How You Can Help the Genius in the Classroom

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 19, 2012

In this increasingly digital age, it is inevitable that our young, tech-savvy students will teach us how to use the metaphorical remote control. They will grasp the next gadget long before we do. They will snicker at our feeble understanding of the social networking of their time. They will help us troubleshoot technology issues in our "smart" classroom as we flounder at the podium, pushing LED buttons with exasperated grunts. In this way, our students will always be one step ahead of us.

However, there is a more complex way that the tables can turn on teacher and student: the moment a professor is trumped by a student's talent and ability. I teach film-production classes, including cinematography and directing, and I regularly encounter students who are more talented than I was at their age because of their innate ability to work with technology and their access to more-advanced technologies every year. I know that one day I will encounter a student who is more talented than I am at that moment. Or worse, I will be faced with a student who is more talented than I will ever be.

Teaching a gifted student is an act of humility. Some of my brightest students fall asleep in class, rarely heed my advice, and still produce stunning work. If I ever encounter a true prodigy, perhaps I might convince myself that I am responsible for stoking the fires of her nascent talents. I might puff up my chest and purport that she needs my tutelage in order to advance. But the most talented students can also be the most challenging to teach, and the least in need of mentorship. It is worthwhile to consider how we can reach those students, and why it is important to do so.

It is not uncommon for true visionaries to perform poorly in the constraints of a classroom. No matter how progressive the teacher, a classroom has a certain level of restriction. Teachers have preconceived notions about what students need to learn and how they should learn it. The most forward-thinking, creative students often tend to be frustrated by those restrictions. As a result, they are limited by instructors who cannot accept, or do not want to accept, new possibilities.

Shortly after Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine this year, a report circulated that had been written by one of his high-school biology teachers. The report lambasted the young scientist, stating: "Several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way." This perfectly illustrates how teachers can fail to recognize a new way of thinking. In our most obstinate moments, the mere suggestion that a student can do something contrary to the way we teach it and still become successful is inconceivable.

The list of visionaries who struggled academically or dropped out altogether is a long one. Thomas Edison left school after his teacher described him as "addled," and his mother taught him at home. Winston Churchill and Bobby Fischer were restless students who received poor grades. More recently, being a college dropout seems to be part of the formula for becoming a successful tech innovator.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company developed an Entrepreneurial Quotient (EQ) Test to determine if individuals had the skills to become successful entrepreneurs. The test says: "Successful entrepreneurs are not, as a rule, top achievers in school." Being a top student costs the test-taker four points from her overall score. Another question reads: "Stubbornness as a child seems to translate into determination to do things one's own way—a hallmark of proven entrepreneurs. If you were stubborn as a child, add one. If not, subtract one."

Does this mean that top-achieving students tend not to become society's entrepreneurial pioneers? And, if so, have we in academe created a culture that supports only conventional thinking? If our goal is for education to stimulate innovative thinking instead of just rote learning, we must recognize and encourage our students' groundbreaking ideas, even—especially—those that may run counter to our preconceived notions. And we must understand that some forms of deviant or indifferent behavior are signs that a student may need more stimulation or greater challenges than we are providing. But then what?

It remains to be seen if a future Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg (two famous dropouts) has graced my classroom, but I have had some extremely talented students who were impatient in class. I have found that giving them more responsibility for and control over their class projects, using their talents to help others by sending their classmates to them for advice, and accepting deviant behavior that does not compromise academic standards can create opportunities for them to thrive.

Sure, it's a slippery slope to allow students to fall asleep in class or check their phones simply because we suspect they might be gifted. However, we also do not want to become as infamously shamed as Sir John Gurdon's teacher, who failed to appreciate his student's unique capabilities. Having a keen intuition for what to penalize and what to take less personally is essential when dealing with an overactive mind.

It may seem foolish to invest energy in students who may already be driven to succeed, but one remarkable student with progressive ideas can elevate an entire class. The more gifted the student, the more she will challenge her peers—and perhaps motivate an entire classroom. Conversely, the less we invest in these students, the more their deviant or frustrated behavior will negatively affect the class dynamic. If our goal is not just to disseminate information but to guide our students to be the best they can possibly be, we dare not discourage the potential Sir Johns among them.

Anne Sobel is a lecturer in the communications program at Northwestern University in Qatar.