Having It Easy Ain't Easy: Sidebar on Birds of a Feather

>> Monday, December 13, 2010

Over my last two posts on this subject (here and here), two different people brought up putting gifted children among their peers, where their differences are not so marked and where they could conceivably develop social skills among less stratified peers. One noted it with clear approval (if not obligation on the part of the parent to ensure gifted children are surrounded by similar peers), the other more in the terms of a question so good I'm posting it here:

One question I read into your post is whether it is more important (1) to bring up children in such groups that will minimize "being different" so that they may develop social skills in a friendlier (less bullying) environment or (2) to allow a more diverse environment so as to force them to learn that it's acceptable to be independent, to be who they really are rather than who they think the crowd wants them to be. Should they pursue path one while young and vulnerable and then slowly attempt path two only after they've developed strong social skills and can withstand the blowback from expressing their real differences?

What's the answer? I don't know. Nor am I readily convinced there is one good answer. But, I can tell you what I learned going from town to town, living in small districts and large districts, with strong gifted and talent programs and none to speak of as well as what I learned when I went to college.

One caveat is that I can only discuss this subject with regards to US schools. In an environment (such as found in certain European and Asian school systems) where being bright is socially acceptable, if not prized, much of this may not be the same.

First, from an academic standpoint, gifted and talent programs are almost essential (if not just plain essential) to not discourage or squelch the potential of an extraordinary mind. Dragging along a bright mind that "gets it" immediately, at a pace convenient for the lowest common denominator is good way to discourage any interest in learning or school. Bright children readily become disruptive influences, bored, desperate for diversion and other more dangerous mischief if they don't have adequate constructive activity.

Stratification allows different paces so that a teacher isn't forced to either drag those less adept along a pace they can't match, bore the bright students nearly to tears, or try to teach two or more paces concurrently in the same class (and, yes, teachers try this). Do note that yanking a struggling child forward at a pace they can't possible match isn't any less discouraging than bogging down the pace for bright mind. It's not just pace either. Many of the methods that work best for children who don't necessarily understand the concepts (repetition, memorization, formulaic teaching) are counterproductive to very bright children, either providing useless make work or failing to spark any mental stimulation.

Stratification is challenging, however, for smaller schools and earlier grades given the unforgiving fiscal realities (which will continue as long as local, state and federal governments continue to regard a viable education as a "nice-to-have"). The smaller the pool, the less gradation you can put between classes and the more the brightest or slowest have to work outside their given path. Given that being bright doesn't always reflect ability in all subjects, grade school classes (where all subjects are frequently taught in the same classroom) stratification can be more challenging when math brains with backwards verbal/writing skills end up in the same classrooms of brilliantly articulate children who can't visualize math easily.

This is one of the conundrums pertinent to Mike's question. Putting bright children together early in their social development when all the children are learning mostly academically and the same curriculum has a great deal to recommend it. It's just harder to do given the limitations in the student pool size and the challenges inherent in the fact that all bright children aren't created the same.

Another problem is that identifying a bright gifted and talented child isn't a black and white business and early testing may not identify a mind that catches up and sprints forward at a little later date. Too frequently, an early test determines placement for an entire gradeschool career, leaving a mind that "gets it" long discouraged and anti-school by the time they graduate (with the same social issues discussed in earlier posts). But another part of the problem is just the reliance on tests to decide.

At a higher level (middle/high school), stratification is easier with a larger pool of students and more specialization (i.e. math genius isn't forced into highest level English classes etc.), but social awkwardness may already be deeply entrenched and the academic stratification has to compete with other forms of stratification, including wealth, race, beauty, interests, athletics, etc.

Still, with all those challenges, I think stratification is still a good thing for most gifted children (and less gifted children as well) at as many levels as possible, but for academic reasons more than anything else.

However, I'm less convinced it's always better from a social standpoint. Here's why.

Gifted does not mean identical or compatible. Among the gifted, you might find creative geniuses, math savants, logical experts and people who can retain and regurgitate anything they've been given, and to varying degrees from the somewhat quicker than average to the "that ain't human" levels. That makes for a wildly divergent mix of personalities and talents and doesn't assure anyone is "normal" or has a potential friend readily identifiable. In my own experience, I found my own way of thinking outside the norm, whether it was the five student superclass in the tiny town in Maryland or the thirty student college-bound seniors at the largest high school in Nevada.

Being the top of the latter class, yet thinking differently than most of the others who seemed to generally have more "standard" smartness made me feel more of an outsider than ever, even though I was a favorite of teachers (or perhaps because). I was also poor, articulate, proud of my brains, sarcastic, and responsible. I was backward socially and I found my bright peers were no more tolerant of it than any other group I'd ever known. In fact, I was loathed far more in my G&T classes than the classes I took that were with general students (Driver's Ed, Spanish, World History, Health), possibly because those interactions had more to do with personality than brains and partially because sarcasm and stylelessness apply to more than brainiacs. I actually found myself most socially accepted in the ROTC crowd, which is ironic given how little interest I've ever had in the armed services. But they were friendly and nonjudgmental.

Competition. As much as kids don't like the "smart" kid in class, most kids aren't personally offended by it. They know they have other interests, other strengths. However, make it a class of nothing but people who see intelligence as their bailiwick, and the competition can get very ugly, very quickly. This can become more pronounced when children, used to setting the curve find themselves in an environment where they are barely competing at all or when there is still a bright frontrunner standing head and shoulders above the rest. The front runner can be socially brutalized (particularly if they think in ways that are outside the norm the others have), but it can also be demoralizing for those that are no longer at the top. When they were teased and made fun of by "regular" kids, they at least had something they excelled at. Now, they aren't even the best at that . . .

I saw this in college a great deal. I had the highest level of academic scholarship (limited to 15) at my university and most of the other recipients were very bright, very talented, with far more other scholarships as well. Of the other ones I knew personally for more than a year (three of them), one flunked out, and two lost their scholarships and changed to easier majors. The one that flunked out even told me I was directly responsible for her flunking out (GPA 1.2 the semester we were roommates) - she "couldn't compete." (Utter nonsense.) Part of that was, naturally, being under the tight control of someone else's discipline instead of developing your own. Part of that was that they weren't prepared for things to be actually challenging instead of as easy as it had always been. Part of that is that, with no one to tell them what to do, they started doing "fun" diversionary things they'd never had the chance to do before (and it took over their lives or at least enough of their lives they couldn't do the work). Part of it was that, when things started to go south, they had no internal mechanism to deal with it. They had no idea what to do or how to recover once they started failing. So they gave up.

Subgroup biases against visible brilliance. There are certain subgroups where you have a "built-in" social group where being visibly academically brilliant is an anathema. Girls are one; it's not a coincidence that I still number more male friends than female friends. I wish that last statement wasn't true more than you would believe and I saw it less than many because I was fortunate that all of my teachers were passionately pro-smart women (as was my father, even if he didn't always express it well). I have heard stories from others that this can be true of other minority groups like blacks and Latinos. Some subgroups venerate intelligence and academic prowess in the opposite manner, like the Vietnamese community of my friend Phuong Nga. But it means that putting bright kids in classes of their peers doesn't entirely insulate them from social bullying and the like. And not just from the community.

In such an environment, being bright anyway (in a visible manner) has social consequences also in the expectations of others outside that community. In many areas of this country, people will assume black children, for instance really aren't that bright. That kind of thinking flavors their willingness to teach a brilliant child to his potential, but also, in those children who excel anyway, tends to allow people to regard those bright black children with suspicion. For women, it can be equally marked and more socially acceptable to make those kinds of sweeping patronizing assumptions. Several of my engineering coworkers (female) had stories of teachers that literally asked them what a "pretty little thing like you is doing in an engineering class like this." That didn't happen to me, but in college, I could scare guys away in a heartbeat. I just had to tell them my major (Engineering Physics). (That didn't happen in high school, probably because most people already knew who I was and just didn't approach. I was a pretty girl, too.) Ironically, because of my own social backwardness, the men who didn't run screaming as I approached generally ended up friends either because I was too dense to notice advances or they were too cautious in approaching me. Or because we were just better friends.

For many, just this kind of repercussion is more than reason enough to hide one's intelligence. I accepted (2nd grade) being ostracized and took it as a given. I can literally remember the moment when I decided I wasn't going to be less than myself for anyone and accept the consequences. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm guessing that kind of resolve and acceptance is unusual.

It has another consequence. When you are resigned to ostracism, you are also very grateful for anyone who doesn't care you're bright. Sometimes, too grateful and too accepting, even if that attention is self-serving, using, or otherwise destructive. I've got a whole marriage to prove it. But that's another story.

Grouping social misfits together doesn't make them adept. Socially stunted people don't suddenly gain acumen by being grouped together. There's something to be said for like minds and not feeling alone (provided that's the reaction of your particular gifted individual in a group of other gifted children), but it doesn't mean that it solves all the problems. It may even emphasize and reinforce some notions and antisocial tendencies which might be most prevalent like individual pursuits, strictly electronic socializing or considering those that aren't bright the same way "lesser beings." Which is one reason why MENSA has never held any interest for me.

Reinforcing intellectualism to the exclusion of all else. What do Math Club students do when they throw a party? Go bowling? Well, if they're smart, they might. Too much time in front of a computer screen (guilty!) and the solution to everything is on the internet. Books, games, friends, social interaction, shopping, entertainment. When I was going to school, I was supposed to take four years each of English, math, science, history, foreign language. And do the required classes, a quick glance will show you that doesn't leave much time for something fun or creative or entertaining or inspiring like art or choir or drama, speech. I love to sing, but I never sang in class until college and even there I had to take it for no credit hours because my calendar was already full. Other interests, besides just books and school, are healthy and not just for the body. Burn out is a real risk when all you think life is a series of word problems or you never come outside of the work and the artificial worlds other people have created. It's hard to find something passionate about your life if you're just working and not living.

I think it also tends to focus people on what they do as a definition of who they are instead of, well, who they are. I'm an engineer or a writer or a pick-your-label-here. I get a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and crochet a few baby blankets for friends, and I might start to realize I have more going for me than just my brain. And, once I see myself as a three dimensional person, others might as well.

Real world isn't stratified. I mean, it can be if you're a research physicist or something, but most people living in communities that have a mixture of all types of people. Either you will have no friends (except on line) or you will have to learn to learn to interact usefully with people of all intellectual levels. Going through school without understanding that can lead to a very jarring realization after the fact.

I'm not sure if that's all of it. It might be. It's long enough for today and just gives you some perspective, hopefully, on why I don't think the question or the answer is black and white.

My husband, who doesn't have a high school diploma but still routinely gets 20 points higher on IQ tests, wanted me to add two things.

The problem won't go away until society as a whole stops vilifying people for being bright, being expert and thoughtful. As long as the suspicion of all things unfathomable is part and parcel (and that plays into teachers and parents, too) of society, bright kids will always have a tough road.

The second part is that the US emphasis on measurable metrics (i.e. testing) will continue to marginalize and adversely affect those that think in original ways. School will continue to bore the pants off children at every level unless their intellects are challenged and that means more than teaching kids to take tests. That means teaching critical thinking and fostering creativity and imagination.


  • Project Savior

    Great Post.
    One thing that some teachers did (very few) was to break the class up into random groups, different students in the groups each week. I excelled in the classes where that happened. It allows the bright students to interact socially and help those that are struggling. By the end of the semester we all knew each others strengths and would point them out when projects were assigned.

  • Stephanie Barr

    You know, that sounds like a clever idea.

  • Jeff King

    Thx for the lesson… I really do learn a lot from your post.

    I am left with one response, keep more coming.

  • David

    Thank you for directing me here...this was fascinating. Just speaking for myself, what would have made a difference for me, growing up, would have been socializing with other children who shared my literature/music interests. I don't think either of those interests has anything to do with intelligence per se; but they were -- and are -- the things that are important to me. I'd rather have known that there were other people my age who shared those passions than been put together with other "smart" kids ... which I was, in Talented and Gifted programs, and I hated it. As you point out, even in groups of smart kids, there's still a front-runner, and I was usually that kid, which made even the "smart kid" groups difficult for me, socially speaking.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I had a feeling we had some similar experiences, David.

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