Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Fear of Gaps

Apparently, not long ago, someone wrote a column or letter to the editor for The Citizen (in Georgia) suggesting that gifted children be allowed to skip grades as a way to save money and give the kids some challenge. A parent of two gifted kids responded with a letter to the editor suggesting that this was a horrible idea. (Click on that link to read the letter). Why? While it might be OK for math or reading, the letter writer notes, kids would suffer from horrible "giant holes" in their education. They might not know about World War II!

This is the familiar old argument about those dreaded "gaps" in education that kids supposedly suffer when they are accelerated. I find this argument very odd on many levels. For starters, no school system claims to teach everything under the sun from K-12. We all have gaps in our education. I, for instance, learned basically nothing about the history of Islam in school -- not a small or irrelevant matter, if you think about it. I didn't learn that much about World War II either, because my world history class and US history classes kind of ran out of steam by the end of the year. And I never skipped a grade!

I have filled some parts of these giant holes by doing what many curious people do -- reading books on the subject. Other options include watching movies, taking courses in college, listening to audio lectures, visiting famous WWII sites in Europe, Japan and Australia, etc.

The point is that gifted kids, in general, like to learn. And part of liking to learn is identifying holes in one's education and filling them in. I taught myself to write cursive because I went to two different schools for third grade, and each of those schools taught cursive during the time of the year I wasn't there. I can guarantee that I spend a lot more time writing in cursive (in my journals, in long-hand rough drafts I've written, etc.) than anyone in my classes who didn't experience those gaps.

Acceleration remains one of the best ways to challenge gifted students to the extent of their abilities, particularly in districts that are not going to create self-contained gifted programs. Any district can do it, and it requires no extra funding. Indeed, as the original letter writer must have pointed out, it saves money.

Though, apparently, the parent writing the "giant holes" letter didn't like that line of reasoning either. "Why in the world would you want a child to rush through the fun and joys of childhood just to save a little money?" she writes. "What do you think happens to a kid who is a couple of years younger than everyone else at college? Do you think they would have a normal college experience and any friends or relationships?" Having known a few people like this, I would say that the answer is largely yes. And if you're bored to tears in school, you're probably quite willing to rush through the "fun and joys of childhood" too.

Acceleration isn't for all gifted kids. But it can work for far more of them than are ever given the chance to try. Rather than worry about "giant holes" in their education, we should be worrying about the giant holes in their spirits created by a lack of challenge in grade-level classes.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm on both sides of this argument.

I started early and skipped a grade, and it was definitely the right thing for me (especially given that the small school I went to had no program for gifted students). I also took only 3 years for my B.S. degree, and finally found a comfortable level of education in grad school.

My son, who is at least as bright, has not been skipped at all. Not for fear of "gaps", but so that he could spend more of his time on things he enjoys (acting, reading, science fair, computer programming, math, designing new languages, robotics, ...) and less on school.
He has had some subject-specific acceleration in math, science, and Spanish, but no whole-grade acceleration.

Finding the right way to challenge and educate an extremely bright youngster is tough, and has to be done on a case-by-case basis. Acceleration (or, as I prefer to call it, placement-by-achievement) is certainly one approach that should be considered. It is, indeed the cheapest approach, so should be doubly attractive to financially strapped schools.

Anonymous said...

I think I've become a huge fan of single-subject acceleration, after seeing it work so well for my son. But I also think that children are different, their needs are different, and that all avenues should be open.

Early on, our school district refused to allow ss-acceleration. Giving us the only option of whole-grade acceleration, we decided to decline. He was an anxious kid and we just felt that would increase his anxiety level. He wasn't ready for the social shark tank of middle school any earlier than his calendar year. Luckily, he had teachers who, in partnership with us, figured out a patchwork that somewhat served his needs for math enrichment. It was far from perfect, but it was something.

Now, at 13, I think that was the right decision. He has relaxed and he has the best peer group--friends who accept him as he is. He has learned how to tease and to be teased (no small feat for him). He is happy socially and incredibly well-adjusted. I think those skills will serve him as well in life as any academic class.

This year his situation was improved when our middle school principal figured out how to bend the district's rules and get him accelerated one year in math. We're asking for a second year of acceleration for this next school year. We'll see if that can happen, but even if it doesn't, overall this situation works well for him than to be in high school now.

Academically he could easily handle it; but the social benefits outweigh the academic ones over the course of his life. He loves his friends, he goes to dances and football games and social events at school. He's just so happy. Sometimes we marvel that it's the same formerly-anxious kid.

Bostonian said...

The initial letter by Matthew Boyle "Save money, let gifted students skip grades" is at . It makes sense to me.

Mom2two said...

I can only speak for my DS10's experience when he was whole grade accelerated from 1st to 3rd grade. The educators in our meeting who discussed his test results and placement were concerned about any gaps in his learning. He had already been subject accelerated that year in ELA so their main concern was math and science. They gave me the materials needed to teach those subjects during the summer. I did work with him, but found that he already knew pretty much all of this material with the exception of a few math vocab words and the experience of watching various insects in their stages of development was fascinating for him. My son loves to learn, reads voraciously and if he wasn't whole grade acclerated he would have languished in 2nd grade.

Mick said...

From my own experiences (a few fleeting opportunities to radically accelerate), I found true peers with those several years older than me. At 8, I was allowed to join the middle school gifted program, and I met several students interested in the same books as me and who enjoyed discussing politics and new developments in science. When the new principal sent me back to my age-based grade, I found that I had very little in common with the other students and that most of them thought of me as odd or just stared at me when I spoke.

As for gaps, I am currently pursuing a graduate degree in a subject with which I've had very little formal training. Yes, there have been gaps; however, I am eager to fill these gaps on my own and through working with my professors in my area. My passion has made it enjoyable to fill such gaps, and it will help me with my research in the future. I think this is generally true for most people who excel at something and have the motivation to do it on their own--especially if it occurs at an early enough stage that the gaps are easily filled (such as elementary school or middle school). Better to have those gaps than abandon a passion out of boredom!

Anonymous said...

Acceleration doesn't necessarily work for everyone, but it should be an option. There should also be other options. Kids can have a high academic need and a lower social or other need, or they can be 2E and enough behind in one area (such as writing, or social) that a skip is not possible. I'd hate for acceleration to be the only option, but even more it's bad when it is not allowed as an option.

Kelli said...

I agree it is an option that works for many, but school districts need to provide a free education that allows all students to reach their full potential. Many gifted students have their own "disabilities". Peer acceptance, relationships, and social behaviors are often hard enough when you are with a group of peers your own age. Many gifted students would fall further victim to bullying and harassment when placed with older students. Because they cannot handle it socially, should they be forced to be in a classroom without gifted education?

kimbol said...

"Many gifted students would fall further victim to bullying and harassment when placed with older students."

I'm not convinced that's the correct placement for that argument. I was not accelerated, and I was the scapegoat of my year in 7th, 8th, and into 9th grade. I was very different (in all sorts of ways), and so was the prime bullying target of that cohort.
On the other hand, I did have classmates in high school who *were* accelerated - one two years'-worth - and we interacted with these younger kids as if they were the same as us. As indeed they largely were :).
Anecdotal evidence is, of course, not as strong as research data. And I no longer recall the details in _A Nation Deceived_ (the research paper about acceleration released in 2001, I think?). But what little I recall is that harassment is one of those perceived risks that turn out not to occur as frequently or strongly as has been believed.

Anonymous said...

I cannot remember who said this, but the basic premise of their argument in favor of skipping was "in an education system, grouping students by age makes about as much sense as grouping them by height."