Monday, July 04, 2011

Re-Framing Gifted Education

I have been thinking about this idea for a long time and I am still trying to work out whether and how it might make a difference.  It began, I think, when I was teaching algebra to gifted 8th graders in a tiny public school in Illinois.  Before I was hired, a few students each year were identified by the 7th grade math teacher as being ready for algebra.  She based her assessment on their mathematical understanding and their grades in math class.  Grades in math class were heavily dependent on doing homework as well as doing well on tests.  I was interested in finding out if there were a more objective way of deciding who was ready for 8th grade algebra and found that there was an algebra readiness test - a fairly short test that would indicate which students had the mathematical understanding necessary for success in algebra.  I guess already I was thinking that grades don't always indicate whether a student has the appropriate mathematical understanding and readiness.  Perhaps it was from personal experience.  I have not always been the hardest worker, partly because I usually didn't need to be.  I got good grades up until college without having to work much.

At any rate, I did begin giving the tests to students who the math teacher thought were possible candidates for the class, including a few "lazy" ones, who seemed to understand the math she taught, but who were less than diligent in doing their homework.  And, as might be expected, the students exhibited quite a range.  Some were clearly ready, had good mathematical understanding, good grades, and good work habits.  Some were clearly not ready.  Either with or without good grades, their mathematical understanding wasn't good enough for taking algebra what was then "a year early".  Then there were those in the middle: two groups (no clear dividing lines, though).  There were some who were mathematically ready, but whose grades were less than stellar; there were some whose grades were solid, but whose mathematical understanding was shakier.  What to do with them?

I argued for including the kids who were mathematically ready, whether they had good grades or not - and this is where my thinking about the issue really took off.  The math teacher argued for letting those borderline students choose whether or not to participate in the algebra class.  With the kids who were hard workers, but only borderline ready for algebra, I could see letting them try.  But why should we let the kids who were mathematically ready for algebra take the easy way out and stay in 8th grade math? 

In general, we often allow gifted students to choose whether or not to participate in gifted programs (in the lucky instance that such are actually available).  But even in the regular classroom, activities that are differentiated for gifted students (again, if they are lucky) are often presented as options.  A tic-tac-toe of activities for a given unit, where students can choose which activities they want to complete in order to fulfill the requirements.  Gifted students are rarely required to do the harder options.

But why not?  When we send a student off to the special education teacher, that student is not given the option of not participating.  That student is not given the option of not working.  The student is, on the contrary, urged to work as hard as s/he can.  In the regular classroom, average students are not allowed to choose not to do the assignments, just because they require them to work hard.  Why do we let the gifted students choose not to work hard?

Working hard is a life skill.  Struggling, failing, persevering, and finally succeeding are the keys to achievement, especially once you get beyond secondary school.  Why do we let the students with the highest potential fail to learn these skills?

What would it be like if we re-frame gifted education to assert that ALL students need to learn to work hard?  They need to learn to struggle with difficult material; they need to learn to persevere in the face of setbacks and failure; they need to get the satisfaction that comes from working hard at something and finally succeeding.  This is a fairness issue.  It isn't fair to require that most kids learn these skills and not require that gifted kids learn them.  It isn't fair to let the smart kids goof off and make the rest of the kids work hard. 

So when the teacher tells you your gifted child is doing great without really seeming to work very hard, you can say: oh, really, I would like to see you require my child to work harder.  Is there a way we can make his/her work more complex, in more depth?  And the teacher can say to the parents who wonder why your student is getting harder work, we wanted to make sure that all students in the classroom are working hard.  Do you think your child is working hard enough?  Would you like for your child to get harder work in some subjects?

1 comment:

  1. This is something very new concept for me. But looking interesting. Very good article to share it's information.