While depth allows a subject to be thoroughly studied and understood, breadth allows for a more general knowledge about many aspects of the same subject. For instance, when we studied life science, my son was content to learn general facts about animal characteristics within groups, such as those for mammals or for birds or for reptiles. Other than spending extra time with some animals that were of particular interest — cats, sharks, and turtles, in this case — it was enough for him.
On the other hand, our daughter, the animal lover, could not bear to leave any animal out of our study, kangaroos to butterflies, snails to bald eagles. Working toward depth would not work in this case, because to study each and every animal in detail would take up an entire lifetime. To accommodate her desire, we acquired hundreds of books, movies, and computer software on various animals, which she consumed voraciously. After about a year or so of this, when she had discovered a little bit about a lot of different animals, she was ready to move on to include other interests. She remains the animal expert of the family, and currently wants to be a veterinarian.
Compacting solves several other challenges presented by gifted children. For one thing, it definitely solves the problem of not providing sufficient challenge. In this way, the gifted child can perhaps avoid a major issue that will crop up in the later years: boredom, inability to handle challenge at all, and/or an absence of diligence and task commitment. You will be able to easily assess what your child already has mastered and can then teach the specific skills and knowledge needed before setting her free. Many battles of will can be avoided simply by having already determined if your child is resistant due to willfulness or due to the fact that she's mastered the material already.
Math is an obvious example of how this can work. Give your child an end-of-chapter test or a pretest, either out of the textbook you're using or an equivalent book. If your child's accuracy is 80%, you can skip that chapter and give the next test. You may need to go back and teach a specific skill, but you will certainly not need to put your child, and you, through the misery of an entire chapter's worth of work in order to master one small concept.
If there is any room at all for creativity or choice, whether in schoolwork or chores, please allow your gifted child to have it. Subjects don't matter nearly as much as learning how to learn, and the learning process is something your gifted child will teach himself, if you let him! If he has been given a grounding in the basic tools of reading, writing, and math; has been taught how to find information through research of all types; and is allowed to think creatively, your gifted child will absolutely blossom.
The key to making this all work is flexibility. I speak from experience when I tell you that rigidity will not work with gifted children. Structure, yes. Rigid adherence to structure of any type, no. Whether compacting the curriculum using depth or breadth or both, the learning needs to remain as fluid as the curriculum or grade level, lest it become stifling.
We've had entire weeks when we did only one subject. Once, when we studied the human body, both of the children shared an extreme fascination for the digestive, nervous, circulatory, and muscular-skeletal systems, as well as for the senses. We decided to put every other subject aside to study human body stuff all day every day for the week. Do you know how much you can accomplish in that amount of time? Do you know how deep you can get into a topic with that kind of focused attention? Far from causing a loss of focus or interest, such an extended schedule can play right to a gifted child's strengths, because it provides the time, space, and encouragement needed for both depth and breadth.
Don't neglect the fact that compacting also allows time to study completely different subjects too. It's not always the best course of action to compact the curriculum only to give the your child more of the same, especially if the subject is not of particular interest. Most of the time, gifted children will have definite ideas about what they want to work on, and once they've had some practice directing their own learning process under your watchful eye, you can feel confident about giving them more and more license to choose their own paths.
Yes, it is hard work. But it is so rewarding to match the curriculum to the child, rather than the other way around. Gifted children will continually surprise you with the depth of their capacities, if you only give them the chance to find it for themselves.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org