By TMoM Team Member Laura Simon
For the better part of this school year, I’ve been fighting with my 10-year-old over fractions. In case it’s been awhile for you (and it has been awhile for me), let me summarize the average problem. First, you have to convert mixed numbers to improper fractions. Then, depending on the problem, you either have to convert the fractions to a common denominator, multiply the fractions to create a monstrous improper fraction, or multiply the inverse because that’s easier than establishing a common denominator and dividing. Then, you have to convert the improper fraction back to a mixed number and reduce the remaining fraction until it cannot be reduced anymore. In the process of doing that one, single problem, you will use long division and multiple-digit multiplication. You’ll need to know greatest common factors and maybe a formula or two. Make it a word problem, and you might need a master’s degree in analysis to get the thing finished.
I am only slightly kidding.
My 10-year-old can do all these things with remarkable accuracy. Sometimes he catches errors in my own math. What he cannot do is finish a worksheet by himself, without me standing over him, making sure he is focusing on the work. Hence, a worksheet that should take only 15 minutes takes well over an hour and sometimes some tears (usually mine).
I’m entirely to blame for this incredibly frustrating daily ritual. Why? Because I’m the one who seized upon his early aptitude for math and let him speed ahead far too quickly. Each time he mastered a concept, we plowed forward, until I found myself with a 10-year-old who possesses all of the book knowledge and none of the maturity to do this level of math.
Some of you with gifted kids are screaming in your heads right now because all you’ve ever been told about giftedness boils down to a single sentence: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Gifted educators are continually told to let their students roll until they can’t roll anymore. I should know…I’m a former teacher who holds that very endorsement.
The problem is that we seem to be misinterpreting that missive.
Yes, gifted kids need constant challenge. You cannot move at a snail’s pace through any of their school material. But that doesn’t equate to advancing years beyond their own age. When we let them move too fast, many will land in the same spot as my Eli: capable…and frustrated.
For the first years of my teaching career, I taught an exceptional group of 8th graders that most folks in the district called the “MENSA group.” These kids tested highly in math, and were allowed to start algebra 1 in 7th grade, followed by geometry in 8th and algebra II in 9th. In theory, it seemed like a great idea. But in actual fact, by their senior year, they were so far advanced that many had run out of options. They faced a year of electives, which wasn’t as fun and freeing as they expected. Some of them lost their interest and momentum. Others crashed and burned; like my son, they were not yet mature enough for the rigor of calculus, and they wrongly concluded that they were bad at math.
Of course, some of them were just fine, but they would tell you it wasn’t at all beneficial to be so far ahead.
Obviously I should have learned my lesson before I tried it on my own kid. But there’s definitely a belief in education that good educators help their kids advance beyond grade level. And there’s pressure in parenting to prove your kid is smart because he or she is years ahead of other kids.
There’s no reward for getting there – wherever “there’ is – first. Your child doesn’t need to take the SAT four times in middle school. In fact, eventually scores start to go down instead of up. There is a lot of research that suggests students need time to mature before taking on anything big – whether that is college or life on their own. And burnout is a very real problem.
In retrospect, I think about all the extension activities that came with our math curriculum. I didn’t use them, because I was so focused on moving forward. But application and extension is where the magic happens in math. I’ve actually made a tough decision for a type-A mama, and we aren’t going to finish the textbook this year. We’re going to take a deep breath, focus on a few problems each day, and go back and do those extension activities. We’re going to do more mental math. I’m going to increase his time in the kitchen and make him double some recipes. We are going to slow down and grow some roots.
Yes, gifted kids need challenge, but that challenge doesn’t mean sprinting forward. It can also mean expanding outward, and sometimes that’s better for everyone.