Category Archives: Passion for a field of learning

Opening Doors of Opportunity

If a child opens one door of opportunity, other opportunities that otherwise might not have existed will follow. This phenomenon is called “cumulative educational advantage.” It is about never holding a child back in his area of aptitude and interest. 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. Early experiences can include summer programs through private institutions and on college campuses; mentorships, apprenticeships, and internships; local, state, national, and international competitions; travel and study at special learning sites within our own country and abroad; distance learning and traditional correspondence courses; dual enrollment between two levels of school, such as high school and college, or early entrance to any level of schooling; and many more possibilities.

Such opportunities should never be viewed as “frosting on the educational cake,” according to the late Julian Stanley, renowned expert on educational acceleration. “Rather,” he writes, “they can be the most important ingredient… things that give you cumulative educational advantage are likely to be the best investments in your education your parents could possibly make” (1994, p. 4).

Harriet Zuckerman (1977) introduced the idea of educational advantage in her study of Nobel laureates in science. Scientists who studied at topnotch institutions and with past laureates had increased potential for becoming leaders in their field and even laureates themselves. She states (p.59-60), “Advantage in science, as in other occupational spheres, accumulates when certain individuals or groups repeatedly receive resources and rewards that enrich the recipients at an accelerated rate and conversely impoverish (relatively) the non recipients.”

Cumulative educational advantage is not about pushing, it is not as simple as graduating early, and it does not always involve being number one. It is about being in the right place at the right time, and usually it does not happen by coincidence. 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 accelerated in comparison with those of other students of equal ability and motivation. The effects may be multiplicative, because any one opportunity may open the doors to multiple other opportunities.

I just received a note from the mom of a past student of WCATY’s accelerated programs. He had lived and studied for three intensive weeks with the architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture as a high school junior . Here’s how cumulative educational advantage worked for this young man when his parents opened a summer door of opportunity:

“At the end of May, he graduated from Harvard University with a Masters in Architecture.  He was one of 14 out of 104 students who graduated with distinction.  At this time, he is temporarily working at his previous employer, Perkins + Will, in Chicago.  On August 1, he will begin employment at Adjaye Associates in Manhattan.  Chris is quite thrilled to be with such a creative and world-renowned firm.  He loves big city life (after coming from a town of 10,000!), and is looking forward to living and working in New York City.

“We are incredibly proud of Chris, and always tell people that the start of his confidence , determination, and drive came from his experience with WCATY at Taliesin.”

Parents often ask if the money for a special program or class will be well spent; they view it as a hardship (which often it is) instead of an investment (which may ultimately be of higher value). Yet through and since my years of experience in working with smart, motivated kids – matching them to opportunities that interest them – I have accumulated a wealth of stories like Chris’s. This IS the frosting on the cake of my career!

Please keep sharing your stories.

Core Elements of Learning

On The New York Times Op Ed page, February 23, 2010, columnist Bob Herbert talked about Deborah Kenny’s philosophy about improving schools in this country. In setting up the successful charter schools known as the Harlem Village Academies, she explained, “If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well that was just 100 times more important than anything else.”

She went on to tell Herbert, “I had five core things in mind for my kids [her own children], and that’s what I want for our students. I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

Herbert concludes, “It never crossed Ms. Kenny’s mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment.”

Kenny’s hiring philosophy is the same that I used at WCATY and I endorse her learning philosophy 100%. In hiring our WCATY teachers, we used three criteria: they had to be excellent in their field; they had to have a passion for that field, and they had to want to pass that passion on to their students.

I think some people perceive that because I have written a book for young children that emphasizes the importance of being smart I put less value on character. This is far from the truth. If you read “Grandma Says,” all the qualities mentioned by Kenny are in some way described or implied: a passion for learning, the love of reading, being good to the world, sharing with others, and in Kenny’s terminology, a “sophisticated intellect.” Being smart includes respecting and developing one’s own and other’s curiosity, creative thinking, critical thinking, independent questioning, exploration, and problem solving. I agree with Kenny that every child, from an early age, at home and at school, should grow up knowing that learning is cool – something they CAN do with great joy!

Grit, persistence, or the understanding that success involves hard work is the one quality that I may not have emphasized to the degree some would prefer in my children’s book. It will be addressed up front in the next – because children do need to understand that practice and careful attention to the tasks at hand are among the keys to learning. Although Kenny didn’t talk about this in the Herbert interview either, I suspect she  considers it a part of the “sophisticated intellect” as do I.

Different Kinds of Smart

Recently someone inquired as to whether there were really different kinds of smart. I think the problem is with semantics. We probably all intuitively feel there are different kinds of smart, yet we don’t necessarily align our definitions of talents or abilities with the idea of being intelligent.

In 1983, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published a book entitled Frames of Mind[i] that opened a whole new way of looking at intelligence. It’s not, according to Gardner, a narrow ability to think that is measured by a paper-and-pencil test. Rather, it is a multiplicity of abilities, all of which can be assessed, and which –when developed – can lead to different forms of achievement as well as feelings of success and happiness.

In this book, Gardner delineated the following kinds of intelligence (or smart): linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and the personal. He went on to expand his theory to include eight intelligences, the personal intelligences defined as interpersonal and intrapersonal and with the addition of a naturalist intelligence.

Another researcher, Thomas Armstrong, changed the way teachers viewed intelligence in the classroom by writing books and articles that took Gardner’s idea from theory to practice. Armstrong also wrote a book entitled You’re Smarter Than You Think[ii] that translates the multiple intelligences theory into simplified language and explanations for kids. I am currently working on a book for still younger children that does the same thing. Armstrong explains 8 kinds of smart: Word Smart (Linguistic Intelligence), Music Smart (Musical Intelligence), Logic Smart (Logical-Mathematical Intelligence), Picture Smart (Spatial Intelligence), Body Smart (Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence), People Smart (Interpersonal Intelligence), Self Smart (Intrapersonal Intelligence), and Nature Smart (Naturalist Intelligence).


[i] Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books, Inc. New York.

[ii] Armstrong, T. 2003. You’re Smarter Than You Think: A Kid’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences. Free Spirit Publishing. Minneapolis, MN.

Small and Smart

Ayana was reading and writing by the time she was four. Her first attempts to put marker to paper involved drawing, but that wasn’t enough. She wanted to create little poems to go with the pictures she had drawn. She says, “I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read everything in the house and to write to my heart’s content. Even before I entered school I had a sense of self and a sense of authority. At age five, on a beginning level, I knew I was writing my own book, my own life.

“Home is where I always worked on my inner voice. School did not allow me to go into one subject – my writing – richly. I wanted to dim the noise and concentrate on my real work.”

At age 26, Ayana is weighing her options for a Ph.D. program that will match her interests. She says, “Talent is the currency that we as individuals invest for our future, but first someone must invest in its development. All the affirmations from my childhood encourage me to pass on the message I was given – it is good to show and develop your gifts.”

Smart children are crying out for recognition and support. The following poem is a compilation of comments made by students who were awarded small monetary grants by the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY) to develop dream projects:

Please challenge me,

Save me,

Give me the guts to be me.

Please notice me,

Tolerate me,

Give me gold-plated wings to unfurl

Somewhere out there in the world.

Please welcome me,

Love me,

Give me the way to go forward

And become the me

I want to be.

In summary, there are smart children from all walks of life. Smart children need recognition of their abilities, and home is where they first need it. Early affirmations of talent start building the self-confidence the child will take from childhood into adulthood.

Highest Duty Revisited

Now I have read “Highest Duty” by Captain Chesley Sullenberger of the January 15, 2009 Hudson River miraculous plane landing fame. His subtitle gives a clue as to why his book was of interest to me: “My Search for What Really Matters.”

As a pilot, Sullenberger knew that his responsibility to the people on board and the community below really mattered. He was able to act on this belief in a crisis because he had spent a lifetime of learning how to do it. On p. 184 (caption) he writes, “I have a clear recollection that at age five I already knew I was going to spend my life flying airplanes.” His mother and father valued learning and supported his passion to learn starting when he was very young.

What may impress me the most about Sullenberger is his grit – his determination and focus. About the process that took him from being a child with a passion in a specific field to becoming an adult who would make a clear difference by applying all he’d learned in the intervening years, he says (p.138), “I’ve derived great satisfaction from becoming good at something that’s difficult to do well.”

“Becoming good at something that’s difficult to do well:” that’s my definition of accomplishment and the foundation for building self-confidence and high self-esteem. In terms of smart young children, this means encouraging them to continually take the next steps in learning new skills and knowledge; never letting them rest on their laurels; always providing a stimulating and challenging learning environment. It’s letting them know that it’s good, but not easy, to be smart.