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Tortoise and the Hare

This blog focuses on one of my passion areas, working with students with gifts and talents.  Working with these students always makes me think of the story of the tortoise and the hare.  In this story, the hare boasts about how fast he is and the tortoise challenges him to a race.  The hare quickly realizes he is ahead and decides to rest.  By the time he wakes up, the tortoise who continued at his slow and steady pace, wins the race.  The moral of this story is, “Don’t brag about your lightning pace for slow and steady won the race!”  This is a great story for emphasizing grit and slow continuous progress and there probably is some wisdom in this approach.  I’d like however to consider this fable from a different perspective.  Much of my career has been spent working with gifted students.  There are many aspects to defining giftedness and could be a series of blogs all on its own.  This is oversimplifying it greatly, but for now let’s just focus on one aspect of giftedness.  Gifted students learn at a faster pace than their peers.

For these students, the classroom is their race.  Much like the hare they often brag about their lightning pace.  Prior to attending school, they probably received a lot of attention and praise for this pace.  “You’re so smart!”  “Look how quickly you solved that puzzle!”  “You are such a fast reader,” or “You added those numbers so fast,” are typical accolades showered on these students by parents, family and adult friends.  Like the hare, this is part of their identity and defines who they are.  They are fast.

Naturally, as they begin to socialize in school they share this information with others.  It’s here though that they begin to learn this identify which they are so proud of might actually be something to hide or be ashamed of.  Being proud of yourself for some reason is not always recognized as a good thing, it’s even given a name with a negative connotation, bragging.  Peers often harshly put these students in their place.  “You think you’re so smart.”  “If you’re so fast, why can’t you do this?”  Of course, even in our current hyper state of assuming any negative comment toward a student is bullying, these comments are often left unnoticed and unchallenged.  Secretly many teachers and adults are even a little happy that the child’s head was deflated a little.  Bragging is a behavior typically discouraged.

So, the gifted child starts out much like the hare running the school race at full speed.  Before long, it’s not only his identity of being fast that begins to be a problem.  The speed at which he learns and works is also a problem.  If he continues at his current pace, he finishes too early.  Rather than receiving praise and encouragement for his win, he is asked to run the race again so that the tortoises can catch up.  Even then his win is ignored as the praise is showered on the other students that had to work hard.  Never mind that he may have worked just as hard, twice. His perceived ease masks and negates any effort.  Other times he might be asked to stop and wait for his peers to catch up.  Before long, the gifted student becomes much like the hare, stopping along the way to rest.  Anything would be better than facing that finish line alone and without a crowd cheering only to be asked to do it again.  The race is lonely for the hare.  All along the way and at the end he is alone.  He sees and hears everyone cheering for the tortoise.  This can sometimes be confusing and frustrating.  “Why is everyone so excited about the tortoise winning?  I was almost there 10 minutes ago and no one cheered me on?”  Is it any wonder that so many gifted students give up the race?  They stop playing the school game.  It is at this point that they often get saddled with another debilitating label, underachiever.  When they achieved it was too much, now that they toned it down to be more like their peers, they are underachievers.  Often the gifted student feels she can’t win no matter what she does.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

So how do we change this story? 

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Stop the race. I’m not saying there should never be competition in school, but we do spend far too much time comparing students against each other rather than helping them set their own goals and focus on continuous improvement.  This isn’t about cheering for the tortoise or the hare, it’s about making all our students feel welcomed and valued.

  2. Work to understand multiple perspectives. Gifted students often do not understand how challenging the race is for slower students.  In conversations with gifted students, they have shared that they think the slower students in their class are just not trying or not working hard.  They can’t understand how some of the concepts that come so easily to them could be difficult for other students.  Slower students also have similar biases toward the gifted students.  They think everything is easy for them and that they are just showing off.  Often these two groups of students operate and converse at such different levels it is difficult for them to communicate.

  3. Build common understandings and mutual respect. Whether  fast or slow, all students can be scholars and practice scholarly habits. A scholar loves to learn and works hard at it.  The habits of mind such as persistence, flexible thinking and listening with understanding are equally important for both groups of students.

  4. Be a cheerleader for ALL students. Gifted students often feel isolated in classes without having peers with similar interests and abilities. They can sometimes feel very alone.  They want to have friends, they want time with the teacher too, they want to feel special and to hear genuine praise.  They don’t want to be isolated, they want to be part of the team.  Sometimes they will face hurdles that make them question their abilities and they will be scared.  They will avoid these tasks and challenges because it might let everyone else know what they have been fearing all along. Maybe they really aren’t so fast.  Maybe they have lost their edge.  As teachers and parents, we can let these students know that they are ok and that we are right there on the sidelines cheering them on.

  5. Learn more about gifted students and what they need. If you don’t have much of a background about giftedness but this blog resonates with you and makes you think of a particular student, learn more.  There are lots of places to start but I’d encourage you to go to my favorite blog, Byrdseed.  Here is a great article about the dangers of the word “smart.” http://www.byrdseed.com/what-is-smart/?icn=srs  I always love following the links on this site and they always lead me on a path of learning and developing better strategies.

Let’s stop racing against each other and start encouraging the gifts and talents in every child to shine and grow.  I propose we amend the moral of this story for our gifted students.

Everyone runs the race at his own pace. 

Fast or slow it’s really your own race. 

Better than you were before determines your place.

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