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Compacting the Curriculum Part I

  • Helene Barker Kiser
  • 2003 19 Nov
Compacting the Curriculum Part I

Can you imagine a home schooling family that draws its philosophy and curriculum from all of the following approaches: the traditional textbook/workbook, unschooling, living books, classical, unit studies, and more, all at once? If so, you are looking at a family with at least one gifted child.

As I said in an earlier article, while enrichment is good for all children and acceleration is good for bright children, gifted children need a completely different education, one that is totally individualized and unlike any other child's. The best education will be eclectic in style, allowing for the gifted child's special needs and abilities, and flexible enough to make use of the child's particular interests.

If this sounds like a lot of time and effort to you, you're right. Providing the right opportunities, seeking out or designing the best curriculum for their needs, and planning both flexibility and boundaries for two highly gifted children — who to top it all off are as differently gifted from each other as two people can be — takes up a fair-sized chunk of my time.

I used to go through bouts of envy, I admit, over others who could pretty much hand their children books—books that siblings had used before them and would use after them—and that would work wonderfully for them. Who didn't constantly need to look for some other resource to accommodate a new need. Who didn't have to purchase three levels of math for one child in one school year. 

But that simply won't work for gifted children.

"Okay," you say, "I understand that. But I'm only one person and I have a husband and five other children and a house and a farm and a dog that had puppies yesterday and I bake my own bread and have a part time job as a medical transcriptionist. How am I supposed to design and manage a completely individualized curriculum for only one child and still have even a small semblance of sanity?"

You do it this way. As much as the child is able to take control of his own learning is as much as you should let him take control of his own learning.

Now relax. Before you throw this article down in disgust, thinking I'm one of those misguided people who believes that parents shouldn't exercise any kind of control or guidance over their children, who think it's cute when their children run wild and unsupervised, who would rather be their children's friend than their parent—and you all know who I mean—let me clarify.

God gave you, the parents, control over your child's education. In other words, you are to be the final authority in all matters of materials, books, influences, topics, etc. But forcing your child to conform precisely to a parent-imposed environment, method, or curriculum will result in extreme stress for everyone concerned, not to mention a lack of productivity in the short term and lifelong issues in the long term.

Let's say you are planning to study plants with your children. Science is an ideal subject for teaching all or most of your children at once, by the way, because it is fairly simple to present the same basic information to many ability levels, but expect increasingly more reading, projects, and accountability out of the more able and older students. A gifted child, who can prove that she has mastered the basic material, should be allowed and encouraged to study, read about, research, and present something else about plants, something she has chosen. You simply help them focus and define their ideas, point them in the right direction, and let them go.

Researchers and experts in the field of gifted education call this "compacting" or "telescoping." In its most basic form, compacting allows children to skip material they know, move quickly through material they need to master the topic, and move on to items of interest relating to that topic. With gifted children, merely accelerating or skipping one or two grade levels in a subject is rarely sufficient. Compacting is beneficial for the child, who does not waste her time either covering previously mastered material or practicing it through unnecessary drill and repetition. She can work on the same general topic as her siblings, but at a level appropriate for her. It's beneficial for the parent, who can more easily teach multiple children. And it's beneficial for the other children, who can then more easily get the instruction they need without being railroaded by the gifted sibling. The question is only whether you should aim for depth or breadth.

Both depth and breadth are particularly suited to the educational drive exhibited by gifted learners, and unlike many aspects of education, you can use either one or both to achieve excellent results. Better still, you, the parent, are still in control of all learning objectives and resource approval, even though your job is eased because your child will seize control of the learning process. Depth simply means moving in a vertical way, learning as much as possible in as much detail as possible about a particular topic. Breadth is more of a horizontal movement, which encourages a rapid overview style of learning, generally understood as acceleration.

To understand what I mean by depth, consider the following practical illustration. History is one subject we all study together. Because both of my children learn well with hands-on work, I try to incorporate as many "projects" as possible — no small feat for this non-project oriented Mom. When we were working on Ancient Rome over the course of eight weeks, we read lots of nonfiction and historical fiction together and separately, explored some multimedia programs, cooked and ate several authentic Roman meals, made maps, and did many crafts on the time period. The children both wrote reports on the time period for their history notebooks.

This was more than enough for our daughter, who was bothered by the brutality of the Romans and was ready to move on. But our son showed a special interest in this topic, and we helped him seek out many more sources on the time period, including books explicating the advanced science used in the roads, the buildings, and the aqueducts. He read widely and conducted research, and he also built several scale models. He then completed his self-instruction by happily demonstrating what he'd accomplished. This was depth at its best, a scenario in which our son took control of his own learning and went into a detailed sophistication I certainly never would have assigned him. And our daughter did not have to suffer through more than she needed to adequately meet her own needs, simply because her brother needed to linger.

Check back next week as Helene explains how compacting solves several other challenges presented by gifted children.

Helene Barker Kiser lives and learns with her husband, children, and assorted animals in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She welcomes your thoughts and comments on this article or on any aspect of educating gifted children at home. Contact her at