Tag Archives: becoming good at something difficult

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.

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“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!”

 

All Kinds of Smart

As people all over the world have been watching the Olympics this summer, myself included, I wish the lessons shared by the participants would be equally applied to all kinds of smart. Whether your talents lie in linguistics, mathematics, music, art, nature, interpersonal, or intrapersonal areas of development, the requirements for success are the same.

As Gabby Douglas flew through the air, and touchingly a rare flying squirrel landed at our birdfeeder (no one in our area had ever seen one until this creature appeared for a few days and then again disappeared), here are a few talent-development lessons I felt were worth repeating:

  1. Opportunity is the key: From Michael Phelps to Gabby Douglas, from track sprinters from around the world to athletes of all backgrounds and specialties, we have heard how the doors of opportunity had to be opened. There are so many potentially talented children out there who are never recognized, supported, and applauded when successful; anchored when in trouble. Gabby’s mother made the supreme sacrifice for her little girl to shine.
  2. Letting go must happen sooner or later: Over the years I have seen parents struggle to let their talented children go to a summer camp in their area of passion, be it academics, music, or any other field. Gabby’s mother listened to Gabby and Gabby’s encouraging older sister when it was time for her to leave home. She let her go, not for a week, but for years of hard training, living with a new family and community, and facing a diverse world of new values and hard lessons.
  3. Hard work: In her first interview upon winning her gold medal, Gabby attributed her success to hard work and dedication. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. Young talented children often think success comes naturally or with a little luck. The necessity of hard work, i.e., practice and persistence, must be taught. Our Olympic champions are great role models.
  4. Success is golden: Gabby became homesick in Iowa, but she persisted in reaching for her dreams. Of her win, she said, “I did think it was a gold-medal performance.” Self-confidence and focus are not easy to achieve when things go wrong, as they frequently did for members of the gymnastics team, including Gabby. But, as Gabby explained, “If you can push through the hard days, you can get through anything.”
  5. Belief is golden: “It’s very tough for me to focus,” Gabby reported in The New York Times, Aug. 2, 2012.  But as Douglas was going to the Olympic arena, her mother called and said, “I believe in you, baby.” Douglas said, “I believe, too.”
  6. Success is not perfection: Even Michael Phelps did not always win. Doing your best and working through the disappointments are lessons that loving families bestow upon their talented youth. As Gabby inspires other young African Americans, her message is clear: I am so happy to be me, and although I would have preferred another gold, it’s not the end of the world that I didn’t get it. On to the next competition! On to the next challenge and new experience.
  7. Respect others for their talents and dreams: At WCATY summer programs, I have had students who received perfect 800’s on their SAT Math tests at ages as young as 13 and 14 sit in an advanced math classroom with other smart students who did not and most likely could not achieve perfection. I saw the same kind of respect and camaraderie in those classrooms as I’ve been observing among the gymnastics, swimming, track and other competitors. That their passion for their field includes a desire to experience new levels of knowledge or success by others as well as by themselves is exciting to behold.

In summary, may we realize that the lessons learned by our young Olympians are lessons to be learned, valued, and respected for children with all kinds of smart.

WATG Recognizes NUMATS Students

Dear Talent Search Top Scorers,

You have become a part of a tradition that goes back more than 20 years. Bob Clasen, Professor at UW-Madison and I, as state consultant for gifted programs at the Department of Public Instruction began recognizing the top scorers in Talent Search on the UW campus in 1989. I’m proud that 23 years later you have been invited to the University of Wisconsin to celebrate your interests and successes. I join you in letting the world know,  “It’s good to be smart.” Thank you to WATG for honoring you and your parents and guests.

It would have been my delight to be with you this weekend, but I am making my way home from a vacation in the Bay Islands, Honduras with my grandsons, ages 6 and 9.

Jordan loves writing. Here he got to write on the table!

As they leave to travel to Colorado, I am thinking of you – our future in Wisconsin.

Benj has a new passion: snorkeling. He’s discovered the wonders of the underwater world.

Have any of you been reading the young adult novels by Terry Pratchett? I enjoy the wit and wisdom as well as the many links to literature and life in Pratchett’s books. From  A Hat Full of Sky, I share this thought with you today: “With balloons, as with life itself, it is important to know when not to let go of the string. The whole point of balloons is to teach small children this.” As you continue to develop your talents and realize your dreams, always remember when NOT to let go of your strings!

 

Have a great day.

Ellie Schatz, State Consultant for Gifted, 1987-1990

Founder and President, WCATY, 1991-2006

Author, It’s Good to Be Smart, 2009

Chess Club Versus Football

Freeman Hrabowski, an African American with a Polish heritage (explaining his last name), was arrested at age 12 for participating in the “Children’s March” in Birmingham, Alabama. He also excelled in school, started college at age 15, and became president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). I was intrigued when his story aired on 60 minutes on November 13. Under his leadership UMBC has become known for innovation, interesting students in math and science careers, and for its high standards of discipline, community and achievement.

Of his students and educational philosophy Hrabowski says, “We teach Americans of all races what it takes to be the best. At the heart of it is … hard work. I don’t care how smart you are, nothing takes the place of hard work.” Football? Not at UMBC − no football. One student explains, “You might go to another university and the football team might be top dog. Here, it’s the chess team that’s top dog. Yeah, it’s cool to be smart.”

Hrabowski speaks of a typical first day message on many campuses: a dean saying, “Look at the person to your right and the person to your left. One of you will not graduate.” Being assured that from day one turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, at UMBC they say, “Look at the student to your left. Look at the student to your right. Our goal is to make sure all three of you graduate and if you don’t, we fail; And, we don’t plan to fail.” He explains that he wants his students to keep dreaming about future possibilities while at the same time understanding that hard work, a positive attitude, and getting support from each other are their keys to success.” Underlying his passion for education, it’s clear, Hrabowski truly believes it’s cool to be smart.

PS The list of good books according to Jocelyn from The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver is growing. Check it out on the Tips and Previews Page of this blog.

Grandma Says It’s Good to Read

Brotherly Reading

This past week I got to live what I preach. I spent a week babysitting with my two grandsons, and reading was at the core of our activities. The little guy is 5. He says, “Kindergarten is ‘kinda’ easy.” Every night his homework consists of reading a different book that he has selected to bring home. While he read aloud to me, the older brother was to engage in a quiet activity until I could help him with his math. On some nights it was his own reading homework. On others, it was reading a book for fun. Here the two boys have extended fun as the younger boy climbs into the chair and joins in.

I have written about the significance of early reading previously. In this posting, I reiterate its benefits based on the National Institute for Literacy’s recommendations in action:

* Gives children information on a variety of topics. The older boy is intensely interested in frogs and toads, sharks, dolphins, and fish of all kinds. We read several reference books on amphibians and ocean life, some from his school library and other treasures from his personal bookshelf. The younger boy is still 100% into picture books and we had fun with all kinds of stories. One old favorite is “Scranimals” by Jack Prelutsky. We brainstormed our own Scranimals, then drew and made stories about them to add to the book. Two new favorites are “What Animals Really Like” by Fiona Robinson and “Black and White” by David Macaulay. The first is highly imaginative with beautifully complex pictures to read. The latter is a book I bought when I heard David Macaulay speak a few years ago. It consists of four stories that can be read separately but become increasingly blended into one complex story as you read. I was waiting for the two boys to grow into it, and they sure did!

Promotes language development and literacy skills. Both boys are growing into independent reading. The third grader did not learn to read as quickly as other Schatzes in our family, but he was always read to, loved stories, and eventually became the reader I knew he would become. The younger boy craves books. Both have learned that reading can introduce them to adventures, people, lands, and ideas that otherwise they’d never know.

Helps increase attention spans. The photo proves it. What I expected to be at maximum a 10-minute activity, became a long expedition into the imagination. I think I had to peel them from the chair to get back to unfinished homework assignments.

Promotes family relationships. Again, the picture is worth a thousand words.

Raises reading levels. I do think the kindergartner grew several grade levels in reading ability in the week I was with him. His ability to use context and his memory for words once he’s seen them once was a joy to observe. Whatever skill it is we are attempting to master, practice is the key. Practicing reading should never be a chore. I’m so glad both boys are totally delighted when reading a good book.

Let Us Find and Motivate More Smart Kids

An article in the October 2 New York Times highlighted the success of an incentive program in which low income high schoolers are taking AP courses and earning college credit with high scores on the AP exams. The article emphasizes a rising concern that students and teachers are earning cash incentives as one part of a program that also provides teacher training, student tutoring, and lab equipment. I wonder how many people read it like I did — with a feeling of “YES, another story showing that ‘smart kids’ are not just a tiny predetermined group, but rather children from all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds!”

One teacher from Massachusetts increased his AP class size by 8 times, and 70% of his new, enlarged student population received the necessary 3’s on the AP exam to receive college credit; 25% received a 5, the top score possible. One of the students who got a 5 reported that the after-school and Saturday classes and tutoring sessions helped a lot. When asked about the $100 incentive for getting at least a 3, he said,“There’s something cool about the money. It’s a great extra.”

The fact is, money or no money, the teachers in the program are believing in the kids and the kids, in turn, are believing in themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. A teacher in Arkansas had 9 kids in his AP math class 3 years ago, all the children of professionals. This year 65 kids from his math classes earned college credit with scores of 3 and higher. Organizers of the initiative say that over three years, the program has led to nearly 38,000 AP exams being taken in math, science and English, many of them by black and Hispanic students.

At the same time, an article recently published by the Association for Psychological Science rightly emphasizes that public schools must do a better job of identifying gifted students. It states, “the former president of CalTech observed that one truly excellent scientist is more valuable than 1,000 very good scientists.” Generalizing the statement to any field — writing, sports, investment — the author observes that the most gifted are not only very rare, but also existing within a large pool of high potential candidates, many of whom are not recognized for their potential. He points to opportunity and motivation as necessary to talent development, noting, “cases are legion in which the most unexpected individuals, confronted with a major challenge, rise brilliantly to the occasion.”

Money has not been a part of every equation where disadvantaged students have been given opportunity and motivation. In the new AP initiative, money may be a part of the motivation, but the results are clear. Whatever the motivation, it works. I heartily endorse any program that lets more students show they are smart. Who knows, one of those students may one day have the opportunity to show that he or she is the one who is so truly excellent as to be “more valuable” (we’ll worry about this definition later) than the 1,000 who are very good.

Let the Children Learn, Dream, and Reach Out for More

I read an article in the New York Times this week that made me nostalgic and hopeful at the same time that I continue to be alarmed by statistics that show little progress in three areas that greatly concern me.

First, we’re no closer to realizing an education system that will challenge all children than we were when I started my career (many years ago). With gifted children, this means that if they come to the classroom knowing what is about to be taught, the school has an obligation to find a way to take them to new levels of knowledge/understanding. When we know that happens in scattered schools across the nation, why can’t we ever learn to get it right?

Second, we continue to under-identify disadvantaged children from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In NYC, “black children made up 11 percent of this year’s gifted kindergarten classes, down from 15 percent in 2009-10. Representation of Hispanic students was 12 percent in both years. The school system as a whole is roughly 70 percent black and Hispanic.”

Third, why do we under-identify? Because we continue to rely on testing, not authentic testing of what is important in a child’s real world, but rote testing of facts and skills that disadvantaged children have had little or no opportunity to learn.

So why am I nostalgic and hopeful? One article stood out from all the rest. Entitled, “A Sleepaway Camp Where Math Is the Main Sport,” it immediately caught my eye. Is this a Talent Search-based program? Is it even WCATY (the program I founded) today? No to both questions. It is a program for NYC public school students entering 8th grade, where at least 75% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. They represent a diverse population and their past experiences with challenge and opportunity were sadly lacking, but they have three positive characteristics in common: they love learning; they love math, and they are good at learning! Add to that, they love this program and are “cruising” through mathematical concepts that ordinarily most students wouldn’t see before college.

One of the criticisms of the program is that these children cannot catch up with their more privileged peers in the short time they attend the program. As I told parents of underachievers when they were considering attendance at a WCATY summer “camp,” it is true that their school may not have changed and that there will be a hard road ahead, but the children will have changed. They will dream bigger dreams; they will be aware of possibilities; they will refuse to stand still; they will seek additional opportunities; and they have found advocates who can help them to made valuable connections. I can tell many heart-warming stories of WCATY students who have done just that.