Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Paradox of Acceleration

Many parents find themselves in an awkward position because their children do not cooperate with what is required by the school for an average student, and the teachers use that behavior as the criterion for access to more advanced curriculum. It's the old chicken and egg dilemma. Gifted children don't want to work on things they already know how to do, but until they dutifully demonstrate excellent completion of grad-level work, the children can't "earn their way" into more advanced, appropriate, and interesting coursework.


When students experience appropriate classroom expectations and environments - classrooms that teach to their own level and pace - problems with the above expectations disappear. When there is enough real learning to do, gifted children appear more cooperative, feel more respect for their teachers, and find their natural talkative and humorous propensities appreciated rather than viewed as behavioral problems.

- Dr. Deborah Ruf, "Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind"

This Catch 22 is simultaneously the most understandable and most frustrating aspect of enrolling gifted children in the public school environment.

School is not entirely about learning knowledge and information. Perhaps initially that was the case, but now there is much more expected of public schools. Children are also expected to learn how to get along with others, how to be respectful, how to organize themselves, how to manage their time, etc. Intellectually, teachers give high marks to those who not only learn the material but manage their time effectively so as to complete assignments and are willing to demonstrate what they have learned, which tends to be the purview of those who are people pleasers. This is not necessarily indicative of gifted children, and many gifted children are not people pleasers.

A child who is not demonstrating these abilities is generally viewed as having something wrong. They may be learning disabled, ADHD, autistic, or have any number of issues that could disrupt their learning. If nothing can be found to affect their ability to learn, they often receive labels like oppositional defiance disorder or similar.

I have often wondered how many of these label issues would be resolved if the children were challenged in school. Usually the normal response to a child like this is to assume the problem stems from a child who cannot cope with the environment. They leave these children in the same classroom but try a series of measures to make it easier for them to complete the homework.

It would be truly novel if these children were actually accelerated instead. I suspect it would make it much easier to tell who is bored and who is actually suffering from one of the afflictions mentioned above.

The problem is, as mentioned above, it seems paradoxical to accelerate children that already have difficulties in school. It seems logical that a child who is having issues learning basic topics would have more or worse issues when learning more challenging material. At it's heart, the paradox is born from the notion that the children can or should be changed, not the environment. When there is a mismatch between environment and child, it is usually the child that is expected to change, not the environment. In the public schools and many private schools, this is perhaps very realistic. It is difficult for a school to change the environment, but it is easy to medicate a child. On the other hand, schools often overestimate how difficult it would be to create a more challenging environment for children.

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