Imagine watching the same sitcom episode for weeks and only being able to watch a new episode after the whole neighborhood has finished with it before you can move on. This experience would be excruciating for most viewers. Unfortunately, it is what many gifted and academically advanced students experience when they are expected to wait until every learner in the classroom has mastered the content before new material is introduced. Is it possible for gifted learners to have new learning opportunities throughout a unit or course of study? Absolutely! Gifted students can acquire new knowledge as soon as they demonstrate mastery through an instructional method called curriculum compacting.
Curriculum compacting is an instructional strategy that allows gifted and academically advanced students to showcase content strengths through pre-assessments at the start of a new course of study to determine a customized path of learning that corresponds to the readiness needs of the students. Based on pre-assessment feedback, students can skip or move quickly through mastered objectives/goals into learning experiences that are appropriately intellectually challenging and that support their topical interests or passions.
Gifted students have the right to new content and a positive trajectory of growth from year to year. The use of this strategy allows gifted students to not only showcase their prior knowledge upfront but helps them move into new or complex extensions of curricular concepts.
Curriculum compacting helps gifted learners maximize their learning time by eliminating content they know or understand and helps them leap forward into experiences that include desirable content goals for them in increasing complexity, challenge, problem solving, and real-world applications of the course objectives. Research indicates that when teachers eliminated 40%-50% of previously mastered content for gifted or high-ability learners, the learning outcomes were similar between students engaging in compacted curriculum and those who completed all the tasks and activities originally designed for a unit of study. Additionally, for elementary gifted students, it has been shown that teachers can eliminate 24%-70% of previously acquired content without any negative impact on test scores.
Teachers of gifted students must first identify the learning objectives or goals of a course of study. Based on these goals, teachers will provide an assessment that reflects the unit’s content upfront with the gifted learner, called the pre-assessment, to gauge how much of the curriculum the gifted learner has mastered. Assessments can include end-of-unit tests, student observations, open-ended or performance tasks, student conferences, and/or other formal or informal methods. The pre-assessment should be comprehensive and given before the unit begins or during the first few days within a unit of study, so the teacher can identify which parts of the unit to compact or which need further instruction. A soft rule to follow to determine a need for curriculum compacting is the rule of 80%. When students demonstrate a mastery of 80% or higher within a given pre-assessment, this level of performance indicates that gifted students are ready for a customized approach to learning with the opportunity for challenging learning experiences.
These challenging opportunities can be in the form of tiered assignments that allow students to work with higher levels of inquiry and questioning, research opportunities, real world applications, and much more. For example, in math, students ready for compacted curriculum can substitute guided practice math problems for complex problem-solving scenarios that allow them to apply math concepts to real-world problems. In science, compacting could mean that students pretest out of comprehension activities that support vocabulary understanding and move into experiences that support exploration and experimentation of scientific laws and processes in novel ways. In English language arts or humanities subjects, gifted students who may be strong readers and writers can challenge their level of understanding through higher-level questioning, the use of multiple perspectives and interdisciplinary connections, debates, Socratic seminars, and the use CPS (Creative Problem Solving) strategies.
The goal of curriculum compacting is for gifted students to interact with course work in new ways that challenge their schema and encourages them to produce novel products that provide solutions to authentic problems. Curriculum compacting experiences may vary from topic to topic based on the data presented through pre-assessments. At times, gifted students may compact up to 75% of the unit and have a range of freedom to explore extensions or accelerated options, but at other times, gifted students who only show mastery within a few topics may have to engage in structured activities to build mastery. The key is to maintain a pulse on the gifted learner’s sense of understanding prior to new content and throughout the course of study to ensure that learning is not repetitive and that there are opportunities for challenge, growth, and complexity as students demonstrate proficiency.
The first step is to begin the dialogue with your child’s teacher regarding the level of student achievement within core subjects. If your child is consistently performing at high levels and the course work is easy, it may indicate a need for the use of curriculum compacting in the classroom. Once a need is established, parents should begin communication with the teacher regarding the types of instructional options that are available for extension, acceleration, or challenge within the unit that can support new learning. This type of dialogue with the teacher will stimulate an awareness of your child’s instructional needs and opportunities for collaboration. It is always important to advocate for the gifted learner with the understanding that practices may not change overnight as change is dependent on many different external factors. Advocacy starts with an open mind, communication, and the desire to work together toward solutions that meet the needs of gifted learners.
The use of curriculum compacting in the classroom for gifted learners is only the beginning of instructional possibilities for gifted learners, and it lends itself well to other recommended instructional practices such as independent learning contracts for investigations, tiered assignments, or research opportunities.