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It’s not easy being…gifted. April 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son, societal commentary, teaching.
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demotivational posters - IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN
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I was surprised at how many people misunderstood my post on Asperger’s.  However, I suppose it’s bound to happen when people go on a rant in print.  What I’d like you to do, if you felt I was being offensive to Aspies, is go back and read the post, substituting “gifted” for “Aspie”.  Or you could use the word ‘green’. I still feel pretty much the same way.  The point I was trying to make was that labels suck.

Nicoleandmaggie left a comment in yesterday’s post that said:

I agree with the above folks that diagnosis of syndromes is important for treating the negative aspects of those syndromes, and that’s as true for giftedness as it is for Aspergers as it is for PCOS.

I’m not convinced this is true.  I can homeschool a child who is gifted without ever having a clue they’re gifted while being able to keep them adequately challenged.  Likewise, I could probably do the same with an Aspie child (since people used to keep giving the older son that ‘armchair diagnosis’).  The problem is not the mental state of the child as much as the fact that we expect all children to sit in classrooms with other kids their age and function exactly the same way.  With both Asperger’s and giftedness, it’s amazing how those labels suddenly don’t become as important when in a workplace setting.

If you’ve ever hung out with physicists or engineers, the ones that stick out are NOT the socially clueless, nerdy, fixated types: it’s the ones who make decisions emotionally and adhere to societal norms.  Really, the place we need these labels is when we have such an artificially constructed environment that necessitates ‘normality’ and conformity.  Further, the teachers of these classrooms (especially in elementary) tend to be of the personality type that values social conformity over rationality or innovative thinking.  Giftedness is viewed as a threat to the social fabric, and I would guess that Aspies, with their nonconformity to societal values, are in the same boat as the gifted (and it’s twice as bad for those who are both).  All this, despite the fact that the ‘teacher lecturing to kids sitting quiescently in their desks’ method of teaching has been shown to be one of the least effective methods of communicating information.

In my own life as a student and as a parent, I’ve had a fair number of teachers who think that gifted kids don’t need to be challenged, they need to be brought down a notch.  And, as a parent, the looks I get from teachers when the subject of giftedness comes up is far worse than having to say there’s an IEP for educational autism in place.  (And what good are labels like exceptionally gifted when no one has a clue what they mean anyway?!)  Yet, as an adult, I have never had to even address most of the differences my kids display in unstructured environments.  When not in school, people learn to deal with those who are different or to try to avoid those who are so different that they can’t deal with them.  I am thoroughly convinced that the reason we need labels is not to help the kids but to help the teachers deal with kids they don’t understand or don’t like.  Which makes me wonder why we keep using this model where we stick kids in these situations that almost always result in a negative impact on their self-esteem.

I think there are two solutions to the problem, best when used together.  First, I think the role of teachers is all messed up.  Second, I think the whole classroom organization scheme is messed up, too.  The older boy attended a gifted school for two years where the premise was that each kid could work at an individual level toward their own specific educational goals.  The teachers in this scenario became facilitators.  It’s actually a lot like homeschooling, except there are more kids and some of the learning comes from interacting with those kids.  In this scenario, the teachers need to be educated about differences, keep an eye out for problems a kid may have, but they also have to understand the material they are teaching very well.  (Given elementary education training is more about classroom control than ensuring a very thorough understanding of the material, this changes the nature of how teachers would have to be educated.)  In this scenario, kids who had different needs were able to have those needs addressed without drawing undue attention to their differences.  It significantly reduced the amount of peer issues and, especially, bullying.  The interactions were organic, not forced.

A lot of the education was done through self-paced computer programs.  This meant one kid would get through five years of math in one year while another might struggle getting through a single year during that time.  But it didn’t matter…they could excel where they were able and allowed to take it more slowly when necessary.  And there was no judgement attached.

Creating this sort of classroom environment is probably somewhat more expensive than a regular classroom, but I’m not sure.  (How does the cost of textbooks and workbooks compare with computers and easily updated software?)  We’re so used to the notion that education means suffering, both through too fast or too slow academics as well as through social stigma for all our differences.  I don’t think people really are making an effort to correct these issues, which are often linked, because they are too stuck on the idea of doing things the way they always have been done.

This means we continue to need labels.  And I still think labels are stupid.


1. anandi - April 10, 2012

i’m pretty sure you’re right – they aren’t doing anything about it because i think they figure parents of gifted kids will work it out on their own, so what limited resources there are go to the special ed side of things.

also i definitely had some of those “take them down a notch” teachers – by far those were my worst years of school.

2. Chris Gammell - April 10, 2012

Even though I sent this by email to Cherish (ahem! :-) ), there was a recent eBook by Seth Godin on just this topic; however, it was generalized to all of schools, not concerning students who are gifted or had Asperger’s. Basically it’s the notion that schools are stuck in the industrial age when they were there to produce obedient workers to sit on the production line. And that when there are students who can excel past others in their classes, there are no facilities for doing so nor any impetus in the current system to develop that path. I highly recommend reading it:


3. anon - April 10, 2012

I don’t think it is terribly hard for elementary schools to let students move at their own pace- mine did, though I think they could have provided a few more opportunities to challenge gifted students.

For subjects like math and reading there were certain minimum standards you had to meet by the end of the year, but it was mostly done at your own pace. For example, in whatever grade we learned multiplication tables: the goal was that by the end of the year you had to pass a timed test on each multiplication table up through the number 12 with a perfect score by the end of the year. We had an opportunity to take a timed test a few times a week. Those who struggled would do work sheets and practice tests relevant to level they were struggling with, and those who were gifted could move through the tests quickly and be given more advanced math to work on (those who accelerated a little too quickly, such as myself, helped with grading… which was probably not ideal, but I didn’t mind). We had similar sorts of goals with reading in all grades. There was always one book we were reading together as a class with lots of discussion. There was a list of books we were expected to read by the end of the year in whatever order (I think the pace was to turn in one book report every two weeks or so). And then there was the expanded list of books you could read after you’ve completed the minimum, for those who were quick readers and writers. There was a motivator too, like the student who read the most books in each class by the end of the year won a prize, and the class within each grade that read the most books got a party, etc. Other subjects like history and science were largely project-based, so if a student was really in to a subject, they could do a lot of learning.

None of this seems terribly difficult to implement in a classroom, and seemed to balance class instruction with self-guided learning pretty well. After 3rd grade, the gifted students were identified and pulled out of class one day a week for “Advanced Studies” where we did a lot more creative problem-solving type activities (and was a feeder into the middle school Odyssey of the Mind/Destination Imagination programs, if you are familiar with those).

4. nicoleandmaggie - April 10, 2012

Here’s our deliberately controversial post on the topic of labels: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/on-labels-a-deliberately-controversial-post/

5. Cloud - April 10, 2012

Interesting couple of posts. We’re just at the start of our school experience, so we’ll see how it goes for us. For me, I never had a teacher set out to take me down a notch. But perhaps I “blended” well, or just wasn’t that far along the bell curve.

Reading these two posts, I wonder if part of the problem is that we’ve labeled Asperger’s as a disability, when a more flexible society would just see it as a different way to be? I once came across a blog written by someone on the spectrum who was adament that she was just different, not disabled. It was interesting reading, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the blog was called.

6. Mados - April 26, 2012

I don’t agree with you that ‘we don’t need labels’ in general, but I agree with many of your other points, particularly the general set-up of the learning environment in schools and priority of social conformity. I like the school-for-gifted-kids learning environment you describe… structured yet flexible, much more relevant for learning.


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