A funny thing happened to me recently…
I was sitting in a discussion, enjoying the back and forth, the various points of view, the questions being asked and the learning. I spoke up a few time, as I usually do. Also as usual, I was conscious of waiting to let others speak first, trying to ask questions rather than make statements and mostly stay in the background.
There was one point where I thought of a perspective that no one else was mentioning. Again, I waited. And eventually, I raised my hand to indicate my desire to speak. The facilitator made eye contact with me, shook his head, and made a small motion with his hand, pointing around the circle. I immediately knew what he meant – “let the others talk this through – you’ve said enough…” I nodded my head and put my hand down and sat quietly until I could leave.
I have to admit, I was shocked and taken aback, at first. I thought we were learning together and therefore additional points would be welcome/wanted. But I also recognized fairly quickly that perhaps this wasn’t the group for my participation and I could gather my own interested group for more ranging, open discussions. Maybe online (like some book “un-clubs” I had previously enjoyed) or small in-person discussions at somewhere like Caffe Divano.
Later that evening though, in the shower, I thought of that moment and that look/motion and burst into tears! I stood there, probing these feelings – why this was bothering me so much? Why this strong reaction to something that was such a minor thing?
As I pondered, I realized how familiar that look was – I knew immediately what was meant. How often, in my life, did I get reprimanded for saying too much? Lots! Particularly in high school! It varied from subtly directed looks that no one else in the group was probably even aware of. To the high school algebra teacher who called me aside after class and bluntly said “I know you know the answers, I want to hear from the others. Stop putting up your hand in class.” I walked away that day in tears too. “But I have questions!” I thought. “I actually want to learn and he tells me to shut up?? It’s not fair…”
That, I believe, is the crux of this matter – I love learning. I can’t help myself, I’m curious about darned near everything. My mind rapidly makes connections and recognizes similarities. I see possibilities and different points of view. I leap forward, put together conclusions and connect dots. In an environment focused on learning and moving forward as much as possible, I can move the group forward quite quickly.
In work/consulting situations, where the goal is to solve a problem or come up with a design as quickly and efficiently as possible, I’m a great contributor. I don’t mean that I always have the answers, but I consistently move thinking and discussion forward. Sometimes only to rule out options, but that can be just as valuable for a team!
But in school, where a teacher has planned a set of lessons, with goals and learning objectives, I realize as I ponder, leaps aren’t helpful. If I jump forward to three lessons from now, then I’ve short circuited the planned learning path of the other students. The teacher has determined that the best way to learn a particular lesson is to step through a process, learning one concept, then layering another on top, then the next, etc… Just because I can see that path and jump to another level, doesn’t mean all the other students in the class can.
I feel like a flea amongst a class full of ants. Just because I am built to leap great distances, doesn’t mean I can take the ants with me. They learn in their way, just as I learn in mine.
Here’s the thing about being a gifted learner though – people so often assume that the kid putting up their hand is just showing off. There is a connotation of arrogance, of being a “know it all.”
As I stood in the shower, those tears that came were borne of a thought – that, once again, people think I’m trying to show off, that I’m wanting to prove myself superior to those around me. And that’s simply not true! I just love learning.
Why should my learning be short circuited to allow others to learn? What makes their learning more important than mine? Yet, this is the reality of gifted learners – that their learning and potential takes a back seat to the needs of the rest of the class.
As much as I support inclusive classroom philosophies, there is a thoughtfulness that is sometimes missing. No, we should never isolate or segregate children simply because it’s more efficient to do so, or because it’s easier/cheaper, or out of prejudice. Everyone benefits from classrooms and a society that embraces everyone’s strengths, that values every human being as worthy, that reaches out to include and learn with/from everyone. And we should also recognize that it’s impossible for every student to be able to learn and grow in every situation!
I’m now 46 years old and I still carry wounds and fears from growing up out of synch with the people around me. I still hold back, bite my tongue and try not to look like that “know it all.” By all systemic measures, I was highly successful in high school – I learned to do what was expected of me, to exceed expectations just a little, to produce the required work. I had the top mark in BC on my English 12 provincial exam. I won scholarships. I won awards and got high marks/letter grades. And yet, what could I have done/learned/produced if I had been encouraged to explore, to go at my own pace, to self reflect, to understand myself?
What if I could have learned with other “fleas” – all of us making these great leaps? We would have needed the freedom to explore questions, to move at a different pace than expected, to research tangential ideas that arose. The teacher would have to be able to “let go” of lesson plans and work with larger picture objectives instead, or even no plan at all! We would have needed an environment more focused on the relationships and social-emotional supports than on a “set” academic curriculum – since our ability to move forward as a group would require tolerance and an ability to communicate well, to articulate ourselves, to care about bringing along the others on our journeys, and yet still be ourselves too.
An “ant” would be just as uncomfortable and unable to learn in that classroom, perhaps, as us “fleas” feel in most “traditional” learning environments. The ants would likely feel lost. As it is, the fleas feel stifled. We would all feel like there’s something wrong with us…
This is my greatest regret – the many years (and ongoing struggle) to try to feel worthy, capable, strong and most simply “good enough.” It took me the better part of 20 years of adulthood to start to figure out what I wanted and who I am, instead of what others wanted from me. These are the remnants of growing up different, of growing up “gifted” and not knowing what that meant. And ultimately, this little example is only one facet, one way, that I got the message that I was different and didn’t fit in (as a bad thing, not as a “Steve Jobs” kind of genius).
This is what I want to be different for my children (and all children!) – that we provide them with the supports and environments to be themselves, to thrive, to grow and learn their own ways. Every child deserves to deeply know and feel that there is nothing wrong with them.
And this is why we need to recognize these diverse learners as early as possible, and provide them with environments that foster their differences instead of expecting them to “fit in” and “be fine” in the current system.
As I’ve said before, no, gifted learners aren’t going to “be fine” – they need something different. The damage being done by cutting gifted programs and forcing inclusion in the regular classroom for all learners is sometimes seen, but too often internal and has a lifelong impact. They need adults who understand them (and are probably gifted themselves!) And they need like minded peers – other “fleas” to make cognitive, creative and social “leaps” with. Not because they are “special” or deserve “more” – simply because they need something different…