In all of the work I have been involved in with many thousands of schools nationally and internationally I have constantly asserted my belief that any school policy on the more able is far less significant than the school principles that underpin (or undermine) it. And that these principles should be clear and succinct and easy to communicate to colleagues, students and parents. As an intellectual activity it is highly significant, because it indicates an understanding of the issues and a confidence to be able to stand by what we believe to be right.
Moving more able education forward will require a clear statement that such learners have an equal right to support as any other learner. This is key as an equal opportunities approach is far more successful with schools. As I have argued before, why should it be seemingly so unacceptable to not take adequate regard of less able students, but seemingly quite acceptable to deny the most able their very existence?
The Safety First Cult
I think it is exactly the right time for the more able education community to look in more detail at the school based perspective, and possibly even more critically the learners perspective. I will here detail what I believe this might look like, based on the idea that gifted children have a certain number of key needs that are often ignored or seen as politically contentious. In the rush by some researchers to pathologise the most able students as somehow damaged or crippled by their ability there has evolved an increasingly ‘cloying care’ brand of teaching which has bored, patronised and disengaged our brightest students and which refuses to take risks. Rather than being offered the intellectual battering that they seek and need, I believe that many of our best young minds are suffering the living death of safety first teaching.
East Meets West
On a visit a while ago to Hong Kong I was interviewing a very bright student with her parent. What was NOT surprising was the fantastic effort and commitment this 15 year old put into her studies. What was more interesting was the attitude of her mother. It was to my Western eyes all pretty harsh and uncompromising. When I queried whether it was necessary/usual she was equally blunt with me. Effectively she expressed her surprise as to why the Western educational systems were so soft on children. She believed very strongly that the Chinese way was preferable because it assumes that a child is strong. She felt this in turn became a self fulfilling prophecy. She said that the Chinese system assumes resilience and self esteem too, and that a criticism of work was only that. She felt the struggles that children go through were essential for their growth, and she most certainly did not share the nervousness of many Western parents and educators about blunt corrections of work damaging confidence. It reminded me of Sylvia Rimm, when she argued that,
‘The surest path to positive self-esteem is to succeed at something which one perceived would be difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence. They must learn to do hard things to feel good about themselves. (Rimm, S. (1986). Underachievement syndrome: Causes and cures. Watertown, WI: Apple Publishing)
A Self Serving Industry
Not for the first time, it occurred to me that there is an industry out there seeking perhaps to justify its own existence by focusing on all the ‘traits’ of gifted students that require their attention and support. A casual glance at the attention put on over-excitabilities, vulnerabilities and burn outs at the last few World Conferences suggests that there are a great number of researchers professionally fretting over children that they see as being ‘crippled by their ability.’
It would be foolish to suggest that this is never the case, but I can’t help but wonder if some of these anxieties are in turn sometimes caused by over anxiety from parents and educators on the lookout for any signs of weakness or discomfort. I have to point out that this level of fretfulness tends to come from a number of researchers rather than teachers. I believe it has done a tremendous disservice to gifted education, with its unthinking emphasis on ‘freaks and geeks.’ There is the constant concern that these precious individuals are being driven towards an unspecified precipice by the ambitions of others.
What’s Happening In The Classroom
It is a focus, in more than 20 years of teaching, that I just cannot understand. The far greater danger I find in my work with so many schools that I see comes consistently and doggedly from the opposite extreme. Students constantly under challenged, being given material they have already mastered, often caused by a rigid adherence to the basic core curriculum, creating boredom on an industrial scale (for both teachers and students). The following of a lukewarm ‘set quota of knowledge’ set by the faceless demands of the syllabus only, that results in a loss of passion and a seismic disengagement that is the single biggest threat to aspiration. The sad consequence being students who have lowered their sights, lost commitment and ambition and acquiesced to turgid spoon feeding and easy successes.
And yet I passionately assert that smart kids generally enjoy the challenge of wrestling with obstacles and problems. They relish that learning is supposed to be hard, and that it’s also about the struggle, and making mistakes that can and should be useful. They are stimulated by ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. They are intrigued by what isn’t there, what remains to be discovered and what they can speculate on. They even enjoy being a little subversive or irreverent in their responses..