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From the Introduction to Upper Elementary Challenge Math

Meeting the needs of mathematically gifted children can be difficult. As teachers try to develop programs that provide appropriate challenges and also teach basic skills, decisions need to be made concerning acceleration, enrichment and differentiation. As these decisions are made, it is imperative that teachers also keep in mind that they must help students take intellectual risks; learn to think deeply and with insight; see the magic and wonders of mathematics and help students understand and appreciate mathematics and its place in the world. I have always found it helpful to consider the following points as decisions are made as to the most appropriate way to approach the needs of mathematically gifted children.

1) Challenge and frustration are a part of learning and life. They should both be viewed as a normal part of the learning process. While most mathematically gifted children enjoy challenging material, some children find the experience of challenge and frustration to be quite stressful because it is a foreign concept to them. Teachers of mathematically gifted children have the sometimes unpleasant task of helping these students understand that limiting their academics to an intellectual box where there is no struggle or frustration is not healthy and leads to a life that is not as fulfilling or as rewarding.

2) Math is often taught as all scales and no music. Children must have the opportunity to see the exciting and interesting parts of mathematics. The goal of many programs for mathematically gifted children is to move students through the curriculum as quickly as possible. This approach can lead to a loss of interest in the subject because it does not nurture a child’s passion for mathematics. An alternative approach is to keep gifted children with their same age peers, but give them an opportunity to experience the parts of mathematics that are not only challenging but also very interesting. When children first see the wonders of math and science, it is as if they stepped into a room that they didn’t know existed

3) It is important for children to be shown the fascinating connections between mathematics and the real world. Because mathematics instruction is often dominated by facts and calculation, children are rarely exposed to important concepts that connect math and science to the real world.

4) Children who are gifted in mathematics must learn to appreciate their gift. Can you imagine what it feels like for an athlete or musician to have hundreds of parents and classmates cheering for him or her? Add to that the newspaper articles, trophies, medals and other awards. This kind of reinforcement pushes athletes and musicians to excel. It is unlikely that this kind of motivating environment will ever become routine for those students who excel in math and science. Because there are precious few opportunities for gifted children to be formally recognized and honored, it is important that teachers make students feel that their gifts are something to be treasured.

5) Parents and educators must understand that a child’s interests and passions do not necessarily correspond with their areas of giftedness. Over the years of teaching mathematically gifted children, I have developed an understanding of the importance of allowing and encouraging children to follow their passions, which may or may not be their area of giftedness.

6) Mathematically gifted children must be given material that truly challenges them and appropriately challenges them. Bright math students usually pick up concepts so quickly that they are left with very little to do intellectually while the rest of the class masters the new material. In addition, the consequences of not challenging elementary children can be serious because children who are bored tend to develop thinking skills and work habits that are less than ideal.

7) Highly able children must have the opportunity to work with children with similar abilities. The importance of having the opportunity to work with children of similar abilities cannot be overstated because the value of this kind of interaction is not limited to the intellectual growth that it can foster. The social and emotional development that can occur as a result of healthy disagreement, discussion, and debate can have a profound impact on mathematically gifted children. An additional benefit is a reduction in the social isolation that these children sometimes experience.

-Ed Zaccaro-