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Grouping and instruction for gifted students.

Gifted education within school settings can be boiled down to three areas of educational services: arrangement of students, curriculum and instruction, and guidance and counseling. Ideally all three of these components fit nicely together to manifest a clearly defined and goal-directed program for the appropriate education of gifted students. I want to briefly describe a vision of how the first component, arrangement of students, may be implemented in a school and how it impacts the second component, curriculum and instruction.

There are multiple options for schools to arrange or group gifted students. The process or criteria for arranging students can be classified into three broad categories: social rationale, political rationale, or instructional rationale. Social rationales for placing students may be based on which students get along well with each other. A social rationale may also place a priority on teachers having siblings of former students. Social rationales may review which students have been in class previously with an effort to maintain or vary those groups. The standards of excellence for the social rationale are harmony and relationships.

Political rationales for arranging students into classes are typically based on some concept of fairness. Decisions made within this rationale are designed to justly divide students to ensure balance among classes. If the balance is disturbed, it is not uncommon to hear someone claim that the class groupings are not fair. Adherents to this rationale may say that it is not fair to place a disproportionate number of gifted students into a classroom or a disproportionate number of struggling students or students with behavior problems into a classroom. Class arrangements within the political rationale are most likely to be heterogeneous; the standards of excellence for the political rationale are fairness and balance.

An instructional rationale for arranging students uses available learning and achievement data to place students into classes that are most instructionally beneficial for student achievement. In a school that arranges students based on an instructional rationale, it is likely that students would be clustered around common learning characteristics and placed with a teacher who specializes in teaching students with those characteristics. Instructional rationales typically affirm the belief that it is more efficient and effective for a teacher to focus on clusters of students with common curricular and instructional needs. Cluster grouping is based on an instructional rationale for arranging students in school. Clusters of gifted students may be placed in one or two elementary classrooms per grade level to be matched with teachers who specialize in teaching advanced learners. Similar examples of instructional clustering may be to cluster a group of struggling readers into a room that receives the coteaching support of a literacy specialist or to cluster a group of English language learners into a single classroom with a teacher who specializes in English as a second language (ESL) instruction.

One pervasive assertion in gifted education is that gifted students possess unique instructional needs that require differentiation of the typical curriculum and instruction. Given this belief and the history of research to confirm its accuracy, a quality gifted education program is most benefited by an arrangement of students based on an instructional rationale rather than a social or political rationale. In fact, as educational research continues to document learner characteristics and their relationship to instructional methodology, the idea of arranging students based on an instructional rationale will continue to grow among all student groups. Arranging students based on an instructional rationale has recently grown more appropriate as educational institutions use available data to make decisions about placement and provision. However, although most educators acknowledge that we operate in the most data-driven environment in history, the practice of using an instructional rationale as a basis for arranging elementary classroom still meets resistance.

The idea of cluster grouping gifted students as part of a gifted and talented program evolves from the beliefs that gifted students will benefit educationally when placed in groups with like-ability peers and placed with a classroom teacher with a focus on and additional training in differentiation for gifted students. The single largest research study on cluster grouping was published by Marcia Gentry in 1999. Gentry studied schoolwide clustering at the elementary level. The schools in her study placed students into classes using an instructional rationale and provided best fits between the characteristics of the learners and the instructional strengths of the teachers. In some cases, they even used cross-grade grouping to match students based on ability and achievement levels. She found that the schools that clustered based on instructional needs outperformed similar schools that arranged students under more traditional social or political rationales. Gentry found that the cluster group arrangement benefited all students regardless of whether they were characterized as gifted, above average, average, or below average.

The second component of a gifted and talented program, curriculum and instruction, is definitely affected by the arrangement of students. Several studies of gifted students in heterogeneous classrooms (characteristic of social or political rationales) found that teachers rarely differentiated the instruction for students of varying levels including, but not limited to, gifted students. However, studies like Gentry's (1999) indicate that when the arrangement of the students is created in a way to facilitate differentiation (instructional rationale), teachers are more likely to modify instruction based on the needs of the clusters in the classroom. Research studies and common sense tell us that matching the teacher's specialized training with a cluster of students in the category of her expertise will be both more efficient and more effective at enhancing achievement.

Educational institutions spend a great deal of time and resources trying to prepare every teacher to be skilled at differentiating for every type of learner. Unfortunately this approach has continued to provide a very general one-size-fits-all instruction. It is often frustrating for both gifted and struggling students alike. It is a symptom of determining the arrangement of students first and then trying to implement an instructional approach (differentiation) that is honestly ill suited for social and political arrangements. The alternative approach that I advocate is to first determine that differentiated instruction is a priority. It is a priority for gifted learners, it is a priority for struggling learners, and it is a priority for those in the often-forgotten middle-ground students. Once educators commit to a differentiated instructional approach, the next question ought to be what then is the optimal arrangement of students to support this curriculum and instruction. That is the starting point for an instructional rationale of arranging students. Furthermore, it is the cornerstone of a quality gifted and talented educational program. If challenging every student with rigorous and engaging curriculum is to be our standard of excellence, then an instructional arrangement and differentiated instruction are the first two pillars on which to build programs.


Gentry, M. L. (1999). Promoting student achievement and exemplary classroom practices through cluster grouping: A research-based alternative to heterogeneous elementary classrooms. Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
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Title Annotation:through another's eyes
Author:Kettler, Todd
Publication:Gifted Child Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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