Category Archives: Curiosity

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

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Modeling for Young Learners

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself. —John Dewey

Smart children are evident from the day they are born. You notice it in their eyes. They look at you with an alertness that astounds you. You were told a baby couldn’t focus, but this child seems aware of everything around her. Those eyes are so penetrating that it feels like she has a wisdom a baby just plain can’t have. But she does. You are observing genetic attributes. Genetics is one factor in determining how smart a child is.

As your baby grows, you notice he exhibits natural traits that seem different or more advanced than they appear in other children. Those traits may include:

  • Is alert or keenly observant
  • Is highly curious
  • Is intense
  • Is highly sensitive
  • Sees the funny as well as the serious sides of things
  • Asks questions
  • Makes connections, or puts things together in new ways
  • Learns with ease, or masters new skills quickly
  • Has an extensive vocabulary
  • Thinks abstractly.

But, nature alone will not ensure your child will grow up smart. No matter how smart she is at birth, education (or nurture) is the key to her development. Researchers have found that potential talent cannot be realized unless it is valued in the child’s environment.

The cliche, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” is true when it comes to being smart or talented. Parents and grandparents can nurture the characteristics you started observing on day one. Children learn by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to an infant establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon he will be able to read to you. You can then introduce him to more complex literature by selecting books to read that he can understand and discuss, but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, his personal growth may signal that the oral reading years are coming to an end. When that happens, he can tell you the books he would like you to read independently as he reads them too. Thus you can still discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading “together” for years to come.

If you are curious and ask lots of questions about the world around you, your young child will be encouraged to ask questions too. Don’t feel you always need to have the answers. You don’t want to model knowing it all. The curious child is full of “why…?” and “what if…?” questions. Ask her questions that start with “how might we…?” “what would happen if…?” “suppose…?” or “what are all the ways you can think of…?” to stimulate a variety of thoughts and responses.

If you are posing questions, you are talking with your child. If you are reading with him, you are talking with him. When you talk with your child in these ways, you are modeling the kinds of things that are important to you, and you are building his vocabulary and knowledge base. Studies of  language development in children from birth to age three have demonstrated that the more parents talked with their children, the faster their vocabularies grew and the higher their intelligence scores. Early language acquisition builds the foundation for comprehension upon which all later learning experiences are added.

The modeling experience involves doing many things together—reading, talking, listening, exploring, thinking, wondering, laughing, and even crying together.

I was deeply touched when my friend Nancy sent me photos of her reading to her grandchildren’s classes. Not only does it reinforce for me the importance of the message of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” but it shows Nancy being that model, not only for her own grandchildren, but for their classmates as well. Thank you Nancy for joining me in spreading the word that it is good to read, explore, question, imagine; listen, talk, and wonder. Thank you for joining me in sharing the message, “It’s good to be smart!”

Can Your Child Read a Menu?

Recently the Madison Urban League shared the trailer for an upcoming film, “TEACHED: A Film about Education in America.” Howard Fuller begins the 3 1/2 minute trailer by pointing out that students of color can now “sit at a lunch counter where they are welcomed, but they can’t read the menu.” To add to the appalling statistics we already know about the achievement gap/the numbers of poor children who end up in prison rather than college, the trailer states: “Of the students [of color] who do graduate it is estimated that 1 in 5 is still functionally illiterate despite the diplomas in their hands.”

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart is currently being reprinted. Having sold 800 copies in the first year, some of them to community centers that serve poor families and provide educational resources to the children, my goal for this third printing is to reach more poor children in Madison, Milwaukee, and other communities. Talking about the text and the whimsical illustrations will encourage not only reading, but also questioning, imagining, and dreaming as well as vocabulary building. Talking is a skill not discussed in the book but one that precedes reading in the developmental process. For poor children, a structured reading setting will introduce vocabulary that they otherwise might not hear at this critical stage of learning. Statistics demonstrate that by age 3, children talk as much, but only as much, as their parents. These same studies point out that while professionals talk an average of 3,000 words per hour with their children, welfare families talk an average of 500 words per hour, with most of those words being in the form of commands.

Michelle Rhee states in the film that 3 good teachers in a row can change the trajectory of development for a poor child. I agree that excellent teachers can have a profound impact. That is what WCATY was all about from day one – 20 years ago! But, starting in kindergarten or first grade is too late and too little. The earlier they talk, the earlier they read, and the earlier they come to realize that there are high expectations for their achievement, the better our children’s chances for success. Let’s join Howard Fuller in addressing the issue of not only welcoming the children to the lunch counter, but assuring they can read the menu.

Link to the trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0k5TF7PJbo

Turn Curiosity Into Passion

Recently, Oprah aired a show about “dream jobs.” Not surprisingly, the common element between all the stories these people told was passion. They loved their work. It was hard to distinguish their work from play.

Parents of preschoolers can learn from the story of Michael, a boy I worked with and later interviewed regarding his talent development. Michael knows he had high academic ability even at a preschool age, but it’s unclear to him whether his parents noticed it or created it. “Preschool life was a series of educational games and activities, and I loved it. When a child is young and malleable, curiosity and optimism are the pre-stages of passion,” he explains. “I was naturally curious, but my parents modeled these characteristics and encouraged them in me.

“I remember little about formal schooling before third grade. That’s because my parents shaped my education, and that is as it should be. They took charge of making sure I stayed challenged and excited about learning. To do this, they moved me to a private school when they determined the public school stifled my curiosity.“

At his new school, Michael says he was never bored, but always challenged. He experienced a delicate balance between boredom and anxiety that helped his curiosity and optimism to grow into a life-long excitement for knowledge.

Later at a special program run by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin in cooperation with WCATY, Michael’s architect-mentors modeled pure love for what they were doing. “For the first time I thought of myself as a passionate person. I define that passion as the lack of a dividing line between work and play. My motivation was purely intrinsic. The external environment of Taliesin provided a challenging course of study, but it was up to me to take from it as much or little as I wanted. There were no grades or bad consequences for doing less than my best, but I always felt stimulated. Taliesin simply allowed my joy of learning to evolve.”

Michael came away from that program with a deep understanding that passion comes from the heart. He further explains what he learned. “Passion is a strong emotional affinity for some kind of activity. For some people it is innate and for others it needs to be developed. That’s why parents need to cultivate curiosity in their young children. I think developing one’s passion requires conditioning a child’s curiosity for learning and optimism for life at an early age into his or her own areas of interest.”