Monday, November 07, 2005


Time magazine has a cover story this week on Ambition, why some people succeed and others don’t, and whether ambition can be taught. There’s a sidebar on how parents and schools can help kids learn ambition (sorry if this only allows subscribers to view. Some of Time content is premium).

I’m of the opinion that schools can do a lot more to teach ambition. Namely, they shouldn’t make work so easy for gifted kids. A lot of gifted kids coast through school, then arrive at adulthood and realize that the rules change. Grade 6 doesn’t necessarily follow Grade 5. Some people take risks and seek out opportunities that ignite rocket boosters under their careers. Others get stuck in the truth that there’s no crystal-clear path to, say, tenure, or getting big breaks in an artistic career, or starting your own business, or leaping out of middle management and into the top ranks. These people wind up back in graduate school in perpetuity to recapture the certainty they miss, or they switch careers or generally flounder. Gifted kids need to learn to stretch themselves. They need to learn to find questions that aren’t posed at the end of chapters, and then seek out the answers when there’s no certain right one. They need to try stuff so tough they risk failing. You can’t do that if your self-esteem is based solely on a “gifted” label -- with gifted kids being defined as those who never fail in their endeavors. Labels are worth nothing.

Time gropes toward that point but then, alas, the magazine misses the mark completely. Check out this stunner:

“Some experts say our education system, with its strong emphasis on testing and rigid separation of students into different levels of ability, also bears blame for the disappearance of drive in some kids. "These programs shut down the motivation of all kids who aren't considered gifted and talented. [They] destroy their confidence," says Jeff Howard, a social psychologist and president of the Efficacy Institute, a Boston-area organization that works with teachers and parents in school districts around the country to help improve children's academic performance.”

Oh dear. It’s because of ability grouping that children flounder? Hardly. It’s the absence of *enough* meaningful ability grouping -- with all children challenged to the extent of their abilities -- that causes the top students to flounder after school to start with!

1 comment:

jo_jo said...

Concerning challenge, I think you are very right that most gifted kids either learn to play the game or rebel against it, rather than stretching. They need appropriate leadership of their very individual learning drives. Can this be done in a group? It's debatable, and like so much else, depends greatly on the ability and intuition of the teacher.

I think that Mr. Howard's observation may well be true, but it certainly doesn't create a valid reason for removing ability grouping. Kids need to be told that being in the gt group (or not) is not an indicator of worth, and certainly not a prediction of future success. Then perhaps eventually all people will know this!