Research Frameworks behind the WCATY Programs


What are the unique needs of gifted students?

Founded on Talent Development Model (Stanley), the WCATY program model strongly believes that first, gifted students have distinct cognitive needs and attributes. These attributes include fluid reasoning and crystallized knowledge as well as a heightened sense of observation, judgment, and metacognition (Gagne, 2003). Gifted students tend to have an above average ability to process information, integrate experiences, engage in abstract thinking, and use verbal and numerical reasoning, as well as manage spatial relations, draw upon an active memory and high word fluency (Renzulli, 1986). Lastly, they show particular inventiveness, imagination and originality in their learning process (Gagne, 2003).

Second, gifted students have distinct social-emotional needs and attributes in the learning context. Attributes of gifted students often include keen perceptiveness, high levels of verbal and written communication skills, and influence over (Gagne, 2003). Gifted students also tend to be adept at decision making and self-regulation (Moon, 2003), as well as capitalizing on their own strengths; adapting and shaping environments; and balancing their analytical, creative, and practical abilities (Sternberg, 1985). Lastly, gifted students show optimism, courage, and a certain romance with discipline. They are sensitive to human concern and have a vision or sense of destiny (Renzulli, 2003) as well as a commitment to tasks (Renzulli, 1986).

Just as gifted students have unique strengths, they often also have unique challenges. Gifted students can have distinct needs, such as navigating a complicated sense of self-efficacy. Bandura (2010) argues in his concept of the Destiny Idea that self-efficacy changes the way learners view the world. Gifted students can simultaneously face obstacles from a sense of high efficacy and subsequent over confidence (Jernigan, 2004) and low efficacy stemming from perfectionism (Wellisch, 2008).

These strengths and struggles are shaped by the context in which talent is developed. To reach the diversity of gifted thinkers in all communities, a holistic view of giftedness must be incorporated into programming. For as the Office of Educational Research and Improvement stated, "Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor" (1993).


How can curricular and program models structure educational experiences to address the unique needs of gifted students?

Based on the principal that attributes require conscious effort to be applied in order to develop gifts into talents (Gagne, 2003; Del Siegle, 2000; Sternberg 2007), WCATY's mandate is to create learning environments specific to the distinct needs and attributes of gifted students, both cognitive and non-cognitive. Following themes which define the concept of Dynamic Instruction and Dynamic Assessments for developing expertise (National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 2007), WCATY programs strive to create learning opportunities that engage students at the appropriate cognitive level, or in Vygotsky's terms, the "zone of proximal development" (1978), as well as encourage growth by individualizing the learning experience through pace (Stanley & Benbow, 1986), complexity (interdisciplinary, thinking strategies), managing personal growth (self-regulation and meta-cognition), and grouping (interactive social learning, community).

In specific terms, WCATY programs are organized by five Modes of Engagement (Human Experience, Identity, Invention, Investigation, and Systems), based upon the theory that there are five central ways or frames to interpret the world that contain their own meta-concepts, conflicts, essential questions, core content, processes, roles, and products. WCATY draws upon David Shaffer's (2011) theory of Epistemic Frames, James Gee's concept of presenting students with well-ordered problems (2005), Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow (1990), and Wenger's theory of Communities of Practice to create experiences where students internalize the thinking frames used by communities of experts through continuous participation in academic discourse. Students apply these internalized thinking frames in integrated and interdisciplinary contexts, as educational researchers have found that an integrated curriculum can result in greater intellectual curiosity, improved attitude towards schooling, enhanced problem-solving skills, and higher achievement in college (Austin, Hirstein, & Walen, 1997; Kain, 1993). Barab and Landa (1997) indicated that when students focus on problems worth solving, motivation and learning increase. Through repeated practice and interaction in classroom communities centered on essential problems (i.e. Modes of Engagement), students begin to view the world through a frame, or a way of knowing and seeing.

In addition, WCATY draws on research supporting systemic and sustainable educational interventions in purposely providing multiple, sustained program opportunities for gifted students to access over the course of their upper elementary, middle and high school years. WCATY students can engage in the Pathways to Expertise model during the school year via courses in the online Academy, as well as during the summer through the courses offered in the YSSP, STEP, and ALP programs. All WCATY programs are interconnected by the shared pedagogical foundations described above and build on one another as students participate in multiple courses and experiences over time.


How can an assessment system evaluate gifted students' growth towards intended outcomes?

The standardized and norm-referenced assessments in traditional learning environments fail to adequately evaluate growth relative to the unique needs and attributes of gifted students. First, the achievement of gifted students needs to be measured on a scale more closely aligned with professional-level than grade-level expertise. To achieve this, clearly understanding what expert work and work processes look like is essential. Second, instructor feedback typically is not organized in a way that naturally allows for patterns in student learning to emerge.

WCATY programs measure students' mastery of the skills and knowledge associated with Modes of Engagement through an innovative system partly based on Sternberg's theory that talent is developing expertise (2000). Beck and Schacter's (1996) idea of establishing "expert benchmarks" for gifted students takes the concept to the next step by incorporating expertise into assessments. This targets the issue outlined by Makel, who highlighted that "expertise is often associated with generating new solutions to new problems," whereas traditional assessments equate growth with, "mastering what one is told to accomplish" (2008). Specifically, WCATY developed Pathways to Expertise, an assessment system that provides differentiated responses to student work. The responses target individualized, demonstrated needs and spell out clear pathways to help students master the Language Arts Common Core State Standards', 21st Century Skills, and ultimately, expert-level goals defined by threshold concepts, thinking tools, genre-specific patterns, and higher level thinking skills.

WCATY's Pathways to Expertise assessment system uses the idea of expert benchmarks to structure relevant evaluation of student learning that becomes part of the learning process itself. Curriculum and assessment are mutually dependent in this model instead of in tension with one another. In order to demonstrate expertise, students must craft refined products that communicate higher-level thinking by balancing competing needs embedded in the expert level question.

How is teacher capacity further developed to meet the needs of gifted students?

Due to the focus on collaborative design, WCATY implemented an online community where instructors who were physically separated could share design ideas, build a community, and trade best practices. The Professional Learning Community (PLC) model was selected to build this foundation. The model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn (DuFour, 2004). In these discussions, the team employs a blended form of action research and iterative design models of inquiry to observe, experiment with, and design rich online learning environments. The process, which blends a cooperative iterative design model developed by Teced (2013) and an action research model developed by the University of Cambridge, mixes the goals of industry design with the reality of teachers embedded in the process of instruction.

The action research community has introduced the idea that the roles of teacher and researcher should be one in the same. Beverly Johnson states that the concept "encourages teachers to be collaborators in revising curriculum, improving their work environment, professionalizing teaching, and developing policy" (1993, p. 2). Therefore WCATY instructors have the central role in designing, implementing and assessing the curriculum, as well as a critical role in the overall programmatic directions of the organization. Collaboration between instructors around curriculum and program improvement occurs in a variety of contexts, including the online PLCs described above, as well as in-person workshops and meetings.
References available upon request.