When parents find they have a two-year-old who can read, or a five-year-old who wakes up talking about square roots, the task of ensuring that these exceptionally bright children get the educational nourishment they need is unchartered territory. The path can be frustrating for the kids, and worry-inducing for the parents. But the ongoing boom in online learning opportunities has been a great benefit for many gifted youth because the offerings can cater to a student’s ability rather than age.
Sating the voracious curiosity of gifted students can be challenging. They may get bored and cranky when they easily grasp lessons ahead of the group in a standard classroom. Take, for example, the case of a seven-year-old who attends a Berkeley, Calif., public elementary school. When he found the pace of his math class unbearably slow, he protested by gluing together two months’ worth of his math worksheets. Given a new packet of them, he “filled out all the answers, and then folded each sheet into paper airplanes,” his mother said. (The mother asked that they not be identified in this story.)
“We do not have a systematic way of addressing the needs of the gifted,” said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, education professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. “You could go to one school system and they might be doing a great job. And you would go to another school system and you would see nothing.”
As a result, gifted students and their parents often must cobble together their own individual education plan from various sources to obtain a deeper, more advanced intellectual dive than what standard school systems can provide.
In the case of the young Berkeley protester, who was reading at a fifth-grade level by age four, “we spend a lot of time at the library trying to keep up with his interests and voracious reading habit,” his mother said. At home, “we make books, build airplanes and robots out of found objects, research stuff online, fix our bikes, and create elaborate LEGO machines. He is endlessly curious and astonishingly creative.” The parents have signed him up for extracurricular classes in science as well as art, music, and sports, including classes for gifted students at the Lawrence Hall of Science. This family has not tried online options yet, and if they do look into private school options, they’ll have to apply for scholarships or financial aid, or would not be able to afford it.
Across the bay in San Francisco, Debbie Saret has been similarly engaged in an evolving process of discovery in finding the right resources for her exceptionally gifted son -- a 13-year-old who is now doing math coursework at the college-sophomore level. Six years ago, when she and her husband decided to homeschool him starting in the second grade, it was like stepping off “into the unknown” – a journey that had the parents constantly worrying whether they were making good choices and often “really feeling quite alone, because nobody else around us had ever done anything like that,” she said. Her son’s education has been an eclectic meld of private tutoring, online courses, after-school and summer camps, math circle, and community college classes.
ONLINE SOURCES BRING ACCESS TO THE WORLD
Compared to three decades ago, many more out-of-school academic resources are now available for gifted learners, which makes it easier than ever to access advanced learning opportunities, ranging from video courses to diploma-granting online high schools.
“The online component was extremely important for us,” Saret said.
Math and English courses from Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) initially formed the backbone of the Saret son’s homeschooling. Founded in 1990, EPGY has long offered self-paced, computer-based instruction through brief, pre-recorded multimedia lectures on CD-ROMs or, as technology has evolved, via web browser. Students can also sign up for tutorial guidance from an instructor by phone, email, or the web. (Under a recent licensing deal with Stanford, an education company named Redbird Advanced Learning has taken over the EPGY program and is in a transition of updating and enhancing its technology components.)
At age eight, Saret’s son began taking classes part-time at Stanford Online High School (OHS), a fully accredited, diploma-granting school for academically talented students in grades 7 through 12. OHS, which opened in 2006, provides real-time, interactive virtual seminars through web-based video conferencing.
Despite the fact that much of it happens online, Saret says there’s an emphasis on developing personal connections, too. “They really have a sense of community,” Saret noted. “Class meetings, clubs -- it’s a very interactive online experience with video, text chat, whiteboard. Very much like a normal class, but online in terms of interaction.”
Saret is grateful that these sorts of learning resources exist for her son. “Online opportunities are really a big benefit for this group of students, because your age doesn’t matter as much as your interests and your ability … Because it’s very difficult to, say, find a high school that would be willing to have a 10-year-old take an AP course,” she said. At that age, her son was able to study AP physics at OHS.
TEACHING THE GIFTED
Other digital learning options for the gifted include independent-study courses from Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and Northwestern University. Another resource popular among young math prodigies around the world is the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) web community and school, which provides real-time instruction through a virtual classroom where pupils and teachers communicate via live text-chatting. Such online education programs offer bright kids a lot of flexibility and a variety of ways for taking their learning well beyond the usual school curricula. Even if standard schools offer advanced placement classes in calculus, those offerings aren’t rigorous enough for many of the mathematically precocious kids who come to AoPS, said Richard Rusczyk, company founder and a winner of the USA Mathematics Olympiad in 1989.
“They get everything right away. The problems are just too easy,” he said. Typical AP classes don’t prepare the students for math courses at places like MIT, he said, where they may hit the wall of failure for the very first time – and get so discouraged that they just might quit math or science. That would be bad, not just for the student but also potentially for all of us, because as Rusczyk and others point out, these exceptionally bright individuals have a lot to give. “These students are going to produce an outsized portion of the major technological, medical, mathematical, scientific, economic advances of the next generation,” he said.
The philosophy at AoPS is to teach math at a deep and complex level and introduce high-performing students to difficult problems that stretch their capabilities early. In Rusczyk’s view, the ultimate goal of education should be “to teach students how to solve problems they’ve never seen before. That’s the main focus of what we’re trying to do in our classes.” The ability to work through difficult conundrums applies to all kinds of life and career situations, such as, in his case, figuring out how to run a company, he said.
A key part of challenging the smartest kid in a school, he added, is exposing him or her to peers who are just as sharp or even sharper. “I’ll tell kids, if you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find another room,” Rusczyk said.
The internet now makes it a lot simpler to find and engage with a brainier crowd. For math lovers, AoPS is one of those “other rooms.” While children in the top 5 percent of intellectual talent largely look the same in a standard curriculum -- all acing their classes with 100s -- in the AoPS community, students look wildly different in their abilities, interests, and needs, Rusczyk said. Some want to be “taught to the test” and need to be trained out of that mentality, while others want to only think about tackling hard problems. Some turn in beautiful writing assignments, he said, while others “will write stuff that their English teachers would be horrified to look at -- no punctuation, no capital letters.”
When very bright children are ready for a more in-depth complexity of material at a young age but don’t get it at their schools, they’re badly served, said Stanford math professor Rafe Mazzeo, who served as EPGY’s faculty director. It’s not uncommon to see gifted kids who tap out all their high school’s math courses early and spend their entire senior year taking humanities classes. But if those students plan to go into any quantitative discipline, including engineering or natural sciences, allowing their math skills to get rusty for a year or more is “kind of a disaster,” Mazzeo said.
“If they have a couple of fallow years where they’re not being challenged, you can really do them intellectual damage.” With its extracurricular computer-based classes, EPGY’s mission has been to help students race ahead with more challenging, accelerated coursework while still staying in the social milieu of their regular grades at their local schools.
At Stanford OHS, which grew out of EPGY’s success, students also can race ahead, but they generally do it with a cohort of other high-achievers who are doing the same thing. The school’s philosophy is to place students into courses by their ability, not age or grade level, said admissions director Claire Goldsmith. “There’s no way to max out. We can offer courses to kids at all levels.” With 530 students from 43 states and 18 nations currently enrolled, OHS focuses on fostering critical thinking and argumentation with its core curriculum. It also provides counseling support for social and emotional issues.
Chloe Clougher of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, started at OHS as a junior last fall after two years at a nearby private college-preparatory high school, and prior to that, homeschooling since kindergarten. Though she liked her local school, she decided to apply to OHS because it offered some advanced classes in science and Mandarin that the brick-and-mortar school didn’t have. It would’ve been otherwise frustrating “to try to cobble a whole random schedule together from, like, three different schools or online courses like edX,” said the 16-year-old, who won a full scholarship covering OHS’s expensive $17,250 yearly tuition. (About 16 percent of OHS students receive financial aid.)
Although the brick-and-mortar high school has AP courses, Clougher said, she noticed that they kept students busy with lots of assignments that didn’t seem like meaningful work. Now at OHS, she is currently jazzed about biology class and her instructor, who’s not only enthusiastic about teaching, but also about learning new areas of biological research – and hearing what the students have to say. “You don’t really see that in a whole lot of teachers,” Clougher said.
“They have excellent teachers and really interesting classes,” said sophomore Eva Guevara, 15, who lives in Marfa, a town in far West Texas, and is also attending OHS on a full scholarship. She had gone to ninth grade at the local brick-and-mortar public high school, but found the pace slow and uninteresting. Biology class was especially disappointing, she said. “I ended up just being sent out of the room and just watching Khan Academy videos and taking notes on those.” Today, she still goes to the local school building, but only to attend one robotics course and use the library, where she logs into her OHS seminars. Chemistry class, currently her favorite, is “challenging but also it’s really fun,” Guevara said. “And I feel like it’s going at a really great pace for me too.”
While the Stanford coursework is more rigorous and satisfying, both Clougher and Guevara said that social interactions with their classmates online, although quite good, naturally can’t fully match the social life of a real-life high school. But many OHS students do get to meet classmates face-to-face in occasional get-togethers in their region.
For gifted students, building strong friendships is as important to their personal growth as academic achievement. In San Francisco, Saret said that finding communities for her son and their family, and keeping those social circles going, has been one of the biggest challenges. For him, attending Epsilon Camp, a two-week summer program for 8- to 11-year-olds who are profoundly gifted at math, was life-changing: At the camp held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2011, he met kindred spirits sharing an intense passion for math, a community where he felt he truly belonged.
“He has said to me, ‘It was the first time that I felt that other kids understood what I was trying to say in the most truthful sense.’ He could just be himself, say whatever he wanted to say, without worrying about the other kids not getting him,” said Saret, who subsequently became Epsilon Camp’s admissions director. Her son still keeps in touch with the close friends he made there, including some who live in the Bay Area.
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