Helping Teachers Recognize Gifted Learners and Elevate Classroom Conversation

‘Project Focus’ brings more learners into gifted programs — and more strategies from gifted education into general classrooms

Students in an elementary school classroom raise their hands to be called on.


Gifted education provides advanced opportunities for millions of students in public schools across the United States. But the availability and accessibility of gifted programs varies widely, and teacher preparation to support gifted learners tends to be limited.  

As a result, many students who would benefit from inclusion in a gifted education environment either attend school in places where these resources don’t exist or are excluded from these opportunities. 

With an award of $3.4 million from the US Department of Education Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, UConn researchers are launching “Project Focus” to combat both these issues. 

Project Focus will be a professional development program for teachers of students in third through fifth grade. The program will help participants learn to both proactively recognize learners needing advanced services and bring engaging gifted education strategies, like asking high-level questions, into their own classrooms.  

“Project Focus is really all about supporting teachers in how they engage in questioning and discussion in the classroom, as a way of giving more students access to the opportunity to engage in high-level discussion about what they’re learning,” says project PI Catherine Little, a professor in the Neag School of Education who specializes in giftedness, creativity, and talent development. 

Identifying gifted learners from underrepresented groups is a key research priority for the Javits Program. Project Focus is helping educators learn how to recognize and respond to giftedness among underserved populations, such as “students from low-income backgrounds and students who are language learners; multilingual students; and students who are twice exceptional, meaning they could potentially be identified both for gifted education and special education needs,” according to Little. 

Little’s co-PI is Kylie Anglin, an assistant professor in the Neag School who specializes in causal and computational research methods. Anglin will be working with the research team to generate computer models that can analyze the transcripts of recorded audio from classrooms.  

By assessing different variables — such as the amount of time teachers speak versus students, the questions teachers ask, and even the types of conjunctions students use in their responses — the researchers will be able to evaluate the quality of classroom discussion and provide targeted recommendations for educators. 

The project’s combination of professional learning and continuous classroom evaluation is unique, pairing a data-focused analytical framework with evidence-based best practices to elevate classroom learning.  

“I’m very interested in research design that helps us answer whether programs and policies actually meet their goals,” Anglin says. She’s looking forward to “measuring on-the-ground changes in teacher practice — looking to see how these classrooms actually sound different after teachers have participated in the professional development.” 

For Little, who is a former elementary school teacher turned gifted education researcher, this work is a continuation of previous Javits-supported projects she has led, including Project SPARK and Project LIFT. Both these efforts included a significant focus on increasing access to gifted education among underserved learners. In another recent initiative, Project EAGLE, UConn researchers focused on increasing representation of English language learners in gifted education. 

“All these projects have built on each other,” Little says. “I’ve long worked with the thread of curriculum and instruction as a major mechanism for responding to the needs of gifted learners – and how curriculum and instruction can be our way of providing increased access.”