Wednesday, January 11, 2012

- How We Treat Outliers

In our culture, we say that we admire intelligence and like smart people, but the truth is that most of us really don't. For most people, when they meet someone like that all that happens is that they feel insecure and vulnerable. They'll react to those feelings by ridiculing the person they see as a threat to their ego, and try to tear that person down a few pegs. Eventually of course, Bill Gates get's to fire all the bullies who gave him a hard time in middle school. The benefits of intelligence outweigh the disadvantages. But as a kid, it makes being much smarter than your peers particularly tough.

I was that smart kid. I was an outlier. I was not only smarter than virtually all of the other kids, but I was also smarter than my parents, and my teachers. And what's worse, everyone knew it. So people being people, some of them reacted to that better than others.

My buddy Gary was in a similar situation in his childhood. He and I have had occasion to discuss it and the commonalities have surprised even us. For instance, one thing that we both had in common was that school (that is - the lesson plans and instruction) was incredibly, unspeakably boring to both of us, and we reacted to that in a similar way.

The subject came up because Gary's oldest son, like the two of us, is an outlier too. And just like us, he's receiving an education which isn't exactly structured to challenge a kid like him. The schools in our area are quite good for public schools, but they are particularly awful when it comes to handling the highly intelligent outliers. Their goal isn't to get as much from each student as they can, but to get the same from everyone regardless of their ability. And since you can't get the slower kids to speed up, instead, the schools force the brightest kids to slow down.

The WSJ has noticed this,
but I don't know that an article on the topic makes much difference. So long as we allow the government to be the provider of education as well as the financier of it, they will solve problems the way that government does. In the real world if something isn't working you stop, and try something else. In government if something doesn't work you do more of it, by giving it more funding and more resources. If that still doesn't work, you add more money again.

Most public school teachers (to me anyway) seem very well intentioned and sincere in their desire to help kids learn. But they also seem like pretty dim bulbs. Even the brightest of them wouldn't last 15 minutes in my world. And giving someone like that more funding will not address the issue of how we treat outliers.


James Hogan said...

Tom, depending on your buddy's kid's age (or for your own daughter) -- Monmouth County does have High Tech High at Brookdale, MAST on Sandy Hook, Communication High School (CHS) in Wall, BioTech in Freehold (and I think i might be missing one) as part of the vocational school program. They accept, at most, the top 2 kids from each town after a reasonably tough entrance exam/grade requirements -- and all of the schools have great ratings, High Tech being among the best 10 or so in the nation, the others (if I recall) somewhere in the top 100.

I suspect the keys are that:
1) the schools somewhat cater to a particular interest and teach the kids a particular skill/field (in addition to the usual non-sense) which at least lets them see something they are interested in.
2) The other students are also top tier/want to be there and there is less/no slowing down for the kid who shows up at school to avoid watching Maury with a less than educated and successful parent.

Tom said...

Thanks Jim, Gary is already going to some effort to ensure that his son get's into his specialty school of choice. We still have time for my daughter yet.