Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who's in and who's out

The Davidson Institute sends me a list of headlines related to gifted education each week. I’ve been keeping this blog for almost 10 years, so I see a lot of headlines. And over the years, I’ve noticed something about these articles. So much of the literature on gifted education is about who’s in and who’s out.

Perhaps it’s about the demographic make-up of who’s in and who’s out. Perhaps it’s about a cut-off on a test. Perhaps it’s about a district that has a gifted program, but doesn’t have enough seats for all who qualify so selection is done by lottery (kind of a bizarre approach in general -- how about adding more seats??) Maybe a district is re-evaluating how it chooses children for gifted programs. That may be a worthy endeavor, especially if the new approach is to screen all children, rather than just those whose parents ask. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the popular imagination, gifted education is all about selection.

Once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing.

But of course, that’s not the case at all. Children can be accepted into a gifted program, and then have absolutely nothing change whatsoever except for a few minutes weekly of a half-hearted “pull out.” (Or an even more half-hearted claim that the curriculum is being enriched for everyone). Even a self-contained gifted class could be taught badly, or not taught at a level that is helpful for the top end of the curve within the class (or the bottom end, I suppose). Acceleration is generally a great idea, but in a worst case scenario, the work isn’t actually more challenging, or the child’s area of greatest need for acceleration still isn’t met.

I really wish there was more focus on what actually happens once someone is identified as gifted. What does a good, accelerated curriculum look like? How do gifted kids learn differently? When work is truly challenging, children struggle -- and that’s a good thing. It’s a wonderful confidence boost to throw yourself into something difficult and find you are making progress.

When the conversation is all about who’s in and who’s out, then giftedness is just a label -- a gold star of worthiness that other people naturally resent. And so article after article talks about districts modifying their programs to keep some people from being in and some people from being out, because while that’s fine for varsity baseball, it isn’t for academics. It’s as if all the coverage on the baseball season was on team selection, rather than how the team plays.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

New methods of school discipline - and how it might affect gifted kids

My friend Katherine Reynolds Lewis has a lengthy story in Mother Jones magazine this month called "What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?" Over the past two years, she visited schools and juvenile justice facilities implementing the theories of psychologist Ross Green. The idea is that reacting to an out-of-control child in anger, and implementing negative consequences, escalates the situation and increases the chances of trouble later on. Children who are punished come to view teachers and principals as enemies. They don't want to be in school. Children who are suspended become less engaged in school over time (naturally) and often wind up dropping out, and often wind up in trouble with the law as well.

The best approach, Lewis argues, is to help children develop the ability to control themselves. Executive function has to be developed over time. We can train ourselves, and children, to develop this function. The children who act out most often have the least developed executive function, so punishing them for outbreaks is like punishing someone for a bad grade on a test. It's one approach, but a more effective one is to change strategies and practice learning the material again.

A key component of all this is discussing with the child what the problem is, and then coming up with solutions for solving that problem. A child who starts throwing chairs when angry can decide that when he gets that feeling again, he can retreat to a safe space somewhere (like a counselor's office) and have some alone time. Yes, having a child rush out of the class might be distracting, but less so than if the same child throws the furniture. And over time, the child will likely learn to calm himself down without viewing the classroom as a hostile place.

At least that's the theory. Unlike many educational theories, this one has some backing in numbers. In schools that try these programs, suspensions decline. In juvenile justice centers that try it, incidents where children are restrained decline, and there are fewer repeat offenders.

So what's the implication for gifted kids? Contrary to popular opinion, gifted kids aren't always the golden children in school. Many act out because they get bored, or they feel misunderstood. A positive discipline approach might involve talking with the child about what the problem is and brainstorming other solutions. Perhaps the student might decide that she wants to read when bored, or get a chance to do a computer game she likes. Having a child do something different when she recognizes a problem brewing requires a lot of wisdom from a teacher. The teacher has to trust that she can still control the class even if a child is implementing her own solution. But experienced teachers can likely do that, and the long term gain is often worth it. Indeed, there are often short term gains. An outbreak disturbs the entire class and derails a lesson. A quiet departure, or a child reading at her desk, does not.