November 20, 2005
Cultivating Gifted Kids
Posted by Victor Fleischer

Ann Althouse, sympathetically commenting on a NYT Magazine article on the "gifted child movement," suggests that we should "let kids be kids."  I disagree.

Relentlessly mainstreaming gifted kids has negative pedagogical and social effects.  Trusting that genius will inevitably triumph works in the movies.  But not in real life.  It's true that some exceptional geniuses have done well despite dismal classrooms and "wobbly" family situations.  But the more common story is that talent and inspiration, if it's not cultivated, wastes away. 

The truth is that smart kids often learn differently from those in the mainstream.  Class can be boring and tedious.  Gifted kids are predisposed to develop procrastination habits; a surprising number underperform academically.  Worse yet, when kids display intelligence in mainstream classrooms, they're often ridiculed.  Teachers may feel threatened.  Classmates can be cruel.  Social pressure to downplay intelligence is strong.  If we care about cultivating genius -- as I think we should -- then why pretend it isn't there?

Compare the resources we offer gifted kids with the attention we lavish on athletes, or the resources we offer (or at least are legally required to offer) to those at the bottom of the bell curve.  If your child is learning disabled, or mentally retarded, or has a behavior disorder, then your school has a legal obligation to develop an individualized education plan tailored to your child's needs.  If you're gifted, the school has no special obligation at all.  In most school districts, I suspect we spend more resources at the bottom of the bell curve than at the top. 

Let kids be kids, maybe, but in the right environment.  I'm a member of SET/SMPY and an alum of CTY, aka "nerd camp."  I also spent four years working at CTY as a TA and residence advisor.  The surprising magic of CTY isn't in the classroom; it's in the social environment.  Accelerating learning and freeing kids from rigid lesson plans is only part of the point.  CTY provides a place where intelligence can thrive, where kids can be smart, eccentric, and curious about the world.  They can learn the social skills that they will need in academia or the lab or the law firm.  CTY teachers learn how to stay out of the way, guiding the students as needed but largely letting the kids teach themselves and each other.  Put kids in an environment where intelligence is ridiculed, and talent will be wasted.  Cultivate it with good textbooks, gentle oversight, and lots of cool puzzles to solve, and good things will happen, as the research shows

I recently heard that there's dozens of CTY alums working at Google.  I don't think it's a coincidence.

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Comments (17)

1. Posted by ziemer on November 21, 2005 @ 0:08 | Permalink

well said.

if a child has brain damage and will never reach a 3rd grade level, he will still be placed in regular classes until high school.

when the rest of the class studies math, his own special assistant will place random numbers in front of him; when the class studies weather, his special assistant will show him pictures of clouds.

all of this is just time and money wasted on nothing.

imagine if gifted children had special assistants to teach them calculus while the rest of the class was behaving like a bunch of monkeys (which is all that goes on in any given public school class for 90% of the time).

2. Posted by Larry on November 21, 2005 @ 11:53 | Permalink

Ridiculing the education a kid with special needs on the low ends receives surely makes your case so much stronger for giving it to kids on the high end.

Every child needs (deserves?) an education at their particular level. This goes for kids who are geniuses, kids who will never reach the 3rd grade level, and the kids who progress at grade level. The trick, of course, is getting this done. A lot of schools don't have the resources to do so. I, quite luckily, came from a school system that did have the resources to do so (and just about whatever else it wanted) and the benefits to all kids were obvious.

and i could be wrong - my experience with education is rather limited - but kids who do require calculus often are sent to places where they can get such an education. in my school, you were sent over to the local junior college to take advanced courses in math, if you chose (at the school's expense in tuition and transport, if i recall correctly).

a kid with brain damage requires a "special assistant" for anything to be done properly. a kid who is a genius just requires an environment where they can be challenged properly. a special assistant isn't needed for that.

3. Posted by Vic Fleischer on November 21, 2005 @ 13:40 | Permalink

First, to clarify, I don't think we're giving kids in special ed too much. As I understand it, many of those programs are helpful and we're all better off for having them. Indeed, we could probably do a lot to improve those programs. In some districts, I understand that high-performing dyslexics and autistics are lumped together with low-performing students. That's silly.

I merely wanted to point out that, as a society, we haven't thought much about the top of the bell curve. We should.

Second, assuming limited resources in the public sector, the best solutions for gifted kids may be in the private sector, including after-school and summer programs. Shipping the kid off to junior college for math class isn't the best solution (tho it works for some kids); programs that group the gifted and talented together and keep them with their age cohort seem to do better. Many gifted kids come from families with ample resources. For those without the resources to pay extra tuition, scholarships are often available.

4. Posted by Larry on November 21, 2005 @ 13:54 | Permalink

Prof. Fleischer,

it seems that the goal of public education in our country is not what i said before (all kids should be given opportunity to reach their potential, however high or low) but that no kid is left behind "normal" progression at grade level. as you aptly point out, this is probably because of limited resources in most school districts (more affluent school districts seem to do a pretty good job of addressing the needs at the higher end).

i think it is a tough argument to make that all public schools should address the needs of those at the high end. i don't think it's a tough argument to make because of the merits of the view but because, these days, it seems difficult to get more funding into education. local school districts that have enough of a demand for those at the top end seem to find ways to get resources into them. the private sector is, as you say, the best way to deal with this. and i hope that those kids who don't come from families with the resources are able to access the same extra programs - my fear, of course, is that they do not.

5. Posted by ziemer on November 21, 2005 @ 16:26 | Permalink


i'm not ridiculing the disabled.

this is an actual case: Beth B. v. Van Clay, 282 F.3d 493 (7th Cir. 2002).

i'm ridiculing the adults who think it is appropriate education to "mainstream," with a 7th grade class, a disabled person at a pre-school level.

6. Posted by Nerd on November 23, 2005 @ 7:14 | Permalink

My mother did her Masters thesis on this point (disparity in focus at the top of the bell curve, despite recognition that those kids have equivalent learning differences) in the mid 1950s. She thinks things are much better now (having retired from public education in 2003) but believes that gifted kids are better of in non-Catholic private schools.

BTW - some states do require IEPs for the gifted.

7. Posted by Christine on November 25, 2005 @ 15:59 | Permalink

We are struggling with this right now in our family. We live in one of the best public school districts in the country and pay incredible high property taxes for this privilege, but our 6-year-old is already bored in elementary school. We feel like we create opportunities for her not to push her but just to keep up with her. Our village's answer for Carter is to take her out of her class for several hours a week for "enrichment." Another parent tells us that the motivation for this is to give the teacher more time to spend on the other children. We also learned after a month that her reading enrichment was during class Science time. Although she is sufficiently proficient in reading to get her through life, extra time is being spent enriching her reading skills to the detriment of learning new things that are difficult to self-teach.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that if I am going to let my child be the child that she is, limiting her learning experiences to a classroom experience that bores her to distraction is not going to meet that goal. (BTW, my husband went to the Duke nerd camp and felt that was the first point in his life at which he could be who he really was.)

8. Posted by ziemer on November 25, 2005 @ 18:34 | Permalink

at one time, the problem could be alleviated by letting the child skip grades.

this is no longer an option, because of the growth of federal and state funding.

to let a child skip a grade (or more) and graduate is to lose outside funding for that child for however many years the child skips.

if school financing was purely a local affair, the interests of the school board and the child would be the same. as it is now, they conflict. and the schools, naturally, do what's best for them, the children be damned.

9. Posted by Anonymous on November 28, 2005 @ 14:45 | Permalink

ziemer -- Color me skeptical as to whether the potential loss of state/federal funding has created incentives for schools to limit grade-skipping. I know schools try to maximize state and federal dollars, but at the very least, the risk of losing a talented student to a private school (thus depriving the public school of a revenue stream for the remaining length of the student's primary and secondary education, rather than just the year or two skipped) seems to create incentive to retain talented students by making accommodations (grade-skipping, college courses, etc.). And a number of private schools even offer need-based scholarships for talented kids, so it's not necessarily just the rich kids who'll leave.

I suspect most opposition to grade-skipping originates in concerns that academic development is only one part of a student's education. Emotional, social, and physical development are also part of the equation, and you don't meet too many academically gifted kids who are also socially, physically, and emotionally ready to jump a grade or more.

10. Posted by ziemer on November 29, 2005 @ 2:33 | Permalink


then why was grade-skipping common practice when public schools were entirely funded by local districts, and is all but impossible now that it costs the districts money if they allow it?

the schools know their students' iq scores. they know which students are bored out of their minds, and yet, they refuse to do the one thing they can do to challenge the children.

follow the money, as the saying goes.

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