For the Whole of Their Life.

The Importance of Academic Extension

Posted 15th March 2021
By Ellie Rolfe

In a world characterised by an information revolution, rapid change and shifting ideologies, it is incumbent on educators to equip students with the skills needed to navigate an “increasingly complex set of social and economic realities” (Kumar, 2016, p. 44). Over the past two decades, educational discourse has highlighted that industrialised models of education are unable to prepare learners for a milieu which promotes 21st century competencies such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. In response, educators have sought to move away from the dominance of “rigid, chalk-and-talk, teacher/centred, lecture driven pedagogy,” characterised by “note-taking, and memorising information for later recognition or reproduction” (MacLellan & Soden, 2004, p. 254). Rather than adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach, teachers are now considered “knowledge engineers” who must accommodate for a myriad of learning styles, interests and abilities (Thorsen, 2009, p.24). Students are no longer considered empty vessels who rely on teachers to fill with deposits of knowledge. Instead, they are recognised and celebrated for their unique abilities and competencies. Consequently, contemporary educational paradigms emphasise that all students are therefore entitled to a stimulating and suitably challenging education- an education which will enable them to develop to their full potential, be that intellectual, physical, aesthetic, creative, emotional, spiritual or social.

This has led to a heightened awareness of the need for quality enrichment and extension programs, which challenge, broaden and maximise the competencies of gifted and talented students. Broadly speaking, extension refers to the deepening of students’ knowledge, understanding and skills, in alignment with the elements of effective practice enunciated in the NSW Quality Teaching model, providing opportunities at a greater level of challenge to the student. Enrichment, on the other hand, refers to the broadening of the curriculum content to develop knowledge, application, thinking skills and attitudes to a degree of complexity commensurate with the students’ developmental level.

The implementation of enrichment and extension opportunities plays a pivotal role in:

  • Heightening students’ engagement with schooling
  • Promoting the development of higher order thinking skills, such as evaluation, logical reasoning and problem solving
  • Immersing students in a supportive high-performance learning culture
  • Differentiating the curriculum for increased capacity and learning needs
  • Accommodating for students’ giftedness and/or talentedness
  • Providing students with intellectual stimulation, encouraging them to learn more and expand on their knowledge
  • Establishing the foundation of lifelong learning dispositions

The increasing emphasis on academic extension and enrichment reflects a broader promotion of individualised pedagogical approaches to education, broadly known as student-centred learning. In recent decades, student-centred learning has become deeply entrenched in educational jargon and a catchcry for theorists and practitioners. As a result, a growing corpus of literature has focused on the purpose and application of student-centred learning. Due to the proliferation of research, student-centred learning is a broad category that lacks a singular definition and has a multitude of synonyms (Lea, Stephenson & Troy, 2003). However, it is widely understood as “curricula and instructional settings in which students’ learning activities are focused upon” (Elen, Clarebout, Lonard & Lowyck, 2007, p. 105). Thus, at the crux of the student-centred learning approach is the notion that teachers are not sages on the stage but rather “guides by their students’ sides” (Woolfolk & Margetts, 2013 p. 8). For as the term suggests, student-centred learning is a pedagogy which positions the student as the start point or focus for teaching. This approach is based on the premise that “student passivity does not support or enhance … learning" and that it is precisely ‘active learning’ which helps students to learn independently (MacHemer & Crawford, 2007, p. 11). Student-centred learning radically juxtaposes traditional teacher-centred practices, characterised by decontextualised, fixed and didactic methodologies (Elen, Clarebout, Lonard & Lowyck, 2007, p. 106). Within student-centred environments, the teacher is no longer deemed an authoritative transmitter of knowledge, but rather, a facilitator and organiser of learning. Knight (1998) succinctly encapsulates the spirit of this progressive model, which seeks to propel students to “learn how to learn by themselves, so that they will develop into self-sufficient adults in a changing environment” (p.100).

Academic enrichment and extension programs are an integral component of student-centred learning. In particular, they allow teachers to nurture and strengthen the natural abilities and gifts of students, which according to Gagne’s Model of Giftedness and Talent (2008) can be systemically developed into competencies. The implementation of such programs is a quintessential component of a flexible, dynamic and responsive learning environment, which offers gateways for students to engage in a rigorous, personalised and stimulating learning pathways.

Despite being frequently lauded in the contemporary curricula landscape, student-centred learning is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is grounded in constructivist learning theories developed by Jean Piaget (1963) who believed that knowledge is not static body of information that is poured into students. Instead, he argued that knowledge is a dynamic and moveable feast. In contrast to empiricist views, Piaget claimed that individuals create knowledge based on their own experiences and are therefore continuously engaged in a process of construction and reorganisation. According to Piagetian theory, children are “active scientist(s)” (quoted in Bruner & Haste, 1987, p. x) who formulate their own hypotheses about how the world works and are intrinsically motivated to confirm their theories. Piaget’s work has been met with scepticism, with some critics suggesting that his explanations of the stages of development are too linear and compartmentalised (Carey, 1985; Eaude, 2011). Nevertheless, Piaget’s theories profoundly influenced the theory and practice of education, particularly constructivist models of learning (Case, 1998).

The interest in student-centred learning was furthered in the mid-twentieth century by Carl Rogers who suggested that humanistic principles of client-centred therapy could be applied to the classroom. Roger’s realised the paramount importance of education in the modern world, deeming that it as “probably the most influential of all institutions- outranking the family, the church, the police, and the government- in shaping the interpersonal politics of the growing person” (Rogers, 1977, p. 69). In his seminal work, Significant Learning: In Therapy and in Education (1959), Rogers postulated that the chief role of a teacher is to facilitate a classroom climate conducive to meaningful learning. Moreover, Rogers suggested that didactic methods of instruction are synonymous with “passive, apathetic and bored students” (1983, p. 25). Consequently, he argued that authentic learning ensues from students grappling with questions or problems that are relevant to them (p. 236). In other words, significant learning is acquired through doing: it occurs when the student actively participates in the learning process (p. 114). His argument echoed Dewey’s (1938) suggestion that learning should not be static and isolated, but rather learner-driven and experiential.

Piaget and Rogers helped to catalyse the paradigm shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. This shift has also encouraged power to be transferred from the teacher to the student as pupils assume greater autonomy and ownership over the learning process (Barr & Tagg, 1995) and in turn, has helped propel the momentum in gifted and talented education. Hence, a student-centred approach strikingly contrasts more conventional approaches to teaching and learning. This is signified by Burnard (1999) who suggests that student-centeredness facilitates greater choice amongst students, not only in terms of what is studied but how and why it is studied. Whilst there has been a great deal of research on the attributes of student-centred learning, Barrett-Lennard (1998) aptly suggests that this pedagogy is underpinned by the following goals:

· Self-initiated discovery

· Increased student-responsibility and autonomy

· Enhanced curiosity and motivation to learn

· Heightened originality and creativity in the classroom

· Improved metacognition

Many researches have pointed out that student-centred learning has tangible benefits for all stakeholders in the education process (Ingleby, Joyce & Powell, 2011). As far back as 1993, Gow and Kember suggested that a student-centred learning environment is more likely to foster deeper engagement with the learning experience. In recent literature, student-centred learning environments are also said to thwart superficial and surface level approaches to learning (Entwistle, 2003) by fostering increased “individualization, interaction, and integration” (Crumly, 2014, p. 10). These qualities inherently frame the asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities available to gifted and talented students (including, but not limited to):

In-class enrichment (achieved through the differentiation of the content, process and products of learning)

  • Concept-based learning
  • Acceleration
  • Curriculum Compacting
  • Special Extension Courses
  • Off-level testing
  • Internal opportunities for pupils to take part in organised challenge activities
  • Participation in academic competitions (on both a regional, state and national level)

Ultimately, academic extension and enrichment plays a fundamental role in inspiring, consolidating and expanding the learning process for gifted and talented learners. It is therefore pressing for educators to consider how they can engineer a myriad of student-centred learning experiences which cater for exceptionally able students as a part of broader mission to empower, equip and engage.

In the words of William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Georgia Bellchambers

Academic Extension Coordinator, Assistant Head of English

The Life

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