There's a lively discussion at Twisty's about gifted education. I have thoughts that I thought I'd written about, but I can't find them, so here goes.
One of my biggest concerns about institutional education, especially at primary school age, is labeling. There's the clearly harmful labeling children as slow. I find this particularly troublesome at young ages because children mature differently, read at different ages, grasp ideas that someone has decided are important at different ages. Often, the labels stay with them even as they outgrow any issues. Whether or not they outgrow problems, whether or not the problems have any relevance to their adult life (and I think this is key), the harm is done. I'm sure in most cases the label stays with them internally, inhibiting their success. For instance, an acquaintance of mine’s husband makes a fine living doing plastering. Yet when people who knew him in school hear my friend married him, they’re surprised, because he was such a loser (in their eyes). Well, he’s not now, and I’m sure he’s not an isolated example. But I’m also sure there are many people who don’t manage to overcome their early labels, despite their actual abilities.
Then there's the so-called helpful labeling: Gifted or GT, or whatever they call it where you are. Being Gifted often gets you more interesting teachers, more interesting classes, more interesting projects. Nothing wrong with that -- although I strongly believe that all kids should get those things. Sometimes it just gets you more work that you’re not particularly interested in. It also often gives kids a feeling of entitlement – I am smart, therefore I get special treatment; clearly I will succeed at life like I’ve succeeded at school.
In an academic setting, Gifted generally means being good at skills that are valued in an academic setting. People who are good at other skills do not get the same treatment. Academic skills have little bearing on success in life (labels, on the other hand, may have all too much bearing on success in life). Only a few careers need academic skills, yet students labeled Gifted in school may easily go on to expect easy success. Many Gifted kids don't have to work that hard at academics, but in the real world, success nearly always requires hard work. The gifted label doesn't get you there -- not even close. Another example – a very smart friend in high school who understood physics without apparent effort. He never took notes and never did homework and was in general a goof off. He also had a drug problem. Being gifted was not going to get him far in the real world, and I’ve often wondered what happened to him.
For me this is all tied in to the issue of praise that recently got so much press. The idea of too much praise for the wrong aspects of performance resonated strongly with me. And being promoted and given special treatment for being gifted rewards aptitude rather than effort.
What would I like to see? Education that can play to each students’ strengths, while providing them the necessary basics in the least disagreeable way – preferably in a context that makes the topic relevant to each student. At the elementary level that means somehow avoiding labeling – either overt or implicit (and to be honest, I think this is next to impossible). All students should have access to interesting electives. Students can learn the basics through subjects that interest them. Newsweek’s list of best high schools rates high schools according to the ratio of AP and IB tests taken divided by the number of graduating seniors – I am sold on the idea of opening upper level classes to all students, and letting each student get as much out of a class as they can.
(If you like the Newsweek articles on the best high schools, you should also read this.)