Problem-Based Learning and Gifted Students

by Anne Hayden Stevens, Creative Studies Coordinator, Center for Talent Development

Early this spring, I set out on a project with my two children decorating our windows for Easter. We had a simple plan: painting big colored eggs on paper, and hiding them in a strip of paper grass that would line the bottom of the window. As I gathered materials for this activity and we discussed execution, it became clear that my daughter and son had very different ideas about how it should be done. She was impatient to get started with her plan, while he really wanted us to see and understand his idea. After some negotiation, my son drew out his concept and described it to us, we discussed our options, and we agreed to incorporate both ideas into the design.

Grappling with questions is the essence of problem based learning and design thinking. Students are challenged with an open-ended problem—one that can be solved many different ways. Problems like this mirror real life. While initially we scaffold students with examples, specific rubrics and outcomes, research is showing that students are better prepared for college and the workplace when they are faced with open-ended problems early and often.


A student and parent working on executing a student sculpture concept in Math, Physics & Sculpture, a Creative Studies course in CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program.

For our gifted students, we know that standard rubrics and outcomes can function like the ceilings our students often hit on tests. Specified, grade-level outcomes do not challenge these students enough. They can achieve excellent grades, but are they grappling adequately with the work? Open-ended problems allow learners, and gifted learners in particular, to push themselves.

It has been two years since the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University started implementing Creative Studies courses, which ask questions like the ones asked in this article about Poetry and Robotics on PBS’s Mind/Shift blog. How can we integrate content area learning (Language Arts, Math, and Science) with the technology and design contexts that students will face in their college and professional lives? We have developed courses based on a STEM to STEAM model, which pairs the rich content of the traditional disciplines with studio-based experiences like art and design.

The benefits of these programs to gifted students are many. First, gifted students need contexts in which to share and debate their ideas. Our students have no shortage of background knowledge and grand plans, and gifted enrichment programs exist to challenge and engage these interests. ‘Studio Time’, in which students explore an open-ended design challenge, is the most popular component of our Creative Studies courses.

Second, our Creative Studies model creates a studio experience for the gifted student where they can plan, negotiate and create without ceilings or boundaries. Students have to try out their ideas, fall short, and re-approach the problem. Finally, students who have visual and spatial talents can explore them in tandem with rigorous content area exploration. Experience and research are demonstrating that hands-on experiences can cement content knowledge acquisition better than traditional testing methods.

Where else can we expose our students to open ended problems to cultivate ideation and experimentation? The key benefit of pairing Robotics and Poetry is novelty, in the best sense. Students are challenged to innovate.  Students are creating something new, which, in the context of traditional school curricula that tend to cycle every year, is radical. This builds a space of possibility where the unpredictable can occur. New problems don’t have ceilings or boundaries. Every unanswered question, each political or environmental challenge, is an opportunity for problem based learning. These are the questions that keep our gifted students on the edge of their seats in a discussion, or bent over a model for hours at a time. Our mission is to engage students throughout their academic career with new and exciting problems.


The author’s son executing his window design.

CTD is offering a number of Design Studio courses in our Summer Programs such as Math Studio in our Leapfrog program for children age 4 through grade 3, Graphic Design through Visual Communication, Design Studio and Design Entrepreneurs, in partnership with the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University for older students.

Anne Hayden Stevens is the coordinator of CTD’s Creative Studies strand and an instructor in the Saturday Enrichment, Gifted LearningLinks, and Leapfrog programs. She has an MA in Visual Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a BFA in Printmaking and Drawing from California College of the Arts.

Rainy Day Activity: Heading West with Pecos Bill

by Kaitlyn Crites

Pecos Bill was one of the roughest, toughest cowboys in the entire West! Raised by coyotes who would expect anything less?  Did you know he used a rattlesnake as a lasso? He rode a tornado through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona! Accounts of Pecos Bill are known as tall tales, exaggerated stories passed from one generation to another.

Why should students study tall tales?  These symbolic, insightful tales have survived for centuries, and reflect the cultures, values, mores and beliefs that shaped history.  In addition, they comprise a genre of literature all their own.

One of my favorite tall tales is that of Pecos Bill. There are several books for young people I recommend that cover this legendary figure’s engaging antics and lead to good discussion.  Children PreK through grade 2 will benefit from reading with an adult. Students grades 3 through 5 will also enjoy the books.

Pecos Bill, Colossal Cowboy: The Graphic Novel by Sean Hamann Tulien and Lisa K Weber

Pecos Bill by Steven Kellogg and Laura Robb

Here are a few questions to stimulate discussion with your child post read:

What does exaggeration mean?  Why do people exaggerate when they tell a story?

Do you think that Pecos Bill was really raised by coyotes?  How do you think that story got started?  Do people really believe he traveled on a tornado?

Pecos Bill roamed far and wide (you can pull out a map to track his course.) Why do you think he headed in the direction he did? What was he looking for?

Pecos Bill used a rattlesnake as a lasso. What would you use to make one?

Pecos Bill wore a vest. Why do cowboys wear vests? 

I teach a Saturday Enrichment Program course at the Center for Talent Development titled “Superheroes of the 1800s.” Students learn about the first American adventurers through creative hands-on activities related to geography and language arts. One activity the kids embrace could be easily replicated at home to augment learning about tall tales. We make western vests to get more in tune  with legendary cowboys like Pecos Bill. You and your child will be ready to jump into the saddle after creating this western vest!  And, if someone is searching for a unique Halloween costume this might fit the “Bill”!

Materials Needed:

To have your cowboy or cowgirl create their own western vest, recycle a brown paper bag from your local grocery store, and round up one or more of the following: crayons, markers, colored pencils, paint, glitter, construction paper, stencils, foil, stickers, ribbon, pins, buttons, and/or whatever else is lying around the house that will add color and contrast!

Instructions for Doing the Activity:

  1. If there is writing on the brown paper bag, turn it inside out.
  2. On a flat surface, cut from the center of the bag’s open edge to the middle of the bottom with scissors. Cut out a neck hole on bag’s bottom. Cut armholes in bag’s sides. Trim the front edges to complete the vest.
  3. Decorate your vest however you would like using art supplies found at home.  Almost any item works, so get creative!
  4. Cut vertically along the bottom of the vest to fringe the edges.
  5. If you would like to add rosettes, tear two aluminum foil circles (one smaller than the other) to make each.  Put a small circle on top of a larger one. Then, poke ribbon or yarn through layered rosette and into the vest and knot both ends.
  6. Try on your finished product!  Pecos Bill would be proud!

Modifications for Younger or Older Students:
For younger students, parents can assist in cutting the brown paper bag and additional items that will be added to the vest.

For older students, parents can trace circles on the brown paper bag for their child to cut independently

Additional Resource Link: offers multiple tall tales of Pecos Bill.  Parents can read these stories and have their child act it out while wearing their vests.  For example, taken from Pecos Bill Rides a Tornado, ‘Well, Bill jest grabbed that there tornado, pushed it to the ground and jumped on its back.’  By using his/her imagination, your child can grab a tornado from mid air, push it all the way to the ground, jump on its back, and ride it like wild old Widowmaker

Kaitlyn Crites teaches for CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program. Visit the Saturday Enrichment Program website for winter courses related to storytelling and adventure. Saturday Enrichment Program is offered at multiple sites throughout Chicagoland.  Other writing and literature courses are available online through the CTD Gifted LearningLinks program.

Flipped Classrooms: Maximizing Class Time

by Randee Blair, Associate Director, Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University

A recent hot topic in education has been the flipped classroom debate. With the growth of online options, learning has expanded outside of the school classroom, and this trend only seems to be growing.

What’s flipped is that instead of doing homework, students watch online instructional movies, videos, lectures and visit websites at home, with the opportunity to revisit challenging sections and formulate questions. The teacher then has more time to facilitate discussion, based on these questions and is then able to help students with activities and assigned problems reinforcing the concepts during class time.

Why are flipped classrooms gaining popularity? In a flipped classroom, “Class time is spent focusing on [students’] needs, not on the teacher’s schedule,” says science teacher Brian E. Bennett on SmartBlog on Education. “Students are encouraged to make decisions, question, succeed and fail in a supportive, dynamic learning environment. Choice is rampant in flipped learning, and students are given an opportunity to defend their choices as a partner in learning rather than a subordinate.”

Flipped classrooms allow for flexibility and have become a way for teachers to differentiate their instruction in order to meet individual student needs. Education consultant Jonathan Bergmann is a pioneer of the flipped classroom concept. Bergmann said in an April interview: “The benefits are huge. Kids learn to become independent learners. They figure out how to learn for themselves.”

Others are not yet convinced. A blog entry titled “Flipping’ Classrooms: Does It Make Sense?” quotes teacher John Hrevnack: “[a] concern I have is that the lecture is portrayed as the teacher speaking and the students listening.  This is not the way that most teachers ‘lecture.’  Most teachers use an Interactive Lecture.” Hrevnack describes the “Interactive Lecture” as one in which the teacher prepares questions to spark students’ interest during the lecture and getting them to think critically. Live or personalized online programs may assuage these concerns and offer the advantage of interacting with peers from far off and diverse communities.

“Flipped learning is not a one-size-fits-all approach nor is it appropriate in every situation,” concludes Bennett. Given that e-learning is not going away, how can schools use it to their students’ greatest advantage? “Let’s begin to focus on the philosophical decisions teachers and schools need to make to move education forward in a connected world,” he suggests. “For me, flipping the learning process was the best way to make that shift, and that’s simply what it is — a tool to push teaching and learning forward. I am continually learning and improving on what has worked in the past to become a better teacher.”

Gifted LearningLinks is CTD’s online course program. At this time most courses are taken independently by students. However, more schools are starting to take advantage of the program as a way to differentiate for academically gifted students.

What do you think about flipped classrooms?

Randee Blair is Associate Director at the Center for Talent Development with direct responibsility for online Gifted LearningLinks and the Saturday Enrichment Progam.  She spent 30 years in the Illinois public school system as a teacher and curriculum coordinator for math and gifted education.  She is an esteemed speaker who presents at conferences across the country and author of several professional development books for teachers.

Food for Thought: What’s Important About Education?

Entry for the 2011 Summer Program T-shirt Contest

A recent article quoted a six year old’s reflections on his experience in a mixed ability classroom:

“They feed me peanuts all day. I like peanuts and I get full, but what I really want is one big juicy hamburger.”

The article discusses the need for differentiation in mixed-ability classrooms. “Despite research suggesting that gifted children perform better academically when instructed together with similar ability peers, support for these programs is at an all-time low,” the article warns. How can parents and educators ensure that gifted students aren’t left with peanuts? Options recommended in the article, appropriately titled New options emerge to enrich gifted students’ education, include computer-based supplemental activities, professional development opportunities for teachers, and additional challenges provided by parents to help serve gifted students.

But what is the essence of that big juicy hamburger? What elements of education are the most important to foster within today’s youth?

This month, ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) presented their reflections on this topic in a newsletter article titled “What Is The Purpose of Education?” In it, they addressed how education is an evolutionary phenomenon in that throughout time, education has shifted based on societal needs and changes. Yet leaders in education agree that the value of good teaching and the essence of education haven’t changed. James Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, gets to the meat of the matter: “The most significant skill [young people] can develop in the 21st century is the same skill that served them well in prior centuries: a mind equipped to think, the most important work skill of them all.”

Share your methods for motivating and challenging your gifted student(s)!

Looking for supplemental opportunities for fall? Registration for fall courses with CTD’s Gifted LearningLinks and Saturday Enrichment Program is now open.

Hey Lady, You’re Blocking My View: Reflections of a Classroom Teacher Moving Online

by Anne Stevens

After fifteen years of classroom teaching, I moved some of my favorite content online as a new instructor for Gifted LearningLinks at the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. Now, I am three courses into the experience, and I am starting to see the ways in which I underestimated online learning.

+ Today’s digital tools require a lot less explaining.

Initially, I wrote up extensive directions and step-by-step guides to building new work with GIMP, Prezi, iMovie, etc.  I discovered that students prefer to use the screencast of our live Adobe Connect session instead. The students go back and watch bits of it if they get stuck, and then they are off and running!

A recording of a demonstration in GIMP in Adobe Connect.

+Long Powerpoint lectures in any context are a thing of the past.

Deep discussion of two or three images in a synchronous online meeting with students is more effective than the delivery of a longer lecture. For an asynchronous experience, engaging media like TED talks, documentary films like Art21, or virtual fieldtrips to sites like the Library of Congress or the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum are much more productive and diverse learning experiences that students can do when best fits their schedule.

+ The online classroom needs to be flexible and asynchronous.

I thought, at the start, that regular synchronous meetings were a necessity. While younger students appreciate the regular online sessions, older students prefer the flexibility of independent work. Online learning serves the motivated gifted student, and reinforces her sense of ownership of her education, interests and time. Revision of my curriculum is done to make it more spare and self-sufficient to fit into my talented students’ distributed learning matrix.

+ Peer- to- peer synchronous interactions are valuable.

While the individualized support I provide is important, students are excited by interactions with peers in the online classroom. While some of these students are digital natives, most have had the core of their education in a standard classroom. Their online experiences express the potential of this new world. The more I can fade into the woodwork, the better: students feel independent and build community.

Students screen sharing their work and using chat to discuss it in Adobe Connect.

Asynchronous online courses like those offered by Gifted LearningLinks are, by necessity, a flipped classroom. We describe our courses as facilitated independent study, which they really are. Students study and watch lectures independently, produce projects and take tests, and interact with the instructor for feedback and next steps. The flipped classroom is an exciting place to be, with comments flying during synchronous sessions and peer critique written out with careful, specific language. Asynchronous communication is used as well—email, screencasts and discussion boards—in much the same ways we use it in our adult work lives: to set meetings, to review deliverables, to evaluate and discuss next steps.

Gifted LearningLinks started out as correspondence courses, where all the student work went back and forth through U.S. Mail and teachers and students spoke by phone. Now, with new tools coming online on a weekly basis, we discuss every change in the field as potential opportunities for our teachers and students. I see now that online teachers are made, not born, and the learning community of the future is flexible, with an emphasis on quality communication and connected experiences.

Anne Stevens is the coordinator of Creative Studies at the Center for Talent Development and teaches in the Saturday Enrichment Program, Gifted LearningLinks and Summer Program. Her upcoming GLL Enrichment course, Images + Text: Reading & Writing Workshop begins April 1, and she teaches an honors elective course, Art & Literature of the Graphic Novel for grades 6-12.

Computer Programming for Kids: Developing a Means of Expression

“Programming for Children, Minus Cryptic Syntax”

This recent article from the New York Times explores the many ways by which children can be taught the basic principles of computer programming. By manipulating objects that create a narrative, the “Alice” language, developed by scientists at Carnegie Melon, makes storytelling interactive and fun. Additionally, “Scratch”, created by M.I.T.’s Media Lab, is a similar, highly visual language that emphasizes simplicity and collaboration. Both tools can help kids get a feel for creating their own programs, without the technical perfection required by adult programming languages.

What does this mean? These technological advancements leave the door wide open for kids to explore new territory. No prior programming experience is necessary to get started. Any kid with an interest in storytelling, technology, or video games  can give Scratch or Alice a try, and uncover exciting new interests and skills. These “gateway languages” can give kids who do play video games a chance to think critically about how these games are made and how much work it takes to produce them.

“We shouldn’t think of programming narrowly as a tool for a professional activity but as a means of expression,”  said M.I.T. professor Mitchel Resnick.
Gifted students with multiple talents and interests often have a need to express themselves, and technology offers great outlets. The challenges, creativity, and complexity involved while learning programming skills may provide the perfect outlet for a gifted learner who enjoys designing, writing, and problem solving. 

CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program (SEP) is offering an eight-week Scratch session  this winter.”Scratching Technology I” is  for grades 3 through 5, and will be taught in all four locations (Evanston, Palatine, Chicago, and Naperville). The course starts January 14. Sign up here!

Gifted Muggles Dive into Hogwarts

by Lindsey Wallem

It’s not quite Hogwarts, but it’ll do…

I was impressed with this blog post by writer/teacher Claire Hennessy ( about  teaching a gifted class called “The World of Harry Potter.” The students were able to delve much deeper into the material having grown up with the novels. Hennessy’s job then became not to teach the content of the books, but to help the students expand their interpretive and analytic skills.

“Because as much fun as the classes are, they’re also doing something – ensuring high ability, exceptionally able, gifted, whatever-label-you-want-to-use kids learn how to learn … and hopefully what the kids are leaving with isn’t just ‘what happens in the books?’ but ‘how and why do good stories work?’ or ‘how are magical worlds conveyed convincingly?’ or ‘is Slytherin really a good idea?’ or something – some way of thinking about these things that they hadn’t really experienced before,”

This type of learning is what we encourage at CTD. Being gifted should not mean the end of intellectual inquiry. Our variety of programs provide a setting in which the student can think about a topic in a way they haven’t before, even if they are already “familiar” with the material.

Any opportunity which fosters creative learning is important. As Hennessy says, “It’s not curing cancer or saving the rain forests, true. But it’s education. And it matters.”

Keeping a gifted learner challenged can be difficult. What kind of environment is your child most successful in?

Do you know a student in grade 4, 5, or 6 who loves Harry Potter? The Summer Program Apogee course”The Story Behind the Story” investigates the ancient tales and folklore behind the modern fantasy novel.