Academic acceleration is one of the most effective educational strategies to meet the needs of high-ability students. Yet, despite more than 100 years of research attesting to the benefits of this approach, many parents and educators still believe that moving students ahead of their same-age peers will adversely affect their social and emotional development.
In New Zealand, very few students are accelerated at school – especially at the primary level – and there is very little research about what happens to accelerated students once they leave school. My doctoral thesis investigated the experiences of an amazing group of 10 young people who had entered university early in Aotearoa. The youngest participant was just 13 years old when he was enrolled in a fulltime programme of university study. Another participant gained NCEA L3 and Scholarship and was Dux of his secondary school in Year 10 and entered university fulltime at the age of 14 years.
One of the boys in my study told me that he was reading at a 14 to 15-year-level when he was 7-years-old and his teacher complained that he was “away with the fairies” most of the time because he never completed any of his set work in class.
Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash
For most of the young people in my study, school had typically been an unhappy experience; they lacked appropriate challenge in their learning and felt socially isolated and misunderstood. Many of the participants had been bullied by their peers and some had been home-schooled for significant periods. At university, they were able to regain their love of learning, follow their interests and passions, and gain acceptance for who they were. Although they faced a number of challenges due to their age, such as drinking, driving and dating – the three Ds – most of these issues were relatively minor and short-lived and the participants were very pragmatic about their experiences.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
None of the young people I talked to expressed any major regrets about their decision to enter university early and most said it was the “best possible option” for them at the time. As a group, the majority were very successful academically – five went on to complete PhDs, three completed Master’s degrees in their chosen fields, one completed a Bachelor’s degree and then went on to train as a medical doctor… only one student dropped out of university without completing an undergraduate qualification.
In terms of their lives outside of university, most of the participants were actively involved in volunteer work, such as Red Cross, Youth Search and Rescue (YSAR) and student politics, as well as sporting and cultural activities. They told me that their experiences of entering university early had helped them to develop greater resilience and personal coping skills. Many of them preferred to work with older students and said that they really “found their niche” at the postgraduate level.
In addition, the young people in my research identified a number of advantages resulting from their decision to enter university early. These included greater opportunities for self-directed learning, exposure to prestigious scholarships at overseas universities, more time for early career exploration and development, and high levels of personal satisfaction with their achievements. Many of them commented that, if they had not entered university early, they would have dropped out of school entirely.
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
These findings suggest that academic acceleration and early entrance to university should be viewed as a legitimate pathway for high-ability students in New Zealand schools. However, as noted in a recent Twitter chat, it is critical that young people themselves are fully involved in making this decision. Overall, the results of my research do not support the view that moving students ahead of their same-age peers is harmful to their social and emotional wellbeing… a myth that needs to be strongly refuted!
Posted as part of the 2019 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.
Click here to see the 2019 blogs.