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Practicing what we preach: the reality factors in talent development. (International Perspectives).

As a university academic in gifted and talented education with a fifth-floor office in the Tower Block, the age-old "ivory tower" analogy felt as if it were becoming all too real. Lecturing teachers on the principles of gifted education is fairly easy to do when you've read the books, attended the conferences, studied the research and so on, but the gap between my own teaching experiences and today's lectures was quickly widening.

My stories about kids like Jackie, Mitch, and Rueben were reaching a decade old. It was time to get back into a classroom, to begin practicing what I preach. As a parent of four primary school children, I also felt the need to contribute something meaningful to their education. So, as a parent volunteer, I taught a group of 11- and 12-year-old students for a term. My experiences brought home to me the reality factors in our aims to develop talent.

The options (gifted) class at my children's school is run every Friday afternoon and is similar to the enrichment clusters advocated in the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Renzulli & Reis, 2002). Parents, teachers, and community members work with small groups of students in areas of the students' choice. The options included golf, French, arts and crafts, woodworking, sports, computers, and inventions. For an hour every Friday afternoon, all of the students have an opportunity for enrichment, with a small number of similarly passionate peers. While the options class does not actively promote one aim of enrichment clusters--to give students the opportunity to solve "real-world problems through the development of authentic products and services" (Renzulli & Reis, 2002a)--it clearly has its roots in the belief that students and teachers want to be part of a specialist group. The children definitely want to be there; their enthusiasm for Friday afternoons shows as they excitedly greet their options' facilitators and participate in the activity bag of tricks, as the leader of a group of young inventors. Having recently visited the University of Iowa, which included an introduction to the Invent Iowa program, my curiosity was peaked regarding its applicability within New Zealand. The theory behind the program sounded strong and compatible with Renzulli and Reis' principles of enrichment teaching. The Invent Iowa program "gives students a chance to play with ideas that interest them, enables them to make a real contribution to the world, introduces them to interesting people, exposes them to new ideas and information, and may even point them to a possible career or life direction" (Baldus, 2002). An inventions option seemed ideal for classrooms.

The Theory

The school's decision to offer a Friday options class was based upon the idea that all children should have an opportunity to develop their potential in a differentiated environment. Some of the hallmarks of differentiation evidenced on Friday afternoons included student choice, flexibility, teacher independence, and varied grouping. Perhaps the most exciting feature of Friday afternoon was that the options were students' choices stretch beyond the curriculum. Students were given the opportunity to interact with professionals, or at least interested adults like myself, in their areas of interest. For example, my son built a wooden planter, a pair of stilts, a train, and a breadbasket under the guidance of a local retired carpenter. The more I thought about the Friday program, I quickly realized the key elements of the talent for all approaches were there, whether intentional or not.

Those who advocate talent development for all learners, seem to base their recommendations on a number of assumptions:

1. All children are special, when given the chance. In fact, Renzulli (1994) has stated that "every child is special if we create conditions in which that child can be a specialist within a specialty group" (p. 70). Grouping children based on interests and in responsive learning environments gives talent a place to shine; gifts begin to surface.

2. Curriculum and instruction are conceived from a constructivist perspective, richly meaningful and perhaps most importantly, student-centered (Tomlinson, Kaplan, Renzulli, Purcell, Leppien, & Burns, 2002). Those advocating talent development for all students use terms like differentiation to describe instruction; facilitators of learning replace traditional teachers; teaching is determined based upon learner profiles.

3. The goal of schoolwide approaches is to raise the level of challenge and expectation for all students, as depicted in the analogy of "a rising tide lifts all ships" (Renzulli & Reis, 2002). Hence, the assumption is that in conjunction with the provision of enrichment for all learners, the principles of differentiation are applied, and, in doing so, equitable opportunities for achieving excellence are established.

The theory, in sum, seems to be based on the belief that potential talent can be nurtured in responsive, student-centered environments, which act as catalysts for achieving excellence--for all students, including our gifted and talented students. Naturally, as with any seemingly good idea, there are those who would argue against this approach, those who fear that talent for all can be mistaken as one-size-fits-all--begging the question, but what about the gifted? Talent developers would argue that "there is no such thing as `the gifted' learner" (Tomlinson et al., 2002, p. 19), that each child is an individual with different levels of readiness, abilities, interests, and so on, which the flexibility of schoolwide approaches naturally addresses. Within New Zealand, I feel all these assumptions are quite readily made by teachers--and, as I sat in my tower, I wondered, "What happens?," "Does this really work?," and "Are the skeptics (admittedly, myself being one of them) right?"

Beyond the foundation of talent for all, the options classes also aim for authentic learning opportunities, again advocated by Renzulli (2002). Particularly with the option classes that had a product-orientation (woodwork, crafts, and inventions), authentic learning seemed essential. Renzulli described learning of this nature as being characterized by students who take on the role of a "real" investigator and producer. He further describes four objectives of authentic learning:

* to acquire advanced-level understanding of the knowledge and methodology used within particular disciplines, artistic areas of expression, and interdisciplinary studies;

* to develop authentic products or services that are directed primarily toward bringing about a desired impact on one or more specified audiences;

* to develop self-directed learning skills in the areas of planning, problem finding, and focusing organizational skills, resource utilization, time management, cooperativeness, decision making, and self-evaluation; and

* to develop task commitment, self-confidence, feelings of creative accomplishment, and the ability to interact effectively with other students and adults who share common goals and interests (no page given).

The topic I selected, inventions, seemed to fit the bill as a vehicle for authentic learning. In the introduction to the Invent Iowa program teacher's guide, Baldus (2002) states that one of the program's primary purposes is to encourage student skills in thinking, problem solving, risk taking, communication, and research (no page given). Inventing is described as a "ripple effect event," an enhancer of students' affective and cognitive skills across a range of disciplines. To understand and apply the invention process, students not only are exposed to an array of process skills, but also authentic, real-world content important to inventions, inventors, and inventing.

By integrating the content with processes, in the context of a real-life problem, inventions, the program also matched Renzulli and Reis' (2002a) principles of enriched teaching and learning. The goal of such teaching is to engage students actively in their learning, shifting them from being passive, backseat passengers to active drivers at the wheel. They further outline other characteristics of enrichment teaching and learning, including matching learning experiences to individual abilities, interests, strengths, and styles; setting enjoyment of learning as a primary goal; allowing for student choice; and ensuring that opportunity is given for students to apply their knowledge and skills in ways which are personally meaningful and relevant. To enable these principles to be put into action, the Enrichment Triad Model (Renzulli, 1977) serves as an ideal pragmatic framework for planning.

The triad model builds on three interacting types of enrichment: Type I, (general exploratory activities); Type II (group training activities); and Type III (individual and small-group investigations of real problems). It can easily be applied to the Invent Iowa program, which provides experiences and activities about inventions and inventors, training and practice in the invention process, and the creation of an invention to solve an everyday problem. Talent development using the principles of enrichment, based upon the framework of the triad model, and coupled with the curriculum for the Invent Iowa program appeared, in theory, to be an ideal solution for the options class. Putting it into practice was, however, the most important step for me and my young inventors.

The Practice

The three classrooms of 11- and 12-year-old students have the option on Fridays of choosing from several groups in which to work. I had five young inventors, all male, three 11- and two 12-year-olds. Their academic abilities and home backgrounds varied, but their enthusiasm for the topic did not. The options classes met for 1 hour a week over 10 weeks at the school. I had a large classroom with a typical set-up of desks grouped in clusters, chairs, whiteboard, couch, etc. I supplied most of the resources needed for the students, but we did have access to the usual school art supplies, library, and photocopying machine. We also placed a notice in the weekly school newsletter requesting junk and some students brought in materials from home. At the start of the term, each student completed a pretest on what they knew, wanted to know, and needed to know about inventors and inventions.

Did you know that the disposable syringe, bungee jumping, mountain buggies, the spiral hairpin, spreadable butter, and seismic isolators were New Zealand inventions? Kiwis are known for their ingenuity and innovation. The expression "number 8 wire" is often used in this country, making reference to the tough land and harsh conditions of an isolated Pacific island where farmers could seemingly create magical solutions for day-to-day problems with fencing wire. New Zealand is also home of the first stamp vending machine, the tranquilizer gun, and the traction kite. Despite the Wright Brothers' claim to fame, the first powered flight was actually piloted by a New Zealander, Richard Pearse, on March 3, 1903 (8 months before the Wrights.). Earnest Rutherford split the atom, John Britten built a superbike, William Attack blew a referee's whistle for the first time during a sporting event, and Ernest Godward was the world's leading expert on the internal combustion engine in the 1930s. "New Zealanders have long regarded themselves as people `who can turn their hands to anything'" (New Zealand Invention, 2002, no page given).

My young inventors and I started our voyage with a discussion of these heroes. We also discovered the potato plate, a biodegradable dish perfect for picnics. And, if slugs are a problem in the garden, we found out that Kiwis also invented, along with the electric fence for cattle and sheep, the slug electric fence. During the course of our journey, the kids and I began looking for more Kiwi ingenuity. We were delighted to see a recent news broadcast of a New Zealand woman who created a chocolate cookie spoon--perfect for dunking in your coffee or tea--and won top prize in an international food competition. Learning about famous New Zealand inventors was just one of the Type I activities that sparked their interest.

In my kitchen, I found all sorts of inventions the children had never seen, or, if they had, didn't consider ingenious: the garlic press, apple slicer, pasta fork, herb cutter, and potato masher. They brainstormed inventions used every day in their classrooms and homes. We read books from the local library, which featured even more inventions and inventors. But, their favorite Type I activity was when we discussed Rube Goldberg inventions. The students drew more, searched the Internet, and, one day, tried building one of their own (which reminded me of a game of Mousetrap gone wrong).

The real focus of our 10 weeks, however, was on the invention process itself. In studying what an inventor does, the students used creative problem solving techniques, like SCAMPER, to investigate the ways in which an inventor might think about and solve everyday problems. Each student had an Inventor's Notebook, which held information, surveys, notes and sketches, brainstorms, evaluations, and analyses of ideas. With the goal of having five original invention ideas, models, or prototypes, we students also honed their presentation and communication skills. Our final Type II activity encouraged students to learn "how to talk to the media." This was necessary because, at our invention celebration, a local reporter arrived to take photos and interview the group.

Integrated within these processes was a content focus that stretched far beyond the limits of the regular curriculum. The students used terms like copyright, prototype, innovation, patent, marketing, and trademark in their weekly discussions. Perhaps the greatest challenge for me was helping the inventors understand that not all inventions had motors and moving parts--Post-it Notes and Velcro were indeed inventions. As mentioned earlier, we also discussed and shared information about inventors, with a particular focus on New Zealand inventors.

In addition to keeping the mind at work, the group of inventors needed to move and actively engage their bodies--however, they found they needed to move the mind first. These kids wanted to do something and now! In trying to teach them the invention process, they didn't seem to have time to follow all the steps I was so determined they use. One day, I gave them a box full of junk and said, "You have one hour to make an invention." By the end of their time, the students' response was, "Oh, so an inventor plans." They quickly discovered that, without a purpose, a solution was pointless--and I, for one, was pleased.

Using the content of Type I and the processes of Type II, each child tried their hand at a Type III, by creating an invention. Type III activities are described by Renzulli (1977) as the emulation of a professional investigator attacking a real problem. As described in the Invent Iowa teacher's guide (Baldus, 2002), the students are to survey their friends and families and use their findings to discover a problem. Students are then to brainstorm a list of possible solutions, and evaluate each of those using criteria (e.g., feasibility, costs, materials, marketability, and need) to decide which solution would work best. Once each inventor settles upon a solution, the fun begins. As students test their ideas, draw sketches, build models or prototypes, and name their creations, displays are shared with parents and teachers at an invention celebration. During our celebration, I gave an overview of what the students had been doing, and each inventor described his or her invention--and smiled for the camera.

The latest in Kiwi ingenuity includes Everlasting Bubblegum, which, despite my having to consume tablespoons of sugar at a time while chewing gum during the many taste tests, remains under development. The Peanut Butter and Jam Jar is ideal for making sandwiches in one easy go, and, according to my young inventor, "good for arthritis because you don't have to unscrew lids." The Ejecta-Bed could prove dangerous for children, but ideal for parents, as their children are gently pushed to an upright position when the alarm clock rings and the underbed pump fills the balloon their mattresses rest upon. On those days when your ruler slips and slides across your paper, try the Sticking Ruler, complete with sticky-tack along the bottom. And the final invention was the Non-Spillable Ink Cartridge, designed for quick and easy cartridge changes free of mess.

Putting the Theory into Practice: Lessons Learned

While the young Kiwi inventors learned a lot over our 10 weeks together, I feel I learned even more: the reality factors in talent development. Throughout the term I was often reminded of things I had read, and sometimes disappointed by the challenges I faced. There were several factors that impacted the ease (or difficulty) of putting the theory into practice: time, resources, planning, the curriculum, the students and, finally, myself, as the facilitator. My involvement with the students and observations of their progress clearly indicated gains in their content, process knowledge, and understanding. During the invention celebration I was impressed by their recall of terms, inventions, and inventors we hadn't discussed in weeks. Their teachers and parents commented on their excitement about their inventions, and I was pleased to know the hour a week was spilling over into their classrooms and homes. Each Friday, I was greeted with smiles and a buzz of energy.

Yet, there was never enough time. In my work with teachers and principals, I am often told that time is a critical factor and a close-to-extinct resource. Being limited to 10 hours, and even further constrained by 1-hour blocks, meant that we barely scratched the surface. For this reason, the inventions remain works in progress. The program we were using, Invent Iowa, suggests many ideas for research, but the time element meant I often did the research, sharing my findings with the students. I wanted more time for inventions, but reality dictated. In another school with which I am working, there is resistance to implementing enrichment clusters because of this issue. As one teacher said, "How do we fit it in with music, sports, the curriculum, assessment--all those things we must do?"

Resources was another issue. As a parent in the school, I willingly pulled out my wallet when I could, but we did not have ample resources to support the kids' ideas. For that reason, several of their inventions remained elaborate sketches. While we were able to test some of their inventions, resources became an issue--how does one make Everlasting Gum? Differentiation, enrichment, talent development, and invention require physical resources--and plenty of them. I also observed the need for human resources; this school was lucky in that it had a community of volunteers. However, with more working parents and single-parent families I suspect human resources can sometimes be difficult to find. This may be overcome with more active communication within the community. I was surprised when the parents arrived for the invention celebration how little they knew about the options program.

As I was a volunteer teacher, thankfully no one asked to see if my lesson plans addressed the needs of gifted and talented students. Options can become ad-hoc, tacked on, even careless--and this is where the skeptics of talent development reside in their reservations. In my experience, the invention hour bore little, if any, relationship to the regular curriculum or classroom teaching and assessment programs.

The curricular activities used in the Invent Iowa program had to be adjusted to suit New Zealand culture. Much information, for example, is given regarding American inventors, but it required a bit of digging to find Kiwi inventors. The curriculum also suggested many paper-and-pencil activities and discussions, which clashed with my group of five active 11- and 12-year-old boys. The beauty of the program was the invention process, all of which was based on models of creative problem solving. Finally, this program was beyond the New Zealand Curriculum Framework, although it suited some elements of the technology and social studies curricula. In implementing the program, the issues of time and planning again came into play.

The students I worked with reminded me that children are individuals and differentiation requires getting to know them and adapting instruction to meet their individuality. This is easier said than done for their knowledge of inventions varied, as did their ways of learning. What seemed to hold the group together was their shared passion for inventions. With 5 students, differentiation was a possibility ... but with 25 or 30?

The final factor was the teacher--me. I rediscovered my joy of young people and, at the same time, found it exhausting. The preparation took more than I had expected, but I was pleased to rediscover ideas about teaching, for I enjoyed learning just as much as my students. I also realized I could put the theory into practice--it was good to step down from the tower.

Practice to Theory?

I've often wondered about the reverse of sound theory informing good practice ... what about good practice informing sound theory? My experience has led me to believe there are valuable contributions that practice can make to theory. As educators and practitioners focus on developing talent, there are some key factors we need to keep in mind:

* take time for planning, preparation, delivery, and evaluation;

* incorporate physical, financial, and human resources;

* plan with support from a curricular model serving as a framework;

* use a flexible, adaptable curriculum;

* individualize instruction because kids come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes; and

* get support from trained, flexible, energetic, passionate people.

These ideas are certainly nothing new, for they are espoused by many people interested in talent development. We need to research the role of time, resources, planning, and curricula in order to understand better talent development, for these factors are important and play a leading role in theory and research.

Experiences like this offer possibilities for action research; however, my experiences in working with five young New Zealand inventors began at the wondering stage. It provided me with a series of questions that, I hope, will encourage us all to practice what we preach. The factors noted during my interactions with the young inventors are questions needed to be explored as we work to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Just as sound theory should inform good practice, good practice should inform sound theory.


Baldus, C. (2002). Invent Iowa teacher's manual. Retrieved June 30, 2002 from ~belinctr/special-events/inventia/ K-8/guide.

New Zealand Invention. (2002). Inventors. Retrieved June 25, 2002 from new-zealand/invention/inventors.htm.

Renzulli, J. S. (1977). The enrichment triad model: A guide for developing defensible programs for the gifted and talented. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J. S. (1994). Schools for talent development: A practical plan for total school improvement. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J. S. (2002). How to develop an authentic enrichment cluster. Retrieved June 26, 2002 from http://www.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (2002a). The schoolwide enrichment model executive summary. Retrieved June 25, 2002 from http://www.gifted.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (2002ab) What is schoolwide enrichment? And how do gifted programs relate to total school improvement? Retrieved June 25, 2002 from http://www.gifted.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). Action research and practical inquiry: An overview and an invitation to teachers of gifted learners. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 18, 467-484.

Tomlinson, C. A., Kaplan, S. N., Renzulli, J. S., Purcell, J., Leppien, J., & Burns, D. (2002). The parallel curriculum. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
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Author:Riley, Tracy
Publication:Gifted Child Today
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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