Teaching K12 students to become experts

Nebraska district's initiative also expands access to gifted programs
By: | October 18, 2018

Recently, I reread Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and I was struck by how he viewed success in the United States.

We forget that much of individual success is built on hard work with a focus on what we enjoy doing. We see successful people and call them “lucky.”

Gladwell’s stories about success impacted me as an educator. They made me reflect on how schools could increase access and provide additional opportunities for every student to begin their work toward becoming an expert in an area of strength, talent or interest.

As educators, we should and can play a role in supporting students and their success.

Yes, talent, commitment, hard work, opportunity and your birth year do make a difference.

Two titans of the Silicon Valley, Bill Joy and Bill Gates, were afforded opportunities to try new things and to learn from failure—Joy at the University of Michigan and Gates at a private school in Seattle.

They explored and spent time learning how to code and test their theories in ways that other bright young people were not able to do at that time. They began to accumulate the “10,000 hours” of experience Gladwell suggests are needed to become an expert in a subject.

Revealing their gifts

Many of our students don’t have the same opportunities. As educators, we understand that many minorities and disadvantaged students neither have access to nor are provided with opportunities to begin the necessary work toward becoming experts.

It is critical to identify and instruct all students in ways that reveal their potential to their teachers and, more importantly, to themselves. We can’t have them wait until they graduate to start working on their own “10,000 hours.”

Programs such as Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis’ Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) and Renzulli’s Academies of Inquiry and Talent Development (AITD) are essential for our youngest learners. I implemented both approaches in two schools.

As the principal of John Bullen Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I observed increases in attendance, positive behavior and, most importantly, student achievement. In fact, a cohort of African-American students saw the highest ACT scores among black students that the high school had seen in many years.

Why? We changed the mindset of those students by identifying them for gifted and enrichment programs. Our faculty recognized their talents and high potential, and then nurtured them through SEM and AITD programs.

These students realized that they could aspire to college, community college or earn certifications that put them on a positive pathway.

My most vivid memory was of one of our sixth-grade students who became the “school meteorologist.” His focus and dedication to the field he loved led to a college degree in this area, and he is now an associate researcher working on weather satellite systems at the University of Wisconsin.

Springboards to success

Today, at Westside Community Schools in Omaha, we extend learning for many students through internships and dual-credit opportunities. And our Center for Advanced Professional Studies’ programs in information technology, STEM and health sciences create opportunities for students to work closely with Omaha businesses.

For us, SEM and AITD are springboards to extend and personalize learning for all students including underprivileged children in gifted programs. It is time to see students’ individual talents so we may support them in their journey toward expert status.

We do not want to miss a new generation’s Bill Gates or Bill Joy.

Blane K. McCann is the superintendent of Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of When They Already Know It: How to Extend and Personalize Learning in a PLC at Work.