Too Smart To Succeed: A Lesson In Education

I used to take a sabbatical to work with urban school kids every seven years or so. I have worked with students from some really struggling school systems in some very dangerous neighborhoods. I found many students in nearly every place I served that were too smart to be successful in school. That does not make sense, does it? Well, let me explain.

I am one of those people that can remember almost all of my life. I can tell you what each member of my family got for Christmas in 1969 when I was three years old. I also remember my thoughts about my education from when I learned to read at age 3 forward.

My mother often tells family and friends of how I was kicked out of school in the kindergarten. I was not a bad kid. I got sent home for laughing at the other kids. I am from a large family, and in many large families competition for attention often makes younger kids grow up early. I did not take naps. I dressed myself. I could read and write. I was laughing because I thought that someone was playing a joke on me. It started at nap time. I thought only babies took naps (I can hear my older brothers telling me that now). I was horrified that my classmates lacked true coloring skills. (I hear my sisters… “draw inside the lines”…).  I was confused as to why they could not write. Most of my time had been spent around my older siblings and my dad. I didn’t know how other kids really lived. I never needed outside friends because I had a boat load of them at home.

Elementary school was very, very easy. Half the time I could not figure out why I was there. I felt that if you just gave me the book to read, I could pass the test. Sitting in class seemed to be a wasted exercise. But, I was trained to always be on good behavior, so I was well liked by my teachers. Most of them knew that I was not being challenged.

When I was 12 years old things changed dramatically. My dad died from cancer. It was really the first thing that effected me at such a deep emotional level. I stopped sleeping through the night. I started skipping school to sit in his hospital room. The hospital was down the street from my elementary school. I still got A’s in class, but it was clear that I was not handling his illness well, and it was clear that I was about to derail.

My dad was a minister and his friends got together to intervene on my behalf. I was tested and was given a full scholarship to a very prominent prep school. I started there my 7th grade year, and I was surprised at the advantage that these kids had. I knew they were not smarter. The advantage they had was that they were skilled in how to study. I realized that all of my previous good grades now meant I was too smart to succeed.

A highly intelligent child often under performs the same as a developmentally challenged child once they reach their middle school years. The average child will often out perform the high IQ student because they have better learning habits. Before my dad died, I did not need to study. I sat in class, immediately understood what the teacher was saying, and put the answers down on the test. When I arrived at the prep school, the volume of material was significantly higher, and much of the testing was not so black and white. My grades suffered. I saw my first C ever and it caused me a lot of pain and self-doubt. How could I have walked through school so easily before, only to fail when I made it to the big leagues?

How did I solved my problem? Easy. I made friends with the kids who had the best grades. I never felt they were smarter than me, but I did think that they knew something about how this school worked that I did not. And they did. They knew how to study.

You see, being smart early on was my handicap. I mistook understanding for learning. Sitting in class, I always understood what the teacher said immediately, but as time passed, what I thought I had learned quickly faded. When it came to test time, I was struggling to remember all the details of what had been said in class or covered in homework. This was particularly true in math and the reason I think so many kids get frustrated with math.  They understand the math, but cannot seem to master complexity of middle school math. I saw from my friends that they had a study routine that was followed whether or not homework was assigned. They did outside reading. In conversations, I also noticed that they had already read many of the books considered classics and would talk about them.

Having realized that my study habits were the problem, I went to the library (there was no internet) and read books on how to study. I talked with my best friend about how he studied. I reorganized my notebooks to conform to the my new study approach. I set my study time so that my mind would know when to focus. Finally, I planned my study blocks into 45 minute time periods with 15 minutes breaks each hour. By the second trimester, my grades rebounded somewhat. By the end of the third trimester, I was a A student again.

When you are a smart kid, understanding comes easy. I got used to the power of being able to hear lessons in elementary school and get good grades. I got used to being able to take 20 spare minutes and get all my homework done before running out the door to school. I did not have to think very hard about what I was learning. I did not have to struggle to grasp a topic. In middle school that changed.

My advice to teachers is to understand that test performance is an indicator that a child is learning, but that the real learning is the process and not the material. A high IQ kid can game the system. In reality, no one remembers more than 15% of everything they will every learn in their k-12 education. If that is true, then what is the real purpose of education? I believe that the true purpose of education is to teach a child how to learn. The process of learning lasts a lifetime. Testing and assessment reflect current understanding, but the real silver bullet of learning is the process a child goes through outside the classroom.

In trying to improve education, we often use very creative methods to increase test scores. I think this is misguided. I think that an emphasis on the learning process (much like how I had to figured out how to learn) is key. Some kids will figure out the process on their own. Most will not. Studies show that children whose parents attended college to better than the children whose parents did not. The reason why children of parents with education do better is that their parents are able to pass down this hidden truth about education. They tend to make sure that their kids follow a process to learn. Uneducated poor parents don’t have that advantage.  What are your thoughts?


Paul K. Lott, Sr. is the CEO of osBLUE Corporation and creator of SchoolBoogy, an innovative learning management system that combines a world class learning management system with social media technology to get kids engaged in education and keep them engaged.

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