Tag Archives: be smart

“Outliers” – My Response 2

Aside from his epilogue about his mother and grandmother, Gladwell ends his book with the story of Marita and this statement: “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success… with a society that provides opportunities for all… The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for. Marita doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as [Bill Gates]. All those things would be nice of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance.”

I agree wholeheartedly that Marita just needed a chance. I’ve spent many years encouraging students to participate in Talent Search, whereby they take out-of-level tests as a means of showing their need for an accelerated curriculum. All of the Talent Search-based programs – nationwide – give children the kind of chance Marita received at her special high school. Just as Kipp promises it will give kids stuck in poverty a chance to get out, WCATY promises the same. We call it cumulative advantage. Going to one program is an advantage that opens doors to another and then another, and so on. And students who have attended WCATY programs on full scholarship have written the exact same message as Gladwell’s in their letters to their sponsors: “thank you for helping me to break the cycle of poverty that has imprisoned my family by giving me a chance.”

I also like Gladwell’s use of the term “academically minded” in his final chapter. I encourage our schools to say a resounding “yes, that’s cool,” to the academically minded, rather than causing children to hide their talents, dumb down, and lower their aspirations.

Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell’s book about outliers is thought provoking and disturbing to me. Maybe successful smart people are “outliers,” but they shouldn’t be. The first flaw of the book, in my opinion, is narrowing the concept of smart and successful to the level of genius. My whole career has been about finding talent, recognizing it, and developing it. If we did that broadly rather than labeling a few children gifted, we would find many smart children who need help in order to achieve their dreams and potential. I am not anti-gifted; I just don’t think smart and outlier should be used synonymously. And, I am anti-labeling.

In talking about the children studied by Lewis Terman in the early 20th century and called Termites, Gladwell says: “If you had met them at five or six years of age, you would have been overwhelmed by their curiosity and mental agility and sparkle. They were true outliers. The plain truth of the Terman study, however, is that in the end, almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves. What did [they] lack? Not something expensive or impossible to find; not something encoded in the DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. 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. [They] were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.” Gladwell, Outliers, p. 112.

Of course I agree with his conclusion to that paragraph: unrealized talent is squandered talent. Maybe I both need to finish the book (I will) and read it more carefully (I plan to do that too). But right now I am disturbed in two ways. First, I don’t think smart kids are outliers and I think we need to stop labeling them as such. Second, I have not given up on society ever helping the poor children who are curious, smart and motivated to make it. It may almost seem like picking up sand one grain at a time to save a what could have been a pristine beach – nearly impossible. But let’s do it. And with each grain, let’s add a few more and then more and more. And then, let’s change the rules for saving the shoreline. Let’s enthusiastically put into practice – in our schools as well as our homes – an optimal match curriculum or experiences that will allow each child to learn at his or her own pace and grow into who he and she wants to be. If the pace is fast and the end result is different from the expectation, that’s wonderful – let the kid fly!  That is success, not necessarily making a name for oneself.

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.

The Gift of Learning

What better gift to give that special child than the message that learning is cool. Most children really think that naturally as they begin to explore their world by walking, talking, and gaining new skills at a rapid rate as toddlers and preschoolers. A cartoon in the Dec. 14 “The New Yorker” shows two little kids in a sandbox. The older one says to the younger one: “It’s all learning-is-fun and invented spelling, and then–bam!– second grade.”

What’s wrong with second grade? As a teacher, consultant, longtime educational specialist, it is sad to often see fewer smiles and sparkling eyes with each advancing grade of school. Rather than continuing to believe that learning is fun, cool, an ultimate aim, too many children dumb down, hide their talents, and proceed in a lock-step method of learning that doesn’t fit them and holds little appeal. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Miraculously, my children fought the school battle and won – proud of themselves as topnotch learners throughout their k-12, college and graduate school years. I want the same for my grandchildren and yours. I want little children to hear and believe from their first year that learning is exciting, reading introduces you to people, places and things unknown, and asking questions and exploring possible answers is the key to advancement.

I hope “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” helps many children to firmly believe that second grade and all the grades after that will still be “learning-is-fun” — and that creativity is good too even if not usually when spelling!

Book sale in progress

Orders for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” are coming in at the post office box on the “Contact Ellie Books” page of this blog. Since Thanksgiving nearly 200 of the 300 copies have sold. Comments have been gratifying. Here’s one: “I wanted to let you know how much I love your book! It’s an absolute delight! You and the illustrator were clearly on the same wavelength.  I love the part where grandma says I can be anything I want…and I say I want to be a horse — and you turn the page to see the wonderful trio of horses. Fabulous. And it’s a thrill to see your name on the front cover.  Congratulations!”

Here’s another: “The book is wonderful and we can hardly wait to share it with our California grandson and put one on the shelf of our baby Madison grandson. But I need more to share with friends who have curious book-loving youngsters. Thank you for continuing to give to the world of young minds in your very special way. Our whole family is going to LOVE this book!”

Highest Duty

I haven’t yet read Chesley Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, but I was inspired by Jeffrey Brown’s interview with the pilot-author on The Lehrer Report on October 23. Hero? To those whose lives he saved by landing his flight from La Guardia on the Hudson River on January 15, the answer is yes. To citizens across the country, the answer is yes. But why was he able to perform this incredible feat?

Sullenberger is smart and he isn’t afraid to say so. “I care about ideas,” he says. “I never stop learning; never stop growing…. A smart person learns from his own and others’ experiences.” His mother raised him to value learning. This is the kind of model I want our children and grandchildren to hear, loud and clear. May today’s mothers, like Sullenberger’s mother, be able to reinforce, over and over, that learning is cool. Being smart is cool! Being smart should be every child’s life-long goal.