We need to rescue the bright kids in schools

This was the title of an article by Steven Martin, published on 1 July in The West Australian. Here is the full text:

While some excel in class, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, writes Steven Martin

Chances are they were difficult babies, fidgety toddlers and now they are strange teenagers. You, as their parent, know they are bright, but trying to convince others is like trying to get them to see the silk in the sow’s ear; they need to get past the porcine problems first. Really bright kids often disguise themselves as sow’s ears.

Anyway the argument goes, like ducks, bright kids walk the walk and talk the talk … don’t they? Usually this means they perform well at school and are compliant. Well, research shows that many don’t perform well and are not compliant. That is unless they’re encouraged in the right way. Would you encourage a child who doesn’t seem to have what it takes? The problem is not hard to see.

Our Education Department, like similar departments around Australia, seeks the brightest teenagers through testing. Then, when they’ve found them, they put them into special programs. Everyone feels good about this: the minister, the department, the schools with the special programs, the parents and, of course, the successful test takers.

Oddly, hardly anyone stops to question whether the tests really find people who are bright or just people who are good at taking tests. Governments commit millions of dollars on the strength of the tests so you’d think someone would ask, after all, it’s our taxes and our bright kids. And what happens to the teenagers who are not selected for special help — does this mean they’re not intelligent?

Some vocal parents kick and scream against the test results since gaining admission to a special program is prestigious and they know their children are bright. Bureaucracy soon wears them out because it can’t cater for all.

Most just accept their children’s fate, now believing that the brightness they thought they saw was just a trick of the light. What would parents know in the face of statistics? Those who know anything about finding bright kids agree that parents know a lot.

Often their children, being great learners, learnt the nature of their relationship with education before they got to Year 4 and haven’t been interested since. They look for light outside the classroom window and sometimes mitigate their boredom by amusing themselves at the teacher’s expense, often developing poor reputations along the way. Why would they try to do well on tests or anything else the school asks of them? Why would the school go to any great lengths to cater for troublemakers?

The truth is, really bright kids become great at hiding, often under a shell of strangeness for fear the others might get to know and tease them. They understand all about tall poppies and, in the uniform world of school, they would rather be considered bizarre than brainy; goofy than gifted.

While some excel in classrooms, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, contenting themselves to hang out on the fringes with their weird mates. Unfortunately, their rich potential goes undiscovered when the whole community could benefit from it.

No less a body than a select committee of the Australian Senate has said for years that little is being done in schools to mine the potential of our bright children. Alarmingly the committee has also said that many of these young people are ‘at risk’ as a result.

As a long-serving teacher, for me it’s not hard to see the reasons. Teachers are often tirelessly seeking to get the best for their students in the face of ever growing demands from the community.

How often have you heard the phrase, ‘they should teach them in school…’ relating to topics as varying as manners, driving, money management and so on? Most busy teachers, however dedicated, simply do not have the time to read theory and policy documents, particularly in relation to a group that mythology tells us is advantaged anyway. Research is full of good ideas which never reach the chalkface where they could be applied effectively.

A belief that is not uncommon is that bright kids will ‘rise to the top’ like cream, but the truth is that many teenagers are not even aware of their own brightness. Instead of rising, they’re more likely to sink under the weight of sameness and the boredom that ensues.

Instead of being taught pre-existing solutions to new problems, our bright kids need to be taught how to find new and better solutions for themselves since it’s the case that, those who have a solution are unlikely to look for others. Most teaching in schools across the curriculum requires students to remember information rather than critically evaluate it, however, if bright young people are to emerge from the classroom gloom, they need to be challenged by being given the skills to do this.

Experts in education writing for the United Nations have been arguing for years that teaching children to think and reason is as important in our modern age as teaching them to write was in the past. Those who have learnt to do this successfully are equipped for creating new ideas. There is no educationally sound reason these skills could not be taught to all in a way that would ‘value add’ to the curriculum. This may be the only way of rescuing all our bright kids from the problems that could trouble them at school and in their lives beyond. Think what we would gain as a community.

Steven Martin has been a teacher for more than 30 years, specialising in gifted children

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2 Responses to “We need to rescue the bright kids in schools”

  1. Amber Says:

    As the parent of a gifted child I could not agree more. Gifted kids need rescuing from mainstream schooling! Fortunately i am able to homeschool my daughter who was reading novels by age 3.5. What a slap in the face it would have been for her to be placed with her age peers in a Kindy setting to learn her shapes, colours, counting and alphabet. Unfortunately there is NO flexibility in the lower grades to allow skipping ahead or even truly challenging work. She has a July birthday, again no flexibility. Our system sucks! Thankfully she is thriving at home in this her pre-primary year.

  2. Kirsten Olson Says:

    Hi Simon! Just logging in from over at COOP CATALYST. As you know, I believe vast numbers of children are wounded by their time in school; school is where you go to learn to be stupid (paraphrase.)

    We’re hoping you’ll come back to us at the COOP and write a little bit about your experiences as a young Australian teacher?


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