Monday, 15 June 2009

Nerd in a gilded cage

A while ago, this article caught my eye: it's about the different experiences of gifted girls and gifted boys. I've seen elsewhere the argument that gifted boys tend to play up through boredom at school, whereas girls will tend to hide their abilities to avoid drawing attention to themselves. In my (limited) experience of gifted children, this seems like a fair generalisation.

There are bigger questions, though, and one of them is why academically inclined kids of both sexes don't seem to fare too well in our culture (with exceptions, of course). My experience of school - and I've no idea whether it's typical or not - was that kids who were very academically able could found themselves marginalised. Bright boys were 'permitted' to do well at school, so long as they made it appear effortless and glib - few dared to admit to an actual love of learning. By and large, girls did less well than boys (particularly in science and maths, which very few girls studied with any seriousness). We were encouraged to be diligent in our work, but not to aspire. I've got a feeling that a girl who revealed her intellect in that environment would have been regarded as a bit of a smart arse, or perhaps even an aberration. I wasn't a gifted child - in fact, I didn't do very well at school at all - but I had latent nerdy interests which I never felt able to pursue. (I've made up for it with a vengeance in adulthood!)

My own daughter has been heartily encouraged by her own teachers to aspire and to love learning, and she's embraced it with joy. But then, she's only seven. A little older, and I suspect she'll become self-conscious, realising that other kids don't share many of her interests. It will interesting to see both how she reacts to this, and how her school supports her. I'm cautiously optimistic. We're a family of committed nerds, and our house is a kind of refuge where there's no shame in spending a quiet night in, watching documentaries from the public library.

What are the experiences of other THMers? And, perhaps more importantly, are your kids' schooling experiences different from your own?


Moz said...

Even with some school support I did not enjoy being a smart kid. From telling my mother that she wasn't supposed to let me read before I started kindy because I'd get ahead of the other kids (circa 1975, and frankly lead weights and earmuffs would not have achieved what they wanted), through to completely missing the point when I asked why I would want to do well in final exams ... "because it makes the school look good" does not cut it. My better memories of school are of peaceful boredom.

My youngest sister was also smart and did not stand out. It took me until age ~14 to work that one out, and I found it hard to do.

It leads to some really, really bad habits that make it very hard to succeed at university and in the workforce. There's not a big market reward for quietly doing the minimum necessary to come second. I also still expect to get taken apart if I come up with a dramatically good solution to something, and I don't deal well with being punished (because I'm used to being punished for other people's stupidity).

From what I gather things are slightly better now, but how much better is strongly affected by both wealth and luck. A cousin went to an academic private school and did slightly better, but he's much more socially ept than I am (whether he was before he went is open to question).

I don't/won't have kids, but the above is not an important part of the reason. The kids I have contact with are not especially smart, so it's hard for me to tell how easy they're finding it.

A Nonny Moose said...

I think I've said it here before, but the best encouragement I got was from male teachers. I was also encouraged by family, but I don't feel they pushed hard ENOUGH - I think that's because they reasoned I was intelligent enough to cope on my own. No - intelligence does not equate to emotional or study-ability maturity (no matter what my mother insisted. I was lazy as shit).

I did encounter some female-teacher-on-girl-student passive aggressiveness, but I don't think it was sexism or holding the kid back - it was more about unable to grasp that the student wanted to step outside the mandated criteria. My school had equal opportunites in arts, science, maths, literature, and languages (while Home Ec and Wood/metal work were equal opportunity offenders when it came to interest).

So, I got lost in the mix, which more points to the weakness in the system and size of classes. Like Moz, I have bad bad working habits now too.

I also don't/won't have kids, but watching my nieces progress (final year of high school) I see she's had more DIFFERENT opportunities at school than I did eg: dance/drama are a big deal, arts are much more important, media and computers are huge, and she was not pushed to continue subjects she wasn't good at (whereas it was expected in my years at school to continue science and math, even if you sucked hardest at them). I see her as being to do what she LIKES to do, not what's expected.

stargazer said...

i think the environment is stil rife that it's not cool to study. i got over this with my eldest by telling her that the kids who were doing well academically work really hard at home but never admit to it. they are just naturally brilliant - they have talent but they also have to put in some work. if she put in the work, she'd get the results too. so that's what she did too: put in the work but didn't tell anyone about it, and yes, the results have been coming through which gives her more confidence and makes her want to try to do better.

but yes, it's annoying that academic achievement is often seen as a bad thing by their peers. it's a difficult environment to cope with.

Anonymous said...

I was termed a gifted child at age 4. I had a reading age of 15 when I was 6. At intermediate age I was considered so advanced that I was not required to complete draft copies of letters and whatnot and was largely left to my own devices. Dangerous.
At high school, around the age of fourteen, I lost interest and opted to be a pass student. I remember being told to work harder and that I was capable of more, but not really understanding how this was to be done and what was expected. I was not made aware of the real and immediate possibilities open to me if I did learn how to work; there was no map provided that would show me what the real outcomes could be (other than making the school look good as per Moz), or the relevance of what/how I was learning. I agree with A Nonny Moose: I was smart, but because of this was not afforded the same access to skills that would have improved my study ability/work ethic. I then became seriously bored, lost confidence in my abilities and shrank below mediocrity. I failed school cert and bursary english (though I achieved a '2' in sixth form).
After leaving school, I worked in a petrol station. I started uni at 20, only to crash and burn because of my laziness and inability to engage with study.
I am now 27, in my third year of an english degree and consistently getting impeccable marks. But I still struggle heftily with focusing on work and employing effective strategies to keep myself on task.

Hence this comment. I'm supposed to be studying for exams as we speak. Bloody hell :/

A Nonny Moose said...

"I was smart, but because of this was not afforded the same access to skills that would have improved my study ability/work ethic."

One thing that really bugged me is that I got told to "study", but NO ONE told me HOW to study. To this day, I'm still unclear on what studying for a test or exam should entail. I mucked around with copying facts from a book, reading text, or taking trial exams but it didn't make sense - memorizing by rote didn't seem a logical way to absorb.

It was like there was this Americanized image ideal of a "studying student" - sitting at a desk, diligently writing 'neath the glare of a single lamp, late at night.

hungrymama said...

I had some teachers who genuinely liked me and worked to extend me and others who actually seemed threatened by a bright little girl and tried to hold me back. Like several others here I quickly became adept at doing the exact amount of work required to scrape a pass and no more. It would never have occurred to me to hide my abilities though I can remember being teased for using "big words" and the like.

I've mentioned before that I very carefully chose my son's school because of the experiences I had. The classes at his school are all vertically grouped with a range of about 3 years in each one, there are lots of opportunities for self-paced learning and following their own interestss and the kids are supported to be their own quirky selves

Anonymous said...

I'm going to post anonymously on this one because I am writing about a family member. My sister is a physics and maths-loving geek who started her engineering degree this year. As she is quite a bit younger than me I have been curious to observe the development of this because the maths/science thing is certainly not something she got from her immediate family, who are arty more than anything else. In addition, as a high school student she would get approached and invited to model (she is tall and blonde), which she did and which may have led to more. So it may be easy to imagine she would end up taking quite a different path from a geeky science one. In her case, I think what worked was good general parental support and good teachers. Though neither of her parents went to uni, they were involved in her education right from the beginning and this seems to be important if kids are to succeed.

Anonymous said...

I loved playcentre and primary school, started to loath school in intermediate and pretty much flagged high school.

The problem I had was that very little of what we did in high school seemed relevant. As A Nonny Moose mentioned, everyone kept telling me to study, but no-one bothered to tell me how.

The result? I spent my high school days being a complete smart arse whose only goal was to get teachers rambling about something completely unrelated to what was being taught. My studious peers loved me.

I started studying again when I was 24 and am thoroughly enjoying it, in fact I don't think I'll stop for a while.

My mother was extremely enthusiastic about my education when I was younger and I think this eventually paid off.

I don't have any children, but I am an early childhood teacher and can see the system changing (slowly). But above all it really is high-quality teachers and supportive parents that make the difference.

Hendo said...

I considered being anon for this, then realised that this was a hangover from the time when I hated being thought of as smart because I was constantly teased from it.

So, brains unite!

I was considered a gifted kid from an early age in primary school, and recall at some stages feeling that 'being smart' was as normal as having brown hair or something. I was smart, my friend was good at running, this other kid was into computers, etc. At other times I remember getting upset over good marks because I knew I would be teased. I was a quiet, shy, sensitive kind of kid and so that made me a better target (I now realise).

OTOH, I realise that I had a not-bad experience compared to some others. For all of primary school I went to a very small (top enrolment 35 kids, low point 18 and all in one room) school, and this had the effect of making me a pretty independent learner. When you have one teacher for four (or seven) age levels of kids, the teacher has to set everyone up to be able to work on their own at least some of the time. My teacher learnt to set me and another bright girl in my year level permission to just work ahead in the book or do another activity.

Of course, sometimes I didn't choose the greatest activities. I did do magazine puzzles in my year 11 language class because I'd get ahead of everyone else and get bored.