Your Learning Path: A Framework for Creating and Considering Learning Environments
by Kate Bachtel
Normalizing the experience of being an outlier while simultaneously facilitating connection to community is a challenging paradox to navigate. Whether you explore homeschooling, unschooling, public, independent or blended learning program options, the search process can feel overwhelming.
In Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach us About Spreading Social Change, Nick Cooney shares, “Effective activism starts with a specific goal and ends with measurable results” (2011, p. 26). In the absence of data, we can fall victim to perceptual biases. This article will help you craft your own learning objectives and evaluation practices.
Start with what works. What are your child’s passions? What modes of learning and expression are they drawn to when afforded choice? Focusing on children’s strengths and interests will help frame how they are “seen.” This is important because gifted children are often so empathic that they feel how others perceive them and internalize the messaging.
Below are a few factors to consider when creating or selecting learning environments. Determine which aspects of development you can support on your own and which might require outside assistance.
- Does your child have sensitivities to certain lights, sounds, foods, scents, etc.? Will the physical space be comforting and inspiring for them or distracting and over-stimulating? If possible, have your child participate in co-creating the space. Sharon Lind’s article (2001) on overexcitabilities is a good resource for growing understanding of varied sensitivities.
- Creativity. Where do we provide tools and supplies for creation (including gardens, science and design thinking labs, kitchens, music and art studios)? What problem solving frameworks and strategies will be taught?
- Emotional. What coaching, resources and portion of instruction will be devoted to the development of discrete emotional skills and competencies, such as optimism and emotional literacy?
- Spiritual. Paul Torrance and Dorothy Sisk share, “Developing spiritual intelligence in yourself and others will bring about a number of outcomes including an increased awareness or attention, trust, a willingness to be vulnerable, simplicity, egalitarianism, sensitivity, caring, harmony, balance, cooperation, sharing and a reverence for life and mother earth” (2001, p. 138).
- Physical. John Medina’s Brain Rules (2008) teaches that exercise enhances cognition. How will you ensure your child will have ample opportunities to get their wiggles out? Gifted children with high energy levels may have a greater need for movement.
- Sociopolitical. The communities children are a part of influence their identity development. Challenges can arise when a child’s sociopolitical development exceeds that of the adults caring for them. Are we adapting to unjust systems or working to transform them? Watts and Jaegers’ (2013) five stages of sociopolitical development can both grow awareness and support empowerment.
- Does your child trend introvert or extrovert? Will the environment and social dynamics feed their need to interact with others or spend quiet time alone to reflect and refuel?
P. Susan Jackson, who developed the Integral Practice Model for the Gifted, shares, “It is vital we provide knowledgeable parenting, teaching and psychological support that is truly congruent with the needs of sensitive, intense, creative and dynamic learners…lacking an informed and mindful approach we may inadvertently squander remarkable abilities and crush the animating essence at the core of their being that fuels their passion for learning and gives meaning to their existence” (personal communication, November, 2014).
Learn everything you can about the unique development of gifted individuals. Take on the role of scientist – be curious and play with a variety of tools, approaches and strategies. Modeling being a learner is the best way to teach a growth mindset. Keep in mind what works today, may not work tomorrow.
Your Educational Philosophy: Why Learn?
What do you believe to be the purpose of education? Answering this question prior to starting the process of creating or selecting learning environments is critical. Consider crafting a personal learning mission statement. Stick to it. Use your mission statement as a filter to guide decision-making. Do you believe the goal to education is to create innovators and changemakers? Then a traditional program emphasizing content standards will not be the best fit.
Life and learning are inseparable. Dr. Patricia Gatto-Walden explains, “Every person is made up of five domains – mind, heart, body, spirit and social self – and each domain is significant and vital to health and well-being…in order to be whole and contented in our life, it’s important to recognize and learn to listen to all five domains of the self” (2013, p. 174). Moreover, Dr. Gatto-Walden and SENG Founder, Dr. James Webb, (2013) both speak to gifted individuals’ search for meaning and desire for their lives to have purpose. Giving fuels. What impact do you want to have in your local and extended communities? Ensuring your child has opportunities to contribute will enhance their easefulness and life satisfaction.
Do Curriculum, Instruction & Outcomes Align with Objectives?
Think of curriculum as the recipe, instruction as the process of cooking and outcomes as how the food tastes.
Depth, pace and complexity are the pillars of responsive gifted curriculum and instruction. Maupin (2014) informs, “Boredom, though a dangerous hindrance to effective learning for brains that crave motion and stimulation, can become even more troubling when it manifests itself in negative behaviors…Many bright children are adept at finding or manufacturing stimuli outside the curriculum when they do not find it challenging” (p.43). Consider the explicit, implicit and null (what is not being taught) curricula. Do they align with objectives? For example, if you want your child to be multicultural, provide opportunities to participate in bilingual communities where diversity is celebrated. Look for evidence of outcomes beyond test scores. If possible, talk with current and former families and staff. Ayers (2001) states, “greatness in teaching…requires a serious encounter with autobiography…because teachers, whatever else they teach, teach themselves” (p.122). The profound impact of authentic, caring relationships between child and teacher cannot be underestimated. Remain open to finding educators in unexpected places; some of the most important life lessons are not always learned from “teachers.”
Leadership Structure & Evaluation
“When the structure of schooling conflicts with our aspirations or with the innovations we hope to introduce, it is likely that the structure will alter the innovation or modify the aspiration rather than the reverse. The school changes the incoming message more than the incoming message changes the school” (Eisner, 1994, p.8).
Leadership structures within learning environments (whether home, school, or other program) implicitly teach about power. Traditional hierarchical models do not teach the sharing of power and collaboration we expect of students. Additionally, culture trickles down. Consider flipping assessment with emphasis at the top. How is the school board being assessed? Administration? Teachers? Consider having students play a role in evaluating teachers. Dr. James Delisle (2014) shares, “Gifted students are uncannily shrewd when it comes to determining which teachers are worth listening to, and which are not” (p.184). Rubrics can help effectively communicate expectations, ensure accountability, protect from perceptual biases while also providing a framework for communicating growth opportunities in a constructive and timely manner.
How will student growth be measured? Will there be multiple channels and modes to demonstrate learning? Three-two-one surveys are a quick, easy and highly informative tool. For example, share three learning activities that you most enjoyed, two things you are curious to learn more about and one thing you would change if you could.
Gifted individuals’ sensitivities are a source of power that can transform unjust systems, but also render them particularly vulnerable. Few organizations effectively delineate between conflict and bullying. Conflict is inevitable; however, we can protect from bullying and harassment. The key difference between the two is that with bullying there is an imbalance of power and intent to cause harm (Coloroso, 2009). Even organizations with clear policies and procedures often confuse the two. Never wanting to be a burden, empathic individuals can be stealth at hiding their struggles. To put an end to tragic outcomes, we must proactively protect all from both the physical and psychological injuries that can occur with bullying and harassment.
Finally, how will community development be assessed? If a program states it’s mission is to grow life-long learners, how will they evaluate and communicate progress in the direction of this goal? Thoughtfully crafted questions can illustrate internal growth opportunities and lend insight into the extent to which parents are viewed as partners. You might consider inquiring: What was the most challenging decision the community had to make recently? Who was invited to provide input? Who had final say? What was the impact of the decision?
Identifying beliefs, strengths and needs will empower you to make effective decisions in alignment with your personal learning objectives and values. I encourage you to reclaim your assessment power – how will you evaluate your child’s learning and community contributions? Rather than waiting for an educational superhero or heroine to land on your doorstep, remember that the power to create your child’s (and your own) learning path resides with you. Gifted individuals deserve enough fuel for their learning flames to burn brightly too. Shine on – the world needs you!
Ayers, Wlliam. (2001). To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
Coloroso, Barbara. (2009). The bully, the bullied and the bystander. Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle. New York: William Morrow Publishing Company.
Cooney, Nick. (2011). Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change. New York: Lantern Books.
Delisle, James. (2014). Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back). Waco: Prufrock Press, Inc.
Eisner, Elliott W. (1994). Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gatto-Walden, Patricia. (2013). Heart of the matter: Complexities of the highly gifted self. Neville, Christine; Piechowski, Michael and Tolan, Stephanie Editor (Ed.), Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child. Unionville: Royal Fireworks Press. (pp. 158-182).
Lind, Sharon. (2001). Overexcitability and the gifted. The SENGVine Newsletter. 1 (1) 3-6.
Maupin, Kate. (2014). Cheating, Dishonesty & Manipulation: Why Bright Kids Do It. Tucson: Great Potential Press.
Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules. Seattle: Pear Press.
Sisk, Dorothy and Torrance, Paul. (2001). Spiritual Intelligence: Developing Higher Consciousness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press.
Watts, R.J., Williams, N.C., & Jagers, R.J. (2003). Sociopolitical development. American Journal of Community Psychology, 1(1), 185-194.
Webb, James T. (2013). Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment and Hope. Tucson: Great Potential Press.
Kate Bachtel, M.Ed., is a multicultural, student-focused learner, educator and equity advocate dedicated to establishing healthy and sustainable learning communities to inspire and empower tomorrow’s innovators and changemakers. This is why she founded SoulSpark. From a family of educators, Kate has been studying education for as long as she can remember. She has served kindergarten-eighth grade children and families in a variety of roles in public and independent schools and most recently spent three years at the heart of the successful opening of a K-8 school for gifted learners. Kate has previously worked as a Talented and Gifted Education Advisor in Boulder Valley School District and as a director of a summer program for gifted learners. She is also a SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator. Kate has spoken at local, national and international conferences on topics including: Social and Emotional Development, Nurturing the Strengths-based Aspects of Sensitivities, Girls’ Leadership, Introduction to Giftedness, Growing Innovative, Introspective & Inspiring Leaders and Leadership Practices that Promote Student Empowerment & System Health.