A couple of weeks ago, Peter Sipe published an article How to challenge voracious young readers, in which he talked about famous authors who were anti-school (Thomas DeQuincey, W. Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Morrissey, …). He points out that these authors may well have been autodidacts:
Which brings me back to the question of how I can make a difference for my gifted students. What these authors wrote about school does offer guidance. I find it instructive that they seem to have gained their erudition despite school, not because of it. Accordingly, I don’t think young DeQuincey et al. would much need a sixth-grade reading teacher.
But perhaps they could use a helpful librarian.
I think that it is very difficult for the average teacher in the US to make much difference for a gifted student—they don’t have the time, the training, the desire, nor (in some cases) the intelligence to inspire the gifted students. And their job, as set down by the administration and the politicians, is to get the slowest students up to minimal standards, not to help the gifted students move ahead more rapidly. In fact, many politicians and educrats would prefer it if the teachers held the gifted students back from learning, so that all students were performing at exactly the same level, doing exactly the same things. (A lot still haven’t gotten the message that equitable education doesn’t mean giving every student exactly the same lesson at the same time.)
The notion of turning over a lot of the education of gifted students to books is not a bad one—and a good librarian can recommend books to students more easily than a teacher can make up worksheets. A lot of gifted students would benefit more from reading books that are in their “zone of proximal development” than from doing classroom exercises that practice skills they mastered years earlier or from playing teacher’s helper and trying to explain stuff that it obvious to them to kids who really need help from those trained in content pedagogy.
But there are limits to what one can learn from books alone—there are skills that require practice to perfect, and reading about them is not the same thing as practicing them. The hard part with teaching gifted students is in providing them with appropriately challenging problems that will exercise and improve their skills without boring them or frustrating them too much. Finding appropriate problems is a major challenge for teaching any student, but for students clustered near the middle of the range that teachers teach, there are a lot of materials already prepared, and teachers have been well-trained to recognize and address those students’ needs. School districts have to provide specially trained special-ed instructors for students who are way behind the average, but they generally do little or nothing for those who are more advanced.
I think that the fields that have succeeded best at providing materials for challenging gifted students are mathematics (Project Euler and the courses and books from Art of Problem Solving, for example), computer programming (lots of different paths for getting into programming), and engineering (especially with the current popularity of the Maker movement and various robotics team projects). Students can also progress fairly easily to adult levels in reading, since books at all levels are widely available, but there isn’t much for getting practice in humanities fields, nor social sciences, or even most of the physical and biological sciences. Students interested in those fields may have to remain content with being autodidacts, and just reading about their fields, at least until they get into college (and sometimes until they get into grad school).
I don’t think schools in general do a very good job of teaching gifted students, but giving them unfettered access to a good library is one way to undo the damage caused by the schooling. Adding in access to challenging problems and tools for making things (with mentors to help them learn to use the tools) could turn the rather dismal current (lack of) education for gifted children into something really productive of learning. Of course, the same access can and should be given to other students, though few will make much use of the library.