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Archive for September, 2009

Gifted Underachievers

One lament that pops up every so often is what to do with some obviously bright kid who is failing and underachieving at school, and I certainly recognize my own situation in many of the articles and stories I have read.

The phenomena with regard to these kids seems to run along the following lines:

1. Teacher presents work which the student has already encountered on his own initiative possibly several years before. Having read the material out of his own interest, his private study may well have taken him more deeply into the subject than regular school lessons will be likely to cover. Student inwardly sighs and thinks, “What a waste of lesson time, I covered this earlier”.

Alternatively, the material is new to the student, but it is so simple and obvious to him that no further instruction is required. The student may be so unsatisfied with the lack of depth to the lesson that he will be left with a dissatisfied curiosity about aspects of the subject which would seldom be covered in a lesson aimed at the more average student. This hunger for a more detailed and satisfactory coverage of the subject leaves the student with the feeling that he hasn’t learnt anything.

2. Withdrawal or disengagement ensues. Student goes into a sort of passive disinterest.

3. Teacher misinterprets student’s lack of engagement in the lesson as lack of understanding, or feels that the student is misbehaving in class leading to a lack of attention to and understanding of the subject material.

4. Teacher proceeds to beat the subject matter to death to try to get the student to “grasp” it (expecting him to show his understanding of the material by displaying interest and generally engaging with the lesson).

5. After a few lessons have elapsed with no apparent enthusiasm on the student’s part, the teacher uses inappropriate measures such as scoldings or detentions to try and get the student to “pull his socks up”.

6. The student may try to co-operate for a bit and produce some acceptable work. However, because of the type of mind the student has, as if on a reflex, the frustration and boredom kick back in. The student once again finds himself demotivated and unable to produce.

7. Over a protracted period of the student exhibiting lack of motivation, passive disinterest and poor grades due to the over-simple work and vastly overlong runway to get to the real meat of the subject, the school moves the student to a lower class where the material is even less challenging and even less is expected of the student. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen to engage the interest of the exceptionally able student.

8. The situation now exacerbated with work even less suited to the student’s true abilities, the student feels helpless to do anything about his predicament and his school performance suffers even more greatly. Because of the Catch 22 nature of the student’s situation, he is now even less likely to be identified for the smart cookie that he is by the school or parents who, in their ignorance, think that a very able student should automatically be top of the class.

It appears that suddenly hitting a student with challenging work who has been accustomed to daydreaming away his school time and failed to acquire study skills is only going to leave him feeling out of his depth and frustrated.

It may also be argued that the ability to do well academically is a skill in itself which can and must be taught, and not necessarily a given just because the student is intellectually bright.

This is why I believe that it is vitally important for unusually bright kids to be identified as such right from the start of their formal education. Parents and teachers should be vigilant for signs that the education these students are receiving might not be the best fit, and willing to jump on it immediately. The cost of not doing so is to lose the co-operation and input of our most gifted minds.

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