Ramblings on Gifted Education

Ramblings on Gifted Education

So I ran into this web site called the Mining Company, who offers webheads a chance to host a page on a specific topic. In return, the guides get a cut of the advertising as well as pointers to their page. Of course, by the time I got there, all the obvious topics (scifi/fantasy, NBA basketball, physics, volleyball) had been taken, so I was trying to think of random topics that I might be interested in hosting. For some reason, gifted education sprung to mind since I have very strong opinions about the subject. Turned out that was taken as well, but it brought up some thoughts that I figured I should record somewhere. So here they are.

This is going to be just some observations from my own perspective since I was dubbed "gifted" at a ridiculously young age (the school district suggested that I skip kindergarten entirely - instead I ended up doing first semester kindergarten, and finished the year with the first graders, skipping a year the weird way) and I've been dealing with a whole mess of different programs that are supposed to help gifted kids develop their potential for my entire life.

High school ended up being a big debate. My freshman year was also the first year that the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) was open. This was a magnet school designed to prepare kids for college with an advanced curriculum (better than many colleges) in an environment supposedly tailored to their needs. My mom actually knew the director of the place, but had enough reservations (as did I) that we decided to stick with the public school. Wheaton isn't any slouch school wise - in fact, several years later, when I was visiting Stanford looking at grad schools, one physicist I talked to knew of Wheaton's school district, saying it rated as one of the best in the country. So I didn't lose much by staying in public school and, if anything, I think I gained a lot.

The problem with IMSA (I have inside information here since my mom was a teacher there for a year) was that, at least in the early years (I've heard it's gotten better), it catered to the kids too much. "You are the best and the brightest of Illinois". In fact, my mom got blacklisted by the other teachers for giving out C's - after all, since these are the "best and the brightest", any failure in the learning process must be the fault of the teacher. Never mind the fact that they didn't do any of the homework, it must be the teacher's fault for not motivating them to do it since obviously, they're interested in learning. This may explain the fact that basically everybody I met who went to IMSA during that period was entirely screwed up socially - even more so than me which is saying a lot. Like I said, though, I've met some recent graduates and they seem to be a little bit better well-adjusted so maybe it got better after a while once they ironed out the kinks.

Enough of that distraction. The best part of high school was the history department. The gifted history track had some of the best teachers I've ever had. Most people who went through Wheaton disagree with me on this (including my mom and sister), but those were the only teachers who challenged me. One of them went so far as to state on the first day of your class that we were allegedly the "creme de la creme" of the school, and that, as such, we had to use "language Deserving Of Your Participation in this class". He abbreviated this concept as DOYP, and would often ask people to rephrase an answer in DOYP. He also said that he read our papers under a hot lamp, which would "melt all that snow away, so you better not try to snow me." I learned more about writing papers and making an argument in his class than in any other class I've taken. Although we all did get a bit paranoid about said papers - it became a running joke that 2 hours after a paper was assigned, any book in the school library even remotely related to the topic had been checked out, that evening, any book in the town's public library had been scavenged, and by 2 days later, all books at local community colleges, neighboring towns had been grabbed. Ah, the good old days.

So, let's address some trends in today's education that bother me. The main one is the idea that eliminating tracking would be a good thing. For those of you that don't know, tracking is the idea behind "gifted" programs and the like, where people are placed in different classes taught at different paces depending on ability. The theory behind eliminating it is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy - that kids who are dubbed normal or not-gifted will not be stimulated as much since they're being taught less material, and will also have their self-image manipulated into believing. Therefore, they'll end up less enthusiastic about education, and since they haven't covered as much material, less "intelligent" than those who were lucky enough to be put in the gifted program.

This argument actually pulls a lot of weight. I kind of wonder whether I would have achieved many of the intellectual milestones I have if my mom hadn't insisted that I was "gifted" from a very young age, and doing her best to stimulate and encourage that "gifted"-ness. I was always fast-tracked in school, I had the best teachers, I had enthusiastic classmates - how could I go wrong? Would I still have been considered "gifted" if I hadn't had any of those advantages? It's hard to say.

On the other hand, the reverse argument applies as well. What happens when we take kids who are actually more talented, more intellectual, whatever you want to call it, and tell them, "No, you can't handle that material since it is not appropriate to your grade/age. It doesn't matter that you are looking at it on your own time - you are in grade N, and this is what we do in grade N." Such an attitude completely stifles these kids, leading them to cause trouble in class because they are incredibly bored, and eventually will dull them down to fit in with the rest of their class, since it takes a certain level of stimulation to keep an edge on the mind I think. Not that I have any proof of it, but anyway.

As far as I can tell, the most important thing for a gifted child is to be stimulated on a regular basis. And, to me, this means putting them in an environment with other gifted kids. That's the reason I went to MIT. When you get right down to it, the classes you take at MIT, while they're definitely a little faster paced and a bit more intense than most places, cover basically the same material as you will get at most solid 4 year colleges. However, the people you meet at MIT are far far more intelligent on average than the people you meet on most campuses. _That_ is the reason that MIT is respected above and beyond other schools. Obviously, the professors are top notch, with Nobel prizes etc, but the students are incredible as well.

Where else would a fraternity spend immense amounts of time perfecting the art of water war, to the point of having pneumatic water balloon cannons (with muzzle velocity over 60 mph), elastic tube contraptions that have launched water balloons through third floor windows, etc? Where else would TCP/IP be a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation? (Well, okay, it's not really acceptable there either, but at least everybody would know what you were talking about before yelling at you to shut up).

As a friend of mine put it to me recently, "i have become very snobby. i like being around intelligent people." And it's true. After living around people who can converse one minute on politics in the middle east, and the next minute be debating why bacon tastes so good (offered up Batman "it's because pigs are so biochemically similar to humans."), trying to talk with people whose idea of culture is Beavis and Butthead, or Howard Stern is a bit disillusioning.

But I've gotten a bit sidetracked. The point is being around other people of similar ability encourages one to do more. This might be just in me due to my competitive instincts, but I think it holds true for a wider range of people. Being around other gifted kids gives one an idea of what is possible and the challenge of keeping up with them keeps one stimulated with a keen edge. On the other hand, being kept in a normal curriculum teaches a gifted kid that he/she doesn't have to work hard to do well, and that doing anything more than the average is a waste of time. It's not like you get any higher than an A for doing even more, so why bother?

Boy, I could get off into this whole nother rant about grades and how they're probably one of the worst methods for encouraging learning ever. But I'll deal with that some other time.

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu