Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Marginalizing left-brainers--in Germany

Back in the 16th century, Martin Luther was caned for using German at school. But this week my own beleaguered German is coming in handy. A friend of mine just sent me an a article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that suggests that some of the problems our schools have with "left-brainers" aren't specific to America. Motivating this article, written by Jan Grossarth, is the publication of two books: "Jedes Kind ist hoch begabt“ ("Every Child is Highly Gifted") by the Göttinger neurologist Gerald Hüther, and "Die Durchschnittsfalle" ("The Case of the Average“) by the Vienna-based geneticist Markus Hengstschläger.

Grossarth asks:

Could it be that the smartest people are often in the back rows of their elementary and high school classes, their arms crossed, their heads hooded, somehow muddling through?
When it comes to kids with highly uneven skills, Grossarth argues, schools, increasingly obsessed with standardized tests, prefer to remediate weaknesses than to encourage strengths. Talent, meanwhile, is falsely equated with good grades and test scores. Sound familiar?

Grades and test scores, in turn, have a huge effect on future opportunities. On this note, Grossarth turns to Markus Hengstschläger, who now holds a position at the University of Vienna:
Today he is 44 years old and an internationally sought-after scientist in his field. He got his doctorate at 24 and a few years later became a professor. But school frustrated him. In scientific subjects he earned good grades; in German, English, French and history, rather bad ones. Only in grad school where he finally was able to really pursue the questions that really interested him, did he bloom. In Germany, where most academic placements are determined by the average scores on high school graduation exams, he probably would not have gotten a position.
Hengstschläger argues that we're losing millions of talented people--people on whom society's future largely depends.

While the situation in Germany sounds concerning, it may well be worse over here. As I've argued earlier, U.S. schools fall short both of remediating weaknesses and of fostering special talents.

Interestingly, Grossarth alludes to the term "autistic" as a colloquial description for the sort of child he is showcasing: the child who shows unusually original thought, great talent, and deep interests in highly specialized subjects. Here in America, not only is this sort of child likely to get low grades in subjects in which she has little interest. But, as I've discussed repeatedly, most recently here, he also stands a good chance of losing points in subjects that are supposed to focus on topics in which he does have great interest and talent, like science and math.

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