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Learning Contracts as a Path to Success

by Caroline Daniel
How to inspire gifted learners in the classroom

Knowing how to serve gifted and academically advanced students in mixed-ability academic settings does not have to be a struggle; instead, an individualized approach can be a collaborative process between the teacher and gifted student by using learning contracts. 

What are learning contracts?

 Learning contracts are agreements between the teacher and gifted student that provide an alternative instructional plan allowing the student to engage in the objectives in complex and meaningful ways.

This instructional strategy allows for academic freedom, choice, individualized pacing, and accountability for gifted students where teachers are facilitators of learning experiences that are based on the readiness and interests of their gifted students. 

A learning contract lets the teacher and student work collaboratively to develop learning goals and outcomes. These goals are documented in the learning contract which outlines learning objectives, content activities, time frame, and accountability measures. The student then executes the learning contract instead of participating in other planned whole-group tasks.

 The development of a learning contract typically begins with the use of a pre-assessment to identify the knowledge and skills gifted students know before new learning is introduced. If the pre-assessment results indicate a need to differentiate the learning objectives and goals, the use of a learning contract is one way to provide differentiated instruction for gifted students.  

From the instructional perspective, there are three questions to consider.

1. What will the “different” instructional path look like?

A learning contract can range from daily to unit-long agreements. The contract must specify specific goals, outcomes, duration of time, and process in which the gifted student will move in and out of whole class instruction to work on the contracted goals. Once these goals and outcomes are discussed with the student, both the teacher and student sign the learning contract and a copy is sent home to parents. Learning contracts can be utilized for a 15-minute to a full hour at a time based on the independence and age of the student within an instructional block. The goal is for gifted students, who have shown a need for an alternate learning plan, to engage in complex, enriching tasks in lieu of routine assignments within a unit of study.

2. How will the management of student accountability take place with self-directed outcomes?

Set up accountability conferences over the duration of the learning contract.  Although gifted students may be ready to tackle the challenges and experiences designated in the learning contract, they need guidance regarding next steps, a thought partner to discuss ideas and questions, and a facilitator to challenge and encourage them toward task commitment. All these areas and much more are topics that must be discussed during planned check-in meetings. The amount of check-in conferences a gifted student may need is based on the productivity and task commitment that are demonstrated during the independent work time. It may range from daily to every other day check-ins provided by the teacher based on age and productivity.

3. How will gifted students develop self-directed skills and independence throughout the learning process?

Teachers and parents should encourage and nurture self-directed behaviors and independence. When gifted students are given the opportunity to work on learning contracts, they may have mixed emotions. Some gifted students are motivated to work on self-directed learning tasks with guidance on the side, and others may prefer to continue to work with the whole group on classroom activities. When pre-assessment results indicate a need for a different learning path, it is important to prepare all gifted students for social and emotional changes with different instructional and curriculum practices. One way to support the social-emotional state of gifted students is to create a learning culture that values learning differences by providing different goals for all students based on readiness or interest.

Once gifted students and their peers in the classroom understand that all students learn differently and require different instructional methods, the stigma around differences and the why behind it fades away. Next, set expectations for independent work time and provide lessons on executive functioning skills and tasks. Strategies and lessons on time management, goal setting, prioritizing tasks, self-regulation, and much more are all skills and behaviors that need development and will become increasingly natural over time. 

Parents can support the instructional practice of learning contracts with your gifted learner at home. When gifted learners engage in self-directed learning, the knowledge and cultivation of executive functioning skills becomes crucial. Executive functioning skills can range from time management, organization, task initiation, impulse control, to short- and long-term planning and much more. Building capacity within these areas through experiences outside of the classroom such as extracurricular activities, passions, and household tasks/responsibilities can support the flexibility and development of executive functioning skills. The most important component in nurturing executive functioning skills is celebrating the successes great or small and working towards attainable goals to encourage growth.

The use of learning contracts values the strengths and readiness of gifted students and provides an opportunity for intellectual, social, and emotional growth. Remember that learning contracts through the support and development of executive functioning skills can create a collaborative learning partnership and cultivate gifted students’ potential.

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