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Contract Collaborations with Gifted Students

by Dr. Barbara Swicord
Learning contracts with gifted students

Did you know you can grow a learning partnership with gifted students? Differentiated instruction for a gifted student does not have to be a struggle; instead, learning can be a collaborative process between the teacher and gifted student using learning contracts. What are learning contracts with gifted students? Learning contracts are agreements between the teacher and gifted student that provide an alternative instructional plan to engage in learning 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 requires the teacher to develop learning goals and outcomes in a written agreement that both teacher and student agree on. It provides information about the objectives, content activities, time frame, and accountability measures the students will participate in, instead of other planned whole class tasks. It all 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 (80% or higher of items correct), the use of a learning contract is one way to provide differentiated instruction for gifted students.

Below are some tips and examples to remember when using learning contracts with gifted students:

Develop a different instructional path using unit objectives

Based on pre-assessment data, teachers identify key objectives to focus on for a designated time frame along with tiered assignments or experiences that students will participate in at specific times of the day. The best way to know how long to use a learning contract is the level of independence your gifted student has attained for self-directed learning tasks. The contract can range from 1 week to 6-9 weeks. 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 contract 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 the gifted students, who have shown a need for an alternate learning plan to engage in complex, enriching tasks in lieu of routine assignments, or tasks planned for all students within a unit of study. Let’s look at how a learning contract is built for a Kindergarten gifted student who has demonstrated a need for an alternate plan for a unit on how a seed becomes a plant.

Through quick student conference and paper/pencil task, the Kindergarten teacher determined that the gifted student understood the parts of a plant, the process of plant growth, and identified 3-5 variables that affected plant growth. Based on this data, the teacher developed a 2-week learning contract that allowed the student to utilize the process of experiments to engage in new learning as it related to the extension on the objective of variables that affect plant growth. As part of the learning contract, the teacher and student worked together to set up the problem question based on student questions and interests, designated a 15-minute independent work time to use during class time to work on learning contract tasks, outlined the steps by week the student would take, such as plant observation time, journaling tasks, completion of data tables and graphs, experimental tasks with variables for plant growth, and culminating learning station/demonstration for the class based on experimental results to close the learning contract.

Set up accountability conferences during the duration for the learning contract

Although gifted students may be ready to tackle the challenges and experiences designated in the learning contract, gifted students 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 check-ins provided by the teacher with the gifted student while other students are working on warm-up/independent tasks to check-in periods every other day or two days based on age and productivity. The primary goal is to ensure that gifted students have set goals in collaboration with the teacher and are making progress. Teachers may also require a daily log that allows gifted students to list work completed toward goals for the day, task completion, and culminating outcomes. For older students, check-in conferences could be held once a week where the teacher discusses their observations and scores student work on a rubric while the student also completes a self-assessment rubric based on efforts, tasks completed, and goals met. This collaboration allows students to work in a guided fashion through areas of strength and growth during the learning process.

Encourage and nurture self-directed behaviors and independence

When gifted students are given the opportunity to work on learning contracts, you may be welcomed with a mixed bag of emotions. Some gifted students may be very excited 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 differentiation, 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 set a learning culture that values learning differences and different approaches of curriculum and instruction for all students by interest or readiness. Once gifted students experience that all students learn differently and require different instructional methods, the isolation they may experience fades away. Next, set expectations for independent work time and provide lessons on executive functioning skills along with learning contract 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. Finally, provide learning opportunities with learning contracts in short doses that allow gifted students to feel successful. Nurture self-direction in short time frames (10-20 minutes long) with learning contracts, so motivation and engagement remain high throughout the duration of time spent and anticipation is set for the next opportunity. Offer short checklist tools and set management goals, so gifted students can experience task completion and challenge themselves toward next steps.

The use of learning contracts values the strengths and readiness of gifted students and provides an opportunity for intellectual, social, and emotional growth. As with all new learning experiences, implement the instructional strategy of learning contracts by offering opportunities for gifted students to feel successful and at times when they are challenged to perseverance. Communication through student conferences is paramount with the implementation of learning contracts, so be open and flexible to modifications as needs arise. Remember that learning contracts create a collaborative learning partnership and cultivate gifted students’ potential!

The Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG) offers over 80 courses for gifted, creative and academically talented students ages 5-17 at program locations throughout the United States. Find out more about SIG.

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