By Dr. Pam Clinkenbeard, UW-Whitewater and former WATG Board Member
Earlier this fall I talked with Dr. Jim Rickabaugh, Senior Advisor and former Director of the CESA 1 Institute for Personalized Learning (institute4pl.org). I had been working with some schools districts and had done a few conference presentations with colleagues on doing gifted education within a personalized learning framework (“GT in PL”), but I wanted to get Jim’s perspective based on his expertise in personalized learning (see Rickabaugh, 2016). We touched on most of the following seven items presented at the “GT in PL” panel* at the WATG 2018 conference. Following that is a paraphrased summary of our conversation in Q&A format. Note: there were several presentations at the WATG conference that addressed aspects of this topic, and information about those talks can be accessed at http://www.watg.org/conference-schedule.html.
How does gifted programming either fit into personalized learning or coexist with it?
Q: School districts around the country are moving toward “personalized learning” (PL) as their major philosophy for preK-12 education. A shift to PL may result in a number of practical and structural changes in a district. How does the education of gifted and talented students fit into this picture? Does PL “take care of” or replace gifted education and advanced programming?
A: The PL model is completely consistent with advanced learning. The focus is the learner, not the program: their abilities, interests, and personal characteristics.
Q: What might that programming look like?
A: It’s probably a mistake, depending on the specific circumstances, to replace existing advanced or gifted programming as part of personalized learning implementation. Whether advanced programming takes place as differentiation in the regular classroom (Weichel et al., 2018) or in outside programs including community resources and district-level or regional programming, the focus should be more on the learner and the learning than on the instruction. The PL model is about “more of this” and “less of that” rather than a radical overhaul of the system.
Q: In gifted education we often say “The gifted student (like all other students) should learn something new every day.”
A: Yes – the PL focus is on learning more than on instruction. The learner is as much a resource as a target in PL, with respect to them letting us know how to address their learning needs best.
Q: In PL, where else does the “advanced learning” take place?
A: Game design is one example of an area where “non-traditional” gifts might be nurtured. Game theory has a lot of math in it and gaming of course attracts large numbers of students, many of whom presumably would not be traditionally labeled gifted.
Q: Regarding diversity, are underrepresented students any more likely to have their gifts and talents found and nurtured under a PL system than with traditional gifted programs?
A: There are aspects of the PL model that must be intentionally applied to guard against overlooking underrepresented kids’ talents. These include the focus on the individual student, the co-construction of learning paths, and the fact that PL “starts with the learner and not the lesson.” Also, when contexts other than school are considered [as places for opportunity for advanced learning], more students are likely to be seen as having advanced talents and needs. A broad array of opportunities should be open to any student who is interested and could benefit from them. “Intentionality” is important (i.e., making it a point in your programming).
Q: What are some other resources or ideas that you think might be useful?
A: Allison Zmuda’s work on classroom context for personalized learning – it addresses motivation to some extent, and is consistent with advanced learning. I also like how PL turns away from deficit or weakness language – that is, if a student is struggling with something that we consider important for that student, we emphasize how learning it might help the student’s own goals (rather than calling it one of their weaknesses alongside their strengths). “Success” in PL is defined as building the capacity of the learner toward independence as a learner, rather than how well schools “personalize.”
*Clinkenbeard, P., Borsecnik, L., Franke, A., & Miller, A. (November, 2018). Personalized Learning and Gifted: District Examples. At the annual conference of the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted, Wisconsin Dells.
Rickabaugh, J. (2016). Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders. ASCD.
Weichel, M., McCann, B., & Williams, T. (2018). When They Already Know It: How to Extend and Personalize Student Learning in a PLC at Work. Solution Tree.
Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom. Jossey-Bass.