Monday, June 12, 2006

Gifted education

I've been mulling over gifted education for a while.

I think that streaming children into different ability levels is, on the whole, a good idea (that's probably the most controversial statement in this post). It probably doesn't matter that much in the middle of the bell curve, but at either end, children will learn better when they are learning with other children who learn at the same rate. Everybody is happy with doing that for sport and music; why not for book learning?

But, on the other hand, it's a good idea for children to be exposed to the fact that not everyone is the same. My son's kindergarten class has a child with Downs syndrome, who is probably operating at the level of my just-turned-three year old at the moment. I do think that it is good for everyone in that classroom to get to know him as a person, and to understand that he's a bit different. But I felt very sorry for him having to effectively sit and entertain himself as I played number bingo with his three classmates who were operating at a level that they could write numbers, and cross them off as they got called out. He has a full time aide though, so most of the time he gets pretty effective one-on-one education.

So the way in which the NSW education department suggests operating gifted and talented programs in infants and primary school - pull outs for a few lessons, rather than full on streaming - seems sensible to me. That's providing the kids who get pulled out are genuinely operating at a higher level (i.e. top 5% at most, not top 15%; probably the top 1% are the ones that really need it), and it seems sensible also to leave the kids together a lot of the time so that they get to know children at different levels as well.

But then the question is whether such programs become yet another way for middle-class parents to get more than their fair share of the education budget within state schools. If the testing for who gets into gifted and talented programs is based on achievements (like early reading), rather than some better measure of intrinsic intelligence (such as an IQ test, with all its faults), it will generally miss the children without rich intellectual home lives, and the children with english as a second language. That's not a reason not to have gifted and talented programs, though; it's a reason to make sure you have good identification methods, so you don't just get the polished middle class kids (although middle class kids can be gifted too!).

The other aspect that is often missed with arguments back and forth about gifted education is friendship. Some (not all) gifted children do find it easier to make friends with those who are also gifted, or operating at their own levels (e.g. an older child). Those children are condemned to loneliness if they never spend time with children their own intellectual ages.

From reading up on the subject, the simplest, cheapest way of providing for gifted children is to allow them to accelerate through school - start young, or skip a year or two along the way. It doesn't require any special programs, or special schools, just acceptance from teachers and schools. Although many teachers think that's a terrible idea, overwhelmingly the research supports it (see this campaigning summary of the research). Some accelerated children have trouble with their older classmates in their teenage years, but many don't, and their non-accelerated peers generally have more social problems along the way, if you do comparative research.

So that's what we've done with our older son - he started school at 4 years 5 months (six weeks younger than he was officially allowed). So far it's going great, and we don't think his classmates have really noticed yet, but I'll keep you posted.


A couple of contrary links: Laura at 11d had a post a few months ago about how she got really annoyed by gifted education in NY, because it tended to get hijacked by middle-class parents who wanted a good education for their children, but couldn't afford private school fees. And susoz at personal political had a post about the gifted education pull-out classes at her son's school, and how she found their testing methods a bit odd, and found it hard to believe that they would do much good anyway, the way they were structured.


At 10:25 am, Anonymous elsewhere said...

I must admit, I'm a bit of a fascist when it comes to streaming education, at least at the high school level, largely because I went to a selective school. If I had kids, I would want to make damn sure they were receiving an education that suited their abilities at that level.

It's actually a big issue in Alice here, because the private schools give a better education at the secondary school level than the public schools, but kids get less exposure to the more marginalised elements of society (i.e. largely the Indig population). Some left-liberal types send their kids to public schools as a matter of principle. On the other hand, an Aboriginal woman I know who worked her butt off to send her kids to one of the best private schools here said she feels it's a problem that her kids have very little contact with their peers from the local Aboriginal community here (she's not from this area).

My other thought is that clever kids will teach themselves wherever you put them, so long as they have the encouragement to do so. (I was rarely doing what I was supposed to be doing in class at my selective school -- I just swotted up for the exams at the end of semester). And in the old days, there used to be extracurricular activities where you could mingle with other kids. It might come down to a question of where the kid feels happiest, where the best learning environment for them is. Not everyone enjoys the hot-house competitive environment of a selective or a private school (sensitive male friends have moaned to me about being 'brought up amongst alpha males').

(I'm afraid I'm a bit of a phoney on private health insurance too -- after my experience of public hospitals, I feel you need some kind of leverage in the system, even if it's only an illusory one.)

At 2:44 pm, Blogger Susoz said...

Hmm, I think I disagree with you quite strongly on acceleration. Friends who have very gifted children (now in their teens) have chosen not to accelerate and it's worked for the best, socially. It hasn't impeded academics at all. One boy we know did his SC in a language two years ahead of schedule but still stayed within his year. He didn't like being with the older classes (when he was 15 and they were 17) because of big social differences.
I think there can be something of a fetishisation of the brain over the whole person, with all this gifted stuff. (Yeah, speaking as someone who was also 'gifted' but became a university drop-out!) In my son's year, I'd say close to 50% were born in the second half of the age-year - I see differences between kids born in May and June. But I see bigger differences between kids born in June and the next June! Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
I do tend to think that there is a danger of the fantasyland of childhood being lost. With lionger age spans, childhood is a smaller proportion of anyone's life. Really, 12 years out of 90 isn't long to be free of pressures and expectations.

At 8:05 pm, Blogger Jennifer said...

I think I was one of those clever kids who will do well where you put them, BUT, I went to a pretty good middle class high school (albeit with no selectiveness, very little streaming). My first year of high school was a complete waste of time, academically, though, and I was also pretty miserable, as I had no good friends, compared with the OC (gifted) school I went to the two years before. But if I'd been to a small school in a poor part of Sydney, without educated parents to fall back on, my education might not have been as good.

To me, the thing I got most out of my two years (years 5 & 6)of 'gifted' education was enjoyment of school because I had friends with shared interests. That's not to say I didn't enjoy any other part of my schooling, but those two years stand out for me in memory as by far the most enjoyable of my school days.

So that's what I'm trying to achieve for my son, but using acceleration, as I'd rather he enjoyed more than 2 years of school. I don't think he's missing the fantasyland of childhood at the moment (but I'll keep a close eye on it). But at his pre-school, with his age-mates, he had no friends (at least he couldn't tell us anyone's names). At school, he seems to be friends with half his class.

It's very tricky to separate this need to feed a brain that loves to learn, though, with the thought that you are pushing too hard; I'm trying hard only to respond to C wanting to learn. Many watching us from the outside would probably think we're pushing him; we don't think so, but how can you tell without a control?

At 5:19 am, Anonymous Beanie Baby said...

I am the product of full-streaming, segregated gifted learning from grade 4 right through to highschool graduation--and I think it's the pits. I'd much prefer acceleration. Keeping gifted kids to a curriculum based on teh learning rates of normal kids is a recipe for disaster, IMO. IME, we were all just as bored, but bored together. How does that help?


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