Review: Challenging Units for Gifted Learners

While at NAGC 2010, the most exciting session I attended was put on by Ken Smith and Susan Stonequist. They outlined a geometry unit in which their students built a working miniature golf course. I was thrilled to hear that this unit was just one part of an upcoming series of books.

Earlier this month, Ken contacted me to see if I’d review the recently published series, called Challenging Units for Gifted Learners. Would I? I’ve been talking my colleagues’ ears off about that golf course unit I saw! I couldn’t wait to see what else was in the books.

The series recently arrived, and consists of three books, covering math, social studies, and language arts. Each is designed for 6th to 8th grade classrooms.

Targeting Gifted Students’ Thinking

Ken Smith, who authored the series, has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and also runs the enrichment program for his school district. The balance of these two perspectives makes this series uniquely useful. The ideas behind the units clearly target the minds of our gifted learners, but the lesson design clearly targets us busy teachers.

Each book opens with an overview of research into gifted students’ thinking processes. Smith discusses what makes gifted students’ brains different and addresses the impact this has on the classroom. This information serves as a backdrop for the bulk of the book, which is packed with practical units divided into daily lessons and built upon “ill-defined problems.”

Ill-Defined Problems

Ill-defined problems are tasks with open constants. Instead of clearly defined rules and requirements, open problems have countless correct solutions, and require creativity, adaptability, and high-level problem solving. Smith explains that, because of their unique abilities in thinking and remembering, gifted students are especially attracted to ill-defined problems. Here are the ill-defined problems that Smith has built these units on:

Language Arts

  1. writing a mystery story built around richly developed characters
  2. writing group stories in which students write the same story from different characters’ perspectives
  3. creating deep poetry using high-level academic vocabulary
  4. analyzing literature using a Freudian perspective


  1. creating a math “fun fair” centered around probability
  2. developing a working golf course built on geometry and physics
  3. making profitable investments
  4. running a small business

Social Studies

  1. simulating Antebellum America
  2. planning an African economic summit
  3. simulating The Supreme Court
  4. investigating the struggles of the original American colonies

Research-Based And Teacher-Friendly

Smith takes each of these complex, “ill-defined problems” and breaks them down into well-constructed units. He introduces each unit with a research-based “cognitive connection” and then transitions into step-by-step, teacher-friendly lessons.

These units are hefty, too, weighing it at around a dozen lessons a piece. Each lesson sets up the next, lending structure to open-ended projects. The units conclude with possible adaptations for your class along with necessary handouts, scoring guides, and links to more resources. There’s even nightly homework ideas at the end of each day’s lesson!

After looking through the unit on mystery writing from the language arts book, I felt comfortable bringing it right into my classroom and knew I was increasing the level of complexity in my students’ writing.

I really appreciate the creativity of the units combined with the simplicity of the daily lessons. It’s the exact formula that I feel teachers need. Plus, these units will truly challenge my 6th graders. I’m so used to having to increase the rigor of all my curriculum, it’s quite a great feeling to plug something right into my schedule and not feel like I’m shortchanging my students.

In Closing

Each book in the series offers four units made up of around a dozen lessons each. The books are available as paperbacks as well as PDFs. Click through for more details and a look at a few pages of each book: