Educating the Gifted and Talented

“People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have.” -John Holt-

Friday, March 17, 2006

Varied content promotes learning

"The family or society that understands its children thrives; when it doesn’t, socio-cultural devolution will take place", said Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and researcher on childhood brain development. He pointed out that communities help shape experiences for humans which in turn affect our mentality.

Society decides what children should learn in school. With the focus on reading, math and science, they rarely learn about the importance of proper child development. Yet, it is often young and still uninformed people who willingly and unwillingly become parents. If they do not know how important constant and loving interaction with their infant is, neglect and abuse in some families will not stop.

If certain brain connections are not formed in the first year, they will never have another chance to do so. The brain develops only when its parts are activated and used. If we do not talk to a child, it will not learn to speak. If we do not lovingly connect with it, it will not be able to love itself or others and show compassion.

"Neglect, chaos and trauma can create impulsive, aggressive, remorseless and anti-social individuals. Almost without fail, most individuals in prison today have suffered some kind of abuse or neglect as children." said Perry.
Each year that number grows! More money is used for maintenance and construction of new prisons than for education. Interestingly, education (or rather lack of learning) may contribute to delinquency. Schools are faced with dropout rates that have not significantly decreased in many years.

To keep kids interested in school their brain literally needs to be turned on. This only happens when they actively learn and neurons are busily moving between a myriad of receptors to send messages. In the child whose brain was optimally primed, many such pathways lie waiting. Whatever needs to be learned can easily find its way to the right receptors for processing and storage.

Unfortunately, keeping the brain active is difficult. Perry mentioned that the average brain has an attention span of only two and a half minutes! After that it starts to wander and another stimulus is needed to pique its attention. The best way to learn is "a total sensory experience". Educators need to offer varied content for the different ways in which students learn best.

Teaching is much like weaving, using different colors and fibers to shape the whole pattern.
Perry suggests that it is better to offer a few number problems and then some story problems, maybe even throw in a visual assignment, such as a graph or pie chart. All these different actions keep the brain hopping and in gear for more learning because "the brain fatigues when doing repetitious things".

He underscored the importance that teachers and parents recognize uneven progress within the child. Linda Silverman of the Gifted Child Development Center in Denver calls it asynchrony. It means a child can be at different age stages as far as emotional, behavioral, social, moral, and cognitive development are concerned. Perry says schools place children according to chronological age even though many are unprepared to learn. They may be six, but sometimes function emotionally as three year olds. A child can be at risk of being over, but also under-challenged. Either will affect learning negatively.

"Timing is everything" he claims. The child needs to be able to stretch just far enough to enter into what he calls "the hot zone", so it can learn new skills. It means the student is capable, and in the process of learning, but has not quite reached proficiency. "When impossible demands and challenges are placed on students, or there is a mismatch between their potential and current development, it chills their enthusiasm, curiosity and developmental progress", says Perry who calls that situation the developmental "cold zone". Gifted students too find themselves in that situation if learning is too easy or repetitious. Their brains fatigue which in turn can cause stress and behavioral problems.

Kids also get pushed into the cold zone when they are over scheduled with activities outside of school. They can not learn well if overwhelmed. Only when they feel safe and comfortable will they enter the hot zone of productive learning again. Perry said that "the internal state of a child helps determine what they will perceive and learn. A child who is hungry or exhausted, ill or anxious does not learn well." Children in distress seek and need a comfort zone.

Therefore, teachers should focus on such students’ strengths and talents. "Make them feel good about themselves," concluded Perry. "Draw them out, make it safe". When students feel safe in school with their teachers and classmates, they will explore and go on to discover, master, build confidence and self-esteem which in turn leads to a sense of security and the desire to explore further.


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