Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Do we need gifted education?

Another very valid question I am asked is do we need gifted education. It seems as if all of a sudden, parents of gifted children are asking for a different type of education for their children. The answer is, it isn't gifted children that has changed, its the schools.
My husband's grandfather - an amazingly gifted man in his 90's tells us often about his growing up in rural, poor, and segregated Alabama. At that time of turmoil and strife, he was education in a one room schoolhouse. One story he likes to tell is how he started school in the 1st grade. By the end of the week, he had finished 3rd grade. Back in the days of the one room school house, students were allowed to work at their own pace and ability level. Once you successfully read the primers (which would put many books in the schools today to shame), once you completed the math lessons - you were allowed to move on to the next grade. No waiting for age mates, no fear or "running out of work", no fear of getting too smart too fast.
The argument of whether or not he was "properly educated" is thrown out the window when you sit down to have a conversation with him. He is brilliant. He also has a career history that proves his intelligence and wit. He is credited with saving the power company he worked for (and retired from) millions of dollars. He was able to solve problems by taking a minute to examine the situation and utilize deductive reasoning. One story in particular is a stand out where the company brought it a group of engineers to solve a problem on a machine that had gone down. They spent days trying to figure it out. Grandpa Moss decided he had enough of sitting around waiting on someone else to solve the problem. He asked the highly skilled, highly educated engineers to step aside while he looked at the equipment. Figuring out a very nonstandard solution, he asked the men to help him adjust a part. They were hesitant (remember, this was rural Alabama and this Black man with only a high school diploma was claiming to have found the solution well educated engineers were baffled with). His boss assured the men to listen to Grandpa Moss, they made the adjustment together and the machine started up - working perfectly.
See, his intellect, his ability to solve problems, his ability to think outside the box was never educated out of him. The one room school house was filled with self directed, self paced, no holds barred learning. No one had to wait to be taught. If you needed help from the teacher, she would help you. However, you were under no obligation to wait for the class, not work ahead, or leave your eagerness to learn behind. As long as there was a primer and a math book waiting for you, you could advance ahead. When there were no more books, no more primers, when you had completed the entire curriculum - you were done. You graduated. No waiting for a special birthday, no filling in the time with busywork - go ahead and start your life.
Grandpa Moss isn't just good at fixing mechanical machine problems - he built the house he is currently living in with his own hands - brick by brick. He designed it, he piped it, he wired it. No, he didn't learn that from reading primers - another thing the one room school house gave gifted kids was time. No eight hour days in the classroom, no hours of homework at night. There was enough time left at the end of the day for exploring independent self study, even becoming an apprentice. You had time to tend to the garden, milk the cow, and still learn how to build a house.
As I watch my own children building with wooden blocks and Lego's, I mourn just a little. Even though we have tried to turn our home into the one room school house - there is still something missing. Something Grandpa Moss (well, Great Grandpa Moss to them) had that they won't. I often try to put my finger on it and I just can't quite do it. The closes I can come is normalcy. Grandpa Moss is most likely profoundly gifted, just like his great grandchildren, but he wasn't entirely unique in his day. Yes, he was probably the "smartest" person in that one room schoolhouse - but everyone in that school was a self teacher. Everyone finished their primers and their math and moved at their own pace. And while not everyone ended up at the power plant, being one of the few machine leads without a college education - no one starved. They all left with more than just a primer education. They were able to farm their own land, process their own meat, build their own houses, and read books in elementary grades that would stomp most college students today (Moby Dick was considered an elementary school text). While not everyone was gifted, there wasn't even a need to identify gifted. Everyone got what they needed. It wasn't unusual to start college at 13. Not everyone did it (Grandpa Moss didn't go to college), but there was no need for special permission to enroll. I am by no means trying to romanticize the past - life was hard, often times unfair, and hardship and pain were mainstays. It just makes me sad that as we worked to correct the past, to improve upon our yesterday - we managed to throw the baby out with the bath water. I truly hope we can find our way back - we need more Grandpa Moss'.

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