Saturday, July 4, 2009

Homeschool and the Gifted Child

One of the greatest ways in which institutional education fails is in addressing the needs of unusually gifted students.

Several easy pieces of evidence:

Post-academic success rising with intelligence for a while, then peaks and falls.

Those of high IQ are actually underrepresented among Nobel Prize-winning scientists, who, on average, are merely at the low border of "highly gifted."

When those of very high intelligence are interviewed, the overwhelming reason becomes obvious. A large mismatch between ability and educational material causes future under performance.

The degree of mismatch depends upon the individual and the school. In some schools, a child with an IQ of 110 is far enough above the median that his needs will not be met. In others, a child with an IQ of 150 can be perfectly and fully accommodated and provided with a healthy ability-peer group.

Here, I am butchering the term "highly gifted," which generally means three standard deviations above the mean on an IQ test, to mean any child who is functioning at a level significantly above the average level of the educational institutions available to him. Why? It's shorter. So please bear with me.

Most of a school day, after Kindergarten, is ostensibly spent engaged in some sort of learning activity. A highly gifted child will be far enough beyond the level of his peers that he will not find any challenge in the material. In fact, much of the material will be not only trivial but familiar, gleaned from the child's life outside of the classroom.

As a result, the child will not learn how to study, how to master new material, how to take notes, how to tackle challenging ideas, how to work toward a goal, how to plan ahead, how to be consistent, or how to deal with difficulty and frustration. In fact, most frequently, even in "open-ended" assignments, any appearance of an unusual level of sophistication of thought is squashed by teachers who cannot even recognize it.

The child will not leave without some lessons, though. He will be instilled with a low threshold for frustration, a tendency to give up on anything requiring a commitment of work, a habit of perfectionism and underachievement, a refusal to risk failure, a terror of the unknown, and a complete inability to deal with intellectual challenge of any type. He becomes, in short, a lazy underachiever.

Does this sound like a future Nobel Prize winner to you?

Of course, school isn't just about academics. It's also about learning to get along with others. The highly gifted student learns a lot about others. He learns that they are stupid, that they make his classes boring, that they hold him back, that teamwork is a joke because means that he'll always have to do all the work since he always gets stuck with the dumb kids, that he will be hated for "breaking the curve" or being in any way exceptional, that he's a nerd, and that no one wants to play the games he wants to play or talk about the things he's interested in. He learns contempt. He learns impatience. He learns that he can use his intellect as a weapon to tear other people down.

Now we have an angry, bad-tempered lazy underachiever.

This is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception for kids who are markedly more intelligent than their group.

Good job, institutional school!

For many of these kids, it does not have to be this way. A simple self-contained gifted program from the youngest ages, with proper screening of all students, is sufficient to help a good portion of children who would otherwise be in the situation above. For more than 90% of the rest, a sensible combination of subject and grade skipping could create an appropriate environment.

But the very nature of institutional schools mean that there is a great resistance to these practical steps. They are "elitist." They are "anti-egalitarian."

Sure, they are. Just like letting kids wear shoes based on foot size, not age, is elitist and anti-egalitarian.

No, the real reason most schools oppose this kind of acceleration is that it breaks the rules. And it's true that institutional schools, when run badly, aren't really about education. They're not about socialization, either. They're about the rules.

How many times have you heard the statement that gifted kids need to "learn to be bored?"

Sure, they do. And they'll be bored like everyone else--on a long car trip, in line at the grocery store, waiting for their turn with a new toy. Why is it that administrators and teachers want us to believe that gifted kids should learn to be bored all the time? After all, an adult wouldn't stand for it. If he were bored at work all the time, he'd find a new job. Why should we put kids through something that no adult could be expected to stand for?

The reason is simple. The existence of highly gifted kids breaks the rules about what kids are supposed to be taught and when. And rule-breakers should be punished.

The typical institutional reaction to highly gifted kids, then, is punishment.

Think I'm overreacting? What is one supposed to do with a misbehaving child? Time out, of course. Boredom and isolation. It's the same, whether you have a pencil in your hand or not.

What does homeschool have to offer these kids?

First, in homeschool, a gifted kid--like any kid--can take each and every subject at his or her own level, whatever that may be. A perfectly average homeschooled kid might have a level-spread of three grades by middle school. A gifted kid might be doing algebra and first grade handwriting at the same time. There's nothing wrong with this. There is no magical need to make every class at the same level. An adult could be great at badminton and terrible in literature, but that doesn't keep him playing badminton with 9th graders. Neither should age and ability be synced in children.

Kids learn challenge. They learn to take risks. They learn to fail and to overcome failure. They have to think and even, yes, to take notes and to study. They learn success.

Just as important, the academic world and the social world become disconnected. The child never learns anger or resentment toward kids who don't happen to be as smart. He doesn't learn arrogance or contempt. Instead, he is free to approach each person on his or her own terms and to accept them as they are. The emotional minefield is gone, and instead, simple, open relationships can prevail.

But the child will have to give up have the virtue-building punishment of being bored six hours a day for thirteen years of his life.

Such a shame.


  1. Really insightful post. This describes pretty perfectly my own experience in school. I ended up leaving high school early and going to harvard, but by that time my lazy-underachiever work ethic and resentful attitude, perfectionism, frustration intolerance and lack of social skills were so deeply ingrained that it was really hard for me to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges offered to me in college. I graduated by the skin of my teeth and felt all the more demoralized by the experience.

    I recently got a perfect score on all three sections of the GRE and for one bright shining moment thought, well, this redeems me, I can go to grad school and succeed now. But I realized I'm still me. I still have zero capacity to follow through, stay dedicated to a challenge.

    I'm trying to clean up the wreckage of my life now, to figure out how to become someone of value to the world. It's a very difficult thing to do as an adult. I enrolled in grad school, and one of my professors is encouraging me to apply for PhD programs, but I still feel encumbered by this conviction that I can't hack it.

    I found your post to be really insightful into how this happens. I have a handful of friends who are incredibly intelligent and who are wasting away in their lives. I've often wondered how this disconnect happens.

    If I do ever have children of my own, I really hope I'll be able to home-school them. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  2. Well written and said.

    So how do we fix the problem? (Without having to homeschool.)