Separating Out the Geniuses

Smile, fish, you're a genius, too.

Smile, fish, you’re a genius, too.

I was having a conversation with someone I respect. He’s a member of MENSA. MENSA is a society for geniuses. This made my conversation important–I can say, “I was talking to a genius.”

Wait! I am a genius. There is a test score in a box somewhere from when I was little that says so. People might not realize this at first–I’ve been known to troubleshoot appliances that aren’t plugged in, leave stoves on, forget stuff, lose keys on a daily basis, and one hot summer I felt dismayed because the fan I put in the closed window didn’t seem to be circulating any air.

I wonder how they determine who’s a genius anyway.

Like the kid in my class who solves Rubik’s cubes, but gets bad grades. And a guy I know who can fix nearly anything but doesn’t really read. Why aren’t they “geniuses?” If the world’s destroyed, they’ll recreate it. I’ll just think.

When I was little, they gave us tests and separated the geniuses from the non-geniuses. Then they assigned us special classes to help us feel more genius-like so we could cure cancer and such. I felt sad for people who weren’t geniuses. As Forrest Gump said, “Genius is as genius does.”  I didn’t do much. I’m told I nearly got kicked out of genius class because I always did the bare minimum. While some kids invented stuff and filed for patents, I asked how many sentences I had to write and did just that. Somewhere, there’s a book called “My Dad,” with four sentences per page. It doesn’t look like a genius wrote it. Maybe I was a genius and a minimalist–it’s a possibility.

My mom didn’t reveal my scores; she was afraid I’d become a know-it-all. Everyone else’s moms made baseball jerseys with theirs and put signs on the front lawn. I nagged my mom. Finally, she told me, “It’s 84.” I was proud. 84! A nice number. When people rubbed in their 124’s and 128’s, I was finally able to share my score of 84. I was a genius, too.

I never got kicked out of genius class because we moved. I saved face.

Many times since, I have been asked to retake the test. I declined. I found the real score in a file. It was a good number, which I’ll never beat, therefore there’s no incentive to retest–the score can only go down. What if I’m no longer a genius, but only…normal?

I think about this when I teach. I’m good at tests. Many kids are not. Most schools have classes separated by ability level, assigned by tests. Students are tested to move up and down levels, and tested to graduate.

Ironically, it’s is rarely the “smart” kid that succeeds in life, but he does pass tests and gets the best classes. The kid that succeeds is the kid with enthusiasm who often gets put on the bench. “Smart” students are often so accustomed to the entitlement that accompanies the label, that they get soft, like Rome in its heyday. I know. I was that person.

“Miss,” said one scholar, “Why is school so boring? I like this class, but school’s boring. I want to learn about Oceanography. It’s ‘not in the curriculum.'”

“Would you work harder,” I inquired, “If I made school about Oceanography? You’d have advanced math, science, your history would be around conquest and exploration, maritime law? It wouldn’t be easy–you’d study math about biochemistry, environmentalism, fish populations, ocean-related tourism, the economics of fishing…would you learn that?”

“Math about the ocean?”

“Math about the ocean.”

Pause. Deep consideration. “Yeah! I’d learn that!” Soon, a half-dozen eavesdroppers joined the conversation, pondering the awesomeness of a school that personalized their curriculum around cars, nature, medicine, technology…

Right now, I do this sort of thing with students on the side–give them things that interest them, usually for no credit. There is no test–only a conversation with me starting with “How did you like it?” They take off from there–totally intrinsic learning. No testing, no benchmarks–only me, the professional, smiling because I just got a kid to read three-volumes of Japanese history. On his own. Asking for more. Yet in the mainstream world, we measure, rate, label, assess, exhaust, process, and make kids ask “Miss, why is school so boring?” Because we need to shift the paradigm. Open up curricula–de-standardize and re-individualize. Let them go crazy learning what they want to learn. And more.

We have the ability to make education work any way we want during this time of great reform. I hope it turns out fun–because a score on a piece of paper isn’t what motivates students to learn or predicts their success. Their dedication and love of learning is what does. But I don’t think it takes a genius to figure that out.



11 thoughts on “Separating Out the Geniuses

  1. I just had a conversation with an elementary teacher that made my heart sink. We know it’s happening all over – the teaching to the test environment (witness the Georgia school scandal), but it was put into real terms for me when I was told that my daughter would not be taught how to write in cursive – there wasn’t enough time.

    Now, I realize that this is no longer considered a real world skill, but it feels like a loss. She’ll be learning from me over the summer. She spent 2 hours at a computer yesterday taking a test. The gain was not hers, just the scoreboard’s. I support public education, but you are absolutely right – there must be a paradigm shift.

    We are intrinsic learners in our family and the more I see her education in the classroom, the more grateful I am that we’ve raised her to be curious and to follow the threads for more knowledge outside of school.

    • My frustration–we can accomplish this. When I started teaching, I had a book and was told nothing but “teach this.” I wrote what I was going to teach, individualized it to the class in front of me, and did a ton of awesome things. We need to put this freedom back again. The trend is not going in this direction.

  2. I love this article. I have always taken it upon myself to teach my children how to research. For I believe in there own reading will be there actual learning. When they have an interest in something, we’re straight off to the library… (not GOOGLE) to delve into as many books and articles on the subject as possible. Inorder to learn everything their little hearts and minds might want to know about it.
    I have very little faith in our academic environment as it currently stands. As a far cry from the past in their tests, catagorizations, and separations of students, with their scores in their standardized test scores of average, smart, sorta smart, and well genius smart. Now we strive for all our students to be just passably smart. there is no enrichment in our schools per say, at least not at the elementary level where it matters the most, when young minds are ripe for the picking. My smart little girl comes home every day saying one day at school was worse (more boring) than the last, and she leaves unchalenged and un elightened. She spends an inordinate amount of time in lines and waiting and holding pattern, while the average and below average kids catch up to her and the other… well ….regular kids. They tout that there is no child left behind, but when there is a child who is clearly gifted and should be allowed to promte or advance to a more suitably challenging environment, well a big fat NO! to that as well. We dont do that. Not good for the kid socially or some nonsence. Well Im a child psychologist and feel it is far more detrimental for a smart child to be placed in a class of her peers where in order to fit in she has to slow her speech and dumb herself down. She has begun to be ashamed of her smarts and to me this is a far greater crime than perhaps just putting her in a class with older kids whom she might better get along with and who might challenge her to try and reach her true potential.

    btw. just had her tested with those standardized scales to see if i was just blowing smoke up my kids butt, and she scored FSIQ of 142… not to stupid. Now what are you gonna do public school!!!!!! well …. nothing. They will take care of that brightness soon enough by numbing her down to the ordinary tout suite. HELP Im clearly no genius notice my misspellings and typos! gramatical errors… I cant teach this kid alone!

    • I told the “oceanography” student I’d used her in this post, but not by name because I hadn’t asked her first. She said “You can put my name AND my Twitter. I mean that.”

      Talking with students about how much more work they’d be willing to do in “their” areas… it’s amazing. I’m not a believer in gifted education–I’m a believer that every student has their “gift” or thing… so, if it’s reading, do that, if it’s dinosaurs, do that, if it’s cars, do that…and it can all be done at a higher level. The problem is that we value the traditional cannon at the expense of hunting for the gems that are there in every student. Students don’t hunt for their own gems because they’ve been conditioned to devalue them. If it’s not the three R’s or in the curriculum, it couldn’t be a valid pursuit. I get jaws dropping when I tell stories about historians writing about baseball, or the kid who had his own business as a junior. He outearned me. I want school to say “What’s school for?” (Seth Godin) “What do you want it to do for YOU?” (because the student is the customer) and then “Okay. What’s the game plan?”

      I sat w a recent alum after school. He reported that he’d been at three little restaurants. Had no direction, really. Was currently unemployed–my advice–go to Federal Hill, where all the nice restaurants are, and look for a job. Go to ever good establishment there. Ask to washes, bus tables, prep cook if possible. Go up and down at not-busy times until some chef remembers your face. Then when you get hired for the worst job, come early and ask to chop veggies or help with the prep. Peel potatoes, do the bad jobs. And quickly, you will be doing the good ones because you are reliable. Then, the chef will give you a minute, and you build from there…

      Now, imagine if I taught him that at the right time. If we had that conversation, while discussing things he was passionate about when he was in class? He said, “Wow. I never thought of it like that.” I said, “Don’t imagine yourself as a prep chef or fast food worker. Everything you do is to get ready to be the best chef–everything you learn.” “Wow. I can do that.” That’s what school should be about. In my perfect world, anyway.

  3. Love it! So you ARE Socrates after all.

    I was one of those high-tester-underachievers. It’s a sad club to be in. Gotta get education out of the silos and into the field. There’s a cool new school in San Francisco created by the guy who started the Tinkering School and an educator from the Exploratorium. Inquiry-based learning, of course. They’re called Brightworks. Trouble is, they only draw kids from high-achiever fairly monochromatic families, kids who would already find their way through the maze successfully with parental guidance.

    • Actually, they’re on my radar, and I want to see them, and bingo, you expressed my problem with the whole charter movement. “Drawing” students is a nice way of saying “excluding” students. Imagine doing this with everyone but not being able to kick kids back to their school if they don’t fit the mission? That would be a true system of education.

  4. Great piece. Growing up in the country, I never went to preschool or kindergarten and failed my first-grade placement test with no idea of what the teachers wanted from me; I was tagged as delayed. The teachers figured out pretty soon that I wasn’t so dumb, but it was a great lesson I’ve carried about how tests work or don’t work. I love your solution of teaching to the kids’ interest. They are lucky to have you!

    • Where did you grow up? My son struggled with the “conforming” part because we didn’t need daycare–he didn’t have the rules drilled in yet. We’re still working on this.

      • I grew up in Bruneau, Idaho, high mountain desert area 63 miles south of Boise and known (by a few) for its shifting sand dunes. The first-grade test I took was in Twin Falls, where I started school. Conforming was difficult at first because I lacked social skills and didn’t know what was expected of me, but easy on the other hand because I was super shy so mainly tried to hide. That all really changed once I learned to read and reading and writing have been what sustain me ever since. I’m sure your son will do just fine once he adjusts and it sounds like he has great parents!

  5. Pingback: One Lovely Blog Award | Jilanne Hoffmann

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