Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How are we caring for the whole child?

A friend posted this article to Facebook. It concerns how New York City is trying to deal with the challenge of identifying and educating "gifted" students.

Since Santi isn't ready for school yet, my musings are merely hypothetical. If I've learned one thing in parenting, it's that your opinions and beliefs change constantly, and you never know how you're going to feel until you're actually in those moccassins. But here goes.

I suppose that in an ideal world there would be the means to tailor each student's curriculum individually to build on their strengths and help them to develop in areas where they are weaker. So I guess everyone would be going to Montessori schools, and those would continue through university.

I have to admit that I fall on the side that is a little skeptical that there are truly so many "gifted" (I read that to mean "above average") children out there. By simple definition, the majority of the population can't be above average. And even if we could provide advanced reading and math classes for all children who excel above their peers in those subjects, I worry they may be left lacking in other important social skills which are just as vital for successfully navigating a world where not everyone is like you in every way. I had to roll my eyes at some of the comments after the article where the "gifted" were disparaging those who are are not as "smart" as them, and then wondering why they feel isolated. "Gifted" in that case could just as easily read "Socially and Emotionally Challenged". Why are the abilities to excel in other areas (for example, socially, athletically) automatically undervalued? Children don't go to school, grow up, and then graduate to another classroom environment. They get thrown out into the big wide world where anything goes. Are we preparing them for that?

No matter how smart you are, there is always something that you can learn from others, whether didactically or through simple observation. I know that the poor and "uneducated" Mexican farmers who assist in our excavations live the ecology of their surroundings and have developed a better understanding of the functioning of those ecosystems through their daily interactions with it than I have managed to do as a full-time archaeobotanist with a doctorate and 17 years of study. I depend on their instruction and assistance. Many of them have also learned to listen and take direction, and apply what they learn to the extent that we entrust with highly specialized and delicate tasks, sometimes prefering these individuals to trained undergraduates with prior excavation experience. They just do it better. And I am also impressed by the degree to which they simply learn to relate to us, and put up with the bizarre minutiae of our work demands. We are so different in our social upbringing, level of education, world views, and experiences, but they succeed in keeping their patience with us and keeping the lines of communication open to figure out what is expected of them, even when it takes several tries. That's true problem solving in action.

I lean toward the perspective that all children will benefit by learning to work hard, to be patient and innovative, to think for themselves, and above all, not fear failure. I think that comes from so many years in academia where everyone is smart, but the ones who succeed are either indisputably geniuses (a very small minority) or are simply people who hang in there and keep trying and innovating, sucking up their "failures" till they get that job or that grant (ok, there are also some douchebags who sleaze and ass-kiss their way to the top, but you just try and stay away from them!). I don't have experience in teaching children as small as those described in the NYT article, but I do have experience as a university instructor. Those students who are the greatest pleasure to teach often don't always the best grades. What they do have is a genuine curiosity about the world around them, the drive to try even when they don't succeed, and the humility to learn at least one useful thing from those experiences of "failure". Those are the ones in which I truly invest my effort because I know that with help and encouragement, they are the people who will do something (even many things) with their lives that is meaningful, both for themselves and for others around them. And in the end, isn't that all that matters?

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