Educating the Smart Kids…And Everybody Else

The other day I was chatting with a mom who was excited to share her family’s big news:  their kindergartner had been accepted into the “Challenge Program”.  I smiled and said all the right things but inside I groaned.  And I groaned because educating kids is a difficult thing and not some times without great cost.  And some times it is paid by the child struggling to find his/her place in the bell curve.

I absolutely uphold meeting the individual needs of every child.  Doing so is paramount.  Also, there are some teaching and learning situations so untenable for a child that individualized instruction is truly a life-saver.  For the children who lie at the outer-most places on the bell curve, individualized education is a must.  So I am not saying schools shouldn’t have challenge programs (also known as Talented and Gifted programs) as well as remedial programs.  Every child needs to be educated at the appropriate level for that child.  It is clear  that helping learners on the lower side of the bell curve move toward the center of the bell curve is desirous.

What I am not so sure is desirous is how we have evolved to teach the kids on the upper side of the bell curve. When is the right time to instruct them as “above average” instead of simply as children? Why are we so driven to want our young kids labeled as “smart” and put into gifted programs with other “smart” kids?  I believe middle school is soon enough.  After all, in elementary school children are learning so much more than just facts.

Imagine a handful of kindergartners sitting together in a classroom.  There is an activity which requires the children to sit still, listen to auditory information and to respond with the correct answer.  Perhaps they are sitting in a circle, listening to a story read by the teacher and the teacher asks them comprehension and recall questions.  Some of the children will seem very “smart” and some will seem less “smart”. But who is really more intelligent?

You would have no idea from that scenario.  Because some kids can sit more quietly and therefore give the impression of better listening skills.  Some kids are stronger auditory learners and so will glean more data from the exercise.  Some kids are more comfortable speaking amongst their peers and so will be the first to raise their hands to respond. And as young learners, few scenarios truly demonstrate how these learners will perform throughout their educations.

For nine years I taught either Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) English curriculum to juniors in high school.  After a few years of doing so, I changed my first day of class introductory remarks.  After welcoming my students, I would say something like, “This is not a course for smart students.  If you are a smart student, please go to counseling right now and have your schedule changed to a more appropriate course.”  As you can imagine, this caused a bit of a brouhaha. After all, this was their junior year.  These kids had been in talented and gifted classes for much of their academic careers and this was the next course they were slated to take in order to get into the best colleges, apply for the best scholarships, get the best grade point averages.  And besides, this was where all their friends were.

I’d pause a beat or two and then say, “But if you are a good learner, then I very much want you to be in this class.  So if you are a good learner, please make yourself comfortable.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny or deliberately toy with their emotions.  It is an important distinction to me as a teacher and as a learner, and one that I tried to show my students.  Smart kids can always be set up to fail.  Teachers can write a confusing exam question.  Tests occur the day after a death in the family or a late rehearsal for the play.  Class assignments are due the same day bronchitis hits. Et cetera et cetera.  The distinction of being a “smart kid” often comes from the culmination of data, the ratio of correct answers to incorrect answers and the valuation given to that ratio.  So I don’t want smart students in my classroom and I don’t want smart students growing up to run my world.

Instead, I want good learners.  I want good learners who learn day in and day out that sometimes the situation is frustrating and filled with too many variables.  I want good learners who have to figure out how to work with folks who are loud or distracting or plain old smell bad.  I want good learners who put into practice every day the process of learning answers rather than repeating answers.  I want good learners who have learned that to be wrong is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m not sure that early challenge programs always create good learners.  Yes, they can and they do.  But I think the very nature of said programs in elementary school encourages parents and the rest of adults to label kids as “smart” when they know the answer right away, sit quietly and patiently, respond with the obvious answer.  At a time when children are learning so many things, by looking for only “smart” behavior, we miss all the other ways children learn and know information.  We may miss some truly intelligent children who just don’t look “smart”.

As a parent, I am blessed to send my children to a small, public school.  My two oldest children are candidates for the district’s Challenge program but I declined to send them.  Why?  Because in our school my children sit side by side with kids of diverse skin tones, religious practices, and family designations.  My kids are learning to work with and socialize with all kinds of kids – even the ones who don’t read well or like math or find science interesting.  My kids are learning that sometimes they need to sit quietly through a retelling of the directions or wait while the teacher helps another students.  My kids are learning that sometimes the right thing to do is to work within their community.  They are learning some parts of being good learners right along side their math rules and science facts.  The foundation for all their upper level educational experiences is being set right now and it is founded on more than just faster recitation of the answers to more and more challenging coursework.

By the time high school students reach their junior years, the natural strengths and challenges are very apparent.  By then, half the kids in advanced curriculum courses are starting to struggle.  Some of their struggle is the sheer weight of all the course work.  Some of it is the complexities of courses outpace the student’s ability to rise to the challenge.  And what if the struggle is too great?

I had so many kids choose to stay in advanced courses for all the wrong reasons.  They went without sleep and social lives, spent countless hours being tutored on subjects and then cobbled back together their broken hearts when their achievement wasn’t as high as their peers.  Many were depressed, medicated, over-taxed and stress-out.  These were sixteen and seventeen year old kids who rarely got to act like kids.  I counseled some juniors to withdraw from the course and go back into the “regular” track and nearly every time my suggestion was met with horror.  “But I don’t know any of those kids!” or “But those kids are the bad kids!”

The worst however, was answering this question.  “Why aren’t I smart anymore?”  Or from a parent’s perspective, “Why can’t my child do this anymore?  He was always smart before he got to this class.”

My answer?  It is the same as my comment to the kindergartner’s mom who said, “We have to think about the future.  About scholarships and things like that.  So we’re really happy about her getting into the Challenge program.  We’re really proud of her hard work.”

My answer is this…our children only get one childhood.  Let them enjoy the social process of learning that is playful and joy-filled.  Let them learn how to be part of a varied group.  Let them be good learners.  To do so is the smart thing.

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7 thoughts on “Educating the Smart Kids…And Everybody Else

    • I really, really want my kids to be kids now instead of when they are adults. And to find out now, when it is easy to ask for a hug from mom, what it means to fail but be brave enough to try again.

  1. Obviously the heartfelt result of much experience, much learning, much thoughtful processing. I’m betting my now grown daughter, adept at learning, would have loved to have had you for a teacher. I hope my young son, who requires a different kind of learning experience than most, will have the benefit of such teachers as I bet you have been.

    Thanks for another well reasoned, well seasoned post. 😉

  2. I think happy, loving, compassionate, well adjusted kiddos can be in such programs while still being a kid and continuing to learn and grow. Just like most other mothers, we only want to make decisions for our kids that are in their best interest. I think that the Challenge program is amazing. It is right for some, and it isn’t for others. It does not overwork the kids, it meets them where they are at and allows them the opportunity to dig a little deeper into their interests while learning. They still get to play and socialize and be crazy silly kids(believe me, I have one! 🙂 My daughter’s classroom was very diverse this year, and when your child comes home every day and can’t wait to go back to school in the morning…it makes me feel like we made a pretty good decision. I know it’s different for everyone, but it has nothing to do with my ego and only my childs best interest at heart. We will be leaving the Challenge program this year because of a move and I’m sad about that! 😦

    I so love your posts! 🙂

  3. Another wonderful post from you.

    “We have to think about the future. About scholarships and things like that.” This is the problem! The fear that our children won’t get into college, or won’t get into the best college!

    My younger girls attend our neighborhood public elementary school that is academically very competitive. I have heard parents express frustration about how *they* will ever explain to *their children* why the children didn’t get into the GATE program. In this environment we chose to have our girls repeat kindergarten because at year end they weren’t reading fluently. In kindergarten! Although, as one teacher explained to us, learning to read is developmental and by third grade most children are at the same level, we didn’t want our girls struggling in 1st grade to meet an impossible standard. It was a choice that made them, and us, stick out like sore thumbs in our community but it was the right choice for our family.

    Our oldest attends the neighborhood public high school and the pressure on college-bound students to take a heavy load of AP courses is so intense that this year the school held a meeting with teacher and student panelists urging kids to not take more than 1 (or at most 2) AP courses in their junior year. Several of her friends are taking 5.

    I haven’t seen Race to Nowhere yet, but I don’t think I need to. We’re just focused on remaining calm and doing the right thing for each of our children, even if it’s unpopular. It’s hard. Peer pressure and mass hysteria are powerful, even for middle-aged parents like us.

  4. I really appreciate your perspective and agree completely, Kristina. Some parents use their kids as “genetic trophies,” so proud of THEMSELVES for spawning a genius, that they push the child into the spotlight to his/her detriment. To me, programs in elementary school should be based on HOW kids learn rather than what they know. If taught in the mode that is their strongest, ALL kids can learn. That means it is beneficial for us to help kids understand and tell us how they learn best. It could be different for different subjects, but will certainly help a person throughout life.

    It’s great that your children get to interact with a diverse population. In our tiny town, even the strongest learners are blown away when they go to college and find out that everyone doesn’t look like them. The resilient ones celebrate the change and stick with it, the rest run “home” and bag groceries. Some gather their courage and give it another try later, after they realize it will be worth it.

    I remember having a student transfer into my fourth grade about six weeks before the end of the school year. When mid-term grades came out, she had only been here two weeks and had a B+ in math. her mother said, “I can’t even SHOW her this grade! She will be devastated!” I couldn’t imagine how this could be…for a 10-year-old. Luckily, I think everyone has calmed down by now.

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