Gifted, talented, exceptional, intellectual - we teachers love having students we can attach these labels to. Among the sea of pupils who seem to forget everything they learned more than five minutes ago, it is nice to think that tomorrow an individual might remember something you taught them today.
Some of these students, however, are less keen on the labels. Many academically gifted pupils are reluctant to make public displays of their intelligence, preferring to confine their skills to low-profile activities such as reading lengthy novels, completing sudoku puzzles, designing computer viruses or hacking into the school's online gradebook.
The idea of hauling them out of their shells and lambasting them for wasting their talent is tempting, but it is the wrong approach. You need to be more savvy. You need to look at why that particular student is unwilling to embrace their gifts and formulate a personalised plan to tackle the problem.
Here are the stories of four students for whom I did just that. Hopefully, they will help to steer you in the right direction when dealing with your own reluctant star pupils.
The overwhelmed talent: Maggie
Maggie was extremely bright, but frequently stressed by the expectations placed on her by the school and her parents. She eventually stopped completing assignments and started hiding her talent at every opportunity.
Following the usual behaviour management policy to the letter here would have been counterproductive. Instead, I decided to support her and adapt the work. If the assignment was missing, I kept her back after class or after school and asked how I could help, rather than chastising or reminding her how high my expectations were for someone so smart. I let her know I understood that being a good student could be stressful and reminded her that I wanted her to challenge herself without becoming overwhelmed. She responded positively and re-engaged with the work.
A helpful tactic here is to give the student some ownership of their learning. This type of pupil excels with advanced work, but more so when she has input on the subject matter and type of assignments she is working on. This shows her that you understand her specific needs, which will encourage her to use her skills to the fullest extent.
The embarrassed talent: Stuart
Stuart always got high scores on tests and his homework was consistently excellent and handed in on time. But in class he would never speak and the work he produced was average at best. If you directed a question towards him, he would give a vague, uninterested response.
Just as there are students who use certain behaviours to compensate for their lack of academic skill, pupils like Stuart may use similar techniques to hide their abilities for fear of standing out or being ridiculed. This situation is common in schools where the majority of students do not perform well. Without teacher intervention, a student such as Stuart may decide that it is preferable to reduce his effort and appear to be "like everyone else".
Forcing a public display of Stuart's skills would have elicited more reluctance. Instead, I offered him an opportunity to demonstrate his talents more discreetly. I gave him more challenging options for homework, handed him extension tasks without making a big deal of it and put him in groups for team tasks where I knew he would be less afraid to show his ability. I never singled him out in front of the whole class. In short, I let him thrive on the quiet because this was preferable to him not thriving at all.
The oblivious talent: Sarah
Sarah always looked bewildered when taking tests and would hand them in saying, "I know I failed this", despite the fact that she always did well. When she was asked a question, she gave the correct answer but with an utter lack of confidence.
This lack of self-belief meant that Sarah never pushed herself. She was in mid-level sets for all subjects, although her work hinted at ability at a much higher level.
With students like Sarah, you need to take a risk and push them on. I was confident that she could cope in a higher set, so I transferred her. I constantly made it clear that I thought she belonged there and told her that she needed to believe the same. I supported her throughout and she thrived on the increased challenge.
The lazy talent: Johnny
Johnny was highly capable but preferred to do as little work as possible. He relied on his intellect to produce impressive test scores and did little throughout the rest of the year. I tried giving him extra challenges, but he just responded with witty and sarcastic comments. He was tricky to manage, crafting elaborate reasons to be off-task or, even better, out of the room.
I found that a great way to motivate Johnny was to appeal to his ego and desire for stimulation. When offering advanced assignments, I made sure they included perks such as more options, flexible due dates, opportunities to work with others or even working outside the classroom. I denied all privileges if he played up. This approach worked because there was a sense of prestige and freedom attached to the challenging work - a feeling that I was respecting him rather than simply pushing him on and that I was offering him the responsibility he deserved.
Seth Robey is a science teacher in Illinois, US
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