Educating Gifted Students, Our ‘Outside the Box Thinkers’
Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D.
As the calendar turns to September, parents and educators turn their daily focus toward providing supportive and effective educational experiences for the children they cherish. We know that there is a paradox to child development. There are predictable patterns of growth and methods of instruction that foster students’ development. At the same time, each child is unique and will develop skills in a distinct way. This individual blueprint is a function of many variables, such as the child’s emotions, motivations, thought processes, physical development, community, family, and social experiences.
Not surprisingly, there are times when matters arise that necessitate thinking about how to make that course a better one for a particular child. This often places the parent at the helm of a process where the parent’s instincts are central, while the parent’s understanding of how to navigate those waters is less clear. It may entail partnering with the current school, identifying outside supports, or perhaps investigating alternative academic options. This requires a parent to wear many hats while also keeping support for the child front and center. It can be stressful for parents to maneuver this course, often learning about the philosophies, methodologies, and world views of various professionals and programs, all this while also integrating technical information about their child’s needs. The varied roles that parents must play, particularly in helping gifted students and ‘outside-the-box thinkers’ is a shared passion for Dr. Barbara Brown and me. Barbara is Head of The Marin School, a collaborative learning community that provides a backdrop for each student’s unique potential. She and I developed a friendship over the past ten years, forged when we were appointed to the Alumni Council of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, an institution committed to training innovative educators who are informed by solid theory and practice. Barbara and I recently had an opportunity to update one another about our observations about trends in education for gifted children. Barbara’s perspective as Head of School frames the questions she raised of me as a Learning Specialist, a person whose function is to bridge these islands of information for parents of gifted children.
A follow-up article in the November issue of Education Update will provide Barbara’s responses to questions I posed to her.
Barbara: What are some current themes among the clients who seek you out in what they need and in terms of needs that feel are not currently being met in the classroom?
Rebecca: One of the challenges that many students face is balancing the ability to learn material along with developing insights about themselves as learners. Parents and schools often seek me out so that students can learn, in a way that is attuned to their developmental course, how to both master course material and develop skills that transfer.
Also, we live at a time when there’s access to information that can be grasped and mastered. But that’s different from basically learning how to be your own CEO, or what we refer to as ‘executive functions.’ And that’s also different from understanding one’s own thought process, which is sometimes called ‘metacognition.’ So ideally the learning process for a student involves that synergy of learning content and developing problem-solving skills, while also developing techniques that can be utilized in various situations.
Barbara: Where does self-advocacy fit in when students come to you? Do they have this skill, and how do you think about this aspect?
Rebecca: That’s one of the hallmarks of a developmental process that starts in middle school and really is a lifelong process. At my center, our students develop those self-advocacy skills as individuals and also as a function of the culture of their particular school. So, for example, one school might have a prep period at the end of the day when students are able to meet with the teachers. So a student at that school may learn self-advocacy through routines that enable him to spend some time listing tasks he can do on his own and also a ‘hit list’ of material he needs to review with an adult’s support. For a student who has a fast-paced curriculum and who commutes, the self-advocacy skills may develop by learning how to e-mail a teacher to communicate her concerns. Another school whose curriculum I support encourages students to create a meeting agenda in advance of meeting individually with a teacher. So rather than telling the Chemistry teacher, ‘I don’t understand stoichiometry,’ the student is encouraged to consider what she didn’t understand about the data from her lab to get more targeted guidance about the topic. In any of these situations, my function as a learning specialist is to help students learn how to take charge of their learning so that they have increased agency, confidence, and ability as independent learners.
Barbara: If you could give a message that you knew that people would hear, what would it be?
Rebecca: First, I think we’re living at a time of great opportunity to embrace the individual. But we need to help that individual learn how to appreciate himself or herself as part of a community of learners. Also, this is a time when there’s great opportunity to aim for passions that are of interest. But we also want to consider a given person’s role in society for the long run because we don’t know how careers or other avenues are going to develop over time. Careers that didn’t exist when we attended Harvard’s School of Education are now disciplines unto themselves, and ones that our students’ grandparents honed no longer exist. So let’s help students be conscious of who they are and grasp for the golden ring that they want, while also learning how to be flexible, and work or communicate in a novel situation. That will give them skills and the ability to cognitively and emotionally adjust to life’s curve balls.
Barbara: You know that reminds me that I recently had a really meaningful conversation with Jim McManus, the former Executive Director of the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS). He was talking about diversity and inclusion. He feels that our society has adjusted in some ways by being more inclusive and accepting of diversity in race, gender, and age. But Jim feels we are not there yet in what he called the fourth frontier of diversity. There is not yet an acceptance of neurodiversity in how we think and learn. I believe that schools will be different after we’ve achieved a greater acceptance of the fact that people learn differently. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Rebecca: I agree. There’s so much to be gained for the individual and for the community in appreciating neurodiversity. But we also know that the brain is plastic and that there’s tremendous capacity for adaptability. From my point of view, we want to embrace differences and help students learn toward what they particularly love and via approaches that align with their cognitive profiles. But we also know what Charles Darwin found, that the species that developed were those that were able to adapt. So hopefully a next trend in education combines appreciation for neurodiversity and the capacity for students with skills to adjust to differences that await them.
Barbara: So you are saying that at some point, schools are going to celebrate and parents will celebrate the broad range of styles of students within the same classroom, right? It’s just a fact that we all learn in different ways, and we’ve been sold this bill of goods that you have to learn in a particular way, and it has to be assessed whether you’ve learned it in a particular way. But that perspective can discount a lot of the really creative and interesting out of the box ideas that people have had, people who have been taken seriously and made a difference in the world, like Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, all of whom had passions or a path that led them to learn in a different way. So in the future, I believe we’re going to see a greater acceptance of different ways of learning and even an appreciation and celebration of that right. #