ESCL: Rethinking Gifted Education at Wise Elementary


I’m curious – what thoughts enter your mind when you think of ‘gifted education’ or ‘gifted students?’

Prior to joining the Launch team a few years ago, my understanding of giftedness was full of negative biases. ‘Gifted’ was a term used by talk-y parents to describe the inflated successes of their children, usually in the domains of reading and writing (i.e. ‘Jeffrey began reading chapter books at 18 months! Our son is PROFOUNDLY gifted.’).

Simultaneously, ‘gifted’ denoted a distinct class of people that was smarter and better than me. I assumed that you were simply born gifted – intelligence was encoded in your DNA – and there was nothing that ordinary folks (i.e. Matt Steiner) could do to join the smarty party.

Is this what gifted students look like to you? Is this what gifted learning looks like?Here, Wise students gather for a class experiment.

Is this what gifted students look like to you? Is this what gifted learning looks like? Here, Wise students gather for a class experiment.

Through recent conversations with teachers and administrators at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School (Wise Elementary), I’ve learned that giftedness isn’t just about innate intellectual ability or IQ. ‘Gifted’ is also an adjective that describes complex STYLES of thinking that children and adults can develop over time. It is this understanding – giftedness as a habit of mind rather than an intrinsic trait – that takes center-stage in this week’s edition of Elementary Schools that Change Lives.

Wait. Wise Elementary is now a school for ‘gifted children’? What happened to my favorite Reformed Jewish neighborhood school?

Reader, do not fret. Wise Elementary is STILL your favorite Jewish neighborhood school. In conversations with the Director of Admissions, Beth Behar, you’ll still hear words like ‘community-centered’, ‘progressive,’ ‘faith-based,’ and ‘developmental.’

However, thanks to the efforts of Wise Elementary’s Head of School, Tami Weiser, and Director of Curriculum, Karen Anderson, the school is transforming into a space for deeper, more creative inquiry. At the crux of this transformation is a partnership with USC’s Rossier School of Education.

Alright, so these are clearly students at Wise's Early Childhood Center. But these kids perfectly symbolize the 'comfy', nurturing environment Wise families have come to love.

Alright, so these are clearly students at Wise’s Early Childhood Center. But these kids perfectly symbolize the ‘comfy’, nurturing environment Wise families have come to love.

What is the USC Partnership?

In 2011, Wise Elementary formalized a partnership with Dr. Sandra Kaplan, a professor of clinical education at USC. In Dr. Kaplan’s research, she has uncovered the cognitive processes that underlie critical and creative thought among gifted learners. Although these processes may come more naturally to gifted folks, Dr. Kaplan believes that children of all intellectual levels can be taught to think with ‘depth and complexity.’ Consequently, she has developed a system of tools that Wise Elementary teachers can use in the classroom to foster deeper thought.

How does the USC Partnership change lives?

This is where I get excited. As I mentioned earlier, the notion that sophisticated thinking can be taught to ALL students is revolutionary. The majority of elementary schools – private and public – that I have visited in Los Angeles tend to separate students into ability groups. These groupings typically determine the rigor and nature of the assignments that students complete until they graduate.

While struggling students are set aside to remediate academic deficits, students who have mastered the fundamentals are encouraged to be creative, explore, and exercise their brains with more challenging material. (I should note that the opposite often occurs too. Students with advanced intellectual abilities are made to keep pace with a curriculum that slows them down.)

At Wise Elementary, teachers have been trained to differentiate their instruction without sacrificing rigor. Students can still receive remediation in math and reading, while also learning the advanced thinking styles that define gifted education.

So what does differentiated/gifted education look like at Wise Elementary?

I know what’s on your mind. Words like ‘differentiation’ and ‘cognitive processes’ sound really scientific and confusing. What does it mean to think with ‘depth and complexity? What is critical thinking?

Students are encouraged to ask and define different styles of questioning: including 'factual,' 'analytical,' and 'evaluative.'

Students are encouraged to ask and define different styles of questioning: including ‘factual,’ ‘analytical,’ and ‘evaluative.’

For Wise Elementary, critical thinking has a clear definition: ‘contemplating details, trends, patterns, and perspectives, and the great unanswered questions of our times.’ Let’s apply this definition of critical thinking to a much beloved elementary school project – researching the California Missions.

While learning about the San Juan Capistrano Mission, a Wise Elementary student may focus on the details that make the mission unique. She focuses on the populations that lived on the mission, its administrative structure, rules, physical architecture, and its relationship with the surrounding community.

Going a step deeper, the student compares these details with the attributes of other missions. She begins to notice patterns in the appearance and function of multiple missions across the state. The student’s knowledge of the mission takes on a new dimension when she is asked to write diary entries from the perspectives of different social groups on the mission. She must think like a disciplinarian to write from the vantage points of padres, farmers, skilled workers, and Spanish soldiers. Ultimately, this leads the student to unanswerable questions that tug at her sense of justice – was it right for Spanish missionaries to evangelize the native people of California? Are evangelism and colonialism ethical?

Clearly, not all 9 or 10 year-olds can participate in discussions of moral philosophy. However, what makes Wise Elementary’s curriculum unique is the creative latitude it offers each student. The depth of a student’s inquiry hinges on her individual interest level.

6th grade students are given visual prompts to think critically about the abstract concept of 'social class.'

6th grade students are given visual prompts to think critically about the abstract concept of ‘social class.’

To cite the California Missions project, some students may stop at the details and patterns phases of research. Consequently, these students choose to write travel brochures of the missions, build 3D models, or create other detail-oriented projects. However, if another student decides that she is more interested in the unanswerable questions surfaced by her research, she is encouraged to create an independent study project that has greater depth. For example, she may write a screenplay about the oppression of Spanish colonists and a fictional uprising that follows.

In spite of differences in their intellectual complexity, the mission projects are individually presented to the class and are highlighted for their unique contributions to classroom learning. All students benefit from learning about one another’s creations.

A Glimpse at the USC Partnership

What does the USC Partnership say about the ethos of Wise Elementary?

Full-disclosure, I’ve always had the warm fuzzies for this school. When I attended a tiny private elementary school in the valley, our notoriously terrible sports teams competed with Wise Elementary. We lost year after year, but in spite of these sore memories, I can’t help but remember the uncanny kindness of the Wise Elementary players. They apologized if they played too roughly, picked us up when we stumbled, and swiftly re-adjusted our sports goggles/mouth guards when they fell out of place.

Flash forward twenty-something years, and the school still maintains the same commitment to creating students with ‘inquisitive minds, caring hearts, and kind souls’ (the school’s mission statement!). However, now the school has truly upped its ante with the hard work of Dr. Kaplan, Karen Anderson, and Tami Weiser. In spite of being everyone’s favorite Jewish neighborhood school, Wise Elementary has become an educational and intellectual leader among peer institutions in Los Angeles. Well done…errr…Mazel tov!

Yours Truly,


Launch Education Team

At Launch Education Group, we pride ourselves in our unique approach to academic tutoring and test preparation, which addresses learning at multiple levels. Ultimately, it is our goal to help students of all ages and ability levels to achieve their potential and develop independence. We believe we have done our job when our students no longer need our support. Follow us on Facebook.

  • Delia

    I really enjoy your writing style. And your topics!

    • mattsteiner

      Wow, thank you so much, Delia. :) Your support means the world!

  • Wendy Zacuto

    Wonderful descriptions of an innovative program. The school is a great combination of being child-centered and “brain-stretching” it seems!!

    • mattsteiner

      Excellent summation, Wendy. Stephen S. Wise manages to be both ‘cozy’ and developmental, while also allowing the space for rigorous, independent inquiry. It seems like a really solid system.