April 25, 2024 opinion

We are bored: Gifted students need challenge to thrive

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Erin Walshaw in Vancouver, Canada

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The MACC approach to Math is one of the main differences from a regular classroom. Children learn it individually, at their own pace, and take the tests when they feel ready.

Picture by: Ross Strachan | Flickr

In the push for equitable education, there has been an unfortunate, yet innocent victim of this drive for change: gifted education programs.

Gifted education dates back thousands of years – Plato advocated for specialized education for gifted young adults, and in China’s Tang dynasty, child prodigies received special education in the imperial court.

Gifted and Talented programs have helped students worldwide to accelerate and enrich their learning in a positive and supportive environment that is suited to their needs.

A current trend within my school district in Vancouver, Canada is to increase class sizes and ‘revision’ opportunities for gifted students, changes that can be harmful to both gifted pupils and those without such designations.

Learn more:

Analysing Educational Interventions with Gifted Students. Systematic Review

Cuts to these programs are isolating vulnerable students from their peers, increasing the risk of gifted students dropping out, and preventing them from developing critical social-emotional skills.

‘Educational research with a gifted population demands more interventions personalized to the specific characteristics of the students’, reported Inmaculada García-Martínez and colleagues in a 2021 systematic review of educational interventions for gifted students.

As a gifted student myself, I benefited greatly from a program known as the Multi-Age Cluster Class (MACC), which aimed to group gifted students and provide an environment designed for us to succeed.

It had students leave their catchment schools to attend classes in a special cluster classroom, with 80 such spaces in the Vancouver district, serving many of the 600 gifted students in the area – ‘gifted’ here meaning an IQ higher than 130.

The program – which accelerated the pace of the standard curriculum, introduced self-directed projects, and allowed us to work at our own pace for subjects such as mathematics – was essential in helping myself and many of my peers develop key social and academic skills that allowed us to perform better in high school.

During this time, I was able to explore high school-level mathematics, research personal interest topics such as 3D bioprinting, and meet other learners with similar minds to my own. The program is credited with providing academic and social support for hundreds of students and is remembered well by its participants – including me.

However, a curriculum redesign in 2016 led to the Vancouver School Board (VSB)’s Revisioning MACC program, which some argue will limit the efficacy of the program by reducing the number of hours students spend in it.

The changes implemented a few years later don’t only take away the support of MACC – they also threaten other programs that support large numbers of gifted students such as AP, honours, and Mini Schools.

 

In an email I received in January 2022, VSB trustee Janet Fraser claimed that “there is a fundamental shift to make education more inclusive as part of the redesigned curriculum.”

She said that the current MACC model is quite outdated and research shows that “learners with a gifted designation thrive in a regular classroom setting where learning is tailored to meet the needs of everyone in class.”

While her mindset is noble, it is unrealistic to expect teachers who are already struggling with being overworked, underpaid, and burnt out to manage a class of 30-plus students while tailoring lessons to the individual needs of each learner.

Add on the fact that only 2.2% of students meet the requirements for giftedness and it is clear that, when faced with so many students, teachers will teach to the center of the normal curve, not the outliers, which leaves both gifted and struggling students behind.

These students will have to resort to extracurricular learning, but programs such as Spirit of Math are expensive and often unattainable for low- or middle-income families. This could cause a divide between gifted students and prevent students from accessing the enrichment they need to thrive.

Giftedness is a neurological difference and isn’t just noticed in the classroom. A key part of this is asynchronous development, which means that a gifted child’s academic, emotional, physical, and social growth is non-uniform.

According to the Davidson Institute, gifted children may be functioning with an intellect far beyond their emotional capacity, and these children may lack the coping strategies needed to process. Gifted students are prone to anxiety and social struggles because they feel isolated and different from their peers.

Without programs such as MACC, many gifted kids are bored and understimulated, leading to unwanted behaviors and classroom disruption. MACC allowed us to develop socially alongside others who had similar experiences to ourselves and taught us the social skills we needed to integrate within the social hierarchies of regular schools.

The redesigned 2016 curriculum, which promotes concepts over content, is the driving factor behind this shift.

Instead of MACC’s segregated classrooms, the renamed Gifted Enrichment Centers (GECs) will provide shorter sessions (four, six or eight weeks) focused on a topic explored through learning activities. Students will be able to attend as many GECs as they like. The program is currently being trialed; all GECs are scheduled to be implemented by September 2025.

However, these programs have all drawn widespread criticism from students, parents, and educators alike.

While the GEC program will undoubtedly increase the reach of gifted education in Vancouver, this shouldn’t be done by pulling away support programs for students who need it full-time. In elementary school especially, leaving school for four to eight weeks is social suicide, and could increase the disconnect between a gifted student and their peers.

Without full-time programs, we risk giving these students a taste of what it is like to be surrounded by a like-minded cohort, only to take it away weeks later. The truth is, for learners like me, four to eight weeks wouldn’t have been enough.

The GEC program has the potential to create meaningful change and encourage passion within young learners, but this should not be done by taking away a program that changes lives like mine.

 

You can sign the petition here to make a difference.

Written by:

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Erin Walshaw

Contributor

Vancouver, Canada

Born in 2006, Erin Walshaw comes from a Canadian immigrant family originally from South Africa. She follows local and international politics on human rights, climate change, and inequalities. She plans to study within the STEM field while pursuing self-education in writing.

Erin is currently a co-president of her school’s student council and previously served as the Grade 11 Representative. She enjoys Math, Science, Humanities, and Applied Skills courses. Outside of school, she tutors other students, trains in karate, and studies French.

She is currently developing a workshop to educate young students about influential women in STEM through presentations, experiments, and interactive demonstrations.

Erin joined Harbingers’ Magazine in the autumn of 2023 after she won the 2nd prize in Reporting in The Harbinger Prize 2023.

Edited by:

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Christian Yeung

Society editor

Hong Kong | United States

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