Friday, August 6, 2010

Gifted and Talented?

Proponents of "gifted and talented" programs often tend to sound like they represent an oppressed minority. While they say that they don't deny the need for "remedial" programing for struggling students, you might hear the occasional lament that "gifted" kids are being given short shrift. On the other side, you see what seems almost like a mad panic at the news, especially here in Maine, about lagging literacy and numeracy among students. This justifies beefing up the low end of education, so to speak. And what about the "middle class" of students, those who do their homework, make average grades, neither the best students nor the worst? Don't they deserve special attention (and funding) as well? And round we go.

It is my contention that science has led us beyond the point where the various views of this issue are even relevant. We have to redefine the issues completely, given what we know now about talent development -- and our new friend and great equalizer, myelin. Myelin, that wonderful insulator of our neurons, that wraps as we practice a skill, that strengthens our circuits, making them fire faster and better, resulting in what certainly looks like giftedness.

You know that old chestnut, "all children are gifted?" You either believe it, give it lip service because it sounds good, or you dismiss it, saying, "yeah, but what about Mozart?" Big news: Mozart's genius has been debunked. He was great, yes. The fact that he had the best violin teacher in history for a father -- did that have anything to do with it? Mozart spent his very earliest years "deep practicing" and according to the commonly-accepted formula that 10,000 hours of deep practicing equals mastery, it's no wonder he is known as a unequaled genius at a very early age.

Are all children gifted? As we currently define the word, certainly not. But giftedness does not strike like lightning some lucky individuals. Talent is developed because of very specific neurological functions. (I've heard parents say they "just know" their kids were born gifted. I have not the background nor desire to argue with this. My ideas about talent development mean we find and nurture it in each child, and I don't make an exception for those whose "giftedness" has been obvious to their parents from birth. They count, too.) Nor is giftedness passed from parent to child like blue eyes or left-handedness. Giftedness is grown, and everyone has the equipment to grow it.

Once we comprehend the research breakthrough which has told us that we are all born with an equal ability to grow and wrap myelin through deep practice, we reach a crossroads. If we do the right thing, we abandon all gifted and talented programming, and make our entire school systems into talent development centers. How can we accept taxpayer dollars under any other circumstances? How can we in good conscience advance the educational opportunities for those children who have already developed a talent, leaving behind those who have the same potential but have not, for whatever reason, developed it?

We might think that "talent development" and "talent education" is somewhat beside the point in a discussion of public education. Talent applies to music, dance, theater, sports: those "extras" in the education curriculum, right? What if I told you that the brain of Einstein contained nice, fat, well-wrapped neurons indicating a lifetime of deep practice?

It's not just for "extras," if the arts should be given such a heinous appelation. It's for everything. Writing, reading, mathematics, science. Everything that we as a society believe deserve more money and attention, and everything that doesn't. In short, great achievement in any area involves deep practice. But do our great educators understand what it is? Do they understand the conditions in which it thrives? Do we give students the opportunity to discover it in their daily lives at school?

We have to consider what "deep practice" actually means in action, and then consider what it looks like in our public schools right now -- indeed, if it exists at all. Deep practice takes place when anyone, of any age, in any area of study, pushes themselves to the very edge of their capabilities. If you've ever watched your child struggle in a class full of older students -- I've seen it when my daughter advanced to the next level of ballet skill, surrounded by kids who've been at that level for a year, or when my son moved into the teen fencing class -- you have noticed that if they can cope with the struggle, they learn fast and well. My daughter came to me after one of her first classes at the next ballet level, laughing, "I didn't know what I was doing half the time." Ah, watch that myelin wrap! Or my son: "How were your bouts?" "Oh, lost them all, but it was great." Not that my kids always react well to the struggle of deep practice. Like everyone else, it often results in frustration, even tears. In public schools right now, I don't believe we have the proper understanding of that struggle. The kids don't like it, the teachers don't have the resources to cope with it. The myelin sits still, lonely and ignored.

What are the conditions in which deep practice can take place? You can't just assign a teacher to a class and get them to do it. For a student to go through that struggle, they need a lot of motivation. It's often called the trigger, or ignition, or spark. Something has clicked in a student's mind. They see someone doing something that looks incredibly cool and impossibly hard, and something has led them to think, "I can do that, too." But the spark isn't enough -- it doesn't happen without master coaching. Once a kid has caught the fever of motivation, a teacher has to understand the special techniques that can foster the kind of practice that works. Then we have to create the conditions optimal for deep practice to take place.

The model of public schooling needs to change in order to foster this kind of education. But what of it? The model needs to change anyway.

Stay tuned to The Minds of Kids for more stuff like this. Please argue and yell and throw chairs at me for my audacity. As Julia Roberts said in Mona Lisa Smile, "You're not required to like it. You are required to consider it."

1 comment:

  1. I agree that arts is the foundation. What we need most is innovation, and that requires creativity, and creativity is, at its most fundamental, the practice of art. For all of us, pretend play, blocks and clay and other manipulatives, drawing and singing and movement are the means for creative tinkering. How can we do this deeply? With time to go at our own pace, with solitude, silence, and time enough (without a bell ringing) when we need it, with people and group energy and collectivity when we need that. That's what schools should be trying to provide, IMO.