Sometimes, categorizing and labeling students can be challenging. However, there are instances when identifying qualities that students may have in common can be extremely valuable. This is the case when it comes to identifying students who may be classified as bright or gifted—and although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are distinct differences that will impact how you can best provide support, prepare instruction, and deliver enrichment experiences for students that will lead to successful outcomes.
Here we define each group, exploring the differences, and uncovering teaching approaches that you can use to best support these learners.
What makes a student “bright”?
The term “bright” is often applied to the eager students—the ones who love school, are enthusiastic, and seek to please teachers and adults. These students work hard and readily participate in class discussions and activities. Bright children know the answers and raise their hands first. School is a place where they feel successful, affirmed, and self-satisfied. They also understand the rules and routines of the classroom and thrive by knowing what is expected of them. They make friends easily and enjoy the company of same-age peers. When their work in the classroom is rewarded—extrinsically and intrinsically—they feel a deep sense of satisfaction, which furthers their desire to participate.
Providing enrichment to bright learners is often easier, as they more readily communicate their interests, learning styles, and aptitudes. These students will engage in extended projects and often include other students that require encouragement.
What makes a student “gifted”?
“Gifted” learners are a significantly smaller group identified through educational and psychological testing. These children are likely to challenge the status quo. They will frequently attempt to take a lesson plan in a different direction based on their own curiosity. Nothing will be taken at face value—these students will challenge the material, questions, format, and delivery. They are also likely to be perfectionists who obsess over tiny details. Gifted learners will often involve their entire body in the learning process, which can be disruptive and distracting in a classroom. Or, they may appear to be uninterested even when absorbing everything that is going on. Gifted students often struggle socially, preferring the company of adults to peers.
Enrichment for gifted children is often far more self-directed. These students will gravitate toward a project or activity that is too large in scope and may need guidance to trim it to a realistic size. Gifted students tend to veer off course because something interests them. For this reason, teachers should have frequent check-ins against a project rubric to discuss progress and obstacles. If gifted children are part of a regular classroom, these projects are often completed independently. Depending on the individual, enrichment may not be the time to build social and emotional skills with peers. Rather, enrichment for them is about feeding the intellect and building problem-solving skills.
How can scaffolding support both gifted and bright learners?
Imagine standards as a number line—with each standard being a specific number. Scaffolding is a three-dimensional view above and below that same number line. As an educator, if your scope and sequence dictate that you are to teach shape partitions this week, you would need to consider enrichment options for all students above, below, and on that standard. Enrichment provides supported opportunities—within the assigned standard—to increase engagement and, thereby, deepen the learning experience. Keep in mind that many standards “spiral” from grade to grade, providing ever-deepening learning encounters.
Opportunities for enrichment can and should be embedded for all learners, including those with differing learning abilities and those who struggle to meet grade-level requirements. Therefore, it is imperative to stop looking at enrichment as an extra step to the instructional process. Students who are provided with enrichment experiences are more likely to persist in the learning process. Caught in the thick of planning for struggling learners and on-grade-level scope and sequence requirements, teachers often feel restricted by standards instead of being able to explore options for scaffolding and expanded learning opportunities.
One strategy for successful enrichment—for all types of learners—is applying a blended learning approach within and beyond the classroom. Digital learning tools allow guided exploration of an infinite array of topics. The trick is to use a scaffolding sequence to tie areas of interest and aptitude to curricular standards, topics, and skills. Provide students with simple rubrics that are easy to understand.
Learners can create individual project plans with written goals, timeframes, and opportunities for self-reflection. The critical element with this process is flexibility, allowing students to modify their project plans or change direction based on what they discover. Most importantly, this type of enrichment can also demonstrate that failure is part of the learning process. Students who are encouraged to think boldly and creatively are going to have projects that just don’t work—that’s OK. Learning how to fail, regroup, replan, and reorganize are valuable life lessons.
When we understand enrichment as a critical part of the learning process for all students, it modifies how we guide instruction. From an intrinsic and implicit standpoint, enrichment provides a level of investment in the learning process that can increase confidence, self-esteem, and engagement. Do you want to learn more about enrichment? Explore our blog post on classroom strategies to support advanced learners at all grade levels.