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Problem-Based Learning and Gifted Students

by Anne Hayden Stevens, Creative Studies Coordinator, Center for Talent Development Early this spring, I set out on a project with my two children decorating our windows for Easter. We had a simple plan: painting big colored eggs on paper, and hiding them in a strip of paper grass that would line the bottom of the window. As I gathered materials for this activity and we discussed execution, it became clear that my daughter and son had very different ideas about how it should be done. She was impatient to get started with her plan, while he really wanted us to see and understand his idea. After some negotiation, my son drew out his concept and described it to us, we discussed our options, and we agreed to incorporate both ideas into the design. Grappling with questions is the essence of problem based learning and design thinking. Students are challenged with an open-ended problem—one that can be solved many different ways. Problems like this mirror real life. While initially we scaffold students with examples, specific rubrics and outcomes, research is showing that students are better prepared for college and the workplace when they are faced with open-ended problems early and often. anne1 A student and parent working on executing a student sculpture concept in Math, Physics & Sculpture, a Creative Studies course in CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program.

For our gifted students, we know that standard rubrics and outcomes can function like the ceilings our students often hit on tests. Specified, grade-level outcomes do not challenge these students enough. They can achieve excellent grades, but are they grappling adequately with the work? Open-ended problems allow learners, and gifted learners in particular, to push themselves. It has been two years since the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University started implementing Creative Studies courses, which ask questions like the ones asked in this article about Poetry and Robotics on PBS’s Mind/Shift blog. How can we integrate content area learning (Language Arts, Math, and Science) with the technology and design contexts that students will face in their college and professional lives? We have developed courses based on a STEM to STEAM model, which pairs the rich content of the traditional disciplines with studio-based experiences like art and design. The benefits of these programs to gifted students are many. First, gifted students need contexts in which to share and debate their ideas. Our students have no shortage of background knowledge and grand plans, and gifted enrichment programs exist to challenge and engage these interests. ‘Studio Time’, in which students explore an open-ended design challenge, is the most popular component of our Creative Studies courses. Second, our Creative Studies model creates a studio experience for the gifted student where they can plan, negotiate and create without ceilings or boundaries. Students have to try out their ideas, fall short, and re-approach the problem. Finally, students who have visual and spatial talents can explore them in tandem with rigorous content area exploration. Experience and research are demonstrating that hands-on experiences can cement content knowledge acquisition better than traditional testing methods. Where else can we expose our students to open ended problems to cultivate ideation and experimentation? The key benefit of pairing Robotics and Poetry is novelty, in the best sense. Students are challenged to innovate.  Students are creating something new, which, in the context of traditional school curricula that tend to cycle every year, is radical. This builds a space of possibility where the unpredictable can occur. New problems don’t have ceilings or boundaries. Every unanswered question, each political or environmental challenge, is an opportunity for problem based learning. These are the questions that keep our gifted students on the edge of their seats in a discussion, or bent over a model for hours at a time. Our mission is to engage students throughout their academic career with new and exciting problems. anne2 The author’s son executing his window design.

CTD is offering a number of Design Studio courses in our Summer Programs such as Math Studio in our Leapfrog program for children age 4 through grade 3, Graphic Design through Visual Communication, Design Studio and Design Entrepreneurs, in partnership with the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University for older students. Anne Hayden Stevens is the coordinator of CTD’s Creative Studies strand and an instructor in the Saturday Enrichment, Gifted LearningLinks, and Leapfrog programs. She has an MA in Visual Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a BFA in Printmaking and Drawing from California College of the Arts.

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