Teaching To Excellence

I had been thinking about such a topic before but, conveniently, there is an article tapping into a similar idea (at points) here.

Ignore the gender gap bit, that is a different conversation.  Instead, focus on this paragraph:

SMPY and numerous other studies have provided large-sample evidence that appropriate acceleration benefits the vast majority of gifted children. In a comparison of grade-skipping students with a control group of equally smart students who stayed with their age groups, the grade-skippers were more than twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. in science, math, or engineering, and had more patents and publications at mid-career. Even modest interventions, such as access to Advanced Placement courses or self-paced instruction, give students demonstrable advantages that continue through college and into the workplace. Conversely, exceptionally gifted students who remain with their age peers typically underachieve and experience negative effects on motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety.

“…exceptionally gifted students who remain with their age peers typically underachieve and experience negative effects on motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety.” Yet, we continue to make these gifted students sit in these classes that they can sleep through and still pass with flying colors.  Meaning that they lose motivation and disengage while waiting for those who are not as gifted to come along.

What sort of situation does this put the teachers in too?  How does one teach to a class of 20-30 students of a similar age group but with say, a 5 year difference in abilities?  They can either spend time on the higher end and keep going or, in order to make sure standardized test scores are met, spend all of their time on the lower end while receiving pressure from those doing better.  I had to do this for a single sort of project with only 7 students and I was stressed out by it, doing something like that day in and day out for years sounds impossible.

So, what if we did bring “grade-skipping” back or, started separating classes into different levels by ability and NOT by age solely?  Sure, sounds like we are becoming elitist but, is it really elitist to simply try to make sure everyone can achieve their best at their best level?  Instead of relying on huge amounts of statistics that say “generally, a student at age 10 can do x,” and operating off of that assumption only, what if we started to use the “local data” of the individual student and adjusting accordingly so that they can be taught to the level of excellence that they are capable of handling.

Also, think about how much better every student would be able to do surrounded by peers at their own level and who they can connect with and with a teacher who can devote the time required to help them.  Next, how about the potential of building an “advancement” type of carrot system too into education, instead of moving forward inevitably happening simply due to the passing of time, a reward system of achievement could be built in.  Something like Boy Scouts, only by reaching a certain level do doors open  up which can let the boy do some of the cooler stuff, that may help inspire some students (especially in a much more supportive classroom environment) to reach further than they usually would and achieve more than they seem capable of.

The other side of this would be to not hold those “higher achievers” up so much.  Separating by ability not by physical age would then mean that these higher achievers end up being “average” by the standards they are surrounded in, probably a humbling experience for them and helpful because that means that instead of constantly being held in the limelight and receiving all of the awards those in other groups will not feel so disconnected so, separate from those.  This would also end up working against the culture of “everyone receives a trophy.”

I typically hear complaints about that sort of idea how everyone gets an award for participating instead of actually receiving awards for excellence and capability.  Separating out by abilities can help to limit that and promote healthy competition between competitors who are actually equal.  Those who would always receive recognition would be put into a cohort of similar people and not constantly receive recognition when compared to others of a similar level, while those who would suffer low self-esteem due to no recognition might actually achieve a level of recognition since they are also with a group similar to themselves and be able to outshine them in some aspect.  But, since they are being compared to a similar group those peers can feel like they might make it some day too because they identify with the recognized individual.

In short, what if we taught to the highest abilities of all students instead of only the lowest common denominator?  Teaching towards excellence for everyone with high expectations at their level instead of teaching towards everyone getting above a minimum hurdle.  Set the bar high enough to be met but outside of comfort zone, I bet all students would start doing better.