Homeschooling for Talent Development in Gifted Students
PERSPECTIVES – News and Comments1
Cindy M. Felso
Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Many options for gifted education remain rooted in research stemming from the early 1900s and share a common view of giftedness as a somewhat static concept. Recently, another framework for gifted education has come to the forefront—talent development—based on a view of giftedness as malleable and fluid. In the talent development framework, the specific gifts and talents of individual students are identified and nurtured in order to guide students toward a full realization of their potential. In addition, key personal attributes such as perseverance and self-confidence are carefully cultivated as necessary factors in order to reach full potential. As the student ages, the measure of giftedness focuses on true achievement rather than measures of ability, such as IQ scores. The end goal of talent development is productivity and eminence within a given field of talent. At the heart of talent development lies a need for gifted students to be well known by educators and family members who can identify specific talents as well as provide a pathway and active guidance toward talent development. Home educators are in a unique position to make the most of the talent development paradigm in their roles as both parents and educators. This article examines the role of home education in talent development with a particular focus on mathematical talent development.
Keywords: gifted, homeschooling, talent development, mathematical talent
Gifted education has a been a field of interest in the United States for a long time, dating back more than 100 years to the establishment of the first schools for particularly bright students (Plucker & Callahan, 2014). Scientific study of giftedness arose out of general interest in the topic, beginning with Galton’s (1869) Hereditary Genius (often cited as the first scientific study of high ability), and continuing with studies such as Hollingworth’s (1926) study of gifted New York City students and Terman’s (1926) longitudinal study of high IQ.
Along with scientific study came funding that led to the development of research programs on gifted education at major research universities, as well as at the national level (such as the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, in the 1990s). Today, gifted education is a field represented by many research journals and professional organizations advocating on behalf of gifted students’ needs.
Traditional Approaches to Gifted Education
Traditionally, gifted education in the United States has been based on a view of giftedness as a group of “static traits” that includes high IQ. In this view, giftedness is something which you “have or do not [have]” (Olszewski-Kubilius & Thomson, 2015, p.51). It can also exist with or without accompanying achievement, as in the common stereotype of the gifted underachiever. Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) pointed out that in addition to the cognitive traits associated with the static model, certain psychosocial dimensions, such as emotional challenges or asynchrony, have been viewed as attributes of all gifted learners.
Plucker and Callahan (2014) explained that programs for gifted learners having their basis in the static view usually provide for gifted students through the use of one of three routes: acceleration, enrichment, or specialized programs. Aside from particular program differences, all of these routes share the common goal of protection, in that they are not designed with an end goal in mind as much as protection from such things as boredom in everyday classroom situations, underachievement, or uncomfortable mismatches between gifted students and their non-gifted peers.
The Talent Development Approach
At the turn of the 21st century, another model for giftedness emerged–talent development—that no longer viewed giftedness as static and held a particular end goal in mind.
One of the earliest talent development models was Barab and Plucker’s (2002) model based on talent developed through an interaction between the individual and his or her environmental and sociocultural contexts. In this model, the end goal was solving real-world problems. Only if advanced learners had their talents fostered would they be able to develop their full potential and go on to solve real world problems.
On the basis of such early models came today’s talent development models, in which giftedness is viewed as potential and achievement as its measure. As Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell (2012) explained, in the most recent models talent is only the starting point that indicates potential for giftedness. The true mark of giftedness can only be seen through achievement that leads to eminence in a particular area or areas. From this vantage point, gifted education should be aimed at helping individual students discover and hone their talents (potential) in order to fully realize their giftedness through the achievement of eminence.
The talent development model stands in bold contrast to previous static models, as it views giftedness as something that cannot exist apart from achievement and views psychosocial factors as malleable and arising from the individual’s interaction with the environment, rather than inherent in the gifted learner. Though acceleration, enrichment, and specialized programs may still play a part in talent development, they are only seen as tools to help guide the individual toward the end goal of achievement and eminence. Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) proposed implementation of the talent development model that focuses on four key areas: early enrichment and acceleration; assessment; authentic experiences; and development of social, emotional, and psychological skills.
Implementing a Talent Development Approach Early Enrichment and Acceleration
Although there is no one correct path in the talent development model, Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) explained that an enriched environment from a student’s earliest school experiences is required if natural talent is going to be allowed to emerge and develop. For the youngest children this environment will ideally expose them to many domains of talent in challenging ways so that as they develop interest and motivation based on content, parents and educators can identify emerging abilities. For elementary and middle school students, acceleration can be offered in addition to enrichment, exposing students to deeper content knowledge with the goal of revealing emerging talents. Forms of acceleration include advanced classes in addition to subject and grade acceleration. Additionally, at the elementary and middle school levels, participation in school clubs and competitions can foster talent development and the recognition of particular talents in students.
Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) explained that assessment in the talent development model needs to be quite different from that of traditional gifted programs. Rather than assessing students for high IQ or other indicators of giftedness up front, the model is best carried out when assessment of student talents occurs after enrichment or acceleration so that emergent talent is given a chance to develop.
In addition, assessment needs to be ongoing in order to ascertain how well a student is developing in areas of talent and whether or not adjustments need to be made in methodology, content exposure, or pacing. Subotnik et all. (2012) recommended that assessment be authentic in that it is tied directly to the talent area being assessed. They explained that in performance domains, such as artistic and athletic production, demonstration of specific talents is generally measured in the context of performances. This stands in contrast to typical measures for gifted children based on standardized testing that measure potential rather than demonstrated achievement. Subotnik et al. (2012) suggested assessment of actual achievements in fields of talent by those with competencies in those fields. For example, they suggested that students with artistic talent should be assessed by professional artists through examination of the students’ portfolios and projects representing their art form.
In contrast to the current climate for advanced students at higher levels that focuses on AP and IB courses, Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) suggested that students nurtured within a talent development model must be given opportunities to pursue their special interests under the guidance of adult professionals in their talent domains. This can take the form of independent projects or mentorships in which students are actively working with someone in their field of talent to conduct research or work on real-life applications in that area. For secondary students, this will also mean exposure to deeper study in subjects that are often not offered until college, such as engineering or sociology.
In their discussion of authentic experiences, Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) pointed out research that has shown that participation in a “high STEM dose” of pre-college educational activities (such as competitions and academic clubs under the guidance of adult professionals in those areas) was significantly related to a higher rate of notable STEM accomplishments in adulthood. This research, therefore, would seem to indicate that seizing these opportunities for talent development works.
Social, Emotional and Psychological Skills Development
Olszewski-Kubilius and Thomson (2015) explained that under a talent development framework, psychosocial skills are considered essential in order to bring ability and potential into full productivity in adulthood. They also explained that these skills are skills that can be learned and coached. Through verbal interactions and feedback on student assignments and projects, teachers can convey the importance of effort, study, and practice – in addition to ability – in order to reach success. They can also encourage students to take intellectual risks or take on projects a step higher than their current competency level. Additionally, they can model strategies for coping with perceived failures and setbacks.
Building on the premise that developing eminence requires psychosocial strength, Subotnik and Jarvin (2005) have suggested the types and relative importance of various strengths that should be cultivated in gifted learners at each stage of development in order to help them transform abilities into competencies, competencies into expertise, and expertise into eminence. Their argument is based on an assessment in the areas of athletics and the arts where attention is usually focused on creating a healthy climate for top performers through training in such areas as goal setting and behavioral and emotional control. The authors contend that one of the roles of a gifted education teacher is to offer psychological strength training to academically talented students who often live and work in competitive and stressful environments, but rarely have access to psychological coaching.
Home Education for Talent Development
In examining the four major component areas of talent development, two important requirements emerge: (a) the need for active guidance and assessment by a closely involved adult or adults, and (b) access to a rich assortment of diverse learning pathways with flexibility to change paths if necessary. Both of these factors can be difficult to supply in an institutional setting given budget constraints, the heterogeneous populations served, and sometimes inflexible curriculum guidelines.
Winstanley (2009) described institutional settings where gifted children typically face boredom as teachers cope with the heterogeneous mix of their students. She explained that though gifted students often express understanding in such situations, instinctively realizing that their needs are too much to be dealt with in a busy classroom, they still report feeling frustrated with being asked to work quietly to the side or aid other students so that teachers can be freed to work with those needing more help.
Young and Balli (2014) discovered similar sentiments when interviewing gifted students and parents involved in neighborhood schools’ gifted and talented programs. The majority of students were dissatisfied with many expressing frustration at having to sit through lessons they had already mastered, along with enduring regular disruptions in the classroom from
low-achieving students. Parents and students involved with specific gifted and talented magnet schools fared better, but access to such schools is limited by geographical and other factors.
After finding that teachers did not tend to use differentiated instruction for gifted children even when they were aware of the need, Endipohls-Ulpe and Thommes (2014) concluded that teachers are basically unable to cope with heterogeneity in their classrooms, most possibly due to workload. The results of their study led to the hypothesis that measures requiring provision of special learning materials or enhanced monitoring and structuring of children’s individual activities tend to be rejected by teachers in anticipation of too much work.
Endipohls-Ulpe and Thommes (2014) also acknowledged that a standardized school system with a standardized curriculum hinders teachers from putting differentiation into place for gifted students. As Schmoker and Marzano (1999) explained, standardized education is “a major force in education today” (p. 17), making the question of whether or not schools can address the needs of talent development even more critical.
So, it does not appear that enacting a full talent development model within an institutional setting is feasible in most situations due to its requirements for hands-on guidance and curricular flexibility. This leaves a gap to be filled in the lives of gifted learners if they are to be guided through talent development. Parents and mentors can step in to supplement institutional schooling in order to fill the gap, but with children in school upwards of 30 hours per week, there is little time left for supplementation without a loss of leisure time for the student. This leads to the question of whether or not homeschooling might provide a better environment for the talent developmental model.
Ray (2002) contended that when parents are asked to cite reasons for homeschooling, a desire to customize their children’s education is consistently found. He also explained (Ray, 2000) that a high level of parental involvement and a high level of feedback from adults are natural elements of home-based education, describing the typical home education environment as one where individual traits are respected and students can take advantage of the inherent flexibility to pursue areas of interest. Ray (2002) then goes on to describe homeschooling as a “boon for gifted children” (p. 52) who are free to pursue interests without typical time or curriculum constraints and are free to jump into internships, apprenticeships, volunteer service jobs, trade schools, and colleges.
The attributes of homeschooling that Ray (2000, 2002) described fit in perfectly with the talent development model: involved parents who can spot talent and foster growth, flexibility to change paths and curriculum based on ongoing assessment, and the time to pursue authentic experiences. For those families with the economic means to pursue home education, homeschooling can provide an excellent setting for talent development in that it offers the needed flexibility to mold and develop talent under the oversight of parents who can serve as involved guides during the talent development process. Under the tutelage of parents, all four areas of the talent development model can be addressed: seeking and providing opportunities for enrichment and acceleration from the earliest ages, continually assessing student talent and areas of interest through authentic assessment, providing authentic experiences, and psychosocial coaching. The following section takes a closer look at just how talent development can be employed in the home education of a mathematically gifted student.
Home Education for Talent Development of the Mathematically Gifted
So what exactly qualifies a student as mathematically gifted? There is a great variety among mathematically talented students, but, as Rotigel and Fello (2004) explained, there are also several traits that they all seem to share. These traits include a tendency to be “able to see relationships among topics, concepts and ideas without the intervention of formal instruction specifically geared to the particular content” (p. 47), and an ability to come up with answers with unusual speed and accuracy regardless of whether they are presented with problems requiring computation skills, problem-solving strategies, inferential thinking skills, or deductive reasoning.
In light of research that has already shown the success of helping gifted students in STEM areas parlay their abilities into notable STEM accomplishments in adulthood (Wai, Lubinski, Benbow, & Steiger, 2010), mathematically talented students are perfect candidates for a talent development approach and homeschooling offers an excellent environment for putting the approach into place.
Identifying Mathematical Talent
In a study of the role parents play in the education of mathematically gifted students, Bicknell (2014) found that a majority of parents were able to accurately recognize their children’s talent from an early age. Parents in the study noticed an early interest in mathematical subjects, complex construction in building, skill at jigsaw puzzles, a focus on symmetrical patterns, and impressive displays of memory. They also noticed their mathematically gifted children “playing” with numbers in ways that revealed an early understanding of sequence and magnitude. The parents’ success at identification was in keeping with Allan’s (1999) earlier research demonstrating that parents are reliable in identifying specific gifted behaviors in young children. Homeschooling parents of mathematically gifted students can capitalize on this parental ability for early identification in order to commence enrichment or acceleration without the additional hurdle of proving giftedness through the educational system.
Providing Opportunities for Enrichment and Acceleration
Bicknell (2014) also found that parents of mathematically talented students naturally took on the roles of resource providers, learning advisors, and motivators. Homeschooling, led by parents who already naturally adapt to these roles, is a good fit for the enrichment or acceleration of mathematically talented students. Though some homeschooling parents may question whether or not they are qualified to guide their students toward higher levels of mathematical development through enrichment or acceleration, clarification of the role will answer the question. Under the talent development model, their role is simply one of guidance. Their job is only to identify and access enrichment and acceleration opportunities. With the flexibility inherent in homeschooling curriculum and the number of options available, this is a role that parents can confidently fill. In addition to the availability of any number of math curricula, all requiring varying levels of parental support so that parents can find options that work best with their own knowledge levels, many online options also exist that do not rely on parents’ levels of math knowledge.
Online pay enrichment programs can be found in abundance, such as Stanford’s Educational Program for Gifted Youth (www.epgy.stanford.edu) which offers advanced math sequences through the college level which can be completed online from anywhere in the world. Additional accelerated and enriched programming through the college level is available on a pay basis through the regional talent identification programs, such as the Duke Talent Identification Program (www.tip.duke.edu) and the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (www.cty.jhu.edu). Finally, a number of independent programs – such as Art of Problem Solving (artofproblemsolving.com) and McGraw Hill’s adaptive math learning program, Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (www.aleks.com) – are available. All of these programs provide routes for homeschooled students to pursue mathematics at their own pace and level, as well as provide built-in assessment so that parents can be sure of their child’s level.
Additionally, free options exist, such as Art of Problem Solving’s Alcumus (www.artofproblemsolving.com), another adaptive online math learning system, and Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), an online source of video lessons and practice with mathematical concepts through the high school level. For students at the secondary level, additional free acceleration options can be found through complete college coursework offered online by universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Princeton through the Coursera program (www.coursera.org).
The Provision of Authentic Experiences
In the area of authentic experiences, again the homeschool parents’ job is to seek out and provide access to such experiences. With the previously mentioned inherent flexibility in home education, opportunities abound for the provision of authentic experiences. Some of these include math competitions (at local, national, and international levels), local math circles where students are exposed to advanced math topics under the guidance of accomplished mathematicians, online communities with e-mentoring under accomplished adults in the field, and access to mathematical mentors at local colleges and universities.
Just one example in this area will demonstrate the type of opportunities available for mathematically talented homeschoolers regardless of geographic location. By participating in the Art of Problem Solving’s Worldwide Online Olympiad Training, homeschooled students can participate from anywhere in the world and train in advanced mathematical problem solving under the guidance of mathematicians who have won prestigious national and international contests in mathematics. In addition, many advanced mathematics camps exist at both local and national levels where students can gain the experience of working on real-life math problems under the guidance of some of the top mathematical minds in the world.
Guiding Social, Emotional, and Psychological Development
As mentioned earlier, Subotnik and Rickoff (2010) contend that just as athletes are coached in the mental toughness skills that they will need for success, gifted students must be coached in key psychosocial skills by parents, teachers, or counselors. According to Olszewski-Kubilius, Subotnik and Worrell (2015), gifted students need to learn coping skills in order “to manage stress and pressure, performance anxiety, and threats to their self-confidence…” [as well as] “to deal with perfectionistic tendencies” (Olszewski-Kubilius et al., p.150). Home educators Olszewski are in a unique position as live-in coaches for their children who can tend to the psychosocial on both a daily and long-term basis, as well as incorporate key aspects of this coaching within everyday instruction from the earliest of ages. This applies in the area of mathematical talent no less than in any other area.
Olszewski-Kubilius et al. (2015) suggest that coaching in the early years should focus on the importance of “teachability, or an openness to instruction and feedback” (p. 147). Instruction in middle school years should then focus on “the skills needed to deal with disappointment and setbacks” (Olszewski-Kubilius et al., 2015, p.147) as students encounter other students with similar or higher skills and will need to be able to deal with set-backs in self-concept. Additionally, students at this stage need to “learn to embrace challenge, armed with confidence” (Olszewski-Kubilius et al., 2015, p.148) as well as demonstrate perseverance as they head toward goals. Finally, in the later pre-college and college years, students need to develop the ability to promote themselves and also “share work and ideas” as well as “solicit and gain feedback and support” (Olszewski-Kubilius et al., 2015, p. 148).
The home schooling parent is in a good position to coach students along these lines as someone who knows, has known, and will know the student at each point throughout the process. They are also in a good position to recognize when there is a need to bring in outside help in the form of counselors. In particular, for the mathematically gifted student, parents can also make sure that their child is plugged in to a support group of true peers and mentors within the field of mathematics and guide the student toward biographies and autobiographies of eminent mathematicians that have mastered the traits that are being coached.
Talent development is an exciting new framework for the development of gifted potential in students. It holds promise for helping gifted students bridge the gap from inherent possibility to eminence, with the end goal of enabling them to use their gifts to make a lasting impact on society. Maximizing talent development requires involved adults – from the earliest days of talent identification through enrichment and acceleration – who can further guide the process and provide access to authentic experiences, as well as psychosocial coaching that will help students to achieve in their domain of talent just as performers and athletes do. Home education provides an excellent setting for this development with its inherent level of parental involvement and flexibility in time and curriculum. This can be clearly seen in the possibilities for mathematically gifted students as an example. Home education holds the potential for guiding students from possibility through achievement to eminence and closer to making a lasting impact on society.
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- The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review.