The Value of Exclusive Gifted Programs

I’ve spent much of this summer reading parenting books. I’ve been trying to figure out how we got to our current state of over-the-top parental involvement in children’s lives at the same time our general education system is failing. Why isn’t parental concern translating into increased investments in our children, our schools, and our future?

One of the realizations I’m coming to is that unlike the American educational reforms inspired by Sputnik, this time around the emphasis is not on how to improve the education of all *our* kids, the parental pressure is on how to make sure *my* kids have every possible advantage. Instead of working to improve all public schools, we pass laws that give parents the freedom to dump their local school for magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, and even private schools, paid for with public tax dollar vouchers. When each family can customize their child’s education, they have less of a need to work within the system to fix problems. They also work to cherry pick programs they feel are prestigious and desirable, making sure their own children get coveted spaces in AP classes, honors classes, and even gifted programs.

Gifted programs are now viewed (and taught) not as classes for students that are truly gifted but instead as enriched curriculum with superior instruction that is beneficial to all students. Wendy S. Grolnick, PhD and Kathy Seal in their 2008 book, Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids, state:

Often created to keep middle-class students in public schools, gifted and talented programs offer a high-quality curriculum enriched by field trips, art and drama offerings, and special projects. They frequently provide superior pedagogy, emphasizing hands-on and creative learning experiences.

Dr. Grolnick and Ms. Seal then go on to discuss groups that are working to make sure gifted and talented programs are open to all students and urge parents find out about the gifted programs in their local school district. They tell parents to work to change the admissions requirements if their children do not qualify because learning about these programs is “crucial for helping your child navigate the increasingly complex journey from preschool to college graduation.” Nice scare tactic there. Just for the record there is also a section titled, “The False Danger of “Overinvolvement”: You Can’t Be Too Involved.” A statement they support with evidence from child development studies done primarily in the 1990s before the advent of helicopter parenting.

We see how much parent involvement has changed when we compare the above to the 1964 classic on parenting, Children: the Challenge, by Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D. with Vicki Soltz, R. N. (recommended to us by Dr. Ruf of Educational Options). Throughout Children: the Challenge, Dr. Dreikurs urges parents to refrain from overprotection and let their kids work out their own battles. He says that parents should not involve themselves in making sure homework or practicing gets done, and instead should mind their own business because, “We cannot protect our children from life.” My favorite story is about a mother who does the right thing in letting her 7-year-old bike to the store on the busy street, alone, because she needs to stop being so overprotective.

Back when Dr. Dreikurs wrote Children: the Challenge, there was an assumption that the public schools did a decent job and students and teachers could work together to make sure students received a quality education. We no longer trust the public schools and there is a fear that if students stay in regular classrooms they may miss out on something critical to their future success. Gifted and talented programs are treated as one more notch in the college resume belt, similar to AP and honors classes. They should not be.

Well-designed programs for academically gifted students are not just regular classes taught in greater depth and at a faster pace. Yes, as in honors courses, critical and independent thinking is emphasized but a good gifted program also addresses the special needs of gifted students.

Highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students may need a different teaching style that works with their high energy and overexcitabiliities. A gifted classroom may seem chaotic with kids intensely moving, arguing, and even crying. They may easily get frustrated because the ideas in their heads move so quickly or are so deep, they just can’t complete an assignment that would be easy for a more normal kid. They may have mini emotional breakdowns because they feel an intense need to contribute to the world and can’t figure out how to mesh that need with their day-to-day lives. Gifted students may suffer from existential depression at a very young age and may need an environment where they can feel understood and less alone. The fact that they are capable of reading, writing, doing math, or understanding complex concepts at younger than average ages is not the only difference between gifted children and regular children.

Truly gifted kids may be the ones disrupting the regular classroom. Having programs targeted to and reserved for gifted students allows teachers to focus on the different needs of the different student groups. Sharing a classroom with gifted students, especially ones on the extreme end of the bell curve, does not necessarily benefit the more regular kids. Gifted students do not just acquire knowledge faster than regular students, they process information differently. Exceptionally gifted kids may find it difficult to answer questions that average and moderately gifted kids find simple. The more gifted the child, the increased possibilities they see and while they may intuitively understand complex issues, their need for extreme precision may paralyze them. The best way to present material for gifted students may not be the best way for regular students. All students benefit when educational material is introduced in a way that best fits their own, personal learning style. Gifted students process information differently, not better or worse, just differently. Acknowledging this difference is not the same as saying one child is better than another. Assuming that every hardworking, smart student that does well in AP and honors classes also needs the special services of a gifted program does our entire educational system a disservice.

Valuing and Nurturing IQ Isn’t Expensive

Minnesota Public Radio just aired a segment on the smartest 1% and whether Americans Value IQ. As too often is the case, the discussion quickly centered around two themes. The first is what I like to call the, “But what about my kids?” argument. It is the common line of reasoning that IQ tests do not test enough factors and may miss some highly intelligent kids.

Yes, IQ tests can and do miss kids. They do not test as much for spacial ability as they do for verbal ability. Depending on the test and how it is administered, kids with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia may be missed. Tests administered only once or only once a school year may miss the kids that are having a bad day. Finally and obviously, any kid that gets any type of test anxiety will not show their true potential on an IQ test.

Now some of the issues surrounding missing gifted students can be fixed the same way schools are fixing their scoring under the grade-level standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. In Minnesota, for example, it is now common for schools to spend classroom time teaching the students about the tests and how to take them. The students then take the official test at least twice during the school year to give them every opportunity to achieve a high test score.

We can work to minimize the number of missed kids but there will always be some. This is not a reason to short change the kids we have found to have higher than average IQs. Let me say that again more clearly. Just because we know we are missing some high IQ kids DOES NOT mean we can ignore or marginalize the ones that we have identified. Once we have identified a student as gifted, highly gifted, exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted we owe it both to that kid and to society in general to do what we can to recognize and nurture their potential — just like we would do if their talent and potential lie in sports and not intellect. Not doing anything because there might be other talented people we have missed borders on criminal neglect. Let’s try that line of thought in another area. Someone comes to a hospital with a broken leg and the doctors don’t set it because they worry about diverting time, energy, and resources away from possible patients who have not yet shown up with broken legs. Ridiculous, right?

The second theme that rang through loud and clear both on-air and in the discussion on MPR’s Facebook page was the lack of resources argument. Why should we devote extra resources to just 1% of our students? Over and over again folks commented that they were more concerned about the middle students that needed more help to reach their potential than the top kids. They offered that the gifted kids have their gifted programs which already drain resources from the bulk of the student body. Just to make sure we are all using the same numbers, Jonathan Wai the MPR guest who just published an article on Brainiacs in Psychology Today states that the gifted education budget in public schools is only 0.02% of the total education budget. Now depending on the school and the district, that 0.02% funds programs not just for the top 1% but for the top 5% to 10%. Right now our gifted education programs are not taking resources away from the general student population. Programs for the general student population are funded at the expense of the intellectually gifted kids. Shouldn’t the top 5% get closer to 5% of the resources or at least something more than 0.02%? Although the difference between the actual funding of gifted programs vs. the wild speculation and paranoia about them is appalling, it is not my main issue with this second theme.

The idea that to recognize, value, and nurture gifted students we need more funding is just not true. While additional monetary resources can and should be devoted to gifted programs, kids are being hurt much more by prejudice and ignorance within school districts and classrooms than any lack of funding. There is much we can do that is essentially free to address the needs of our gifted students.

First and foremost we need all our teachers to recognize more highly gifted students. This may sound easy and like it must already be happening, but it is not. Gifted students are devalued all the time within our public school system. This is especially likely to happen to students on the very high end of the IQ spectrum, the 1% folks. Their brains are wired differently and this can lead to them not standing out as gifted kids. They may not actually do well in school, they may not be viewed by their teachers as particularly good students (the kind that should be in gifted pull-out programs). Instead their high intensity along with their racing minds and need to find significance and relevance in everything they do makes them more likely to have trouble with “busy work” homework, speak out of turn in class, look distracted, and be identified as trouble makers, possibly with ADHD. The very high IQ boys may be especially difficult for teachers to identify because their intellect may intersect with their need for large muscle movement and possibly slower developing executive function in a way that completely hides their true potential. All elementary school teachers need training on how high intellectual potential might manifest itself in their classrooms. They need to be aware that the kid that is a pain may be as much in need of gifted education services as the bright child that is easy to work with and turns in perfect homework, on time.

After we identify gifted students, there are four free and basic things we can and should do to nurture these students.

  1. Teachers within their classrooms should be sensitive to the intensity of gifted students. Sometimes these students need to move around more than the rest of their classmates. Sometime they are highly sensitive to loud noises and fluorescent lights. Allowing these kids to take the breaks they need, quietly walking the halls when they need to move or eating together in a classroom instead of the noisy, crowded lunchroom, can go a long way toward making schools more gifted-child friendly. The character Rachel Pizad in the Syfy show Alphas shows an exaggerated version of what it is like to live with heightened sensitivities.
  2. Teachers, schools, and districts should make it easy for students to subject skip. Gifted kids, especially ones on the high end, often have asynchronous development. They may be able to do 6th grade math in 2nd grade but aren’t ready to be a full-time 6th grader. We should structure schools to allow students to study subjects at the level they are capable of and let the talented second grader study math with the 6th graders. Again, a gifted solution that is completely free.
  3. Third, full grade skipping should be much easier than it is today. Although on paper most school districts allow grade skipping, frequently teachers and principals are very reluctant to advance students. We need to allow more grade skipping and start thinking about how this might help students instead of all the things that could go wrong. Studies consistently show that generally students that are grade skipped, thrive.
  4. Finally, we need to start grouping these outlier kids together. Tracking is a dirty word in education because of the sad and enlightening studies that show that teachers teach to their pre-existing bias about the potential of their class. In order to avoid this we have moved against grouping kids together by knowledge and ability and instead had saddled teachers with classrooms that have a 5-year or more range in pre-existing subject knowledge and possible ability. There need to be better ways of addressing this bias than lumping all students together. Especially since the behaviors and potentials of the top 1% to 2% are so outside the norm, grouping these kids together should allow us, again at no extra cost, to address their particular needs without negatively affecting the funding or the particular needs of the rest of the students.

It is time to stop framing the gifted discussion as an us against them, limited resources, zero sum game. Once we truly value gifted intellectual potential we can start meeting the needs of these students with creative, effective, low-cost solutions.

Recess and Teaching Kids Life/Technology Balance

Anyone who has posted, emailed, or tweeted something they think is especially clever, knows the feeling. The drive for feedback, the emotional need that pushes us to keep refreshing our screens to see if someone out there has read our words and responded.

The happy little pings and beeps our devices give us when we get messages (or do well in electronic games) are addictive — literally. They trigger the release of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with both pleasure and addiction. Essential for reward-driven learning, dopamine is one of the most power brain chemicals we have. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine act on the dopamine system. ADHD appears to be associated with decreased dopamine and ADHD drugs stimulate increased dopamine. The dopamine driven need for constant electronic feedback and stimulation can impact productivity, happiness, and personal relationships.

As awareness about the brain downside of digital devices grows, even technology leaders in Silicon Valley are holding conferences on how to pursue life balance in the digital age. They are exploring how to balance their own lives with meditation, writing, deep breathing, yoga, and even turning their phones off. They are trying to help people find their own internal compasses for keeping their corporeal and their digital lives in balance. We need to help our kids find the same balance.

Wonderful electronic devices fill our lives and aren’t going away. Online learning, computers, and iPads in schools are expanding exponentially. As digital learning becomes more common in our schools, it becomes more and more important to teach students how to balance their lives and when to take a break. Just like technology employees, our students need time to walk away from the electronics, get some fresh air, and talk with a person in the flesh. We need to start helping kids find their own balance by revamping physical education programs to include activities like yoga. We need to make recess mandatory, every day, for all students. Too often we view recess as an optional privilege. Recess appears to be the only flexible part of the school day and is lost to makeup tests or as a punishment for students who have misbehaved. This needs to stop.

If we are to teach kids how to care for their bodies and brains, we need to place a priority on making sure we allow them to balance their lives both at home and at school. Students that have been out of school due to illness or other reasons may have a stronger need than usual for recess and the physical and mental break it provides. Students that misbehaved are often boys that really need to get out of the classroom, out of the building, and move their large muscles. Punishing students by removing the “privilege” of recess is completely counterproductive and can negatively impact students’ ability to focus, behave, and learn for the remainder of the school day. Exercise improves brain function and health and recess is an essential part of school day academics. Instead of denying recess to students who have a difficult time in class, we should give them  more recess. They would probably get more out of classroom time if, when their attention started to wander, they took an active, 10-minute break. During the break they could run a lap around the school, get some water and breathe some fresh air. (In cold places with inclement weather, they could clear their minds by quietly speed walking the school hallways.)

As adults, we all know that to keep our lives in balance and feel our best emotionally, intellectually, and physically, some of us need more physical activity than others. Some of us get a bit twitchy if we haven’t had our daily exercise while other of us can go days or weeks without any noticeable emotional toil from a more sedentary lifestyle. The same is true for our kids. Some of them have a nature balance that requires more physical activity. Our schools should recognize this and start helping students learn to listen to their own brains and bodies. Productivity and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Both increases when people’s lives are in balance. Silicon Valley recognizes it, our schools should as well.

 

Free and Cheap Summer Enrichment

Like many parents this summer, brochures for enrichment opportunities have filled my mailboxes, both US Mail and email. There are academic and non-academic camps and seminars, sports teams, theater, dance, and music classes. Sometimes it feels as though it is necessary to sign kids up for multiple organized enrichment activities to avoid having them fall behind peers and classmates.

This summer for a variety of reasons, we have steered clear of the organized, pricy options. Instead we are finding enrichment activities for gifted kids that are free or at least very inexpensive. Summer is half over so this is a good a time as any to list the activities we have found thus far.

Museums
There are two ways to visit museums for free in the Twin Cities this summer. First off, we are lucky to have some major museums and attractions that are always free to the public. The ones we have explored this summer are Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, the Weisman Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Hennepin County Library Museum Adventure Pass also offers free admission to local museums (and the zoo) through the end of summer.

Public Transportation
Like many suburban kids, mine rarely if ever use public transportation. This summer (once the heat wave breaks) each of the older kids will be responsible for planning a trip to and from a destination chosen by me. For example, my daughter will need to plan an expedition to the Mall of America for us. This will take us on at least one bus and one light rail train ride. She will be responsible for checking schedules, matching them up, and making sure we can make the connections both to the mall and home from the mall. The plan is to leave enough time so that if she accidentally takes us on the wrong bus or we get off the train at the wrong stop, there is time to recover before nightfall.

Cooking & Menu Planning
Given a set amount of money, say $25, each of the older kids will need to plan, shop for and cook a healthy meal for the entire family. Ideally they will do the shopping all by themselves but I’m still working out the details on this one.

Sewing
I dug out my old sewing machine, gave the kids a basic lesson on how it works and bought a bunch of scrap fabric for them. We might get some simple patterns later. For now they are just experimenting with stitches and making pockets.

Exploring the local park
In the spirit of Free Range Kids, more and more we are pushing the kids to head out to bike and explore the local park.

Volunteering
Recently my oldest has started volunteering at a nature center, feeding and watering the critters. He loves it and is getting far more animal experience than he would taking a general nature class designed for kids his age. If your child has a strong interest in an area but is too young to officially volunteer for an organization, he or she may still be able to volunteer if you also sign on as a volunteer and your child works under your direct supervision.

Although kids can learn a great deal in officially organized activities, I feel that they learn different things or at least in a different manner when they are directly in control. Too often these days the adults are telling them what to do, where to go, and what “fun” activity will come next. By putting the kids in charge of their own enrichment activities and letting them approach them in their own way, at their own pace, I’m hoping they will build both executive function and critical thinking skills. At the very least maybe by the end of summer they will be able to cook a meal and read a bus schedule, useful knowledge no matter where life takes them.

SENG 2012 Conference Overview

This past weekend my older kids and I attended the annual SENG conference in Milwaukee. This was our first time attending a SENG event and I’m sure it will not be our last. The kids, ages 9 and 11, had a great time in the children’s program. They toured the Harley Davidson Museum, spent a day at Discovery World, took a boat ride, learned about Nikola Tesla, and visited the aquarium. The most enjoyable part of the children’s programming was the chance to spend two days with other gifted kids and, perhaps more important, wonderful adults that understood them.

While the kids were off exploring, I attended a steady stream of seminars, many given by nationally renowned experts on gifted kids. Sessions I attended included ones on misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children, depression in gifted individuals, exceptionally gifted children, giftedness from a lifespan perspective, anxiety in gifted children, and executive function disorder.

Being able to listen to the experts whose books I have read was great. One of the overarching themes was that gifted kids, especially ones that are highly, exceptionally, or profoundly gifted, really are different from other kids in terms of their intensity, excitability, and how they interact with and view the world. Parents and teachers need to be aware of these differences and work with them, not against them.

Some take away comments that resonated with me from the experts are:

Gifted does not equal good. – Joy Lawson Davis,  PhD (In reference to the fact that many gifted children growing up in rough neighborhoods may not be using their gifted abilities solely (or possible at all) for academic pursuits vs. other pursuits.

I was hoping for a solid 120. – Edward R. Amend, PsyD (When joking about his child’s IQ. Recognizing that the more gifted a child is, the more likely they are to have issues ranging from asynchronous development, to anxiety, depression, and intensity.

Understanding the normal but unusual function of this tribe. – P. Susan jackson, MA, RC (Referring to her work with highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted kids and the fact that they have behaviors, thoughts and intensities that are very different from average kids, but are entirely normal within the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted population. It is important for parents and teachers who live and work with this population to better understand them to create a supportive environment and not wrongly pathologize normal behavior.)

Many gifted kids identify themselves by what they are bad at.  Dan Peters, PhD

We have a worry culture where you’re never doing enough for your kids.  Dan Peters, PhD

The more highly gifted a child is the longer it can take for them to develop the high level circuits in their brains that control executive function.  There are a lot of highly gifted kids that do not do well in school because they are highly gifted.  – Lisa Rivero, MA

Many gifted kids have high psychomotor energy. For career counseling see how kids want to spend their days — moving or sitting.  – Lisa Rivero, MA

One of the most thought-provoking sessions I went to was the one on executive function disorder. In it Bill Dickerman, PhD, introduced the idea that kids that appear to adults as less organized with less self-control than their age mates might actually have a huge learning advantage. These explorers and experimenters may be learning about the world in a fundamentally different way than the kids who are always sitting still and properly listening to their teachers. Most learners develop executive function around ages 3 to 4, some around ages 7 to 8, and a few around ages 12 to 13. This last group struggles because they are surrounded by adults that expect them to be more organized and other students who have more self-control and better work habits. By middle school, students are expected to be able to keep track of all their classes and work assignments on their own and in some, that part of their brain hasn’t finished developing. The idea that this may give them a learning advantage, if we structure their environment and education properly, is a revolutionary idea that warrants further exploration.

 

Headed to the SENG Conference

This weekend SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) is holding their annual conference in Milwaukee. Geared toward educators, parents, gifted kids, and gifted adults, the conference is filled with seminars and activities for and about folks in the gifted world.

Although frequently we don’t think of gifted kids as vulnerable, growing up gifted can be difficult. They see the world differently from their age mates and are not always understood or appreciated by their teachers. Add in the asynchronous development which is so common and you get a population that is at risk.

According to SENG, gifted kids can face a wide range of problems including difficulty with social relationships, difficulty with studying and schoolwork, high levels of anxiety, and depression. The SENG annual conference is an effort to get information and tools for helping gifted kids out to the adults who have a direct and indirect impact on the lives of our gifted population.

One of the really cool things about the conference is their programming for gifted kids. Because being gifted, especially being very highly or profoundly gifted is rare, these smart kids can feel different and isolated in their day-to-day lives. If you are in the top 1% or 1/10th of 1%, chances are good that you don’t get much of a chance to hang out with kids like you. The SENG conference brings gifted kids together with two days of programming designed just for them.

So I get to go to seminars while my 9-year-old and my 11-year-old have fun and hopefully make connections with other gifted kids. Now I just have to decide which of the interesting sounding seminars to attend. Stay tuned.

Kids Don’t “Play” Youth Sports

It you are a parent of elementary school kids as I am, you probably have logged more than a few hours on the sidelines of your child’s baseball, soccer, basketball, hockey, or other sport. This is part of being a good parent in the US these days — showing up at the games, supporting the team. Participation in youth sports has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. As more kids have joined teams, more parents have been actively participating on the sidelines.

Next time you are at one of your child’s games do an experiment for me, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the game. Don’t worry, your kid and his or her team will be just fine if you aren’t actively watching the action for a few minutes. Just listen.

I tried this last night at my young son’s soccer game and heard an ongoing chorus of “Get in there!” “Attack the ball!” “Heads up!” “_____ Get Back!”  “Blue, Spread Out!”  “Talk to Each Other”  “_____ Pass to ______, He’s Open!”  “Defense!  Come On Defense!”  “Good Try!  Good Try!”  It was positive, constant, and all the voices were adults. This is a first and second grade soccer team. While there are some stand-out players, most of the kids are just learning the game. Technically, the adults aren’t even supposed to keep score. Parents and coaches work together to make sure playing on the team is a positive, educational experience.

We should not confuse this with play. Kids on organized youth teams do not “play” in the traditional child’s play manner. They exercise, they learn rules from adults, they are told where to go and what to do. They are taught to support their team and be good spectators when on the sidelines.

Now close your eyes and remember a time that your kids were truly playing, without any adult direction or interference. Chances are, especially if there was a decent group of kids with mixed ages (a rarity these days), you remember kids creating and perhaps arguing about a set of rules that defined a game that few adults would want to play. You may even remember kids getting bumped and bruised and the group pulling back and re-evaluating (arguing) over how to make the game more fair. You probably also remember an excess of noise. Screaming, laughing, and yelling at each other are all part and parcel of child play.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if at the same time participation in youth sports has been increasing, old-fashioned playground play, without adults present has all but disappeared. Why should we care that adult-run games are taking over child-directed games and play? Kids learn distinctly different things from play than they do from sports. They learn how to create rules and how to modify them when they aren’t working. They have to deal directly with conflicts and learn how to work through them on their own. Generally, kid directly play is much more active with more kids moving at a given time. Kid directed play makes kids highly motivated to pay attention and stay on top of things so that they don’t let their friends down or fail in other ways. This need to pay attention may be critical for proper brain development. There is even evidence that free-form, rough and tumble, kid-directed play can even reduce ADHD.

Last night on the sidelines, my son and one of his teammates kept dropping back, kicking an extra ball between them and even doing some fake karate moves at one another. The drive to play was strong and they were giving their bodies and brains  what they needed. They weren’t however being good team members and before long the coach had them stop, sit down, and watch the game.

Modern Education Reform

Our current educational system is not doing a great job of preparing students for the 21st century. We are trying a multitude of solutions to address this issue. From No Child Left Behind (which is slowly being gutted) to a re-envisioning of how technology can serve students such as Khan Academy.

One of the main issues is that there is little differentiated teaching or learning. Students are all introduced to material at the same time and taught it at the same speed, regardless of how quickly or slowly they pick up on each individual subject. Even with high achieving students, sometimes they may get stuck and need a bit of extra time to really understand a new concept. Our challenge is to create an educational system where each student is able to learn at their own pace, speeding through subjects that come easily to them and being allowed to slow down, take their time, and get additional help with the subjects that they find less intuitive. It seems we are slowly moving toward this new educational model.

As one education expert put it, in most schools, “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself. . . . Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. In this case the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized.”

This would all give me more hope except for one thing. The above quote was from John Dewey, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, in his book, The School and Society, published in 1900.

 

Does Michael Jordan Make You Insecure?

Last week’s TIME magazine, dated July 9, 2012, has a multi-page article on Salman Khan and Khan Academy. Our family has used Khan Academy videos to supplement school work for over a year. As Khan Academy has expanded their offerings to include more subjects, exercises, and tracking we have played with the idea of using Khan Academy as the primary material for some subjects.

The entire idea of letting kids learn at their own pace seems to still be controversial. I’m not sure why this is. We as a nation have a huge hangup about difference in academic potential that we do not have when it comes to sports. In sports we love the stand-out players and eagerly pour extra time and resources into those players that we think have the potential to be great. We never worry about whether by helping one athlete succeed we are forcing another to fail. In fact, we frequently feel that having a star player on a team working to their full potential inspires the other players to work harder and reach a higher level than they would otherwise.

American education however, is treated too often as a zero sum game. We feel that resources are so limited that by helping one group of students succeed, especially if they are exceptionally bright, we short-change another group. The TIME magazine article, when addressing the reluctance of educators to let students learn each at their own pace states that, “In the worst case scenario, high-achieving students race ahead while low performers languish.”

How is this a worst case scenario? The sports equivalent would be, “The best high school players of high school “X” all receive full college sports scholarships while the worst players become fat and unhealthy.”  If that happened we would never view it as a worst case scenario. We would applaud and complement the school on the high achievements of their best players and perhaps investigate how we could better server the lower level players.

The article also states that some educators see a risk in letting kids work at their own pace. The risk is, “that two students will reach graduation with very different skill sets. One may have mastered everything from calculus on down while the other made it only as far as algebra.” What exactly do they think is happening now? What do they think is the real harm in some kids knowing calculus and others only algebra? In college and in life people have different interests and bodies of knowledge. If people love what they do, they can achieve success in nearly any occupation. We all know folks without college degrees that are more financially success than some with college degrees. Our country needs to be concerned with equality and fairness in opportunities and stop feeling so insecure about the fact that some of us are more intellectual than others of us.