Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Public Education and the Intellectually Gifted

Thanks for all of your comments left here or on my Facebook page.  I have read and reread them, and your ideas and experiences are shaping my opinions as the week progresses.  I will address a few of these comments in my post Friday.

This post has been the hardest yet to articulate.  I hope my thoughts come across the way in which they are intended.

Yesterday I established that there are differences in the ways gifted kids approach school.  I divided them into three groups--the academically gifted, the intellectually gifted, and a subset that actually includes both. My post today will be addressing the intellectually gifted group of students--a group that most people see as lazy or unmotivated.

"The advanced intellectual development of gifted children can lead parents, and other adults, to expect more advanced behavior from this group of children. A five-year-old who can discuss world hunger like a ten-year-old is often expected to behave like a ten-year-old. When he acts like a five-year-old instead, a parent (or teacher) comes to see that behavior as immature behavior. A gifted child who is years ahead of his or her age mates is not always years ahead emotionally or socially. Advanced intellectual ability simply does not enable a child to manage emotions any better than any other child." source 

Before proceeding, I need to present the term asynchronous development and its definition. “The asynchronous or uneven development of the gifted child is often most notable to those who work closely with a gifted children. The higher the level of giftedness, the more asynchronous the development can be. When six-year-old Bobby thinks like a nine-year-old, but throws tantrums like a four-year-old, some think that his parents 'just need to get better control' over these outbursts. When Mary, the nine-year-old who can intellectually understand the forces of nature, lacks the emotional capacity to deal with catastrophes such as tornadoes and hurricanes, some suggest she has 'serious psychological problems' that are likely best managed with medication. These are examples of uneven development. The impact this asynchrony has on one's life can be tremendous because a gifted child's intellectual, emotional, and social developments usually progress at different rates. While some are advanced, others are immature while still others are more age-appropriate. This uneven development may make a youngster feel out of step with his peers.”

What most educators and most people in general don’t realize is this: Being born with these abilities, in many ways, goes hand in hand with problems that can only be correctly labeled as disabilitiesUsing the scale provided on Monday as the standard, let’s assemble a mock classroom of 30 third-grade kids.  Two or three students have been formally labeled through testing as learning disabled and are pulled from the classroom for up to three hours a week for remedial education.  The rest of the week, these three students struggle to keep up, struggle to understand, struggle to learn.  Programs and funding are in place to assist them and help them learn.

Two or three students are gifted on some level, and they are pulled from the classroom once a week for gifted education.1  These three students can spell every spelling word correctly, already know all twenty vocab words for the week, already passed all of their standard math facts and their exceptional teacher has moved them up to long division. The gifted kids already know everything that has been presented in class all week. Let’s assume for a moment that of the three gifted kids, one is also academically gifted and presents no challenge in the classroom.

The bottom line in this situation is that gifted kids learn facts differently and see problems differently and experience life differently from their peers.  A dear friend, who also happens to be a gifted teacher of gifted kids, provided me with her perspective from having taught gifted kids for years.  She said: “There is no acknowledgement nor acceptance of the fact that gifted kids learn and think differently. . . . Regular classrooms are filled with unending repetitive tasks that are first, below the level of the gifted student, and secondly, mind numbingly boring.”

Taking into consideration the evaluation presented by a teacher of the gifted, how would you feel if you were stuck in this classroom?  How would you perform, day after day, week after week, being forced to “regurgitate simple facts [you’ve] known since toddlerhood?”  Nothing new every day.  You are required to sit still in a classroom with nothing interesting or new to do.  You are still a kid and struggle with kid problems like emotional immaturity and frustration.  What would you do? Most of these intellectually gifted kids shut down on some level.  My teacher friend explained it this way: “Every gifted child I’ve ever known has LOVED to learn before they got to school.  By second grade, they are bored, either withdrawn into their own world, or creating havoc to break the tedium of school days.”

Because the programs at school routinely do not meet the needs of gifted kids, problems develop.  These kids gradually lose their love of learning because every day they are presented with nothing new to learn.  They lose their motivation to do their best since their best is never pulled out of them in a classroom setting--their best isn’t even on the scale used by the teacher.

These intellectually gifted kids don’t learn in the early school years (like most students do) to study, because they don’t need to study to prove their mastery of a subject.  They are never taught how to work through a difficult assignment, because they have never or rarely been presented with a problem to which they didn’t already know the solution.  They miss that stage in their development where they learn to conquer something they don’t know and where they feel that surge of triumph when you do something hard.

By the time they are presented with situations in junior high or high school that would actually require these intellectually gifted kids to stretch their skills and learn something new, they simply don’t know how.  This strange development is not understood by teachers and parents, and even by the gifted kids themselves.  How can they not know how to study, if they’re so smart?  How can they not pay attention to the little details and write them down like the teachers ask? How?  Because they were never taught to challenge themselves, and their love for learning was sucked out of them from an early age--an age where their abilities allowed them to skate through school. That’s how.

As I said yesterday, I have firsthand experience with parenting an intellectually gifted child, but that statement wasn’t quite accurate.  I actually have firsthand experience parenting several intellectually gifted children.  When Ben got home from school yesterday, I had a discussion with him about his own experiences in school, and I asked him when he lost his love for learning.  Although he couldn’t pinpoint an exact day or even a year when it happened, he did explain to me how it happened to him.

Ben described how he loved animals and learning everything about them when he was very young.  We had subscriptions to ZooBooks and National Geographic, and he could tell you many intimate details about ant lions or other random creatures.  However, there was no outlet in elementary school for these interests. His early years were filled with “learning” sight words and “learning” to add.  His brain already had mastered these skills and it was yearning for something more to do, something that was rarely if ever provided.  That’s when he remembers reading any book he could find, whenever he could—under the desk, behind another book, walking to and from school. Nail number one into his love for learning coffin.

He then told about his experience as a junior high student while taking Algebra II at the high school.  He remembered the teacher saying, “This concept is very difficult and will take us three days to learn.”  He understood it in thirty minutes.  Now what was he supposed to do for two more days?  His quote exactly is this, “She taught me like I was a moron.” Nail number two.

After talking for about thirty minutes, I asked him why his grades don’t matter to him very much, if he knows the material and it’s easy. He explained how he easily understands the concepts and files them in his brain, but the little technicalities demanded by teachers are annoying.  “Some teachers are morons.”2 He said that so much of high school learning is pointless for the rest of life. “Why should I care if I don’t need it?  I shouldn’t have to learn something random just to prove I’m smart. I like learning, but high school isn’t learning stuff you want to learn.”  Nail number three.

I truly believe that the good teachers want to reach these gifted kids.  I do.  But how can they when they’re overwhelmed in one classroom with every learning ability and disability and test and program, and they are never just left alone to teach?  Unfortunately, add into this equation that many regular classroom teachers dislike or even fear gifted kids, often belittling them for small mistakes or alienating them with comments like, “You’re gifted?  You should KNOW that!” and forgetting that they are still kids--brilliant kids with brilliant adult minds on some levels--but still just kids.

So, what did I discover from my journey?  Although the academically gifted will find ways to still stay motivated through the early years of education, intellectually gifted kids get lost in the process.  They are taught, through the flaws inherent to the public school system, that their best is never required of them, that their creative approaches to solutions are not in the book (and are therefore the wrong answer), that their gifts don't really matter in the arena where they should matter most.  Think how discouraging this must be for them.

Schools today function on the philosophy that if you throw money and technology at a problem, the problem will disappear.  School districts also operate on the mistaken assumption that it is possible to bring all children up to an equal academic level if enough resources are targeted toward the lower spectrum kids, and public education operates under the false assumption that this is even possible.  Is it possible to teach every child how to dribble and shoot and defend well enough to survive a career in the NBA?  Is it possible to teach every child musical theory and note reading to the point that everyone can compose symphonies?  Is it possible to teach every child the difference between oils and pastels and mixed media so well that every painting will hang in a museum?  When phrased in this way, the fallacy of their academic approach is obvious.  Then why in the world are educators trying to achieve the same standards with academics?

Tomorrow:  How Society is Failing Our Gifted Kids

1This number was derived from statistics at our elementary school.

2His quote. I’m just telling it like he said it.


  1. This series is just making me mad all over again! I keep hoping College will make the difference for Dallin.
    Great writing and I think you are expressing the concept really well. I could never quite put it in words that others could understand.

    7 more days...

  2. I am loving the posts on this topic.

  3. This is really interesting to read and hear it from the perspective of the "intellectually gifted" side of things because I was one of those kids that needed the three days to understand a concept. (Remember when I was a junior and Tucker was an 8th grader and we were in the same class) It's not that I was dumb, it was mostly that I just didn't really have the motivation to learn something I wasn't interested in. I really liked how you mentioned at the end that "School districts also operate on the mistaken assumption that it is possible to bring all children up to an equal academic level". I feel that children should still be taught basic things like reading, writing, math, etc, but they should also be exposed to learning things that might interest them more, and help them find the subjects and categories that will help them develop their talents. It might help both the "intellectual gifted", and those who struggle to learn. Anyway, great post, they are all very interesting!

  4. "These intellectually gifted kids don’t learn in the early school years (like most students do) to study, because they don’t need to study to prove their mastery of a subject."


  5. This was such a validation for me. When I was young, I was always told how smart I was, and everything came easily to me. In 6th grade a group of us were shipped off to another school for a half day where we were encouraged to be creative: we did puppet shows in French (yes, we made the puppets too), we created our own countries, down to the topography and national flag, we invented our own irrigation systems and grew "crops." It was the best time of the day. But after 6th it was never like that again. It became just what you've described for the most part: just a lot of boring repetition and exercise. And then in high school there wasn't a clear reward for being smart, but a lot of reward for "dumbing down." And so I got in the habit of being lazy, waiting until the last minute on projects, caring less about grades than about friends. We moved to the east coast for a couple of years to a school district where most students were VERY motivated to get into Ivy League universities. By that time I was out of my league - I didn't know how to study, and for the first time I was overwhelmed and thought I was stupid, thinking my parents had been wrong about me. Took me until I was much older to see that "wrong thinking" I thought I did, was actually "ahead thinking." Too bad I didn't learn those lessons in school... So yes - I agree with you completely! Great post, as always.

  6. This is one of my fears for Brennan. He can tell you facts about animals that I have never even heard of, but he still after two years of preschool cannot tell you the name of letter A. He has no interest. But animals and facts about them he can't remember them like nothing I have ever seen. AND his comprehension of stories and events are incredible. My feelings on this subject are all confused. I cannot say enough how much I love to read your thoughts to better define how I am feeling.

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