Volume: 5, Issue: 3


Creating a Climate of Giftedness to Promote Achievement
Биггс, Дон [about]

KEY WORDS: youth development, urban education, gifted education, representation, labeling.
ABSTRACT: In their review of after-school programs, Lauver, Little, and Weiss (2004) found that most are not appealing enough to keep students coming back. Why might this be the case? In this paper, the author suggests two primary barriers to the successful development of innovative programs for inner city youth. The first involves how the program represents the lives of participants and their families. The second involves the nature of activities used in the program to achieve its goals. These concerns are discussed in the context of a 15-year project, Saturday Seminars for Urban Scholars, which was designed to develop the talents of all students.


This paper presents a rationale for enrichment programs modeled on gifted education practices to improve academic motivation among inner city youth in the United States. We review two issues that can impact the development of programs for youth growing up in urban communities. The first concerns representation, or how we describe students and their educational needs. The second concerns the quality of instructional services and how to design activities that will promote student involvement (Hilliard & Amankwatia, 2003).

In discussing these two issues, we will argue that the principal barrier to academic success, particularly for low-income students of color, involves how they and their capacity to learn is represented in the educational climate of programs they inhabit. We will describe a solution that involves attending to the subjective experiences of students. A successful innovative program will develop a climate that students experience as a means of learning new skills, and developing their talents. In this sense, we conceptualize our effort as a helping process through which teachers and academic guides establish themselves as credible sources of influence.

Our approach contrasts remediation and enrichment approaches for serving low-income African and Latino American youth. Remediation involves reviewing or re-teaching material that was taught on a previous occasion. The approach is predicated on two assumptions: 1) that low performing students need a slower instructional pace to learn new concepts, and 2) that these students must demonstrate mastery of certain basic, lower order skills before they engage in challenging, hands-on activities that aim to promote higher order thinking. Evidence does not support the assumption that they lack capacity or intellectual ability. Instead, measures of their ability and their performance suggest they underperform (Steele & Aronson, 1997, p.798). Additionally, years of research on gifted educational practices have successfully demonstrated that all students can benefit from a challenging, enriched curriculum (Reis, Gentry & Park, 1995; Renzulli, 1999).

We present our rationale while describing a “work in progress,” titled Saturday Seminars for Urban Scholars. This program builds on previous efforts to create developmental experiences that promote student involvement in their schools and communities (see Biggs & Colesante, 2000). Our goal is to help students experience a gifted climate where their potential is taken seriously. Learning experiences represent students as potential scholars who can apply scientific processes to answer questions in a variety of disciplines.

Representation, Labeling, and Ordinary Knowledge about Students

Many problems in the education of inner city youth stem from issues of representation (Biggs & Colesante, 2000; Bruner, 1996). For us, representation is about how we treat students. It is a moral issue, the resolution of which can negatively or positively impact the lives of children, and those who are responsible for their care. As Buzzelli and Johnston (2002) explain, “representation is not merely a matter of presenting generalized information about huge numbers of peoples categorized in particular ways; it is also a question of reflecting the lived experience of the children in the classroom. To the extent that children’s experiences are not represented, their lives – in the richest sense of the term – are not present in the classroom either. And this is a moral matter” (p. 102). We are interested in how the meaning ascribed to students and their behavior (how they are represented in an educational setting) structures how educators think about them and their needs, and how this shapes the activities that are developed for them. These are moral considerations which have real consequences on the lives of children in educational programs. Labels like “at-risk” or “low performing” can close off the possibility that their skills and abilities might not be the major obstacles to their academic achievement (Brannon, 1991).

When it comes to education, what do students and parents from inner city communities describe as their educational needs? African and Latino American youth are as likely as youth from other ethnic backgrounds to see education as important in their lives (Steinberg, Dornbusch & Brown, 1992). Indeed, researchers consistently find that African American students have high aspirations, lots of confidence in their abilities, and high levels of self-esteem (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002). Moreover, their parents value education highly, and have the right mixture of warmth, responsiveness and demandingness to promote success in school (Dornbusch, Ritter, Liederman, Roberts & Fraliegh, 1987). Given this, it is not surprising that they resist joining programs that try to control their behavior, label them as deviant or deficient, offer them little in the way of recognition for personal accomplishments and skills, or hold them to low levels of expectations (Heath & McLaughlin, 1993).

For many who develop programs or design curricula, folk knowledge and “common sense” about youth growing up in urban communities prevents them from noticing the positive characteristics of students and their parents. This “common sense” includes the use of labels to define the current situation. Rather than understanding students from the students’ point of view, labels are used to think about the vast number of students involved in or affected by educational initiatives. These labels may have a scientific basis and have the credibility of scientific constructs. They also reflect the narrative canons and folk knowledge of a culture influenced by time and place. These labels are in flux, and often they transition to some new way of representing reality. For example, yesterday’s “disadvantaged youth” became an “at-risk student” in the 1980’s and then became today’s “low performing student.”

In racially marked environments that characterize American public schools, positive descriptions of African American youth are few and far between. In comparison to their White Peers, they are more likely to be labeled “mentally retarded,” and “emotionally disturbed,” and half as likely to be labeled “gifted and talented.” They also are less likely to be referred for advanced placement opportunities, or to be recommended for awards and recognitions (Tannenbaum & Ruck, 2007). They are often compared negatively to their peers, particularly when tests of achievement or ability are involved. However, when such comparisons reflect more positively on them (as in the case of underage drinking and tobacco use, or use of illicit drugs like marijuana, heroin, or cocaine), they are less frequently referenced.  At the turn of the 20th century, Dubois pointed out how the experience of being African American and labeled a problem has been a persistent part of public dialogues in the United States. Although not asked bluntly how it feels to be a problem, Dubois described “being someone’s problem” as a “strange experience” (Dubois, 1903/1969, p. 44). In other words, labels do not merely reflect preferences in nomenclature; they have meaning and consequence in the lives of individuals.

Quality of Instructional Services

Based on our readings of research on effective classrooms and schools, we identified three elements as a foundation for our intervention:

  • Interpersonal support and academic scaffolding on tasks that are perceived as challenging;
  • Enrichment opportunities to promote talents and emerging talents;
  • Assessment practices that lessen stereotype threat, and promote self-regulated learning.

Interpersonal support and scaffolding

In effective schools and classrooms, teachers use multiple motivational strategies, create challenging content-driven activities and up-hold very high “failure is not an option” standards with all students (Pressley, et al., 2004; Pressley, et al., 2006). They include teachers who build relationships with a sense of trust so that instruction, feedback, and support would be taken seriously. They scaffold for success, providing just enough support to get students on track to solving a problem, while not solving it for them. Finally, they teach the value of hard work by rewarding effort and fostering an appreciation for learning (see Hilliard & Amankwatia, 2003; Pressley, Raphael, et al., 2004). Giving challenging work can convey respect for their potential and recognize their abilities.

Our programs included academic guides who were students in a teacher education program or volunteers from a local church. Delpit (2003) provides guidance for the preparation of new teachers. The first step is to believe in the children and their capabilities, humanity, and spiritual character. Secondly, it’s important that these educators “fight foolishness,” particularly in rejecting remedial approaches. Instead, they need to challenge students with creative, demanding, high level material. Thirdly, if they are to be effective in educating low-income students of color, they must learn about who these students are, and not what they assume them to be. This means that they develop relationships which encourage students to share stories about their lives, and in particular, their educational aspirations. The goal is to help teachers adopt a narrative view of students, listen to them, and understand the stories they tell about their lives (see Colesante & Biggs, 2004).

Enrichment Experiences

Renzulli and colleagues describe enrichment experiences that recognize and support the talents of all students (Reis, Gentry & Park, 1995; Renzulli, 1999). They include activities that are challenging, meaningful, interesting, fun, and driven by student choice. Because they are based on choice, projects and tasks are the result of knowing what students want to learn and what they want to be able to do. In such a situation, students feel a sense of ownership because they are consulted regarding decisions that impact the program. The instructional climate is not so serious that students feel constrained in expressing their views and ideas; indeed laughter is recognized as a natural and effective strategy to break-up tension or manage frustration.

We developed enrichment clubs and seminars, which we modeled on Renzulli’s “enrichment clusters” (see Reis, Gentry & Park, 1995). These included non-graded groups of students from inner city middle schools who shared common interests, and came together during a Saturday program to pursue their interests. Students were encouraged to join these groups to maximize their potential. Participation in these experiences was represented to students as an honor and as recognition of their high aspirations.

Projects were developed in consultation with students and teachers from local inner city schools. They included both disciplinary and cross-disciplinary topics. Project leaders included faculty at the secondary level, the college level, as well as experts from the community. Students had opportunities to discuss their interests and aspirations in a safe environment in which their ideas were respected and explored. The goal was to help them develop products, services, or performances for real audiences.

Practices to reduce stereotype threat

Since many of our students were African or Latino American, we consider the impact of what Steele called “stereotype threat” and how it can influence their educational goals and planning (Steele, 1997; 2003). They had opportunities to interact with diverse students and professionals who strongly identify with academic success. We also encouraged them to set academic goals and compare their performance to the high goals they set for themselves. Though we generally discourage competitions which lead them to compare their performance to others in the program, when we do this, it is in the context of games and fun rather than assessments of their abilities. Student progress is assessed frequently including daily feedback from their guides and from self-evaluations of their progress. This feedback is informational rather than evaluative. It is designed to help students connect their own high standards to measureable indicators of their performance over time.

Saturday Seminars: A Demonstration Program

We created a program, called Saturday Seminars for Urban Scholars, to demonstrate elements of a “climate of giftedness” for youth attending inner city middle schools. Learning and developmental experiences focused on the student as an inquirer, who applies knowledge and problem-solving processes on inductive tasks. During the seminars, students engaged in problem and project based activities that led to original ideas, products, or artistic presentations of high quality.

Saturday Seminars were designed to present students with challenging instruction and positive recognition for their participation in project based learning experiences. Our first task concerned representation, or how we describe the educational needs of students. This entailed efforts to change how students, parents, and teachers talked about the educational needs of youth in these schools. When we visited schools and talked with students about their experiences, we found them trying to convince teachers, peers, and even their parents that they were not “dumb” or in need of remediation. When asked what they want, they often said that they were interested in programs that did more than help them complete homework assignments and review materials they learned earlier in the year. They were interested in knowing more about the kinds of work that college bound youth do in school or that college students do for their classes. With these suggestions in mind, we initiated a program of activities around a model developed for gifted youth.

Two projects highlight the type of experiences included in the program. The first involves a project led by a professor from the psychology department with the assistance of students in the campus psychology club. A goal was to give them a taste for research in the social sciences. On the first day, the professor provided a brief introduction to the field of perception in psychology and how one’s thinking and prior experiences can impact what one sees. For example, there is a well-known ambiguous photo of a woman who can be seen as elderly or young. When asked to think of grandparents or to look at pictures of the elderly, people are “primed” to see an elderly woman in the picture. Over the next few days, students planned a study to examine the effect of priming on perception. They collected data on campus, summarized the results, and created a poster board to report on their findings. A poster presentation was selected because it is a common product in the field of psychology (i.e. it is authentic to the field). Students were not only learning about psychology and perception, they were also learning that they can change their actions by thinking differently about their worlds.

Another program introduced students to applications of mathematics in electronics. We arranged visits to a nationally recognized university with a professor who teaches electronics to undergraduates. He introduced students to tools of the laboratory, safety procedures, and schematic designs for building of electrical circuits. Students practiced building circuits of greater and greater complexity, and applied the formula (V = IR) to these tasks. On the final day, they re-wired the flash bulb of a disposable camera to turn it into a strobe light with a light sensor for the on off switch. When the lights in the lab were turned off, some had camera’s bulbs that began flashing, while others didn’t. Those whose strobe lights worked became assistants to help the others to go back to “work the problem” by checking their wiring, redoing their calculations and finding their mistakes.                       

Concluding Comments                    

Taking the view of inner city youth and their families can lead educators to recognize their high aspirations, and understand why they reject remedial approaches to improving their performance in school. We focus on the development of experiences that support their gifts and talents. A major obstacle to creating such innovative climates for African American and Latino youth derives from “common sense” that represents these students in terms of achievement gaps and assumed deficits in their capacity to learn.

We discussed our approach to instruction and curriculum design by describing a “work in progress” which we refer to as Saturday Seminars for Urban Scholars. The thrust of this program was to provide challenging experiences in a supportive, motivating environment. Rather than labeling some students as gifted, the idea was to provide every student in the program with opportunities, resources, and encouragement to achieve his or her potential. Our focus has been to create a “climate of giftedness” rather than to fix deficiencies.


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