Flirting with underachievement
Schultz, R. A.
Highly Gifted Children
The Hollingworth Center
Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 42-48

This article by Robert Shultz shares the teacher's perspective of seeing highly gifted students "stuck on an academic merry-go-round whirling by the same content over and over." Although they are naturally driven to learn, they became frustrated, angry and unchallenged. Schultz argues that this pattern of underachievement can be broken with "caring teachers guided with passion and understanding."

School does not meet the needs of many teens in a meaningful way. These frustrated individuals have choices to make concerning how they react to this situation. Do they change their habits to fit in with the crowd, or flex their independence and stand up for their specific needs?

Sometimes risks are taken that overtly buck expectations and focus teacher attention on unmet learner needs. Students also often choose to adhere and conform to expectations in school. A gifted student facing this choice may either conform to grade level expectations or choose to fit in with age peers and not achieve to his or her ability. The latter choice earns the learners the dubious label of underachievers-but only if they get caught!

    Why should I listen to "legends in their own minds" when they are wrong but won't admit it? We are supposed to be able to think, but when I do and then say something that challenges I get either sent to the office, screamed at, or put down for my remarks. Man, I know when to shut up. I don't want others judging me with wrong impressions because I spoke out, so that's it. I don't know, just shut up and put up. I know how to do my grades to keep [them] good and that's what I do. Mind my business. (Schultz, 1999, pg. 142)

This young person feels considerable stress about the pending school year based on perceptions, expectations and prior experience, and has to make decisions that will affect the entire school year. These decisions concern me as a teacher.

Illuminating Student Realities
The lack of emphasis in the literature regarding gifted underachieving performance and classroom climate provided a need to examine these interactions. The lack of the gifted underachievers' voices-those individuals with the most at stake in the education process-necessitated an examination of their experiences in the classroom. Until implications behind the label underachiever are examined, interpreted and documented from the reality of those individuals bearing the label, little impact can be realized from intervention practices intended to allay this behavior. This article explores submersion of a gifted student to understand the reality of living and surviving in the classroom. Focusing on the voice and views of the student undergirds the structure of my analysis into the lives of special needs students (Schultz, 1999).

Twice Exceptional Tendencies
Comparisons of characteristics for gifted underachievers and the learning-disabled gifted are almost identical (Maker, 1977; Schiff, Kaufman, & Kaufman, 1981; Tannenbaum & Baldwin, 1983; Whitmore, 1980; Wolf & Gygi, 1981). Interestingly, the interactions of giftedness and a disabling condition can, and often do mask one another (Silverman, 1989; Whitmore & Maker, 1985). Gifted individuals, due to their depth and breadth of abilities, can compensate for a disabling condition with exceptionalities in other areas. This may enable the person to completely shroud the disabling condition and exist in a classroom undiagnosed (and unnoticed), performing at an acceptable level while remaining under-challenged in several ability areas.

Submersion is the process of covering over, suppressing, or hiding (McKechnie, 1983). This operative term describes tendencies of many learners. Large numbers of students journey through public and private education underchallenged by the curriculum. Their needs are not brought to the teacher's attention because these students have experienced or witnessed penalties when reacting overtly to limitations in their school experiences-penalties intent on retaining the status quo regardless of their needs or focusing attention on a learning disability stifling their ability to progress in the classroom at a pace matching other abilities.

Teachers rarely provide optional learning opportunities from the standard curriculum to the underchallenged student. Most take it as a personal attack on their competence as a professional when a student presents evidence that he or she is not learning. This response fosters a power struggle that leads ultimately to the emotional and social downfall of the under-challenged student. Some individuals are removed from the class setting and labeled as behavior problems. Others may be required to do additional work to engage their faculties. Still others may be relegated to the role of junior teacher-required to work with less able students to bring them up to the class average. In all cases, the needs of the gifted individual wane, prompting highly capable students to submerse themselves in the classroom avoiding attention to their needs-it is an emotional, self-preservation response to a repressive environment where learning is not the intent of the process for these gifted students. Submersion is best understood through case study analysis of a student exhibiting this behavior (Schultz, 1999). Jim is an example of such a student.

Jim (age 16, grade 10)
Jim blended well into the suburban classroom in his Midwestern community. His seat was located in the back and he did not draw attention to himself. He was attentive and focused, completing assignments when they were due, quietly managing tasks.

Jim's compulsion to remain anonymous follows his nature as observed in the classroom. When he was called on by his teacher to either answer a question, or participate in an activity, he was flustered and noticeably agitated.

Jim had two peers in class with whom he exchanged discussion and pleasantries. He did not interact with any of the remaining eighteen students. Jim seemed content to traverse the interaction-laden educational milieu with as few connections to others as possible-including my attempts to interact with him on a less formal level.

When questioned about his aspirations, Jim responded:

    My parents, they expect me to do pretty well because my older brother and sister didn't really do all that well in school and I'm doing fairly better than they did. So they expect me to go on to college and be pretty successful. Which I don't really have a problem with because I don't know what to do anyway. (Schultz, 1999, pg.116)

True to his observed nature, Jim did not have a problem with these expectations. He traveled through the school day flowing with requirements of the classes he was taking. Jim was unwilling to draw attention to himself and seemingly comfortable with his performance.

On his report card, one exception clearly stood out. Jim was required to read a book for Language Arts and felt this was an injustice. "I don't enjoy that class. I don't like to 'have to' read a book," he stated (Schultz, 1999, pg. 118). He had no choice in the book to read and rebelled by not completing the assigned readings and written work to his abilities. Jim risked being labeled as an underachiever in Language Arts based on the perception he had been wronged.

He perceived school as a frustrating repeat of learned material. "In school most of the time I'm really bored or really frustrated. Bored is having to sit through something that's pretty much a review lesson" (Schultz, 1999, pg. 118). Jim shared a specific example from his science class. "There's been stuff in Biology that we've learned all the way back in sixth grade and people still don't really catch on to it. But you're kind of forced to sit through it no matter if you already learned it or not" (Schultz, 1999, pg. 106). His body language showed that these thoughts were very agitating to Jim.

    When I'm not into what is being done, I tune out and wander to something else. I can do this a lot but then I feel like school is just a waste of time for me. [You] probably could graduate after maybe seventh grade [because] the stuff is repeated so many times in so many classes. I mean how many times do I have to do fractions before someone figures out that I already know that? (Schultz, 1999, pg. 118)

In Language Arts there was evidence based on grades and testimony that Jim was underachieving. However, in his other classes it was difficult to ascertain his status. He earned high marks and abided by class rules, effectively submersing into the status quo.

Jim displayed wisdom beyond his years. His response to a question asking the definition of the term gifted offered a penetrating look into his past experiences in school:

    It's knowing how to think about stuff, but when to say things. I learned this the hard way and see it happen to others. If you challenge a book or a teacher's lecture you get put down real quick. Knowing stuff and thinking are two different things at school. Gifted is playing school and then learning and thinking on your own. How not to get singled out or noticed. How to do it anyway and get along with teachers and kids without being found. It's hard but it keeps me going. (Schultz, 1999, pg. 124)

I asked Jim to share some of his thoughts about teachers and teaching. He focused on the flow and reflection that teachers need to instill in the classroom in his response:

    Pay attention to what people are understanding and not understanding. Instead of spending so much time on say, for instance the periodic table, which we learned a long time ago. Move quicker through some things and slower through others. Explain the assignment a lot better than what is done now. (Schultz, 1999, pg. 136)

When asked to clarify the above statement, Jim added, "the teacher needs to know something about each student in the classroom. There has to be some understanding of where the kids are before the teacher can begin covering the content" (Schultz, 1999, pg. 136). Without this simple, but instrumental task being accomplished the teacher is guessing at the needs of the students. Jim saw this weakness as a common occurrence in classrooms. Teachers lost sight of the fact that they are employed to help students learn, not just teach a prescribed curriculum and hope that students absorb some of the information ultimately moving to the next educational level.

    So many teachers don't care what you know. It's the stuff that they have in their twenty year old lecture notes that's important, not whether any of that old stuff has been overwritten by new discoveries. They don't care about that, but I do. (Schultz, 1999, pg. 136)

Jim explained that it is not only possible, but preferential to underachieve in class in order to concentrate efforts on areas of interest outside of the prescribed curriculum. This survival mechanism allowed him to follow his interests rather than be bogged down by additional non-engaging work.

    If you know you have an ability but nobody else does, you could still underachieve. But, only for yourself And this is important! Too many people judge each other at school. To play along and get along you have to hide-mutate to the class. And then the teacher-if you read them, it's like easier to get by hidden. To not be noticed and then just do your own thing. Interesting things come easier that way. Not being noticed frees up time for you to do what you are interested in instead of extra stuff put on you by others because they think you can do more. (Schultz, 1999, pg. 141)

Jim chose to share his perceptions, expectations and experiences about school. He cautiously and rigorously planned decisions either to meet minimal expectations and remain in charge of his personal learning time or not to achieve to the expectations of others. Each teacher and subject required Jim to use different sets of perceptions, expectations and experiences that were weighed with great care prior to making a performance decision. Behaviors were fluidly modified as interactions were analyzed and evaluated and social settings changed.

School systems label learners for administrative purposes-to facilitate budgeting, public relations, and communication. These classifications make it easy for teachers to forget these labels mask differences, making learners more heterogeneous in life that they appear on paper (Gagne, 1993). Students I have worked with including Jim felt that schools are too impersonal, controlling, time-referenced and rushed, and, uncaring for them to excel toward their unique ability levels. Most were content to play along and circumvent situations that would cause their "true" identities to show.

As Jim so eloquently stated, it is better for him to exist in the classroom without drawing attention to his frustration and lack of learning. This provides opportunity to engage in more personally satisfying mental activities while the class prods along at its perceived stagnant pace. Students like Jim cope with the malady of underchallenge by challenging themselves in areas of personal interest covertly during the school day. They submerse themselves in the educational setting, displaying the facade of attentiveness and conformity to teachers, administrators and sometimes their parents.

Jim had very few opportunities to feel good about his educational experience. He provided reflective insights into the complexity of his life to enlighten me in hopes that teachers and others might change the education system and its practices-changes which are necessary so other students like him might experience more trustworthy relationships with those charged to help them learn in meaningful ways.

In the Classroom
Peer Nomination
Since peers are in contact with one another over the years of their common educational experiences, they are in positions to notice abilities that are not obvious to a teacher in a classroom setting (Masse & Gagne, 1996). Therefore, peer nominations can be viable means of identifying children whose giftedness is masked (Shore, Cornell, Robinson & Ward, 1991) by behaviors such as submersion.

Communication and Negotiation
Students have responsibility for themselves and their learning. By becoming skilled at communication and negotiation learners can have more active roles in the education process. Administrators, parents and community members have jobs where these skills are critical for success. These individuals can be resources and mentors for students attempting to learn these skills.

Teaching and Learning
Students control learning. They choose to pay attention, daydream, or conduct other activities during the school day. From the view of teachers, these choices may hinder the education process. From the view of students, these are necessary diversions from a less-than-adequate curriculum.

Connections must be built between the content, teaching objectives and events occurring in student lives. Providing choices for assignments and topics or allowing students to "test out of' material and move on are two methods of connecting with students' needs. Discussing your learning and providing opportunities for students to share theirs present students with the intellectual and emotional joys of learning for the sake of the learner, not because of an impending evaluation. This is the methodology of life-long independent learning that gifted students seek to experience.

Glancing Back, Looking Forward
School is not a caring experience for many students. They are not received based on their underlying needs or desires (Noddings, 1992). The worth of school to many students is waning but teachers and administrators can quell the deterioration by providing students an active role including choice and control in their learning (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Henderson & Hawthorne, 1994; LeCompte, 1987; Schultz & Delisle, 1997).

Students I worked with including Jim (Schultz, 1999) are stuck on an academic merry-go-round whirling by the same content over and over. Internally driven to learn, they became frustrated, angry and unchallenged, perpetually waiting, hoping to do something interesting. Even when moving forward, the pace and content were deliberate. Stripped of personal choice, challenge and control in their classrooms; their expected academic learning deteriorated.

This pattern broke with caring teachers who guided with passion and understanding. However, this was an uncommon occurrence. School existed primarily as a monotonous job for these students, a place where they went through the motions, earned their pay-grades on report cards-and engaged in learning activities on their own time, in their own way.

I saw these resilient individuals slowly withering away- anticipating that somewhere in the future their learning needs will be met. How many others will follow in their footsteps circuitously repeating behaviors and experiencing the frustration that Jim described?

This essay presents one small slice into the lives of gifted underachieving students in the classroom. My work fleetingly enabled the voices of silenced individuals to be heard (Freire, 1970; Illich, 1971). Future research must provide more opportunities for students to be heard. Without this emphasis, education exists as an inadequate intellectual process for many gifted students with social, emotional and academic conformity the ultimate goal.


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