Mathalicious blog recently posted a well-written and compelling article about the consequences of our nation’s sudden elevation of the popular video tutoring Web site, Khan Academy. If you haven’t read the piece, you absolutely should because it explains beautifully the key reasons why parents and school administrators should be cautious about jumping on the bandwagon of free, technology-based resources as a means of effective teaching.
We won’t rehash here what’s already been said well by Mathalicious, nor do readers of this blog who like KA need to rally to its defense. IMACS acknowledges that KA is a valuable resource that has a place in the overall education portfolio for many students. But we also strongly believe that KA, or whatever the next free resource to be Web-ified is, is no substitute for high-quality curricula and the effective teaching thereof. This is particularly true for gifted and talented children.
Free Resources Are Good at Presenting Information and Sparking Curiosity
Children, bright ones in particular, are born self-directed and self-taught. As they enter school and progress through the regimented structure of age-based, test-driven instruction, it’s no surprise that this natural thirst for learning diminishes. For a gifted child this is intellectual torture, and the pain has only spread across our nation as budget cuts erode the quality of or eliminate altogether public school gifted programs. So it’s no wonder that many talented children and their parents have come to value a Web site like KA.
What’s not to like? KA offers a myriad of topics for a curious mind to explore. You pick which video to watch, and you decide when to move on if it’s boring. And KA’s founder, by most accounts, is pretty good at explaining concepts in a non-threatening way. For typical kids, this can be a superior alternative to classroom instruction. For gifted kids, this is a wonderful way to spark curiosity and access above-grade-level material. Those of us from an older generation are reminded of cherished times flipping through encyclopedia volumes, letting the books fall open where they may, and reading about some new topic that we’d never heard of before. Whereas the World Book cost parents a small fortune and took up a big chunk of bookshelf space, KA is free and fits on the smartphone in your pocket! So far, so good. Here comes the “but.”
Pedagogy Still Matters, Especially for Mathematically Talented Kids
But how does that spark become a burning fire of passion, dedication, effort, and tenacity—qualities necessary for a gifted child to achieve his or her full potential? A key component of the answer is teachers. More specifically, teachers who understand how to inspire bright children, who can guide them when they struggle, and who know how to unleash the power of their natural talent. Optimally, these teachers should be armed with higher quality curricula better geared toward kids who only need to be told things once. They should have the experience to know that the places where talented kids struggle are often different from the usual stumbling blocks for the general population, and they should understand that high-fliers sometimes need help in overcoming the fear of failure.
Nowhere is this more evident than in math where the abstract nature of its concepts and language call for an experienced and interactive guide. To a gifted child, the difference between one-way, rules-based, memorization-laden math instruction and student-involved, teacher-guided, reasoning-based interaction is like intellectual starvation versus a bountiful feast. The nourishing environment of the latter allows mathematically talented minds to devour, understand, apply, and sometimes grow the body of knowledge. No pre-recorded video that restates, however pleasantly, the usual instruction found in US math classes, with the added benefit that you can rewind and repeat for reinforcement, is going to elevate a mathematically bright child to the next level.
Bright Online Students Should Have Access to Supportive Instructors
At IMACS, we made a deliberate choice to use an interactive teaching approach that incorporates substantial student-led exploration guided by effective teachers. Our collective experience on how talented kids learn best, which questions they tend to ask, and where and why they tend to struggle has been gathered over decades of teaching our curriculum in a classroom setting. This wisdom has been painstakingly built in to our eIMACS online courses, which feature tools that provide immediate feedback at exactly the moments students most frequently need it.
Needless to say, a gifted child is wonderfully unique and creative. So it comes as no surprise to us that our students come up with questions from time to time that we hadn’t anticipated. This is exactly why each eIMACS student is assigned a principal IMACS instructor to answer these questions and provide individualized guidance when needed.
We know what you’re probably thinking, and yes, this blog post is self-serving. But it’s also what we genuinely believe because we’ve borne witness to the success of these ideas, having taught thousands of bright students this way over the years. As such, we feel compelled to share our experience with readers, especially parents and others who may be making decisions now or in the future on how to best foster mathematical talent (or any talent for that matter). As with coaching in elite athletics, effective pedagogy is essential to the full and fulfilling intellectual development of gifted children, and its value should not be discounted so readily. Don’t let talk of free videos convince you otherwise.