Acceleration or Flexible Progression

The research on acceleration/flexible progression

Also check out these pragmatic guidelines for acceleration on this site.

Acceleration (Braggett 1992a, 1993b) is both

  • a student reality when a student has already progressed through the curriculum in one or more areas beyond his or her age level, and
  • a school or teacher response in recognising and facilitating this reality with appropriate class placement or program tailoring.

Research shows that accelerated gifted students out-perform non-accelerated gifted control students and perform as well as equally gifted older students in the higher grades (Kulik & Kulik 1984a).

Flexible progression allows students to work at their own level rather than at some predetermined level deemed appropriate for students of that age. This can occur within the students' age classes with the use of curriculum differentiation and other flexible teaching strategies.

However the needs of many gifted students may be better met with the students being placed in a different class setting for one, several or all curriculum areas. Factors to be considered in this decision are:

  • where the best fit between educational program and student's needs can be found;
  • where the most facilitating learning environment (including psychological aspects as well as resources) for the student can be found;
  • where the most likely meeting of "like minds" can be encouraged; and
  • where the most efficient use of scarce teacher resources can be made.

Responding to Gaps

The teacher considering accelerated placement needs to assess the student's current skill levels in all areas to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible about the placement decision.

A student does not necessarily need to have reached all the curriculum entry milestones of a higher level for that level to be the "best fit" for that student's needs. Consequently as with most students there may be gaps in the student's skills (and some transitional remedial work may be required).

Socio-Emotional Aspects

It is a common belief that acceleration can place socio-emotional pressure on a student and that accelerated placement should not be considered unless the student shows him or herself to be socially and emotionally robust. In contrast much of a gifted child's apparent socio-emotional immaturity is more likely to be due to his inappropriate placement away from others of a like mind.

Research suggests a student's social and emotional development is correlated more highly with his or her mental age than with his or her chronological age (Tannenbaum 1983, Janos & Robinson 1985). Research also suggests that children tend to make friendships with those of a similar mental age (O'Shea 1960).

Social and emotional behaviour would also be dependent on the manner in which an accelerated placement is handled, and on the general attitude within the school environment of accepting or not accepting those who are different in some way. Accelerated placements are more likely in schools with open and accepting atmospheres and where accelerants are not made to feel conspicuous.

Some gifted students, particularly exceptionally gifted students, may also perceive others and the world so differently that they will never fit the normal models of socio-emotional behaviour (Gross 1992, 1993). It is inappropriate to deny these students more appropriate educational provision. The question should be whether the socio-emotional effects of accelerated placement are likely to be negative, neutral or positive, and whether any negative elements can be reduced.

Trial Periods and Transitions

The transition to an accelerated placement is made easier if:

  • the school has encouraged intra-class mobility, contact and groupings for various activities and projects;
  • the teacher has encouraged flexible progression within the class thus facilitating the students to be ready for the curriculum of the new class;
  • the student's ability places him or her in the upper ability levels of the new class;
  • both the receiving and transmitting teachers are supportive of the placement; and
  • the student and his or her family have been involved in the decision-making and are supportive of the placement.

Transition processes would vary for each school and student, but should be sensitively handled - avoiding such unnecessary traumas as the student arriving unprepared before the new class and avoiding any unnecessary labelling or conspicuous attention.

A "trial period" may also reduce the stress of the accelerated placement, provided that any subsequent decision not to proceed with the placement is not seen as a "failure" by the student or as irrevocable - an accelerated placement might well be appropriate with different teachers or at a different stage of the student's education.

High School Environments/Timetabling

In high schools and even at many primary schools, accelerated placement in other than all curriculum areas is made difficult by timetabling constraints. The time freed by a student being released from a curriculum area at one level rarely coincides with that curriculum area being taught at a higher level (because the same teachers are often involved). This difficulty, though rarely insuperable, has often been used as a reason for not considering subject acceleration at high schools. It thus makes cases of accelerated placement rarer and more unusual than might otherwise be the case.

The simplest way to handle subject acceleration, including participation in a higher year's class, may well be possible with only minimal disruption, as follows:

  • the student's timetable starts with the periods for the acceleration subject at the higher level;
  • over this is laid the timetable for the student's other subjects thus identifying some conflicts and free periods; and
  • the periods freed from the former level of study in the accelerated subject are then used for independent study to cover periods missed in other subjects after negotiation with these subject teachers.

Alternately a way that this timetabling constraint can be avoided is to pursue subject acceleration as an independent learning option, such as:

  • students are selected for subject acceleration on a number of factors including student, parent and teacher nomination and other teacher assessment, but with attention also given to the student's ability to work independently;
  • these students are permitted not to attend the classes in the curriculum area in which they are accelerating, and rather spend this time in the library or "independent learning centre" working independently;
  • a teaching member is appointed as an adviser by the relevant curriculum area faculty to oversee the student's work in the area;
  • the students are, when appropriate, given time away from their other subjects to attend classes or activities with the relevant higher class; and
  • they are encouraged to meet together with other subject accelerants and the accelerated placement coordinator to discuss their progress with the program.

Other options around this timetabling constraint pursued at some schools are vertical unitised timetabling and group acceleration.

Group Acceleration

Group acceleration involves avoiding or minimising timetabling difficulties by grouping the differing needs of a range of students into one class-size group. For example a promising group of Year 7 mathematics students could continue to be timetabled in that year's mathematics slot, but they might complete the mathematics curriculum for Years 7-10 in three years.

This process is a practical compromise solution that assumes there is a class-size group of students with similar mathematical talents and needs. It does not necessarily respond to the individual needs of the individual students, but while financial constraints apply to education, such a process may be the most pragmatic solution to a particular situation in a school. Once started it is important that such a group acceleration takes the selected students all the way through the subject area, to avoid students who have successfully worked on an accelerated program being forced to repeat work. There also needs to be thought given to follow-on options once the program has been completed with options including completing school early, undertaking university level courses, time off to complete part-time work or research type projects etc.

Ideally the subject area and the group acceleration strategy as a whole needs to be assessed afresh each year against the characteristics of the student body in order to select the best use of limited resources to meet the needs of the new students at the time.

Click for Information on skipping a grade? and for References for this article

© David Farmer 31 January 1996 - This piece was adapted from text I wrote for an educational video/booklet package Meeting the Needs of Gifted Students in the Regular Classroom