Thursday, September 6, 2007

How To Deal With The Brightest

A couple of weeks ago, TIME Magazine ran a superb article regarding the forgotten men of the education system - the super-bright. Although the focus of the article is on the US system, the same criticisms could be levelled pretty much word-for-word at Britain. It starts off with the case of Annalisee Brasil, a 14-year-old refused admission to school except with her own age group, despite the fact that she is manifestly ahead of the learning curve.

That there is a difficulty in coping with genius in any public education system doesn't surprise me. There is a utilitarian principle at work in such an organisation - for the key question in setting up such a system must always be "what is the minimum skill set we would expect any 16-year-old to leave school with"? Yet while there is always considerable turmoil over how to deal with the children left behind, the children at the head of the queue largely get ignored.

But, as the article points out, this is not without its consequences.
But surprisingly, gifted students drop out at the same rates as nongifted
kids--about 5% of both populations leave school early. Later in life, according
to the scholarly Handbook of Gifted Education, up to one-fifth of dropouts test
in the gifted range.

The article goes on to suggest that a number of philanthropic ventures may provide the way forward for dealing with gifted students - schools with a less age-rigid curriculum, that are able to stretch students most in the subjects they excel at. I'm not so convinced that the super-bright need to be taken out of the education system in such a way. What does need to be done, however, is to create a school system with significantly more flexibility in dealing with the abnormally intelligent.

Perhaps the first question that should be dealt with is this - why should the education system bother itself with providing special facilities for the gifted? After all, there has to be a point at which motivation spurs a child on to greater achievement, and the art of learning for yourself must be developed at some time or other.

This, to me, is incredibly short-sighted. The school system places pressure on high-achievers; whilst they breeze to a string of top grades, they are often socially ostracised because of their ability - we need only think of the stereotypical nerd. This value system provides a positive disincentive to learn. It's bad enough doing well at the tasks set you by teacher, without going out of your way to set yourself even further ahead of the crowd.

This is a value system that, ironically, is encouraged in many ways by the political target culture. When there is such a stress on getting pass rates up, those who are going to pass come what may are inevitably going to be a lesser priority for teachers under the weight of league table performance. The smart kid will be a positive headline statistic whether or not s/he gets an A or an A*; the kid who could get a C or a D, on the other hand, puts the teacher's neck on the line. Indeed, in a system like this, the teacher may well be inclined to use the smart kid as a surrogate tutor. Rather than pushing the brightest to better things, it's a much better use of resources to get them to help out those at the business end of the class.

Then, of course, we have the question of grade inflation. It's a question that lingers, hidden under the mass of journalist indignation that comes to the surface every August. If exams are getting easier, then how are we challenging the brightest? After all, when getting everything right in all exams is a serious possibility, how do we know the limits of achievement? How do we encourage students to push themselves further when they can get all the grades that they need without seriously stretching their grey matter? Academics in university admissions would tell you that the performance of students in an exam where the top mark is 75% is generally more useful than an exam where people reach 100%.

We now have a public exam system where it's possible for students to amass 8 or more A Levels at the top grade. While I'd question the value of that - after all, there's a certain amount of grunt work involved in study that could be more profitably directed into extra-curricular activities - it really isn't suggestive of an exam system that exercises the top minds. Moreover, the government has positively disincentivised extra learning at certain stages of the school career. SATs for 11-year-olds, when I took them, had a top grade of level 6. That's now disappeared. Will students really push themselves to obtain a higher level 5 mark? Or does it encourage them to coast, and not make the most of their ability?

Nor can we reasonably expect students to find motivation for themselves. On the one level, they're still young - they don't know exactly what they should be looking for. Teachers have a greater life experience, and are in a very good position to know what extra books are most likely to inspire their top pupils - and making recommendations on this level is more useful than stumbling about in the dark. After all, education should be about shining light where there used to be dark.

Personally, I have always been an advocate of grammar school systems. Pupils have different aptitudes and capabilities. We recognise this in some areas - no-one would suggest that someone off the street could sing as well as Pavarotti if he was only taught the right way. Why, then, do we persist in the idea that educational excellence can be achieved by all? It isn't a smart idea to teach a child who isn't very good at football the Cruyff turn, yet it might be an essential skill to someone who aspires to the Premiership. That doesn't mean we don't get both kids to enjoy playing football - it just means we pitch their education to different levels. And it should be the same in the classroom.

Just as a Wayne Rooney, moreover, would play years above his age group in football, we should make it easier for children to move up year groups in education. It does no good to frustrate a bright child by forcing him to learn at a pace that is too slow for him. That said, there are obvious social limits on the number of years that someone can be moved up in education, and this is where perhaps the most important observation needs to be made. If we are to make the most of our brightest students, then teachers need to play a more proactive role in stretching the best.

This can be done quite simply in many cases. Where students might find the tasks set in class can be done quickly, they could be set additional work. Extra vocabulary lists in language classes; encouragement to read proper history books, rather than textbooks; suggesting that students subscribe to the New Scientist, perhaps. But it is inculcating this sort of desire to succeed that is vital. For the extra attention to the bright is given to pupils in private schools, but all too often similar aspiration is lacking in the state sector. One of the reasons why the top universities have fewer state school students than you might expect given A-Level results is that pupils with the top grades don't apply there.

One reason for this, I would venture, is that the brightest pupils aren't stretched enough to think that they have a chance. And that is a criminal failure. Because, while one of the key aims of an education system is to make sure that everyone is given the skill set they need to succeed, another one must surely be to allow every child to fulfil his potential. And if we do not set difficult goals for the brightest students, then they won't be inspired to achieve better things. Success may come naturally - but it government-defined success, rather than a true realisation of potential. It's a question that needs serious attention. The brightest students often get ignored in secondary education - they may not be the chief concern of headline-writers, but that doesn't mean their interests shouldn't be attended to.

No comments: