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Technology and the Gifted Adolescent: Higher Order Thinking, 21st Century Literacy, and the Digital Native

Caroline C. Sheffield

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Gifted Education

According to Tomlinson (1996), there are no environmental modifications unique to gifted education. Indeed, many of the strategies implemented in gifted education are indicative of “good” teaching for all students. Differentiation for the gifted child is found, not in the type of activity, but rather in levels of abstractness, complexity, ambiguity and pace. In an analysis of the available gifted education literature, VanTassel-Baska (1986) found that effective gifted curriculum typically followed one of three models: a content model, an epistemological model, or a process-product model. The content model of instruction focuses on acceleration of content instruction and the complexity of content information. This model is highly individualized and can be difficult to implement in a traditional middle school class with heterogeneous student grouping (Tomlinson, 1992). The epistemological model of gifted education examines the process of learning and knowing, focusing heavily on metacognition. This approach to gifted education is most often found in the high school via humanities classes or in gifted pull-out programs (VanTassel-Baska, 1986). The process-product model relies heavily on investigatory learning, where students engage in research and problem solving. It is in this model of gifted education that the use of technology is essential.

The Internet, especially online databases, provides access to information previously unavailable to all but a select group of scholars. This access to information is essential to the process-product model of gifted education, where students need to examine and analyze information in order to solve problems or discover answers to their research questions. Additionally, the opportunities for production are boundless. Students are able to use the information obtained through research to create any number of products (e.g., documentaries using movie-making software, presentations using PowerPoint or other presentation software, and publications using word processing software). The available software packages found in most schools, or as freeware online, enable students to produce products that rival professionals in quality. A teacher who utilizes technology in the process-product model of gifted education literally provides a world of opportunities for the students.

Technology is a vehicle for gifted curricular differentiation. The vast array of information available on the Internet necessitates that students be able to synthesize large amounts of information, analyze for meaning and patterns, and decipher relevant information from distracters. The infinite possibilities associated with digital technology, especially via the Internet, means that students are limited solely by their interests and abilities.

Defining 21st Century Literacy

Today’s students are living in a rapidly changing world of technology and communication, requiring a level of literacy that surpasses that of previous generations. In addition to the basic skills of reading and writing, students today must be able to think creatively and critically to solve problems and process voluminous amounts of information found in a variety of locations, including the Internet. Students also need to possess flexibility and confidence in the use of technology and be able to adjust innovative technology that will inevitably be part of their future life. The issue of 21st century literacy has become so pervasive that the topic dominated the cover of the December 18, 2006 issue of Time Magazine (Wallis & Steptoe, 2006). The article describes a situation that most educators recognize. Schools are incompatible with the modern world--classrooms remain in the 20th century while the outside world is a rapidly evolving matrix of communication and technology. These observations are corroborated by findings of the Partnership for 21st century Learning Skills (2002), which found a significant gap between knowledge and skills taught in the schools and those needed in the modern work force.

Burkhardt et al. (2003) identify four key components to 21st century literacy: digital-age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high productivity (see Figure 2). Each of these four components include facets that are already imbedded within gifted education (Siegle, 2004a; 2005). Digital-age literacy refers not only to the basic literacy of reading and writing, but also includes an understanding of scientific principals, economics, and global issues, as well as an ability to use technology and analyze information. Inventive thinking incorporates the cognitive skills necessary to grapple with the volume of information available with current technology, including higher order thinking, flexibility, curiosity, and creativity. Effective communication includes the ability to collaborate and utilize interpersonal skills, the knowledge of civic and personal responsibility, and the ability to effectively communicate ideas (Burkhart et al. 2003). A highly productive individual is identified as having the ability to plan, prioritize and execute ideas using the appropriate tools and knowledge.

21st Century Literacy Skills

Digital-Age Literary:

  • Basic literacy – including scientific, economic and technical
  • Visual and information literacy
  • Multicultural and global literacy

Inventive Thinking:

  • Flexibility, grappling with complexity, and self-direction
  • Creativity, curiosity, and risk-taking
  • Higher-order thinking – including critical thinking and problem solving

Effective Communication:

  • Collaboration and interpersonal skills
  • Interactive communication
  • Civic responsibility

High Productivity:

  • Prioritize, plan, and execute for results
  • Effective use of tools
  • Ability to produce high-quality products

Figure 2. 21st Century Literacy Skills from Burkhardt et al. (2003)

Although an ability to use diverse technologies is obviously crucial in this digital age, most teens are already comfortable using an array of technologies. The key to literacy in this new era is the adolescent’s ability to research, hypothesize, analyze, synthesize, and problem solve. In other words, today’s literate individual is proficient in higher order thinking.

Higher Order Thinking

Higher order thinking “occurs when a person takes new information and information stored in memory and interrelates and/or rearranges and extends this information to achieve a purpose or find possible answers” (Lewis & Smith, 1993, p. 136). It is a broad term used to describe complex thinking skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving (Lewis & Smith, 1993). What is considered to be higher order thinking varies by individual. The construct of higher order thinking and its subordinate constructs of critical thinking and problem solving are nestled within the context of an individual’s prior knowledge. What could be classified as critical thinking or problem solving for one individual, for whom the knowledge is new, could be prior knowledge for others (Newmann, 1990). Although the level of higher order thinking can vary among individuals, there are skills that can be addressed and developed through a curricular model (Fisher & Scriven, 1997).

Higher order thinking inherently falls within the constructivist theoretical framework. Constructivist theory is based on the idea that knowledge and understanding are individually derived, as opposed to universally defined (Land & Hannafin, 2000). With each of the tasks embedded within higher order thinking (e.g., problem solving, critical thinking, value analysis, and hypothesis testing), it is incumbent upon the learner to construct his/her own understanding of the problem or information and to make decisions accordingly.

Cognitive psychologists use the term “problem solving” to refer to a number of higher level cognitive process which include decision making, value analysis, and hypothesis testing (VanSickle & Hoge, 1991). These skills are essential for students to master as they wade through the volume of information available on the Internet, in order to evaluate and to synthesize information.

Critical thinking has long been discussed in educational research. Dewey (1933) referred to critical thinking as “reflective thinking,” which is “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends … it includes a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of evidence and rationality” (p. 9). Since Dewey, there have been a number of other definitions of critical thinking that offer slight modifications of one another (Fisher, 2001). Glaser (1941) described critical thinking as:

(1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experience; (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning; and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. (p. 5)

Ennis (1993) describes critical thinking as “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do” (p. 180). Paul, Binker, and Weil (1990) explain critical thinking as “taking charge of your own mind. … it involves getting in the habit of reflectively examining our impulsive and accustomed ways of thinking and acting in every dimension” (p. 7). Fisher and Scriven (1997) define critical thinking as the “skilled and active interpretation of observations and communications, information and argumentation” (p. 21). Each of the definitions of critical thinking listed above includes reflective thinking, analysis, and meta-cognition; it is understanding what you know, what you think, and knowing how you came to that conclusion.

Twelve critical thinking skills, derived from Glaser (1941) and Fisher and Scriven (1997), emerge as being necessary for working in today’s digital age (see Figure 3). Evaluation, interpretation, and synthesis are essential in order to draw meaning from the array of information available online. Such higher order thinking is an integral component in gifted education (Renzulli, 1977; Tomlinson, 1996). Indeed, in this digital world, with ever-changing technology, the ability to critically reason and solve problems is more important than the ability to use a specific type of technology (Siegle, 2004a).  

Critical Thinking Skills

  • problem recognition
  • identification of problem solution
  • gather pertinent information
  • recognize & evaluate assumptions
  • comprehend and use language
  • interpret data
  • evaluate data and information
  • recognize logical relationships
  • draw warranted conclusions
  • test conclusions
  • ability to reconstruct ones’ beliefs
  • produce and defend arguments

Figure 3. Identified critical thinking skills as adapted from Glaser (1941) and
                 Fisher & Scriven (1997)


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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 10, Issue 2, 2007
ISSN 1097-9778
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