Slay the Stay-Put Beast: Thoughts on Acceleration

I rarely write about my now-grown children in blog entries, but this month, it’s SO tempting! But alas, because all three of their accelerated hearts adore privacy, I’ll remain mum.

Suffice it to say I’ve witnessed accelerations not only as a parent, but also as a teacher, advocate, and friend. All of the accelerations I’ve witnessed have supported, not stunted, the individual’s social and emotional growth. The accelerated children I’ve followed into adulthood all are scoring high on the life happiness rubric. Many are scoring high on the financial security rubric as well.

In this article, I offer tips for slaying the stay-put beast. He’s an ugly, awful monster. Society throws him willy-nilly at unsuspecting children who dare to object to spending hours upon hours of their childhoods pretending to learn content they mastered years earlier.

Stay

A Nation Deceived

If anecdotes about acceleration aren’t your thing, check out A Nation Deceived. That 2004 report, funded by the Templeton Foundation and written by experts in the United States and Australia, debunks the ugly myths about acceleration that jealous schoolteachers have spouted for generations. For those who dislike judgmental adjectives like “ugly” and “jealous,” here’s a more palatable description of the report: “A Nation Deceived highlights disparities between the research on acceleration and the educational beliefs and practices that often run contrary to the research.”

When A Nation Deceived first came out, I shouted for joy. No longer did I have to fight acceleration myths empty handed. I had a boat-load of research, complete with an eye-popping title promising truth to conquer deception. And rather than being behind a paywall, the report was and is free. The international version is available for download in Arabic, Chinese, French, GermanHindi, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish.

The best news? This spring a companion report, A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students will “inform educators, parents, and policy makers of current research on acceleration, how that information has been applied to educational policy throughout the nation, and how educators can use the findings to make decisions for their brightest students.”

Making Acceleration Decisions

Whenever a parent or teacher talks to me about acceleration, I ask, “Is the child happy?” Although I’m an advocate for acceleration, I believe that accelerations should never disturb happy children. If a child is happy with a particular education situation, keep that situation!  Academic accelerations should be child-driven and about happiness, not about productivity. Children are not widgets to be mass produced at warp speed.

Speaking of happiness, if a child is unhappy in school because the child years earlier mastered the curricular content, one grade skip isn’t going to be worth a hill of beans. To be as happy as most of the child’s classmates are in their current grade, the child might need several grade skips, plus increased curricular speed (curricular compacting or otherwise), plus additional complexity.

A child’s happiness in a certain grade level might depend on how willing the teacher is to deviate from the curricula, whether the teacher believes in giving students large choices and project-based learning experiences, and whether the teacher has a chip on the shoulder about intellectual prowess in pint-sized packages. A child’s happiness might also depend on whether the child has good friends in the current grade, which extracurricular activities are available for students in each grade level, and other factors.

The purpose of acceleration should be to increase happiness, not to race ahead on an academic treadmill. The child’s needs, not the school district’s policies, should govern whether accelerate takes place and whether the acceleration is in the form of a full grade skip, a one-subject advancement, a curricular compaction, or otherwise.

The Best Story Ever

I once spoke with a mother who called for advice about her son. The problem? The nearby state university wouldn’t let him into its undergraduate program unless he had a high school English credit.

Trust me, this story gets FAR more interesting:

  • Q. How old is your son?
  • A. He’s 12 years old.
  • Q. Why is he applying to the undergraduate program?
  • A. Because the university won’t give him credit for his two graduate classes (science and math) unless he is first enrolled as an undergraduate.
  • Q. What does he do with the rest of his time?
  • A. He’s attending a public middle school for drama and art classes.

Imagine that….FOUR education levels happening simultaneously in that child’s life–middle school, high school, undergraduate school, and graduate school. Can anyone spell “asynchrony” at warp speed?

I offer this extreme example to illustrate two points. First, happiness can reign in an asynchronous child’s life. The parents granted their son’s wish to enjoy graduate level math and science, and his wish to enjoy art and drama experiences with students his own age. Second, inflexible institutional rules can threaten a child’s happiness. Even though the math and science departments in question wanted to give the child credit for the graduate courses he was taking, the undergraduate admissions office was locked into a myopic view of education governed by factory-model rules.

How did I help the child’s mother? Easy. I suggested she contact an organization well experienced with granting high school credits by examination. Although I haven’t heard back from the mother, I’m guessing that the child is now a happy adult. He was lucky to have parents who fed his passions and battled the stay-put beast.

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Juliet’s Wisdom

Two weeks ago, my friend Juliet Thomas submitted a comment to my article, On Dropping the G-Bomb: Twelve Confessions from a Gifted Advocate. Juliet is the kind of person whose every utterance, even a mere blog comment, is brilliant. But this comment went beyond brilliant.

For the first time in my blog-writing, comment-approving career, I couldn’t bring myself to push the “approve” button. To memorialize those words as a mere blog comment, buried in cyberspace, simply would not be right. Thank goodness Juliet gave me permission to share her words in this article. Watch how she weaves a multitude of educational issues into one cohesive wish for the future:

Maybe one of the fundamental problems with the nomenclature question [the word “gifted”] is the entire underlying issue. We are trying to illuminate the ways that “these” students are different from the “other” ones – in order to provide “these” students what they need, since they pretty clearly do not have their needs met when simply grouped with all the rest.

My fairly radical view is that virtually NONE of the students’ needs are met when they are all just lumped together by birthdate and set on an increasingly uniform educational path. Combine the deeply ingrained concept that the most salient data point about a student is their chronological age together with the malignant drive to codify THE single best curriculum as measured by the high-stakes-test-of-your-choosing. You have a 19th century assembly line widget factory. (Where the managers and the workers are at each other’s throats, to boot.)

We are well into the 21st century. We need far more creativity, synergistic thinking, collaboration and individualistic viewpoints. We have far surpassed the time where anyone can know most things about everything. This is an era where knowing what to do with all the facts at hand is far more important than holding the individual facts in your head. This time requires that we teach Johnny and Jane to exploit THEIR particular mix of strengths, weaknesses, talents and interests, not to match some exogenous ideal set of knowledge acquisition.

The next century requires ARTISANS, not uniform machine cogs. In science, math, art, literature, philosophy, philanthropy, diplomacy, process design – everywhere. All automation is well on its way to being the domain of machines. We do not need identical humans anymore, and the longer we continue to insist on trying to crank them out, the worse off we will all be.

(And NO, the current approach is not cheaper, fairer or safer. It simply suits the needs of the people in control, and those are not the students.)

As the mom of two PG [profoundly gifted] boys, it was quickly obvious to me that my boys needed a different sort of education. As a sentient human, it’s becoming obvious that ALL students do. The educational system is horribly outdated; if EVERY student were seen as having their own set of needs and potential, there would be no need to name the roughly similar group that is now clustered under the “gifted” banner.

We don’t (just) need a different name. We need a whole different mindset.”

Conclusion

I agree wholeheartedly with Juliet. Once education changes sufficiently to respond to every student’s unique set of needs and potential, words like “gifted” and “acceleration” will no longer be fodder for debate. Students will no longer fall through the cracks, their bodies sitting in classrooms waiting for recess while their minds struggle hard to pretend to learn. Let’s slay the stay-put beast as soon as possible.

Acknowledgements and Credits

I created the comics via the Comic-O-Matic website of Nina Paley and Margo Burns. (Thanks!)

This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page March 2015 Blog Hop on Acceleration. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.

Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies Blog Hop participants.

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