Thursday, October 1, 2009


“We overlook just how large a role we all play – and by ‘we’ I mean society – in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.” Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

While I was busy at yesterday’s job, a message was left for me to report to another job for the next day. It was nice to know that I wouldn’t have to anticipate a morning call. It was even nicer to find out I’d be at the high school again – for another science job. I’m beginning to wonder if Social Studies or History teachers ever call in sick or take workshops.

I had three Advanced Placement (AP) Biology classes. I noticed the textbooks they were using – the same one my husband used for his College Biology course (though it was a newer edition). The students in each class were great, just as a teacher would expect from AP students. From time to time, I walked around as they busily read their textbooks, discussed, and answered questions.

Working with AP students made me reflect on my own high school education. I wasn’t a serious student back then. For years, my mother had called my younger sister the “smart” one because her IQ was higher, while I was the “artistic” one. The funny thing was that I did well in school before we took the IQ tests, but that was soon forgotten as I put more energy into art. But the older I got, the less impressed I was with my artistic abilities. By high school, I’d decided to become a fashion designer, so unless I really liked a subject, I didn’t try that hard, and earned a mixture of As, Bs, and even Cs. While my sister took AP and honor courses, I took regular ones. In my senior year, I began to question my planned career path, and realized that I’d never given myself a chance to excel at anything else. I was accepted by a state college in New York and began to work hard. I graduated Magna Cum Laude.

When I teach at a school that has AP (high school) or ISP (middle school) classes, the students are a dream, but it makes me uneasy. The so-called “regular” students often have an inferiority complex. “We’re not the smart ones,” is a comment often uttered by a disgruntled student. I argue that it’s motivation over intelligence, but I know in my heart that it doesn’t make a difference to them, because I remember being the one in the family that wasn’t considered smart and it took me seven years to fight against that label.

This summer, I read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which made me reflect on how labels we arbitrarily give to children often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The author asserts that we see a talent in a child; throw resources at the child, and those resources further strengthen the child’s ability, so we convince ourselves that we chose correctly. Malcolm Gladwell provided many examples to prove his theory. He argues that if we gave every child the same opportunities, many more would thrive.

My son has spoken about the “smart” kids in his grade with a sense of fatalism. I’ve also tried to convince him that he’s just as smart, but needs to possess the motivation to put in the same time and effort. In kindergarten and first-grade he was convinced he’d never learn to read, until he did. Now he’s reading above grade level. In the third and fourth-grades, he argued that he wasn’t a good speller. I encouraged him to study more and offered to quiz him, but he knew otherwise. Then he had a spelling bee in the winter of fourth-grade. He was enthusiastic while they “practiced” for the bee. Out of two classes, he came in fifth-place. He was so proud and surprised. I’ve used that example many times since then. His report cards also reflect that there’s a correlation between effort and good grades.

My daughter, on the other hand, has confidence galore. She jumps into every situation with enthusiasm. I haven’t had to convince her that she’s smart – she doesn’t worry about it.

I want both of my children to be afforded every opportunity, just like I wish every child could have their strengths enhanced through opportunity and their weakness overcome with opportunity. If my wish comes true, then virtually every high school class would be an AP class. What opportunities would await those students when they graduated?


  1. Being an honors student myself, I never understand why teachers except us to act better. Just because we're smart? Means nothing.

  2. @ Brooke, I guess it's because people are usually "smart" because they work harder and are more motivated. That should mean they're better behaved. Of course, there are those who have exceptional brain material. Sometimes they don't have to try, so they're not invested.