Gifted Learners and the Middle School: Problem
or Promise? ERIC Digest.
by Tomlinson, Carol Ann
Historically, tension has existed between gifted education and middle
school education (Tomlinson, 1992), leaving some advocates of each educational
practice suspicious of the other, and leaving middle school students who
are advanced in one or more dimensions of learning in a sort of educational
no-man's-land. While some legitimate areas of disagreement are likely to
persist, there are enough areas of shared belief to bridge the practice
between gifted education and middle school education. This digest provides
an overview of (1) some areas of agreement between the fields, (2) some
areas of tension, and (3) some promising directions that could engage educators
in mutual planning of appropriate services for all middle school students,
including those we sometimes call "gifted."
SHARED BELIEFS OF GIFTED EDUCATION AND MIDDLE SCHOOL EDUCATION
There are at least three areas of common concern shared by gifted education
and middle school education. First, when it comes to articulated beliefs
about what constitutes appropriate instruction for early adolescents, both
groups are proponents of instruction that: (1) is theme based, (2) is interdisciplinary,
(3) fosters student self-direction and independence, (4) promotes self-understanding,
(5) incorporates basic skills, (6) is relevant to the learner and thus
based on study of significant problems, (7) is student-centered, (8) promotes
student discovery, (9) values group interaction, (10) is built upon student
interest, (11) encourages critical and creative exploration of ideas, and
(12) promotes student self-evaluation (e.g., Currier, 1986; Kaplan, 1979;
Maker & Nielson, 1995; Stevenson, 1992).
Second, few educators of the gifted would argue with the core tenets
set forth in "Turning Points" (Carnegie Task Force on the Education of
Young Adolescents, 1989) that middle school programs should: (1) create
small communities of learning within larger school settings, (2) teach
a solid academic core, (3) ensure success for all students, (4) enable
educators closest to students to make important decisions about teaching
and learning, (5) staff middle schools with teachers trained to work effectively
with early adolescents, (6) promote health and fitness, (7) involve families
in the education of learners, and (8) connect schools with communities.
Third, both groups of educators share a deep concern for the cognitive
and affective welfare of early adolescent learners. Both groups also understand
that there is great variability in the academic, social, emotional, and
physical development of the early adolescent group. Both also subscribe
to the reality that early adolescents are subject to change, including
spurts in physical growth, new interests, and intellectual awareness. And
both believe that all middle school students should take part in challenging
GIFTED EDUCATION AND MIDDLE SCHOOL EDUCATION: PROBLEMS AND PROMISE
The following issues have concerned educators in gifted education and
middle level education. But emerging dialogue offers promise and some evident
next steps for moving ahead into a more collaborative future (Clews, 1995).
EXCELLENCE VS. EQUITY
Problem: Gifted education exists to foster development of high-end excellence.
It therefore stresses practices that are most likely to promote "expertise"
in learners with advanced performance and/or potential. Middle school education,
on the other hand, views education through an equity lens, where all students
have an equal opportunity to succeed. In a country that has struggled with
the competing values of equity and excellence throughout its history (Gardner,
1961), it is not surprising that both groups continue to struggle with
mechanisms for balancing the belief that all people should have equal opportunity
with the belief that each individual should be assisted in developing his
or her maximum capacity. The tension is heightened in the face of scarce
resources for education.
* Understand the advantages of emphasizing both equity and excellence.
* Plan for both personal excellence and equity of access to advancement
for all learners who are at risk, including those who are gifted.
* Emphasize raising the floors and eliminating the ceilings of educational
* Emphasize both personal excellence and "apex" or "high-end" excellence.
EMPHASIS ON HETEROGENEITY
Problem: Because middle school educators emphasize the negative impact
of homogeneous grouping on at-risk learners, heterogeneity has become a
hallmark descriptor of "good" middle schools (Carnegie Task Force on the
Education of Young Adolescents, 1989). But educators of the gifted value
the benefits of ability grouping for advanced learners. The availability
of some forms of homogeneous grouping for these learners has been strongly
advocated by proponents of gifted education (Allan, 1991). Educators of
the gifted are also concerned about a lack of emphasis on differentiated
instruction for academic diversity in heterogeneous classrooms in the literature
of middle school, and reject a one-size-fits-all approach to educating
students as varied as those who inhabit middle schools.
* Abandon practices that permit or encourage one-size-fits-all instruction.
* Replace exclusive services with more inclusive ones.
* Emphasize appropriately differentiated instruction in heterogeneous
* Use heterogeneous teams, but group and regroup within a team and across
teams for instructional purposes.
* Offer a variety of classes that allow for student choice.
* Emphasize use of gifted/talented resource specialists as part of interdisciplinary
USE OF LABELS
Problem: Middle school advocates often reject labeling students as "learning
disabled" or "gifted" (George, 1993). Such labeling, they believe, favors
some students and stigmatizes others. Advocates of gifted education believe
that identifying high potential and performance is necessary if awareness
of and planning for talent development is to occur (Coleman & Gallagher,
* Develop ways to identify and address students' needs without overt
* Work to balance emphasis on student differences and student similarities.
* Use the term "gifted" as part of a phrase that describes students
as gifted in mathematics, science, writing, visual arts, music, etc.
AMBIGUITY ABOUT APPROPRIATE MIDDLE SCHOOL CURRICULA
Problem: For much of its 30-year history, middle school education has
attended more to issues such as student affect, scheduling, detracking,
teaming, and school climate than to what constitutes effective and appropriate
curricula in middle school classes (Beane, 1990). Educators of the gifted,
who place strong value on challenging opportunities for advanced learners
in their area(s) of strength, have been concerned about middle level education,
including a basic skills approach to instruction. On the other hand, middle
school educators argue that what has been called "gifted education" (e.g.,
enrichment, high level thinking, problem-solving) is good education for
all learners, and should not be reserved for any single group of middle
school students. They believe that energies of educators should be focused
on establishing that sort of "good education" in heterogeneous classrooms
and that the proliferation of such classrooms would serve all middle school
* Disavow theories that present middle school students as incapable
of high level thought and complex learning.
* Abandon practices that couch middle school as a place for drill and
* Collaborate in establishing complex, problem-based, student-centered
curricula, differentiated for student readiness, interest, and learning
* Articulate differences between "good education" and "good gifted education."
* Ensure that services restricted to gifted students are taught at a
pace, level of complexity, and level of abstractness that is consistent
with their abilities and instructional needs.
USE OF COOPERATIVE LEARNING AS AN INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGY
Problem: Middle school educators promote cooperative learning as a prime
means of establishing effective heterogeneous communities of learning (Slavin,
1980; Toepfer, 1992). Educators of the gifted find that overuse of some
cooperative learning strategies, particularly those focused on learning
of basic information and skills, results in a lack of challenge for advanced
learners, inordinate use of these learners as "junior teachers," and inappropriate
pressure for these learners to solve instructional problems (Robinson,
* Acknowledge the appropriateness of collaborative learning for early
* Emphasize problem-based cooperative strategies rather than skill-focused
* Move away from cooperative learning as a "savior" strategy.
* Teach and balance cooperation, independence, and healthy competition.
* Use various grouping patterns in cooperative groups, based on instructional
AFFECTIVE NEEDS OF EARLY ADOLESCENTS
Problem: Middle school educators stress development of school environments
in which early adolescents can belong to a nurturing group and have consistent
access to adults who know and care about them (George & Shewey, 1994).
Most educators of the gifted have concerns that affective experiences of
advanced learners, which sometimes take on "a different spin," are overlooked
in middle schools where advanced learning is deemphasized and where few
teachers are trained to understand advanced learners. For example, peer
pressure to conform may be experienced in a somewhat different context
by many academically talented females and minority students than by other
agemates (Ford, 1994; Kerr, 1985).
* Recognize that early adolescents share common affective needs, but
experience them in differing ways.
* Plan for both achievement and belonging for advanced learners, with
special emphasis on females and culturally diverse learners.
Problem: The result of strongly held and often divergent views about
educating early adolescents has led to some tension between the two groups
of educators. Leaders of each group have not always attempted to build
bridges. Publications, conferences, team meetings, and informal dialogues
among educators have only recently begun to break ground in listening and
attempting to find solutions.
* Acknowledge strengths and contributions of both practices.
* Use constructive language when discussing the issues.
* Communicate, cooperate, and collaborate at every level of educational
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