What is the REACH Model?


In a nutshell….

  • The REACH model is a framework that helps teachers to understand the very different needs gifted learners bring to the classroom.
  • It gives teachers a sound knowledge basis for planning lessons that include gifted learners.
  • It is linked to a raft of practical and teacher-friendly strategies.

What is this framework?

In outline, the REACH Model for teaching gifted learners looks like this:

Key Concepts:

  1. Generating a high level of interest in learning
  2. Developing the “tools of thought”
  3. Developing intellectual & creative potential
  4. Fostering emotional, social & ethical development
  5. Evaluating our learning

© R. Cathcart - They’re Not Bringing My Brain Out/S. Barriball

Why these concepts? Are they different from what we do for all children?

In many ways, they are not different. But their significance for gifted learners is very different. Using the links below, let’s look briefly at each in turn:

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I. Generating a high level of interest in learning

When do you learn best? When the topic interests you – or when it bores you silly? The answer to this really goes without saying. Practically everyone learns much better when they’re interested in what they’re learning.

This is just as true for gifted learners as it is for everyone else. In fact, we might quite reasonably expect such interest to happen almost automatically in these children. After all, one of their most typical traits is their burning desire to find out!

But that’s all too often not what happens for gifted learners. Research has repeatedly found that their most common experience at school is being bored. Because they are functioning at a level well beyond the normal classroom programme, gifted learners repeatedly find themselves left with, quite literally, nothing to do with their minds while the rest of the class is at full stretch.

As adults, we often trivialise boredom. We say it's an unavoidable part of life, one of the things we all experience and have to cope with. But how do people feel when they’re bored? Not just briefly but for hours at a time, days at a stretch, week after week, for all the foreseeable months ahead? How would you feel?

Boredom caused by the failure of school to provide adequate programmes is one of the major reasons why so many gifted learners lose interest in school and in learning and never reach their full potential. That’s why we start with this as our first focus.
II. Developing the “tools of thought”
Boredom isn’t the only problem reported by gifted learners. Another big worry is lack of guidance. Well-meaning teachers, recognising their need for something extra, will often set their gifted pupils a special task or project or let them pursue a topic of their own choice. Freed at least for a while from the restrictions of the regular classroom programme, the children can work at their true pace and level – or that’s the intention.

The problem is that learning activities advanced beyond the rest of the classroom programme often require learning skills which are also advanced beyond those the class, including the exceptionally able child, has yet been taught. So if the child is to undertake the activity successfully, he or she must be specifically taught or given the opportunity to learn the skills required. Similarly, he or she may need help in locating resources not normally available to the class and support in talking ideas through when there’s no peer to share with. Thus our second key concept emerges, developing the “tools of thought”.

What does this mean? What are the “tools of thought”?

The REACH model explores five specific areas:
  1. Study and research skills.
  2. Skills in observation and perception.
  3. Communication skills.
  4. Thinking skills.
  5. Organisational skills.

By including these various kinds of skills, the concept of “developing the tools of thought” goes far beyond mere technical expertise, and embraces all the processes of understanding, responding and creating.

III. Developing intellectual and creative potential
This key concept is very clearly a central function of any work with gifted learners. We seek to extend the child with exceptional abilities to the full in all her/his areas of ability. But what do we actually mean by “developing the child’s intellectual and creative potential”? “Potential” is a word we teachers use very freely when we write mission statements and learning objectives and so on, but all too often we haven't really thought through precisely what we intend by this.

The REACH model identifies and investigates three essential elements in planning a programme for gifted learners:
  1. providing for mastery of content and skills at a level and pace matched to the child’s ability;
  2. fostering depth of understanding;
  3. encouraging creativity in response.

Most of our schooling is based on the first of these three elements. Certainly this is the main criterion we generally use in assessing 'success' at school - we measure through our tests and exams and other evaluations the degree to which the child has mastered the knowledge and skills we have put in front of her/him, and that is what we generally record and report on.

But when we start to add in the other two elements as well, then we may come closer to giving real meaning to the concept of “potential”.

IV. Fostering emotional, social and ethical development
Many programmes for gifted learners stop at this point. Their goal is met when they are effectively providing for the gifted child to work at the more advanced levels appropriate to his or her ability. This is particularly likely to be true for those programmes which designate themselves as “talent development” programmes.

But the learning needs of gifted learners don’t begin and end with their intellects or imaginations. They are not just minds. They are people, with feelings. Like everyone else, gifted learners need to feel good about themselves. They want to be liked, and to have friends. They have to learn how to behave considerately and fairly towards others.

But in this respect, aren’t the needs of the gifted learner much the same as the needs of any other child?

It’s true that many gifted learners have no particular problems in these areas. Indeed some are natural leaders and seem to attract friends and supporters wherever they go.

But it is equally true that many other gifted learners are intensely lonely. They have few if any friends. They often feel inadequate and shy. Their self esteem may be low. There is evidence to suggest that the more able a child is, the more likely he or she is to end up in this second group.

Why is this?

Consider these two real children: a 7-year-old who chooses to spend Saturday morning doing advanced maths rather than playing football and a 12-year-old who is over the moon about attending a university-level course on Chaucer.

Now imagine either of these children bouncing into class on a Monday morning and trying to share their enthusiasm with their fellows. What response would they be most likely to get? ‘Oh wow, tell us more!’?

While test scores may not matter between friends, being able to share interests does. Gifted learners often have highly unusual interests: other children may find these incomprehensible. Sharing may be difficult or even impossible.

Their classroom behaviour may also get them classified as ’strange’ by other children: using all those long words, forever asking ‘dumb’ questions, going on about things nobody else wants to hear about – who wants to know that weirdo?

Isolated in this way, often from kindergarten, some gifted learners find great difficulty in learning how to relate to others. They may go right through childhood always being the ‘odd one out’. Such experiences may scar a person for life with a deep-seated sense of inadequacy, even despite apparent academic success.

There are wider consequences too. Each of us must constantly make decisions about how to behave, about what it is right or wrong, wise or unwise to do. Such decisions are not made by reason alone. They are guided also by our understanding and concern about how people feel and about how they will be affected by what we do. If, however, we do not understand other people very well, we may make poor decisions. But how can you learn to understand other people if other people don't understand you and don't want you to be part of what they do? A poignant and very relevant question for the gifted child.

Thus, although fundamentally gifted learners may have the same needs as other children do, some of them at least will face great difficulty in this aspect of their development.

For this reason, we need to balance our focus on intellectual and creative development with an equal focus on emotional, social and ethical development. Hence our fourth key concept.

V. Evaluating our learning
Learning how to critique our own work is a skill which becomes increasingly important as a child grows towards maturity and adult independence. It is a skill which is particularly necessary for any individual who is in any sense “going beyond the known” – researcher, artist, technical innovator, anyone who is a creator or leader in his or her own field.

Thus we teach the child to ask him or herself questions such as:
  1. Have I fully answered the original question?
  2. Have I been resourceful in seeking answers? Have I used my initiative and my imagination?
  3. Have I examined my findings critically and objectively?
  4. Have I communicated my findings clearly? Have I demonstrated what I have learned?
  5. Where to from here? Can I generate questions to take this learning further?

In essence this concept is about empowering gifted learners to take ownership of their own learning, about helping them to discover that they can initiate and manage this process for themselves.

What’s the origin of this model?

The original model was developed in the mid 1980’s by Rosemary Cathcart, with the fifth key concept being added about twenty years later by her colleague Sue Barriball.

Cathcart comments that she didn’t set out to develop a model but only to design a programme. “Like most teachers,” she says, “I didn’t have gifted education included in my professional training. When I was asked to set up a programme, I thought I had no idea where to start.” Cathcart looked for guidance, found only two programmes in her city, felt dissatisfied with both, and asked herself why. Both had a very narrow curriculum focus, and, “I realised suddenly that I did know where to start – with the needs of the children. And that those needs weren’t confined just to work in a curriculum area.”

Drawing on her own experiences as a parent of gifted children and those of other parents who had similarly found themselves in this unanticipated position, Cathcart identified the four clusters of needs which subsequently became the basis of the REACH model and set about working with groups of gifted children in a programme built round these needs. At about this time she met the distinguished New Zealand scholar G.W. Parkyn, whose papers she was later to edit. Their mutual interest in the emotional, social and ethical development of gifted learners led to ongoing discussions, and Cathcart gratefully credits Parkyn with introducing her to the literature in the field, guiding her towards the research basis for the work she was doing and encouraging her to view REACH as a model which could justifiably be shared with others.

A decade later, the REACH model became the basis of the One Day School, a programme for gifted learners in Years 2-8 which grew to have venues in many parts of New Zealand. Sue Barriball taught in the programme and subsequently became its lead teacher and director of the gifted education centre of which it was part. She worked closely with the model, guiding the One Day School teachers in its use, and from this experience suggested the addition of the fifth key concept.

The model has been taught to teachers in many parts of New Zealand and more recently in Australia, and is now an integral part of the REACH online Certificate of Effective Practice in Gifted Education as well as continuing to provide the framework for One Day School..
How can I use this model in my teaching?
Cathcart’s view is that if busy teachers are to use theoretical models to guide their planning, those models need to come equipped with thoroughly teacher-friendly, highly achievable practical strategies.

Thus the REACH model is supported by a wide range of very practical strategies for implementing each of the key concepts. Initially developed in the original programme back in the 1980’s with active participation from the children themselves, the various strategies have been used for over a decade by the One Day School teachers and more recently by teachers taking the REACH online course.

These strategies are spelt out in the teachers’ manual, They’re Not Bringing My Brain Out, (3rd edition 2005, Hodder Education), which also includes numerous examples teachers can use to help them in trialling the strategies for themselves.
For more information, go to our Books page
They're Not Bringing My Brain Out by Rosemary Cathcart

Academic note
For those interested in the academic background to this model, essentially it links most closely to the philosophy of writers such as Silverman, Roeper, Hollingworth, Piechowski, Tolan and others who view giftedness as integral to the inner self of the child, fundamentally shaping his or her perceptions of and response to experience, and therefore also shaping his or her learning and developmental needs.

At the same time, the model does not eschew the role of talent development, but sees it as a part rather than as the sole or primary focus of gifted education, and links it to the visionary concern expressed by Parkyn, Passow, Swassing and others, including more recently Renzulli, for the future leadership of society and the resolution of major world issues.

The concept of “going beyond the known” is explored as a metaphor for understanding the creative and innovative roles of the gifted individual. The notion of asynchronous development is accepted as a relevant and accurate description of the developmental journey for many gifted children. Although not reaching the same conclusions about the primacy of talent development, the REACH model accepts Gagne’s DMGT as a coherent and valuable account of the relationship between inherent ability and its subsequent manifestation in some outward form, and particularly values the intermediary factors described in the DMGT, including the influential role that can be played by teachers.

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