Sunday, 21 June 2009

Gifted but stupid

The school's wall clock

Years ago I had a serious talk with a girl of my tutor group. Testing had set her I.Q. at 153. But she couldn't perform routine school tasks, say learning thirty French words for next day. I was probing into her past to find the reason for her revulsion and distrust. We got as far back as to early childhood and her first school experiences.

Early at primary school she had been told to come to the front of the class to say the multiplication table of two. She didn't get beyond twelve and was told off for it. When the class was exercising the table she hadn't paid attention at all because she had discovered that the answers were in front of her eyes, in the hour numbers of the school clock, she only had to skip the uneven numbers. However, the clock did not reach beyond twelve.


To me this anecdote epitomizes the conundrum school faces with gifted children. The educator who administered the rollicking might have inquired into the problem better and by doing so she could have detected a budding mathematician. That's what parents of gifted children ask the school to do. The precocious child should have been motivated to develop her inchoate understanding of numbers by building clocks with all kind of number systems in cardboard.

On the other hand, the teacher was right in lambasting the pupil. If her young student had practised the table of two in the way all the other kids complied with she certainly would have succeeded in mastering it.

A school career

The little girl felt aggrieved. This and other experiences ushered in a troublesome school career. When I met her at the age of thirteen she was disobedient, petulant, a nuisance in the class room. Though her parents managed to get her in the top level of the Dutch school system she was completely unable to cope with the school system. Her parents blamed the school. She left our school for a very expensive private school where group size was limited to twelve students per class, quite different from our usually crowded class rooms. She managed to pass the national examinations and got entrance to a university where she fell by the wayside.

How to deal with underachievers

I have been grappling with the problem of underachieving prodigies in the school system all over my career as an educator. I've always been trying to solve the problem by offering these students tasks that appealed to them and challenged their aptitude. I asked my fellow teachers to do so. We implemented special projects for the gifted. Despite our efforts results were mostly meagre.

Especially learning foreign languages, which is very important in Dutch education, proves to be an almost impossible task for students who rely solely on their innate intelligence. Learning to read, write, and speak English, French and German within a couple of hours per week in a full classroom in just a few years even on a basic level is impossible without rote learning. Pupils must practise grammar in the class room. Students have to cram vocabulary at home.

Arguably gifted students may learn a foreign language easily while being immersed in it, but we cannot immerse students in three foreign languages, can we? We lack the environment with native speakers, we lack the time. My school is exemplary in the region with offering gifted students a bilingual education in which they are taught in English for half of the subjects, half of the school week. But even in this situation of immersion students who memorize their personal idiom files by rote learning fare better than students who just wait and see.

Learning is not just fun

I see things differently now. Gifted children have a wonderful brain, an excellent working memory. That brain has to be challenged by intriguing tasks. This makes kids happy, it motivates them to work, to go to school for that matter. But before all we must train them to store knowledge in their long-term memory. They must learn to memorize. (cf. D.T. Willingham) When we fail to discipline them in doing the tedious work of rote learning they will founder at some stage in their career when deep knowledge is required.

Returning to the story I started with, this girl should have been given the task to build various clocks in all kind of number systems in cardboard. Next to that she would have benefited a lot from learning the multiplication tables by heart just like the other kids.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Different systems

Mask 1

These masks indicate huge differences between pupils while processing the same task

mask 5

Different views

Two fellow teachers comment on a story in my blog. They seem to appreciate the ruthlessness with which a child is denied promotion to the next year because she fails to meet academic standards. Dutch education tracks students into homogeneous ability streams. Students have to double the year when they fail to pass muster in a minority of the taught subjects. But I consider these idiosyncracies to be backward features of a system, remnants of nineteenth century practice.

A beautiful song

Some ten years ago I attended a rehearsal of a High School Choir in Michigan. I was flabbergasted. Pupils I had met earlier that day in a special needs class and students aiming at university level cooperated in a wonderful aesthetic experience. In Dutch education those children would not meet whatsoever within a school setting.

Count your blessings

Possibly daily frustrations give rise to a tendency to find greener pastures elsewhere, in a different school system where we perceive what we lack at home. That attitude is not very fruitful. School systems are rooted in local history, they express community values. The Dutch experience in particular makes clear that rash major transitions are not possible without jeopardising quality.We used to preen ourselves on our national school system. Recently we had to discover that we are not in the premier league any more. In a state of transition you risk ditching what you were good at before having gained what you need.

Good practice

The Fins are the champions. They offer consistently the best education of the world as measured by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). But I take it most causes for this success cannot be easily transferred to other school systems. Neither the Fins' national love for reading nor their high esteem of the teaching profession are to be found in The Netherlands nowadays: a paradise lost can't be regained. What could be transferred though is the compulsory master's degree for every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to science teacher in secondary education, for each and everyone. I guess that really would be something.


I'm happy to be a teacher of art. My students have been selected but fortunately not with respect to my field. So I have a motley collection of skills and talents in the class room. I have to allow for these differences and I must cope with them.