In the world of education, the needs of the very brightest learners can all too often be overlooked because sometimes the assumption is that they’re the lucky ones. After all, their intelligence gives them a head start in life, doesn’t it? We may tell ourselves, “Anyway, some of these smart kids don’t even need teachers because they can just teach themselves.” We may think, ”Besides, bright kids will always succeed; if you have the blessing of brain power, you can adapt and thrive at whatever you choose to do.” The reality can be a far cry from this idealised perception and there is a plethora of global research to show how, sadly, the lowest achievers can often be the smartest kids.
For the academically advanced student, attending effortless and uncomplicated lessons day after day, all year round, can become more about endurance than learning. Those students who do not have the stamina to maintain focus, manners, interest, enthusiasm in the face of what they feel as monotony, may be described by onlookers as intolerant, withdrawn, argumentative, apathetic, rude, isolated, disaffected...and much more. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the bright student may be viewed negatively by their peers and teachers, or that unfavourable labels and incorrect diagnoses can be seamlessly attached.
At THS, Learning Extension (LEx) is the term we use to describe the educational provision for our academically advanced students, which includes subject-specific extension needs as well as those who are broadly advanced. The individuals who require these provisions go beyond the traditional ‘higher ability group’ and require something additional to what their typical, grade-level curriculum and environment can offer. Often, LEx students need to work at a faster pace compared to the rest of the group and may present an insatiable thirst for learning. For the teacher, this sense of learning urgency can be exhausting to manage and lead to a feeling of spinning an excessive number of plates – all for just one student. Furthermore, LEx students may crave more complicated tasks so teachers need to plan for deliberately perplexing and arduous learning experiences. It may also be that LEx students require supplementary depth and breadth often taking the form of tangent curricular topics, which demands teachers to be adept in their subject matter. Needless to say, providing a personalised curriculum for the LEx learner can be an incredibly complex path to navigate.
At THS, we recognise that one size does not fit all and this is true as well for LEx. Hence, we do not have a set gifted program whereby our brightest students are simply pulled out of one stream and placed into another. Neither do we have an alternative curriculum that we just switch to in the event of a student requiring further challenge. Instead, we honour our commitment to include all learners and modify where we can which means that sometimes, meeting the needs of our highly abled learners can feel like solving a complex jigsaw puzzle: it can be a long process, there can be many components to piece together, and various compositions may be tried before we are all satisfied that the fit is right.
Quick fixes may include moving a student’s ability group so that he or she can learn according to their strengths and not their age. Beginning last year, we aligned the primary school and high school’s schedules so that Math takes place at one set time meaning that we can be fluid in our placement of students and mixed-age learning between two grades has become the norm. Moreover, we may draft in the expertise of teachers so that the secondary Science specialists can work with the primary teachers to plan for extension activities, or that the Social Studies coordinator may help a teacher to plan out a project with a particular LEx student in mind. Some of our specialists undertake ‘pull out’ instruction: last year, a Literacy coordinator worked with a group of highly able readers on book projects. Similarly, the Marine Science Coordinator worked with a group of fast-paced learners on an extension project linked to the class topic of Environmentalism. This year, a team of us are on the brink of launching an additional STEAM program for advanced mathematicians which will combine personalised instruction with collaborative application of skills. Another team are planning out a higher level thinking group for those students who just crave the opportunity to think and talk about big ideas that are close to their hearts.
LEx provision can get more complicated if the student is working two, three, four years beyond their biological age as sometimes, the advanced and rigorous curriculum demands are not suited to their maturity and self-control levels. In these cases, we need to go beyond our school to find the right challenge and support and so mentors, experts, specialist programs and outside agencies are contacted to ensure that the personalised curriculum is carefully planned for. Our success depends on strong and open communication between students, parents and teachers, flexible working attitudes, taking time to understand our students as individuals, and a commitment to encouraging everyone to be their best. We don’t claim to get everything right immediately and we’re certainly not afraid to keep trying alternatives until we’re satisfied.
We are thrilled to have a growing population of academically advanced students at THS and planning for their learning needs is no small task. Nonetheless, our commitment to unlocking the best in every student means we have a relentless strive for excellence which means that in the long run, provision for our academically advanced students can only be of benefit to the wider learning and teaching community. As such, it’s an area that in which we should all invest.