Category Archives: Optimal match

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

One parent wrote of Color Me Purple: “The knowledge box about “Passion and Practice” resonated most with me today. Towards the bottom of page 13, you wrote, ‘Extrinsic motivations feed a student’s intrinsic motivation to work at becoming better. The challenge for teachers and parents is to encourage practice without killing intrinsic motivation.’ As I read that, I thought to myself, ‘Ain’t that the truth?!?’”

She went on to explain the fine line between encouraging and discouraging her 10-year-old son’s intrinsic interest in piano: “I’d noticed that he’d been spending a lot of his free time messing around at the piano whenever he had a spare moment, plunking out songs that he was attempting to sight read from music we happened to have laying around, or just playing by ear. I suggested to him that we set up piano lessons, and he agreed to give it a try. But, when songs were giving him trouble, he quickly became frustrated, and wanted to give up and quit. It became a battle for me to try to convince him to keep practicing.

“That’s when I realized that he was no longer playing JOYFULLY as he had been when he was playing for HIMSELF rather than playing to please someone else. As much as I value the important life lesson of developing grit and perseverance, I also want to value and honor my son’s desire to do what makes him happy, and I want to be sure that I am helping to nurture his talent rather than squelch it! One day he approached me calmly and explained to me that he LIKES playing the piano but that he does NOT LIKE taking lessons. He promised that if I would let him quit piano lessons he would continue playing on his own, for fun. So that’s what we did.

“Now he is playing the piano more than ever — by himself on his own terms. He’s not shying away from challenge either. I hadn’t realized that adding extrinsic pressure would threaten his intrinsic motivation in such an extreme way, and I’m relieved that we were able to restore his intrinsic desire to pursue his music smart!”



Color Me Purple

“Color Me Purple,” my just-published 2016 children’s book, illustrated by Madison artist Donna Parker, is a fictionalized story of real kids from Wisconsin. Some of the characters are based on a single child. Many of them are composites of several children. All of these children were lucky because someone recognized that they had a talent. In addition, that someone did something about it. Whatever the child’s economic, ethnic, or social background, and whether he or she was thriving or starting to slip through the cracks in school, someone said, “It’s time to intervene, to encourage this child to become all that he or she can become!”

Children are smart in many different ways. Yet, too often, they are stereotyped based on their deficits and discouraged in their learning rather than encouraged. Color Me Purple is intended to help children and those who care for them understand that it is good to be smart. They can be proud of what they do well. They should work to use and improve their abilities rather than let them languish. They can dream big. But dreaming big alone is not enough. As their support systems help them to gain confidence and feel good about themselves they can hone their skills, define their goals, and help themselves and others to say “yes” to thriving in a multicolored, multicultural, multitalented world.

I have written this book as a way to help children, along with their teachers, parents, and caregivers, understand that there are many, many children who should be encouraged for different combinations of talents or kinds of smart. Based on the theory of multiple intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the story presents 8 children between the ages of 7 and 18, from 8 different ethnic backgrounds, who are smart in 8 different ways. Text boxes, interspersed throughout the book, explain the educational and psychological theories behind the story for readers who wish to delve deeper into the concepts being introduced.

From the last chapter, a bit of what has occurred in the main character’s thinking is presented: “Before the whole Kennedy thing came up, I was just me. Remember? I’m browned-eyed, brown-skinned, and so on? I thought I was ordinary, and in some ways I am. So are Kennedy and Sameer, Bambi and the others. I’m glad to know that we can be ordinary and smart at the same time… There is so much more to me than what you see on the outside. What makes me smart is that I like thinking about hard questions in about the same way Gommgi likes playing the piano…


I am happy in this rainbow world of smartness. I’m learning about my inside colors. I think they are what make me the me I want to be.”

To meet Angie, Kennedy, Sammy, Bambi, and the others, you can buy “Color Me Purple” by contacting me at Directions are on the “Contact Ellie Books” page.

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

Gifted Pyramid Model Revisited

At the end of the WSJ article regarding Madison’s planned gifted program on August 10, one critic stated, “…the district already requires teachers to develop individual learning plans for every student and the talented and gifted plan duplicates that effort. If that function worked for every child, there would be no need for additional attention given to gifted students.”

I wish we could individualize for every student, but we don’t. When I introduced a philosophical model to DPI, it was to establish a clear pathway toward such an ideal. Here is the pyramid as it was intended to work. Let’s hope MMSD can so integrate their gifted plan that it seems as though “additional” attention is a thing of the past.

The base: Not every state, every district, is known for excellence in education. Wisconsin, including Madison, has earned a reputation for excellence in education. It is necessary that we examine and build on that reputation from the standpoint of these three premises:

  1. All students must develop to their fullest potential.
  2. There must be healthy regular programs in the schools to provide a foundation upon which excellence can be built.
  3. Excellence is attained only when the ideal of meeting differentiated individual needs is met.

Side 1: The model assumes active participation and sincere advocacy by significant players – administration, school board, staff, parents, community, and students.

Side 2: Support functions are a given in the school district now. This model makes clear that talent assessment is a part of individualization, parents must be involved in decision-making, counseling is often important, flexible pacing through any given curriculum is critical, staff development helps define and support each teacher’s roles, and coordination holds the parts together.

Side 3: This is the part we usually see and discuss (see my last post), but it does not exist as a lone triangle, just as one-third of this side cannot exist without the two functions above it. All programming begins in the regular classroom. When sharing this model with classroom teachers I always draw a dark line between regular classroom and special group programming to insure them that this is where their personal time commitment ends. The individual teacher must recognize the need for and help facilitate options beyond the classroom, but that is when the other support roles and functions kick in. Group programming and individualized services must be available to any learner should the regular curriculum not be a perfect fit.

Side 4: Evaluation completes the circle back to talent assessment and flexible pacing. This is outcomes-based education at its best. Talent assessment details the learning needs. Student outcomes should show an optimal match between those needs and the learning process. Pace, depth, and breadth of learning should be a correct match for each child. If not, back to the drawing board. Which support role, which function is not working properly?


I agree with the critic and made a similar statement years ago. If the system is working, I’m a “teacher of the gifted” or “gifted program coordinator,” but rather a learning coordinator ensuring the needs of all learners are met.


Comments on Gifted Program in Madison

As the first state consultant for gifted in Wisconsin, here are a few of my comments based on the article in the Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 7, 2010:

1.  Federal definition – If Howard Gardner had published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences before the federal government issued a definition, chances are we wouldn’t be saddled with categories that make little sense to most people. Leadership and creative abilities are not parallel to academic or artistic ability. For that matter, neither is intellectual ability. The reason children are most often identified in language arts and math is that it is easy – there are objective measures. Intellectual, creative and leadership potential cross these two domains, and the other six domains of smartness or intelligence, as defined by Gardner. A district can deal with the definition even though it’s not the ideal way to consider learning needs.

2.  The chart that lists characteristics of the bright child versus the gifted child – this chart has been used for at least three decades to great disadvantage in the field, in my opinion. Why? Because, as written, it perpetuates the problem of labeling. The purpose of identification is not to label, but rather to provide a curricular fit for a child who needs challenge. The characteristics listed on the chart are indeed indicators of different abilities or skills, but they don’t line up in two succinct columns, and I loudly protest the use of them to label a child as gifted versus smart or bright. Whatever the degree or kind of talent as well as skill strength, each child needs an appropriately paced and level of content.

3.  Superintendent Nerad stated, “Our responsibility is to take every child from where they are to their next level of learning, whether they’re kids in the middle, kids that are already meeting our proficiency standards, or kids that are experiencing achievement gaps.” The first phrase of this statement is perfect! Regarding the different types of kids listed, be aware that these are not discreet categories. For example, kids experiencing achievement gaps can be meeting proficiency standards and in the middle, when they should be soaring.

4.  Not implementing the MMSD TAG Plan now – I was the DPI consultant for Gifted Programs when MMSD did not meet the requirements of Standard (t) in 1990 (it was before I left DPI at the beginning of 1991). Twenty years to establish compliance, and now, as I read the timeline, March 2011 is not a firm date to require the plan to be put into action. I don’t understand the issues in Madison. As I read it, the parents are asking for more options that will allow students to go as far and fast as they require to “take them to their next level of learning.”   They are not advocating for either labeling or elimination of existing options. It sounds like Mr. Nerad sees it similarly to me. So, let’s get on with it!


Advanced Placement (AP) Classes

Yesterday, students at West High School in Madison staged a protest against the district’s response to a complaint filed with the department of education by parents of gifted students. I understand the students’ desire to have a voice in decisions regarding their own curriculum, but I don’t understand the negative reaction to the district’s plan. As some of the parents have stated, the plan doesn’t go far enough, but it seems like a viable first step. Students district-wide would have an opportunity to take advanced or regular classes, as well as to complete work for honors credit in regular classes. If the issue for the students is the opportunity to take elective classes, the district administrator declares that current electives are not on the chopping block. Why would they be? Isn’t the district proposing to simply add more electives, i.e., Advanced Placement (AP) classes?

As one of the parents who filed the complaint pointed out, this newly announced plan addresses the need for more Advanced Placement classes at West High School, but it does not address the question of access. This might be the students’ issue also. Will freshmen and sophomores be able to take Advanced Placement classes if they have completed the prerequisite learning? This is what the parents want. Will any student who can demonstrate motivation as well as completion of prerequisites for an Advanced Placement class be allowed to register without formal identification as gifted or talented? Readiness and interest should be the factors under consideration, not identification. Is there an Optimal Match philosophy in the school plan that will guarantee all students the right to advance as fast as they are able and wanting to complete the curriculum in all areas of learning? Optimal Match is an issue of instruction – how and when the courses are available. Beyond committing to a more rigorous curriculum, the district must assure that it is well taught and available when and to whom it is appropriate. The “to whom” aspect must be clearly defined as any student, regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, age, or economic background, for whom a curricular match is possible. This should be viewed as an opportunity to further close the achievement gap, not broaden it.

Achievement Gap Versus Opportunity: A Success Story

According to the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University: “The best available evidence indicates that children of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds come into the world equally equipped to excel… However, by age three, between-group skill differences are clearly in evidence. Later gaps in school readiness are firmly established by the first day of kindergarten.”

Talking and reading with small children are two parental musts that are often lacking in low-income homes. A third factor, as I noted in my post about “The Other Wes Moore,” is the establishment of high expectations.

Meet Angie, who was born poor and under the influence of the drugs in her mother’s system. Raised by her father, she proceeded to thrive because he was determined that she would be all she could be from day one. Talking, reading and high expectations are a large part of her story.

She relates, “My father read to me and I received speech therapy to help overcome stuttering and slower-than-normal language acquisition. I didn’t understand the reason for these early language experiences at the time but they probably explain my affinity for reading and writing. As a preschooler, I learned to read by memorizing the words of book after book, and by age 8 my speech problems had been conquered. By age 10, I had read Shakespeare. Although I had far from comprehended all that I read, spelling and reading became second nature to me.”

Although it was the early home environment that set the scene for her success, it was her kindergarten teacher who first accelerated her. “I never considered what this acceleration meant in terms of aptitude. All teachers after that advanced me. I first became aware that I was considered academically talented when I was in eighth grade. My guidance counselor approached me about Talent Search, and six months later, I was taking the ACT. I had never heard of such a test, and even after I received my scores, I didn’t expect to hear much about it again. I figured someone somewhere was testing my academic limits for a giggle and never expected it would amount to much. I was mistaken.”

Mistaken is an understatement. At age 13, Angie had received a perfect score on the ACT English test. Going from a fragile beginning in which her language-acquisition skills were delayed to a perfect English score on a college admissions test while still in middle school was an accomplishment in which her father rightly took great pride and joy. I met Angie at this point, and worked with her through her high school years. I’m happy to report that now, as a college graduate, she continues to seek opportunities that match her abilities and interests. She says, “When more opportunities came along, I jumped at every chance. My (early) experiences had given me the courage to open new doors. The catalysts in my life were important to where I am today. Cumulative advantage cannot occur without a beginning. Of the future, I know it will build upon early advantages. I know there’s a way to bring my passions to other people and that words are important. I am living in that spirit right now and will continue to live in that spirit.”