Independent studies or self-directed learning can be an excellent strategy for challenging gifted children, as long as teachers do not rely too heavily on this teaching method. However, how much independence is too much?
Independent study emphasizes just that, independence and self-direction. Most gifted students are inquisitive, self-motivated and enjoy having the freedom to choose an area of study using this less structured and very popular method of learning.
Independent study allows the students to act as an independent worker by choosing a topic they want to learn more about. Since the student is the one who chooses the topic their enthusiasm is usually high. The gifted teacher plays the role of director or coach as the student researches their topic and prepares a report and/or presentation.
Teachers like using independent studies because just as the name suggests, the student is working in a more self-directed manner than usual, and thus requires less attention from the teacher. One major goal of teachers is to help students acquire knowledge rather than just memorizing facts.
Even under typical classroom circumstances most gifted students do not ask for as much help as their peers because they like the challenge of solving their own problems. When there comes a point in lessons when the teacher feels it is time to give the solution to a problem, it is typical for a gifted student to say, “Don’t tell me, I’ll get it on my own.”
Another advantage provided through independent study is the chance for the student to be creative in how they present their newly learned information. Presentations may be in the form of a skit, costume, props, song, a PowerPoint, etc. Letting the child share not only with the other gifted students but also with the regular classroom allows even more students to learn something new. It can also be inspiring for the regular class students to see what the gifted students accomplish when rewarded with the chance to work independently.
But when is independent too independent?
There are issues with giving gifted students too much freedom. Just because a child is gifted does not mean they stay on task. Children tend to follow their nose when left alone on a computer and this means wandering off to sites which are not helping them complete the task at hand. While gifted children are generally capable of taking an idea and running with it, they sometimes will act like the rider who hops on the horse and takes off in five different directions. The teacher will need to keep these children focused and learning.
One of the greatest needs of gifted children is socialization with their peers. Much of the school year needs to involve activities where the students are practicing their social skills while interacting with their gifted peers. These interactions do not happen as often during an independent study course.
In general, having gifted students spend approximately one month out of the school year on independent studies is sufficient. It is still necessary for the teacher to use professional judgment to determine which students can handle independent studies, how long their assignment should last, and how much supervision they will need.
The teacher may be tempted to overuse independent study as a course. Researching any topic can become stale after awhile. Professionals working with gifted students should guard against allowing too much independent study time, simply because it lightens their already strained workload. Good teachers will put the needs of their students first.
See Also: Gifted Resources Lessons and Curriculum