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Schools Effect on Gifted Students Is Most Negative, Study Finds

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Orlando, Fla--A 12-year-old who has an exceptional talent for, and consuming interest in, mathematics spends as much time solving equations each week as most students his age spend watching television.

That talent, however, according to a newly released study by Benjamin S. Bloom, professor of education at the University of Chicago, was probably fostered by years of encouragement from parents and "special teachers" employed as tutors, rather than the schools.

The schools, if they have an influence at all, according to Mr. Bloom, are more likely to be a detriment than a help in developing a child's exceptional talent.

Mr. Bloom's findings were presented for the first time last week at the National Topical Conference on the Gifted and Talented Child held here and jointly sponsored by the Council of Exceptional Children and the Association for the Gifted. The study, "The Limits of Learning," involved as subjects 120 individuals who demonstrated extremely high levels of accomplishment in some field before the age of 35. Among those he studied were a concert pianist, a research mathematician, an Olympic swimmer, and a neurologist.

Mr. Bloom conducted retrospective interviews with them and with their parents in an attempt to determine what factors contribute to the development of exceptional talent. He looked at three broad areas: the role of homes, schools, and teachers; the patterns of talent development; and the question of whether these individuals are so rare that they are "almost a special type of human being."

His findings on the first subject area, which were the topic of his address last week, suggest that parents rather than schools exert the most powerful influence on persons with a particular talent who turn out to be exceptional.

Many of the study's subjects came from families in which one or both parents had a strong personal interest in the child's area of interest. And the parents, who may not have been unusually accomplished in the area of the child's ability, nevertheless provided a strong "model" as someone who valued and appreciated the activity. All kinds of talents, Mr. Bloom said, were rewarded and encouraged by the parents, and they regarded the development of talent as a natural activity.

Schools, in contrast, often provided an environment that was the opposite of the home environment described by the talented individual, the researcher said. The home offered a relaxed atmosphere in which the child could explore and "play" with the activity. The school often provided a highly structured environment that Mr. Bloom suggested discouraged creative growth.

Long-Range Perspective

Parents and special instructors of the talented child taught him as an individual, and considered the material being taught from a long-range perspective. Frequently, the child would work with one teacher, usually located by the parents, for several years; that teacher under-stood the child's progress and was familiar with his or her understanding of the subject.

In the schools, by contrast, a teacher generally has a child for one year only, and the group, not the individual, is the focus of instruction, he commented.

Outside the schools, the talented child often participated in public events--competitions, contests, recitals--that provided him with benchmarks of his progress and gave him a sense of achievement. Few schools offer similar opportunities, Mr. Bloom said, and many are not sympathetic to those needs of talented children.

But, Mr. Bloom said, "schools do influence talent development, both positively and negatively." However, the "positive" influence of schools, he cautioned, was reported by only a small number of those in his study.

All the study's subjects had attended primary and secondary school and had widely differing experiences there. The subjects, he said, fell into three broad categories.

'Completely Separate Spheres'

For the first group, "talent development and school were two almost completely separate spheres." Both activities were very demanding on the students' time, but with adjustments, they were able to succeed at both.

The adjustments, however, were nearly always made by the student, not the school. "It was clear that the adjustments minimized the conflict," Mr. Bloom said, but did little to enhance either the child's schooling or the development of his talent.

For the second group, Mr. Bloom said, schools had a negative influence on the development of the child's exceptional talents. The two had conflicting requirements that could not be resolved.

School, as a result, was something to be suffered through. The student's talents were neither valued nor appreciated, and the child became "an outsider", in the pejorative sense of the word. The vital part of his life--the talent--remained wholly outside the school.

The most "encouraging" instances of successful interaction between talented children and schools--which were also the smallest group of reports by his subjects, said Mr. Bloom--involved those students whose schools sought to enhance and encourage their talents. "We report very few instances where talent development and school enhanced one another," Mr. Bloom told those attending the conference.

Among the students in this group, Mr. Bloom said, many reported having worked with a teacher in the school setting who made the subject especially stimulating. Teachers and principals recognized these students' commitment to their talent. Frequently, the students had friends who shared the talent; some participated in public events in the schools that enhanced their sense that their talents seem real and important.

'Major Contrasts'

In short, Mr. Bloom said, there are "major contrasts" between the environment that nurtured exceptional talents, and those of the schools. The comparison, he said, may be regarded as "unfair" by educators, but they may also find it useful to ponder the differences. The University of Chicago scholar's three-year study was funded by the Spencer Foundation of Chicago.

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