Why Geniuses Suck At School

Part 2: Why geniuses suck at school

In my part 1 of why geniuses suck at school, I wrote about a student who, by fifth grade, was so intelligent that she was able to pass a BAR exam prep test yet had average grades in traditional school. This second genius I encountered was not nearly as intellectually astute, at least in terms of the standardized ways in which we measure intelligence. In fact, this student was the opposite, a child who by 7th grade, was placed in remedial classes because he was deemed not able to comprehend subject content at his grade level. Let us call this student Malik. Malik, in his own right, is a genius. But as I have contended, geniuses suck at school.


I guess by the time that Malik came to my classroom he had already developed the habit of passively resisting school, and by extension, school work. When I would sit with Malik, I could easily tell that he had the ability to grasp the concepts he was being taught; he just didn’t feel like regurgitating them in the way that school seemed to force upon him. Unlike the first true genius I taught, he would routinely “participate” in class – usually in traditionally disruptive ways. He would find any fallacy in a teacher’s wording of a question and respond with an answer that was so absurd, yet so in-line with the content, that the teacher would either brush it off or confront Malik and his comments. He ended up in the office a lot. When teachers would ask students to offer real life examples to demonstrate their understanding of elementary academic concepts, Malik would retort with real-life examples. For instance, I watched one science teacher review with her students the different ways heat was transferred through using all the different methods that heat works in a home. The teacher got through heat transfer methods such as conduction and radiation by pointing out how a stove and microwave work. She prompted her students to think back on the term convection (heat transferred through hot air circulation) with a simple question: how does your home get heated? Malik was the first to answer, and without putting his hand up said, “money!”. I sat back, observing the class, thinking, damn right, it takes money to keep that heat on.


And he got sent to the office because he defended his sentiment with the teacher who was trying to talk about convection and heat in a 7th grade science class. Adult responses out of a child’s brain. Genius to me.


I silently observed Malik’s display of other genius tendencies throughout the first months of the school year. Things like knowing the exact layout of the entire school. The exact layout – not only the classrooms he had taken subjects in, but the staffroom, staff restrooms, janitor’s office, and spaces like the guidance offices that were no longer in service. This was merely after the first two days of the school year. After the first week, he also had a grasp on the “lambs” and the “wolves”, both his peers, the older students, and the staff to whom he could toy with and the ones he could not. On the second day of school, I had his class last period of the day. It was “home time” and I put up my chairs differently than your traditional classroom; instead of placing chairs on desks, we “stack them” at the back of the room, 6 chairs per stack, because I feel like that helps the janitors out when cleaning at night. With about two minutes to go before the bell rang, I asked the students if anyone knew how we put the chairs up in my class, assuming that of course no one would know. It would be my small classroom management moment to share with the group of students how I liked things done at the end of the day in my classroom. Malik said, “you stack ‘em in groups of six at the back of the class”. It was the second day of school. Malik had never stepped foot in my classroom on the first.


Genius, in my opinion comes in all forms. As teachers, it is our obligation to look out for the genius in children, whatever shape that may take. This student is one I still keep in touch with. Unfortunately, he is still struggling with “school”. I don’t know if or how I could have helped Malik bridge his non-traditional genius with the more linear school consideration of one. Fortunately, or rather hopefully, for him, his genius-level socio-personal ability will allow him to find success in adulthood. He may have to figure that part out on his own, because the traditional school, as it stands, will not give him that opportunity.



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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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