For the second in our summer series, Tony Baldasaro (@baldy7 on Twitter) brings us this reflection on his views about gifted education. Tony is the Chief Human Resources Officer and the Personalized Pathways Administrator for the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School. This article was also cross-posted at Tony’s blog, TransLeadership.

What excites me about the shift in education away from the classroom-centric model we have all been a part of over the last century, is the fact that students are less dependent upon the teacher and/or the system for all knowledge.  Students no longer have to attend school to attain their knowledge, they are as Nagel describes, “free agent learners”.

Because of that, students have the opportunity to break from the long-standing categories we so often use in education.  Terms such as “slow learner”, “hands on learner”, “troubled student”, “active student”, “solid student”, “middle-of-the-road student”, “talented student”, “straight A student” and yes “gifted student” are simply constructs of our educational system and they most often only provide clues as to how the student learns within the narrow confines of that system. The “straight A” student may be intelligent, but I’ll bet they are also also very compliant and diligent in getting their homework done and being attentive in class.  They are very good at playing the part of the industrial model school student that the “conspiracy” of school was intended to create but are they good at solving problems, being creative, unlearning that which they have previously learned so they can be relevant?  Do we really challenge these students to use their gifts to their fullest potential or do we simply moved them along the conveyor belt, sending them off to college with the tools to continue to be “good” students?

The “active” student is one that doesn’t fit our system well, yet fits in the world’s chaotic and unpredictable system very nicely.   To make that student fit within our educational model, we drug, punish, and belittle the student until they either comply to a degree in which they can be tolerated, or are pushed out of our system all together.  The real shame here is that many times there is an assumption that these students are not gifted, when in fact they are, they simply don’t play the game by the industrial model rules that were established a century ago.  Our choice has been to change the student to fit the model instead of changing the model to fit the student and by doing so, we have missed an opportunity with a whole bunch of gifted students.

How often do we work to control our students?  Think of that student who challenges our systems.  Think about your reaction to that student.  Now think about your reaction to that student when you know they are right and our system in wrong.  Unfortunately, most of us squelch that student and often without a true explanation as to why.  We say that it is, “complicated” or “for their own good” or “they will understand when they are older”, instead of embracing those students, their ideas and their input.  Instead of acknowledging that they are rightfully challenging the way we educating them because our system is not working for them and they want it to.  Their “challenges” are pleas for help, not the acts of betrayal we so often portray them to be.

My point here is that we have so narrowly defined what it means to be “gifted” in our system of education, that we fail to either see the gifts within each student, or we fail to push students beyond the model we have been a part of for so long.  I fear that as long as we define “school” and “learning” so narrowly, we will continue to miss the the opportunity to cultivate the gifted student found in all students.  As long as we continue to define what it means to be “gifted” by the system which so narrowly defines how we learn, we will not truly find each of our students’ gifts.  It is why this shift toward free agent learning, with the categorical freedoms and the power to self-define our gifts, is so intriguing.