An Open Letter to Jo Boaler,
I'd like to start by saying I absolutely love you. I love your math problems that are written so our struggling students have a way to engage with the math. I love your insistence that a slow mathematical thinker isn't a bad mathematical thinker. I had the wondrous experience of teaching a girl a couple years ago who thought so profoundly about what she was learning that it would take days for her to process it and then come back to teach us about a way things worked that we hadn't even considered. This is a child who will some day invent new math.
Because of you and other leaders in growth mindset, my district has been embracing it for all our kids, starting from the moment they walk in the door. Teaching math is a terribly exciting endeavor these days and you have been a big part of it and I am so grateful.
But I would very much appreciate it if you'd stop picking on gifted kids.
Yes. You pick on the gifted kids by insisting, over and over, that they don't really exist. That really, everybody is equally capable. For example, in your latest missive:
"...labels and ideas of smartness and giftedness carry with them fixed ideas about ability, suggesting to students that they are born with a gift or a special brain."
The truth is that gifted children ARE born with a special brain. They are born with a brain that learns faster than the average brain. Concepts come easier, mastery comes more quickly and by the time they enter kindergarten, gifted children are able to understand ideas that children two grades ahead of them are just starting to learn. They hunger for knowledge at a different pace than the average child. They are different.
You, and many others, claim that it's the label that does the harm because it separates them from other kids and it teaches them that they don't have to work, they're just "naturally smart." The label doesn't teach them that. Schools do that with or without the label. We do it through our insistence that children must always be with their age peers. They must always learn the same lesson at the same time at the same pace as their age brethren. It can take as little as a couple months for that kindergartner, so eager to learn when she stepped through the door, to learn that it doesn't matter how much she already knows, she has to do the worksheet. She has to complete ALL the problems. She has to chant and sing "B is for Bird! B goes Buh!" even though she's been reading since age 3.
"You're so smart!" chirp the adults. "You can help Johnny with his letters, since you do them so well, and he needs a little help." And now our gifted child has learned that she is just "smart." And she has learned that her job in school is to teach the slower kids. And she has learned that being smart means never having to struggle like Johnny.
Her label didn't teach her that.
Her label didn't teach her that.
And we teach it over and over and over, every time we make her wait for everyone else to finish. Every time we give her more of the same kind of problem to solve so she will have something to do. Every time we give her a 100% with a big, shiny star on work that she breezed through. We teach her and reinforce the lesson that she is smart and that means never having to try very hard.
Of all students in America, gifted children have traditionally made the fewest gains each year in school. Some gifted children walk in the door the first day of school knowing nearly all the material they are supposed to "learn" that year*. And when gifted children are introduced to a new topic, concept or idea it takes 1 - 2 repetitions for mastery once they truly understand it. That's it. 1 - 2. Other students in the same class, depending on their ability, can take up to 12. Imagine if I made you do the same task 12 times after you'd proven you could do it by the 2nd time? How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Bored? Fed up?
Now, listen as I tell you that you are no different than any other child in the room and you all have the same capacity to understand everything as long as you try hard enough. Are you going to believe me, especially when you see that half the class has failed on their 6th attempt, while you had it on the 2nd go? When you almost always have it on the 2nd go and the rest do not? Do you think anybody believes that no one is different in that room just because you refused to label them? And how do you think the child who failed it again on the 12th try is going to feel? "Gee, if only I worked hard enough I could have gotten it a week ago."
Denying that innate abilities exist in mental capacity is like denying that innate athletic abilities exist. I could have practiced basketball every day from age 4 on and done nothing but basketball to the detriment of all else in my life and still never have made it to the varsity team much less the WNBA. Not everybody can be LeBron James. I'm not discounting his hard work and his passion for his sport, but he also had a leg up in the genetics department.
You accuse the labeling as the culprit, or the acknowledgement that some kids learn things faster than others as the problem. But even as you do this, you speak of the actual problem: "Students who grow up thinking that they have a special brain often drop out of STEM subjects when they struggle." YES! They do! You are absolutely right about this, that when they finally struggle -- after years of NEVER STRUGGLING -- they have no resilience! And whom, do you think, is to blame for them never struggling? It's not the label. It is a school system that NEVER REQUIRED THEM TO STRUGGLE.
The solution isn't to quit labeling students. The solution is to give students challenges at their level every single day. Gifted children deserve to have material that challenges their brain to grow just like every other student does. You would not give our dear friend LeBron a 5' hoop to practice with and expect it to do him any good, would you? I don't think that LeBron needs a higher hoop because someone labeled him as a gifted player, I'd know he needs more challenge because he demonstrates his abilities every single game he plays!
And despite the fact that I believe you are 100% wrong about gifted kids not existing (or that everybody is equally capable), I still believe that growth mindset is tremendously beneficial for gifted students. But they cannot develop that growth mindset unless they are given the challenges that will cause them to struggle and grow.
Growth mindset has much to offer, and I do agree with you that the majority of learners can learn to do challenging math or difficult work in any subject successfully. But please stop going overboard and making claims that gifted kids are harmed by being called gifted, or that they don't really exist in the first place. What harms gifted kids is not being challenged. Blaming the label is blaming the wrong thing, and I ask you please to cut it out.
But please keep on with the fabulous math problems. My gifted kids love them.
*http://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10029 has more on this topic, or you can find many articles about it via NAGC.org.