Depth and Complexity, Education, K-12

It’s Not Enough

Harry S Truman

You know the one – that student who always finishes first, and appears to have nothing else to do.  Sometimes he or she gets into trouble.  Sometimes, you get tapped on the shoulder, and hear a voice say, “What should I do now?”

You’re busy. There are other children who didn’t understand, who need your help.  So, you fall back on one of the oldies but goodies.  “You can read your book.”  Or, maybe, “Why don’t you go help Jeannie?”

Some students are quite happy to be told to read a book.  Left to their own devices, they would probably read all day.  And some students enjoy helping others.

But not all.

And even if all students were thrilled with those choices, the problem is that those choices do not solve the real problem – which is that they are not learning anything new.

I recently read a blog post that recommended those solutions for gifted children.  It was a well-meaning post, but it infuriated me.  Too many people will read those suggestions and feel that they will be meeting the needs of everyone in their class if they resort to those strategies daily.

As teachers, it is our obligation to make sure that every child in our class learns something new every day.  If we don’t do that, then we are just glorified babysitters with college degrees.

Some people like to justify using  students as peer tutors by saying, “Teaching helps them to learn, too.”  But, if they already knew the topic so well that they could finish in 5 minutes what will take the rest of the class 45 minutes, how much more do they need to learn?  And, if they are not high in social skills, then the student who is being “helped” is at a disadvantage, too. Social skills will not magically improve by forced interactions – particularly if the teacher is not there to give guidance.

As for the book solution, it is useless if there is no specific purpose.  Even if the student is reading a book that would be considered advanced for his or her age, it is just another way to pass the time.  The student might as well be sitting in an armchair at home eating potato chips while he reads Beowulf.

So, what should you do?  There is not one right answer.  But here are some things that I’ve come across in my 24 years of teaching that might be worth trying:

  • let students “test” out of units by giving them a pre-test
  • assign students an upcoming skill that he or she can learn and then teach the class
  • teach units that are open-ended, particularly project-based learning units, and that allow for all students to take the learning as far as their own abilities allow
  • allow students to use Khan Academy or other video curriculum to work on advanced units (but integrate this with other collaborative classroom activities)
  • give them the answers to a multiple choice assessment, and have them create the questions
  • allow them to work on a Genius Hour project (also called Passion Projects or 20% Time)
  • use Ian Byrd’s Differentiator (or assign the student to use it) to plan a project
  • give students a tic-tac-toe board of choices – but make sure they include rigorous choices, and not just “busy work”

There are entire books written on this topic, and many people who can give great suggestions.  I highly recommend,, and for some fabulous online GT resources.

I am passionate about this topic for many reasons.  But the largest reason is that I have regrets.  For many years, I was the teacher who thought it was okay to let students read a book or help someone else when they finished their work.  I can’t tell you the exact moment that I realized that it’s not okay for this to be your entire differentiation toolbox.  But I really wish I could go back and give those “early finishers” the education they deserved.

6 thoughts on “It’s Not Enough”

  1. Simply; Thank you, I was not a first finish- only once-
    Rather labeled daydreamer, just yesterday I attempted to describe the difference of imagination and picturing. The lady (great lady, just a little slow) said something about great imagination and I said “that was not imagination” at that moment when I was labeled daydreamer. What I was picturing; the process of design, fabricate, test, analysis, validate. The poor teacher had no idea I was building “in my mind”- parts that were already stress tested for the motorcycle I was building in the shop at home and that part would be built that evening.

    Yeah, challenge the children to accomplish something they are passionate about.

  2. Amen! All great suggestions! My biggest pet peeve is when “peer tutoring” is suggested-which means the finished child is forced to help those not done-that is not peer tutoring! I was actually in a meeting the other day and had to bite my tongue because that’s how colleagues say they challenge their advanced kids. Ugh! I taught a fellow teacher how to use powerpoint the other day-I don’t know how to use it any better now! It takes some organization to implement things like menus and pre-testing–but soooo worth it! P.S. Thanks for the shout-out! 🙂

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