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Interview with Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska

by Dr. Kimberley Chandler

This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of the Systems Newsletter.  It is reprinted in this issue as we begin to take a look back at the 25-year history of the Center for Gifted Education (CFGE).  The focus of this interview is Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, who founded the CFGE in 1987 and who retired in September of 2009.  Dr. VanTassel-Baska added some information to some of her responses in order to update readers on what she has been doing since her retirement.

Many people consider you to be the “guru” of curriculum in gifted education. Why did you choose curriculum as your emphasis?

My background led me naturally to focus on curriculum. I’m a former secondary teacher of English and Latin who was very engaged in curriculum development when I was a teacher. I taught every high school grade level in both subjects. Therefore, I taught a total of eight different courses during my high school teaching career of seven and a half years. In addition, I also created electives and new courses of study, including a course called World Literature and the Bible for senior level students. I also taught Advanced Placement Literature. So, very early on in my career I was very involved in curriculum development work.

When I became an administrator of gifted programs in Toledo, I also was very involved with curriculum development for gifted learners. I published two guides in my first three years; one on the world of the gifted K-6 for elementary teachers and the Phoenix Project curriculum guide for high school teachers which was an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum with a guidance component that was used in all three inner city high schools in Toledo at that time. So, in my first ten years of work in education, I was very involved with curriculum development. It continued to be a major part of my work in Illinois where I was involved in a federal curriculum project using Adler’s Syntopicon for organizing curriculum and designed and developed four major units of study for that project. Then at Northwestern I had a grant from the Joyce Foundation to develop curriculum in math, science, and technology for high ability learners. So by the time I came to William and Mary, I had a deeper level of experience with curriculum for the gifted than most people. Even though most people are not aware of that history, it served me well for engaging in my Javits curriculum work here at William and Mary.

This background has continued to serve me well in retirement as I regularly do contracts with universities and state departments to design curriculum for both K-12 students and coursework for their teachers in this country and internationally as well.

Why do you think it became such an important area of endeavor for you?

Partially it was my own sense that it was a good fit for my skills and interests based on the experiences that I’ve described. However, I also saw curriculum as a weakness in terms of what was not happening in gifted programs. People were using units on chocolate, for example, with gifted students and justifying it because content doesn’t matter or so it was suggested. In addition to that, I think it’s fair to say that the Javits projects encouraged curriculum development, leading to our contracts to design curriculum in science and language arts. So it was a happy union of my background experiences and skills, coupled with a need in the field, and the accessibility of resources that really led the Center for Gifted Education in this direction.

I find that I still enjoy the enterprise, including work on new Jacob’s ladder books, a leadership curriculum for students at all precollegiate levels, and a Latin curriculum for English teachers to implement with gifted learners.  Playing with ideas continues to delight and surprise me.

How did you develop the Integrated Curriculum Model?Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska

I started with a review of the literature in 1986 as to what curriculum approaches were effective with gifted learners. The ICM grew out of my examination of research that suggested that advanced content was the most powerful approach that we had, followed by enrichment approaches that were predominantly focused on higher level thinking and product development. There was also a scattered literature base on interdisciplinary approaches, such as concepts, issues or actual themes. Even though the literature base was uneven in supporting the efficacy of those three components, they represented three very distinct approaches to organizing curriculum. My underlying thesis was always that we could get a richer curriculum if we utilized all three as opposed to utilizing only one approach. This model has worked quite well over the past twenty years to design differentiated curriculum and to link the work to the content standards. So even though the ICM model preceded the content standards, it in fact presaged such a design and alignment approach.

 It has proven quite durable as well as the organizing framework for new curriculum, designed around the Common Core State Standards.  The Indiana High Ability Project, which will provide units of study online to teachers of the gifted, has employed the model for unit development by teachers. 

Have you ever considered a revision to it? If so, what would it be?

Well, I would revise it if I felt that in fact there was research suggesting that there was another approach to curriculum that isn’t covered by the model that would be effective. I do believe that the model could be augmented by a major emphasis on social and emotional development and career development. I think both of those areas would be possible enhancements to the ICM in its current form. However, I do not see the need to make the model more complex. If anything, it is already too complex.

My most recent work with curriculum convinces me even more that the model is sufficiently differentiated and challenging for use with gifted learners at all stages of development, that it is coherent across subject areas and developmental levels, and that it offers teachers pathways for teaching what matters.  If it contains all the important elements of what gifted students need and is workable by teachers, that meets a high standard.  In recent publications, I have stressed the utility of the model, its ease of implementation into units of study, and its continuing evidence base of effectiveness.  The real purpose of a model is to approximate reality in regard to a phenomenon.  I think the ICM also meets that test of reality.

How does knowing that materials you have developed are used so widely
and impacted so many make you feel?

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I certainly am pleased to know that children benefit from being provided high-powered and challenging curriculum. That makes me very happy. Beyond that, my only wish would be that more students could have that opportunity. I wish that schools were more open to trying innovative curriculum and instructional approaches that would allow that to happen, not just for the gifted, but to promote high end learning across the board.

In the years since I have retired, I continue to see how the work has taken on a life of its own and continues to be vital in the lives of students and their teachers.  Given when this work began, it may now be seen as classic, implying that it has “legs” as long as publishing companies continue to keep it in print.

What is the greatest barrier to providing excellent curriculum for gifted students?

Educational institutions are set up to maintain the status quo and in the process of maintaining it they frequently overlook individual differences. So at one level, I would say that there is an institutional barrier just based on how educational institutions are organized. Beyond that, I would also say that teachers, as a part of those educational institutions, are charged to teach what has been approved by their communities and that’s a set scope and sequence of curriculum at every grade level. So if I were to say what the greatest barrier is, it is this age-grade lock step model of teaching and learning. This is not the fault of teachers, but they become part of the problem when they feel that they do not have enough power or control to make changes in a curriculum diet that would benefit a core group of learners or even just one. Moreover, we have not charged schools with optimizing learning for anybody. We have only charged them with providing a minimum threshold of opportunities, and consequently it is the barrier of raising expectations to levels that schools were never intended to have to reach. When you think about the implications of raising the expectations of schools, that also becomes quite personalized in terms of raising the competence level of teachers, in terms of stretching their cognitive capacities and their capacity to organize classrooms in flexible ways. So you have another barrier related to teacher readiness and teacher capacity to deliver more high-powered curriculum opportunities.

Recognizing that teachers are always going to write curriculum, what three things would you like for all teachers to understand/know/take into consideration when writing curriculum for gifted learners?

Well, I would hate to limit it to three things, because I think that curriculum development is a complex enterprise that requires work over time. Curriculum products get better because people spend more time on them and try them out and learn from those tryouts how to improve curriculum products. So one of the basic issues that teachers need to understand is that curriculum has to be designed and tried out and revised, then tried out again beyond just their classrooms in order to make claims about the quality of the product. Also, teachers need to understand that there is nothing magical in a curriculum that is going to produce learning in gifted students if we are not really targeting the nature of the learning that we want to accrue and ultimately collecting data on whether or not student learning has occurred as a result of what’s gone on. Classroom-based action research on student learning thus is an important understanding that teachers need to have about building effective curriculum. Probably the third most critical understanding is curriculum design. Teachers need to understand that a curriculum has to be coherent and understandable by anyone who reads it, showing the relationship of the elements of goals down to the level of activities and materials. Lastly, principles of differentiation for gifted learners have to be well internalized in order for teachers to do a good job in designing curriculum for these learners.

Given the Indiana project on which I am now working, I also think teachers need to be open to being challenged as they continue to develop and implement new curriculum.  The teachers in this project have been wonderfully flexible in this regard.  Finally, they have demonstrated the value of development and implementation as twin realities in the process, producing logs as a result of piloting that strongly emphasize areas for revision and using pre/post student results for curriculum and instructional change decisions.

What do you believe is required for the appropriate implementation of exemplary curriculum for advanced learners?

I believe that what we do for advanced learners ultimately ends up being treated as an innovation, since it’s not routinely happening in schools. What we know from the innovation literature suggests that teachers need to be well-prepared to teach a curriculum, which means they need to be trained on it and the underlying principles related to implementing that curriculum. That’s why our William and Mary training model is one that is based on teaching-learning models that are imbedded in existing lesson plans. So teacher preparation with materials is critical.

The second feature that is critical is the support of administrators. Teachers need to feel support whenever they are doing anything that involves innovation, and administrators should be curriculum leaders in the building in terms of providing that support which can take many forms, including verbal, monetary, resources, or moral support if the teacher is challenged by parents or peers. Support may also come in the form of showcasing the work of teachers who are willing to step out and do something that is innovative in the context of the school. So, the administrator is crucial as a support structure.

I also think collegial support is important in terms of curriculum implementation. A teacher is going to be more effective with curriculum innovation if not just she at third grade is doing it but if her colleagues at fourth and fifth grade are also doing it and the other teacher in third grade across the hall is also doing it. There is value to having a critical mass of teachers engaged in innovative curriculum implementation. Where it is done at multiple grade levels by multiple teachers you are likely to have greater support in terms of innovation, and teachers in turn can support each other relative to the implementation.

Moreover, there is a real need to have additional resources available to put toward the effort. By that I mean additional materials that may need to be purchased in the form of books, guides, or computer software programs that just make the implementation easier for teachers.

The last area that I want to highlight is the absolute necessity of curriculum monitoring and follow-up beyond professional development into classrooms to see that the innovative strategies and curriculum are being implemented effectively and as they were intended. Fidelity of implementation is one of our biggest problems in trying to institutionalize curriculum innovation. Unless the new curriculum becomes a part of teacher routine, it may have a “short shelf life” in the classroom.

In recent work, I can see that the piloting process is so valuable in teacher validation and verification of ideas as well as a way to weed out less useful ones.  One teacher noted that she has grown more through this project than through any professional development experience she had participated in previously.  Such a statement also suggests the need to consider curriculum development work as growth-producing if it is seen as an ongoing effort from writing to implementation to revision.  The absence of any part of that cycle threatens to stunt the power of growth, not only for teachers but also for students as the recipients of the curriculum.

How has the standards movement impacted curriculum for the gifted in both positive and negative ways?

On the positive side, the new standards would actually raise the level of expectation and challenge for gifted learners if teachers were teaching to the standards as they were intended. Because they were designed down from a conceptualization of a practicing professional, the activities, the habits of mind, and the skills were high level. The downside of the standards only came about when the translation of them was hindered in two ways. First, it was hindered by insisting that we have fifty translations of a single set of high quality national standards. And in those fifty translations, the level of challenge went down, and the interpretation of the standards became much more leveled than it should have been. The second deterrent to effective implementation of standards came about when high stakes testing in fifty states was instituted to try to assess learning. In the process, these assessments became narrower than the standards and lower level. Thus, the instruction of teachers began to match up with the assessments and not with the standards.

Another asset of the standards was that they defined what high school graduates should know and be able to do in the new century. This marked the beginning of our focus on outcomes rather than objectives, a focus on high level performance as opposed to a developmental progression of skills, and an emphasis on the multiple dimensions that are associated with learning rather than only a skill-based orientation. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes took front and center in terms of the new standards in a way that they had not in the past. However, in some instances the translations of these high level outcomes became faulty. Individual states did not carefully think through what the implications were for what students were able to do at given stages of development. An example would be here in Virginia where we had students learning about China before they learned about their own country or before they learned about their neighborhood because there was little attention to developmental progression.

Under the new common core standards, the assets of the former standards are still relevant to our discussion.  However, the liabilities are somewhat reduced in that the new common core will be viewed as national standards with national assessment developing quickly as well. No longer will we have 50 separate iterations of what students need to know and be able to do and how we validate that. We now have all but four states endorsing the new common core in two subject areas, with science being developed this year as the third leg of the common core standards. (Now language arts and mathematics are in place).  While the new common core standards are high level in some respects, they still require differentiation for gifted learners in others.  Gifted education as a professional field must align its own new standards in curriculum, instruction, and assessment to this new common core by subject area to ensure that gifted learners are well-served in schools.

Today's students are exposed to "bits and bytes" of information in their everyday lives. What implications for curriculum do you foresee as a result of the multi-media influence?

This is not just a curriculum question; it’s a question of “How will technology ultimately impact educational delivery systems at all stages of development, everywhere?” And I don’t really feel that I know the answer to that. I think that the role of technology has expanded already in ways that are well beyond our thinking, certainly, just a decade ago even. The attractiveness of online courses for students K-12 has grown exponentially from early efforts like the Stanford EPGY program to the Online Learning Links at Northwestern now to multimedia opportunities like CTYOnline through Johns Hopkins and other kinds of telecommunication models. I think the future of the education of the gifted will lie in these kinds of options that will be available to families of means. My concern is that it will be available to those who can afford it, not to those necessarily who need it the most. There is also in the new technology an underlying assumption that people are self-directed and independent learners. And in my years of working with the gifted, I do not fundamentally believe, nor do we have the data to show, that that is the case in the majority of gifted students. Many gifted students are satellite learners who require a high-powered instructor who can motivate them and ready them to take on challenging learning tasks. They also require the interaction of peers who are equally able and interested in the learning process. The lack of accessibility to both of those features in online learning environments, I believe, will continue to hinder the role of technology as the total answer to the educational needs of the gifted.

In my recent work with teaching hybrid courses (i.e., face-to-face coupled with online) to teachers in gifted education at Rutgers University, I have come to see the value of the combined use of both approaches.  Online learning provides each learner equal access to question response and reflection, often not possible in face-to-face classroom discussion modes.  Interaction among peers is also demanded, rather than left to the mood of the moment.  The instructor also has greater control over the mechanisms of student discussion than is true in person.  Yet the bookend model of beginning a course in person and ending one that same way is irreplaceable in solidifying the learning experience at a human level, allowing personality to emerge, and the flow of conversation to go in many directions.  Based on my observations with these courses over two years, the use of online coursework will continue to grow exponentially both in teacher education and precollegiate learner education.  The cost-effectiveness coupled with the ease of access to educational opportunity will surely trump outmoded idealistic notions of what constitutes quality in education.  As technology and pragmatic knowhow improves, education of the gifted will become an online global enterprise.

What was the most interesting curriculum project with which you have been involved?  What made it interesting?

I must confess that all curriculum projects that I have ever been engaged in have been interesting, because they have all been totally absorbing and challenging in their own right. But I would be less than candid if I did not say that the project that I have enjoyed the most over the years has been the development of language arts curriculum because it is closest to my own background and content expertise. Both the original language arts units and the Athena Project, which involved further development of new language arts materials including Jacob’s Ladder and additional Navigators, were special.

These types of projects continue to be favorites as I guide others in the development of curriculum, as I design new curriculum myself, and as I collaborate on new curriculum projects of import and interest.

What one curriculum project have you most wanted to do but have been unable to do so far?

There are several actually. One is developing concept-based curriculum in shorter units of study and hooking those concepts to multiple subject areas. That to me would be an interesting project. Another would be an interrelated arts project, whereby you take the visual arts, music, and the performing arts, and you weave them together in terms of helping students arrive at deeper levels of thinking and feeling as well as just doing the arts.  

Unfortunately, these projects have taken a back burner in retirement as other projects have crowded them out.  The work on leadership and foreign language curriculum have proven to be more critical as I move those curricula forward to publication this next year.

 Are there any areas that you believe should be a focus for the field of gifted education in the future?

The field has to “grow up” in my view in terms of the issue of curriculum and instruction. It has to come to grips with the fact that we should not be using curriculum with the gifted, our very best learners, where there is no evidence base for the effectiveness of its use. When I first came into the field in the early 1970s, curriculum was a series of activities made up by the teacher that were differentiated for the gifted. And we are right back to that same notion in serving the gifted in regular classrooms. It’s a regressive state that is troublesome in terms of what we could be doing, so I would hope that the field would wake up to the fact that we have strong materials that could be built on for future projects and for future work.

We also need to realize that the world of curriculum for the gifted is wide open as opposed to narrow because of the new common core standards or because of the school-based interpretation of the standards. I would love to see a return of the teaching of philosophy at grades four, five, and six to gifted learners. I would love to see more of an emphasis on spatially oriented subject matter, like robotics. I would love to see much more of an emphasis on the serious teaching of leadership and foreign language in elementary and middle schools. These are all appropriate subject matters for gifted learners at the earlier stages of development that would be of interest and again growth-producing. Yet, we have narrowed the vision of curriculum for the gifted to being what individual teachers are capable of delivering and what is tested on high stakes state assessments.

Is there anything else you want to add relative to needed emphases in the field of gifted education?

I think that there is a real need for more research and development work in curriculum in all subject areas and at all requisite stages of development. There is still a lot we don’t know about what works at different levels for gifted learners.

What have you been doing since your retirement?

I find that my retirement has opened up new avenues of work for me.  Starting a certificate program in gifted education at Rutgers University has allowed me to teach in a hybrid environment in another state that has no higher education programs in the gifted and to realize the untapped potential of teachers to learn more deeply the best practices of the field.  Doing interesting consultant work with the state of Indiana, with Johns Hopkins University in Kazakhstan, and with the Hong Kong Academy, I have come to see the power in design and development of strong curriculum, even when it is delivered by others in online and face-to-face modes.  Continuing to consult with the same districts over time has also been a joy for me.  For example, to see the Pinellas County, Florida, gifted middle schools evolve over the past five years I have worked with them to a point where I will now evaluate their progress is gratifying.  Evaluation work has also continued to absorb my interest, from the state of Washington to Pennsylvania to Florida.  As a recently elected member of the NCATE policy board on accreditation of teacher education colleges and universities (2010), I find my background well-suited to this challenge and continue to do reviews and audits of gifted programs, do off-site and onsite visits for full institutional reviews, and assess the accuracy and appropriateness of reviews done by other national teams.   My interest in all of this work has also led to new publications, some curricular and some more traditionally academic in orientation.  This work has also spawned more conference presentations both here and abroad on the relevant topics of interest.  As more books emerge in gifted education that have invited chapters, I find myself doing about one a month in response to invitations, many of them about the ICM model.  So you can see that retirement from the Center and an academic position has not led me away from the field of gifted education but rather more deeply into it in those areas that are growth-producing and joyful.

To have received three national awards since retirement from three different national/international organizations was also gratifying in that it provides a gauge for the value of the work to the field at large.  In 2010, I received the Distinguished Service Award from NAGC and in the same year was elected a Fellow of the AERA.  In 2011, I received the Mensa Award for lifetime achievement to research in intelligence. 

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

None of the curriculum work that has gone on here at William and Mary would have been possible without the strong collaborators that I’ve enjoyed working with over the years. This would include teachers like yourself, Kim, and others who have been graduate students and have been placed in a position of engaging in the curriculum development projects. But also staff people at the center with whom I have worked and who have added so much to the level of curriculum that we have been able to put out. Beverly Sher, Dana Johnson, and Linda Boyce are the three who come to my mind as being extremely powerful in really influencing that early work in very positive ways. And then, I would say in the last eight years or so, the collaborative work with Bruce Bracken, Carol Tieso, and other staff members here at the center like yourself, Tamra (Stambaugh), Elissa (Brown), and Catherine (Little), have made our curriculum work stronger and more credible.

Since retirement, I have continued my collaboration and relationship with many of my former doctoral students.  We have presented together, written together, and done collaborative projects together.  There is no more joyful experience than knowing that others have learned and practice the habits of mind so necessary to leading a creative and productive life.