“Gifted”, “behind”, or “just average”: Which one were you?

In 2020, we were faced with the reality that bias and discrimination still exist in our society, but thankfully it was also a year of calling out injustices. Hopefully, it will be a practice that continues for generations to come.

The irony is that, in an age where we know the harm that is caused by treating a group of people differently (or worse) than you would treat another group, it is still very much ok to do just that in our institutions of learning based on academic “ability”.  For our kids to either be smart, or dumb, or average (and labeled and treated as such) is just par for the course.  Granted, schools and teachers do try to downplay or disguise these ability groups, but the fact is that kids ALWAYS know when they are in the top set or the bottom, in the gifted or remedial group, and it’s usually something that sticks with them well into their adult lives. My mom, to this day, considers herself a “slower reader” because of the label that was put on her in primary school.  

The reason we feel justified in labeling* our students may come from a heart of genuinely wanting to help them. Back in my classroom days, I probably would have said that these distinctions were important in order to provide the necessary resources for both “gifted” students and the “learning disabled” (talk about a cringe-worthy label!). 

To understand whether or not “ability groups” are a helpful or hurtful practice, it’s essential to know where these labels came from in the first place.  For a child to earn a label such as “gifted” or “LD”, there first needs to be a standard to be compared to that is considered normal or “average”.  And if there were such a thing as an average intelligence, it would make sense that there must be an efficient pathway to either conform people to this average or, better yet, to exceed it.  

In his book, The End of Average, Todd Rose explains that this idea of there existing “average” intelligence was popularized by the rise of Taylorism, or scientific management theory.  At the dawning of the 20th century, most workplaces in western society began to operate in the notion that, if we can normalize or standardize a process, then it will make for a more efficient output of a product. And if it is the most efficient way, it should be the only way.

Taylor’s theory began to seep into other sectors, like education. Now a full century later, our institutions of learning are still implementing Taylor’s theories- efficiency, maximizing output, minimizing costs, all in accordance with the prescribed “standards”. When the “product” happens to be an actual child, things get a bit tricky and problems arise (these are just a few):

  • Learning is standardized. Measuring students against an average requires everyone in that system to learn the same things in order for them to be tested and ranked, which leaves many students disengaged (this is boring), disillusioned (how is this relevant to my life?) or unfulfilled (I could be doing so much more).
  • When students are graded against a norm and ranked against their peers, it automatically sets students against each other. A student might view assignments involving collaboration or cooperation as not in their best interest as they could potentially “hurt” his rank since having to work with someone else might “hold him back” from his full potential.  It also fosters a culture of discrimination if being able to master a particular academic skill set makes you smarter, or better than others, where other skills and talents don’t count for anything.
  • More and more universities and workplaces are finding that when they base their selection criteria on the rule of averages, it doesn’t make for better students/employees.  Universities hoping to welcome students who are independent, proactive, and critical thinkers, are instead combating a “just tell me what I need to know for the test” mentality in their new pupils. When a company is looking for innovators and problem-solvers, it’s hard to find them in a pool where failure (a key component to innovation) has been frowned upon for the last 16 years of a young person’s life.    
  • There’s no such thing as an “average” child.  The sad truth is that achieving a certain academic standard implies that a student must also act in a certain way, usually sitting submissively for hours each day.  When a child refuses, or simply can’t, no matter how much they’ve been medicated, they are excluded for the “benefit” of the masses.   If a student is “difficult” he may be placed in the bottom set simply at the discretion of the teacher, regardless of how bright he may actually be.  Tragically, there continues to be a disproportionate number of “disadvantaged youth” (more labels!) placed in the lowest sets or ability levels.  

Todd Rose goes on to explain that even though the existence of “average” in most sectors of our society has been de-bunked for years now, we still operate as if it were true.

“The lure of averagarianism dupes scientists, educators, business leaders, hiring managers, and physicians into believing that they are learning something meaningful about an individual by comparing her to an average, when they are really ignoring everything important about her.” (emphasis mine)

The End of Average, p. 64

When we stop looking at the individual, and begin to sort people into groups and put labels on those groups, by definition, we have begun to discriminate.  We strip the person of what makes them uniquely them: their gifts, their interests, and, instead, compare them to an arbitrary set of norms and then against each other.  And we usually don’t even try to hide it.  Any student at any time knows, “I am better than her.” or “I’m not as smart as him”.  

In any community, including schools, when we focus only on what people “need”, we never get to know what they actually have that can be developed and contributed back into the community, so they are always made to feel like they are lacking.  My mom may read slowly, and even re-read something multiple times, but I know it’s because she thinks deeply about those words and wants to fully understand them. That’s a strength of hers, and something that “fast readers” aren’t always willing to do.

Just as problematic as emphasizing a lack of skill or knowledge, is giving a student a false sense of assurance that he knows everything he needs to know, when he often has no clue what it is about himself that makes him distinct and set apart from the other “gifted” students.  Both scenarios leave students unsure of who they really are and what their purpose might be.  

Even when a child graduates at the top of their class, they may have serious doubts about their own abilities and future if they have never been given time to explore what they might actually enjoy or are gifted in.  It’s no wonder so many students enter university either without declaring a major or end up changing their major within 3 years.

An equitable, label-free way

We train our teachers to speak out against discrimination, to read books about how all children are unique and valued, to praise diversity, and then demand that their students fit into very rigid academic boxes, are graded, and are labeled.  In doing so, institutions are shooting themselves in the foot.  

The most equitable practice of all is when we look at each individual and exploit their individual interest, gifts, and desires.  

In a standardized system, the individual simply doesn’t matter.  For the institution to be a “successful” one, in the Taylorism tradition, individualism cannot matter.  If the individual did matter, the whole system would buckle under the lack of bandwidth. It’s not the fault of the system.  It’s just that a system is made for the masses, not the individual.  Any frank education expert will tell you that our education system is working exactly as it was designed to.  And that means that any true changes would take a complete re-designing of the entire system.  Not easily done.  

Can you imagine if the role of the teacher was to pull out the unique gifts of each student and help them find a path to achieving that thing which they were purposed to do?  This is when real learning and respect would start to happen. Children would be allowed explore and showcase their own gifts, and discrimination based on “ability” could potentially be snuffed out for good. There would be consistent opportunities to affirm each other’s growing skills and talents and there certainly would be no kids needing “remediation”.  Instead, the question would become, “What do you need in order to get you to where you’d like to be?” and there would be no assuming that there was a single, prescribed way to get there.

If you think that this type of learning simply can’t happen in a “school” environment, take some time to explore these self-directed learning centers. These schools allow children to explore the ways in which they are uniquely gifted while providing opportunities for them to collaborate with other children, who have similar interests, on projects of their own choosing.

Of course, until these types of schools become mainstream, there is always the option to home educate our children and create a network where kids can be celebrated for their differences, instead of being made to conform to and compete with the masses.
We must be vigilant, as home educators, not to fall into or reinforce the false ideology of “average” in our own homes.  I sometimes hear things like,  “My child is 2 grade levels ahead, what should she be reading?” or “My child is behind, how can I get him to “catch up”.  There is no need to beat ourselves up as parents when we hear of some child who is working “above grade level”, or to be puffed up when our child is taking university classes at 13.  Grades, scores, labels: none of these exist outside of a school setting unless you let them.  The ultimate tragedy would be if a child, though not in a school setting, still feels labeled by their own parents.  Like they are somehow, not enough.     

We have the awesome privilege to know our children and watch them thrive, no matter what their gifts are.  Let’s not miss out on this priceless opportunity!

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*This is not to say that a label, with regards to a specific diagnosis in never helpful. For example, if a child is on the autism spectrum, it is very important to be able to connect with other parents and professionals who have experience guiding their children to success in their learning.

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