Education Opinion

Gifted Children: The Need for Academic Rigor

By Robert N. Sawyer — November 19, 1986 7 min read

The central point of this essay is not particularly earthshaking, except perhaps that it needs to be discussed at all. I simply assert that academically able children need to be taught rigorous academic subjects. And the disturbing thing is that this simple statement contrasts fundamentally with the actual practices acted out daily in many schoolrooms. I believe that such a call for academic rigor would herald a flowering not only of “education for the gifted” but also serve the greater interests of educational excellence.

Academic rigor calls for a reintegration of the education of the academically able into the fundamental academic subjects in which excellence thrives and grows. In a sense, the call for rigor in education, if fully answered, signals the end of “gifted education” as a professional subcategory, for the call for rigor asks that all students--regardless of their intellectual abilities--be given the opportunity to learn to their utmost limits by being taught a curriculum that has academic integrity.

Academic rigor is conservative in that it seeks to preserve and to pass on what teachers and society deem valuable. But rigor is also self-critical, willing (though reluctant) to tear down the old for the sake of letting the new also create meaning.

The greatest problems of rigorous education are posed when its practitioners forget either to scrutinize self-critically the canons of such education or when naive or “disinterested” and nihilistic self-criticism leads to a suspicion that no knowledge is worthy of being valued above any other--and, therefore, everything taught has equal justification for being taught.

Why defend academic rigor? The question is embarrassing for teachers to ask, because it is so basic that it ought to serve as a presupposition. Teachers concern themselves with the life of the mind; academic rigor is the lifeblood of teaching, the reason for teachers to be. Academic rigor is axiomatic, and one presumes an axiom; one cannot really “defend” it. And yet, I must “defend” academic rigor precisely because it has slipped from being a central and guiding principle for those teaching the talented, to become a hazy ideal, seemingly on the fringes of many teachers’ interests.

In practice, teaching tactics in many education programs for the “gifted” have misconstrued pointless game-playing as essential “education” and have retreated to the playground of inane “problem-solving skills.” Many of the resources for the education of the most able use as their focus interests and contents that are tangential, and even superfluous, to the goals of education for life and for society. Consider three excerpts from brochures of programs for the gifted and talented. The first concerns admissions policies:

Applicants must be in the top 5 percent of their class in academic performance or in the 95th percentile on a tested area of a standardized test administered in the school. Also, students who have been identified as gifted by their school districts are invited to apply. If a student has a strong recommendation from a teacher as being potentially gifted in one of the above categories, then that student is also welcome to apply. In addition, any interested student is welcome to apply.

This program offered a course in “bears,” described in the brochure like this:

Learn about real and imaginary bears, from Koalas to Paddington. In addition to studying the habits of bears in the world, activities will include the history of the Teddy Bear.

A course description for “Man, the Voyager,” designed for students in grades 8 through 12, reads:

The basis of this course will be Homer’s Odyssey. Traveling with Odysseus, we will find out what it is like to go to war and then try to come home. As war correspondents, we will send home reports. As Greeks and Romans, we will try to arrange a ceasefire. In short, we will live the Odyssey for our three weeks together.

We have, then, a program that admits anyone with “interest,” regardless of intellectual ability. We have a program that matches its unselected and (we must, unfortunately, assume) its unqualified participants with fluffy courses on teddy bears and a course in “classics” taught by someone who obviously has never read the very text he or she intended to use as “the basis of this course.” After all, Homer’s Odyssey is set long after the Trojan War had concluded, and there were at that time no Romans.

The problems that afflict admissions requirements and course offerings in summer “academic” programs also infect what some tout as educational materials. In one catalogue, “learning-center kits” for the academically talented (all “keyed to Bloom’s Taxonomy,” the mastery-learning model devised by Benjamin Bloom) include a kit devoted to the study of entirely mythical creatures as yet on the fringes of any literary or anthropological study:

The delightful Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Irene Poortvliet is the subject of this creatively designed Learning Center. Choosing from among 72 tasks in four strands (Customs, Characteristics, Industry, and Daily Routine), students may opt to decide whether gnomes would be better Santa’s helpers than elves, to cover the gnome olympics as a reporter for the Gnome Gazette, or to act out a skit entitled “The Gnome Who Came to Dinner.” Gnomes also contains two mazes, two do-it-yourself Gnomietoons, and a word-search puzzle.

Another workbook advertised in the same catalogue is intended for ''future studies,” an area that can be of tremendous use if carefully explored:

The activities in this workbook are intended to provide the vehicle for stimulating the imaginations of students by having them reflect on all of the fascinating implications future technology will have upon their lives. Tasks include such activities as creating perfect space pets, developing a zero-gravity sports activity, designing a space-chores robot, a table game called “Shakespeare” and more, more, more!

All of us know how the creators of such programs justify them, how such “learning-center kits” can make claim to being educational. First, they pay homage to Bloom’s Taxonomy-- undeniably an important work, when used in the manner for which it was designed. Second, they would claim that such education helps people solve problems and “learn to learn"--no matter that elementary-school and high school students are asked to solve nonexistent problems.

Such programs and kits are symptomatic of the way too many have conceived their task as teachers of the academically talented. The advertising rhetoric appeals to its selected audience; the kits and materials are designed to fit market demand. Therefore, I have to ask whether the picture of teaching that is implicit in such programs and publications truly fits the charge that teachers accept when they enter a classroom. Much of today’s education for the academically talented, especially, focuses on such processes-too often to the detriment of basic knowledge.

When I defend academic rigor, I mean to support the teaching of the basic knowledge required for our most promising youths to be productive in the real world of science, politics, religion, mathematics, literature, and music. It is robbery of any student, academically talented or not, merely to teach “how to” learn without teaching something worth learning.

Paul Oskar Kristeller, a scholar of Renaissance philosophy and history, warned teachers of the academically able that “danger lies in the current cult of creativity and self-expression which serves as a pretext for not teaching solid knowledge even to gifted students. Behind this is the false assumption that a gifted person produces everything out of nothing or out of himself, without having learned anything. The fact is that gifted people need even more knowledge than others before they can hope to make a significant contribution to their field.”

Back to the question opening this essay: Why defend academic rigor? Because, as is apparent in some purportedly educational programs for the academically talented, there is so much laxity in so many such programs. Because our students--the ones who are subjected to studies of gnomes, Paddington bears, and rewritten Odysseys--are being cheated. And, because, as so much of the gifted-education literature suggests, academic study appears not to matter and creativity and process in vacuo appear to matter so much.

Finally, the cause of academic rigor in gifted education is the flowering of education for all children. We can make a difference in the lives of our students, and even in the life of our society as a whole, once we resolve to return to the things that matter in academics. We can make ourselves indispensable in education only when we take on a task that itself is indispensable. And that is when we all begin to teach subjects and ideas indispensable to a democratic society-to a people whose lives have meaning both to themselves and to their society.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 1986 edition of Education Week