A School for Scientifically and Technically Talented Students

            One of my observations as a teacher of regular and gifted middle school students is that almost every parent wants their child to go to university.  They want their children in the university stream in secondary school and will rarely consider that a career in a trade might be an excellent goal.  Students whose intelligence is strongest in their ability to work with their hands are forced like square pegs into the round holes of an academic stream. The parents’ concern is understandable, as the second stream often becomes, in effect, a holding pen for the academically indifferent or inept. Many colleges are now requiring courses from the academic stream as part of their admissions criteria and there is no strong apprenticeship stream.

            The flip side is that many students who should be headed for a university education in math or science by the nature of their talents are often discouraged from taking shop courses.  They are encouraged to focus on the abstract and yet working with concrete materials would give embryo engineers a better understanding of problems they will usually deal with in the abstract.  In fact, in Ottawa, one of the gifted programs is housed in a school wholly without shops.

            The truth is that few people are wholly concrete thinkers or wholly abstract and both aspects of students’ abilities need to be nurtured.  We need a school where both kinds of talents are nurtured and seen as valuable and complementary.

            I propose a School for the Scientifically and Technically Talented.  This school would have a top notch program for the scientifically and mathematically gifted; a top notch program in a variety of trades, leading to an early apprenticeship and top notch specialists in giftedness, learning disabilities and gifted/learning disabled. 

            The reason for the specialists is that it is not unusual for students who have strong gifts in one area to have a learning disability in another.  In fact, the apparently lazy bright student is often both gifted and LD.  Sometimes the learning disability may be severe enough that scores on intelligences tests may appear lower than cut offs for gifted or academically talented programs.  Such students, however, may be extremely talented in specific areas.  This kind of profile is not limited to students with strong mathematical and technical talents, but it is seen frequently in them.  The specialists would help identify learning problems and work with students and teachers to discern ways to help talents flourish in spite of difficulties.

Students would be allowed and even encourage to take some options in an area they find interesting but aren’t sure they could manage.  In those courses, they would be given a peer mentor and extra help after school.  Their grades in those courses would be pass/fail/honours so they could focus on learning,

            Academically oriented students would have access to shop courses all the way through secondary school and if they wished, they could extend their time in school to start an apprenticeship and complete the requirements for university. 

            Students who do not think of themselves as academically oriented would have access to academic courses and support.  If they needed a bridge class to qualify to do an academic course, it would be available.  It would be possible for a student who started as an apprentice to finish with qualifications to apply for university if she so chose.  She could also finish her apprenticeship.

Bridge classes are not a new concept, but few actually exist in reality.  If bridge classes would be too small to justify a teacher, then correspondence classes would be set up for these students with a supervising teacher in the school available to help as needed.  The concept would be much the same as is used in many alternative secondary schools where students work at their own speed to cover the material.

There would be several criteria for entrance to this school: middle school marks, recommendations from shop, home economics or art teachers, an observed workshop in which students created a project out of materials in a set time, recommendations from home room, science, math or geography teachers and an interview.  None of the criteria in itself would block a student from entering the school; poor marks with positive results in every other area might be fine.  Excellent marks with poor recommendations and a demonstrated inability to share ideas and work with others might result in a refusal.

            The school would have the prestige of gifted programs, so parents of less academically oriented students would be more inclined to let their children go there.  The academic students who went there would have the appropriate programs and teachers to develop their talents, too, but they would also have the opportunity to develop complementary hands on skills.

            Concrete thinkers who were uncomfortable with academics would have their strengths nurtured.  Eventually they might discover a need for math or physics as they become more skilled in shop work.  Academic work that relates to the real world might be a great motivator.  Success breeds success and students who might not have done more than drifted through high school may find a meaningful education that will give them a strong foundation for their post-secondary life.

            Co-operative work programs would be a large factor in this school’s life.  Clearly, students in apprenticeship programs will need to spend time in the field practising, but all students would be encouraged to do at least one co-op program, preferably in a field that interests them.  I suspect a little time spent with a real engineer on the job might change a few students’ minds about the charms of that iron ring.  Time in a hospital might make them aware of the different skills and specialties needed in the medical field.

            In short, the concept behind this school would be to get talented abstract and concrete thinkers in science and technology exposed to the variety of skills available to them.  It is also intended to get us past the snobbery that believes academic skills are more valuable that technical skills.  Think of it: both a good surgeon and a good mechanic can save your life.  We want both of them to be skilled and thinking outside the box.

            And if it were in Ottawa, where would we place it?  In the new mixed use downtown school with the condominium above it and the most of the major bus routes (when there isn’t a strike!) running past it.

3 responses to “A School for Scientifically and Technically Talented Students

  1. When and where is this going to be established? It sounds like a perfect system for our gifted LD son who is really struggling within the current standard system. I have the highest regard for the school he is at at the moment, but I think the style is not best to bring out the best of his abilities.

    • Hi Tess,
      This would have been great for my gifted/ld son, too, and many of the ld students I have taught in gifted classes. At the moment it is only my dream, but you are welcome to copy my essay and promote it (just give me the credit!). I would also be happy to speak to any group that wants to work towards this kind of integration of concrete and abstract thinking. It isn’t just good for the gifted ld, it’s also good for most kids to develop a broad spectrum of skills.
      My mentor in grad school was Dona Matthews. She has just written Being Smart About Gifted Children. You might find it helpful. You do have my sympathy; kids who are gifted/ld have it tough. They need to be challenged and they need support in dealing with the ld. Knowing when to push and when to support is hard even for those of us who have been trained!

  2. Hi Diane,
    I have also been thinking about school styles. Kids love going to summer camp as a rule. I think a school based on that style of programming wold be wonderful – i.e.
    1) very hands on for the kids, lots of day trips to investigate nature, other cultures etc
    2) subject matter presented as fun and something worth exploring, then kids allowed to explore, teachers only guiding
    3) no set schedule – blocks of time allocated according to time needed for each workshop
    4) time for kids to take a break from studies for he occasional day if they are feeling stressed or burnt out (which they shouldn’t in a lower stress environment)
    5) lots of physical activities among academic stuff – things like learning to swim or to skate accorded equal status with academic subjects. Keep each day to no more than half of the time being academic, the rest to be physical and/or art/craft related. Some days could be totally art/craft/physical activities. Lots of youngsters should be around to help the kids with this kind of day – people like school-break camp leaders. ie don’t have to be fully trained teachers.
    6) some quiet time for kids to pursue their own direction built into the day.
    7) some way to give the kids more ownership of their day, while also helping them to take more responsibility for how they use their time .

    Yeah, I am an idealist, and seem to believe that there are more hours in a day that there actually are, but I do think the current school system sucks. It is improving, but still very regimented, not the ideal environment for kids to actually want to learn in, for them to take charge and drive their own learning. Very hard for the ADD ones – they will need a bit of a different strategy here.

    Oh well, all I can do is put ideas out there and if someone thinks them worth using, maybe something will come of it.

    Thanks for the support and the book choice. Much appreciated!


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