Critical Chain Project Management for Gifted Education

I’ve been reading up on formal project management methodologies and I’m starting to view many things through the project management lens. This has led me to wonder if perhaps some of the problems we see in public education could be addressed by using a different method of managing the project of education.

Like all projects, cost, resources, time, quality, risk, and scope constrain public education.

As we have added more and more educational requirements and standards to the teaching load, we have increased the scope Project Constraintsof public education.This scope increase has occurred during a time of budget cuts so the cost and resources available have gone down and the time spent in school has stayed the same. Predictably, this has decreased public education quality while increasing the risk that our student are unable to compete globally. Because public polices and checks on education have focused exclusively at the risk to students below average, the gifted students have suffered the most. If we define a successful education as one where students learn at their maximum ability level, our highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, and profoundly gifted students have a very high risk of not being successfully educated.

While obvious solutions include increasing funding and lengthen the school year, political constraints make those ideas virtually impossible to implement. Besides, by themselves they won’t solve the problems with public education. Instead we need to look at how we are managing the project of public education. To the extent that we are managing it at all, we seem to use a traditional critical path management method.

In public education, students begin in kindergarten and steadily learn their education tasks in a rigidly defined sequential order until high school graduation. In critical path project management methodology, if a task in the critical path is delayed, the entire project is delayed by the same amount of time. Unfortunately in our public education system, we do not have a good way of delaying the entire educational project. When a student fails to complete an educational task in the allotted time, they end up with permanent gaps in their education, become discouraged, graduate with a GPA that is below their innate potential, or even fail to graduate at all.

The problems with critical path management for the project of public education include:

  1. Grade level educational requirements are based on projected average “optimal” learning and fail to account for resource availability. By setting a learning schedule and then trying to fit all students into that schedule from the beginning, we fail to account for the vast differences in resource availability between the students. These resources can vary with each student throughout their education and include family support, financial stability, educational support, emotional/social security, existing subject knowledge, innate learning ability (giftedness), and available study time.
  2. Student Syndrome. Teachers and students know they have a set period of time to teach specific subjects and concepts.  If the actual learning task will take 5 days of study for the student but the teacher has allocated 10 days, the student will slack off for the first 5 days and only put in effort for the second 5 days. This creates two issues. First, many of our students, especially our gifted students, waste a significant amount of their potential learning time because they are unable to work at their natural pace. Second, if the student guessed wrong and it will actually take them a bit longer to learn a concept, they fall behind.
  3. Bad Multitasking. In critical path management students and teachers work on several ideas and subjects in short periods of time. Teachers must constantly show all students making progress across a wide spectrum of knowledge areas. This leads to the school day being split into multiple, short chunks of subject time which negatively impacts deep learning  — especially during the elementary school years. It can also lead to time being wasted on non-critical learning tasks.
  4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Regardless of the time it may actually take for a class to learn a concept or body of knowledge, the class will work on the subject matter for the length of time the teacher or the school district have blocked out for it on the schedule.

As opposed to critical path, critical chain project management directly addresses many of the above issues. It takes into account that fact that some tasks will take longer than anticipated and others will go faster. It allows any unused “buffer” time to accumulate. The fast tasks balance out the slow tasks enabling the project of educating our students to a certain level to finish on time or early. Switching to critical chain project management for gifted education will allow our top students to excel and if we implement it across the board it has the potential to improve outcomes for all students, without increasing costs or lengthening the school year.

Critical chain public education will enable students to work at their own pace, move ahead when they personally are ready, and focusing in detail on one subject at a time. This will virtually eliminate student syndrome, bad multitasking, and Parkinson’s Law. It also may push us to flip our classrooms. Many computerized educational programs from Aleks to the Khan Academy already are using a critical chain approach to education. In these, students work at their own pace on one educational task at a time until mastery, without regard to a set calendar learning schedule or the mastery level of other students in their class.

We should change how we write educational standards. Instead of stating when students will learn a specific topic, the standards should define the critical chain order of subject mastery. We need to become comfortable with the idea that not all kids learn at the same pace and that there will be wide differences in knowledge. In reality, these wide differences already exist but they are hidden from us in most public schools. We rarely explore the depths of individual student knowledge, we only focus on the specific bits of information in the standards. Critical path education will allow all students, gifted and average, to dive deeply into subjects and even indulge their passions. Within a classroom, one student may spend a year immersed in American history and fulfill multiple “years” worth of requirements in just one year while their classmate may spend the same year focused on math. Similar to college undergraduate degrees, students will know what they must learn for each say, 4-year chunk of education. They will need to show progress each year through standardized testing, papers, and presentations. However, what they learn at any given time and how fast they learn it, is in their control. They can slow down for subjects that are personally confusing and speed up for topics that come to them naturally.

Yes, our gifted students may finish standard materials early, perhaps even years early than other students. This isn’t a negative. Our schools should maximize the potential of all students, not just educate everyone to the same, generic level each school year. By defining a critical chain of educational requirements, letting students know what those requirements are, and letting students work at their own pace through those requirements, we will improve educational outcomes for all our students.




Recently I switched my seven-year-old from a regular elementary school first grade class to homeschooling. We are using a combination of online learning, textbooks, regular books, videos, and museum visits for course materials.

For now the main online material he is using is the math program ALEKS. My older children also use ALEKS and have for the last 3 years. It offers a fairly comprehensive set of K-12 math courses. Students are fed problems and given assessments at their own pace. Their ability to progress is entirely dependent on how well they perform. At times they have completed an entire year’s lesson in just a couple days. Other times, when the math level contained concepts they had not previously encountered, their progress slowed to covering one grade level over the course of a calendar year.

How a student approaches ALEKS gives some interesting insights into their comfort and ability with basic problem solving. Not math problem solving, life problem solving. What do you do when you don’t know the answer, when you aren’t even sure how to find the answer? Do you stare at it? Look for additional resources? Ask someone? Bang your head against a wall? Take notes and write down detailed steps? Quit?

When ALEKS introduces a new topic it starts by showing a problem. If the student knows the answer to the problem they have the ability to answer that problem, answer a few more similar problems correctly and then move on to the next topic. This prevents students from spending endless hours working problems within their current level of knowledge.

Where it gets interesting is if a student does not already understand a topic. They have the option of clicking ‘Explain’ which brings up a text and diagram description of the problem and its solution. Some students do not even want to click on ‘Explain’ because they don’t want to fail the problem or they are uncomfortable showing their ignorance, even to a computer. If they do click ‘Explain’ they may not understand the explanation. While sometime the explanation is confusing, other times it seems that the students are just not very good at walking themselves through the explanation, step-by-step.

Working with my young student today it became clear that he is not used to taking the time to work through explanations and untangle problems on his own. He doesn’t like to click ‘Explain’ and when he does, he has a tendency to skim read the explanation and then declare, “I don’t get it. I can’t do it.”

Thus far in his education he has had the luxury of having subjects and concepts clearly explained to him by his teachers. He has been given clear and detailed directions. He has been able to easily and correctly complete assignments by just going through the motions. He has not had to puzzle over concepts. He has been given problems with distinct answers: true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blanks from the above lists of words. If it became difficult or he didn’t understand he could always ask for help or just quit. His ability to easily understand teachers’ explanations combined with the “one right answer” syndrome has made him into a lazy learner. I don’t think he is alone in this. The current test mania environment within the public schools emphasizes knowing the right answer, not knowing how to think and problem solve. Hopefully homeschooling will help him become more comfortable in the space between knowing and not yet knowing. Especially in the 21st century, knowing how to find answers and all their nuances is at least as important as knowing today’s correct answer. Explain.


Gifted Kids and Online Learning

Today Ann Treacy with the Blandin Foundation wrote about an update to S. F. 1528: Teachers 21st Century Tools. This bill explicitly encourages students to take online courses and would change the Minnesota Graduation Requirements to include one digital learning course credit.

The bill lays out that the enrolling district must apply the same graduation requirements to all students whether they are traditional classroom students or online learners and must continue to provide nonacademic services to online learning students. The bill also explicitly states that while a licensed Minnesota teacher must supervise the delivery of the instruction to the online learning student, the instruction may include curriculum developed by persons other than a teacher holding a Minnesota license.

This bill seems to open the door for schools and teachers to become far more flexible in meeting the needs of gifted students. Under the bill 50% of the student’s schedule can be online courses and they can be different from the student’s current grade level. In theory, this could give gifted students who are ready to work above grade level in some subjects the opportunity to work at their ability level in all subjects. Students could work with their physical classmates at grade level for some subjects and with their virtual, online classmates and instructors above grade level for other subjects.

The availability of quality online educational programs is skyrocketing and because many of them are self-paced, they can be excellent for gifted students. Ones we have used for homeschooling our gifted kids include Khan Academy, ALEKS, and iTunes U.

All three kids use Aleks for their main math course, supplemented by parent and teachers when they get stuck. Aleks has enabled them to work at their natural pace, frequently completing 2 or 3 grade levels in a single academic year. This type of individualized pacing is virtual impossible in a regular classroom with 25 to 35 kids.

My 10-year-old is taking a biology course through iTunes U. iTunes U courses can include audio, video, textbooks, syllabi, handouts, and quizzes — providing very comprehensive treatments of course subjects. iTunes U courses have been developed by Stanford, Yale, Oxford, UC Berkeley, and the NY Public Library among others. My student finds the iTunes U course more interesting and fulfilling than science at his STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) elementary school. iTunes U lets him work at his own pace and the materials are much more detailed than those typically found in 5th grade classrooms. Even in his STEM school, the need to teach to the entire class prevented the teachers from covering subjects with the depth he hungered for.

Online learning can be one of the most effective and economical tools to help all students to reach their full potential.   As funding of gifted education programs continues to far fall below what is needed, it is a positive step for the state to explicitly recognize the value of online learning.