[personal profile] philobiblius
tl; dr: It could have been written today.

The consensus of evidence, biological, psychological, and statistical, indicates that mental ability, like all other biological traits, is distributed in the form of the so-called curve of probability. If this be granted, it follows (1) that mediocrity is the commonest condition, (2) that instances of ability superior to and inferior to mediocrity are of practically equal frequency and degree, and (3) that the more an ability deviates from mediocrity, in either direction, the less frequent is its occurrence. The idiot is rarer than the moron, the genius than the man of talent. The root of this distribution undoubtedly lies in heredity, in native endowment. Education cannot create ability; it can only develop the latent possibilities given by heredity. Educational agencies, however, cannot lose sight of individual differences; educational training cannot be conducted as if all pupils were alike in native endowment. This truth has been clearly recognized in so far as it applies to the lower end of the curve of distribution; we have to-day, in consequence, a flourishing pedagogy of the subnormal. But we are only beginning to realize the necessity of special adjustments of our educational agencies to meet the needs of the upper end of the curve, to develop a pedagogy of the supernormal. And here it may be noted that by supernormal we imply not something abnormal, or beyond the limits of the healthy and the wholesome, but a mental endowment superior to the average, a condition that corresponds on the plus side of mediocrity to subnormal on the minus side. The supernormal child is the gifted child, the talented child, the child of superior ability.

Quantitatively, superior ability may evidently vary all the way from ability just noticeably above the average up to the most extraordinary manifestations of genius. With real genius, the kind of ability that appears in, let us say, one man in a million, the school has perhaps no special concern, chiefly because the appearance of such ability is so rare that administrators cannot be expected to provide special devices for its training — if, indeed, it be amenable to prearranged educational forms. The real problem of the school concerns the children who rank as the best two or three or the best half dozen in every hundred, for these are numerous enough to warrant special educational treatment.

Qualitatively, it is feasible to distinguish between general, or all-round, superiority and specific superiority. The problem of the school treatment of children of the latter type, of children who possess special talent in a restricted field, must doubtless await solution until we have met the larger problem of dealing with the former type. At present we know almost nothing in a scientific way about the genesis, distribution, and training of special talents. Psychologists, however, agree that children may be born with a constitutional tendency favoring superior achievement in music, in mathematics, in various phases of artistic creation, and probably also in linguistic and technical activities. The enlightening experiment of Dr. Kerschensteiner, at Munich, who by a simple test of drawing discovered a number of cases of exceptional ability in this field (ability that had in several instances been unsuspected by parents or teachers), and who was able to direct these children into appropriate careers, may serve as a pattern for similar "censuses" of special talent, which might be undertaken with profit in any large school system. We may hope that in time special "talent classes" may be organized to supply at public expense the training appropriate to children who bid fair to distinguish themselves in music, drawing, painting, dramatics, invention, and other special lines. Meanwhile, it is to be desired that psychologists should make extended analyses of individual children who display exceptional gifts in particular directions.

With regard to the education of gifted children of all-round or general ability, the thesis may be laid down that the needs of society demand special training for such children in the public schools and that this special training must be conducted in special classes, segregated from the regular school grades. To this thesis the following objections are sometimes raised. (1) It is occasionally asserted that there are no supernormal children — an assertion that disregards the cumulative evidence of biological and psychological investigation, as well as the evidence of common sense. (2) More often it is argued that supernormal children exist, but they will take care of themselves. Galton, to be sure, has sought to show that real genius "will out," but this is certainly not true of the lesser grades of superiority with which the school has to deal. We do not believe that a favorable environment can create ability, but we know that an unfavorable environment may hinder its fruition. Experience shows that poverty, ill health, poor teaching, and lack of encouragement may stifle native ability of a high order. We know only those talents that have succeeded. As Lester Ward has pointed out, "Great men have been produced by the co-operation of two causes, genius [innate ability] and opportunity; neither alone can accomplish it." (3) There is a popular notion that the precocious child should be held back, that an early manifestation of ability is an unfavorable sign. It is true that precocity does not guarantee superiority at maturity, but it is equally true that it frequently does precede it. We admit that it is better for a dull child to take a slower pace: why should a bright child, given a healthy body, be compelled to follow the pace of the mediocre child? To hold back a gifted child is to exert a baneful influence upon his development, and not merely mentally, in that he assimilates less information than he might, but more particularly morally, in that he forms pernicious habits of idleness, fails to feel the spur of competition, and fails to develop the higher ethical qualities that the school should bring into play. (4) It is argued by some that the special training of gifted children is not the business of the public school, but of the home. Yet the state has already recognized its responsibility to provide for the instruction of the intellectually fit by its system of state universities, with their research and graduate departments. Again, any argument that defends special provision for the subnormal for the sake of their better training would defend special provision for the supernormal for the sake of their better training. "Any exceptional talent, potential genius, or superior intelligence that remains undeveloped is a loss, not merely for the individuals themselves, but also for the progress of the nation and humanity" (Stern). The state, then, has reason to devote special attention to supernormal children. (5) It is argued by others that though desirable enough, special training for the gifted is too expensive or too difficult of administration. As a matter of fact, however, the additional expense is not great and is more than justified by the return upon the investment, while the administrative difficulties are being successfully met in several cities, as will be shown in a moment. (6) It is sometimes argued that to place the gifted child in special classes handicaps the pupils and the teacher of the regular class by removing the brighter and more capable members. But surely it is, as Kendall has said, "a travesty on the rights of bright children to keep them in classes below their ability for the purpose of helping on and stimulating pupils of less ability." The rights of the individual pupil are more sacred than the desires of the teacher or the classificatory boundaries of the graded system. (7) Finally, it has been objected that to segregate bright pupils would make them priggish, would develop a species of intellectual arrogance. This possibility may be avoided readily enough by due care in administration. Admission to special classes must be looked upon merely as a kind of specialization, as indeed it is, and continuance in them must be conditioned by persistent faithful effort, as well as by intellectual brilliancy.

There are, then, no valid objections to the thesis that supernormal children should be given special treatment in the public schools. It remains to be seen what has been, or might be, the nature of this special treatment. The disadvantages of the standard ironclad grade system are everywhere acknowledged. Various plans are in operation to secure greater flexibility. Do these plans .serve the needs of bright children? Without going into the details of various systems of promotion (see Grading and Promotion), we may distinguish three main types of modification of the standard system. (1) Certain plans aim to keep the class together in promotion. Thus, the so-called "Batavia system" keeps the class together by expending extra effort upon the laggards. Here, it is evident, no attention is paid to the peculiar needs of gifted children. The "North Denver plan" reverses the emphasis and keeps the class together by giving more intensive, more extensive, and more independent work to the brighter pupils. They are, however, kept at the regular pace in their progress through the school system. (2) Certain plans aim to secure a different rate of progress for children of different abilities. Typical are the systems prevailing in Cambridge, Mass., in Chicago, and in Pueblo, Col. In the "Cambridge plan" pupils are classified according to their ability and go forward at three different rates, — slow, regular, and fast, — while at various points transfers may be made from one " track " to another. Bright pupils may accomplish the work of the first six years in four years, and it is worthy of note that these "fast" pupils do first-class work later in the high school. The chief objection to this system seems to lie in the expense. In the "Chicago plan," or "large-school plan," three or more sections are organized in each grade on the basis of ability.

Each section goes forward at its own pace and is promoted as soon as it is ready for the work of the grade above. The bright section may gain one or two months over the slowest section in each half year of work. The plan permits close grading, but is feasible only in large schools. In the "Pueblo plan" each pupil sets his own pace. Extreme individualism prevails. Its promoter, Preston Search, was led to its adoption because he was convinced that " the bright, capable pupil has been retarded in his progress, has spent time in lifeless reviews and valueless repetitions of lessons, and has had his ambition stunted." The plan suffers somewhat from the lack of class competition, and it requires teachers of unusual ability. (3) The "segregation plan," illustrated in Worcester, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Harrisburg, Lincoln, Neb., and perhaps elsewhere, by its system of "preparatory centers," more nearly meets the theoretical requirements of gifted children. Pupils who have done strong work up to a certain grade, usually the sixth, are transferred to a special room, where they complete their preparation for the high school under selected teachers. The work is arranged on the departmental plan and includes, as a rule, the Latin, German, advanced English, and sometimes the mathematics of the first year in the high school. Pupils from these preparatory centers enter the high school with sufficient advanced credit to save one year in their subsequent course. Statistics show, moreover, that their work in the high school is commonly not only successful, but of conspicuous merit. In one Baltimore center, selected pupils have been retained for a third year and are then easily able to finish the high school in two years. In Cincinnati, in 1910, an experiment was instituted in the segregation of bright pupils from the third, fourth, and fifth grades. The results were decidedly favorable; two years' work was accomplished in one year, while the atmosphere of the class was that of joyful industry and orderly intelligent work."

We are evidently only at the beginning of special education for supernormal children. The segregation centers have developed only in the last decade or so. Many problems remain to be solved. When, for instance, should segregation begin? The Cincinnati experiment suggests that it may profitably begin much earlier than the sixth grade. Again, what should be the standard of selection? Thus far, the standard has been relatively low. At Baltimore, for example, the centers contain pupils whose rank is anywhere in the upper 25 per cent of the regular classes. But Goddard's application of the Binet tests to 2000 public school children at Vineland, N.J., indicates that only about 4 per cent are mentally advanced two years or more above their chronological age. Again, Petzoldt, in Germany, has proposed the establishment in Berlin of "elite classes" on such a basis as to select the best child in each 1500 to 2000 pupils. It would be highly instructive to have this experiment tried out. For ordinary purposes, however, classes with a selection of 4 to 5 per cent and with a total enrollment of 20 to 25 would seemingly be most desirable.

Other problems that press for solution are these: what is the relative part played by heredity on the one hand and environment on the other hand in the production of individuals of superior achievement? Is it true that the world is full of children of marked native ability who need only the opportunity to achieve their promise, or must we proceed, according to the tenets of the new science (or religion) of eugenics, systematically to breed human ability? How early in a child's life may exceptional ability be safely diagnosed? What physical, mental, or moral traits afford reliable criteria of superior ability, and how may these be detected or measured scientifically? How can we discover and foster special ability in musical, artistic, literary, mechanical, mathematical, scientific, and other lines? Can we surely distinguish, and by what methods, between mere precocity that does not culminate in final superiority, and real ability, early displayed, that fulfills its promise? Is it in any way possible adequately to meet the demands of the education of gifted children without segregation into special classes? Ought classes for supernormal children to pursue the regular curriculum at a faster pace, or ought they to provide a more intensive and more extensive training by different methods? Ought gifted children to begin formal school work at an early age, or ought they, on the contrary, to be held back from formal training till their eighth year or later? Is it desirable and feasible to subsidize the careers of gifted children?

These and many other scientifically and practically important special problems which the general problem of the supernormal child sets for solution make it evident that an extensive investigation of the whole field by a corps of educational and psychological experts is imperatively demanded. Such an investigation would repay many fold the time and labor expended.
~G. M. W.

Great Britain. — In Great Britain the question of the supernormal child does not assume so much importance as in America and Germany. In fact, it may almost be said that conditions are reversed and more attention is paid to the bright than to the average or poor pupils. In the elementary schools, where each principal is to all intents and purposes autonomous, a system of flexible grading and promotion provides for the rapid progress of the able pupil through the elementary schools, so that in the seventh or highest standard the ages of pupils may sometimes vary from ten and one half years to fourteen or over. The bright pupil has always been provided for by scholarships to the secondary or grammar schools obtained in open competition. A large number of these are frequently gained by poor but able boys from elementary schools at the age of eleven or twelve. As a rule they carry only free tuition; sometimes additional maintenance grants are given. A scholarship is valid for three years and is usually renewable according to grade of work done. More recently, since the central authority in England began to interest itself immediately in secondary education, schools and school authorities have been compelled as a condition of securing government grants to provide free places to pupils between the ages of ten and thirteen coming from elementary schools. The number of free places to be offered is ordinarily 25 per cent of the total number of pupils admitted in the previous year. The percentage may, however, be varied with the consent of the Board of Education. By the aid of scholarships, provided by special endowments or local authorities, and free tuition, pupils can win their way through to the universities. At the same time, the system always makes some demand on the means of the parents, and in some cases school authorities offer maintenance grants as well as remission of fees. For an account of the system of recruiting candidates for the elementary teaching profession, see Teachers, Training op. In Scotland the system of district bursaries provides for the promotion of pupils from elementary to secondary schools.

copied from Monroe's Cyclopedia of Education (1917)
Entry on Supernormal Children written by Guy Montrose Whipple



February 2017


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