FOCUSING A LENS ON THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN SOCIAL STUDIES
AND GIFTED EDUCATION
ALISON M SEWELL
PICTURE THIS ...
Imagine a regular year one and two class: a group of children discussing what their mum does best and how
they are responsible for helping her; another group reading about culturally diverse families from an independent
reading box; children at the computer publishing their family story; finally a group of gifted children completing
their contract at the 'Families in Space' Learning Centre. Such are the organisational dynamics needed to
meet the needs of the gifted in social studies in the regular classroom.
There is a dilemma faced everyday by teachers of gifted learners in regular New Zealand classrooms; see if
you recognise it. How can the curriculum be differentiated to meet the needs of identified gifted children? And
how can we catch potential talent and design curricula within the realms of nationally prescribed achievement
objectives? This article examines how the broad framework of knowledge and processes inherent in Social
Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 1997) holds the potential to solve this
Social studies education aims to "enable students to participate in a changing society as informed, confident
and responsible citizens" (Ministry of Education, 1997, p.8). Now, more than ever before, our society needs
people who have social understanding and civic efficacy; who have leadership ability; who think critically and
creatively; who can communicate and take action. We need to nurture these talents. Social studies teachers,
more than any other curriculum specialist, have the responsibility to identify and develop these talents.
It is argued that social studies and gifted education are natural extensions of each other; their goals, content
and processes being mutually reinforcing. This article will identify the conceptual foundations upon which this
claim is made. A review is conducted of classroom programmes that already harness the potential of social
studies to enrich learning for gifted children. Problems currently faced by teachers of gifted children are
identified and practical solutions are suggested to "seize the potential" (Keen, 1998, p.323) of social studies
to meet their needs.
ZOOMING IN ON THE CONCEPTUAL LINKS
Why is it said that "no subject in the school curriculum is better placed than social studies to offer the choice
of context, the opportunity for interactive research, the range of activity, the variety of method and the flexibility
of reporting which the gifted and talented require?" (Keen & Enright, 1995, p. 18). Social studies is an open-
ended, relatively undetermined and multifaceted area of learning. It is just these qualities that reflect
contemporary conceptions of gifted education. Indeed, the so-called weakness of social studies can now be
seen as its overriding strength; it is in the domain of gifted education that social studies finally stands tall. Let's
First, social studies education draws from a diverse range of social science and humanities disciplines, thus
pro\ iding a broad framework of conceptually controversial, complex and problematic content. A key aim of
social studies is to develop broad conceptual understandings of worldwide human activity (Barr, 1998).
Gifted children delight in finding subtle relationships across subject disciplines. Indeed, it is gifted
children who can "bridge the social science disciplines, synthesize them and give us visionary
leadership" (Stewart, 1985, p.242). Gifted learners are often conceptually advanced, relishing the
opportunity to grapple with abstract and complex social phenomena.
Second, social studies education is aimed at developing citizenship skills. An effective citizen must know how
to think independently, find information, explore value-laden issues, and sense out and creatively solve ill-
defined problems. They must also be able to make and act upon decisions for the common good. These skills,
developed via the social studies 'processes', are just those that gifted learners crave. Gifted children are both
problem-seekers and creative problem-solvers (Getzels & Csikszentimihalyi, 1975). They ask the questions
of ethical significance; And they have strong ideas and high verbal ability to voice them (Moltzen, 1996).
Social studies education offers gifted children the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, values and
dispositions associated with social understanding and civic efficacy.
Third, effective citizens need to understand who they are, defend their personal value positions, set and work
toward achieving personal goals, communicate their ideas and cooperate in teams. They also need to develop
empathy, compassion, forgiveness, a sensitivity to and an emotional awareness of themselves and others.
These are precisely some of the qualities identified in emotionally gifted children (Piechowski, 1997). Indeed,
Silverman (1993, cited in Moltzen, 1996, p.48) argues that "cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional
depth". Emotionally gifted children are often intensely interested and extraordinarily sensitive to the values and
morals inherent in human controversial issues; issues, such as justice, equality, honesty, reliability, respect,
aroha, sexism and racism, which are key social studies concepts. Strongly felt empathy about these value-
laden issues can readily move gifted children to action - the ultimate finale to any social studies inquiry.
Although social studies education addresses these three areas, gifted learners also need a chance to "express
themselves, be themselves, and find out who they are" (12 year old gifted girl, cited in Delisle, 1987, p78).
Keen (1995) argues that Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum (M inistry of Education, 1997)
does not really afford gifted children this opportunity. The 'values exploration' component of the curriculum
needs to be expanded for gifted children to include a broader range of self-expression. "Cinderella, [social
studies] it seems, may go to the ball and fall in love with Prince Charming, so long as she does not allow her
soul to get involved in the process" (Keen, 1995, p.20).
'Cinderella' has also abandoned her classroom where passive transmission of content prevailed (Soler &
Trewem, 1989). instead the new curriculum is grounded in social-construct! vist theory; a theory arguing that
knowledge and understandings are constructed by thinking about and interpreting new information from a
wide range of learning experiences set amidst a range of social settings. Newmann( 1991) translates this
theory into what he calls a 'thoughtful classroom' where learners are given time to persistently inquire 'why?';
think at higher levels; collect and analyse information; and make connections with prior knowledge. It also
means providing opportunities to explain conclusions, ask challenging questions, engage in authentic activities,
reflect, and set future learning goals. While gifted learners will thrive in classrooms based upon social
contructivism, competence in using all of these thinking and inquiry skills cannot be assumed. They will,
however, be quick to learn when shown the right strategies.
A SNAPSHOT OF GIFTED CHILDREN IN SOCIAL STUDIES CLASSROOMS
Feldhusen (1996) said "it's time to rethink programmes for gifted children and leam how to recognise and
nurture individual talents" (p.67). In light of his plea, let's look at how some New Zealand schools are doing
just this - synthesizing the literature and coming up with innovative programmes, that are qualitatively differentiated
in content, process and product. Five scenarios are described.
The Education Review Office (1998) reported on a Year 9 social studies lateral extension programme - Way
off the Wall (WOW). The programme was designed to capture interest and motivate gifted children by using
topics that will 'sow seeds and widen horizons' (p.27). Beginning sessions focused on learning styles and
develop cooperative and questioning skills. A learning log was kept to record individual responses to the
variety of learning activities to increase awareness of students' preferred learning styles. These students were
exposed to a diet of philosophy, photography, and world religions using resources such as guest speakers and
local community exhibitions.
The second scenario comes from a Palmerston North school where a gifted programme operates outside the
regular classroom. Children are selected for the programme in a multifaceted way: Progressive Achievement
Tests (PAT), past achievements, work habits and creative responses identified by teachers and students. One
resource teacher works with four groups for one hour each week using an adaptation ofRenzulli's (1977)
Enrichment Triad Model. A relevant cross-disciplinary theme is used to direct a range of exploratory Type I
activities (general activities to develop students interests). Groups then make their own decisions about possible
Type III investigations (inquiry into real-world issues). Specific skills are identified for this investigation and
these are developed in a range of Type 11 activities (developing the thinking and inquiry processes) (Renzulli,
1997). Themes and resources used in this gifted programme have ranged from social studies literature such as
Wily Wolves and Playful Pigs (Carryer & McGee, 1994), Future Problem Solving and Creative Problem
Solving on community related issues, and Bloom's Taxonomy to differentiate a social studies unit on life in
Other exciting innovations are happening in a Dunedin school. This primary school runs a long-term enrichment
programme to guide a selected group of gifted learners in a variety of sustained projects. An adaptation of the
Enrichment Triad Model (Renzulli, 1977) and Conceptual Themes (Riley, 1996) have been used together as
planning models to design an interdisciplinary curriculum using the theme Discovery. Children wrote
generalisations that their later work might verify or dispute, for example: 'Discovery is about human achievement;
Discovery involves change; Discovery is a way of learning'. The topic was mindmapped from which specific
social studies areas were chosen for independent investigation. These areas included archaeological discoveries,
famous New Zealanders' discoveries, space travel, and discovery of the Titanic.
A second innovation at this Dunedin School saw a group of year 5 and 6 gifted children undertake an oral
history project. Prior to writing the interview questions, trips were taken to community libraries to view
photographs and a published oral history. The children also practised the skills of writing open-ended questions,
listening, interviewing, using a video camera and editing theirwork. Their questions, based around the theme
school life, were asked to a selection of ex-pupils who attended the school between 1920 and 1990. Questions
were transcribed from the video-taped interview, providing information from which the group "took away a
slice of the school's history" (Tilson, 1998, personal communication). These new understandings were recently
shared with a special audience of past students as part of the school's 140th celebration and Dunedin's 150th anniversary.
Another example of sharing the final products of a differentiated curriculum with a specialist audience was
displayed at a Social Studies Expo. These exhibitions provide an authentic venue to promote the variety of
learning products of all children but particularly those of gifted children. This year a Social Studies Expo was
held using the theme Celebrating Our Older People. This theme provided the catalyst for children to interact
with older members of their local community, question, challenge, think and act, and in the process bring
history alive. Are not these just some of the attributes of a differentiated curriculum for gifted learners? Expo
competitions are also provided to further inspire children to "gain both the content knowledge and process
skills necessary for successful social studies learning" (Kames & Riley, 1998, p.26). These competitions
can also create a sense of pride in achievement for all students, their schools and community. Working
together to create these positive personal and community outcomes are the hallmarks of excellent
The final example of good classroom practice is 'The Values in Social Studies Project' (Keown, 1996). The
project investigated effective learning and teaching strategies for values exploration within a social studies unit
Violence in the Community. Findings from this project highlight the utility of the 'community of inquiry' model
to engage all children in values exploration, but particularly, to identify and challenge gifted children in the
regular classroom. The model is based upon Philosophy For Children (Lipman, Sharp & Oscanyan, 1977)
where discussion communities are formed, thereby differentiating the process of learning. Students decide on
a topic and an agenda for discussion is agreed upon, thus differentiating the content. The teacher's role is one
of participating in discussion alongside the students, but also skilfully facilitating discussion forward or in new
directions. A sense of mutual cooperation results as they think about, question, debate and argue ideas. As
such, the community of inquiry approach "creates a platform for values discussion that is safe, supportive and
yet challenging for all" (Keown, 1996,p.33).
THE LENS REFOCUSED ON NEW SOLUTIONS
The examples provided illustrate how some New Zealand educators of gifted children were motivated to act;
indeed, efficacious to implement gifted education theory. They have detoured into new and self-directed
terrain. Each solution saw gifted learners and their educators thread their own needles and weave onto the
warps and wefts that make up the reality of their classroom, a design that is richly textured and uniquely theirs.
However, these programmes were all developed within the theoretical parameters of developing a differentiated
curriculum. The programmes offered were balanced, meaningful, challenging, values based, and active. Not
only are these some of the hallmarks of a differentiated curriculum, they are the principles summarised by
National Council for the Social Studies (1993) as creating powerful social studies learning. Let's take a close-
up of the parameters of these differentiated programmes.
The programmes offered varied, for example. Creative and Future Problem Solving, Philosophy for Children,
Oral History and the Enrichment Triad Model. Regardless of the design they all invited active participation
and meaningful knowledge construction. They gave real challenges to think about, real issues to grapple with,
real social decisions to make. The gifted students were motivated design their own differentiated products,
resulting in oral histories, exhibitions, and presentations to selected audiences. These products provided authentic
assessment and opportunity for "candid, vigorous and uninhibited discussion" (Shermis, 1989, p.257).
The programmes offered a balance of learning within the regular classroom and withdrawal from it. The
content was challenging, student-directed and integrated across other Essential Learning Areas. It was also
value-based and often of a controversial nature. Primary sources of information were mainly used, with
variety gained from children's literature, media, galleries and libraries. A wide range of relevant and meaningful
enrichment activities were designed to give opportunity for leadership, problem solving and higher level thinking
where creative ideas were synthesised, judgements made and action taken.
Regardless of the programme teachers choose to design they must do so alongside gifted children. Enriching
learning for gifted children in social studies is thus about walking a tight rope. There needs to be autonomy
sprinkled with teacher direction; freedom mixed with compliance, organisation and preparation amidst chaos;
flexibility within plans. Perhaps the ideal teacher is "a guide in the Hall of Unlimited Learning" (Monroe, 1979,
p. 105); a partner in life-long learning, creative and enthusiastic and prepared to stand up for gifted children;
ready to take risks in curriculum innovation; committed to developing talent. 'A gifted teacher opens your mind to help you with your life' (DeLisle, 1987, pi 7).
SO WHY ISN'T THE PICTURE BETTER DEVELOPED?
These are just five examples of classroom applications where social studies content, process and product
have been differentiated for gifted children. They are a result of inspired teachers drawing on the expertise of
committed researchers, both passionate about meeting the special learning needs of gifted children. While
there are other good, but unpublished things happening in New Zealand classrooms for the gifted, the question
remains - what is it that stops more of these great things happening? Four main reasons are suggested.
First, there is the problem of teachers trying to meet the high expectations held of them with insufficient time
and resources to do it in. Social problems of poverty, inappropriate behaviour, drug abuse and political issues
of pay parity, rapid curriculum change and high student-teacher ratios, are examples of barriers to designing
and delivering a differentiated curriculum. These social and political problems are more demanding, immediate
and obvious, serving to blur the focus on the quietly simmering learning needs of the gifted student. Second,
there is the problem of casting a wide enough net to identify potentially gifted children and then puzzling over
how best to meet their needs. Even when a decision is made to identify and meet the needs of the gifted, the
discovery of so many activities and approaches can create a 'rabbit in the headlights' effect. Third, New
Zealand has yet to work through its 'tall poppy syndrome'. The health of this syndrome is evidenced in a
recent media headline: Parents Fear Cash Grab For Clever Kids (Hotere, 1998, p. 106). The majority of
politicians and parents, it seems, are simply not ready to invest in our greatest resource - gifted children.
Finally, even if teachers are inspired to overcome these odds, they face the loneliness and isolation of trying to
maintain their enthusiasm and continue to build on the good things they are doing in their classrooms. Clearly,
the road these teachers walk is fraught with potholes and broken signs, a road that has the potential to
become less travelled.
THE LAST FRAME: REWINDING THE FILM
Without doubt, social studies education is 'hand in glove' witli gifted education. Gifted children are drawn to
the higher level thinking required to process information about human society into deep conceptual
understanding. Gifted children also are capable of generalising and transferring these understandings into their
own lives a (Feldhusen & VanTassel-Baska, 1989). A strong knowledge base can be built in areas that relate
directly to their lives such as politics, history, economics, sociology, psychology, even environmental studies.
All of these areas come under the umbrella of social studies education. However, social studies will not make
junior historians, geographers, sociologists or economists (Schillings, 1994), rather it "works to create caring,
informed and participating human beings and citizens" (p. 197), who in the case of the gifted, are capable of
making a powerful difference to society.
But these 'differences' will not be seen until change occurs at local and national level. National guidelines or
policy must be formulated to direct funding and expertise into gifted education. Support networks must be
established to share ideas and coordinate research so that it finds its way into the classroom. It is attitudes,
however, that must change; attitudes that are themselves at the heart of social studies education; New Zealand
attitudes that place equality over excel lence. To think about these goals using an either/or mentality is to usurp
sound educational practice (Colangelo & Davis, 1997). What is needed is equitable educational opportunity;
to deny this and give to gifted children the same education as their less able peers, is to deny them their right
to achieve excellence.
It is perhaps ironic, that it may take today's gifted children to recognise these illogical inconsistencies, and use
their talents to resolve the moral and ethical dilemmas that underpin this situation. Once social attitudes change,
the path is clear for a new generation of gifted kids to achieve excellence. The gifted win, society wins. So,
what are we waiting for? Take one... action!
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