Thoughts on Gifted Education

Candice eetimesRecent kerfluffles regarding Gifted Education testing and placement, especially in large school districts which have selective elite schools have motivated me to write this essay.  I’ve been mulling it over for weeks.  One of my problems is that I was uncertain if I should keep it absolutely impersonal or to share my own personal history and observations.  I finally decided to include my own experiences as they do add to understanding and motivation.

The first problem one encounters when one thinks about “gifted” is how to define it, both in scope and scale.  Intuitively, most of us think we ‘know it when we see it’… but do we?  In my elementary school there was a kid everyone thought was super smart… cause he was always talking about numbers.  He must have grown up to be someone special?  No, last we heard, he was homeless.  He wasn’t gifted.  He was mentally ill and had a fixation on numbers.  The kids and even the teachers in school didn’t have the right background to understand this.  So, intuition isn’t always a good guide.  Thus, we turn to experts and testing.

So, we now turn to scope.  Do we test for IQ only?  OR something else?  Perhaps mathematical or scientific understanding or achievement?  Creativity?  Imagination?  Despite experts telling folks that we should look beyond just IQ, most testing is still focussed on it.  This is because decades of research has shown that IQ does correlate and predict later success.   But… is IQ in childhood stable?  Turns out… that IQ of five-year-olds doesn’t always equal IQ at age 10.  But IQ at age 10 does predict IQ as an adult.  This suggests that testing and tracking children starting in kindergarten and expecting that to remain useful is bogus… at least near the margins of a cut-off.

Which brings us to the cut-off… some schools have a cut-off fairly low, at the top 15% or so.  Think on this for a moment… that means that we take the top four or so kids in each classroom and label them “gifted” and track them in the “advanced” group for reading and math… my elementary school had just this sort of tracking.  (I wrote an essay on my experience breaking that system.)  Other schools, if they are larger, have special classes and even entire schools.  They typically have a higher cut-off, say IQ ~130 or so… which is one out of fifty kids.  At a small school district, they wouldn’t have enough such students to fill even one classroom of thirty for each grade!  But a high school might.

The next question is who gets tested and how.  Much of the recent debate is caused by the documented fact that certain socio-economic and ethnic groups are more likely to be tested and thus more likely to be identified and tracked as gifted.  In some locales people are trying to address this by establishing quotas while others are providing universal testing.  Personally, I would support universal testing.  It bothers me that certain socioeconomic groups have better access to gifted programs, both because they live in better school districts and because they push for their children to be tested… after gaming the system with special test prep classes and home tutoring.

Then we come to what should the school offer such high IQ and talented students… and here I come to what motivated me to write, because most schools do their truly gifted students a serious disservice.

First up… “enrichment”.  This is perhaps the most popular… and also the least useful… of all of the “gifted” program offerings.  It is based on the seriously messed up idea that all the schools have to do is take the basic mainstream curricula and add on top of that.  No… for two reasons.  First, that enrichment would be great for “bright” kids… those that are learning well at grade level who could absorb just a bit more than average.  That “enrichment” should be available for every student.  But to the gifted student… you are offering a booby prize, as in we will keep you bored to tears in your regular slow-paced and shallow curricula, which we won’t let you out of… and add yet more… but only slightly more “enriched”… see… aren’t we so nice to give you a treat?

For example, I was granted access to my school’s science lab and placed on the school’s AudioVisual team (running movie projectors, etc) at the youngest age they had ever done so, in 3rd grade.  But I still had to do all of the same assignments as everyone else.  I started blowing off all homework so that would have more free time to do my own science projects at home with my father’s help (he was a chemist w/ a strong background in mathematics and biology).  So, my teachers would keep me after class to make me do the homework before I could go home!  Ugg!  Do you know how boring it is to write ten “See Dick Run” level sentences with ten 4th grade level vocabulary words when one’s native vocabulary is above the average adult’s?  To get the work done faster and to make it less boring, I would challenge myself to write the fewest grammatically correct sentences to cover the list.  Three was my typical score.  Occasionally I managed it in one!  But still… having to slog through a long boring day hearing almost the same stuff on Friday that I understood perfectly BEFORE it was introduced to the class on Monday?  Then to do more meaningless drill before I was allowed to go home?  Ugg!!

Why do they do this?  Because of the very nature of giftedness and how rare it is… truly gifted adults rarely teach K-12 students.  Consider the nature of IQ and it’s distribution.  A five-year-old with an IQ of 150 has the intellectual capacity of an eight year old.  We can “accelerate” her by allowing her early entry to kindergarten and perhaps allow her to “skip” a grade or two.  However, a ten-year old with an IQ of 150 has the same intellectual capacity of the average adult.  (Mental capacity tends to flatten at age 15… at least for most adults… I strongly suspect that it not true for gifted youth who continue to increase in capacity for several more years.)  How far and how fast do you “accelerate” a truly gifted ten to thirteen year old when in fact, they are intellectually ready for high school and maybe college… but NOT socially or emotionally.  Place them into a regular high school where they can be singled out for being ‘different’?  Now… take a fifteen year old with an IQ of 150.  Send the student off to a university with inadequate support systems for such teens?  Oh… and please… as wonderful as community colleges are… they are NOT that useful for gifted students in high school… as most community college classes are at the same level as most good high schools.  The optimum would be true high school experiences but with classes and teachers ready to meet the needs of such gifted students.  But there are fewer than one in five hundred adults who equal that student… in both IQ and educational interest and attainment… and most of them will NOT be in K-12 education unless there is a special program to recruit and retain them.  It’s nearly impossible to offer a cohesive advanced individualized high school curriculum, instruction, and tutoring to gifted students unless one is even more gifted.  But with present rules that demand that one have years of  “education credentialing” on top of that wonder Ph.D. in physics or mathematics and then still get paid the same as a P.E. teacher?  Yeah… that.

Thus, the K-12 schools only pretend to offer gifted education.

When I was in highschool, at my second school, we had a “Mentally Gifted Minor” (MGM) program.  Interestingly, the truly gifted kids avoided getting labeled and placed into that program!  Why?  Because it was structured as “enrichment”… as in they added more homework assignments on top of those we already did in our regular classes.  Some of us even avoided the AP classes for the same reason.  The truly gifted students wanted LESS homework so that we could pursue our own interests in our own (very much deeper) manner.

OK, time for some more personal anecdotes.

During 8th grade science class, a teacher offers a challenge question for the advanced students to solve:  A ship travels from the equator in the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.  Does it ride higher or lower?  I reasoned (correctly) that the Med has higher salinity and thus is denser water… and the ship will ride higher, as it will displace a lower volume of water.  Our teacher said I was wrong.  It would ride lower in the water.  I was disappointed and wondered if I was wrong about the higher salinity… no… the teacher explained that since the Earth is an oblate spheroid, the further north one went, the higher the gravity because one is closer to the center of the earth.  The higher gravity would pull the ship down harder… and thus with more weight to displace, would ride lower in the water.  The science book says so… that a ship displaces it weight in water.  I was totally flummoxed!  My GOD!  Was my teacher that clueless?  Yes he was.  He failed to understand that even if we magically dialed up the gravity to hundreds of times normal, the water would also be getting heavier at the same rate as the ship and nothing would change.  The ship would still displace the same MASS of water.  I tried to explain his error… but what does a 13-year-old know?

During the first week or so of my freshman year in high school, we were given a statewide science assessment exam.  We were given a little less than an hour to take it.  There were one hundred questions/problems.  We were told to do the best we could but recognize that the test was literally impossible to complete in the time allowed.  Of course I finished.  But I did feel the time pressure and was disappointed when we were given back the exam with our scores.  In my rush, I had missed one of the questions.  Interestingly, I still clearly remember that one question and why I missed it.  The question was “Two drops of mercury that are the same temperature are allowed to come together to form one drop.  Does the temperature A) Go up  B) Go Down  C) Stay the same.  I reasoned that there was no chemical reaction, either endothermic nor exothermic (yes, I knew and understood those terms at age 14)… so it must be C)… wrong… It is A)… it goes up, by a very small amount to be sure… but up because of the conversion of a small amount of surface tension energy of the two smaller drops into the lower surface area of the single larger drop.  Oh… and I was told that I was in the very top 99th percentile of students in the State of California… one could literally not be given a higher score.  I had been identified as ‘gifted’ (again).

So what would the school do to offer the gifted future scientist / technologist I clearly was an appropriate learning environment?  I was to be accelerated, allowed to skip “Freshman Science” and take Biology… Being the only freshmen in a class normally only offered to seniors… I was clearly labeled “the brain”… and thus hated and shunned… except for exam days when other students wanted to cheat off of my answers.  When we got back our exams with our marks… they all hoped that they had the same answers wrong that I had on mine… because I always challenged the marks, referring to the assigned text or even other, better, textbooks on the subject to prove that the instructor’s answer key was wrong.  I nearly always proved that I had the correct answers.  I would also have to explain the more intricate details of the science to the instructor… yes, at age 14, I often understood it better than my teacher.  Example: the teacher had no idea how we knew the detailed structure of DNA.  I had to explain how Rosalind Franklin had collected DNA, “stretched” / drew it out so that the strands aligned, and then used X-ray crystallography to determine the molecular structure.  (Watson and Crick had illicitely been allowed to see her data by one of her male colleages… the three of them won the Nobel Prize, but not Franklin.  There is no justice in science.)  Being gifted meant that I could skip lower level classes… but it didn’t get me a better learning environment… remember, all of those classes are still tailored for non-gifted students.

Getting top grades was clearly over rated and I simply stopped trying to earn them.  I started studying for myself alone.

One day, during my Senior year, one of my instructors who taught English and Chemistry approached me in the hallway.  He wanted to ball me out.  He had noticed my gaming the system, playing the grade game in which I would note the grading system each class used, the percentages that homework, term assignment, and testing scores contributed to the final grade.  I noted that tests scores usually were the most heavily weighted and that acing them all will guarantee a passing grade.  Thus, I could blow off the homework and term papers and still pass the class.  My teacher demanded to know why I never did any of the work as it was clear from my test scores that I could do it easily.  I answered very honestly, “Because it interferes with my studies.”  He thought I was being a typical “smart-ass” teenager.  No, I defended myself, I was serious… and proceeded to tell him of the college level text books and other works I was studying on my own at home.

For instance, I took an English class entitled, “The Novel”.  Other students groaned that we had to read four novels, all assigned, for the semester long class.  I laughed!  During the school year I was reading a novel or two a week, for fun!  During the summers, I typically read two or three!  I was done reading for the class in only three weeks and could then go back to reading the novels I wanted for the rest of the time.  Or how about the flash back to my freshman year English, we were assigned to read “West Side Story” for the whole semester… which is a novelization of a wonderful musical… but was written by a total hack.  I blew off the assignment to read better books.  The instructor misunderstood my motivation and I got bumped over to “bonehead” english… It took only one day for my new instructor to realize the mistake… but I convinced her to let me stay and allow me to read and write what I wanted.

That Chemistry teacher then cajoled me into taking his new, never before offered, 3rd semester AP Chemistry class.  I at first refused… but then he told me that there would be no homework, no tests, only one term project of our own chosing.  I would have full access to the Chem lab to build one Chemistry related experiment and demonstrate to the other students… all five of them!  Can you guess who the other five students were?  Yep, they were among the REALLY gifted students at the school… none of which were in the official “MGM” program.

So who were the kids in the “MGM” program?  The “bright” kids whose parents pushed and prodded into getting straight A’s in every class… who just had to be elected to the class government, be the officers of campus clubs, etc.  And of course, they just HAD to be in the MGM program.  All so that they could get into an elite university.  We used to joke that MGM meant “More homework Given, Moron!”  I had some conversations with them…  Can I say it?  They had very little imagination or self-motivation save to please or mollify their parents.  One example, one of these straight A, MGM kids approached me asking for a recommendation for a SciFi novel to read, knowing I was an avid reader.  I was pleased… wow… what to recommend to a new reader?  I lent him my copy of Heinlein’s “Revolt in 2100”.  He took the book and said, “Thanks.” as he turned away.  I stopped him, as I was curious as to what motivated him to ask for a novel to read, never before having shown any real interest before.  He answered, “Gotta an assignment in English class to read a SciFi novel.”  He literally had no interest in reading anything that wasn’t assigned to him.  Not one of those kids became “eminent” in any adult domain.  Oh…. they all were ‘successful’… but nothing special.  How could they be, when they couldn’t imagine stepping foot outside the box provided for them?

One of things I noted about those that I personally ranked as “gifted” in high school was they were very likely to be rebels in some way.  Not enough to get arrested… but never quite happy to follow a school or social rule if they thought it was a stupid one.  I went to two different high schools, not very far apart from one another… at my first one, when I was a freshman one of my classmates was a girl named Patti… Patti Jobs… she had an older brother named Steve… yes THAT Steve.  He was gifted and a rebel.  You know of him because of his extreme eminence.

Thus we come back to the issue of testing for entry into the gifted programs today and how parents of privileged backgrounds are pushing their kids with special prep classes and tutoring so that they can get into those “better” schools and “better” classes.  I laugh… not only is it “unfair”… it undermines and distorts the very value of identifying gifted students that society is supposed to gain from… because these kids aren’t the ones that should be getting it.  If you have to be pushed by parents, or motivated by empty rewards like grades, you will never be more than successful middle-management.

Education for eminence is what gifted education should be for according to Rene Subotnik.  Just as we identify elite athletic talent and nurture it, she espouses that we should identify and nurture intellectually gifted youth.  But the truth is, in my own opinion, we don’t.  We usually find those kids who have been pushed to get better grades and be better at taking the “gifted test”…  We totally miss the truly gifted, self-motivated, creative rebels, future scientists, inventors, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, etc. that will change the world for the better.  They have to find their own way… often under difficult circumstances.  And how many, due to those poor circumstances and substandard education fail to reach their true potential?  What a waste.

So what would be a proper better learning environment for gifted students?  As well as that 3rd Semester AP Chemistry “class” that was just an open access to the lab… I had one real class designed for gifted students: “Cosmology, Stellar, and Galactic Evolution”.

In my Junior year, there was a quiet announcement that an off campus class was being offered to interested high school students from the entire Silicon Valley area.  The classes would be after school, held at the local community college.  The really interesting thing about it was that it would be taught by an actual NASA Ames Research Center astronomer!  An actual working NASA astronomer!  A truly gifted adult teaching gifted high school students.  Perhaps a bit over thirty students signed up.  Only eight of us finished, three from my high school… none of them MGMs.  The class was conducted as though the instructor was an observatory as well as the leader of the class.  Although using actual math was forbidden, we were guided through the thinking of historical cosmologists, gathering data (all verbally), testing ideas, getting confirmation or not from the instructor as though it was from observations.  At the end of the term, the instructor gave me a draft copy of a university textbook on cosmology he was writing, asking me to read and comment on it.  He had taught the class hoping to find out how best to present the material to advanced students who had never been exposed to cosmology before.

Epilog… of a sorts.  The next year, my high school offered an Astronomy course.  I tutored it.  I also gave a lecture to the class.  On the day of the Final Test, I was giving last-minute tutoring even as the class door for the test began… then walked away.  A boy called out, “Aren’t you going to take the final?”  “Why?  I already have the “A” in the class.”  The instructor had, like my Chemistry instructor, given me leave to ignore homework and even tests in exchange for my work tutoring and lecturing.

I also tutored astronomy, paid by the schools, at two different community colleges the following year… with full unescorted access, my own set of keys, to a state of the art planetarium.

Further Reading:

Essay on how to ensure higher education opportunities for all

How I skipped most college classes and earned a degree by examination

External Further Reading:

One Response to Thoughts on Gifted Education

  1. Ali says:

    I asked my 7years old son, the same question about “Mercury” according to him the temperature goes down bu a little bit because”when two things hit together a littlebit of energy gets lost….

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