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.

20150228080127_99-197-179-30

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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10 Comments on “Slay the Stay-Put Beast: Thoughts on Acceleration”

  1. Paula Prober says:

    Love it, Wenda. Thanks once again for a clear, concise post. I’m all for increasing happiness! What a great way to describe the purpose of acceleration. I agree with Juliet, too. Thanks for including her statement.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Paula, I love it when people comment on my articles, and I always love your feedback. Enjoy your day—I hope your weather isn’t like ours….yet another snowstorm of a greater magnitude than expected!

  2. sarah says:

    I don’t agree that “happiness” should be the sole or even preeminent criteria parents use to decide if their child should be accelerated. My daughter would have described herself as “happy” in school last year but the truth is that she went to school for 7 hours a day and rarely learned anything. She was more comfortable than happy. She did occasionally get into trouble, unsurprisingly acting out in response to boredom but her 6 year old mind would not have classified this as unhappiness. We pushed for a grade-skip and are pleased that the school acquiesced. It took a few weeks of adjustment as frankly she had grown accustomed to being by far the smartest child in the class and not having to apply herself at all. She is now pleased to be an environment that while not truly challenging (she still gets 100% on almost everything) she at least has children who are reading books closer to her level and with whom she can carry on a conversation.She wouldn’t change the situation now but she lacked the faculties to make the initial decision.
    Personally, I don’t feel that it is my job to make my child “happy.” It is my job to equip her socially, morally, educationally and spiritually for the rigors of life. Do I believe that would be best accomplished by torturing her and subjecting her to an environment where she will be miserable? Of course not, but neither do I think it is served by using her “happiness” as the most important criteria. The idea of acceleration can be scary to children but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be utilized. It is likely that we will push for further acceleration as she gets older and in some cases that may not be her choice, but that is why I am the parent and she is not. My parents never considered acceleration and I doubt I would have responded kindly to the suggestion either but in hindsight I would have learned so much more, and likely been much “happier,” had I been challenged more. Developing skills such as perseverance and a strong work ethic will serve her far better than being allowed to reign supreme at the top of her age appropriate grade level, happy or not.
    Some of my insistence on this issue comes from having a PG father who is incapable of holding a job despite an advanced degree from an ivy league school. He was coddled rather than pushed and is an unproductive member of society who believes that his innate intelligence entitles him to rewards he has not earned. That is not a road I am going to allow my daughter to walk down.
    In terms of the rigidity of the current school system you and Juliet are dead on. Our children need to learn how to learn and how to innovate, not simply how to memorize facts and regurgitate them. The challenges with the current system are systemic, financial and political. Test makers are making a mint off our children (even more so when they fail as they must then pay to retake tests) and politicians are being lobbied by these corporations, textbook makers (who have millions invested in the current curriculum) and even teachers unions entrenched in the status quo. Breaking these industries to empower students and teachers is not an easy battle, and the reformers have yet to agree on a strategy of their own.

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Sarah, thank you for your kind, thoughtful, and comprehensive comment. Your daughter is lucky that you recognized the difference between comfort and happiness. Parents are the best judges of whether their young children are truly happy, or just comfortable.

      You raise important issues about happiness and the role it plays in a child’s life. A thorough examination of the issues would require much more discussion than one blog post, comment, or reply can contain. For example, when I give my students a quiz, they are not happy–but the quiz is a necessary part of the learning process. When I talk of happiness as a goal, I’m talking about overall happiness—not just happiness with a small part of the child’s life situation. It sounds to me that your daughter’s grade skip did increase her overall happiness.

      I believe that equipping a child socially, morally, educationally and spiritually for the rigors of life can happen in the context of the child’s overall happiness. John Dewey apparently thought so, too. I love his Democracy and Education (1916), where he writes deeply about education, children, and life in general. This particular quote from chapter five, in the section titled “Education as Preparation” speaks to me and my belief that happiness should be a primary criteria for educational decision-making:

      “The mistake is not in attaching importance to preparation for future need, but in making it the mainspring of present effort. Because the need of preparation for a continually developing life is great, it is imperative that every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible. Then as the present emerges insensibly into the future, the future is taken care of.”

      Thanks again for your sharing your thoughts and reasons.

  3. Samantha says:

    It does this moms heart good, more than I can put into words, to have “happiness” taking into consideration. My daughter was sooooo miserable at age 5 in kindergarten, hindsight I would say depressed. Horrible teacher who refused to recognize what was right in front of her. One day the school psychologist saw some of her writing and asked to test her. I was afraid thinking it was a trick. AT the same time a friend said, children who are early bloomers don’t read grade levels ahead. We agreed to testing and my daughter was identified as gifted. We really struggle finding a good fit for her. She has an aug birthday so she is YOUNG in her class which makes them push back even harder on acceleration. She is currently in third grade and the school agreed to one grade acceleration in math… it should be two but we are moving in the right direction. She qualified for CTY through Johns Hopkins in both math and verbal. Her verbal scores are always higher but the school claims she isn’t achieving so she has no talent there. I just keep fighting until we can find a place where she is happy, learning and growing. My youngest’s teacher is recommending an IQ test now as well…..

    • Wenda Sheard says:

      Thank you for your comment. I wish you and your children the best as you navigate through school systems that often struggle to meet the needs of children so far from the norms.

  4. skpicard says:

    Systems are struggling to keep up with enormous societal changes that are outpacing them on every level. We are all scrambling to not only figure out how to make them work but where to go next. There are no simple solutions except to remain open to the possibilities and opportunities that are also a part of this change. Kudos to all the parents and educators who keep working to understand and support those who don’t fit neatly in

  5. mylittlepoppiescaitie says:

    Wow, Juliet’s post IS brilliant. A whole different mindset indeed.

    Our son was one of those unhappy kids. In a half day K program, he was miserable. The psych recommended radical acceleration to grade three. The school scoffed at even partial acceleration. We pulled him, and he’s happy. You’re right: Happiness can reign.

  6. helenjnoble says:

    Funnily enough, when asked recently if the whole purpose of my daughter’s 3 years acceleration was to get her through the education system more quickly, I found myself replying that it was about maintaining and enhancing (where possible) her levels of engagement. Whether this always equate to happiness, I’m not sure. I read somewhere that when curiosity and immersion in something interesting is occurring we get a release of dopamine in the brain, as a reward. Is this the closest we come to an experience of happiness? Is it akin to Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological ‘flow’? As much as I believe we need to develop strategies to combat frustration and develop tolerance and resilience, I also believe that we need to hone our ability to experience ‘flow’ or as Maslow refers to it our ‘self-actualisation’.


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