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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Dessert Before Dinner: An Analogy for Enrichment

As a k-12 teacher, I often struggled with how to explain enrichment to elementary students. I also questioned myself over when it was academically appropriate to offer enrichment—that is until I stumbled upon the analogy of dessert before dinner. I don’t even remember where I picked up this analogy but somehow it stuck. It helped me visualize when was the “right” time to provide enrichment activities to students, whether gifted students or other students who happened to master a learning objective, or as teachers often, say “finished early.”

The idea is that for students to receive enrichment (dessert), they must first complete and/or master the learning objective (eat all their dinner). Students seem to instantly grasp this concept, realizing they cannot engage in an enrichment activity or project if they leave their work half-done, sloppily breeze through it, or fail to demonstrate mastery. I would tell them that once they mastered the objective (and I assessed that), then they would be allowed to move onto enrichment. This also provided me with a standard, an evaluation measure in my mind, of when a student might require enrichment.

I don’t believe that all students require enrichment for every lesson, including those labeled “gifted.” I think it’s a misconception to think that gifted students automatically require more rigor and complexity in their academic work. This need should be based on what they demonstrate during a given lesson. If a gifted student (or any other for that matter) quickly demonstrates mastery, then it is completely appropriate for him or her to receive enrichment. If they don’t, then they clearly need more practice and perhaps remediation. Providing enrichment on a case-by-case basis ensures that students are moving at the appropriate academic speed, and that the teacher is not allowing them to spend time on enrichment when they may lack understanding of the basic concepts and skills.

This approach also assisted me when I worked as a resource teacher of the gifted, collaborating closely with general classroom teachers. I showed them that I only provided enrichment and more academic challenge after students demonstrated competency through assessments, whether informal or formal. This put the teachers at ease, as they were no longer concerned that the gifted students might be missing important instruction or lacking in basic skills. The teachers knew that I did not give dessert before dinner. While this analogy can guide teachers in enrichment practices, it might also be useful to outline practical steps or actions.

  1. Pre-assess students’ understanding of knowledge and skills prior to instruction—or before deciding whether enrichment is necessary. This provides a baseline for whether they have mastered an objective, and therefore, justification for needing enrichment.
  2. Have enrichment activities ready for every lesson. Assume students will finish early but hold that enrichment until students demonstrate mastery. In some instances, a teacher may not offer any enrichment during a lesson.
  3. Don’t be afraid, however, to provide enrichment, and plenty of it, if students finish a lesson early and demonstrate competence. There’s no sense in wasting a student’s time if they already know the lesson. Also, having students practice the same skill, the same lesson, for longer periods of time is not enrichment. If a child can add two-digit numbers successfully, assigning them another 20 problems for that same skill is not enrichment.

Provide them chances to explore, to research, to investigate the topic or lesson with more depth and complexity. Allow them to create, synthesize, design, evaluate.

Using the dessert before dinner image in mind, teachers can approach students’ learning needs individually and appropriately. They can feel confident that content is not being missed or passed over, but they can also feel satisfied that they are properly challenging students who demonstrate a need for more rigor.