Shaun has occasionally posted about the difficulties of educating her profoundly gifted daughter. One of the reasons she homeschools is because she just couldn’t get a school system based primarily around age to work for her daughter, particularly when she needed to be accelerated more than 2 grades in some subjects (which seemed to be the limit the school would consider). Now Tigger is not really in the same league as Violet but she is pretty bright and if I had pushed I probably could have got her into the gifted program with our board. But homeschooling works much better. And one reason is because we can just work at the level that seems right without really worrying about levels. Since she doesn’t even really like textbooks, this is even easier because levels just never come up.
But Tigger is also a really social child. She loves being with other kids. And she loves learning from other people. So I like to sign her up for things that get organized on topics that interest her. Back in May/June she did a science class. It was loosely based on the Grade 9 curriculum and advertised as for 12-15 year olds. I knew the mom that organized it and talked to her about it. She wasn’t sure what the teacher would think but thought Tigger was probably at that level (from previous interaction) and said that if everyone who signed up was at the top end of the age range maybe not but we’d see who else was interested. In the end it was pretty hard to get the minimum number together and there was an 11 year old also interested and Tigger did it. She was fine. I had to find alternative readings a couple of times or go through the reading with her but she grasped the concepts well and did great in this lab based class.
At the end of that class the teacher had said that there was another class he planned to offer in the fall if the kids were interested — cell biology with lots of microscope work (Grade 9 level again). Even though Tigger and this other kid were younger than his usual target age range he made a point of saying to me and the other mom that they were both easily capable of doing that class and he’d welcome them. So this fall, I contacted him and then took it upon myself to organize some people.
Of course it is easier to get enough kids in September than in May 🙂 So I had more than enough and did it on a first-come first-served kind of basis. I sent an e-mail to those that were in and the teacher (so he could take over) and listed what I knew about the participants at the end. Some I didn’t know ages and those I did seemed to be several 12 year olds and Tigger. One 14 year old boy then told his mom that he didn’t want to do a class for 10 – 12 year olds. AAACK!
I dealt with it all but I felt personally really awful. Here I am trying to get an activity at a good level for Tigger and because she is younger it gives the impression to others that the class isn’t really Grade 9 level as advertised. The teacher by then had more information about some of the kids and we confirmed with this kid’s mom that there were older kids in the group and that the level was right for him and that he wasn’t going to dumb it down for younger kids. He’s back in. Thank goodness.
But I ended up feeling like you can’t win. The age to level culture runs so deep that even homeschooled kids (and this kid is unschooled so I don’t think he does a lot of workbooks with levels printed on them either) immediately think that younger kids must be doing lower level work. Or maybe that it would be “normal” for a class to have kids all about the same age rather than having kids from 11 to 16 (as this class will). I’m sure he didn’t mean anything bad by it but it does seem to be an indication of how deep those assumptions go.
Which gets me back to my complaint that we, as a society, need a better understanding of statistics and probability. Because the variation in ability (all kinds of abilities) around the mean is significant for most things. Somehow we have a society that thinks “average” is where everyone should be and that both “below average” and “above average” are somehow “abnormal” in a way that needs to be corrected or reined in or something. This starts to happen from when we are measuring our babies’ progress in terms of “developmental milestones”. I have even met moms who misunderstand those growth charts thinking that if their kids in the 15th (or 85th) percentile there is a problem with their growth. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the distinction between characteristics of a population and characteristics of an individual member of that population. And it causes real problems.
My kid is well within the normal range of ability for a kid her age. But she’s 11 and capable of Grade 9 science. Her understanding of history and history of art is way beyond what anyone would expect of an 11 year old. But she still plays imaginative games with Playmobil toys and dolls and other “normal” 11 year old stuff. That’s probably normal too. Somehow we need to be able to recognize all of our normal kids, in all their variation, and help them learn. I would hope that classes with kids ranging in age from 11 to 16 were actually more common.