Do They Really Get It?

I'm going to weigh in on a bit of a tricky subject with a bit of hesitancy. I want to discuss the idea of "gifted" students or "advanced students" and what that really looks like. I know...this could get touchy right?

According to Jo Boaler in Mathematical Mindsets, there is often this myth that students are gifted or advanced in mathematics, because they are fast with math facts. I'm sure you can picture these students. The student who always finishes early. The student who always knows the answer. The student who may seem bored in class.

I can remember being in the classroom when this became a big issue for education. What are we doing for the high-achieving students? How are we challenging them? Where is the differentiation?

I began making different levels of tasks. I had folders with enrichment activities and games available. These students might even become helpers that worked with other students around the room.

While these alone are not bad practices, I realized that it was the same students who made it to the enrichment activities each time. I wondered what the other students thought about themselves, because they never finished early to become a helper or do another task. I also considered what the "gifted" students thought as they rushed through their work. And let's be honest, I was exhausted creating all these activities.

While all students are born with brain differences, Jo Boaler found that experiences and opportunities promote brain growth (pg. 94). Students who work hard and are given a wide range of tasks perform better in mathematics, not just the students who finish early. These students also believe that math understanding is something that is developed while some students who are labeled "gifted" believe they have an innate ability to be successful in math. However, research has found that the students who have a growth mindset about mathematics actually perform better throughout their math education than those who think they are just "good at math".

I was viewing math tasks as something that was completed and finished. I thought that students who completed it quickly must be the ones that needed to be challenged. So what if we looked at this in another way?

What if we considered math topics as an opportunity to go deeper into the content? What if a student finished a problem and then looked at the problem in another way? What if instead of moving on to something else, the student took the initiative to truly understand why the mathematics works? Sounds awesome, right?

We can do this by creating a climate of growth in our classroom. I've heard teachers say, "You're never done. You have just begun." That totally sums up this idea. When students get an answer, challenge them to take the problem further.

Here are 3 simple strategies:

  1. Ask students to show you another way:

  2. Challenge students to summarize their thinking.

  3. Encourage students to write their own problems and solve them.

What's so cool about these three ideas is that after using them for awhile, they become second nature to students. Soon, all the students know that when they have an answer they are going to be asked to do it another way or write their own problem. Students begin to take the initiative to do it alone and are now taking tasks further.

As a teacher, it's an awesome feeling. I'm no longer running around the room trying to make sure everyone is busy and on-task. My students know that they are never really done until we are ready to move on. They are extending their thinking beyond the answer, and everyone is getting a chance to try the "extra" activities.

Want to try implementing this in your classroom? Grab these three posters and give it a go! Leave a comment and let me know how your students enjoy working deeper into a task!


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