John Barsby, who taught mathematics for 37 years, has been retired since 2004.
Special classes for “gifted” students are currently under attack in Canada. The Vancouver School Board, for example, recently decided to eliminate honours high school courses in math and science for so-called equity and inclusion purposes. I taught such a class in advanced mathematics during the last 29 of my 37 years as a high school teacher – and contrary to today’s critics, it was an extraordinarily positive experience for all involved.
The advanced class was a five-year program where the students were tentatively chosen at the beginning of Grade 8. In the early grades, students could move in and out of the class. In later grades, students still had an opportunity to join the class, but usually had to take a summer school course to bridge the gap. Some quite capable students preferred the regular group where they could effortlessly be at the top of the class. Others of equal ability, but with a passion for mathematics, were willing to work very hard to keep their place in the advanced class. We placed students where they were most comfortable to learn – they were not restricted in any way.
Usually, the class had the same teacher for all or most of the five years. As the years passed a strong degree of group cohesion formed, with the same students and teacher together for so long. The teacher and the students worked together with enthusiasm and a sense of joy.
The advanced class differed from the regular stream in three ways. Most importantly, there was an emphasis on learning to think mathematically – they were regularly being given problems that required original thought and were not just knock-off versions of problems they had seen before. This started in Grade 8 and 9 where one day of each week was set aside for problem solving. Furthermore, the material was covered in greater depth and the pace of the advanced class was also quicker, with students completing Grade 12 mathematics during their Grade 11 year. In their Grade 12 year, they did university-level calculus and linear algebra.
A local university allowed our students to write the final examinations in these courses and receive university credit. Some years a few students chose to work at their own pace, completing their Grade 12 math credit in Grade 10 or even Grade 9. The local university was very helpful, providing professors who were willing to mentor off campus students working independently. A few students graduated from Grade 12 with as many as five university math credits. It is remarkable how much students who are interested and passionate about a subject can achieve when the opportunities are available.
The achievements of the advanced class students were not limited to passing examinations and earning credits. They also won prizes in provincial and national mathematics contests, both as individuals and as teams. These included a number of Canadian champions. On four occasions, a student from the class was chosen to be on the six member team representing Canada in the International Mathematical Olympiad. One year, when we wrote the American PSAT test, almost the entire class placed in the 99th percentile in mathematics.
I have also taught many regular classes, and, despite what the anti-gifted program critics believe, these were not negatively affected by the existence of an advanced class. It is actually easier to meet the diverse needs of students in the regular class if the ability range is narrower. When students of all abilities are grouped together, the teacher is stretched to help the regular students while also challenging the advanced students. Time is limited, and it is usually the advanced who get neglected. In this way, both the regular and the advanced benefit when there are different academic streams.
I have been retired now for seventeen years, but I frequently encounter former students, now in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, who tell me what a rich experience they had in the advanced math class. What would have happened to these students if they had attended a school that frowned on special classes for advanced students? There would have been a tremendous waste of talent and a lack of joy. We should not deprive our top students of a rich education just so that we can pretend that interest, ability and tenacity is equally distributed among all.
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