When the word “average” hurts badly

Jeremy at 9 years of age was altogether immersed in the tasks of assembling small red and white  blocks to duplicate  designs printed in a stimulus manual. He spun the blocks deftly in his fingers, sometimes using both hands to bring blocks together in a near-perfect integration of small motor movements.

Jeremy’s speed and the accuracy of his final products earned him an “exceptional” score (99th percentile) on the IQ subtest called “Block Design”. His speed itself won him “bonus” points awarded for “speed of assembly”. His parents and teachers were told of his score and how its exceptionality disposed him to much achievement and success in domains requiring such ability: mathematics, the sciences, engineering, et.al. Later, he was invited to take advanced coursework in science/math. And he prospered, delighting in the exercise of his “gift”.  His parents exposed him to stimuli and learning opportunities that refined and elaborated on his special competence.

Evan, another 9  year-old, was equally enthralled by these block assembly challenges. And he devoted himself to each one. Unfortunately, he kept dropping the blocks just before he placed them on the desk surface where he was working. Frequently, he’d turn a block, by accident, a bit too much, these causing a misalignment of block edges that required correction. At these times, frequent enough to exasperate many a child, Evan seemed undeterred…as if he were quite use to the clumsiness of his fungers. Indeed, on more than one occasion he would apply just a tad too much pressure as he moved blocks together, this “collision” misaligning already-correctly aligned edges which then required repair. But Evan loved the tasks, often exclaiming “cool!” or “that’s neat”  as a new design was presented to him. He got them all right. He produced perfectly accurate designs.

BUT, Evan earned NO bonus points for speed even though he finished them all well before the time limits set for each design assembly. As a result, he earned an “average” score…not because he was less perceptive, less competent than Jeremy. And certainly NOT because he was at all perplexed by the designs. For he knew EXACTLY what to do and how to do it, regardless of difficulty level. He was as expert as Jeremy. But his fingers wouldn’t move fast or deftly; they did not do what he wanted them to do, what he knew they had to do.  Needless to say, his “average” score won him no special consideration, no offers of advanced work in mathematics and science, no recognition of his expertise AT ALL. His teachers and parents were told by the school psychologist that he had “average” non-verbal reasoning…and that was that. Later, because he loved “non-verbal reasoning” tasks so much, he became a highly regarded and exceptionally competent architect. Colleagues marveled at the precision and elegance of his work, especially at how he “took his time” to get everything right in his drawings and models.

Ironic how the “real” world can be so much more competence-revealing and competence-affirming than the educational world that assigned him the label “average” and they dismissed him. Worrisome , however, is the fact that, had Evan been less determined, less inclined to believe in himself, he would never have discovered the delights of his own gift. He would have given up much earlier on.


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