The DA editorial team recently chatted with husband and wife Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis about Renzulli Learning, their for-profit, subscription-based online program that matches students' interests and learning styles to various activities that are designed to enrich and challenge students. It offers enrichment activities, testimonials and online video training for instructors. Reis is a professor and former department head of the educational psychology department in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut (UConn), where she also serves as principal investigator of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Joseph Renzulli is the Neag Professor of Gifted Education and Talented Development at UConn, where he also serves as the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
DA: Can you tell us what the philosophy is behind the Renzulli Learning method?
Renzulli: It's really guided by four principles. One is personalization or interest, which means that you're pursuing a topic because you have a strong interest in it. That could be either an off shoot of the school curriculum or an independent project. We have a feature called the Wizard Project Maker, [an online tool] that walks a student through a project from hypothesis to resources to products, outlets and audiences. The second principle is the use of authentic methodology. We have a database that has how-to books-for instance, how to be a poet, write poetry, and how to get your poetry published. The third consideration is that the program is intended for an audience in addition to the teacher so that young people see their work going someplace to make something happen somewhere. The fourth consideration is that there's no single predetermined correct answer. That's the best definition of constructivist learning, as far as the way we approach it.
DA: How are the Renzulli technique philosophies unique from what's now done in gifted education?
Renzulli: Our database is probably the most unique feature. Nothing on the Internet does what we do. For instance, if you put "Egypt" into Google, you'll get about 420 million hits and it will take a long time for a teacher to find what's going to work with kids. Some databases out there may narrow that to 180,000 possibilities, but there's no categorization. Renzulli Learning activities are categorized by the database so the teacher gets a breakdown of what's available. For instance, in searching online it may say virtual field trips: 26, or critical thinking: 12. The second way we classify content is according to estimated age and grade of the student, as well as difficulty level. Most of that has to do with the vocabulary level of the material. The third way we classify is by the various profi le items, which include interest, learning styles and expression styles. And the fourth way is by state standards.
We used our work on the enrichment triad model, featuring type 1 enrichment, which is general exploratory experiences to get kids excited about something, type 2 enrichment to introduce a broad range of thinking and methods skills, and type 3 individual and small group investigations of problems.
The idea was to take what we were already doing to create a districtwide enrichment model so that we could serve more than just students identifi ed and in the gifted program. We wanted to apply the pedagogy of gifted education to all kids. We're not saying that all children are gifted, but by providing the right opportunities, resources and encouragement within interest areas, we can get students interested in poetry, for example, to see themselves as aspiring poets. We want all kids to have an opportunity at this type of learning.
Reis: What we began to see was a change of state guidelines to more of a talent pool approach, which coincided with a more flexible approach to student identification. And what we've found is that even in the states that still use high IQ for identification, there are now alternate routes for underserved students and ELL students. Our theme really is the same as the title of a book we first published in 1985-The Schoolwide Enrichment Model. This really expands the notion that we should look at schools as places of talent development. Instead of deficit reduction, schools should be developing students' talents.
It's true that most teachers now know what differentiation is, but in most classrooms it's still a difficult thing to do. The idea for Renzulli Learning actually came out of a study that I was doing on students who were talented in reading. The federally funded study actually put us into classrooms, mostly in NewEngland, where we were told kids were reading three or four grade levels ahead, to fi nd out how teachers were modifying curriculum in instruction. What we found was that they weren't. In some of the classes I observed, I never saw a student get a reading lesson. What I did observe was that students, when they did get to use computers, were searching the Web indiscriminately and getting to sites they shouldn't have gotten to, and when they did read, they read simple books, not even close to their grade level. So these youngsters failed to make any continuous progress in reading.
DA: How do you tackle such a daunting, systemic problem as you describe? It seems that the teachers and students needed help.
Reis: Some colleagues and I from UConn spent time bookmarking innovative sites on the three computers available to students. I was really proud that we had done it, but found that none of the sites were in the kids' interest areas. I bookmarked reading sites and they weren't interested. Then we started to think what if we could take these instruments we had been developing at UConn? We had one on interest, one on learning styles and another on
product styles. What if we could match these to the best resources? At about this same time the UConn research and development corporation visited our office looking for creative faculty with creative ideas for starting small businesses. We've been collecting sites ever since. Renzulli Learning recently hit 30,000 bookmarked sites.
Renzulli: The program has theoretical integrity to a certain approach to learning. It's at the opposite end of the continuum of prescriptive, didactic information and accumulation and storage and regurgitation on the test. It's a very constructivist model. We're looking at other things besides just students' cognitive ability. We're looking at interests, learning styles and preferred modes of expression.