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by Draper Kauffman

Q: The teacher tells me that I shouldn't worry about my accelerated son's complaints of boredom and slipping grades, that he doesn't need harder work, that he has "hit a plateau" and his learning pace has leveled off, and the other kids will now "catch up."  What does this mean?

"Plateauing" is a term that still pushes my buttons when I hear it from teachers. I've been a teacher, a college professor teaching teachers, and a district administrator in a large urban district. I've raised a profoundly gifted kid and been one, and I've counseled families with highly gifted + kids and helped them deal with schools. And in my experience in dealing with teachers, counselors, and administrators, the term "hitting a plateau" translates into "so bored they've finally given up trying."

What is so frustrating is that many teachers view this as inevitable and even desirable. I've had more than one teacher tell me to my face that of course gifted kids are going to be bored in school, but that real people have to do boring things all the time and it's especially good for highly gifted kids to have the chance to learn to deal with boredom while they are young because - being so bright - they'll spend so much more time being bored than most people.

I didn't buy the idea then and I don't buy it now. The best colleges and universities are searching for self-motivated learners, and despair of finding them amid all the docile straight-A students. Businesses and research facilities depend critically on the efforts of the highly motivated few who have been learning at top speed since childhood and keep right on learning as adults because it's as natural and necessary as breathing. So why do schools act so complacent when motivated kids suddenly lose interest in learning for its own sake?

The answer is simple: Smart, highly self-motivated kids are a hassle. They frighten many teachers. They care about learning, not grades, so they are hard to manipulate and control, and they and their parents always want something more - or at least different - from their schools and teachers. On the other hand, bored underachievers are no problem at all: blame the kid, blame the parents, shake your head, feel superior. Routine. No extra effort required.

Some years ago, in central Texas, I listened in horrified fascination as a district gifted coordinator carefully explained the theory of beneficial boredom to a regional gifted ed workshop full of teachers. She made an analogy between educating an independent-minded gifted student and breaking a spirited wild horse to saddle and bridle. The horse would rather run free, so it fights hard, refusing to do what the rider (teacher) wants, and is in fact unable to be a good riding horse until it reaches the point of exhaustion and gives up/gives in and submits to the will of its teacher.

Her theory was that that period of exhaustion, when the horse gives up its dream of being free, is the plateau our kids have to hit before they can acquire "the true freedom to learn successfully," which begins - according to her - with discipline and submission to wiser heads. She was especially critical of acceleration, which she considered a way to postpone the day of reckoning at the cost of making it more severe. Just as it is easier to break a colt to saddle than a mature wild stallion, so - she said - it is easier to "instill real academic discipline" in gifted kids at a younger age, which couldn't be done if they were allowed to "run free" by skipping grades and/or forging ahead on their own.

She was careful to say that, with patience and "kindness," this could all be done without "breaking the spirit" of the horse (or the gifted child), but the teachers in the workshop - who, by the way, really liked this presentation - seemed to discount that part. The sense I had was that the teachers were especially pleased by the idea that what they had been doing all along for and to these kids was right and desirable precisely because it would "break the spirit" of independent gifted learners and make them docile and easier to manage. Clearly, they were pleased to have a rationale for doing less rather than more for self-motivated kids. After all, if the expert said that a few years of boredom would turn all these rebellious independent learners into dutiful, obedient model students, why should the teachers do more?

The fact that the empirical record does not support this theory seemed irrelevant. Gifted kids deal with high levels of boredom in school in a wide range of ways, depending on their character, their non-school environment, and the kind of support they get from their families. Some do become dutiful students, especially those who need a lot of approval and external validation, and these kids provide the anecdotal evidence that keeps the boredom-is-good-for-them theory alive. And a fair number of gifted kids put school on cruise control and develop outside interests that keep them challenged. But few of the kids in these two groups hit a major plateau in the first place.

Let me be clear about this. In teacher-speak, "hitting a plateau" refers to a major drop in effort and achievement in school for a previously motivated learner who had been moving ahead at faster than one grade level per year. A better term would be "hitting the wall." No matter how convenient this might be for a teacher, it is not a good thing for the student. More often than not, it is caused by a high degree of boredom, leading to depression, anger, alienation, and underachievement.

The reality is that kids who learn twice as fast as normal will continue to forge ahead unless denied access to learning opportunities, creating an ever-widening gap between them and their age-mates. Even if the level of schooling is right, the pace is usually wrong and it's soon time to skip them ahead again. In my experience, it only stops being a problem when they home school or get to a university and get to pick the level and pace of challenge that suits them best.

The curse of the highly gifted is that challenge and motivation go hand in hand. We can't expect way-smart kids to be eager, bright-eyed, self-motivated learners if we give them nothing but years of drudgery and watching other kids learn what they've known for years. And for teachers to act as if it is natural and desirable for highly gifted kids to become so bored they turn off and lose interest in learning is (in my not at all humble opinion) nothing short of outrageous.

For what it's worth, my son still hasn't learned the lesson that learning is inevitably boring or that being bored is good for you. His response to boredom in grade school was to demand accelerated math, which we did through Stanford's EPGY (read my comments On EPGY) during 3rd & 4th grade, and then homeschooling, which we did instead of 5th grade, followed by early high school at age 11.

His grades were good in his first year and a half at a good math/science magnet high school and he placed first and third in his first two science fairs and first and second in his first two history fairs. But after three semesters (including a terrific college course in Symbolic Logic through a summer gifted program at Southern Methodist University), the pace seemed too slow again and his grades started dropping. He couldn't face another year of busy work and drudgery, so he shifted to college at 13.

He's been going to college part time and theoretically homeschooling part time, which translates into a lot of reading and pursuing whatever interests him, like volunteering at the science museum and studying martial arts. He usually takes 3 courses a semester, but with a course or two each summer it adds up. At 17, he's nominally a junior majoring in geology, and he still gets A's in hard courses (freshman comp at 13, chemistry, calculus III, economics, and a couple of unexpectedly challenging courses in psychology and anthropology) and B's and C's in slow-paced "easy" courses in Spanish, history, English literature, "physics for non-majors" (i.e., without calculus), etc.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, and I've written more than I meant to, but your question about "plateauing" took me back to that workshop and the memory of it makes me mad all over again. Per your son's latest problems with his teachers, all I can say from personal experience is that we never had trouble with too much acceleration, but often faced problems with too little. When my son got bored and his grades started to drop, a brief period of home/unschooling followed by a move to a school at a higher level and with a faster pace always fixed the problem.

2004 Draper Kauffman
May not be republished without permission.

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