Catherine A. Little
Why do students engage with learning in schools? What motivates them to respond to the curriculum and instruction they experience in the classroom? Beyond students’ individual motivational characteristics, in what ways do features of the curriculum and related instruction matter in promoting motivation and engagement? For gifted students in particular, what makes curriculum motivating, and what might make it less so?The question of how curriculum may serve as motivation for gifted students in schools is a complex one, in part because the question itself is somewhat circular. Exploring the curriculum itself as a motivating factor is somewhat akin to discussing the degree to which students have intrinsic motivation to engage with the curriculum. Therefore, our purpose is to explore the features of curriculum that may make it more or less engaging and motivating for gifted students.This article explores the interplay between the school curriculum and the motivations of gifted students to engage with it. The discussion begins with a brief overview of achievement goal orientation (Elliot, 2005) and how it may relate to the context of curriculum in schools. The article then turns to a discussion of the characteristics of challenge and meaningfulness in the curriculum as critical elements for promoting motivation in gifted students. Two related concepts, boredom and interest, will also be addressed as they relate to challenge and meaningfulness in the curriculum. Finally, the article will present a summary of recommendations related to appropriate curriculum for advanced learners.
Goal Orientation and the Curriculum
Considerable research over the last several decades has explored the concept of achievement goal orientation, examining tendencies people show in why they strive to achieve particular goals, engage in particular tasks, and make efforts to avoid those same goals and tasks (Elliot, 2005). Individuals with a mastery goal orientation tend to engage in tasks because they seek the growth and learning that the task itself provides or that the person will experience as part of the process of engaging with the task. On the other hand, individuals with a performance goal orientation tend to engage in a task because of the recognition they will receive for having achieved the task. Frequently, those with a performance goal orientation tend to engage in tasks with a focus on demonstrating their own competence or achievement level compared with others (Dweck, 2006; Elliot, 2005). Within each of these orientations, researchers have also identified another dimension: approach versus avoidance orientations (Elliot & McGregor, 2001). Approach orientations are those that motivate the individual toward the learning or the demonstration of achievement; avoidance orientations tend to motivate the individual to try to avoid not achieving mastery or to try not to appear less competent than others do.
The relationship of these goal orientations to school and classroom tasks may be illustrated through exploring the way that students think about a project they must do to earn a grade. A student with more of a mastery goal orientation will be more interested in the learning experience of the project itself and perhaps in the overall satisfaction of accomplishing the goal. A student with a performance goal orientation may be more focused on the grade he or she will receive and on how much better or worse the project is judged to be compared with other students’ projects.
In many ways, schools are structured to promote a performance goal orientation because of a strong focus on achieving particular grades or scores, which may overshadow a focus on engaging in tasks for their own intrinsic value. This strong focus on the value of grades or scores may be exacerbated for many gifted students, who frequently grow up with a pattern of achieving higher scores than peers and being acknowledged for that by both peers and adults. In addition, because gifted students’ classroom experiences may frequently focus on material they have already mastered, there may be limited opportunity for them to develop a mastery goal orientation in the school setting.
In general, the goal orientation literature highlights the advantages and positive characteristics associated with a mastery goal orientation over a performance goal orientation (Dweck, 2006), although some recent evidence suggests that there are important distinctions between performance‐approach and performance‐avoidance orientations, with performance‐approach orientations showing more positively related characteristics, especially when paired with mastery goals as well. Nevertheless, if gifted students are consistently presented with curricular experiences that represent content they have already mastered, a pace that is too slow, or tasks that are insufficiently complex, it is difficult for them to bring a mastery goal orientation to that context, because true learning opportunities—those that represent a chance for growth—are limited. This brings us to our exploration of the key curricular feature of challenge as a necessary component of curriculum that will be motivating for gifted learners.
Challenge in the Curriculum and Motivation of Gifted Students
The call for greater challenge in the curriculum is among the most frequent and consistent areas of advocacy among those who work with and for gifted students at every level of development (e.g., National Association for Gifted Children, 2010; Renzulli & Reis, 1991; VanTassel‐Baska, 2005). Because most conceptions of giftedness carry within them a defining component of potential or performance that is advanced relative to age peers, there is a logical connection to a need for curriculum and instruction that is also more advanced and challenging (VanTassel‐Baska, 2011). Placing value on appropriate challenge in the curriculum reflects learning theory and research in general, not just for advanced populations (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978). Nevertheless, consistently, students, parents, teachers, and researchers report that school experiences for gifted learners frequently do not provide sufficient challenge to promote learning (e.g., Gallagher, Harradine, & Coleman, 1997; Rogers, 2007).
Much of the school curriculum is designed to articulate intended outcomes for “typical” learners of a given age and grade level, and related materials and classroom practices tend to promote these grade‐level outcomes. Large‐scale efforts at defining school outcomes and expectations do not often address the needs of specific populations; the Common Core State Standards documents, for instance, specifically note that the standards “do not define the nature of advanced work for students who meet the Standards prior to the end of high school” and “do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade‐level expectations” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices [NGA Center] & Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2010b, p. 6). Yet, curriculum development efforts and classroom practice also do not necessarily provide needed differentiation to support these students. Gifted students frequently spend large portions of their school time in heterogeneously grouped, general education classrooms, where evidence suggests that little differentiation of curriculum and instruction occurs (Latz, Speirs Neumeister, Adams, & Pierce, 2009; Reis et al., 2004; Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, & Salvin, 1993). This means that gifted students are often working with curriculum that is not challenging for them and that therefore may not really offer opportunities for learning.
Several studies have explored the perceptions of gifted students themselves about the level of challenge they experience in school and about what “challenging” means to them. Gallagher et al. (1997) surveyed gifted students across elementary, middle, and high‐school levels and found a consistent response indicating limited perceived challenge in the curriculum. Students noted that, in general, their regular classroom experiences were not very challenging, and they defined lack of challenge by such features as slow pace, too much repetition, inability to move forward after achieving mastery, and lack of opportunity to pursue personal interests or to focus on thinking skills rather than mastery of facts.
Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) interviewed students they called “nonproducers,” who had been identified as gifted in early years of school but had later dropped out, shown significant decline in their performance, or otherwise become noticeably disengaged from the school experience. This study also showed that students reported lack of challenge in their school experiences, with emerging definitions of challenge related to the pace of instruction, including both the opportunity to move more quickly through simpler material and the opportunity to spend more time to go in depth with more challenging material; opportunities for more complex thinking; and opportunities to work with new and “hard” material. Similarly, Martin, Hands, Lancaster, Trytten, and Murphy (2008) examined how college students described their favorite and least favorite courses and found that, consistently, the courses students most preferred were those that they found to be at least moderately challenging. The students were frustrated by courses that were too hard, but they preferred challenging courses to those that were too easy.
The previously noted studies align with other literature emphasizing that key elements of curriculum that will be appropriately challenging—and therefore potentially motivating—for gifted learners include an accelerated pace, particularly for material that is relatively straightforward and simple; limited repetition of previously mastered content; greater complexity in the organization of content and the task demands than might emerge in the general curriculum; and also greater depth (Kaplan, 2009; Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1992; Rogers, 2007; VanTassel‐Baska, 2005; VanTassel‐Baska & Stambaugh, 2006). In addition, curriculum that represents appropriate challenge must be accompanied by a learning context that ensures that students have the support they need to engage effectively with the material (VanTassel‐Baska & Wood, 2010). Even for advanced learners, curriculum that is too challenging may be demotivating, just as curriculum that is too easy is demotivating. If a student feels that a course or curriculum is outside his or her capability or sense of self‐efficacy, the learning experience may be frustrating and may therefore limit engagement (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).
Therefore, challenge in the curriculum is not necessarily enough to foster motivation, particularly for students who are used to doing well and may fear failure or for those who have not had past learning opportunities sufficiently challenging to promote the development of cognitive strategies and self‐regulation practices that will support engagement with challenging tasks (Burney, 2008). The context and manner in which challenging tasks are presented matter in terms of promoting motivation and engagement for gifted learners (Tomlinson, 2001, 2012). In a study of preferred college courses, when students reported disliking hard courses, they also included reference to lack of support structures in the classroom (Martin et al., 2008). In that study, the courses that were perceived to be hard but offered appropriate instructional support and scaffolding for difficult aspects were more preferred by students.
Horn and Fisher (2007) made a similar observation about challenge, support, and motivation in describing the Young Scholars program implemented in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. This program, designed to identify high‐potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the primary grades and provide them opportunities to engage with more challenging curriculum, has supported a large number of students who have gone on to demonstrate higher levels of achievement than similar peers not enrolled. The authors reported on the teachers’ efforts to support and scaffold the learning experience with more challenging curriculum for these students, noting that “[a]s Young Scholars gain important skills and confidence, their motivation and willingness to take risks increases” (p. 19). Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) also reported that caring teachers had an important influence on those courses that their “nonproducers” did find appropriately motivating and engaging.
In sum, there is a history of strong recommendations from experts in the field and from students themselves about the need for more challenging curriculum for gifted learners; about the nature of such challenging curriculum in offering faster pace, greater depth and complexity, and less repetition and review; and about the importance of the classroom context and teacher support in making challenging curriculum motivating and engaging and not inappropriately frustrating. One key argument related to challenging curriculum has not yet been specifically addressed, although it is often a central piece of advocacy efforts around increasing the challenge in the curriculum. We next turn to this issue to explore how the concept of boredom relates to the issue of motivating curriculum for gifted learners.
Boredom and the Curriculum
Part of the argument for increasing the challenge in the curriculum for gifted learners centers around the proposition that unchallenging curriculum promotes boredom and does not truly provide gifted students with opportunities to learn. Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) argued that “learning is the opposite of boredom, [and] learning is the antidote to boredom” (p. 20). Consistently, advocates and researchers contend that gifted students are bored with the regular curriculum because of their prior mastery of content and skills and/or their quick mastery of new material presented and that this boredom may result in such negative outcomes as psychological distress and inappropriate classroom behavior (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Gallagher et al., 1997; Rogers, 2007). To understand the relationship of challenge in the curriculum to boredom and to motivation, however, we must more closely examine recent research on boredom and its relationships to levels of ability and task value.
Boredom is not merely a lack of interest or enjoyment in a topic or activity; rather, it is an emotion that reflects an individual’s lack of valuing of the topic or activity, which includes an element of desire to avoid the activity (Pekrun, Goetz, Daniels, Stupnisky, & Perry, 2010). Boredom is uncomfortable as an experience and problematic in that it has been shown to relate to undesirable outcomes, such as a reduction of cognitive resources, impairment of intrinsic motivation and effort, and limited self‐regulation; more dramatic outcomes such as depression and drug use have been associated with boredom as well (Pekrun et al., 2010).
Nevertheless, boredom has received somewhat limited attention in school‐based research, perhaps in part because it is generally less disruptive than some other issues in the classroom. The existing research on boredom in schools demonstrates some conflicting evidence about the relationship between boredom and ability. Although some early literature on the topic (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) focused on the likelihood of boredom for gifted students in unchallenging situations, other research has demonstrated negative relationships between boredom and ability level or self‐concept of academic ability (e.g., Goetz, Pekrun, Hall, & Haag, 2006). Yet, studies of gifted students still do include the emphasis on boredom in the school environment (Gallagher et al., 1997; Kanevsky & Keighley, 2003), suggesting that the relationship of boredom and ability is a complex one. Conflicting evidence from more than 40 years of research makes the relationship between ability and boredom somewhat unclear, although some have suggested that, in fact, a curvilinear relationship exists between boredom and ability, with students at the highest and lowest levels of ability most at risk for experiencing boredom (see Acee et al., 2010, and Pekrun et al., 2010, for further discussion of the varied evidence regarding boredom and ability differences).
The inconsistent evidence related to boredom leads to the question of how boredom with a task may relate to the level of challenge presented by a task. Acee et al. (2010) examined students’ descriptions of feelings of boredom in underchallenging and overchallenging situations. The results yielded two different factors: task‐focused boredom, which emphasized features of the task itself that students described as boring, tedious, or meaningless, and self‐focused boredom, which emphasized the emotions and descriptions of self that students gave about the experience, such as feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction. Students’ responses related to overchallenging tasks yielded both of these factors distinctly, whereas responses related to underchallenging tasks tended to yield a general boredom factor with a slightly higher emphasis on task‐focused boredom. Importantly, the features that students highlighted as elements of task‐focused boredom reflect some of the same features that were noted in the previous section as characteristics of unchallenging curriculum.
Acee et al. (2010) suggested implications for greater psychological risk for students experiencing self‐focused boredom than for those experiencing higher rates of task‐focused boredom. This relates to the distinctions Kanevsky and Keighley (2003) drew between their “nonproducers” and other underachievers who were at greater psychological risk. Nevertheless, as Kanevsky and Keighley pointed out, both groups were at risk for school failure and could justifiably be labeled underachievers. The point is that not all students who are experiencing boredom are necessarily at high psychological risk, but they are still missing learning opportunities and may suffer important consequences over time based on the boredom they experience and its relationship to lack of challenge in schools.
Perhaps more significant to consider in the issue of gifted students’ boredom is the question of perceived value in the learning experience. Pekrun et al. (2010) have described boredom as related to subjective perceptions of value and control in an activity. These researchers have suggested that a sense of competency related to a given activity relates to a sense of control over that activity; therefore, for many gifted students, their high competency and related perceived control may protect against boredom. This may perhaps explain why, despite the calls for greater attention to challenge in the curriculum for gifted students, many students seem to cope fairly effectively with their classroom situations until they have greater opportunities for more challenging experiences in school or elsewhere (Bland, Sowa, & Callahan, 1994). Nevertheless, when students do not perceive value in a classroom activity, they may become bored with it as well.
Kanevsky and Keighley’s (2003) “nonproducers” indicated that not only were they unmotivated by unchallenging school experiences, they actually resented the lack of educational value presented to them by those experiences. Beyond the challenge implications of boredom, perhaps the other aspect of boredom is more important to consider in examining the gifted curriculum, considering the issue that boredom is not just about perceived level of difficulty or control, but also about perceived value and meaning in the task.
Meaningfulness in the Curriculum
Meaningfulness refers to the degree to which an individual learner finds value in a task and is therefore motivated to engage in or accomplish it. Meaningfulness may include elements of interest and enjoyment, but also a deeper sense of value in the task. Curriculum that is meaningful for students allows them to make connections with their own individual experiences and goals, it presents opportunities for them to see beyond the immediate activity to longer‐term effects and outcomes, and it may provide a context for personal relevance and growth.
As noted previously, definitions of boredom include attention to the degree to which individuals perceive value in a given task; task value is also closely linked to the concept of meaningfulness. Individuals may perceive tasks to have utility value and/or intrinsic value (Hulleman, Durik, Schweigert, & Harackiewicz, 2008; Siegle & McCoach, 2005). Students engaging with a curriculum‐based task may judge it to represent an important and useful outcome for them (utility value), or they may see the task as having value in and of itself because of the enjoyment or engagement opportunity it provides (intrinsic value). Tasks that have higher perceived value are more motivating for students, whether for their intrinsic value or their utility value or both.
Several key implications regarding curriculum emerge from this attention to task value. First, the curriculum itself must be designed around outcomes that are substantive and worthy of the time and focus they will receive in the classroom (Jacobs, 1989; VanTassel‐Baska, 2011). Likewise, the instructional activities developed to facilitate student achievement of these learning outcomes must also be worthwhile and engaging and should include opportunities for students to reflect on the implications of their learning (Tomlinson, 2003). Furthermore, the assessment strategies used to determine student progress toward learning objectives must represent an appropriate use of students’ and teachers’ time and an authentic opportunity to demonstrate learning (Wormeli, 2006). All of these elements contribute to the potential utility value of classroom activities. Finally, all of these components should be designed to be engaging, interesting, and challenging to students to promote the potential intrinsic value of the tasks.
It is not enough for teachers to perceive potential utility value or intrinsic value in the curriculum; another implication for classroom practice is the need to consider how potential task value is communicated to students. Siegle and McCoach (2005) recommended specific strategies for helping students to develop a sense of utility value or intrinsic value in classroom‐based tasks. For utility value, they recommended ensuring that students understand the purpose behind specific lessons and assignments and the possible implications of the learning involved for life beyond the classroom. They also emphasized helping students to develop short‐ and long‐term academic goals and to explore the relationships between these goals and the learning tasks presented in the classroom environment. For intrinsic value, they recommended providing authentic choices, learning about students’ interests and incorporating those into the classroom, and communicating support and feedback. In addition, they highlighted the connection between intrinsic value and appropriate level of challenge.
Another issue of ensuring meaningfulness in the curriculum, reflected in part in the previous recommendations about getting to know students’ interests and responses to tasks, is increasing the relevance of the curriculum for individual students and groups. Students who feel that their own backgrounds, experiences, and values are not represented in the curriculum they encounter may find less value in it and less motivation to engage with it; however, an increase in accuracy and relevance for diverse groups in the curriculum may promote greater student motivation. Ford and Moore (2004) emphasized that educators should engage in regular self‐reflection around how to make the classroom more meaningful and relevant for all students, and that they should advocate for greater diversity and attention to culture in the curriculum and in curricular materials selected for classroom use. Horn and Fisher (2007) discussed the ways in which teachers integrated Young Scholars’ backgrounds with the instructional context, including making substantive connections with the community to help students develop a sense of relevance between school and the outside world.
Recommendations around helping students find value and meaning in their classroom tasks often include a focus on integrating students’ interests into the curriculum (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; Tomlinson et al., 2002). Interest may contribute to a task’s intrinsic value for a student, thereby increasing the likelihood the student will be motivated to engage in the task. Students may bring interest in the curriculum with them to the learning experience; teachers may also actively foster interest within the learning context through instruction (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Either way, interest can also develop and deepen over time as students engage in learning and find meaning in the content.
Hidi and Renninger (2006) presented a four‐phase model to describe how interests may develop and deepen. The first two phases represent situational interest, or interest linked to the engaging nature of a task and/or the way or context in which it is presented; for example, a teacher’s enthusiastic presentation or a particularly engaging project may help to trigger or begin to sustain a student’s interest. The later phases represent individual interest, which is more enduring and lasts within the specific individual beyond the context of a particular task. In these individual interest phases, the motivation to engage with particular tasks related to the area of interest are more internally driven, as opposed to the more external sources of the situational interest phases.
The school curriculum and the instructional context may trigger situational interests, even in areas that students may not have previously encountered or found interesting. Further, when instruction triggers situational interest and supports attaching value and meaning, students may be more likely to hold the interest and to develop it into a more lasting individual interest. Aspects of the curriculum itself, the organization of instructional activities, and the support in the learning context can promote the meaningfulness of tasks and maintain interest over time (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).
Interest in a particular subject area or topic has been shown to bear a reciprocal relationship with mastery goals over time (Harackiewicz, Durik, Barron, Linnenbrink‐Garcia, & Tauer, 2008). In other words, students may be more motivated to learn about a topic of interest just for the intrinsic value of learning about it, and the experience of engaging in tasks for the sake of developing greater understanding of a topic may also increase students’ level of interest in the topic. Moreover, high interest can promote performance, even in drill‐type tasks, when it is paired with high utility value (Hulleman et al., 2008). Again, meaningfulness and task value play a role in students’ motivation to engage with and succeed at particular tasks. The value of interest in promoting motivation has even prompted suggestions about setting “motivation traps” for students by drawing them in through their interests (Ford, Alber, & Heward, 1998) and using specific “trapping” activities as a starting place for developing motivation for academic work.
The interest students hold for particular tasks or topics promotes such desirable outcomes as attention, goal‐setting, and learning strategies (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). These outcomes are further supported by the development of solid content knowledge underlying the interest area, with increasing focus on having students identify and pursue “curiosity questions” of increasing complexity as their content understanding grows. All of these recommendations relate back to the importance of meaningful curriculum that challenges students beyond their existing level of knowledge, that allows them to explore the content with depth and complexity, and that promotes the development of individual connections and task value around the learning experience in the classroom.
What Schools Can Do
In a world of increasingly accessible and expansive information, the work of schools becomes less about conveying information to students and more about developing their conceptual understanding and meaning‐making tools, as well as their skills and strategies for managing and interpreting the information they encounter. Moreover, if schools are to promote world‐class levels of achievement, they must provide opportunities for students to encounter material that is consistently challenging and that promotes ongoing growth. For gifted students, prevalent curricular experiences that represent skills already mastered and hold little task value or personal meaning do not support growth and learning, and they provide little basis for student motivation. Educators responsible for working with gifted learners—and with learners in general—must focus on ensuring learning opportunities that are appropriately challenging and meaningful for students, thereby promoting a sense of value and motivation in the learning environment (Tomlinson, 2003; VanTassel‐Baska, 2012).
VanTassel‐Baska and Stambaugh (2006) defined six key considerations that define appropriately differentiated curriculum for advanced learners: acceleration, depth, complexity, challenge, creativity, and abstraction. A focus on these six elements promotes (a) a pace appropriate for advanced learners who are precocious and often learn earlier and more quickly than their peers; (b) a degree of intensity and high expectation in the learning process and the resulting products that reflects the capacity for attention and focus that these learners often bring; and (c) sufficient complexity and abstraction to invite and encourage learners to engage their higher‐order thinking skills in the learning context. Furthermore, curriculum for gifted students should be exemplary for the subject matter under study and engage students in the habits of mind of the disciplines, again to promote both challenge and meaningfulness (VanTassel‐Baska, 2005).
The features that are often highlighted as the most critical elements of appropriate curriculum for the gifted are also reflected in many general and subject‐area recommendations for curriculum for all learners. In the current context of states’ adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, for example, educators are expected to recognize student learning differences and to promote rigorous content and higher‐order thinking skills (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010a). Such emphases in the general curriculum may have positive implications for gifted and talented learners, provided that a focus on learner differences includes advanced learners and that the curriculum provides substantive opportunities for differentiation to respond to pacing and complexity needs of advanced learners.
Challenging curricular materials designed to respond to the needs of advanced learners are available, as is evidence to support the effectiveness of such materials in promoting academic achievement for advanced learners (e.g., Gavin, Casa, Adelson, Carroll, & Sheffield, 2009; VanTassel‐Baska & Stambaugh, 2008; VanTassel‐Baska, Zuo, Avery, & Little, 2002). Some states and local school districts have also developed differentiated standards that demonstrate the ways in which the regular curriculum may be modified to provide more challenging learning experiences for gifted students, and the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and several states have been working to establish similar support documents to guide differentiation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS; NAGC, 2011). NAGC has recommended focusing on finding pathways to accelerate the CCSS for gifted students, developing differentiated task demands that present greater levels of complexity in their expectations related to the standards, and developing interdisciplinary tasks and product expectations that accelerate learning by addressing multiple standards simultaneously.
Beyond general principles of differentiated curriculum for gifted learners, educators must also use differentiated strategies for instruction and assessment to promote engagement and to determine the specific needs of individuals and groups of students (Tomlinson, 2001; VanTassel‐Baska & Wood, 2010). Instruction and assessment that are appropriate and motivating must be grounded in appropriate and motivating curriculum; for learners who are advanced, this means that the curriculum itself must be advanced, not just that particular sets of strategies are put into use (French, 2009). Moreover, when teachers communicate how they are using formative assessment to improve the match between student needs and their classroom experience, students may demonstrate increased motivation and engagement around related classroom activities (Nolen, 2011).
Curriculum is the framework around which much of students’ school experience is structured; it represents expectations for growth and learning and demonstrates what is valued within the learning environment. The degree to which curriculum is motivating for gifted students depends in part on the individual student and how his or her goals and values align with those in the environment; nevertheless, several considerations may increase the likelihood that the curriculum will be motivating. Curriculum that is challenging to students and that is implemented in a supportive learning context is more likely to promote motivation than curriculum that is too easy. Curriculum that is substantive and meaningful, particularly when teachers make specific efforts to help students find personal interest and meaning in it, will also promote motivation. The combination of appropriate challenge and meaningfulness in the curriculum transforms it into something that represents a learning opportunity for the student and therefore something worth being motivated to pursue in the first place.