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Right To Learn, Part 2

If you are new to Minds On Fire, I recommend starting with True Confessions — it cuts to the core of what I’ll be exploring on this site.

In Right To Learn, Part 1, I introduced the notion that there are Universal Needs shared by all learners and that it is not always possible to serve those needs for every student when class assignments are determined by by age rather than cognitive ability — because not all kids develop at the same rate.

In this post, I’d like to start with a description of two needs that are often poorly served for asynchronous learners: Challenge and Peers. In the next post, I’ll go deeper into the implications for asynchronous learners.

Learning to learn is one of education’s most valuable contributions to individual growth, more important than the skills and content knowledge used to nurture this ability. An important part of learning to learn is cultivating the ability to work through challenges and setbacks. Even towering geniuses must develop this skill[1]. Research shows that failure to develop it can contribute to fragility even for students that show signs of a high aptitude for learning. Our response to setbacks in many ways determines our effectiveness as learners.

We learn by grappling. Engagement with unmastered concepts and skills stimulates the creation of the neural connections that enable cognitive growth. The process of growing and strengthening intellectual ability has some parallels in developing muscular strength and endurance. A teacher I know likes to talk about “developing the learning muscle”. The process involves a repeated cycle of challenge, engagement/grappling and success. Student’s are presented with a new skill or concept just beyond their current understanding and ability. They grapple with it (supported as necessary by the teacher) until they can demonstrate independent understanding and mastery. They move on to a new challenge and repeat the cycle.

For this process to be fruitful, it is critical that challenges be well-matched to students’ level of understanding and ability. If the new material is too challenging, there isn’t an opportunity for genuine mastery, and the struggle may undermine the student’s confidence. If the new material is not challenging enough, there is minimal opportunity for learning and growth.

With the ability to work through challenges comes authentic, merited confidence that serves learners well throughout their lives: it enables them to maintain a positive sense of self in the face of the obstacles that are unavoidable features of both life and the pursuit of mastery. While some come by this attitude more easily than others, it can be cultivated in anyone and is a natural by-product of a thoughtful curriculum well matched to its students.

Unavoidably, this process involves periods of confusion and frustration as students try to tackle the unfamiliar. Being comfortable being uncomfortable[2] is a crucial ability for deep learning and mastery. Over time, the learning cycle breeds an appreciation for challenge. It helps students see challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth rather than as personal failures.

During the primary school years especially, two critical and sometimes opposing processes come into play: socialization (the normative process of adapting to the group) and social-development (the process of discovering and developing who you are)[3]. Research indicates that a sense of social-belonging is critical for both a sense of well-being and academic success[4]. Children need peer groups that allow them to explore their authentic selves without fear of rejection by the group.

The need to belong is so strong that a child may pretend to be someone they aren’t if they detect that they are different from those around them. Though they may do anything they can to fit in, they are unlikely to find a true sense of belonging; and this failure may give rise to deeply negative self-feelings. The long-term consequences of feeling socially isolated can have devastating psychic and academic costs.

In the U.S., our educational imperatives tend to be codified as grade-level learning targets which are essentially age-based since students are generally placed in grades based on age rather than by knowledge and ability. It is largely treated as a given that, barring some disability, all children’s cognitive faculties develop at similar rates and that developmental milestones are reached at substantially similar ages. This may be true of the vast majority of students but not all. There are outliers that develop at significantly different rates from the norm in one or more domains. The rigid sorting by age lies at the heart of many of our system’s shortcomings with respect to atypical learners.

Few question the need to make accommodations for students with atypically delayed development. We have no trouble understanding that children with developmental disabilities cannot be expected to achieve the standard milestones on the same schedule as age-typical learners. We try to serve their needs and abilities rather than their age. We accept that adjustments must be made[5]. Accommodations allow these children to be challenged based on who they actually are rather than based on age-typical norms. We understand that their divergent development sometimes requires teachers with experience and training in the issues of divergent learners. When done correctly, accommodations provide both appropriate academic challenge and accepting peers who make stigma-free socialization and social development possible during critical developmental periods.

A small number of children are developmentally atypical in the opposite direction. On this blog, I refer to such children as age-atypical asynchronous learners or simply asynchronous learners[6]. Their development in some domains is atypically advanced. With little or no instruction, they may reach the standard academic milestones years ahead of their age-mates. Our culture often fails to acknowledge that such learners exist, and teacher training ignores them almost entirely. Their accelerated development is often attributed to pushy parents though high degrees of asynchrony are rarely (if ever) the result of parental pushing[7].

Though we accommodate those with significant developmental delays, all is considered well for the rest of students as long as they achieve grade-based targets on time. Little consideration is given to the implications of students reaching the milestones far ahead of time.

Schools’ strict adherence to age-based grade levels (rather than ability and knowledge) results in critical educational needs being unmet. These atypically advanced students are denied the challenge and peers so important to development of a positive self-concept and to long-term academic success. They are forced to sit in classrooms watching others learn, surrounded by kids to whom they can’t relate and who can’t relate to them.

In the popular imagination, “gifted” kids are smart at everything and preternaturally mature as though they were adults trapped in children’s bodies, but asynchronous learners generally manifest uneven development across domains. They are out-of-sync not just with their peers but within themselves. Terry Tao, currently one of the world’s leading mathematicians, scored a 760 (out of 800) on the math SAT at age 8 but scored just 290 on the verbal test. A six year-old may have the vocabulary and reasoning of a twelve-year-old but the emotional responses of a five-year-old.

It is often the case that the degree of asynchrony with regards to peers is mirrored in the degree of internal asynchrony. Highly asynchronous children may have vertiginous differences across cognitive and social-emotional domains. This uneven development is a frequent source of confusion to those unfamiliar with the issues of asynchronous development–including many educators, parents and psychologists. People naively expect someone with accelerated intellectual development to be advanced in all intellectual and social-emotional domains when this is almost never the case.

The situation can be especially frustrating for children who may feel that there is something wrong with them. They often recognize that there are unusual discrepancies between their abilities. It can be a source of deep confusion for them that they can perform some complex cognitive tasks that bewilder their age-peers while finding it difficult to accomplish some tasks that are easy for their classmates.

Those ignorant of the tendency towards uneven development may pathologize behaviors that are part of “normal” asynchronous development. People often focus on a child’s area of weakness to the detriment of the child[8] as it exacerbates a child’s native frustration and can lead to emotional volatility or seemingly pathological behavior.

This situation can be especially difficult for kids that are asynchronous and have one or more learning disabilities. Such learners, commonly called 2E[9] (for twice exceptional: asynchronous + learning disability), are especially confounding to an educational system that already has so much trouble knowing what to do with asynchrony in general.

There are many faces to asynchrony. There is no single asynchronous profile — a situation that requires sensitivity and flexibility to address given the great variation from child to child in terms of the asynchronies that can exist between domains. Because there can be many grade-levels difference between domains, it can make be challenging to meet such a child’s needs in a single classroom: a highly asynchronous six year-old may read at seventh-grade level, do math at third-grade level, write at second-grade level and have the emotional responses of a four-year-old.

Part 3: Asynchrony and Challenge-Deficit


[1] Terry Tao, a genius by any definition, brilliantly talks about this issue in his essay “Does one have to be a genius to do maths?”. He writes:

“The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius – who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts – is a charming and romantic image, but also a wildly inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics……I find the reality of mathematical research today – in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck – to be far more satisfying than the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of “geniuses”. This “cult of genius” in fact causes a number of problems, since nobody is able to produce these (very rare) inspirations on anything approaching a regular basis, and with reliably consistent correctness. (If someone affects to do so, I advise you to be very sceptical of their claims.) The pressure to try to behave in this impossible manner can cause some to become overly obsessed with “big problems” or “big theories”, others to lose any healthy scepticism in their own work or in their tools, and yet others still to become too discouraged to continue working in mathematics. Also, attributing success to innate talent (which is beyond one’s control) rather than effort, planning, and education (which are within one’s control) can lead to some other problems as well.”

[2] My friend Karn Knight introduced me to the phrase “being comfortable being uncomfortable”. I think it perfectly captures the attitude required to work through difficulty.

[3] See Linda Kreger Silverman, “Social Development In The Gifted“.

[4] p. 18. “Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills That Promote Long-Term Learning”. Carol Dweck, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen. A white paper prepared for the Gates Foundation.

[5] There may be considerable disagreement about WHAT accommodations need to be made for the various possible learning disabilities, but most people seem to accept that learning disabilities require special resources.

[6] Some people will object that developmentally-delayed learners are also asynchronous in a sense. For this blog, I’ll use asynchronous learners to refer to those that are developmentally accelerated in one or more cognitive domains. That being said, children that are developmentally delayed and those that are developmentally accelerated present similar challenges to age-organized classrooms: the need for true (cognitively-similar) peers and lessons that provide consistent appropriate challenge.

I’ll argue in future posts that if we were to shift our educational paradigm to a dynamic model that defined education based on keeping children actively moving from milestone to milestone as they reached them, we could reduce the importance of such distinctions.

[7] Egregious misrepresentations of asynchrony abound. I find the work of Clementine Beauvais particularly disturbing and ignorant. Her easily refuted claim is that ALL accelerated asynchrony is the result of push-parenting. While there may be some cases where a child’s achievement is due to parental pushing, it is much more common for these abilities to arise to the surprise, and often consternation of a child’s parents.

Some parents of highly asynchronous children go so far as to discourage their children’s accelerated development for fear of its consequences. My parents had unhappy memories of being far ahead of their classmates as children and (to little avail) hid books from me before I started kindergarten in order to prevent me from being able to read before my classmates. They went so far as trying to fool me into not knowing that I could read. True story!

[8] Asynchronous kids that exhibit delayed social/emotional development are sometimes held back in school despite being years ahead of their age-peers in several cognitive domains. Some parents are advised to delay the start of kindergarten due to such a child’s lack of “maturity”.

Such a situation is likely to lead to extreme (yet understandable) frustration on the part of the child who is doomed to be both terminally bored and surrounded by kids that can’t relate to them intellectually. Being socially/emotionally unsophisticated, their response to the lack of cognitive peers and lack of the intellectual stimulation they crave can seem pathological — when in fact, the behavior could be cured by placing the child with their cognitive peers and supplementing their social/emotional learning.

[9] The topic of 2E learners is an important and complex topic that I’ve chosen not to go into in this essay. It is a topic that I’ll cover in future pieces as it is a source of deep confusion and even mistreatment. It deserves much more attention than can fit here in “Right to Learn”.


Right To Learn, Part 2 by Edward Spiegel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

10 thoughts on “Right To Learn, Part 2”

  1. All of your writing has resonated – thank you! I’d love to read / hear more about your take outlined in footnote 7 regarding push parenting. This topic comes up a lot in Palo Alto where push parenting is more the norm than is healthy for most kids. It really conflates the situation for those of us advocating for asynchronous learners in our community, because our educators and fellow parents don’t understand the difference and educating them is quite a challenge. Thank you, Edward, for all you’re doing!

    1. Callie, thanks for your kind words. The confusion between achievement that is the result of push-parenting and the advancement that results naturally from a child being deeply asynchronous is one that seems hard for people that aren’t parents of a deeply asynchronous learner to understand. It’ll come up periodically on the blog.

      A lot of people (that aren’t parenting one of these kids) assume that early reading or mathematical knowledge or whatever are the result of parents aggressively teaching these skills to their kids. They don’t realize that we are talking about kids that are picking these skills up with no guidance from their parents — that the skills are an expression of some sort of drive or neuroatypical development — and so you can’t simply equate skill level with asynchrony. Anyway, a big topic that will get touched on in many ways.

      The goal in keeping these kids challenged and engaged is not to optimize their achievement but to serve their natural engagement and drives.

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