Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tony Stark, "Gifted" Kid

I took a much-needed family day and saw The Avengers last week. I know I'm supposed to be all highly literary and stuff, and that as such I should probably be looking down my (always too red) nose and saying something caustic and disparaging, but I'm going to go ahead and admit off the bat that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It's a popcorn movie, not a think-piece, and it embraces what it is without apology.

Which isn't to say that there's nothing thought-provoking about the movie. It was refreshing, for instance, to see scientists Bruce Banner and Tony Stark as heroes. Their alter egos may give them physical strength, but the real power of each of these men comes from their intellect, a too often neglected super power. And at the risk of making a HUGE over-generalization, I started thinking of the two extremes of what "gifted" looks like.

I'll back up here and say that I teach a lot of teachers and future teachers, and we often talk about how to engage gifted students. Often, they argue that you don't really need to work to engage a gifted student's attention. Gifted students, they argue, are self-motivated learners. Give them a task and a deadline, and they'll strive to exceed your expectations.

That's true if you have a Bruce Banner-style gifted kid. Unless some ugly, self-defeating inner turmoil is unleashed, they tend to be quite and studious and well behaved. The Bruce Banners of the world often succeed in even adverse conditions because they want to please. They tend to populate school honor societies and speak on graduation day, the proud valedictorians of their respective classes.

But I tracked into the gifted program myself, and I have since worked with a number of highly gifted students, and as much as teachers like to believe in self-motivation and discipline as inherent personality traits of gifted students, I know the reality is often much closer to Tony Stark. Gifted students are just as often easily bored, arrogant, and difficult to work with. While the Bruce Banners may mild-manneredly accept busy work, the Tony Starks recognize it as a waste of their intelligence, though they may not conceptualize or articulate their resistance as such.

The problem is, our schooling system (both public and private) does not tend to cater well to these students. As teachers are asked to leave no child behind and to focus increasingly on less creative kinds of work that will supposedly help students pass standardized tests--all the while seeing their class sizes continually rise--we're losing the very students who are most likely to be innovative in the face of enormous obstacles. We're losing America's potential leaders and inventors to boredom.

In my college classes, I've often had former high school dropouts re-starting their educations. More often than not, these drop outs are among the most talented students I've had the pleasure of working with--yet their attitudes and defiance had set their teachers against them. And though I'm happy that some of them are making it back to college, I suspect there's a far larger population that never does. I'd like to make a call to recognizing boredom--that is, not challenging students enough--as a prevalent cause of educational attrition. Too many Starks don't find the paths to becoming Iron Men.

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