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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