Saturday, July 07, 2007

Common as Dirt

"After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves. "

That quote is obviously a bit of an unschooling manifesto. My goodness, Gatto turns a nice phrase. But it also touches on something I've been thinking of again in the past week or two. It began when an on-line friend e-mailed me a couple of links and suggestions from the TAGMAX e-mail list, and asked if she should continue forwarding such things, because maybe I was on TAGMAX. Was I? Would I consider joining? She recommended it. Good list -- busy, but lots of great info.

Well, I was on that e-mail list, once, for a while. See, the "TAG" in TAGMAX is "Talented and Gifted." The "MAX" I suppose has something to do with maximizing potential through an individualized, home-based learning approach. TAGMAX is for parents homeschooling Gifted Kids. Upper-case G Gifted. Members of that special club of the intellectual elite.

There was a time, many years ago, when I looked at the things my eldest was doing and felt proud, amazed, special, awed. I realized that there was some pretty unusual stuff going on there -- especially in its manner, depth and intensity. I joined TAGMAX and couple of on-line message board for parents of gifted kids. I admit it felt nice to be part of a 'club' of parents of, well, special-in-THAT-particular-way kids. It was helpful to hear from others who had grappled with barely-five-year-old fluent readers of Young Adult level fiction. It felt comfortable to be in a place where asking a question about explaining negative numbers to a curious five-year-old didn't get you accused of academic hothousing. And I especially enjoyed the stimulating discussion among outside-the-box, creative parents about all facets of parenting and education.

But the good stuff came at a price for me. I found that hearing about early achievements made me want my kids to meet or surpass those achievements. When I heard of kids being fast-tracked academically, of parents advocating long and hard for academic challenge and enrichment, I felt competitive stirrings inside me. I found I was trying to reassure myself that my kids could do this or that, at least if they wanted to. I didn't act on those feelings, but I didn't like having them and it cost me emotional energy to beat them back.

I unsubscribed from TAGMAX pretty quickly. I was pretty sure that in a school situation my kids would meet the criteria for giftedness, but I lost all interest in the label. Gradually I felt much better. I just relaxed into what was working with my kids, and things seemed to flow pretty well without the need for specialized approaches and resources. What I discovered is that it just doesn't matter whether an unschooled child is intellectually gifted or not. There is no poorness of fit with the curriculum, or with the classroom of age-peers. There are no problematic asynchronicities when you step outside the box of a conventional educational approach. There is no need for a label, for testing, for Identification in an unschooling environment. If your child is reading and comprehending at a high school level but doesn't yet print lower case letters, it doesn't matter one whit. If your child relates best to older children or adults with similar interests and is a fish out of water with agemates, that's perfectly fine.

That was the first realization: giftedness is a non-issue in an unschooling environment. That was the easy one. The not-so-easy one came later, more gradually, and it has to do with Gatto's "common as dirt" comment.

First I should say that I know, and understand why, comments like "all children have gifts" raise the dander of parents of highly gifted kids in the school system. That phrase often epitomizes the perspective of a person who seeks to remove individualized educational resources and services from children who are intellectually precocious. It can be a way of saying "everyone's special, so we should just treat everyone the same." Personally I believe if everyone's special, that means we should treat everyone uniquely, including the most intellectually precocious kids.

But I tend to agree with Gatto: genius is as common as dirt. See, I teach Suzuki violin, and over the past decade of part-time teaching I've taught probably twenty or thirty children. And while I haven't seen that spark of genius inside them all, I've seen it in so many of them that I'm pretty certain that when I haven't seen it, the deficiency is in the observer, not the child. It's not always academic-style genius, of course. But neither is it the platitude type of pseudo-genius, the sort of thing you make a point to publicly recognize in people who haven't really done anything exceptional but do have strengths in one area that occasionally let them shine. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about real brilliance. So many children have it!

Some children are like shiny coins you can hold in your hand and you see their brilliance staring you in the face. Other children are like shiny coins dropped on the lawn -- every bit as brilliant, but you won't see that brilliance unless the sun is shining, and you're standing in just the right place and looking in just the right direction.

My children are more like shiny coins you can hold in your hand and admire. They have clear intellectual precocity that people notice easily. Erin and Fiona especially. Sophie is sometimes like that, but at other times is a shiny coin left in the change pot on the kitchen counter, merrily shining away but not attracting as much attention. And Noah is sometimes the shiny coin you put in one of your inumerable jacket pockets and have to search for for a couple of minutes to find. My children are incredibly special and incredibly brilliant. I'm thrilled that I've had as easy a time as I have discovering and nurturing their gifts, and that unschooling has allowed them to soar by, as Gatto suggests, managing themselves. They're exceptional, perhaps, in that their gifts are easy to see and show up seemingly magically in neat and tangible ways. But I don't think they're exceptional in having gifts. Just common as dirt.

17 comments:

  1. I love the quote and I love what you have to say about it.

    It is funny how one notices some giftedness immediately, and yet in others it sort of evolves or emerges later. What I think that homeschooling and unschooling contributes is that the giftedness is not sqwashed so that a child fits into the box and schedule and time line of the public school ideals. Giftedness is allowed to do its thing, so to speak.

    I love that you give me much to think about, Miranda!

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  2. Great post, Miranda. I love that. I have felt the same things about Rhiannon. I started to cringe every time someone said she was "so advanced!" Because how can you really be 'advanced' if you are simply following your own natural schedule?

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  3. Anonymous10:18 pm

    Nice post. I do dislike the word "gifted"...I've probably had about the same number of violin students as you in my "un-Suzuki" (and non-traditional) studio, and one thing that strikes me very forcibly is that they all learn differently, think about music differently, and that all of these approaches are valid. I'm thinking about one student in particular, who has been identified as "gifted" in school, whose father is a competent flute player, whose house is filled with music. She dropped orchestra because she couldn't figure out what the teacher was talking about, and decided to try lessons with me. I had to come up with totally new ways of explaining things to her, and I finally came to see that her understanding of music is completely different than mine. I used to (naively) think that the difference between me and Josua Bell is that JB is...better. But on the same continuum. Perhaps that's just as silly a notion as the idea that a person's intelligence can be reduced to a single number or that students in a class can be ranked in order. My model is now more 3D...or nD.

    Deborah

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  4. Very well put. Beauty and brilliance are in the eye of the beholder, and what a joy to behold the beauty and brilliance of our children on a daily basis, without labels or external expectations, to savor it without having to share it with others. The proof is in the dirt all around us.

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  5. So timely! I've noticed many posts by unschoolers recently talking about their gifted children and I really wish they'd stop and consider the implications of such a label. Yes my daughter has an amazing memory for animal/dinosaur/science facts but she also has my fear of flying objects, which makes her nervous in team sports, and nowhere near my younger daughter's body awareness. Is one of them gifted? Who cares, they're mine, they're unique and I'm here to help them figure out where they want to go.

    I was gifted in school, so was my husband and two of my sisters. In stead of rewarding us for our work it reinforced how bored we were in school (the only common trait we could ever establish that linked gifted kids we knew) and isolated the sister who wasn't gifted.

    Love them, each of them, for the people they are.

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  6. Anonymous1:32 pm

    I agree it is best you left TAGMAX if if reading general comments about other people's kids changed the way you viewed or treated your own. To me though then taking the leap to reject the notion of intellectual giftedness is just a variation on that same theme. The choices aren't really use it as a standard to measure your kids or reject the existence of it entirely.

    There is a big difference between saying every kid has something special and unique about them, and saying no kid has a talent so unusual or exceptional that it takes special effort or accommodation to handle it.

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  7. Anon, I think you're reading into my post a lot that I didn't write, and missing the point on some that I did write. First, being on TAGMAX didn't change the way I viewed or treated my children. I specifically said that. It changed the way I thought about their achievements. And so yes, it was good I left.

    I am not rejecting the notion of intellectual giftedness. I'm challenging the notion of a unidimensional "I" factor, and of the merit and necessity, in an unschooling environment in particular, of measuring it.

    In my third-last paragraph I said that the more I learn to look from a totally outside-the-box perspective, the more I see real genius in a huge proportion of kids. Not "something special". Way beyond that.

    I'm not saying that no child requires special effort or accommodation. Far from it. I think every child deserves it, and if they got it, we'd see genius shining far more often! What I'm saying is that unschooling is my "special effort or accommodation" -- and measuring and labelling are totally unnecessary.

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  8. Anonymous5:55 pm

    Blogs are weird in a way. They obviously reflect the opinions of their users but they also invite commentary too and I hope it is okay that I respond.

    You said: "I found that hearing about early achievements made me want my kids to meet or surpass those achievements... I felt competitive stirrings inside me. I found I was trying to reassure myself that my kids could do this or that, at least if they wanted to. I didn't act on those feelings, but I didn't like having them and it cost me emotional energy to beat them back."

    I agree if you've got that kind of stuff rumbling in you it makes perfect sense to find a way to address that and I think it is really impressive that you did so and that you can be honest about it now.

    I want observe though that those feeling were feelings in you. Not something that is inherent in the prospect of acknowledging intellectual giftedness or differences just in your expereince of it. I've read TAGMAX on and off for years and not one single time have I had any of the competitive feelings you described. I'm simply wondering if there is some relationship between those competitive feelings being so strong for you and your current musings.

    "Gradually I felt much better. I just relaxed into what was working with my kids, and things seemed to flow pretty well without the need for specialized approaches and resources."

    That's great! I wouldn't generalize from that though to make a proclamation about all unschooling children and giftedness. If your eight year old had been ready for college math courses and you were totally unable to help the child with that...it may well have required specialized approaches and resources.

    "There is no need for a label, for testing, for Identification in an unschooling environment."

    I think that is true if you intend your child to exclusively be at home. If their unschooling leads for a desire for university classes or other outside opportunities you may find that shifting rapidly. It did for us.

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  9. "I think that is true if you intend your child to exclusively be at home. If their unschooling leads for a desire for university classes or other outside opportunities you may find that shifting rapidly. It did for us."

    I wouldn't call university an "unschooling environment." But I still don't see what giftedness has to do with university classes. I was ID'd as gifted (though I didn't find out until I was an adult). I even started university two years early. All the university admissions department wanted was my high school marks. They didn't ask for an IQ test.

    I wonder if you're in the US. I've never heard of anything outside the elementary school system in Canada where a gifted label gets you anywhere. I hear this argument from Americans from time to time, so perhaps that's an American peculiarity I don't understand, and perhaps it explains why the label seems to be such a big deal south of the border.

    University classes are 5 hours away for my kids. Not likely to happen in any event until they're a good bit older -- except through Distance Education, which is an option at any age, regardless of IQ.

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  10. Hi Miranda - I appreciate your thoughts in this post. I have a child who demonstrates "asynchronous development" and I've been doing some research on the "gifted" term and what it means. And, it's interesting to me that most of the stuff out there is not all about what a child can do or how brilliant they are - it is about how these kids are out of step in a regular classroom environment.

    I'm currently reading Creative Home Schooling by Lisa Rivero. I'm only a few chapters into it but I like that it is about child-directed learning - and that's a good fit for my family.

    I never used to buy into the gifted label and, when working in the school system, would feel annoyed with parents who made a big fuss about their kids who needed "enrichment" (which somehow translated to math homework!). However, I can see that although "genius" is as common as dirt (yes, Mr. Gatto does turn a nice phrase), there is a group of kids out there who just don't fit a classroom environment, struggle in it (in any number of ways), and this is likely how the label began.

    Btw, loved reading about your kids and the shiny coins. Nice imagery.

    My shiny coin is pretty in-your-face shiny, and sometimes I wish it was more of the "in-the-pocket shiny" variety. And I'm learning to love and hold all that shininess close to my heart and to be okay with it being "out there" so much, expressing itself in its own unique way.

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  11. Anonymous11:00 am

    "I wouldn't call university an "unschooling environment." But I still don't see what giftedness has to do with university classes."

    I didn't say a university was an unschooling environment. Rather, I'd suggest unschooling is about meeting a child's needs and for some that need is early university.

    "All the university admissions department wanted was my high school marks. They didn't ask for an IQ test."

    Your earlier comment was that "labeling, testing or identification" is always unnecessary. I can't speak to life in Canada, but in the US students need standardized test scores such as the SAT to access college courses.

    Also, I find the notion that if parents don't formally identify that it is a non issue to be kind of silly. Lack of identification doesn't change the child's needs.

    And, it doesn't mean other people will not perceive the difference. Whatever we call it, some gifted kids tend to get noticed a lot. We could refrain from all formal identification, but our child gets comments in public, at park playdates, etc. Us not calling "it" something, doesn't mean it is goes unnoticed, just that he's left to use only labels that come from other people. Personally I'd rather my kid get my take on it than be left to puzzle it through on his own.

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  12. Sigh,.... Anon, you seem to persist in your belief that I am saying there is nothing special or different or unique about these kids. The incredible uniqueness of so many kids, and the way that uniqueness is valued and supported in unschooling is why I don't see the necessity of a label.

    "Personally I'd rather my kid get my take on it than be left to puzzle it through on his own."

    My kids are not in the dark about their abilities. I'm not pretending there aren't differences -- in fact, I'm very vocal about the astonishing range that occurs in kids' natural learning. My kids all know that reading at 3 or 4 is pretty unusual. They know that they learn many things faster, more intuitively and with far more ease and less work than the vast majority of kids. So what? To them that's as obvious and as natural as that there are really tall people and really short people, people with red hair and people with big ears. I don't know where you get the idea that I am denying this uniqueness. All I'm not doing is attaching a particular value and label to it.

    "Also, I find the notion that if parents don't formally identify that it is a non issue to be kind of silly. Lack of identification doesn't change the child's needs."

    No, no, wait a second. I wasn't saying that non-identification makes giftedness a non-issue, I was saying that unschooling makes giftedness no more of an issue than any other bit of uniqueness. And therefore formal identification is unnecessary. As an unschooling parent I don't need special permission to help my 8yo work through AP-level biology course materials or to start my 13yo on university level music harmony study any more than I need special permission to give one of my kids remediative help with handwriting.

    The SAT is an achievement / competency test. Not required in Canada, but not an IQ test in any event. I was speaking specifically about giftedness identification, i.e. IQ testing.

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  13. Hi Miranda, I'm new to your weblog and was really interested by this post of yours. I agree with a lot of it and also agree with what Rebecca said above.

    To me, giftedness is only partly about intellectual ability. Mainly its about having a mental system that works differently from "the norm" and how that affects so much in the child's way of being. For example, so many gifted children have emotional and physical sensitivities which impact them significantly. And its not that they learn faster, but differently - "out of step" as Rebecca put it. The blessing of homeschooling, as you say, is that no one has to worry about these things, and the child doesn't have to compare themselves to other children, they can just be true to themselves.

    I wish there was a different term than "gifted", so the general public understood its more than being smart. Then maybe there would be less angst about the label, and more understanding that *all* children have their unique issues, helpful ones and hindering ones. As you say, when homeschooling, labels don't matter much, except to help us parents get a better understanding of our children so we can guide them on their own unique course.

    Best wishes. You have a lovely weblog. :-)

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  14. Anonymous10:32 am

    "They know that they learn many things faster, more intuitively and with far more ease and less work than the vast majority of kids. So what? To them that's as obvious and as natural as that there are really tall people and really short people, people with red hair and people with big ears."

    Right, exactly. To me the key though is that people are fine with honestly acknowledging those differences. They don't feel a need to launch into a defensive every kid sort of has red hair or discussion of how red hair isn't a more special difference than another difference or that red hair is as "common as dirt". Rather they can simply say "yup, red hair" and perhaps "we probably need to be more cautious about sunscreen". That is simply having an honest direct way to talk about that difference.

    "I don't know where you get the idea that I am denying this uniqueness. All I'm not doing is attaching a particular value and label to it."

    If we can't even give something a name how is that not denying a full discussion of it?

    Again, I think it is great that you could be honest that for you thinking about giftedness or lives of gifted kids inspired competitive or uneasy feelings about your children's development. I think it is important though not to project those feelings as something inherent in naming, acknowledging or understanding these differences.

    "I was saying that unschooling makes giftedness no more of an issue than any other bit of uniqueness. And therefore formal identification is unnecessary. As an unschooling parent I don't need special permission to help my 8yo work through AP-level biology course materials or to start my 13yo on university level music harmony study any more than I need special permission to give one of my kids remediative help with handwriting."

    That's true if your kid is going to always work at home only with themselves or with you. If you participate in the broader community and desire to seek out people who specialize in areas of interest, some discussion of these matters will need to come up as a part of meeting the child's needs.

    "The SAT is an achievement / competency test. Not required in Canada, but not an IQ test in any event. I was speaking specifically about giftedness identification, i.e. IQ testing."

    As you may know, the SAT often is used as a rough IQ stand as part of out of level testing for younger students. Testing of 7th and 8th graders is a really common way to identify gifted students.

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  15. If we can't even give something a name how is that not denying a full discussion of it?

    We don't have label for kids who can play Bach violin concertos as age 8, or for kids who ride two-wheelers at 3.

    "If you participate in the broader community and desire to seek out people who specialize in areas of interest, some discussion of these matters will need to come up as a part of meeting the child's needs."

    I have never found the use of the gifted label has been necessary, either for myself (as a child) or for my kids. We are extremely involved in our community. My kids have attended adult workshops, seminars and the like. It's never been an issue. I explain their needs, their competencies, the things they've been successful at in the past.

    "As you may know, the SAT often is used as a rough IQ stand as part of out of level testing for younger students. Testing of 7th and 8th graders is a really common way to identify gifted students."

    Wouldn't that be the SAT/9 i.e. the Standford Achievement Test, that's often given to middle schoolers? That's a different test from the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is used for college admissions. In any event, both are achievement tests and thus not sufficient for identification of giftedness.

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  16. Anonymous4:20 pm

    "We don't have label for kids who can play Bach violin concertos as age 8, or for kids who ride two-wheelers at 3."

    The first group would be talented in music or perhaps even a music prodigy. The last group can be called athletic or very coordinated. We have specific ways to talk comfortably about those achievements in ways that we don't as easily for a child who shows a high degree of intelligence. And, i it has been my observation when someone mentions their three year old can ride a bike or play the violin the response isn't "that's common as dirt" every kid is brilliant.

    "I have never found the use of the gifted label has been necessary, either for myself (as a child) or for my kids."

    I can only say in our situation it is really silly to be afraid of the label. Other people go there and go there quickly because the difference is noticeable and significant and there needs to be a way to talk about it.

    "Wouldn't that be the SAT/9 i.e. the Standford Achievement Test, that's often given to middle schoolers? That's a different test from the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is used for college admissions. In any event, both are achievement tests and thus not sufficient for identification of giftedness."

    No. In the United States the SAT and ACT - the same ones taken by college bound students are often given to 7th graders as part of what is called "talent search". This is intended to identify highly talented students to encourage them to participate in gifted programs and to start on a rigorous college prep track. Out of level SAT testing is used as a rough estimate of IQ. Here's a place to learn more: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/talent_search.htm

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  17. "The first group would be talented in music or perhaps even a music prodigy. The last group can be called athletic or very coordinated. We have specific ways to talk comfortably about those achievements in ways that we don't as easily for a child who shows a high degree of intelligence."

    Hmm, musical prodigies? I don't think so. All my kids have been able to do so, as have many (maybe half ... most of the others coming close) of the non-pre-selected Suzuki students I've helped teach. I'd say they've "developed a high degree of musical talent." Or are "very advanced" in their musical studies. And that's just as comfortable a way of speaking of a child who is "very advanced in gross motor skills" or "highly co-ordinated" and rides a bike at three. Those are specific and comfortable ways of talking about those children, but none involves a label applied by supposedly objective criteria. I'm not afraid of discussing any of those (musical or athletic) abilities, just as I'm not afraid of discussing academic / logical / linguistic aptitude -- using the same sorts of descriptives. I am not objecting to the discussions, or the descriptions, only the use of criteria and an exclusionary label.

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