Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rethinking Giftedness

I will start with my biases. I have been a talented and gifted teacher. I was a talented and gifted student. And I currently have 3 children who are talented and gifted.

And now, my central theses:
1. There is no segment of the K-12 population that is more underserved that the talented and gifted population.
2. By narrow views of what "giftedness" is, we have grossly missed on millions of kids who are gifted.
3. We should teach to a child's gifts rather than remediate on a child's weaknesses.
4. To not do so is both immoral and strategically harmful for our society.

Few would deny that our educational system is not set up for gifted students, and that often they learn in spite of the teaching that goes on in their classes. Our classes are aimed for the middle, with special attention given to the struggling. But, many educators would also say that this discrepancy is okay. We only have so much resources and time, and we are measuring students on proficiency after all. Gifted students will have no problem reaching proficiency, even if we were to totally ignore them. So that's what we do (with some "enrichment" worksheets to keep them busy).

Iowa will not stay a great state if our goal is "proficiency", to have everyone at the 40th percentile. Our goal is to have the best... which means the best doctors, the best civil servants, the best farmers, the best accountants, the best mechanics, the best fathers and mothers, and the best community members. And to do that, we have to allow the gifted to learn and achieve way above the 40th percentile.

But how? This is where we need radical change in the setup of schools. A majority of Iowa's schools use some sort of the "enrichment" pull-out method, where the TAG teacher finds some time to meet with students when they don't need the content. This helps the general classroom teacher because they can focus on other students, and it helps other students because the gifted one is not answering the questions before they have a chance to think about them. And it helps the gifted, because they can work on fun projects that interest them. It's a win-win-win.

Except, it isn't. This is great for the general classroom teacher and students, but the gifted are often getting shafted. The external work is usually not tied to curricular standards and benchmarks. It usually doesn't replace future classwork, which they are still expected to master. And in effect, it slows them down so that they can stay relatively on pace with the rest of their age-mates. And in many settings that I have seen, there is little to any communication with the talented-and-gifted teacher and the general classroom teacher, so that the TAG learning is completely silo'd away.

We have to do away with this lockstep method of advancing via age-level. Which means compacting and acceleration, and the type of individual planning and collaboration that students with IEPs receive.


My oldest daughter (8) and son (6), both of whom are gifted, are lucky to be in a school where there is a high SES, meaning there is a large percentage of proficient students already. But, even then, I can see places where we can do better to educate them. Let me give you the story that illustrates my frustration.

If you were to ask my daughter what is she "good at in school", she would mention both her reading ability and her artistic ability, and she'd be right on both. However, she would say she is awful at math. If you ask her why, she would mention how natural her brother is at it, and how she "can't get the math facts page done in time". Since the math program focuses on mastery of math facts as a building block for future learning, it is easy to see where she gets the idea... she isn't the first done on the speed test.

Imagine her surprise when the following happened tonight. Her class is about to embark on division after learning their single-digit multiplication numbers. So we talked a bit about it, and after giving her a couple of math facts, she was able to discover that multiplication and division are reciprocal operations. Or as she said, "Oh, it's the opposite!". And voila, she now knows any "single-digit" division problems. Just like that.

At this point, I accidentally said, "See, you picked that up really fast! You will be great at algebra." Which, since it is apparently mentioned in the young adult novel she is reading, piqued her interest. "What's algebra?"

So, we took a look at some simple problems to show how it worked, starting with 6 + x = 4, and then moving to 6 + x - 3 = 11. Piece of cake, Dad. She could do it in her head.

Okay, let's pick some that you can't do in your head, and you have to solve for. 5x + 3 = 28? So when you write the number next to the letter, that means multiplication? Okay Dad, no problem. Okay, 3x + 4x - 13 = 8? I see how that works.

We've now been doing math for 30 minutes, when before, if we had asked her to do 10 minutes of math homework, we would have been the notorious worst parents in the world. And once again, I made a mistake. "That's really good, honey. Wait til you see when they have more than one letter."

So long story short, she was solving y = 3x squared + 1, graph and all. This is in an hour of curiosity-based education. And to boot, she no longer thinks her brother is smarter at math than she is.

Why aren't we doing this? Why aren't we letting students learn at accelerated paces, letting them tackle first-year algebra when they are ten and calculus when they are 13-14?

Not to be outdone, this is what my 6-year old son, the "math whiz who doesn't like to read that much" did. He got out the game Snorta, which has 12 animal figurines. I told him, "I bet you can't alphabetize those." So he did... without any words to look at. He thought of the spelling of the names and alphabetized them, even handling donkey and dog.

So look below at the picture and see if you can figure out what he did next:
This is a tough one... don't feel bad if you didn't get it. He alphabetized them by last letter, again without the word to look at. And, he had to develop the logistical rules for "pig", "dog" and "frog" himself.

There is a fundamental difference in gifted students that we still are not addressing, even in the lofty words of the Iowa Core's characteristics of effective instruction. The majority of students need relevant activities to become engaged, and thus, to learn. Gifted students do not need relevant activities. They need the ability to follow their own curiosity, and they will achieve at amazing levels.

The above two examples are completely irrelevant. Who cares if you can alphabetize 12 animals by the last letter? Who cares if you can graph equalities? Typical students would be bored out of their minds.

But gifted students are atypical, and that's a good thing. Relevance is irrelevant for them, and finding ways to try to tie activities into their real life will be seen by them as contrived and hokie.

We have to take the reins off, to let them explore and progress without fear of failure, or bogged down by extrinsic grades. And we have to let that learning replace future learning, to accelerate them, instead of punishing them by giving them extra to do. To not do so stifles the student, which hurts not only them but the future of our community.

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