Society is continually adapting its ideas and attitudes, isn’t it? When I was in primary school students were encouraged to pursue top grades on examinations designed to generate a clearly correct or incorrect answer; mathematics quizzes and spelling tests came into this category. In areas of creative thinking, such as essay writing or artistic expression, achieving a top grade, or “full marks”, was not impossible but rather unusual.
In the accelerated version of my life story, I found myself sitting on a flight home to Dublin in the early 1990’s, next to a teacher of dance arts. By then I had completed university, emigrated to the United States, worked at an independent school, married and had started a family. We chatted a little, the dance teacher and I, about changing times on both continents. She lamented that exceptional talent in the field of dance was not accepted as a rarity anymore, at least in terms of student recognition. “Why does everyone earn a medal these days?” she complained. I couldn’t contribute much since I was busy focusing on parenting my first baby and hadn’t been living amid the type of situation she was describing. Nonetheless, the question has stuck with me.
I return to it from time to time, but have replaced it with a question of my own. What is our society prepared to accept as a gift? As a talent? Being products of 1960’s traditional schooling, we seemed to absorb the unspoken fact that certain peers had an academic edge, demonstrated prowess on the sports field or excelled in the arts. I feel sure that these accomplishments were publicly acknowledged as talents, although the high achievers were not segregated from us in any way until we reached high school age. However, as we push beyond the age of the gifted and talented epidemic that may have begun in the 1990’s, how will we identify talents in the new millennium?
Having worked with preschoolers in the private and the public sector for twenty years now, I am grateful for Montessori’s unique perspective on education, which enabled me to serve young students with only minimal interference of state testing, and none at all within the culture of the classroom. Yes, this individualized approach to learning takes immense pressure off children at a time when the very notion of childhood itself is being compromised.
Exceptional students are all around us. A four year-old boy in a former learning environment was quick to notice that his classmate, who had special needs, was prone to anxiety if he could not walk at the front of the dismissal line. Without any adult intervention, he organized a system whereby this child could assume this position every day. His talent was empathy. A five year-old girl I once worked alongside demonstrated a keen ability to identify any child who might feel excluded and to seek them out as a work partner in a group activity. She was clearly gifted, both in observation and in discretion. I can recall numerous three year-olds who provided a listening ear to a friend in need, made sure that the classmate who was responsible for setting up snack didn’t scoff all the best carrot sticks or who ran to the tissue box for supplies when a friend (and sometimes an adversary) became upset or frustrated.
Let’s reevaluate our concept of what gifts and talents mean. And let’s not patronize our children by awarding them medals or certificates for “best listener” or “most patient classmate”. Let’s enable and encourage them to do what I saw those academically talented children doing in my own childhood. Let’s honor them, not with our empty words, but by entrusting them with the responsibility of a role model who can support others, namely those who have not yet learned or practiced these behaviors. Unlike academic talents, behaviors and attitudes are often learned relatively easily. We educators understand that very young children actually absorb aspects of their environment. We can actually influence the culture of our school community by respecting values such as honesty, diligence, empathy as we would prowess on the soccer field or in the science lab.
Think about this. There are so many hidden gifts in our children, just waiting to emerge. It is our responsibility to create a climate in which these will not only come forth, but will actually thrive.