In our most recent project, Cultivating Diverse Talents in STEM, we identified high school students for a special 6-week internship program with scientists on campus of a R1 university in the Southwestern USA. Two different methods were used: (M1) Grade Point Average (GPA), teacher recommendation, and student self-statements; (M2) Performance-based assessments of creative problem solving, concept maps, and solving math problems with varying degrees of structure. We collected the same information on all students regardless of the methods used to select students for the program, interviewed them about their experiences, observed their performance in the internship program, and followed them into their senior year of high school. One of our first significant experiences was during the field testing of the performance assessments. At a small high school in a remote area on an American Indian reservation, while we were assessing the students, one young man told us his goal was to become an auto mechanic, and that he wanted to apprentice with a local mechanic. After we scored the assessments, we were surprised to find that he was exceptional in ALL the areas we assessed: spatial analytical, math problem solving, concept maps in life and physical science, the naturalist performance assessment, and mechanical-technical performance assessment (Figure 3).
Fig 3 DISCOVER Mechanical Technical Assessment for High School Students.
Most outstanding was his performance on the mechanical-technical assessment. His final product was a machine that could run in 4 different ways: one as the usual 4-wheeled vehicle, one as a vehicle that ran on the two front wheels, one that ran on the two back wheels, and one that ran upside-down. All were powered by gears and could be operated remotely. Figure 4 is his profile of strengths on the performance assessment. When the research team gave the results to the administrators of the school, they were shocked to find he was exceptional because his grades and achievement were relatively average. However, when June showed the results to his science teacher, he said “I have told him he is capable of being an engineer and needs to think beyond being a mechanic. Please show him your results because they will mean more coming from someone at the university.” When June showed the profile to the student, he said “Wow!” She said, “That’s what we said!” They continued the conversation and she suggested to him that he could be successful at anything he attempted because his performance was so high in all areas. She also said “You can go beyond fixing cars to designing them!” A year later, the science teacher told us he had changed his mind about school, and had borrowed money to apply to a 2-year college. Several months later, he borrowed money to travel to the college for an interview. He was accepted and awarded a scholarship. For us, this example demonstrates the importance of administering performance assessments in a variety of areas and including challenges to students’ thinking and creative problem solving. From another perspective, it also demonstrates the power of helping students see their strengths in a way they can understand. He had participated in these creative problem-solving exercises and later received the results in a graphic form as well as from someone he considered an expert.
Fig 4 Profile of strengths of student aspiring to be a mechanic. The red line shows the average of all students assessed from similar schools.
Another example from this same project comes from a larger school on an American Indian reservation. We administered concept maps as an alternative to achievement tests that generally measure students’ knowledge in a “one-right-answer” format. Concept Maps (CM), on the other hand, are methods for assessing students’ understanding of the complexity of concepts and their interrelationships. Students were given a list of concepts taken from the state curriculum standards and asked to arrange them in hierarchical order, make “propositions” by connecting two concepts and writing a connecting word on the line that connects them, were encouraged to make as many connections as possible, and to add examples from their own experiences. One of the most outstanding concept maps we scored (Figure 5) was constructed by a young woman who had failed general science! When the school records were reviewed, administrators found that the reason she had failed was not because of her performance on a final exam or on any test of knowledge, but because she had missed too many days of school. More investigation showed that the reason for these absences was related to family responsibilities, or at least her perception of her responsibility to her younger brother. The young woman was not willing to leave her younger brother alone or with their alcoholic mother.
Fig 5 Life Science concept map demonstrating high level understanding of the complexity of concepts and their interrelationships.
One final example of the failure of methods most often used to identify gifted students is also from the same project. Two students with very low GPAs demonstrated their outstanding abilities through the new alternative assessments designed for the project. A young man with the lowest GPA of all students evaluated for the project (2.1, a C average) came to our attention because of his consistently high performance on the two concept map assessments, the spatial analytical performance assessment, and the mechanical-technical performance assessment. Here are some excerpts from the reports of observers who watched him and those who scored his products: “Analytical. DT uses logical strategies for analyzing relationships and patterns. He organizes ideas and applies sophisticated reasoning when making complex shapes. DT visualizes patterns, shapes, and figures. He applies his analytical skills across spatial analytical activities, life sciences, and physical sciences. Creative Problem Solving. In both the life sciences and physical sciences, DT makes high level connections between ideas that may seem unrelated to others. He identifies a variety of ways that shapes can be combined to make patterns or larger shapes and transforms a visual image into various forms. He designs and makes his own products by applying various techniques and strategies. DT applies his creative problem solving skills across the content areas.”
Fig 6 DISCOVER Assessment profile for student with a grade point average (GPA) of 2.3 (C average). The red line shows the average of all students assessed from similar schools.
A young woman with a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 2.3, which is essentially a C+ average, came to our attention first during the performance-based assessments (Figure 6). She was rated in the highest category, which is reserved for the top 1% of students, on the general spatial analytical ability and in the second highest category, which is the top 25%, in three of the other areas assessed. She was accepted into the internship program based on these scores. Not only was she an outstanding participant in the program, but she continued her exceptional performance during her final year of high school. She was dedicated to continuing the research she had started during the internship program, and not only continued this research, but became a leader in her school and local community, advocating passionately for ending the mining of uranium because of its effects on the health of local residents, especially due to the contamination of underground water sources. Although eligible for and recruited by colleges and universities, she has decided to delay college entrance while she continues and escalates her advocacy efforts.
Our last example comes from the Ruamano Project in New Zealand (Sylva & Scobie-Jennings, 2015). In this project, the DISCOVER team, along with Professors Tracy Riley and Melinda Webber, collaborated with teachers from two high schools serving predominantly Maori students (Katrina Sylva and Emma Scobie-Jennings). Teachers implemented the Real Engagement in Active Problem Solving (REAPS) model as a way to engage students in community problem solving. At one school, the model was implemented with identified gifted students, but at the other school, the REAPS model was implemented in all beginning science classes and was a vehicle for identifying gifted students through their engagement and participation in creative problem solving. One part of the teaching process teachers saw as particularly effective was taking the students out into the field to investigate problems and situations in person. One teacher commented that this was probably one of the students’ most engaged days. They were out there “doing it”. Students also were very positive about going out doing water testing, and had many ideas about further experimentation they would like to do, showing their scientific thinking: “I think it would’ve been cool to see if there was a difference between the layers of sand where they (the fish they were studying) liked to be because like when you look it up online it’s like ‘Ah, yeah in the damp sand’ like there’s a lot of damp sand. You know, it would’ve been cool to see if that made a difference with the minerals and stuff.”
Using traditional identification methods (entrance testing, feeder school and teacher identification), only one Māori boy and no Pasifika students would have been identified. For this project, a lesson observation sheet was developed to make certain students were given opportunities to display their gifts and talents. A new student identification document was produced. As a result of this innovation another gifted Māori boy, a gifted Māori girl, and a gifted Pasifika girl were identified. When teachers were asked about the identification of students with gifts and talents, they had clearly shifted their perceptions of giftedness and began to see their students in a different light: “I did recognise he had talents that I hadn’t seen before. Maybe not so much in an academic sense but his ability to relate to the people in his group and to contribute. That I hadn’t seen before.” Teachers appreciated the social gifts displayed through project work, “Especially with our Maori kids their gifts and talents often come in how they relate with others and the ability of that community feeling that they enjoy.”
In the DISCOVER Projects, we believe that if educators want children and young people to show what they know and can do, the young people need to be engaged in the task. If they are not engaged, they will not, and often cannot, show their abilities. Some children are motivated and engaged in completing tests and filling in bubble sheets. Many are not. Some are engaged in making things. Some are not. Some become engaged when they tell or write stories. Others do not. Many become engaged when they work with others. Some do not. To find those children and young people who can benefit from and need a special program to challenge their thinking and problem solving, educators need to design and use a variety of methods to enable the majority of students to become engaged in activities and experiences they enjoy, thus showing what they are truly capable of doing.
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Posted as part of the 2019 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.
Click here to read other 2019 blogs from the tour.
Photos credits: Bagas Muhammad 1142653 and Charlein Gracia 682270 both on Unsplash.com