Fostering Intellectualism in Gifted Students

By Robert Grubb, Ed.D.

IntellectualismWith the adoption of the new Common Core State Standards the goals for today’s students has shifted to meet the demands expected in both their future college careers and the future workplace. Although preparation for college and career are noble goals, I would propose that a shift in goals for all students, and gifted students in particular, should include the development of intellectualism.

Intellectualism is defined here as a commitment to reason, inquiry, and abstract thought and is characterized by critical thinking, the ability to generalize, and ethical reasoning. This essay will explore practical applications in the classroom in an effort to help teachers to facilitate the development of intellectualism in gifted students. The approach presented here will consist of four dimensions: scholarliness, depth of content knowledge, abstract thinking, and critical thinking.

Beginning in the primary grades, students need to understand what it means to be a scholar. Discussions on the necessity of setting goals, hard work, curiosity, and what it means to hunger for knowledge can be an effective way to begin the school year while setting high expectations for class participation. In order to teach students the necessity for hard work and persistence in the face of adversity, teachers of all grades can use biographies of famous people in history.

To stimulate curiosity in the upper elementary grades, and at the same time teach students the power of ideas, students can be led to search for the origins of essential human understandings. For example, how Thales in ancient Greece proposed that the natural world could be understood through observation and logical reasoning, thus setting the stage for the development of science.

Depth of content knowledge can be facilitated through the implementation of the prompts of depth and complexity and the content imperatives. Although all of the prompts of depth and complexity facilitate intellectualism, the focus here will be on ethics, multiple perspectives, and change over time. The development of intellect without ethics has proven time and again to be both unfruitful and dangerous. Students will benefit from an introduction to ethics that conceptualizes ethics as more than an argument over right and wrong. Students can be introduced to ethics as a branch of philosophy that is concerned with questions of values and justice. For example, in a unit on the American Revolution, fifth grade students could be introduced to Alexander Hamilton’s assertion that the first duty of society is justice. To discuss the relative merits of such an assertion would require defining justice along with how, and if, justice has been consistently given to all citizens. Further clarity on what is just and fair can be gained by exploring the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Depth of content can be further facilitated through the application of the content imperatives: origins, contributions, convergence, parallels, and paradox. In a unit on the Reformation, for example, students will discover Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis as the origin of the Reformation while noting the contributions of John Calvin and Henry VIII. The Reformation in turn contributed to religious persecution and, in an effort to escape such persecution, travel to the New World. However, paradoxically, once here in the New World, religious freedom was rarely afforded to others as they arrived.

The ability to think abstractly has often been described as one of the unique characteristic of gifted students. This ability, like all abilities, needs to be nurtured in order to reach fulfillment. Students can be taught to reason both inductively and deductively through the use of universal themes such as power, conflict, relationships, or change. Is the Arab Spring, for example, about freedom, or is it about access to power? What is more important in a novel, conflict between characters, or how relationships are formed to resolve that conflict?

The fourth dimension to fostering intellectualism in gifted students would be the development of critical thinking skills. A commitment to reason requires students to support their conclusions with evidence, determine the relevance of key ideas, and to make judgments using clearly defined criteria. The use of inquiry methods in the classroom further facilitates critical thinking and supports an understanding of how knowledge is generated.

The development of intellectualism in gifted students affords educators the opportunity to both meet and exceed the Common Core Standards. As students begin to see the power of ideas and how those ideas are generated, they will be better prepared to not only succeed academically and professionally, they will be prepared to become active participants in an intellectual life of public debate. Learning for its own sake and learning to appreciate ideas, knowledge, and reason, are also desirable ends we can all strive for.

Questions to Stimulate Discussion

  1. What ideas have changed history? How can you relate those ideas to what you are teaching now?
  2. How could you use current events to stimulate critical thinking?
  3. Other than teaching ethics as a branch of philosophy, how can ethical reasoning be facilitated across the curriculum?
  4. How can you incorporate universal themes such as power, change, or conflict into what you are currently teaching?

Robert GrubbRobert Grubb, Ed.D. is a teacher and gifted coordinator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has served as a teacher trainer, demonstration teacher, presenter, and consultant in gifted education as well as being an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the MAT program at USC. He received his Master of Science and Doctor of Education degrees from the University of Southern California.

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