Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Dealing with Gifted Students

So, this morning, I made myself cereal like normal. Except it wasn't normal at all. I ran out of Cheerios yesterday and haven't gotten around to refilling my supply. This means I was eating an alternative cereal, stolen from my little brother, with about 2-3 times as much sugar as the Cheerios I know and love. Needless to say, I was doing my morning reading on a bit more of a sugar high than normal.

Speaking of brothers, I came down the stairs this morning and found a bum sleeping on our couch. I was a little confused by this, but then I realized that it was just my brother, who had apparently arrived at the house late last night and crashed there. Not that any of this is related to anything.

So, back to my normal morning (which apparently was not normal at all, but that's not the point). I was eating breakfast and reading Time magazine again. Apparently, I can't avoid it. So, yeah, the cover article is all about what America should be doing about the fact that we treat our smartest kids like crap. Or, at least that's what they claim the article is about. Really, it seems mainly focused on this school in Reno called the Davidson Academy. But, it's the first topic that I'm really interested in, so that's what the post is about.

Now, before I start bashing the article, the author, the politicians, the children, and whatever else comes to mind, I just wanted to say that the school sounds pretty cool. I can totally imagine wanting to go to a school like that when I was about that age (which I think is between 10 and 18, but they weren't too specific). I'm sure they're doing a really good job with the kids that go there (although the article makes it sound like there's only 45 kids or so), and that it's very impressive.

Also, I'm pretty sure that when I actually was that age, I did qualify as gifted by the standards they were using in the article (top .1% of the population on certain "gifted" tests, although I didn't take the same tests they call out, but we'll just assume that the gifted tests I took are equivalent, alright). So, when I relate my own experiences and opinions of the situation the gifted students face, just trust me that it's coming from a qualified background (whoo for asking for trust over the Internet!). Also, I make no claims whatsoever about my "gifted" status anymore (and I'm pretty sure this blog is evidence against said status).

For one, I more or less totally agree that the school system doesn't really have a response for the kids who learn quickly (and those top .1% kids are capable of learning really quickly). At the same time, I believe there are pockets of really interesting and intelligent strategies that already exist. To start, here's what I believe is the most important part of any strategy: that the system ensures that the gifted kids get to meet and interact with each other. I was disappointed that the article did not value this nearly as highly.

This is why I'm inherently suspicious of home schooling. This is also why I immediately know that the Davidson Academy is doing something right. Gifted kids really need to meet and interact with other gifted kids. Until they do, they will struggle to value their "giftedness" and consider themselves weird. The most important thing public schools (from here on, simply called: the system) can teach them is that their intelligence is something fun and exciting which they can use and enjoy.

The article, when it wasn't lavishing praise on the school, argued that advanced students should just be pushed forward through the system. The author seemed to think that if a kid is learning faster than those around him (or her, I swear I'm not sexist...), he should just be pushed on to the next grade, as if that will solve the problem. It doesn't, though. Admittedly, the author did provide a rather underwhelming study that followed about 40 different gifted students, some of whom skipped grades and others that didn't and many of the ones who skipped grades came out better. Personally, I didn't find it convincing.

The problem with skipping grades is that the gifted student is still interacting with non-gifted students (we're pretending, for the sake of argument, that the older students would interact with the younger, gifted student at all) and the classes are still moving way slower than he is capable of learning. In the short term, it seems effective, because the gifted student is challenged to catch up, but once he's caught up, then it'll be time to skip another grade, or leave him unchallenged again. It's not too hard to imagine an instance when a really smart 10 year old is finishing up high school (which is bad, not because he's finishing high school, but bad because he's become completely isolated from anything even remotely like his maturity level, assuming that boys mature at all, of course).

Basically skipping grades is not a way to solve the problem, but rather a way to avoid the problem. The kid shuts up about not being challenged for a little while and hopefully gets sent off to college quickly so the system doesn't have to deal with him anymore. The only thing the system did for him was help him to get out of the system, which shouldn't count as a positive (although, I suspect that's basically what the study got as positive).

No, the buzz word that needs to be applied to dealing with gifted kids is "self paced learning". From the description, I'm pretty sure the Davidson Academy does it, which is good. Interestingly, the advantages of this strategy can come out of a simple thought experiment.

Imagine this: You've got a group of motivated, intelligent (perhaps even gifted?) kids together, with a single intelligent, young teacher. What happens? Well, the teacher has to meet certain requirements so she (okay, I am sexist, I'm making the teacher female and student male, what can I say?) starts trying to teach the required subjects (math, English, history, science, whatever). English and history are easy for her; she just has to pick topics, promote discussions, grade papers, and maybe do simple tests to ensure that the students are keeping up and prepared for discussions.

Math and science are harder. At the beginning of the year, the kids all start out together, but quickly some students start getting stuck at points (we're assuming that whatever math they're learning is at least a bit beyond what any of them have done before... maybe an introduction to Algebra without wasting everyone's time with Pre-Algebra sort of thing). She has to slow down for some of the students, but the other students are still interested in moving forward.

So, she says, "Okay, you kids who think you're SO smart, can just read ahead in the book. I'll be looking extra close at your homework and if you're still doing everything right, I'll let you keep going forward. In the meantime, I'll be helping these ones try to catch up with you, and I promise to dedicate some time to answering any questions you have." And, boom, self paced learning just naturally arises out of the situation (I heart Steve Jobs, by the way).

Obviously, there's many places for the plan to fail, but the trade off is the opportunity to let the kids that want to advance actually advance. You'll need a good textbook, the teacher will need to be willing to grade a variety of homeworks, it will have to be made clear that going the pace of the class is not a bad thing, and the list goes on. But, and I swear this is true, it's actually really achievable. You know why? Because the kids will help you.

Let's say there's one kid that really just doesn't get it. He's struggling (because of course all the students are male, because I'm sexist) and everyone else is ready to move on. Now, the teacher could try to do something like set aside one-on-one time or just stop the class to help him out. But, there's another option. Find a volunteer from the group that's pulling ahead to sit down and work with him for awhile (ha, volunteer, I crack myself up sometimes...). This both reinforces the learning of the volunteer and frees the teacher to keep working with the rest of the class.

Obviously, there will need to be a significant number of groundrules set for the classroom. We don't really want instances of individual students pulling ahead of the class, but some other number, probably between two and five (if it's more than five, you're looking at a significant portion of the class looking to go faster, which means it might be time to examine the curriculum). This is because the goal is not only to allow individual students to excel, but to still encourage the group learning that helps to reinforce and support each student's learning.

It's worth pointing out that I was put in this type of environment on multiple occasions in my public schooling. As a sixth grader, I was in a 20 person class of gifted students. In that class, the teacher's goal was not so much self paced learning, as super accelerated learning. The result was the I initially found myself falling behind (in my defense, all the other students had been doing that curriculum for a couple years). The teacher would never have considered slowing down for me, but he did have a classmate sit down and help me. Pretty soon, I was caught up and going along with the rest of class, no problem. So, it's not outrageous to expect the kids to be able to help each other.

Also, my high school actually really valued the idea of self paced learning and tried to apply it to all the students. But, it totally failed. Not because it's a bad idea, mind you. It failed because they tried to use it for the entire population and not just the "gifted" population.

They thought that by making it possible for slow learning students to take their time, they could improve their learning experience as well. Of course, it is not very easy to tell the difference between lazy students and true slow learners, so the end result was that lots of students basically made no progress in subjects like math because they were going at "their own pace."

However, there was a segment of the school's population that really benefited from the self paced learning (I'll give you two guesses, and no, lazy students not having to do any work don't count as having benefited). That's right, the "gifted" students that were motivated and excited about learning. We got to fly through the math program, in little groups of two or three (helping each other along the way), as the teachers spent more time with the slower (read: lazier) students. The end result was that my little group completed 2 years of high school math our freshman year and then went on to take AP Calculus our sophomore year. In my personal group of two, both of us got fives, although we were sort of outliers on that one (I think most of the groups got threes, although my group had the advantage that we finished a couple weeks before most of the others and spent that extra time preparing).

You can compare this to my experience in seventh grade, where I was forced to retake Algebra because the eighth grade Geometry class was full (what was especially frustrating at the time was that there was a test to get in and I pretty much dominated it, while an eighth grader just barely passed, and he got priority over me when a space opened up...).

Anyways, that's my view on how public schools can help gifted students to rise to their potential. Implementing the ideas wouldn't be all that hard. There's already programs that help to recognize gifted students and create classes specifically for those students. This would just require changing the classes so that they're actually useful. And, yes, in the end it would probably be helping to move the gifted students out of school earlier (and, well, they probably should be getting out of school earlier), since we're expecting their pace to be above average. But then at least they're doing it with peers, instead of on their own.

That is all.


PS - In case you're curious, this post was just over 2100 words. Wow, the primary advantage of blogging: infinite page length. Whoo!

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