Thursday, January 1, 2009

Opposition to gifted programs

I recently read about a school district that was in the process of starting a program for their highly gifted students. I was very disappointed that one of the comments against the program had to do with a large number of students probably coming from wealthy families.

I'm very disappointed that people consider a bias about people's income a valid reason to deprive a child, any child, from receiving the education they deserve. Perhaps the majority of the kids in the district are from wealthy families. However, these are still children who deserve a challenging education. Further, and just as important, this program is part of the public school system. That means that any child in the district who is found to be highly gifted could benefit from this program regardless of their parents' income.

The sad news is that many districts will not consider these types of programs unless there is a large enough need. Wealthy districts, whether is it is fair or not, often have the means to create these programs and often have a larger need than poorer districts. The good news is, and what many people fail to consider, is that many of the programs for the gifted, especially in the highly gifted and above range, will often take students from surrounding areas, especially if their needs are not being met by neighboring school districts. In many places, if there is sufficient room, they are willing to serve students from other areas. The more students they have, the easier it is to justify their existence and continuing work.

The bigger problem, in reality, is that poor families don't often have the means to have their gifted children identified as such. It is commonly acknowledged that students from poor families and racial minorities are seriously underrepresented in gifted programs. However, what is a poor parent supposed to do once they find out that they have a gifted child? The second hurdle is finding an appropriate educational setting. I'm in favor of public schools creating gifted programs, even in wealthy areas, because the programs often provide opportunities for those who would not otherwise be able to afford them.

And regardless of a person's income, every child deserves to have an appropriate education.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mathematical Minds

I find the topic of education fairly fascinating because having information which cannot be transferred to another is almost useless. However, something that goes hand in hand with education is the ability of the learner...both the psychology and physiology.

The Eide Neurolearning Blog had an interesting post on the differences between mathematical and non-mathematical minds. One paragraph, in particular, resonated with me.

While most people would agree that "math people" are not like "non-math people", it's not always easy for non-mathematical minds to recognize (and appropriately nurture) mathematical ones. The reasons for this are several - mathematical kids are often independent and internally-driven problem solvers who may or may not excel in the standard math tasks of the elementary school classroom (if he's such a math kid, how come he's getting C's on his timed drills?...) Many students with extreme talents in math may also be relatively verbal-poor, so are less obviously the "smart" children in class. Also they may be reluctant to show what they know or what they are interested in to relative strangers, and may have difficulty explaining how they arrived at answers. Many mathematical minds are dyslexic or twice exceptional in another areas, too, complicating their identification with standardized tests or screening tools. (Bold emphasis added by myself.)

This is a notion which I've always felt to be true but for which I've had no conclusive evidence. Through observation, however, it seems that many teachers, especially pre-high school, have a strong aversion to maths. Through my background and well as my children's, I have run into this time and time again. It seems that a commonly held notion among elementary school teachers is that a good mathematician is one who can execute arithmetic operations flawlessly. My experience, however, is that arithmetic is usually taught as a memorization exercise in schools. Thus, children who are more interested in the higher level view or abstract concepts describing how these operations work (and possibly have no interest in solving specific problems) are often viewed as being "bad at math" when they may be, in fact, extremely talented in the area. This probably follows along the lines that a student cannot be verbally gifted unless they are an adept speller, which is also generally not true. A person who can put together words in a meaningful way but cannot spell well is generally going to have an advantage over someone with impeccable spelling but who cannot communicate their meaning effectively.

By temperament, strong math minds will tend to be introverted and have high focus and task persistence for activities of intrinsic interest. This may mean they are difficult to direct in the traditional or even non-traditional classroom (prefer studying lines of own interest), and they may be benefited particularly by mentors (often relatives or math teachers at higher levels of education) willing to discuss topics, ideas, and problems far in advance of their years. (As before, bold emphasis added.)

This disinterest in following a teacher's plan for study will probably confound identification further. The student who is bored with concepts as presented and seems to struggle with "basic concepts" such as tables is generally not one to be identified as gifted and in need of additional stimulation or acceleration.

How does one identify students as such? There are, of course, traditional instruments. One possible way is to examine most standardized test scores. Several of them, especially Iowa Basics, break down math into further areas such as "math concepts" and "math operations". A student who places high on math concepts probably has a knack for math, regardless of their score in math operations. In fact, if there is a large disparity between the scores, this may be an indicator of a twice exceptional student: the student could be gifted in math but be fighting a learning disability.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

I'd been prepared to post a "This Space for Rent" sign here. Other things have been consuming my attention, and I really felt like I was running low on time and topics to discuss.

Fortunately, I chose not to do that. This is fortunate because I came across a post that I think warrants discussion. This Brazen Teacher writes about Testing Intelligence. The crux of the argument is that our society focuses on IQ and ignores other talents which may contribute to an individual's success. I would disagree with the first part of the statement and agree with the second part.

Starting with the first point (that society focuses on IQ), I can't say that I agree. Perhaps I should rephrase that: the school system doesn't focus on IQ. Most schools, as I have discussed previously, use the Renzulli Method. That is, a student must be intelligent, motivated, and willing to display their gifts. This criteria only applies to a segment of the gifted population and using it results in lack of identification of many students who have a very high IQ. Additional problems occur when gifted behaviors confound the identification of gifted students.

If children test well enough- they might even get extra funding for their education because they are gifted. As a whole, our culture idolizes high IQ's and rewards them by offering even more opportunities to grow smarter, while the rest continue to receive "standard" opportunities. You can imagine that over time the gap between children actually widens because of this. The smarter children get even smarter because of the expanse of experience and opportunities their test scores open up to them, while the rest just "stay the course."

Unfortunately, it is also clear that Brazen Teacher also doesn't have much familiarity with the issues of gifted students. It is also sad that this is a very common misconception among teachers as well as the population in general. Students who are gifted don't necessarily "get smarter" because they are allowed to accelerate while the rest are left to rot. An average student would not work up to the same level if provided the same opportunities because there is an inherent difference in ability. A gifted student who is not able to accelerate their learning will often suffer from such impacts like depression, negative self-esteem, loneliness, etc. It is in the child's best interest to accelerate a gifted learner, and this should be happening because it enables the child to learn at their full potential, not because of expected outcomes.

I also take issue with the point made in the post that divergent thinking and IQ are mutually exclusive. This may be true when tests like the WISC-IV are administered. Such tests emphasize processing speed over reasoning ability. Because a person is a divergent thinker doesn't imply they are naturally doomed to failure when confronted with an IQ test. A divergent thinker will not necessarily be less capable of reasoning than a convergent thinker. A divergent thinker, however, will probably require more time to come to a conclusion. Further, the person administering the IQ test should be astute enough to question whether an "incorrect" conclusion is a result of inability or an alternate way of viewing the problem. This should be taken into account when scoring an IQ exam.

I do concede the point that there is more to success than IQ. However, those skills will not be gained by a child who is forced to conform to a classroom which operates far below his or her ability. Begrudging the minority of gifted children who do have the privilege to participate in a challenging gifted program will not enable those with other gifts or creativity to have their gifts recognized. All this does is tear things down for everyone rather than creating a system which would, ideally, recognize every child's gifts and enable to them to learn and work on material which is challenging and interesting for them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Perfectionism: Beliefs

Perfectionism seems to have its roots in those messages young children think they hear from important adults in their lives. There is also pressure from the media and from peers that contribute to perfectionistic thinking (i.e., the "Barbie body" phenomenon). And I have a hunch that some children's temperaments make them more susceptible to perfectionism. These temperament qualities can be noticed as early as infancy in babies who react strongly by exploding from calm to full-blown wailing in a matter of seconds.

-Reva Friedman-Nimz, "Done to Perfection," Understanding our Gifted, Summer 2006

Friedman-Nimz discusses perfectionism as a continuum with three dimensions: beliefs, explanations, and expectations. In her article, she also includes a brief questionaire to determine where on this continuum one falls, especially in regard to these dimensions.

Friedman-Nimz states that there are three irrational beliefs held by those who are plagued with dysfunctional perfectionism:

1 - It is necessary to be loved by and approved of by everyone (important to that person).
2 - One's competence and achievement are related to self-worth.
3 - It is catastrophic when things don't go as they should.

I've not only been a parent of a perfectionist but still deal with it frequently myself.

I think that gifted children in particular are susceptible to the second point. So often, they are viewed as weird by other children and adults. When someone does recognize their gift, they feel as though that is the entire reason why someone would like them. Without their gift, they feel like they'd be nothing. (Ironically, if they weren't gifted, they may not be shunned as often by peers.) The child's self-worth is determined by their abilities, and they need their abilities to earn the love of those they care about.

An article in New York Magazine entitled, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise," discusses how adults tend to react to children. When parents or teachers tell a child they are smart rather than emphasizing their effort, the child will tend to think things should come easily. They will become discouraged and quit if they don't. Likewise, Friedman-Nimz discusses telling a child, "Good girl!" versus, "Good job!" sets up this dynamic. It creates a situation where children feel their inherent abilities are necessary to gain the love and acceptance of those around them. Telling them that their effort is recognized helps the child feel cared for whether or not they reach the brass ring. They will be more likely to make an effort int he future.

Finally, dealing with the third point takes some patience and modeling on the part of the parent. Some children inherently react with anger and frustration to an unexpected outcome. The only way to deal with this, in my experience, is to explain your thought processes to the child about how changes are not always bad and sometimes may be good. It takes time, but it can be highly effective. If a parent models an easy-going attitude to changes, the children will pick up on it...eventually.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Perfectionism in the Gifted

I was recently given an article by Dr. Suzanne Perry entitled "The Hidden Gifted Learner: The Gifted Perfectionist." In this article, Dr. Perry discusses four manifestations of perfectionism in gifted learners. I can't seem to find the article online and, more unfortunately, am not sure from where the article came. It nicely summarizes behaviors or attitudes that develop when perfectionism becomes unhealthy, so I will discuss the four types here.

All or Nothing Mindset - This student cannot handle exposing themselves as having flaws in a particular area. They will either turn in a perfect product or nothing at all. Being criticized for lack of effort is less painful than the possibility of someone criticizing their intellect or ability.

Procrastination - Putting off assignments means that the emotional fallout from what they perceive as inadequate performance will not last as long as if they'd started sooner.

Paralyzed Perfectionism - Fear of failure prevents these children from attempting anything they perceive they cannot master at their first attempt. These children opt for "safe" activities and will probably underachieve relative to their abilities. They may be top students, but will become so by avoiding challenging coursework.

Workaholics - These children feed off of rewards and praise. They drive themselves to go beyond even excellent work to always make sure they will place far ahead of everyone else.

Even though this article is written about childrren, I suspect many adults can identify. Further, I can imagine one person manifesting different behaviors in responsse to different situations.

Overcoming overly perfectionistic behavior is difficult, but Joanna Fletcher has some excellent suggestions in Perfectionism: Bane or blessing?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The "Default" Classroom

"Even though teachers think they are teaching to the middle, Slavin noted that the steering group general represents the 19th to 23rd percentile of ability in the class - far too low for the majority of learners in the class."


"In general, the research studies show almost no instances in which whole-group instruction of students of heterogeneous ability is more beneficial for gifted children than some form of differentiated small group instruction. If educators should want to level the playing field of achievement so that all become mediocre in their output, then whole-group instruction is the answer!"


"There is this feeling among all too many educators that what they offer in the classroom is not only necessary, but also sufficient for all learners."

-Karen B. Rogers, Ph.D., "Re-Forming Gifted Education"

The quotations above are within just a couple pages of each other in Rogers' book. In this particular section, she is discussing the "default" option of mixed-ability classroom groups. I find it disconcerting that, given all the evidence Rogers provides, we are left with the impression that not only are gifted children's needs not being met, but those of the average child. If 85% of children can pass grade-level pretests with fairly high proficiency, if the bottom third of the class is being targeted for instruction, if only the slowest children are learning anything new, then why aren't the majority of parents complaining about the state of education?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I have a few theories:

1 - Most parents aren't sure what is going on in the classroom. They only see that their child is doing sufficiently well, and that is enough to assuage any concerns.

2 - This method of instruction makes average children feel very competant and thus not likely to complain about boredom.

3 - Parents do not heed their children's complaints of boredom seriously. (I know that I began this journey by telling my son that we all have to learn to do things we don't like or find boring.)

4 - Parents are too intimidated by the thought that teachers and administrators are "professionals" or that teaching standards are written by "professionals". They don't feel like they have enough knowledge to advocate for their child's educational needs.

5 - Even when parents and/or children advocate on behalf of their own learning, teachers respond as above: they believe they are teaching to the average student in the class or that they are professionals and know more about education than parents and children.

In essence, the system perpetuates mediocrity because teachers refuse to accept their instruction may be flawed or feel compelled to follow standards exactly. Parents don't feel empowered or sufficiently knowledgeable to push for changes. When children voice concerns about their lack of education, they aren't taken seriously. These possibilities may factor into the reason that the majority of the students in the classroom continue to be unchallenged in their educational setting.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

They can be taught.

This week, I read about a young man by the name of Benjamin Bolger, who has 11 advanced degrees. He is an incredibly accomplished person who had such horrible dyslexia that his mother had to remove him from school to homeschool him.

About 15% to 20% of the population has dyslexia, which affects the way people perceive and process words, says Howell, director of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute. She says dyslexia is not a problem of intelligence, but those affected need to be taught to read and write in a different way than their peers, and don't always get that help.

Bolger says he reads at an elementary school level. He has gotten through much of his education with the help of his mother, Loretta Bolger, who reads books out loud to him and types papers he dictates. He also uses books on tape and has learned to skim books very effectively.

People who have learning disabilities are not incapable of learning. It would be better to think of a learning disability as a preference to learn in a non-standard way. Dyslexics need to have information presented so that they can hear the information they need. Auditory processing disorder means the opposite: materials should be presented visually and not spoken, as much as possible. ADHD students need to be provided with strategies for learning and and presented with organizational methods. They also need time and space to move around.

Very seldom are these children so lucky to be given the accomodations they need. They are often left in a regular classroom where they are overwhelmed with material they are supposed to know but have no way of processing. When they are given appropriate accomodations, they can be quite capable and achieve a lot. When they aren't given accomodations, they are left feeling incapable and unintelligent. They are robbed of the opportunity to live up to their full potential.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The road to learning about my twice exceptional child

It would have been useful to have known much more about gifted children, or even better, twice exceptional children before my older son started school. As it turns out, my son has ADHD, sensory integration dysfunction, and auditory processing disorders as well as being gifted. His inattentiveness is considerably greater when he is bored because of elementary learning material. He would also act out or not pay attention when he was running up against issues with his learning disabilities. Despite all of his issues, he continues to make huge leaps and bounds in the growth of his knowledge, far surpassing his peers on annual testing. It took a lot of effort to get there, however.

Children aren't able to verbally communicate why they don't like a topic. They know that they are being compelled to do something that doesn't feel right or that they don't like. Being taught in a way that is nonsensical to a child creates a lot of frustration and confusion. The child doesn't say, "The way you're explaining that doesn't make sense." They change their focus, don't pay attention, and try to find something to fill the space of whatever it is that makes them uncomfortable.

However, many teachers don't interpret their actions this way, and most parents do the same. The children's behavior is interpretted, in most cases, as an active avoidance or intentional misbehavior. The key differentiator between intentional misbehavior and that of a child who is frustrated with the learning process is if the behavior is far more prevalent in the classroom. However, when the child is frustrated enough, the behavior leaks into the home environment as well.

My son was reading Harry Potter books in first grade and spent hours playing with Legos. He would spend hours on mazes and puzzles. However, he would rush through is school work, doing a very sloppy job or simply not completing it due to boredom or lack of understanding. Because he was not completing his work, his teacher, who at the beginning of the year thought he was very bright, started saying that he wasn't gifted. His first year in school, my son went to several specialists because his teacher and school administrators would not accept that my son was gifted with ADHD. They were correct that there was more going on, but it wasn't autism, as they kept insisting.

The biggest problem, however, was that they simply refused to provide more challenging material to my son. Given he could and did concentrate on areas of interest, his first year in school would have gone much better if they had been willing to do what the doctor's recommended: provide more enriching learning material and make sure it is presented in a visual manner. Instead, they continued to insist that he was being adequately challenged and they were, in fact, presenting concepts in a visual manner.

By the middle of the first year, my son had shut down, and the teachers blamed him. He was soon diagnosed with opposition defiant disorder (ODD). It should be noted that ODD is almost always comorbid with some other type of attentional or learning disorder. Had I known that, I would have realized that what was happening was my son's frustration level had exceeded all of his coping abilities. I often think his teachers should have known this.

Instead, I began homeschooling, which was a very long journey of untangling all the knots that tied together his learning abilities and disabilities, his various disorders, and his self-esteem. Ultimately, we came to understand how he could learn, when he could and couldn't concentrate, and how to appropriately challenge him in his learning. Now, as a teenager, he is beginning to understand these things about himself and becoming an independent learner.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Are standardized exams really necessary?

How do homeschooling parents know their children are learning? The answer to this question is, to put it most simply, direct observation. I have only one child. If a teacher had only one child in her classroom, and was unable to describe the reading skills of that child, everyone would be dismayed -- how could a teacher have such close daily contact with one child and miss something so obvious? Yet many people unfamiliar with homeschooling imagine that parents with just this sort of close daily contact with their child require outside evaluation to determine that child's progress. This puzzles homeschooling parents, who cannot imagine missing anything so interesting as the nature of their child's learning.

-Jan Hunt, Ph.D., How do you know your (homeschooled) children are learning?

I recently was involved in a discussion with a person who insisted that homeschoolers who don't wish to have their child evaluated must be hiding the fact that these children aren't learning. I couldn't fathom where the idea originated. Perhaps they were convinced that No Child Left Behind implied all children weren't learning? Or perhaps they tended to be highly suspicious. After reading the above article, it became clear.

Parents whose children are at school all day may or may not have a clear idea of what their children are learning. Their teachers may not, either, given they may be juggling the abilities of 20-30 children at once. My sibling managed to get through three years of elementary school without being able to read. No one noticed!

Aside from the point that parents make direct observation, there really is no compelling reason for a homeschooling parent to compare a child against national norms until they are probably in their teens. Children often learn at different rates, and many homeschoolers have the luxury of giving their children time to learn at their own rate. This is a great benefit to the child.

According to David Elkind, Americans are tied to the notion that education is a race:

Although Head Start is an important and valuable program, it gave rise to the pernicious belief that education is a race - and that the earlier you start, the earlier you finish. This encouraged educators like Carl Bereiter, Siegfried Engelmann, and, more recently, E. D. Hirsch to introduce early academic programs based on the learning theories of E. L. Thorndike and B. F. Skinner. These writers assume that learning follows the same principles at all age levels-ignoring both children's developing mental abilities and the fact that academic skills vary in their logical complexity and difficulty.

One of my arguments in not testing children at such young ages is that this is quite harmful to their self-esteem and desire to learn if they are constantly compared with their peers and don't measure up. The implication seems to be that if they can't learn something right away, they will never be able to learn it.

This reasoning is faulty. Learning to read, for instance, requires a multitude of skills, such as decoding symbols and having the physical ability to focus and move the eyes correctly. It sounds easy, but for small children, it is a serious challenge. Forcing a child to read when they don't have the physical or mental ability will only cause a resistance to learning in the child.

I do believe there are compelling reasons to test a child earlier. If a child has a strong desire to learn, it is helpful to know if the child is gifted. Parents of gifted children, especially parents of exceptionally- and profoundly-gifted, may need to understand where their child's unusual drive and energy come from. Testing provides the benefit of providing the gifted with educational opportunities as well.

If a parent suspects a child may have learning disabilities, it is almost certainly helpful to find out how the child can and cannot process information so that a curriculum can be adjusted to cater to that child's abilities.

And there are children who are both...and sometimes the enigma of these children is only solved when the child is tested.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but for the most part, children need to be given time to learn. As they come closer to adulthood, they probably would benefit from learning where their abilities are relative to where they want to be in order to attain certain career goals, for instance. There is also the issue that test-taking is a skill, and most students will have to deal with our society's obsession with quantification through exams. They will need to take tests at some point or another, and practice at this skill is essential for success.

At one point during my time as a homeschooler, I had to give my son a standardized exam to comply with state homeschool regulations. I was both amused and disappointed with the results. He aced the exam, which was designed for his chronological grade. However, I was very disappointed that it didn't provide information as to what his achievement level really was; it merely stated that he was achieving at the top level for his grade.

I could have told them that without the silly test. All they had to do was ask!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Curriculum Compacting

Current studies have found that 75-85% of elementary school students of average or above average ability can pass subject pre-tests with 92-93% accuracy. Similar findings have been found for fourth, eighth, and eleventh graders in science and social studies curricula in several states. This means that grade-level curriculum is often too basic and unchallenging for bright learners, as well as for many other learners. Clearly the typical curriculum - at least as reflected in the pre-tests - is set at a low level that would suggest that unless new material is added, gifted children will be stuck in a situation where they are repeating information they already know during virtually all of their time in the classroom. Compacting the curriculum is one oform of acceleration that provide them with more learning and stimulation.

Drs. Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis (1992) directed a large national study, which found that elementary teachers could eliminate - with no detrimental effects on the student's measures of achievement - up to 40-50% of the regular curriculum in language arts and mathematics for the top 10-15% of students. Up to 80% of the curriculum at grade level could be eliminated for extremely bright students.

-Karen B. Rogers, Ph.D., "Re-Forming Gifted Education"

Too many teachers and administrators fall into the trap of believing that educational standards imply that a student must sit through instruction specified for a grade, whether or not the student already knows it. Because many classes cater to the lower half of learners, gifted as well as average students may find themselves bored. There are alternatives to this scenario, however.

Compacting is one option, particularly for those hesitant to move a child out of a classroom with age-mates. Compacting requires the teacher to determine what is essential information, pre-test the students to determine if they understand the material (after having established a suitable standard to show mastery), and then move a child with mastery onto the next material while addressing any gaps that may have shown up during pre-testing.

There are several ways a student can be assessed for knowledge. While a paper and pencil method may suffice, Rogers also suggestions informal discussions, brainstorming sessions, reviewing previous performance, a formal interview or observation of a task which requires the knowledge.

The method can accelerate the child ahead of age-mates, keeping the child interested in the academic content of their studies while keeping them in a chronological classroom. It is a far more efficient (for the student) way of learning that can help prevent acting out on the part of a gifted child who is bored with or uninterested in their current curriculum.

Another option is to include enrichment materials rather than accelerating the student. This has been shown to produce less gain in achievement for the student, however, so it may not provide the stimulation the child wants.

Regardless, compacting requires effort on the part of the teacher, and it may create more social benefits if compaction occurs in a group rather than to an individual.