Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Re: Things We Should Stop Doing to High-Ability Students

Original article by Tamar Wyschogrod

I have a couple of minor complaints about this article and some major comments. 

First of all, a minor complaint:  in the second paragraph, I think high-ability is equated with high-achieving. They are IMNSHO different things.  I don't object to the use of high-ability to equate to "gifted", but high-ability does not necessarily translate to high-achieving.  And high-achieving does not necessarily translate to high-ability.  That last statement needs to be explained a bit more.  While it does take a certain amount of ability in order to achieve highly, in most of the things required for school, a modest amount of ability combined with hard work and support from parents, teachers, or peers is sufficient to result in high-achievement, or at least noticeably above average achievement.

Secondly, crappy differentiation is crappy, because it is difficult, takes time, and is politically a hard sell with kids.  I have written quite a few times about the problems with touting differentiation as the solution for high-ability students.  Check the tag if you are interested, but basically, it simply isn't enough for HG+ students, teachers can't do it (conceptually difficult), and teachers don't do it (not enough time).  

I haven't ever addressed specifically the last point of the above paragraph's opening statement:  differentiation is politically a hard sell with kids.  There are a few kids, for whom getting something different is such a relief that they don't care how their classmates view it.  There are also a few kids who take getting something different to mean that they are somehow better than their classmates.  But, IME, a lot of the students react to getting something different with either embarrassment or reluctance.  They might be embarrassed because they are afraid that their classmates will take the view that they are "stuck up" or they might be embarrassed that they are singled out - "out"ed, as a smart kid, when they were just trying to "pass".  And, there are a lot of high-ability kids who look at differentiation as just more work for them to do (as the author points out).  Given a list of options for projects, they choose the easy ones, even though they aren't very challenging, because they are less work.  Not all high-ability kids WANT higher challenge work.  

Now for the rest of the article.

Group Projects.  Yes, in general, these are the bane of the high-ability students.  This comes largely from the teacher-training recommendations for group constitutions - one high-ability student, two average students, one low ability student.  High-ability student can sometimes cajole one average student into helping, but oftentimes ends up doing most of the work.  What does the low ability student learn?  That s/he is too dumb to help and it is best to just clown around so that the others don't notice.  One teacher inservice that I attended said that group projects aren't themselves the problem.  It is the make-up of the groups.  She recommended never including high-ability students with low-ability students.  Her recommendation: groups of four should have similar abilities, e.g., one or two high ability students and 2 or 3 moderate ability students.  That way, the lower ability groups can't get away with doing little or nothing, and the teacher might be able to adjust the project so that they, too, learn something (differentiation).  

Crappy Differentiation.  Already discussed.

Contests instead of Curriculum.  I like contests.  They can be interesting and motivating for gifted kids.  But I agree that they are no substitute for curriculum.  But just regular classroom differentiated curriculum isn't good enough.  It isn't challenging enough, it isn't (usually) at the correct level, and it isn't consistent enough.  High-ability kids need real and regular work.  It isn't fair to make the average kids work hard at learning and let the high-ability kids coast.  They don't learn good work habits.  They don't learn how to react to difficulties.  They don't learn how to learn.  That is why I am actually opposed to gifted advocates insisting on touting differentiation.  It isn't working.  High-ability kids need classes designed for their abilities.  The easiest way to do this is by structural changes - subject acceleration, whole grade acceleration, grouping across multiple classes, and possibly cluster-grouping.  I am still uncertain about cluster-grouping, because, as a sub,  I have yet to see it in action.  

Ignoring Their Achievements

This isn't a biggie with me.  I think schools are doing better at touting achievements of high-ability kids.  Yes, in some cases, it still feels like tokenism, but this is one area where I think schools have been reasonably responsive.  

Low Standards

It seems like, in many classrooms, there is a race to the bottom.  We don't want the low-ability kids to feel bad, so we teach lessons where all kids can achieve.  We don't require good spelling in science class, because there are kids who simply can't spell well (true, even for high-ability kids).  We don't check social studies tests for correct grammar, because it is a chore to even get them to write in complete sentences, let alone write a paragraph that is longer than two sentences.  We make tests so that everyone who learns the material can get an A.  (relevant discussion on LinkedIn Math Education).  And most importantly, we don't give teachers enough time to hold kids to higher standards.  You can't teach kids to write well, if, every time you ask them to write, you have to spend hours and hours of your own personal time - not planning time - grading those papers.  30 students X 3 minutes per paper ==> 1 1/2 hours of grading for one paper in one subject.  That is the ENTIRE planning time for 3 days.  

Thanks for some interesting food for thought to Tamar Wyschogrod.


  1. I agree with your thoughts on differentiation. I cannot imagine how embarrassed I would have been to get a different assignment from my teachers or be held to a different standard. One thing to keep in mind about giftedness is that it isn't always uniform. Asynchronous development often comes and hand in hand with being gifted. That makes things like grade acceleration not always a good option. Ideally, students could be matched in classes with peers who are at the same level as them, rather than relying primarily on age to be the determining factor of what material they are being taught.

  2. Asynchronous development is one reason why I mentioned subject acceleration first (in the list of structural changes I would be more in favor of). I know there are a lot of GT kids with high abilities in some areas and definite deficits in others. Grouping across multiple classes also addresses differential abilities. Cluster grouping can as well.