Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Collaboration Is Everything



Over the years, I taught a number of children who were later identified as "gifted," that blessing-curse label that is generally applied to children who demonstrate an extraordinary interest in and aptitude for traditional academic type pursuits. One boy, for instance, arrived as a young two-year-old, already teaching himself to read. He would walk through the door asking for "the ABCs" and if he couldn't find them somewhere in the room, he would cry until I presented him with an alphabet puzzle or book or cookie cutters. From there he developed an intense interest in the solar system, a subject upon which he would lecture for the benefit of adults. Then he moved on to the Periodic Table, not just memorizing the elements and their atomic numbers, but also developing an understanding of what would happen if you mixed, say, hydrogen with carbon (nothing), a game he enjoyed playing with the adults in his life.

It wasn't until he was well into his four-year-old year that he turned his attention to the other kids. Unlike the other subjects he had tackled up to this point, this did not come naturally to him. Indeed, it was frustrating, often heartbreaking work figuring out how to get along. Young children, he found, were not as predictable as the ABCs or the solar system or the chemical elements, or, for that matter, the adults who had up to then been his primary playmates. There were days when it seemed as if he had finally figured it out, when he was at the center of the game, playing with the children he had identified as his friends, only to find himself on the following day looking in from outside. The friendship formula he had applied so successfully in one instance did not work in the next.

It's a pattern I've seen with most of the gifted children I've known. Too often, I think, these children with their undeniably wonderful aptitudes are hustled off into academic pursuits, sequestered from the hoi polloi, so that they can focus on their genius. I worry that when we do this, we interrupt their even more important studies. As psychologist and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards Kathy Hirsh-Pasek writes:

Collaboration is everything, from getting along with others to controlling your impulses so you can get along and not kick someone else off the swing. It's building a community and experiencing diversity and culture. Everything we do, in the classroom or at home, has to be built on that foundation.

The world is full of frustrated geniuses, people who were marked for "success," but who never learned the fine art of getting along well with other people, especially those who do not share their own particular genius. We need people, we need the cooperation of others in order to succeed at most things in life. There is very little we can do alone. Successful people, and by that I mean those who are satisfied with their lives, who have good relationships with others, and who are doing fulfilling, meaningful work in the world, are always those who have mastered the fine art of working well with others, even if they were toddlers who were busy drooling on the table while their gifted classmates were expounding on the solar system.

I'm happy to say that this particular gifted boy figured it out, at least so far as anyone ever figures it out. He's now approaching middle school, still precocious, but also surrounded by friends. His parents understood that being gifted, while wonderful, was not a ticket that was already punched for fame and fortune. So they left him play with the other children, coaching and loving him as one would any child, allowing him the space and time to learn the most important skills. And it's because of that, he is already successful.

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