During our morning walk today, I raised a question to my thought-partner and most trusted advisor, Charles:
“Wouldn’t it make all the more sense to allow ‘gifted’ children to direct their own learning?”
After all, most people agree without much dissention that Albert Einstein was a genius yet he didn’t like school and by some accounts his teachers were not too impressed with his learning abilities. But my question arose because of something more direct and immediate in my life: S and J’s school and our family’s experiences there.
As I wrote in a previous post, I had my own reservations about a school for gifted children to begin with, but Charles and I chose the school because of its putative educational philosophy: “children first, gifted second.” However, after having experienced this school for gifted children where S and J spent their first seven years of schooling, I have gained a much better understanding of not only S and J’s school in particular, but also of gifted children and private school education in general.
My question this morning was sparked by what I read about S and J’s new Head of School. When I researched him in Google, I found his welcome letter of sorts to visitors of his current school’s web site. When I read it, the following passage jumped out at me:
“Some may question why gifted students need their own distinct academic program. My own experience in working with high ability learners over the past three decades has clearly led me to understand that gifted students need a faster pace, deeper and richer content, and a peer group that shares their passion for learning. Without this, many gifted students will never reach their true potential.”
How interesting! This was what Charles and I suspected when we were looking into what kind of education would best suit our daughters as they reached pre-Kindergarten age, and what their school told us as well. We believed them. However, this statement by an educational expert based on his own experience does not match my own observation and learning of my children’s progress in their experience at a school for gifted children.
For one thing, although S and J, as well as their classmates have gone through the school application process to be identified as “gifted children,” at least by the admission standards used by their school, I did not find that they learn at the same rate, that they are interested in the same content or subject matter, or that they all share the same passion for learning.
Quite the contrary, I saw the same bullies and bullied at this school that may be found in any other public or private schools, and I saw children who were pressured to learn but did not love learning. S and J have frequently met opposition and ridicule from fellow students for using sophisticated words and the rich vocabulary which they have accumulated over the years from exercising their passion of reading and learning new words. Even at the beginning of the year they witnessed two boys being teased by bullies because they got 100% on their Spanish test.
I was fascinated when Charles responded to my outloud musing by saying, “It’s funny you ask that question.” And then he told me about a snippet of Billy Moyer’s interview in 1988 with Isaac Asimov, which he spotted when it came to his attention through Free Range Learning’s Facebook page:
Isaac Asimov: “Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you… can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time… Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.”
Bill Moyers: “But what about the argument that machines, computers, dehumanize learning?”
Isaac Asimov: “As a matter of fact, it’s just the reverse. It seems to me that, through this machine, for the first time we’ll be able to have a one-to-one relationship between information source and information consumer.”
First of all, I was amazed that Isaac Asimov foresaw the Information Age almost a quarter century ago and told Bill Moyers what would actually happen just as it is happening today. These days anyone, including children, can use Internet search engines such as Google and Bing to ask any question and find answers. In fact, without being concerned about what others (including teachers, students, co-workers, family, etc.) may think of me if I asked a certain question, I can look up and get answers to anything, anytime, anywhere I want, literally at my fingertips.
But what fascinates me the most is what Isaac Asimov said about learning what YOU are interested in, in your own home (or wherever you are for that matter as long as there is a computer connected to the Internet), at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time! What he envisioned is absolutely possible today. In fact, more than possible, it is happening today. For instance, when S and J do not understand a new word they come across in reading any material they choose, they look it up via an embedded software tool without the interruption that used to occur when Charles and I were learning at their age: we had to stop and look up new words in a paper dictionary!
S and J have been telling us, especially this year, that they are bored at school. Charles and I have noticed that they are not being challenged academically. Now I can clearly understand why they are bored. As Issac Asimov diagnosed and articulated nearly twenty-five years ago when he told Bill Moyers: “Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.” I wouldn’t doubt that he was speaking from his own teaching experience as professor of biochemistry at Boston University.
That’s right. Gifted or not, every child is different, just as every adult is. We are all different, which means we all learn differently, too. We are interested in different things at different times in our lives. Yet, we force learning on our children to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. No wonder S and J tell us they are bored in school. Especially nowadays when we, as a society, have the abundant technical ability to allow learning to be enjoyable by all children.
What excuses do I or Charles have for not allowing our daughters to learn what they are interested in, where they want to learn, at their own speed, in their own direction, in their own time?
What would Issac Asimov say about our outdated mode of education if he were alive today?
Why should education be so expensive, competitive, and ineffective with such low rate of return (considering the number of years and financial resources we invest in education) in our post-industrial, Information Age?
Here I go again, and I remind myself of Rilke’s admonition:
“I beg you … to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms … Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”