Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Topic Close to My Heart

Time recently had a cover story on child geniuses and the problems they face in school. As one of those kids who never struggled in school, never felt challenged, and never felt like I fit in, I have a first-hand account of what life is like for people like this.

AS A CULTURE, WE FEEL DEEPLY ambiguous about genius. We venerate Einstein, but there is no more detested creature than the know-it-all. In one 1996 study from Gifted Education Press Quarterly, 3,514 high school students were asked whether they would rather be the best-looking, smartest or most athletic kids. A solid 54% wanted to be smartest (37% wanted to be most athletic, and 9% wanted to be best looking). But only 0.3% said the reason to be smartest was to gain popularity. We like athletic prodigies like Tiger Woods or young Academy Award winners like Anna Paquin. But the mercurial, aloof, annoying nerd has been a trope of our culture, from Bartleby the Scrivener to the dorky PC guy in the Apple ads. Intellectual precocity fascinates but repels.

I loved learning, but I hated school. I convinced my high school administrators to let me graduate a year early, but even that was a joke. I could have easily had a college degree by then if I had been given the chance. Interestingly, the article noted a study that showed that kids allowed to skip grades do not suffer socially as has long been thought. In fact, they turn out better than those who are not permitted to skip ahead.

Gael, a math teacher, began to research giftedness and found that high-IQ kids can become isolated adults. "They end up often as depressed adults ... who don't have friends or who find it difficult to function," she says. Actually, research shows that gifted kids given appropriately challenging environments--even when that means being placed in classes of much older students--usually turn out fine. At the University of New South Wales, Gross conducted a longitudinal study of 60 Australians who scored at least 160 on IQ tests beginning in the late '80s. Today most of the 33 students who were not allowed to skip grades have jaded views of education, and at least three are dropouts. "These young people find it very difficult to sustain friendships because, having been to a large extent socially isolated at school, they have had much less practice ... in developing and maintaining social relationships," Gross has written. "A number have had counseling. Two have been treated for severe depression." By contrast, the 17 kids who were able to skip at least three grades have mostly received Ph.D.s, and all have good friends.

The biggest problem our schools have is that they don't teach to individuals; they teach to the mass in the middle. No Child Left Behind only exacerbates this. What is needed, and what I envision in the school I want to open some day, is an individual curriculum based on each child's talents and desires. That is the only way to ensure each child can develop their full potential whether they are a genius or not.

UPDATE: Fixed formatting.


FoxyShawna said...

Listening to talk, I find myself frequently wondering what it would be like to hold all that knowledge you have. To be able to hold all that you do baffles me.

I did get the good looks and the cuteness which get me bye (haha) but I think I would like to switch that for brains. (that doesn't sound good)

I don't know what I would ever do with out my brainy brother.

Captain Noble said...

Yeah, who else are you going to find to let you comment on their dorkiness and poor fashion sense.

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