High Learning Potential?
As an undiagnosed autistic, Maurice Frank suffered severely at school from being classified as gifted and talented. He describes his experiences of thirty years ago.
Authoritarians like my former teachers have long made use of the idea of giftedness, with its appeal to wishful thinking and greed, to buy support. If you are 'gifted' you must be forced to work extra hard to achieve your 'potential.'
Can there be any better deserved condemnation of my teachers' failed ideas than the (NAGC) National Association for Gifted Children taking a line against their approach? This is what Denise Yates, the chief executive of the association, told me in an email on September 6, 2012: 'We are doing lots of things to help prevent issues of this nature including developing a children's "Bill of Rights" and lots of work with the children to give them resilience, confidence and to ensure they thrive on their own terms. . . . For us unless there is a real and positive partnership between child, parent and professional (whoever they may be) the child will have no real chance of being the adult they want to be.'
Denise Yates says that the Association is now developing a Children's Bill of Rights to enable them to 'thrive on their own terms'. She also told me that they now talk of 'high learning potential' rather than using the term 'gifted and talented', acknowledging that that term has had a bad impact on some kids' lives. This is a fantastically welcome shift into acknowledging the need for checks upon teachers, and for their students to have rights to guard against abuse by work pressure.
When I was 8 years old the local gifted movement who ran a Saturday club placed me in an independent school which eventually expected me to sustain a workload beyond my ability.
Homework was signed by parents, who at will by refusing to sign could get their kid punished at school for not working at maximum effort. My mother never did this; ironically she was usually more generous towards my work than the marking teacher.
Both in assembly and in person in the corridors, the head teacher terrorised us with a tremendously loud crisp raving bellow which he had made an art of switching on in an instant, so even hearing it addressed to someone else wore at your nerves. It rose to a climax like RAA RAAAA RAAAAAA RAAAAAAAAAAAAH! He used it to exercise total control.
Most of the teachers had hair-trigger tempers. We were made to stand when they entered a room. They were allowed to use the main staircase but we were not; we were made to use a slimy metal fire escape instead, even when it was raining. This was the maddest rule I have ever seen. It was unworkable and when we regularly broke it in large groups. vigorous clampdown always followed.
Reports had separate grades for effort and attainment. Kids seen as homework offenders were made to queue up and show their work to the head teacher or his deputy every morning.
I explained to the NAGC how schools hit a brick wall unforeseen by theorists writing about the gifted child. The retentiveness for simple facts that had got me this far was no longer enough when I reached the higher level of work where tangled long answer questions take over. In serious senior homework the questions have a way of not quite telling you all you need to answer them, trying to force you to find or guess hidden steps of reasoning, find out something you have not been told, before you can answer the question. To assume it is healthy to do this is to make a big arrogant assumption about brain power. It is a discriminatory block to success and destroys chances for folks who may be perfectly able to absorb a subject factually but cannot crack this puzzle-solving skill of finding unspoken further insights by themselves. I obviously lack this ability – I have always been bad at puzzles and hated them.
Because I was at disciplinary fault for not meeting impossible homework demands, I had no safe opportunity to say it was too ambitious. This resulted in a stress collapse involving catatonic unresponsive states, driven by fear. Only after the headmaster had tried to snap me back to lucidity with his piercing bellow in one of his own lessons to face a homework crunch, and failed, was I sent for medical checks.
The adolescent psychiatry team who then became involved had no interest in taking any action against the school, only in changing me. This forced me to hide my true view of the school and eventually trapped me into returning to the school in order to escape from them. Their egos not being satisfied by this, they predicted disaster and they positioned themselves as ready to have me back. This left an outstanding threat to my liberty from their unevidenced blundering pseudoscience. It gagged me, long term, about a school they actually disapproved of! It was unsafe for me to seek any action against the school. It closed down only because its own discrediting by my case and its consistent bad results took away all its student numbers.
At a recent conference of the Scottish Autism Services Network, a psychiatrist with favorable views pledged that my old doctors no longer had any power over me at all. That finally ended the gagging and allowed me both to chase up the NHS and to present the full story to the NAGC. Yes, I had lobbied them on pressure before, but only now, 30 years after it had happened in 1982, could I describe how the school had trapped me in this out-of-control spiral.
I saw through that school, and realised its system was atrocious, when I heard this diatribe directed at a younger boy who was being added to the roll of homework offenders.
'I HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE YOUR LIFE MISERY ... YOUR FATHER WORKS VERY HARD ... I HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE YOU WORK AND I'M GOING TO MAKE YOU WORK ... YOU WILL BRING YOUR HOMEWORK TO ME EVERY MORNING ... IF YOU FORGET, HEAVEN HELP YOU.'