Interactions of chemistry teachers with gifted students in a regular high-school chemistry classroom

Naama Bennya and Ron Blonderb
aDepartment of Science Teaching, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. E-mail: Naama.benny@gmail.com
bDepartment of Science Teaching, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. E-mail: Ron.blonder@weizmann.ac.il

Received 3rd July 2017 , Accepted 15th October 2017

First published on 16th October 2017


Regular high-school chemistry teachers view gifted students as one of several types of students in a regular (mixed-ability) classroom. Gifted students have a range of unique abilities that characterize their learning process: mostly they differ in three key learning aspects: their faster learning pace, increased depth of understanding, and special interests. If gifted students are to develop their abilities and potential, and learn optimally in a regular classroom, the teaching must be adjusted to meet their special needs. Chemistry high-school curricula have built-in potential to cater to the special needs of gifted students. Chemistry learning entails laboratory work and comprehension of abstract concepts. In the classroom, the interactions between teachers and students are core events that trigger other class events. In the present study the interactions between teachers and gifted students in a regular classroom, which are specific for chemistry teaching, were studied. Two general categories of interactions with gifted students were found to be unique to the chemistry classroom: (1) interactions involving laboratory work and (2) interactions involving the challenge of teaching chemistry content. We found that since gifted students master abstract chemistry concepts quickly and with minimum scaffolding, no interactions regarding this aspect were reported. Gifted students do not need all the instruction time teachers usually devote to explaining abstract concepts in chemistry, concepts that are considered difficult for other students. The present study indicates the essential need of enhancing chemistry teachers’ knowledge regarding teaching gifted students in the chemistry classroom. This includes knowledge about how gifted students learn in general, and its adaptation to the chemistry classroom and the chemistry laboratory according to academic and curricular needs of the gifted students.


Introduction

Classroom teaching is a complex task performed in a complex environment. Many factors are at play, affecting the teacher, the student, and the events in the class. Gifted students are one of several types of students teachers encounter in the regular mixed-ability classroom (Welsh, 2011). This research focuses on the interface between chemistry teaching and the gifted student in a regular (mixed-ability) classroom. A theoretical background that underlies the study follows.

Gifted students in the regular classroom

The majority of gifted students in Israel spend most of their formal education in a regular (mixed-ability) classroom setting (Parke, 1992; Archambault et al., 1993; Israeli Ministry of Education, 2004). Gifted students can display different talents, different degrees of giftedness, diverse socio-emotional levels, and a variety of cultural backgrounds. They can also have different learning styles and expressions of giftedness that have different manifestations (Passow, 1981; VanTassel-Baska 2005; Wellisch and Brown, 2012). Teachers observe their students in their classrooms in diverse situations and under different circumstances, and gaining valuable insights about them. Thus, teachers play a key role in identifying and labelling students as gifted in a regular (mixed-ability) class, and they do so by using different criteria (Bracken and Brown, 2006). Teachers may characterise students who consistently get top scores as gifted; others may refer to other outstanding abilities and characteristics (Ngoi and Vondracek, 2004). Gagné (1994) showed that teachers' knowledge of their students is as effective as most other sources of information in identifying gifted students. Studies have demonstrated that characteristics such as intelligence, knowledge, creativity, and motivation influence how gifted students are identified by their teachers (Borland, 1978; Guskin et al., 1992; Siegle and Powell, 2004). Generally, teachers tend to define giftedness in terms of high intelligence, high cognitive thinking, high potential, and factors related to learning, such as profound comprehension, good memory, and a fast learning pace (Persson, 1998; Chan, 2000; Bracken and Brown, 2006; Moon and Brighton, 2008; Siegle et al., 2010).

Gifted students often differ from their peers in three key points: the pace at which they learn, the depth of their understanding, and their interests (Gilson, 2009). Therefore, gifted students should have access to learning opportunities that are faster paced and more complex than what is usually available in a regular classroom (VanTassel-Baska, 2003). They should be provided with opportunities that allow them to continually use their high abilities in order to keep developing their academic skills (Burney, 2008). It is important to emphasise that if during their school years they are not provided with suitable learning tools they may not be able to utilise their high abilities (Pajares, 1996).

The challenge for regular classroom teachers is to create a learning environment where all students can fully develop their abilities and academic strengths, and be provided learning opportunities to do so (Kemp, 2006; Gilson, 2009), namely, to differentiate their instruction. Differentiated instruction, as a teaching practice, is a process of individualising curricula to better match individual and group learning needs, abilities, and styles. Differentiation includes sets of specialised learning experiences that embody different learning rates, styles, interests, and abilities (Passow, 1982). A critical aspect of planning academic activities is to meet gifted students' needs. However, it is known that differentiated instruction can be challenging for teachers’ due to: (a) the degree of differentiation required, (b) the need to provide advanced learning opportunities beyond the class curriculum, (c) an insufficient understanding of the kind of assistance the gifted student requires, (d) insufficient subject matter knowledge, and (e) teachers' attitudes and the natural antipathy of teachers toward gifted learners and their needs (VanTassel-Baska and Stambaugh, 2005). When planning instruction to address the academic needs of gifted students, certain principles need to be considered. The teaching strategies adopted should relate to the instructional purposes, the curriculum, and the classroom settings; they need to be diversified and include strategies that can prompt generalisation; there is a need to balance active and passive activities and take into consideration the cognitive styles of both the teachers and learners (VanTassel-Baska, 2003).

Chemistry curricula for gifted students

According to Taber (2010), “Chemistry, and more generally science, offers the potential for great intellectual challenge.” (Taber, 2010, p. 22). Understanding chemistry relies on making sense of the invisible and untouchable (Kaberman and Dori, 2009). School chemistry curricula can provide students with an opportunity to solve challenging problems (Taber, 2010). Students should be able to develop knowledge across the sub-disciplines of chemistry and apply this knowledge to problem solving (Sirhan, 2007; Kaberman and Dori, 2009; Taber, 2010). Laboratory experiments play an important role in the chemistry curricula (Lunetta et al., 2007). In the laboratory, students must understand the fundamental uncertainties of experimental measurements in addition to the characteristics described above. Open-ended laboratory experiments provide excellent opportunities to develop and assess these skills (Hofstein et al., 2005; Blonder et al., 2008). In the Israeli high-school chemistry curriculum, the laboratory program consists of 90 sessions of 45 minutes each, and it is part of the 11th and 12th grade curriculum (Mamlok-Naaman and Barnea, 2012). Students should be able to retrieve specific information from the chemical literature, evaluate technical articles, and manage many types of chemical information (Sirhan, 2007). Teaching chemistry to gifted students must lean on significant and in-depth chemistry content, with emphasis on learning and understanding concepts rather than just memorising facts (Taber, 2010). The classroom practices that teachers adopt with their students influence the students' learning experiences in high school (Watters, 2010). Teachers should provide challenging learning opportunities for gifted learners within the chemistry curriculum (Taber, 2016). Researchers have claimed that the choice of methods used in teaching chemistry is still narrow; therefore, a variety of methods should be applied (Kaberman and Dori, 2009). Teachers’ views of science as a body of knowledge are reflected in their teaching. They often adopt teacher-centred strategies, where the teacher is in control and is the only one that imparts the knowledge. Teachers who maintain a social constructivist view about learning are more willing to engage in open-ended science inquiry projects (Blonder and Dinur, 2011).

Teacher–student interactions

In the classroom, teacher's responses while interacting with their students have an impact on whether the students will like a subject that they learn (Wubbels et al., 1987; Matthews, 2012). Hamre et al. (2012) defined interaction as “…the daily back-and-forth exchanges that teachers and students have with one another throughout each day…” (p. 89). Teacher–student interactions are the core events in class (Brophy, 1985; Skinner and Belmont, 1993; Pianta, 1999; Pianta et al., 2003; Wubbels and Brekelmans, 2005; 2012; Wubbels et al., 2006; Wubbels et al., 2016), and they have an impact on the teacher's professional decisions and the learning opportunities introduced to the student, as well as on the learning atmosphere (Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Gamlem and Smith, 2013; Wubbels et al., 2016). These interactions occur in three domains: emotional support, classroom organisation, and instructional support (Pianta et al., 2003; Luckner and Pianta, 2011). The emotional support domain involves interactions that affect the emotional climate of the classroom, as well as the teachers' awareness of the students' academic and social or emotional functioning levels, and their developmental needs. The domain of classroom organisation involves teacher–student interactions regarding time management, behaviour, and attention in the classroom. Instructional support concerns the quality of the instructional interaction between teachers and their students, in terms of the richness of the instruction (e.g., scientific literacy and advanced scientific vocabulary, high-order competencies, incorporated technology, and online instruction), as well as the feedback provided. Combined, these three domains of interaction enable the students to practice and improve their skills (Luckner and Pianta, 2011). Students' characteristics (e.g., academic performance, motivation, abilities, and engagement) can affect the classroom environment, the way teachers behave in class, and the nature of their teacher–student interactions (Pianta et al., 2003; Nurmi, 2012).

In a previous research study (Benny and Blonder, 2016a), chemistry teachers described one of their interactions with gifted students in their regular class when a gifted student identifies a mistake made by the teacher and comments: “Excuse me, but you made a mistake…”. Several insights were gained regarding the interaction between the chemistry teacher and a gifted student. The research indicated that the teachers' response depends on both the teacher's content knowledge (mainly chemistry content knowledge) and knowledge of the learners (gifted students) and their characteristics. Mastery of content matter can facilitate teachers’ reactions to the comment with self-confidence (Blonder et al., 2014). When the teachers were not confident regarding the correct answer, they tended to stop and react in a manner that did not allow further discussion of the comment.

Teachers are aware that gifted students may have a rich content knowledge; they are able to learn the content at a high pace, and reach a high level of understanding quickly (Webb, 1993; Reis et al., 2004; Reis and Small, 2005; VanTassel-Baska, 2005; Cheung and Phillipson, 2008; Gilson, 2009). This characteristic may challenge teachers. However, for teachers that have mastered the content knowledge and who are familiar with gifted students' education, this characteristic of gifted students does not induce intimidation (Benny and Blonder, 2016a). They listen to the comment, consider it in the wide perspective of what is being discussed in class, and at times when it can contribute to the lesson, they share the comment with other students. These teachers will encourage a discussion, which gifted students as well as the other students can benefit from.

Gifted students need learning opportunities that challenge them. In order to achieve meaningful learning that enables students to develop their abilities, the teacher should create a supportive and enabling learning environment (VanTassel-Baska and Stambaugh, 2005). Benny and Blonder's (2016a) research also indicated that this demand can be challenging for the teachers, especially when the teacher is facing a situation in which a student “finds” mistakes and publicly comments on them in class. Not all teachers can ignore this, and not all teachers can react with a smile or in such a way that the comment's “sting” will be reduced. Positive and fostering behaviour under such conditions can be a challenge. Teachers that give “extra points” for finding a mistake or say that “my students pay attention to what I'm writing on the board” (Teacher Z.B.8's quote in Benny and Blonder, 2016a, p. 66) use these phrases as a way to limit the negative nature of the comment and to help maintain a classroom environment that allows the teachers to continue teaching. Several teachers have developed an indifference to these kinds of comments: according to them a teacher's mistake is like a student's mistake; everybody makes mistakes. When a mistake is found, they will correct it, and nothing more (Benny and Blonder, 2016a). This behaviour allows the teachers and students to be wrong in a safe environment and correcting the mistake is part of the learning process.

The interactions studied in a previously published study focused on only one special interaction between a teacher and a gifted student in the chemistry classroom. This study raises the need for more research on the interactions between a gifted student and the chemistry teacher in a regular chemistry classroom. In the current research we focus on groups of classroom interactions between chemistry teachers and a gifted student, which are unique for the chemistry classroom. These interactions are specific for chemistry teaching: they relate to the chemistry subject matter, the chemistry classroom, and the chemistry teaching. We therefore suggest the following research questions.

Research questions

(1) What are the chemistry-specific interactions between chemistry teachers and a gifted student in a regular classroom, as perceived by the teachers?

(2) What makes interacting with gifted students in a regular chemistry classroom distinct?

Methods

This research involves qualitative research methodology and investigates chemistry teacher–gifted student interactions in a regular chemistry high-school classroom through the teacher's narrative of the interactions (Clandinin and Rosiek, 2007). Looking on the interactions through the teacher's narrative helps identify those interactions that are significant to the teacher and that have the potential to impact the teachers' behaviour and their professional classroom decisions.

A recommended method of collecting stories of experiences is by interviewing (Creswell, 2014), and in the current research chemistry teachers are interviewed. Bear in mind that a qualitative methodology involving research that is direct in nature, such as observations, is not fruitful for collecting event stories that are meaningful to the teacher. Using interviews for collecting teachers’ stories is more effective for identifying the teacher's narrative (Chell, 2004).

Research tool

The critical incident technique (CIT), developed by Flanagan (1954), was selected to be the research tool when the interview protocol was developed.

CIT involves asking participants to identify events or experiences that were “critical” for some purpose. These incidents, termed interaction stories, are then pooled together for analysis, and generalisations are drawn from the commonalities of the incidents (Kain, 2004). According to this method, a story told by the teacher has to meet five main criteria. The first and most important is that the actual behaviour (teacher and student) is reported. Additional criteria are as follows: the relationships of the teacher, who tells the story, to the behaviour are clear; the relevant facts are provided; the teacher who tells the story makes a clear judgment about what makes the incident critical; and, the reasons for this judgment are clear (Tripp, 1993; Angelides, 2001).

This method employs semi-structured interviews that focused on teachers' interactions with gifted students in their classroom. During the interview, the teachers were asked to give examples of their interactions with gifted students from their own classroom. Some of the probing questions during the interview were as follows:

– Can you characterise a gifted student?

– How do you feel about the presence of gifted students in your classroom (academic, emotional, instruction, social, and affective aspects)? Can you give examples?

– How does the presence of a gifted student affect your instruction? Can you give examples?

– Do you remember the moment that you realised that you were dealing with a gifted student? What happened that caused you to realise it? Please describe it.

Each interview lasted 60–80 minutes and was audio-recorded and transcribed. All the participants' names were changed to ensure their anonymity, and they were identified by a codename.

For more details on the CIT method and the interview's probing questions, see Benny and Blonder (2016a).

Data analysis

A two-stage analysis was conducted. In the first stage, the interactions collected from the CIT semi-structured interviews were pooled together. For analysis, a bottom-up analysis approach was applied, using the in vivo coding method (Saldaña, 2012). All identifying information was removed from the interviews and teachers' codes were used.

In vivo coding uses a word or a short phrase taken from the actual interview transcripts. This coding method provides a natural connection between the raw data and the coding-system emerging patterns in the data (Saldaña, 2012). The code for categorisation was the triggering event, meaning the event in class that initiated the interaction. Two science education researchers analysed the data, both of whom were the authors. The first researcher recommended a list of identified interactions to the second researcher. The two researchers then reflected on them, scanned the data to find confirmatory evidence to support the findings, and continued discussing it until they had reached a consensus. Each category (each triggering event) consisted of different teachers’ responses to a common triggering event. Although the responses in each category may not be identical (different responses by different teachers), this is still consistent with the coding pattern since the in vivo code was based on the triggering event. At the end of this stage a list of interaction categories was produced. Each category consisted of several different interaction stories, sharing a common triggering event, reported by different teachers. The interactions represent teachers’ narratives about their interactions with gifted students in regular chemistry classrooms (e.g., interactions associated with instructional support, classroom organisation, and emotional support). These interactions served as general interaction categories and can represent events in any classroom; they are not specific to chemistry teaching.

A second stage categorisation process was conducted to explore chemistry teaching aspects within the general interaction categories and included the following aspects: (a) interactions that focus on the way the gifted students perform in the chemistry classroom and in the chemistry laboratory and how they challenge the teacher (e.g., advanced knowledge regarding laboratory procedures, prior experiences in school science lab work). (b) Interactions that challenge teachers’ knowledge of the chemistry content. In these interactions the triggering event occurs when the gifted student challenges the teacher's primary forte, the subject matter (e.g., gifted students ask questions the teacher had not thought about, comment on mistakes, and offer an alternative solution for a problem). After this stage of the categorisation process a list of categories was produced. The list included interactions that are specific to chemistry and represent events unique to the chemistry classroom.

Research participants

The research participants were high-school chemistry teachers of regular (mixed-ability) classes. The abilities of the class students ranged from high-ability students to students who struggled with the subject matter. This range of abilities was revealed in the students' prior knowledge, learning pace, and amount of practice they needed, among others. Since the purpose of the study was to investigate the teachers’ narratives, the participants had to be teachers who had stories that reflect their experiences. It was also important to have the participants illustrate the surroundings in which they worked (Creswell, 2014). The number of participants had to be considered. In narrative research, many researchers tend to use one or two participants; however, a larger pool of participants is required to develop a collective story (Shkedi, 2003; 2011; Creswell, 2014). In this study we used a large pool of participants. The dual considerations of the research participants were taken into consideration: (1) the participants were selected in a way that represents the diversity of Israeli schools (urban and rural, religious and non-religious state schools, Arab and Jewish schools). (2) The number of teachers was such that it allowed a deep understanding of the matter under investigation to be gained, resulting in rich data. Thirty-five teachers were invited to take part in the research; thirty agreed (N = 30), 25 female and 5 male, with teaching experience ranging from two years to over thirty years. Two of the teachers worked in high schools that had a special class for students formally identified as gifted by the Ministry of Education. These two teachers were the only ones who were formally informed which of their chemistry students was officially recognized as gifted.

In the previous research 27 different interactions were identified (Benny and Blonder, 2016a). The interactions were categorised according to the triggering event, the classroom event that set in motion an interaction with a gifted student, and was perceived by the teacher to pertain uniquely to gifted students.

The current research uses the same data used to investigate the interactions that are specific to chemistry teaching. The content of these interactions is distinctive and the interactions are based on teachers’ knowledge of chemistry content. The triggering event, unique for chemistry teaching interactions, occurs when the gifted student challenges the teacher's primary forte, the subject matter.

Results

The database includes 27 interactions identified throughout teachers' narratives concerning their interactions with a gifted student;§ 29% (8/27) were found to have an aspect that is specific to chemistry teaching. The interactions that are specific to chemistry are presented in Table 1. Two general categories of interactions were found to be unique to interactions with gifted students in a chemistry classroom: (a) interactions in the chemistry laboratory, (b) interactions that challenge the chemistry teacher's content knowledge. Although the chemistry content and the laboratory work are challenging for all students in the class, the teachers reported that when interacting with gifted students in class, this challenge is different, which will be discussed next. In order to discuss this difference, we included in this section a short theoretical background that explains how the general category is related to teaching chemistry to gifted students. This background is aimed at helping the readers realise the relevance of the category in this study.
Table 1 Interactions specific to chemistry, divided into two aspects of chemistry teaching
Interactions specific to chemistry teaching No. of times the interaction was reported No. of teachers who reported the interaction
a Interactions that were included in Benny and Blonder (2016a).
Category a: chemistry laboratory work
Chemistry laboratory instruction 16 8
A gifted student ruins the lesson's openinga 13 9
Social aspects of the laboratory environment 7 5
 
Category b: gifted students and the challenge of chemistry content
“Excuse me teacher but you made a mistake…”a 24 19
A gifted student makes further connectionsa 19 9
A gifted student asks a question the teacher had not thought abouta 19 9
A gifted student proposes an alternative way to solve a problem in chemistry 4 4
The gifted student is already familiar with the intended subject of the lesson 7 7


Chemistry laboratory work

Laboratory work has long been playing a distinctive and central role in the chemistry curriculum. Hofstein et al. (2013) defined the term “laboratory work” as interacting with equipment and materials or secondary sources of data, to observe and understand the natural world. In this research, laboratory work refers to activities focusing on inquiry. Inquiry laboratories can be performed by the students in small groups, along with demonstrations by the chemistry teacher. Recommended laboratory work, in Israel, includes both guided and open-ended experiments (Mamlok-Naaman and Barnea, 2012; Hofstein et al., 2013). The skills required for the guided experiments include the following instructions, using instruments, collecting and analysing data, comparing graphs, and writing scientific reports with conclusions. The open-ended experiments require raising questions, proposing scientific hypotheses, planning the work, examining the hypotheses, finding scientific background references, and drawing conclusions (Hofstein et al., 2005; Hofstein et al., 2013). Potentially, the most important contribution of laboratory work lies in developing and sustaining an understanding of chemistry rather than simply memorising facts (Dori and Sasson, 2008; Blonder et al., 2008). In inquiry-based laboratory work the students are involved in a learning process and in exploration, both of which engage gifted students (Taber, 2010). Next, two of the interactions reported in the chemistry laboratory work facet of chemistry teaching: chemistry laboratory instruction and the gifted student ruining the lesson's opening will be discussed.

Interactions involving the chemistry laboratory instruction

During laboratory sessions gifted students challenge the customary way of designing an experiment. They can pose innovative research questions, can generate unconventional ideas regarding how to perform the experiment, and can ask questions that challenge the teacher's knowledge, and the capabilities of the school's laboratory equipment. In addition, the gifted student can exhibit a remarkable ability to understand the laboratory requirements, and quickly gain knowledge of the materials and processes involved. However, this performance creates a performance gap between the gifted student and the other students in class. This gap might challenge the teachers' knowledge, intentions, and goals.

This challenge was reported by the teachers as being distinct for gifted students.

Teachers' responses. Two different responses were identified:

(a) The teacher supports the gifted students’ original and creative ideas about how to design and perform the experiment; the teacher will allow the gifted student to investigate the idea.

“…the experiment dealt with the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide … one of the procedures includes placing a magnetic stirrer within the experiment system… he [the gifted student] came to me and said: ‘can we explore the changes with additional stirrers, not only one?’ … the amazing thing was that he took the concepts he knew… and linked them to kinetic energy… this is not trivial… students usually view kinetic energy as a concept in physics and not in chemistry, and they certainly do not rush to apply it…I told him 'wonderful, go for it'. I’m not afraid to try unexpected ideas … this is not trivial… he got amazing results, a diagram with a perfectly straight line… I didn't know what to expect. I had never before included four magnetic stirrers in this experiment…” (Teacher Y.F.22); “…he was thinking completely differently. He always asks me ‘Can I do it this way?’… he thinks about the experiments in a different way, he looks at the experiment from a broader perspective…his ideas regarding the experimental procedure are unusual, not the standard…many times it is hard for me to understand and to open my mind and to be able to see more ways to perform the experiment… I’m doing my best…the lab work with him is always challenging…” (Teacher O.B.28).

(b) The teacher discourages the gifted student from expressing original and creative ideas. Usually the teachers' explanations for discouraging the ideas are based on practicality, often citing limitations of the school's laboratory equipment and materials as the reason why the gifted students were not allowed to investigate their idea. “… he [the gifted student] told me: 'let's check the phenomenon using various external pressures; we can perform the experiment at the Dead Sea [429 meters below sea level], we can do it in Tel Aviv [50 meters above sea level], and in Jerusalem [750 meters above sea level]… the height differences are several hundred meters…' He asked my opinion… it's an original idea … a great idea, but we do not have the appropriate equipment or facilities …it was not practical… I don't think I was open enough to accept ideas such as this …” (Teacher A.R.15).

Interactions involving social aspects of the laboratory environment

In addition to the academic aspect of the laboratory work, the teachers reported interactions in this category in which they encountered possible social difficulties regarding the gifted student's team work behaviour. These difficulties can be manifested in a variety of classroom events (e.g., gifted students' refusal to work with a group of students, gifted students' domination).

The teacher needs to address the social behavioural differences between the gifted student and the other students in the group during the laboratory work.

Teachers' responses: The first type of event reported was of gifted students' refusal to work with a group of students: “… sometimes he might say to me, ‘I don't want to work with this group’, I can see that he is uncomfortable … group work is not easy for him, he wants the work to be done as he plans and performs it … and I can see that the group is not functioning. They [the other students] do not accept this behaviour… I can see it in the interaction between him and the group…” (Teacher D.W.23).

The second type of event reported was gifted students' domination: “… I think that all the students trust him with the lab work… the lab is hard work and he can lead the group… (Teacher A.B.15); “She didn’t want to work in a group with less able students…she said that they all copy her work and do nothing to contribute or help…the other students thought that she's arrogant and consequently behaved badly towards her…I stopped that… but to tell you the truth I thought she brought this on herself…” (Teacher N.S.5); “…her idea was complicated lab work …I don’t think that the other students in the lab group understood her or the idea behind the experiment …she didn’t give up on them or on the idea; she explained the idea to themthey really appreciate her… but sometimes they feel frustrated and can say ‘how does she understand it so fast? How does she know what to do? It's not fair’… I saw her explaining to them the experiment's results and how it was connected to the subject we learned…” (Teacher A.B.15, a second interaction).

Interactions involving a gifted student who ruins the lesson's opening

To introduce a new topic in chemistry, teachers often present an exciting demonstration or ask a challenging question in order to trigger the students’ interest. Teachers use the demonstration in order to encourage students to ask questions (Hofstein et al., 2005). However, when the teachers proceed to ask, “What do you think will happen next?” they do not expect to get the correct answer. This is a rhetorical question intended to create interest and initiate a discussion of a new topic in class. When a gifted student answers correctly, the planned challenge for the class is gone, and the teacher's plan for introducing the lesson is ruined. This compels the teacher to improvise a new lesson plan in real time.

This challenge was reported by the teachers as being distinct for gifted students.

Teachers' responses. Four different responses were identified: (a) the teacher tries to minimize the importance of the gifted students’ answer in order to proceed with the original lesson plan. The teacher behaves as if nothing happened. “When this happens, I’d put his answer aside and we'd continue step by step until everybody else understands… sometimes I even do not comment on his answer, maybe they didn’t realize what has just happened and the lesson can continue as planned…” (Teacher O.W.29).

(b) The teachers proceed with the original lesson plan; they appreciate the answer but take into consideration the remaining students in class: “…it is not over. He answered, so what? …I do not have a one-student class…he can assist in teaching the subject, no problem at all…we must teach the subject for the other 35 students in class. So, it's true he answered, but I have to explain it to the others… he can take part…” (Teacher R.B.26); “…I like it a lot [when the gifted student solves the mystery of the class demonstration]… first of all, I’ll give her feedback and then we’ll start over and clarify the mystery step by step… my response encourages her [the gifted student]…” (Teacher R.K.10).

In both of those responses the teacher's response in class will be to continue with the lesson as if nothing happened; the difference lies in the learning environment. In the first response the teacher shortens the answer or even ignores the gifted students; the teacher assumes that the other students did not pay attention or understand the answer. In the second response, the teacher gives the gifted student positive feedback and then explains what just happened to the rest of the students. The response generates a good learning environment in class and encourages the gifted student to participate in the future.

(c) The teacher reprimands the gifted student participating in the class demonstration: “… he [the gifted student] shouted ‘this time it will not be ignited…I know this.' This was such a disappointment to me and everybody was mad at him … I was very disappointed and told him in class ‘why do you have to ruin the demonstration for everybody else?’ At the end of the lesson, I approached him and told him that I knew he was very smart and had a lot knowledge, but he did not have to ruin my lesson… I made it perfectly clear that in the future, if he had anything to say during a demonstration, he must ask for permission, and I would see if there was room for his comments…” (Teacher S.S.13); “… the students were disappointed… what's the point if she already gave the answer…l do not allow her to comment or answer the questions during the demonstrations…” (Teacher N.H.16).

(d) The teacher changes the lesson plan on the spot. The teacher devises new activities, examples, or questions: “… yes, in some cases the lesson that I’d planned is ruined … so I try to start over, to ask another question … I have a few tricks in my bag that I can work with…” (Teacher P.H.6).

Gifted students and the challenge of chemistry content

Chemistry studies offer the gifted students numerous opportunities to develop skills and knowledge. The gifted students are likely to understand new concepts quickly, follow complex arguments, and spot connections between concepts, between topics and across subjects. They can make deductions and can draw conclusions effectively, offer detailed explanations, and cope with work that is highly conceptual, abstract, and theoretical. They often display high concentration abilities, and seek a “deep” understanding. They often monitor, evaluate, and direct their own learning beyond what is normal for their age, and may spontaneously produce their own summaries and overviews, and they need less scaffolding in order to do so (Hofstein et al., 2005; Blonder et al., 2008; Dori and Sasson, 2008; Taber, 2010; 2016; Matthews, 2012).

Abstract ideas in the chemistry curricula may take time to consolidate and become sufficiently robust to serve as foundations for further learning. Therefore, with non-gifted students, key ideas may have to be introduced, and then be revisited in a range of contexts and become reinforced in the process. Gifted students would probably need less reinforcement to acquire fully consolidated basic concepts (Johnstone, 1991; Kaberman and Dori, 2009; Taber, 2010). This learning gap between gifted and non-gifted students in a regular classroom is the basis from which the next chemistry-specific interactions occur.

Five interactions with gifted students and the challenge faced by the teacher in presenting chemistry content knowledge follow: a gifted student asks a question the teacher had not thought about, a gifted student makes further connections, the gifted student is already familiar with the intended subject of the lesson, a gifted student proposes an alternative way to solve a problem in chemistry, and “Excuse me teacher, but you made a mistake…”. Those five interactions pose a challenge that was reported by the teachers as being distinct for gifted students.

Interactions involving a gifted student asking a question the teacher had not thought about

A gifted student asks a question related to the curriculum that the teacher had not thought about (e.g., the fog's state of matter, oxidation, and dyes). This question reveals the gifted student's advanced thinking and his understanding of the subject taught in class. This challenges the teacher's mastery of the content knowledge.

Teachers' responses: Three different responses were identified: (a) the teacher is filled with admiration for the gifted students, but does not change their behaviour in class. “…this question was a surprise and was far from what I was teaching… personally, I was interested in the answer…” (Teacher A.S.3); “…he asked questions that were above the normal standard. This was something that made you ask yourself as a teacher, 'Wow, how come I hadn't thought about that? How come this never occurred to me before?' … and it is OK that someone thought about it even if it was not me. I’ll express my admiration … a positive comment and that was all during that lesson… I really appreciate him, he knows it… He is smarter than I am. I’m not intimidated by this… I think the other students in class feel the same…” (Teacher A.A.2).

(b) The teacher uses the unexpected question as leverage for further learning, as a learning opportunity for all students in class. “…questions like that… I say ‘now we’ll stop and think, we need to think together about what the answer can be. I don't always have the answer… finding the answer can take time because I was not prepared for this… this was not something I had a structured answer for in my head…” (Teacher A.A.2); “…he [the gifted student] asked about fog… this is an amazing thought about the state of matter … I stopped and said ‘let's analyse the state of fog, what do you think fog is? In what state are the fog particles? Let's try to define it‘…This discourse can go in several directions…” (Teacher A.B.26).

(c) The teacher postpones the discussion until recess or to the next lesson. “…many times I really do not understand what he is talking about… I must suddenly think of something that I haven’t thought about before… he can aggravate me; this is something I wasn’t prepared for… and I do not know how to answer… I’d say to him ‘you stumped me. I can’t answer this right now. I’ll look for the answer. We’ll talk about it next week’… I need the time…” (Teacher P.G.7); “…sometimes I really don’t know how to answer a question like that… I’ll go and read about it, I’ll go and check with my instructor [the regional chemistry instructor from the Ministry of Education]…then I’ll answer the question… (Teacher O.B.28).

Interactions involving a gifted student making further connections

A gifted student finds connections between the content of different subjects (the subject currently learned in class and a subject that was taught in another class in school) and a subject taught in class earlier in the year or more advanced materials that have not yet been learned in class.

Teachers' responses: Four different responses were identified: (a) The teacher praises the gifted student for making the connection but continues with the lesson as planned. “…an answer such as this I can’t ignore… I’d respond immediately… my comment can be ‘well done’, ‘good’, or something similar. And I can respond without words, with a hand gesture …’. That's it… the lesson must go on…” (Teacher R.B.26); “… and then she figured it out, all the examples dealt with gases… she connected the subject with the state of matter [the topic was taught in class a few months earlier], she took in the new information and made the connection… this is not trivial… I told her that this was very good, and that was it… We were in the middle of the lesson…” (Teacher H.E.24).

(b) The teacher invites the gifted student to contribute to the class discussion. The teacher allocates lesson time for the gifted student to present and explain the connection to the other students in class: “…he took the things we learned, the processes, and realized how this can be used in everyday life… this was something we had not discussed in class, the connection between the theory and real life… so I asked him to give a short explanation …” (Teacher A.L.16); “…… He connected a subject I had taught in class with vitamins, with the configurations of the molecules and the functional group… he was interested [in vitamins] and it was important to him… it was more advanced than what we were learning…” (Teacher S.L.21).

(c) The teacher devotes time for an in-depth discussion with the gifted student, usually after the lesson ended: “…we stayed in class after the lesson ended…we stood in front of the board and talked… he [the gifted student] checked, compared, and thought. Then I told him ‘you know what? We need to think about it to a greater extent and longer than the recess time allows …and the following week we talked about it…” (Teacher A.A.2).

(d) The teacher uses the connection to enrich the taught content and foster interest for all students in class. “… I told the class ‘now you’ll hear things we usually do not learn about because of time constraints. This goes beyond what we are learning in class’… he gave examples and made connections between what he knew, theoretical matters, and the topics learned in class. He somehow brought all those things together. They [the non-gifted students] listened and even asked questions…” (Teacher A.L.16); “…we talked about isotopes… he connected the issue to the decay of radioactive materials… the damages to the DNA… he combined them all into a big picture… it was impressive… I told him ‘can you repeat what you said?’… I wanted all the others to hear. The connection was important and I thought it was important that he should talk… He explained it … the class listened…” (Teacher A.A.1).

Interactions involving a gifted student who is already familiar with the intended subject of the lesson

At the beginning of a chemistry lesson, the gifted student comments that he is already familiar with the content the teacher was planning to teach in class. He learned the subject in an extracurricular program for gifted students (e.g., a university chemistry course). This challenges the teacher's knowledge of the subject and ruins the activities planned for the lesson.

Teachers' responses: Three different responses were identified. (a) The teacher says that there is still more to learn about the subject: “…he can tell me ‘I already know this, I learned it in my gifted students' program’. When this happens, I say ‘OK, maybe you can learn something new in my way of teaching, maybe a new perspective …” (Teacher D.V.23).

(b) Gifted students' previous knowledge enhances the discussion and supports the learning of the whole class: “…I’m glad he already heard about what we are going to learn… he can participate more in class, he can help speed up the teaching pace for the whole class…” (Teacher A.SH.3): “… I’ll give you an example: I mentioned ‘acids and bases’ in class and she immediately knew what that meant… this prior knowledge stimulates me, it boosts me and the classroom discussion; the lesson is completely different when you have students like her in class…” (Teacher A.V.29).

(c) The teacher discerns a gap in the knowledge structure of the gifted student: “…sometimes she has heard about a topic I’m going to teach and starts to talk and show how much she knows. This knowledge is sometimes so limited… she knows the headlines, she has heard about it, but she does not really know it… In order to learn, really learn, she needs to listen and learn from her teacher… It takes time but she finally realizes that she does not really know the topic…” (Teacher P.H.6).

Interactions involving a gifted student who proposes an alternative way to solve a problem in chemistry

A gifted student proposes an alternative way to solve a problem. The alternative way is fundamentally different from the teacher's usual way of solving the problem or what the teacher thinks the answer should be. The teacher needs to address the differences between the two modes of solving the problem.
Teachers' response. Two different responses were identified: (a) the teacher praises the gifted student and presents the alternative way to the other students.

“…I’m not set on one solution and I always tell my students that they have my permission to solve problems in a way they think best. She [the gifted student] offered a solution that I hadn't thought was possible, but she managed to solve the problem. I said ‘Well done. Everyone, listen!' and I asked her: 'Please explain your method to the class, and please do it slowly, step by step’. She explained it, and they understood it…some of the students who had been struggling understood it …” (Teacher H.SH.14); “…it was a completely different point of view of the problem. I was set on a specific way to solve it and he [the gifted student] did it differently. True, it was a longer and indirect way to the solution, but he got the right answer…it was impressive…at first I said to myself 'what the hell is he doing?' But then I thought 'wait a minute and listen'…When I realised what he was doing, I stopped everything and told them [the other students] to listen, and gave him credit and praised him…” (Teacher Y.F.22).

(b) The teacher listens, but considers this as interfering with the problem-solving sequence and thinks that it can complicate the other students' understanding of the problem.

“…we were solving a problem about the concentration of an ion in the solution…he told me ‘I have a different way of calculating it’ and elaborated…usually I’ll listen; some students can benefit from a different way, but not always…in this problem the sequence was important so I said, ‘good that you understand and can solve it, but now let me explain it my way’. I’m the teacher; it needs to be in a sequence that everyone will understand…” (Teacher P.H.6); “…I’m solving the problem… I’m advancing according to the plan… suddenly he offers a different solution, and I understood that he thought about the problem using a completely different approach…it was important to him to show that he knows…in this group, the students wanted to learn, they told him, ‘please stop interfering, we can’t think…’ when his solution does not help the other students, I’ll stop and take the students back to my way of solving it…you see, we have a limited number of hours to learn…” (Teacher A.L.16).

The “Excuse me teacher, but you made a mistake…” interaction

During a chemistry lesson, a gifted student comments that the teacher made a mistake. The comment usually concerns the subject matter being taught. The gifted student comments on the teacher's mistake in front of the whole class. This public comment compels the teacher to respond.
Teachers' responses. Four different responses were identified: (a) an immediate response. The teacher hears the student's comment and rechecks the matter to determine whether the student is right. If he is, the teacher immediately corrects the mistake and proceeds with the lesson:

(b) Taking the “sting” out of the comment. The teacher uses humour or irony to reduce the effect of the revealed mistake, and then corrects it and the lesson continues.

(c) Postponing the answer to the next lesson. The teacher listens to the student's comment and is not sure whether a mistake was made. The teacher will reply that it is possible that the gifted student is correct, but that he needs more time to check it. The teacher will announce that the issue needs time to check and that the answer will be given in the next lesson.

(d) Learning leverage. The teacher uses the student's comment about the mistake as learning leverage (e.g., for purposes such as asking the gifted student to explain his comment to the whole class, providing additional details, starting a class discussion). The teacher expands on the gifted student's comment, and thus offers the whole class an opportunity to attain deeper learning.

This interaction is further described in Benny and Blonder's paper (2016a). It includes details regarding the teachers' responses and their feelings and thoughts during the interaction, and the original citation from the interviews.

Discussion and conclusions

As a field of study, chemistry can offer gifted students challenges and opportunities to develop and enhance their learning abilities. Chemistry can meet the needs of gifted students and can be used to foster the students' ability to understand abstract concepts, develop high-level thinking skills, solve problems, integrate knowledge, engage in inquiries, and other advanced skills (Johnstone, 1991; Lunetta et al., 2007; Kaberman and Dori, 2009; Taber, 2010; 2016; De Jong et al., 2013). The gifted student's learning characteristics, as manifested in the regular chemistry lessons, highlight the gap between gifted and non-gifted learners. This gap lies at the core of the interactions studied and described in this research.

Of the 27 interactions identified in the database, 8 (29%) interactions were found to be specific to chemistry teaching. Two aspects specific to teaching the chemistry curriculum in the mixed-ability classroom were identified in the content of the interactions: chemistry laboratory work for gifted students and the challenge of chemistry content. In each of these aspects, the triggering event calls for the teachers to re-evaluate their lesson content matter and practices. In some of the described cases, the teachers need to address issues that may surpass their content knowledge, and consequently, they have to be creative in ‘real-time teaching’. The gifted student's abilities (e.g., mastering advanced content, scientific thinking, fast learning abilities, recognising patterns, and high-order thinking abilities) (Freeman, 2003; Taber 2007; Matthews, 2012) serve them well in learning chemistry, but what serves the student may also challenge the teacher (Freeman, 2003; VanTassel-Baska, 2003; VanTassel-Baska and Stambaugh, 2005; Taber, 2007; 2010).

The laboratory challenge

Laboratory work has the potential to engage gifted students in inquiry work, higher-level questions, open-ended experiments, and the skills that accompany them (Blonder et al., 2008; Dori and Sasson, 2008; Taber, 2010). Gifted students respond to the challenge of performing laboratory work. The interaction experience is a meaningful learning event for the gifted student, and for the teacher it is a significant and positive interaction (West, 2007; Taber, 2010). This is reflected in the Results section by teacher Y.F.22's experience in the laboratory work interaction.

The content instruction challenge

A second curriculum challenge, presented in the interactions, is the content challenge gifted students pose, which is reflected in the interactions. This is no easy task and teachers are required to have a broad knowledge and should possess advanced understanding beyond the typical curriculum content areas in order to adequately deal with the content challenge that a gifted student presents (VanTassel-Baska and Stambaugh, 2005; Kind, 2009). The gifted students' performances in class and their learning characteristics sometimes required the teachers to adjust parts of lessons. When teachers face gifted students’ different learning patterns (e.g., gifted students complaining about the learning pace, offering another way to solve a problem, the knowledge gap, a gifted student asking questions the teacher had not thought about). Teachers reported different responses for this challenge. The presence of a gifted student in the classroom challenges the teacher's instructional planning and practice for the lesson; at times it compels the teachers to adjust their instructional practices and to adapt them for a classroom that is mixed in the students' abilities, knowledge, and learning patterns (Tomlinson et al., 1994; Kaplan, 2001; Tomlinson et al., 2003; VanTassel-Baska and Stambaugh, 2005).

When facing differences in content and curricular aspects, teachers respond differently to the classroom events and to the triggering events of the interactions. Those different responses were noted in the interactions described in this research. We wish to stress that in order to profile these teachers' responses and their impact on gifted students' learning in a regular classroom, further research is needed.

The interactions reported here highlight an important aspect that is distinct for teaching gifted students chemistry in a regular classroom: the differences in the learning characteristics of gifted students regarding their ability to master abstract chemistry concepts. Chemistry teaching research and practice focus on teaching and learning abstract concepts because it is one of the main features in chemistry instructions (e.g., the modes of representation: macro, micro, symbol, and process (Johnstone, 1991; Dori and Hameiri, 2003; Sirhan, 2007; De Jong et al., 2013)). Teachers emphasize in their teaching the modes of representations because this is considered to be difficult in teaching chemistry (Johnstone, 1991; Dori and Hameiri, 2003; Sirhan, 2007; Taber, 2010; De Jong et al., 2013). However, this emphasis is not needed when teaching gifted students chemistry. In the chemistry classroom, as shown by the interactions, gifted students do not need all the instruction time that teachers normally devote in a regular class to explain abstract concepts in chemistry, concepts that are considered difficult for other students (Kemp, 2006; Gilson, 2009). This can explain why the issue of teaching at a different level of understanding in chemistry did not lead to interacting with the gifted student, although it receives much attention in the general literature on chemistry education (Johnstone, 1991; Taber, 2001; Levy Nahum et al., 2010; Bain and Towns, 2016).

Implications

This research highlights several aspects regarding teaching gifted students in a regular classroom, of which teachers need to be aware:

Teachers' knowledge regarding the academic and curricular needs of gifted students. Enhancing teachers' knowledge regarding gifted students' characteristics and how to best respond to gifted students' unique behaviours will aid teachers in better interpreting and interacting with them in a regular classroom (Ngoi and Vondracek, 2004; Gilson, 2009). Benny and Blonder (2016b) conducted a professional development course. It can be used as an example for advancing teachers' knowledge regarding teaching gifted students in a regular classroom. The current research strengthens the need for professional development training of this nature. Posnanski (2002) suggested that a professional development program could improve science teachers' beliefs, and potentially change their teaching style. It is assumed that the various behaviours of the participants mutually influence each other, thus forming a behavioural loop (Lang et al., 2005). This paper highlights the need for disciplinary content to focus on professional development training. We also demonstrated the need for advanced chemistry content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge regarding how to teach gifted students in a mixed-ability classroom.

Enhancing teachers’ knowledge regarding how to teach gifted students chemistry, and enhancing their awareness, and attitudes regarding gifted students’ education need to be a part of professional development programs. In order to make changes in teachers' practice, continuous professional development programs should be provided (Loucks-Horsley and Matsumoto, 1999).

Research limitations

The current research focuses on the teachers' narratives. Since the interactions between the teacher and student are mutual, the gifted students' narratives should be studied when these students interact with chemistry teachers. Additional research that provides the students' point of view regarding the interactions reported by the teachers and regarding the teachers' response styles is needed (Jenkins, 2006; Cheung and Phillipson, 2008).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.

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Footnotes

The Israeli Ministry of Education's (2004) definition for gifted and talented students: Gifted students represent the top percentile of individuals of the same age group in each of the defined areas of giftedness. In terms of IQ, children with an IQ of 135 and up are considered gifted. The areas defined as aspects of giftedness are general intellectual ability, general learning ability, artistic talent (e.g., in music, visual and performing arts, and literature), specific academic aptitude (e.g. in mathematics, computer science, science and technology, and languages), and sports.
In this study we identified several kinds of interactions that can be found in any classroom (e.g., challenging the teacher's pedagogy or classroom management skills); they will be presented and discussed elsewhere. In the current paper we will discuss only those interactions that are unique to chemistry teaching.
§ Ten out of 27 interactions were mentioned in the previous publication (Benny & Blonder, 2016a).
For example, one of the teachers described an experiment in which 5 mL of ethanol are ignited in a 5 gallon water bottle. The alcohol burns at such a high rate that it creates an effect like a rocket engine. Water vapors that are produced in the burning reaction inside the bottle prevent the burning reaction from being repeated even if new ethanol is added.

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