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Education Opinion

Varsity Academics

By Tamara Fisher — August 20, 2008 6 min read

Hello from the Ice Cream Capital of the World!

On the morning of July 7, I had my TV on in the other room while I was getting ready for the day. I overheard an interview on the Today Show that Matt Lauer did with swimmer Dara Torres. The day before, she had managed to qualify for her fifth Olympics at the age of 41, even breaking an American record (for the ninth time in that event!) in the qualifying process.

Near the end of the interview, Matt asked Dara how she did it, noting his age and noting hers. (They know each other off-camera, it might be important to mention.) “When I turned 40,” he said, “I had trouble going up stairs. I was winded more easily.”

After describing her workout regimen and then outlining how she was proactively being regularly blood-tested to prove that she was doing all this cleanly, she said to Matt, good-naturedly and with a twinkle in her eye,

“And besides, you know, maybe I’m a little more athletically gifted than you are.”

It was funny! She pulled it off really well and I know she got a chuckle out of both Matt and me. And besides – it was true. She’s clearly far more athletically gifted than nearly all of us.

But then I got to thinking…

It’s never funny when someone – even good naturedly and with a twinkle in their eye – says,

“And besides, you know, maybe I’m a little more intellectually gifted than you are.”

Nope. That’s pretty much a party stopper. We feel offended. We can’t believe someone would have the gall to say something so arrogant. We lose respect for someone with such an “inflated ego.”

Not that I would advocate anyone go around actually saying that! I was just struck by how okay it felt to hear Dara say that – and how not okay it would feel to hear it the other way.

But we have different standards, dare I say a double standard, when it comes to athletics.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I’m not knocking athletics. They’re important, valuable, worthwhile, and a model means of developing talent. My own sister was a high school varsity athlete, and there was nothing like the thrill of watching her team win back-to-back state championships (my vantage point was from the Pep Band section ;o)

It’s just that I’m baffled by our double standard when it comes to varsity academics.

When it comes to sports, we don’t have any trouble supporting an individual’s pursuit of greater levels of achievement. We cheer them on, we donate to the Booster Club, we raise a fuss if the football team goes on the school district’s chopping block. (It never does, but you know what I mean.) And we should do all of that. Those students have talent that most of the rest of us don’t. It’s okay to celebrate the development of their athletic talent! And it should remain so.

And yet our students who excel intellectually are – sometimes, often times? – made fun of in school, teased for being bookworms and “walking encyclopedias,” not allowed to move ahead in the curriculum because they might begin to “think too highly of themselves” (or because it’s inconvenient for the teacher), and believed to be “okay as they are” – no need to push them any further in their talent areas.

So it’s okay to develop athletic talent, but try starting a gifted program in your school to develop intellectual talent and there’s bound to be someone (or many someones) who will be opposed on grounds that it’s “elitist” or “unnecessary” (they’re “already where they need to be,” after all). How can we justify putting money into kids who are already “succeeding” when we have so many other kids who – I agree – deserve our every effort to help them learn?

*sigh* Shouldn’t EVERY child be able to LEARN to their capacity in school of all places‽‽‽ Aren’t schools for learning?

Maybe we can use the vocabulary of talent development to help ourselves explain why it’s necessary to put effort into kids who have already met (or more typically far surpassed) grade-level expectations. The Olympics don’t inspire us because the bar is set at an average level. They inspire us because the bar is set quite high and each individual is stretched to his or her capacity, often amazing us and themselves in the process! Olympic athletes don’t achieve all that they do because they stayed with the crowd and learned how to swim in the same way average a-few-times-a-summer swimmers learned. They break records and accomplish what hadn’t been accomplished before (breaking a record nine times, for example), because they and their coaches focused effort on developing the talent that was already there. Good enough isn’t anywhere near good enough for them.

There are some of us out here who recognize that gifted children tend to have natural talent in one or more areas and we want to let them develop those talents to their fullest potential. We want them to be able to GROW. Do we expect gifted athletes like Dara to learn their skills in a heterogeneous group taught at an average pace? Of course not. At some point, in order to pursue what she was capable of, she had to break away from that and follow a far more challenging course.

We send all children to Physical Education classes because we want all children to learn about and develop their physical fitness. It’s important for all on some level. However, some children have greater levels of athletic talent, and they are selected for our athletic teams so that they can further develop their talent to its fullest potential. We don’t expect them to magically develop that talent further on their own or solely through P.E. classes. We recognize that they need advanced training to polish what they begin with and to stretch them to where they are capable of going. It is (or should be) the same for our intellectually gifted children who have greater levels of thinking ability and academic talent. We can’t expect them to magically develop those talents further solely through regular education classes. We must recognize that they need advanced training to polish what they begin with and to stretch them to their fullest potential.

It’s the same philosophy! Development of talent – any kind of talent – doesn’t happen magically or on its own!

Developing the talents of our advanced learners means releasing the constraints on our teachers, too. They’re up against some tough walls! Some of them are only allowed to teach a certain page on a certain day saying only the script from the book (whether the kids are ready for it, or not, or far past that point), making differentiation near impossible – or even, in essence, “against the rules.” Most teachers have a huge range of student abilities to accommodate within their classrooms. And nearly all of them have received little or no training on the needs of gifted students. When it comes to understanding and reaching gifted learners, the deck is stacked against our teachers.

“Confine plant forms to a container and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. Confine your teachers to your restricting curricula and your paperwork and you will know exactly the dimensions they shall reach. And each budding branch and each extending child shall not extend far beyond the perimeters of their confinement. Space determines the shape of all living things.” ~ Bob Stanish ~

My challenge for you this school year: find a crack in the container and start chipping away! Otherwise we will know the only dimensions that we and our varsity learners shall ever reach.

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.