By Karen Littell
First of two parts
There is a population of children whose needs are not uniformly being met in Sonoma County. This population is difficult to name or describe, as it includes children who harken from all cultures, every socioeconomic status, all neighborhoods and many types of schools. The state, the nation and the world often refer to them as “gifted,” and this label has invited considerable misunderstanding and debate. But regardless of what we call them or how we feel about them, there are children out there whose educational needs are not being met, and they need our help. Their needs are significant, well-defined and important.
Educators have a term called “Zone of Proximal Development,” or “ZPD.” This refers to the range of skills that any given student is able to learn at a given time if they receive appropriate educational guidance and encouragement. Material that the student has already mastered – or that the student can easily learn on his own – falls below his or her Zone of Proximal Development. Material that is too advanced – that a student is not yet ready to learn even with guidance – is above his or her ZPD. Every student has the right to a free and appropriate education. And this means they have a right to be taught within their ZPD.
Children come to the classroom with varying levels of interest, readiness and ability, and thus with varying Zones of Proximal Development. Regardless of whether or not they bear the “gifted” label, one child might be more advanced in math, another in English and another so very passionate about science that he or she positively soars in class. Since each child needs to be challenged and engaged at his or her level, or ZPD, in order to learn, it is the responsibility of our educators to respond accordingly.
When a child is not engaged within their ZPD, there are risks that begin to accrue – they might become bored, frustrated, depressed, disengaged, disinterested and/or unmotivated. They might stagnate. They might feel unaccepted, out of place and not validated. They might lose trust in their school or begin to lose touch with their own sense of identity. The lack of educational fit might make them feel like something is wrong with them. Some children who are not being adequately challenged report that they feel like school is killing their spirit. Some parents report that their children are losing their spark, losing their thirst for knowledge, or losing their prior insatiable curiosity and fascination.
Some students, whose academic needs are not being met, begin to display disruptive behaviors that are a problem for the teacher. They are then referred for disciplinary measures, and a downward spiral can ensue. Often, their only “problem” is that their needs are not being met.
Is it reasonable, or moral, to punish an advanced math student for refusing to do problem after problem like the rest of the class, when assessments show that she or he is years ahead of the class? Is it right to force a student who already understands a concept to listen to the same explanation over and over, and then punish him when he or she talks, or doodles, or fiddles or reads a book under the table?