Category Archives: Views of intelligence

Raising Smart Children: Case Stories

Recently someone suggested I should be writing an adult book in addition to children’s books on the issue of being smart. My response was that my original plan was to write a parenting book on raising smart children. And, I did. THEN I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” believing that I could essentially put chapter one of the adult book into basic terms for small children, including my grandchildren. Now I am working on a children’s book on diversity and kinds of talent based on later chapters of that manuscript.

I did not publish the adult book for two reasons. First, it is not about raising gifted children, but rather intended for a broader audience. I believe there are far more smart children out there than we admit. We are losing potential solutions to serious problems when we ignore this fact. And, we are not encouraging children to be all they can be. I’ve never subscribed to the Lake Wobegon idea – “where all the children are smart” –  but I do advocate something much closer to this Garrison Keilor paradigm than what now exists in our schools and communities. Because of this philosophy and the broad approach I take to the topic, my manuscript is not a perfect fit for publication in the field of gifted education.

Second, the market for books in general has been steadily declining. And books about a field as specific as talent development are not in high demand to start with. At the same time, the market for online materials is exploding.

My conclusion? I’ve decided to remake the tips section of my blog into something potentially of greater interest to my readers (and in full recognition that I really had done next to nothing with it up until now).  I have published the table of contents of my parenting book on the tips and preview page of this blog. You will need to help me take the next step. One possibility would be to post some of the stories in the book, based on your requests. Another would be to send a chapter to someone with the desire or need to read a specific topic. Another would be to excerpt information or data based on your requests or questions. Please let me know if and how this might be of interest and use to you and we’ll take it from there.

Learning on Cruise from the Ground Up

On July 4th, ‘The New York Times’ ran a commentary on the pitfalls in identifying a gifted child.  It was precipitated by NYC officials stating that they were looking to identify children as young as 3, and asking what measures to use. I will not go into the whole debate, but if you are interested you can look up the opinions of contributing writers: Susan K. Johnsen, Baylor University; Clara Hemphill, Insidesschools.org; Joseph Renzulli, U. of Connecticut; Tonya Moon, U. of Virginia, and Bige Doruk, Bright Kids NYC.

I agree with Susan Johnsen’s suggestion that what we should be talking about is “talent spotting, from the ground up.” That’s what I encourage when I talk about using the “wow factor” to identify young children. When a child writes a poem, makes an observation, performs artistically, or does anything so extraordinary that it makes you go, “Wow!” I consider that an indicator of talent, or potential giftedness. This “wow factor” is clearly noticeable in children from the day they begin communicating. What you observed in that child may be so different from what you expected at the child’s age or stage of development that you would call it the work of a gifted child. Or, you may not be willing to go quite that far yet, which is fine. What is important is acting on your “wow” feeling.

This is where Susan and I depart from many of the other commentators in the article. As soon as the term ‘gifted’ is applied, the issue of labeling often becomes the focus of discussion or concern rather than the true purpose for acting on your “wow” feeling. That purpose is called “optimal match.” Optimal match is defined as a fit between the characteristics of the learner and what he is expected to learn. This match cannot be made unless the degree of ability is ascertained. Thus, there must be an evaluation of his interests and ability in whatever subject or topic is to be taught. It can be as easy as following up on the “wow” observation with an opportunity for the child to produce more in that area and at a comparable and steadily increasing level. At home, through the use of modeling, materials, space, and time, your goal most likely has always been to provide an optimal match between his interests and abilities and what he is learning. In most cases, a parent does not need formal testing in the early years to be able to feel that appropriate encouragement and support is being provided. But as he moves forward in the educational system, for most children, someone other than you will be determining the curriculum. Your goal doesn’t change, but the system for matching curriculum to learner does.

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are basically grouped according to age. Whether or not this is the best way to group learners, this is the way we have been doing it for years, and changing that system is not easy. When you ask that your child’s teacher provide an optimal match, you are asking for two things: first, that the pace or tempo of learning be appropriate. Second, that the depth and breadth of the subject be appropriate. In other words, you want your child to learn something new and to have to spend no longer doing it than she requires. A diagnostic assessment would be used not to label her, but rather to pinpoint where she is at in her learning and to suggest where she should go from there.

In the debate on identification in NYC schools, the call for identification as early as age 3 was in response to a louder call for identification among diverse populations. Again I agree with Johnsen, who states, “giftedness is exhibited across all racial, ethnic and income levels; however, children from these groups remain underrepresented in gifted education programs. Some of this underrepresentation may be explained by exclusive definitions (required superior performance on a single test), attitudes (teachers or parents do not recognize the gift or talent) and test fairness (characteristics of the norming population, item bias, linguistic demands).”

I remember years ago observing a first day of school for kindergartners in Milwaukee. Did I see eyes alight with enthusiasm and wonder? Yes. Did I hear a buzz of excitement about new learning activities? Yes. Among those children, there were some who needed to be advanced at a faster rate than others. Very few, if any, in this low-income neighborhood probably had developed far in their abilities yet. But they did have the potential to learn at varying rates. They each had the right to have his or her curiosity and readiness fully addressed. One young African American boy told me, “I can cruise.” He didn’t need to be tested for his teacher to allow him to ‘cruise’ through his skill development at a pace that would keep his spark of excitement for learning alive. He did need a teacher who was open to individualized learning and who believed that any child could have an as yet unrealized talent.

Let’s let our children cruise from the ground up. Let’s let them know that to be smart is cool, and that they are indeed smart!

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.

Is it good to be smart?

Obviously I think yes. That has been the premise of my work for decades as a teacher and non-profit executive, and is currently the premise of my children’s books, including the one I’m working on now with a multi-cultural focus. Is that what  you think?

The reason I ask is that I talked with a grandmother of a 3-year old this past week. She said of her grandson, “My daughter-in-law won’t let me tell him he’s smart. I naturally want to say, ‘_____ you’re so smart.’ She says, ‘Don’t say that. Say you are a good problem solver or I like the way you figured out how to…’

“So,” the grandmother asked, “you disagree with her?” My quick answer was yes, but it’s not that simple.

I think it’s a shame when children learn at home as well as at school that being smart is something to be ashamed of. Or, if it’s not shame, it’s taboo. We just don’t say we’re smart.

The point of my book for small children is to do exactly what this grandmother’s daughter-in-law was doing, but with one significant difference. When I say “exactly the same,” I mean the book defines what some of the characteristics of being smart are – reading, using a good vocabulary, problem-solving, imagining, being good to the world around us, etc. By a significant difference, I don’t think the daughter-in-law should make the word ‘smart’ taboo.

I used to do parent workshops on being gifted where at the beginning of a session, I would ask people to “stand up if you’re a good runner, a good pianist, a good cook,” etc. People would stand up with no hesitation to being good at different specific skills. Then I’d move on to “stand up if you’re creative, smart… gifted.” Usually people are comfortable with creative or smart, but rarely if ever are they comfortable with calling themselves gifted. This is the consequence not of anti-intellectualism but rather of a problem with comparing and labeling in our society. I choose to use the word smart in my books for young children because everyone should be proud to be smart. I’m troubled that this parent is not giving her child the freedom to understand that it is smart to be able to skillfully use all of his developing aptitudes in a positive way.

So, the bottom line? Grandma Ellie says it’s good to be smart. Grandma Ellie doesn’t limit her discussions of being smart to the skills in her book. Talking about using our cognitive as well as emotional and social abilities as we grow and learn and admitting there is a concept called “smart” can only help our children to understand themselves and others.

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.