjectures about upbringing, societal norms, and compared and contrasted those with what we know or do today or those in other novels or short stories we read. The fantasy books kids devoured were fascinating to pull connections out of because so much of the story was rooted in real life. When we discussed poetry, we talked about meter and rhyme and the math and science behind it, why some words change their pronunciation to meet the needs of a particular line, how the words are arranged to serve a variety of purposes, and why the poet might have written it at all. I pulled non-fiction pieces that tied to subjects discussed in books or poems for us to review, and students researched important events, places, and people to write about while they proposed their own connections between ideas.
I did many of the same things when I presented history, sharing it with kids as a story so that they could build connections between dates, people, and events and geography, politics, religion, economics, scientific thinking, and mathematical practice. We tied lifeskills lessons into history: how did the big idea of power impact society during the middle ages or Colorado’s early history and how does it impact our classroom community now? Very little of my time in any class was spent lecturing and requiring kids to take notes. I tried to provide opportunities for kids to experience the content, discuss it, tear it apart, question it, and understand it so that they could apply it to the next level of study.
Science and math were more difficult for me because neither is my area of passion or expertise, but there’s a way to create connection there too, though hands-on explorations, research of theories and ideas, and talking to people who use the skills kids are learning in their everyday jobs. We skyped with engineers, talked with people from the city utility company, and took a mock mission to space. We studied the evolution of scientific thinking and how particular algorithms were developed and what they’re used for. There’s a place for paper and pencil practice of math as well as documentation of experiments and notetaking with memorization, of course, but that can’t be all a child experiences in math and science classes. If I were in the classroom now, I’d be doing quite a bit of refining in how my science and math classes were organized to allow for more opportunities for kids to go beyond the steps of the experiment or algorithm to explore connections in these areas.
Some would say that the way I taught and the informal assessments I used weren’t best practice because they aren’t rooted in hard data: the number of questions that addressed particular pieces of information answered correctly vs. those answered incorrectly. Hard data has a place in tracking progress, of course, but learning is a process, not a regurgitation of information. It’s cyclical: how a child accesses the information they’ve been introduced to and uses that knowledge to communicate their understanding over time is far more valuable data than hard numbers in a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks progress on daily quizzes over yesterday’s material. My experience is that they take that understanding with them and use it in other situations…and that’s what we want, isn’t it?
It breaks my heart when I hear middle and high school teachers talk about how great their lecture went but they can’t understand why so many bombed the quiz or gripe about how kids aren’t learning what they so carefully presented through a powerpoint and complaining about how notetaking skills suck because it doesn’t follow the format they want used (even if the notes totally make sense to the child). Their kids, particularly the gifted ones, are being denied a tremendous opportunity to understand content by experiencing it…not just having it presented. Thankfully, many of the teachers I know who teach at these levels have further developed their practice and now incorporate more research opportunities, discussion with complex questioning, role play, debate, and Socratic seminars, and active learning experiences to facilitate the understanding of their content area, not simply learning the information. Their assessments require the demonstration of understanding and connections between ideas, not the simple regurgitation of bits of information.
When we choose to become teachers, for most of us, it’s not about simply sharing what we, as adults, have already learned. It’s about facilitating the understanding of the world around us so that kids can go on to improve it.