Monday, 4 August 2008

Some are more equal than others

In a country where primary and secondary level education is a universal right, it's sad to see the IHC bringing a complaint against the government to the Human Rights Commission. According to the IHC, a lack of adequate resourcing means children with disabilities are not receiving education of the same standard as their able-bodied peers. Disabled kids are being prevented from going on school camps and other extra-curricular activities, and have been suspended for behaviours related to their disabilities (not misconduct). Parents of disabled children are being asked to contribute financially to keep their kids in mainstream classes.

In the past, children with disabilities were sent to specialist schools designed to cater to their specific educational needs, but when they left school they often became socially segregated. Disabled kids deserve a chance to be part of society like everyone else; and, at least as importantly, everyone else should have the opportunity to grow up alongside kids with disabilities. Humankind is a broad spectrum, and learning to live tolerantly alongside diverse others is clearly a good thing. Most people would, I think, agree with me thus far. But I believe - and almost no one sees eye-to-eye with me on this one - that we should apply this same logic to elite education*. So nutty are my views that I'm scared to share them in polite company. But what is the blogosphere for if not for sharing nutty views?

My involvement with the mainstreaming vs 'specialised' education debate is from another angle. My daughter is a gifted child, and her precocious wee brother looks to be following in her footsteps. I've had a little bit to do with other parents of gifted children (or gifted parents, as they call themselves for brevity). Many of these parents strongly support specialised and separate educational programmes for their kids.

Like many a liberal leftie, my partner and I are raising our kids as a sort of benign social experiment. We have free and non-oppressive gender roles in our house (to the extent that when my daughter, M, made her dad a necklace out of crappy golden plastic beads, he felt obliged to wear it to work, to the great amusement of his colleagues). As a family, we spend an embarrassing amount of time resolving minor conflicts by talking earnestly about our feelings.

M's giftedness posed a challenge to our doggedly egalitarian ways. We've dealt with it by explaining it to her thus: talents - hers and other people's - are wonderful things to be celebrated, but getting on with and being decent to other people is more important still. Use your powers for good, we say, drawing our parenting inspiration from Yoda. M knows she's better at maths, reading and science than the other kids in her class, but she doesn't believe she's in any way different from these kids.

When parents - whether of kids with disabilities, or gifted children - criticise the school system for its one-size-fits-all inflexibility, they're not imagining it. Large classes and limited resources mean it's extremely difficult to cater to every child's individual learning needs. Until a couple of decades ago, clever kids were put up a class and strugglers were kept back a year. Grouping kids by ability in this way was an easy to administer system, but lead to social difficulties for kids separated from their peer groups.

It's now recognised that kids' social development is crucial so they're kept with their peers, but as the IHC's human rights complaint shows, under-resourcing means that diverse kids' needs are not met within mainstreamed classes: a situation of segregation by default.

Gifted parents often report that their kids are unhappy amongst their own peer groups; and this unhappiness comes in large part because they feel they have nothing in common with others of the same age. I deeply sympathise with this - no one wants their kid to feel alienated, whatever his or her abilities. I'm also reluctant to offer parenting prescriptions to other people; but I do feel that if you teach your child that he or she is different to (and perhaps better than) others, rather than emphasising the great amount of common ground all people share regardless of their IQs, you may undermine your kids' capacity to build friendships with others.

In the delightful utopian left-wing paradise which exists only in my mind, kids would be entirely mainstreamed, even to the point that single sex schooling and streamed classes within schools were abandoned. Resource-intensive teaching would enable kids
within mainstreamed classes to engage in learning programmes tailored to their individual needs, whatever those needs might be, while reaping the benefits which come from a healthily diverse social life.

If M was put into some sort of accelerated programme (such as the small number of schools around the country specifically for gifted children), she could probably learn quicker and accomplish more. But there would be something distasteful about taking my kid out of the very education system that parents of disabled kids are struggling to get their children into. Arguably, I'm depriving M of educational opportunities with my nutty views. But if I denied her the chance to grow up alongside a normal cross-section of society, with all the abilities, talents, foibles and variety it has to offer, I think I would be depriving her of a kind of learning which is even more valuable.

*I need to be upfront about my hypocrisy: my daughter goes to a Catholic school. The kids there are from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but with only 5% of the roll reserved for non-Catholics, there's not much religious variety. We chose the school because of it's emphasis on ethical development and social justice. Feel free to disapprove!


Anna McM said...

I'd be very grateful to anyone who can make the first bit of my post appear...Julie?

hungrymama said...

I'm not sure if my oldest is gifted or just quite bright and, frankly, I'd rather not find out. I have sent him to a school that does a lot of vertical grouping (for example he's currently in a class of year 0-3s) so he can work at his own level without being set apart from his peers. so far it's working nicely.

Placebogirl said...

As a gifted-identified kid myself, I'd like to point out that not all gifted kids' unhappiness comes from believing they are better than everyone else--I was picked on for being smart, and grew up thinking everyone else was better than me. In the sports-centric culture in New Zealand, being a kid who is gifted in academics and completely ungifted at sports is no picnic. Gifted and talented programs were the only places I met other kids like me, and some of the damage I did myself trying to just fit in will never be undone.

Having said that, had I been in a Catholic school with the greater resources and smaller class sizes, things might not have been so difficult for me.

I'm certainly not criticising your approach, Anna, just offering a different perspective. I wish you every success with M and her little brother.

Deborah said...

Hah! I beat Julie to being the fix-it geek around here.

It will probably be the only time, 'tho.

Hugh said...

In the sports-centric culture in New Zealand, being a kid who is gifted in academics and completely ungifted at sports is no picnic.


The ex-expat said...

Interesting. First up I think age is just as an arbitrary way of dividing kids up into manageable chunks as ability.

My mother who up until fairly recently taught the little guys (year 1 and 2) used to say that in some cases some kids were be shuffled off to school before they were ready and they'd probably do better in the classroom if they waited a few months or even a year before starting school. But of course the social stigma of being 'left behind' means these kids are being pushed through at a faster rate than they are mentally prepared for.

In the case of mainstreaming it is hard. There are some cases where perhaps specialized schooling would be of benefit, and if the mainstream teachers don't have the support and necessary training it can be a disaster.

Like everything in education you have to balance a child's individual intellectual development with their social development and that of the community as a whole.

Anna McM said...

Hi Hungrymama - my daughter's old school also did vertical grouping, and I think it's fantastic. The best of all worlds, in fact.

Thanks Placebo - I has hoping someone identified as gifted would contribute. I don't want to imply that gifted kids necessarily think they're better than everyone else, or that their problems stem from this (although I've met gifted parents who've been quite competitive and encouraged their kids to think this way).

My daughter is resoundingly useless at sport, and feels this very keenly. It's something we've discussed a lot - and we've resolved that it's important to respect the talents of the kids who are good at sport, acknowledge we can't ourselves be good at everything, and enjoy the things we are good at. M is pretty accepting of this, but it still troubles her from time to time. I've heard the occasional gifted parent react to this situation by denigrating whatever activity it is their kid isn't good at, and I strongly disagree with this.

The monocultural sporty thing of NZ schools - and NZ generally - really irks me. I went through school as an absolute intellectual misfit who did music and read about archaeology when everyone else did netball and rugby (bloody Southland). I have to say that I didn't feel socially excluded, though (probably no thanks to either of the schools I attended), and I remedied the intellectual things later on in adult life.

disturbed-kiwi said...

As a guy who just recently got his Diploma in Secondary Teaching (Yeah! Whoo!) I have the impression that keeping kids with their peers does much more for them then giving them more work.

I can't be bothered looking it up or anything, but it is the impression I got from the study I did for my Diploma (Yeah! Whoo!).

Anna McM said...

Good for you, disturbed kiwi - I think it's great seeing blokes moving into teaching!

You're right, ex-pat, about age being arbitrary - but it's the arbitrary principle that structures many of the milestones that are important to kids. Both my partner and I went up a year at school (as was common in those days), and there were feelings of exclusion that came from others getting to sit their licenses first, getting to go to the pub first and so on.

In my partner's case, being younger also meant being a bit smaller, which can be tough, especially for boys. And it may mean going through puberty later than everyone else, and feeling like a kid when everyone else is growing up.

M (who has actually gone up a year - it sort of happened by accident!) is already feeling a bit left out because the other kids have lost more teeth than she has!

The ex-expat said...

I think that part of it has to do is if the move 'up' or 'down' of the individual child is done in isolation.

Due to studying unpopular subjects, at high school, I was often in classes with people above and below me. My music class often had fifth, sixth, and seventh formers studying together. Thus I had of mixture of specialized learning around an area of interest (music) but got the peer interaction through my homeroom.

What I am trying to get at is that I think that there is a bit of false dichotomy between peers and ability. And that if schools are willing to look outside the box they might be able to give their kids more varied learning styles which accommodate the best of both worlds.

Anna McM said...

I think there are a couple of things which made your music class (very similar to mine!) a better situation than putting kids up (or down) a class because of their ability.

I would guess you weren't completely on your own - there would have been other kids from your form? Also, I'm assuming the kids knew they were put together that way for economy of scale reasons, not because they were too smart/dumb/whatever to be catered for within their own age group.

I'm mostly concerned with the consequences of taking kids out of whatever is the 'normal' educational/social environment because they are achieving at a different level to their peers. I think that's where the dodgy social message resides.

Azlemed said...

Mainstreaming of children is always going to have its pros and cons, as a primary teacher I found it difficult dealing with either ends of the intelligence spectrum as the resources are not there.

My daugther has just started school, it will be interesting to watch and she how she goes, esp as a child of two "geeks". We are making an effort for her to do sport but its triathlon and duathlons not netball etc.

I found the high school Anna went to was too much for me being a geek so I changed schools to escape.

My husband would be now classified as gifted, he was put up two years at school in nz despite being from a non english speaking background. he was lucky and didnt care that he was heaps younger than his peers.

Education is always going to have contraversal aspects how we sort them depends on us as a society and how we challenge the system.

The ex-expat said...

Anna, I guess we both agree that perhaps the challenge is to redefine what the 'normal' education environment is.

As you say, the students didn't have any labels attached to the class, because it was seen as a resourcing issue.

A far cry from the way I felt when taken out for special education classes in fourth form. I hated the labels so much I gave up and didn't receive the help I needed until seventh form.

Hugh said...

Both my younger brother and I were identified as gifted children. We went to the same school, but six years apart, and in the interim a very strong streaming program was put into place. The result was that I was placed in the general population where he was put in one of two classes for gifted pupils. He's been a much higher academic achiever than me - he has a phD and a lucrative career as a highly paid industrial chemist ahead of him, while I only have an Honours degree and a fairly humdrum career as a bureaucrat to look forward to.

This is not meant to be a whine session for my rubbish life, since I'm aware that I'm luckier than most people in the world. But with almost everything else being the same - same upbringing, same environment, even the same school - and with only one major variant, he turned out a lot better than I did.

The only problem I really have with streaming is that the manner in which a child is or isn't identified as 'gifted' isn't necessarily that good. Specifically, and without wanting to denigrate the objectivity of anybody here or the intelligence of any of your kids, I'm not sure that parents are best at assessing whether or not a child is gifted.

I actually think some more neutral term is needed than the unabashedly positive 'gifted'. Nothing springs to mind, though.

Anna McM said...

I hate the term 'gifted', and indeed the whole concept of it, on the grounds that it implies fundamental difference from other children. I also feel that identifying giftedness is a red herring - identifying a programme of learning for each child which is rewarding and appropriate surely matters far more than the particular level at which each programme is pitched.

The definition which the NZ Association of Gifted Children (or whatever it's called) uses is achievement by a child at least two years ahead of his/her chronological age in one or more areas. In my daughter's case, it's straightforward to observe and measure by parents and teachers, but in the case of other kids (particularly where there may be behavioural problems and other stuff happening) it must be much harder to detect. I don't think you can dismiss parents' insight into their kids' abilities though - generally, we do spend the most time with our own kids.

I've resisted the psychological testing which some parents arrange for their kids, a) because I haven't needed to do it, and b) because I think it's demeaning and generally crappy. Unless there's a good reason to do it (ie it's needed to establish a sound educational programme for the child), I think it's tantamount to treating your kid like a performing monkey.

I look back at my own academic achievements, which were unbelievably lacklustre until a few years ago, and think I could have done better with a better standard of education - but I still feel that could have been delivered through mainstreaming, so that I could have enjoyed the social benefits as well.

It's interesting, Demelza, that you felt alienated at our old school as well - it wasn't an incredibly pro-academic place, and wasn't at all encouraging of girls' academic achievement. I think boys do have it worse than girls when it comes to NZ's culture of academic non-achievement, but it does affect both sexes.

The ex-expat said...

but in the case of other kids (particularly where there may be behavioural problems and other stuff happening) it must be much harder to detect.
That's a good point. Particularly as a number of gifted kids also have learning disabilities (paradoxical though it may seem).

Anonymous said...

When I was at school I was bored and created trouble for the first few years until I was bumped up a class or two into "accelerated learning". Especially in Intermediate this worked for me as we didn't get too far ahead but the focussed on broadening our education experiences. I was not supported from home though and at high school (SGHS for you Southlanders) I was identified as gifted and my mother fought it tooth and nail. She even threatened to withdraw me from school at one point as her opinion of 'gifted' was sheer egotism.

Those years were awful but I had fantatsic school support and was accepted into Uni at 16. I wasn't allowed to go (so left home and went to work) but the fact that those teachers believed in me was so important to me. Sports weren't my thing at all but it was never an issue.

My oldest is 5 and has just started school and I fear for her. She is smart and is already bored.

Anna McM said...

Oh dear, Anon - was it the label 'gifted' that your mum didn't like, or was she just uncomfortable with the whole idea of you being academically ahead of your peers?

Anonymous said...

Anna - the term gifted wasn't used at all. I one teacher saying "special" and "will go a long way". I was in a streamed system and my mother was proud that I was in the top class but she was very unhappy about me being anymore than that. I wasn't allowed to do any extension work or any out of school activities(although I sneakily took extra things at school with teachers help). I admit to being a difficult teen and we were constantly at battle anyway

Azlemed said...

Anna, that high school wasnt very supportive at all, esp if you werent the head boy who was the lead in joseph.... cant remember his name, thats why i changed to sghs, mainly to escape the bullying though.

I was streamed at sghs which was good for me to make me try to keep up, (am only above average lol not gifted).

I worry for my children as they are showing signs of being "gifted", I dont want to push them though and dont want to label them as gifted either.

Its really hard to know what is best for them, but working with their teachers does help.


Anna McM said...

Working with kids' teachers is really important, I think. Regarding extension work, I'm a big fan of increasing the breadth of M's studies rather than simply accelerating her through the years of study quicker. The best teacher M's had did this - when the other kids were writing a story, the teacher would take the same exercie and make it a bit more complex for M by asking her to identify an area of research, go ahead and research it, then write it up. M was as happy as could be, but still working alongside her peers and doing a similar task. The teacher told us what M was working on (or whatever she was particularly interested in at a given time), and we would try to supplement it outside school with library books, DVDs, museum visits, etc. Of course, not every parent has the time to do this sort of thing, and it doesn't work for everyone.

Is there usually a correlation between being bright/nerdily inclined and being bullied for both sexes? What do people think?

Hugh said...

Is there usually a correlation between being bright/nerdily inclined and being bullied for both sexes? What do people think?

I'd say moreso for men than women. But I'm aware that a lot of female bullying is invisible to the casual gaze.

Placebogirl said...

I was bullied by male and female peers and older kids, but I can't speak for whether my experience is typical.

Anna, reading about how M feels about her lack of sporting ability made my heart hurt--I was that kid. It seemed even worse to me because sporting achievement is held in such high regard in NZ, whereas academic achievement is considered a social liability. I would argue that the way bright kids are treated at school in New Zealand has nearly as much to do with the "brain drain" as student loans.

Having said all that, can I make a suggestion for M? Keep trying individual pursuits-type physical activities with her, ones where a team is not dependent on her, and she can compete with her own personal bests (of course, you may already be doing this, so forgive me if I am making useless suggestions). I feel VERY fortunate to have developed the habit of movement (including joining a local community gym and doing aerobics when I was 14, taking up long distance swimming when I was 13, rock climbing when I was 20 ...that sort of thing). I feel very fortunate to have developed the habit of movement when I was young, because it helps keep me not just healthy (and health is a big deal to me, as I live with a chronic illness), but happy these days. It helps me feel like my body is less defective, improves my impression of my body, reduces my stress... On top of that, I have made many firm friends through exercise--some of my closest friends are aerobics instructors, and I met my husband rock climbing. I wish everyone could have the experience I have had, as a result of finding the right kind of movement for me...I sure hope M does too.

Ari said...

Definitely have to third/fourth the whole thing about kids, especially boys, suffering for being more academically inclined than sporty.

I too dislike "gifted", and "special". I never felt like I was any better than my classmates, (I certainly didn't pay more attention) I just had different interests and talents. With the sorts of resources we pour into first fifteens, it's kinda sad that a good student who does really well in an area like art or languages or music doesn't often get the support they need to fully explore that talent.

I actually deliberately dropped out of the program that advanced us forwards a maths class at my school because I didn't want to make my social situation any worse :P

Anna McM said...

Thanks Placebo - I do appreciate that. M is dead keen to play soccer next season, which in some ways I'm pleased about (coming repeatedly last in the cross country hasn't battered her ego too much) but in other ways I'm a bit anguished about (I don't want her to be upset if she's not very good).

I completely agree that it's important to have a go at sport and enjoy yourself in your own way and to the extent of your own abilities. (I get particularly pissed off with the likes of John Walker going on about how sport should be an elite activity, and how we need to take the emphasis of everyone participating and get more competitive. Dick.)

hungrymama said...

I can remember being willing to trade in all my academic abilities just to not be the slowest runner in my year!

My son has not yet realised that he isn't good at sports - something I am very grateful for.

Azlemed said...

I dont think bullying is gender specific, but as a woman i found the whole bullying situation to be different to that of my male peers... for them it seemed more of a sports vs geek thing. for me there was this and the added look thing too, as well as popularity amongst the guys.

i am definitely encouraging k to do sports, but it is what she choses and swimming lessons too...

i want my kids to have better chances than i did

Azlemed said...

Hi Anna, its ineresting I have been brought up as a feminist, but going to that high school strengthened my resolve that inequality shouldnt exist if that makes sense. I became an even stronger feminist because of it.

I especially disliked the way that the head boys were always made a huge fuss of yet the head girls were often far better academics etc but not celebrated like the boys.

thecostofliving said...

Here is a snippet from an old blog post of mine addressing this topic from my perspective as a gifted-identified kid (ok, now adult):

"People like to believe in and sympathize with those things that make you "weaker" or "less" than others, but they see an increase in IQ as necessarily being a positive thing which doesn't lend well to such support. The medical community has "disorder"-ed and "syndrome"-ed everything they possibly can, but notice that they are all shortcomings. No one realizes that having a high IQ can actually be a very confusing place to be in the world as well - you are just as far removed from the mean as someone who is considered to be mentally disabled. In Louisiana, being gifted actually made you fall under the Special Education provisions, which to me makes perfect sense. As most people know, I find the whole "hey, let's call it a disorder" phase of society a sign of the apocalypse. The last thing I want is another bullshit disorder. But people should know it's not all roses, either.

I think that lots of people misinterpret high IQ. To me, it means that my brain moves quickly. Very quickly. It processes what I'm reading, what I'm seeing, what I'm learning much faster than the average person. It can move that quickly while interpreting or just absorbing several things at once, depending on the individual bits of knowledge. It does not mean that I am mistake-less. It does not equate to perfect scores on quizzes, tests, etc. It does not mean that I always know the answer to all questions. A high IQ does not make me a storage bin for random facts, it makes me better able to process new information or use my old information to solve/deal with other thoughts than the average person. A high IQ does not make me able to "know everything". In fact, the one thing I absolutely can't do is memorize, which is a very common trait of gifted children and adults. I have to understand the information, and then it will be in my brain, but if it's just disconnected facts, definitions, or formulas, without context or derivation, there is absolutely no way it will stick in my brain. Not a chance.

I guess one of my points here is to rail on people who gain immense satisfaction from finding any fault at all with those who have high IQs - or worse, those who went to "better" schools than they did. I feel nervous even typing this, mostly because I feel like, geez, I'll mistype, and someone will go, "If you're so freaking smart, why'd you misspell 'monkey'? Huh?" Trust me, there are lots and lots of people out there with inferiority complexes, and someone who went to an Ivy League school, or someone who claims a high IQ is a great target for their anger and frustration.

So, what does this have to do with the price of rice? Good question. Well, being gifted comes with a few other characteristics, such as:
- A very strong sense of fairness and unfairness. There were moments in my life where something unfair was decided, whether an argument between my sisters or a rift in global politics, and those moments remain branded in my memory. When I think of them, my stomach still curdles, even though some moments happened when I was four years old. It should also be mentioned that I am a super-logical person when it comes to decision-making, so the act of choosing the option that is logically unfair to me is offensive. A great illustration here is that quintessential problem of, "Do I let them blow up a town of 20,000 or 2,000?" There are people who can never get over this, thinking they have to blow up anyone. To me the answer is blatantly obvious: of course you take the town of 2,000, less victims is much more logical. I think that this is also why life decisions are so damn difficult for me, since there is rarely a logically "right answer". There are a few dumb moves, but there are lots of decent paths to choose as well. That confuses me and makes me want to maximize my decision, which necessarily forces me to focus on concrete outcomes rather than picking the best option for me at the time, which requires just a gut feeling and emotions. In other words, I realized that I'm looking at my current decisions in money, practicality, and future pay-off, rather than considering what it is that I truly want to do.

- Mastering something = torturous boredom. I love new projects. But once I feel like I've "mastered" that, meaning I've hit a certain level of knowledge, I get insta-bored. From then on, I really, really can't do anything in that arena anymore. This is obviously a huge occupational hazard, since employers really just want to train you and then have to use that knowledge to do your damn job. That's a hard formula for me to swallow. I thought that academia might be a good place for me because of this, but yesterday one of my friends said, "How do you know you won't get sick of being a professor after a year?" And I had no answer. Sure, my projects would change. My schedule would be flexible, so at least I won't start hurting just from the monotony of getting to work at 9am and leaving at 6pm/7pm/8pm every day. But the point hit home: what if it's still too monotonous? Funny, the thought never occurred to me, but it's an awfully good one. In that case, I'd be much better off picking whatever job has the bigger career ladder to climb, so that I can aim that restless, "I'm bored" energy at mastering the next rung of the ladder instead of leaving and starting at entry-level somewhere else.

- Being told things I already know kills me. I can't stand sitting in a class in which the teacher goes over material I already know. Before I was in the gifted program, I refused to go to school, mostly because of this. I just couldn't sit there and watch them teach concepts and formulas that I had already learned. This makes me a lame candidate for corporate life - I feel like most business lingo is common sense wrapped in a new vocabulary package and then sold to a whole lot of morons who don't realize it's common sense. However, I'm trying to fix this (I've been trying for a long time) - for example, I know how to twiddle my pencil to distract myself when the teacher does launch into a topic I already know." said...

I was gifted identified, and whenever I think about it I think about one moment in late high school when another student (a visitor from Germany) and I were talking about the German heritage of the British royal family and we were instructed by a friend to talk about something interesting for once. She made it clear she was going to talk over the top of us until we switched topics. I had felt far more miserable with other episodes, but never so constrained.

Male acquaintances of mine talk instead about the physical violence they experienced from their peers from about age eight to age fourteen, and the taunts of 'poofter' after that. (The men I know who were both 'gifted' and gay don't talk about being hassled for it, I have not asked why.)

My anec-sample of adults who were gifted children and went to unstreamed rural/regional high schools comes up with a severe bullying rate of about 50%. Many of the unbullied 50% also happened to have been gifted at sports as well.

I am not sure what to do about this when I have children, it seems so out of control of the individual parent (except by choosing streamed schools, up to a point, I have heard stories of kids at Sydney Grammar being teased because they started high school without existing reading knowledge of Latin). Pre-teens and younger teens have very strong social norms that perpetrate themselves from generation to generation. My perception of being between eight and sixteen was that it was the period over which I felt I had the least control over how I was perceived and what social roles I could perform. One of the best social experiences I had was doing maths with a class one to two years older than me, not so much because of the age difference but because that age grouping by chance contained a group of about 15 talented mathematics students with a interesting class dynamic, my own age group having perhaps 3.

My mother (a primary school teacher) thinks having older siblings helps with being a teenager:the siblings teach by example what choices and roles are available even if they didn't experience them as a choice at the time. So more vertical integration for all students sounds like a good idea to me, so that they have the option of modelling themselves on differently aged children. Pity it's so contrary to the entire setup of the K-12 system over many years.