The Boy and the Canoe

What does inequality in gifted education look like? This is the story of a boy and a canoe.
The Boy and the Canoe, Image: Tip of a canoe in a lake with a dark horizon
Imagine an island. It has a small town, a few shops, and no bridges. The island isn’t that far from the mainland, but you need a canoe to get there. Everyone has a canoe. Children begin to learn to canoe when they’re five years old at canoe-school. It’s a lot of fun. There’s lots of water play, and the kids learn how to swim and build up their strength so one day they can handle a grown-up canoe.

Mum and dad kiss our little boy goodbye on his first day of canoeing. They know he’s very strong. He taught himself to swim when he was only a baby – he’s like a fish in the water.

The canoe coach quickly realises the boy knows how to swim. Impressed, he immediately gets the boy helping the other kids learn how to swim. But the boy is bewildered – he doesn’t know how to help – for him, he’s always swum, he can’t remember ever not swimming. He doesn’t know how to teach.

Soon our exasperated coach pops the boy on the shore so he can help the other kids. The boy can help sort paddles instead.

Years pass.

The kids graduate to mini-canoes. Our boy is so excited to have a go – he’s still strong, and when he’s in a mini-canoe, he zooms around the lake. The coach gets very cross – that’s not what they’re learning on the first day!

The boy is put back on the shore, to hold the paddles and watch the other kids splash around in the water together.

Sometimes he goes into the water anyway – maybe he can swim, or something . . . anything. But then the coach sees him near the water and yells loudly, “You can’t do that!”. So back to the shore the boy goes. Waiting.

Years pass.

Now it’s time for the kids to get into the big canoes. The parents are there to watch their kids try out their first, grown-up canoe. It’s a big day – there’s a BBQ and market stalls, with a fireworks display in the evening.

All the kids climb into their canoes – even the boy is finally allowed in a big canoe. The canoes mill about in the shallow water to start – the kids have to figure out how all their training in the mini-canoes helps with the big canoes. But very quickly, most of them remember their lessons in control and how to save their strength when the canoe is a bit big.

The boy is so excited – it’s his first time in a canoe in years. But the paddles – which he held so easily on the shore are hard to handle in the water. And the canoe is so big – he’s never had to control something this large before. He splashes about in the water, going in circles. He’s still strong, but he pushes the paddles so hard against the shore he tips the canoe over and it fills with water.

A few of the other parents laugh at the boy, “All those years in canoe school and he can’t hold a paddle! We always knew the strong ones were lazy – they never make it to the other shore.”

The boy is devastated. He’s never had to handle so many new things at once before. Escaping the crowds, he leaps out of his canoe and runs home.

He will never get in a canoe again.

Research on Inequality in Gifted Education

School for most gifted children, is like canoe-school. If left in the regular classroom, with no accommodations, many will never learn basic skills most children learn in early primary school.

This is why:

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