Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Joy of Information (plus Davidson Fellows announcement)

Plenty of folks are going back to school this week and next and the week after Labor Day. In my home, both my boys are starting new preschools this fall. My almost 2-year-old will be going two days a week. This will be quite an adventure for all of us.

It's also, if you think about it, an amazing privilege. We have so much access to education and information here in the United States. Right here on my computer I can read all kinds of books in the public domain. For a few bucks, I can download most others to my Kindle and start reading them in a minute. I can watch Khan Academy videos or listen to amazing classical works on Pandora. Kids can go to free public schools, and even if they're not wonderful, they exist, up to the high school level, for every kid in the country. That's more than many nations can say.

Can you imagine not having any of this? Can you imagine that, if you wanted to know Abraham Lincoln's birthday (to take one absolutely random example), you wouldn't just be able to figure it out? You'd have to ask around, and people might or might not know. Imagine having to walk a whole day to the next town to make a phone call to someone who might know the answer to a town engineering problem. It's funny that we make such a big deal about back to school sales, and what the kids will be wearing, and seldom stop to think about how amazing it is that we can tap in, so quickly, to much of human knowledge. It's something to be grateful for, even as we try to change our schools to best serve our kids.

On another note: The Davidson Institute has just announced this year's Davidson Fellows! These $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 awards go to young people who've done groundbreaking work in math, science, literature, the arts, and other categories. For profiles of this year's winners, read the announcement here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Historical Perspective on Skipping Grades

Close to 9 years ago, I wrote a column for USA Today called "Some Can Sail Over High School." The piece dealt with the phenomenon of early college enrollment, and suggested that it was a good idea for gifted kids. That was actually the column that led to my working with Jan and Bob Davidson on Genius Denied!

So I was fascinated to learn recently that my grandfather didn't go to high school, but did go to college. The story is a little less tidy than in these modern days of early college programs. He'd left school after 8th grade to work -- a far more common phenomenon in years past than now (and something I remember when someone extols the virtues of small scale farming. Sure it's fun to grow your own tomatoes, but small scale farming consumed a massive amount of human capital and potential before our economy became more specialized). But his minister saw that he was extremely bright, and tutored him. As a result, he was able to go to college and later to seminary to become a minister.

I wonder how many other stories there are like that? I was recently reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book is full of tales of people who are incredibly successful in business, despite not having more than (say) a 6th grade education. Plenty of smart people used to be forced to leave school for economic reasons, and had to learn on their own.

Now, one wonders, has the pendulum swung the other way? We force children to stay in school in lockstep for a certain number of years -- whether they're getting anything out of it or not. Skipping grades is a good way to zoom along to a point in school where one is actually challenged. It's fascinating to see that that is what happened with my grandfather -- even if the circumstances aren't so rosy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Services, Not Labels

Many districts, faced with budget shortfalls, are trimming their gifted programs. So I was encouraged to see an article from Wisconsin's State Journal highlighting a new program in the Madison School District. A group of parents had filed a complaint with the state that the district was not upholding various education laws requiring identification and services for gifted students. As the article puts it, "The district also has historically blanched at grouping students by ability."

It's too soon to see what the effect will be. The idea is that there will be a lot more grouping by ability, with gifted education treated somewhat more like special education. Children with the most profound needs that can't be met in a traditional classroom will get services outside the classroom, and grade acceleration will be an option. All sounds good.

But what I liked most was this line: "Sue Schaar, the district’s new talented-and-gifted program coordinator, said the new program differs from past practice by focusing on services, rather than labeling students."

This is what gifted education, ideally, comes down to. Over the years I've started to think that much of the resistance to the idea of gifted education in general stems from this word "gifted" or the phrase "gifted and talented" -- which implies that some kids are somehow better than others, even if this is not the intention. We're prone to many euphemisms in education (like "special education") and the word "gifted" is yet another in a long list. But the word just doesn't matter. You can call it something neutral, or even negative if necessary. The point is that children will have their educational needs met, and will be challenged to the extent of their abilities, ideally in an environment with their intellectual peers. Services, not labels. The only reason for the label is to get the services. If there would be some way to downplay the label, that would be great.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Khan Academy, and Learning by Mastery

I'm in the early stages of trying to write something about the Khan Academy. This online library of video tutorials on different subjects exists to break down much math, science, economics and other knowledge into discrete units. You go through at your own pace, and when you master a particular topic, move on.

So who is the target audience? This is where this all gets fascinating. It could be someone who discovers she needs algebra skills on the job... or someone in rural Morocco sitting at a library computer... or students in a US classroom whose teacher likes the Khan approach. Wired recently ran a story on school classrooms where advanced kids could move ahead at their own level, with the teacher checking where they were getting stuck, and answering questions.

There is much to like about individually-paced instruction, particularly the idea of moving on to new material as soon as you've mastered other concepts. So I'm curious if any Gifted Exchange readers have experience with Khan Academy tutorials, or if your children attend schools that use them.