Why gifted education looks a lot like higher education: A Guest Blog

This guest blog comes to us from Chicago Now's Gifted Matter's blogger, Rhonda Stern, appearing September 3, 2013, on Evocations, my blog at Shimer College. Even though it focuses on Shimer and gifted education, it strikes me as only polite to post it here as well -- and the themes will be of interest to readers of this blog I am sure! 

No.  I don’t know Kevin Bacon, but I do like the spirit of this concept.  I’m a former lawyer/mediator turned educator who works with gifted students and sees some key connections between the philosophies of gifted education and philosophies of  higher education.  To be clear, when I refer to gifted students, I’m thinking about intense and exceedingly bright elementary students, students who march up to teachers and want to discuss the stock market, a principle of physics, or War of the Worlds.  The type who look for invasive plants during recess.  Or those who elect to dress up as Shakespeare or Einstein for Halloween.

Why was I attracted to this type of education?   I want to work with students who are curious and love to question, challenge, experiment and debate.    And I wanted them to study complex materials, like the classics, and value inquiry.  I’ve never advocated teaching to high stakes testing.  My goal was to teach gifted students how to think (hopefully the Common Core Standards will promote this, but it’s too soon to tell) and how to contribute to their community.   In my personal experience and from what I’ve read about Shimer, this approach mirrors a liberal arts education.  There’s a natural link to the Shimer blog:  Six degrees of Shimer.  You get the point.  Gifted and Shimer are related.

Six degrees of Shimer:  critical thinking is the first shared connection.  Take a look at Professor Kotsko’s letter on the Shimer website.  Faculty strives to provide students with an opportunity to develop as fully as possible as thinkers and citizens.”  In fact, my colleagues and I turned—and continue to turn--to pedagogies and works from higher education.  In large part, we taught critical thinking through literature.  Students analyzed:  To Kill a Mockingbird, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, the Great Gilly Hopkins, the Giver--even Encyclopedia Brown.   As early as first grade, our students were thinking about abstract, universal themes: tolerance, freedom, survival, identity, systems, patterns and hope.

Six degrees of Shimer—another connection:  teach students to question.  I leaned on my experiences as a lawyer and a mediator when facilitating “Fairy Tales on Trial.  Third grade students asked questions, just as a good lawyer or mediator would.  They debated whether Rapunzel had been kidnapped and what was the defendant’s motive to lock Rapunzel in the tower.   They were analyzing underlying issues, or what I like to call, “peeling the onion.”

Six degrees of Shimer:  teach students how to learn on their own, to become life long learners.   I did not know that sequels had been written to Roll of Thunder and the Giver, but my students found this out.  On their own time, they read the sequels and reported on them.  The students were so involved with these books and their sequels that when the stories were presented as plays, we went to see them.  As John Randolph wisely said, “all of us have two educations, one which we receive from others and another and more valuable, which we give ourselves.”  Gifted students like to apply, extend, and synthesize their learning.  Their minds are always working.

Six degrees of Shimer:  another shared philosophy: development of voice.  Few elementary students enjoy expository writing, but gifted educators do want students to find their “voice,” to understand that their opinion has value.  There is no better way to show them this than to introduce them to Tinker v. Des Moines.  In Tinker, high school students wore armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.  Some of those students were suspended; their parents challenged the suspensions.  The case went all of the way to the United States Supreme Court.  The Court’s holding affirmed student expression under the First Amendment:  “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  Inspiring!

Six degrees of Shimer:  citizenship.  Like Dewy and the faculty at Shimer, we want our students to contribute to the community.  A strong sense of morality is a gifted trait.  Gifted students love advocating for a cause.  They become totally engaged when solving real world problems.  One of my students founded a company to feed children in Ghana.  Others felt empowered tackling climate change, building alternative sources of energy, like solar ovens and wind turbines.  We worked on environmental issues for a number of years.  One year in particular, our students won top honors for their work; they made an i-movie on the climate change threat that was presented to District staff, at various elementary schools, and to teachers and middle school students at National Louis University.

Given all of the time devoted to standardized testing in elementary and high school, there is a concern that the purpose behind K-12 education is “muddled.”  Right now, higher education serves as the beacon for fostering critical thinking and citizenship, for nurturing lifelong learners.  Is gifted education connected to (Six degrees of) Shimer?  I think so.


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    I truly think that we have really many gifted and talented young boys and girls. The main goal of a teacher is to explore the talents a child have and find a way to develop then. I am sure that each and every of us is unique in something. Some write excellent short stories (read more that can compete with the most famous authors today. Other count without a help of calculator and something that is very difficult for others seems very simple to them. So how should a teacher understand that he is dealing with a gifted child?

  • You being a former lawyer/mediator have given up such beautiful article. I hope it all works out well for you. Great Article. Great Read. Thanks.

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    The document can be deemed worthless when the graduate cannot find the desired job for which he/she has studied. It is even worse when the graduated student finds that they are worse off than when they started college.

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    The suggestion is of unpolished writing. The service is available to participating high schools and colleges. Once your writer has finished researching your paper and submits a final draft, you have the option to request revisions within the original guidelines of the paper you would like to see. Adapted from sara lawrence-lightfoot, I've known rivers: lives of loss and liberation.

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    We all know that the talented young boys and girls are a guarantee of our future. Study is a great work for each of us and to reach your goals you need to work hard and purposefully go to your goals. Site which helps me (speedypaper review) . I am very grateful to this site :)

  • You have very interestingly described your point of view on this question, but it seems to me that you have complicated everything too much. Everything is much simpler, although in general I support your main idea, you can read this article and maybe you will change your mind.

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    Shimerprez is the 14th president of Shimer College at 35th and State. She also blogs at the Huffington Post and at a Shimer Blog called Evocations which can be found on line at blog.shimer.edu/provocations/. She is a University of Chicago Ph.D. who works on religion, the social sciences, gender and sexuality. She reads murder mysteries, is fascinated by the world of food, and also loves the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York.

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