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Struggle, Challenge and Meaning:
The Education of a Gifted Child

by Valerie Bock

Parents of young children are familiar with the grin of triumph which accompanies mastery of a new skill after a concentrated effort... from pulling up to a stand, to taking those first steps and tying their own shoes, life for all young children is full of opportunities to strive for meaningful goals and achieve mastery.

For most older children, school provides further opportunities for to test their mettle and emerge triumphant. For gifted children, though, this experience is often lacking, as they are asked to wait patiently for the next new thing to learn while their classmates wrestle with concepts and skills the gifted child may have mastered years before.

Although the effects of giving gifted children educational materials and experiences identical to those offered their non-gifted agemates are often interpreted as boredom, attention deficit, hyperactivity, or insubordination, the need for instruction at an appropriate pace and level is a no less than the direct outgrowth of the fundamental need for all children, [all humans, for that matter!] to experience regularly the rewards of meaningful work.

I started thinking a lot about struggle challenge and meaning while doing the 40 millionth load of laundry one day, which is why I jumped at the chance to share my thoughts when the subject of challenge came up on GT-Families a while ago.

I agree that it's much easier to learn that which for which one feels an attraction. The more powerful the attraction, the easier it is to muster a great deal of effort to understand. It's why the great teachers, in my opinion, are the ones who transmit the love and fascination for their subject. The attitude is catching.

I occasionally do computer configuration work in classrooms. When I'm lucky, the teacher caves to the fact that the kids are all staring at the guts of the computer I have exposed by removing the case, and invites me to talk about what I'm doing.

A little girl once commented, "you have a hard job." I replied "I have a fun job. I get to do puzzles all day long, and when I get it right, kids get to play on a computer which works again!"

Yeah, it's a hard job. It takes a lot of time and energy and stubbornness to do it well. But I find meaning and pleasure in the work.

It was really interesting to see the look on her face. It may not have occurred to her before that some people really love what they do.

I think a lot of us worry that if our gifted kids do not experience having to work hard at unlocking the secrets of the universe while they are young, they may come to regard anything which does not come immediately to them as inherently boring and/or meaningless. There do exist, for most of us, areas which offer a great deal to us in terms of understanding the world which we cannot grasp without the application of considerable effort.

In our family, the kids spend lots of time and effort mastering Nintendo games, just for the fun of solving the puzzles. I spend time and effort with them at karate, attempting to develop mastery of the various moves.

Sometimes, the rewards of the effort are concurrent with the struggle. Sometimes the rewards don't happen until later. I'd like for my children to have experience with working towards things for which the rewards are not immediate, because deep into the agonies of university finals week, late in a sleepless night with a teething child, and during crunch times in whatever work they choose, that understanding will be crucial to helping them find meaning in what is objectively, a painful situation.

I suspect that one of the ways we can help our children is by helping them to seek the meaning of the tasks they are assigned, and by being frank about those tasks which have no apparent meaning. And I'd have to say that it is disrespectful to any human to ask them to spend the majority of their time on the planet doing things which do not have meaning.

Meaning is what lets one perceive rewards which are concurrent with struggle. Meaning is what sees one through struggles which offer no immediate rewards. I want for my kids to be able to discriminate between hard and meaningless, and to find vocations in which their work is meaningful to them. And I wonder if they can be expected to make that distinction if they spend their days neither working hard, nor facing meaningful work.

Meaning is my new rallying point at school. To those who say that children must tolerate a certain level of boredom, I reply that boredom is one thing, meaninglessness is another. Doing laundry is boring, but there is meaning to providing my family with clean and comfortable clothing. Doing pages of exercises which teach concepts mastered long ago has no meaning, and as such is an offense to the human spirit.

Similarly, doing a teacher-structured project to illustrate mastery of an understanding of slavery can be problematic, because the assigned mode of expression may not be one which permits an individual to transmit his/her sense of the meaning of the topic.

It might be helpful to face squarely the problem such a mismatch can cause, and to explore other goals the project may be structured to meet... the development of language skills, or presentation skills, or time management skills. There is meaning to be found in mastering the mechanical stuff, too. There is little to be lost in considering whether there are other ways one might meet those goals and transmit meaning. The worst thing that could happen is that the teacher would refuse to consider the alternative project one might propose. The best thing that could happen is that an assignment might be transformed from a meaningless exercise in doing as little as possible to meet requirements into a real experience with meaningful work.

Copyright 1999 Valerie Bock

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