Tag Archives: encouraging creativity

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!”

 

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

Valentine’s Day Special

Among the loves of our lives are our little ones, in my case my grandchildren. This special is for those of you who want to give the gift of talking, reading, and thinking to your grandchildren (or children) this Valentine’s Day. I will hold copies at a special price of $7.50 through Valentine’s Day. Let us “toss them the world” together.

Sorry, not much I can do about shipping – that remains the same. Contact me with your order per the instructions on the “Contact Ellie” page.

Happy February and Valentine’s Day.

Smart and ADD

I’m on vacation in the Caribbean, but I got to talking with someone about adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I don’t think I’ve written much if anything on ADD or ADHD on this blog, so here goes – the story of Rand.  He was identified with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and struggled in school because he looked at the world in a different way. As an adult, Rand thinks his ADD has made him the creative and productive thinker he is today.

Rand’s Story

Rand’s parents were essentially the only people who recognized his talent when he was little. Because he had trouble paying attention and didn’t perform well when he went to school, Rand remembers, “The teachers didn’t think I was smart. I tested well, but the school chalked it up to being a fluke. My parents recognized that something had to be wrong, so they took me to a psychiatrist who identified ADD. With the help of professional knowledge, treatment, and medication, they were able to get me into more advanced math classes. The teachers didn’t favor this decision but complied with it. A few teachers believed in me, but most viewed my distractibility and my different learning style as signs that I was not as intelligent as others.”

Rand talked with me about his differences at age 25, elaborating on their effects on his life as an adult, and the implications they have for children. He says he doesn’t ordinarily tell people he has ADD until he knows them fairly well. “First, I don’t consider it a disorder. Second, people generally associate ADD with hyperactive adolescents. I recommend the book Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John R. Ratey, M.D., for those who want to understand more about ADD. ADD in adulthood is no different than it was in childhood, except that adults have [often] learned coping mechanisms and thus handle it better.

“I have what is now called ADHD, but without the hyperactivity. I think about that a lot. To say that I have no hyperactivity is actually wrong. If you look closely, you will notice that I am fidgeting. I always fidget, but I am not noticeably hyperactive. This is why at first they didn’t think I had ADD or ADHD, whichever you want to call it. It’s even harder for girls to be identified because they often don’t show the hyperactive signs.

“Calling ADD or ADHD an attention deficit is misleading. Actually I have too much attention. For example, if I am reading a student’s paper, I will be focusing so closely that when someone says something, I’ll jump sky high. It’s called hyperfocusing, which means you can get a lot done because you’re not focusing on anything else. It also makes you impulsive. You can get stubborn about going down a blind alley. So, hyperfocusing is a two-way street. Sometimes it irritates others or blinds you to tasks you should be doing. At other times the focusing works advantageously.

“The flip side of hyperfocusing is distractibility. When this trait is working well it is akin to free association. I can connect A to B when they don’t appear to be related. Because you are thinking about so many things at once, you are able to connect things that no one else sees. I always have about five different threads of thought in my mind; if I am working on a math proof, I’ll have three threads of thought working on the proof itself, one working on what I’m trying to prove, and one finding the problems with what I’m doing. It’s parallel processing. People with ADD understand this, but people without it usually can’t relate at all. This trait has been very helpful to me.

“If somebody told me now that they could take away my ADD, I wouldn’t do it. My medication helps me control the negative effects. I like my ADD as long as it is being controlled. I don’t know anyone else who is able to think about five things simultaneously. I like being able to hyperfocus too. I like being able to control when I do what, and that’s what my medicine helps me to do. ADD has its great sides, as well as its bad. Creativity is one of the largest positives.

“There is a closer relationship between creativity and logic than most people understand. I do a lot of logic. But I follow the chains of logic so far that my conclusions don’t look rational to a lot of people. I put things together that they have not been able to link, because they couldn’t go far enough to discover those links. Logical thinking incorporates creative thinking. My research specialization within computer science has to do with logic.”

Thinking back to childhood, Rand continued, “Throughout my childhood, I had to have the guts to tell everyone, ‘You are wrong! Just go away and leave me alone.’ My parents aren’t included in the ‘everyone.’ If they had been, I don’t know what would have happened to me. If I had listened to ‘everyone,’ I would have been in danger of becoming what they thought I was or should be.

“Now, it’s not everyone that I have to convince of my abilities. People sometimes say, ‘How did you do that! It’s strange, but if it works, okay.’ I have the credentials and confidence to prove that I know what I’m doing, and people believe me.

“What I really like,” he continued, “is finding people who don’t think they are good at something, but they really are. My discussion sections are almost always informal so that students will know they can talk with me individually. I have done my best not to listen to others when they said I was not smart. I knew I was, and I stuck by my convictions regarding my own abilities. In my life, when I believed in myself, good occurred. When I didn’t believe in myself, life was not so good. Recognition and support of ability and accomplishment raises any individual’s self-esteem, and that in turn can change society. Just think of Einstein. He was told as a child that he was not good at math. If Einstein had believed that, there would be no Einstein as we know him, and our world would be different—and not for the better. You can’t tell who is going to have what potential. If you pass any child up, you may be missing an Einstein.”

Rand advises young students who have what may be considered a disability:

  • Accept that you are not like everyone else and be happy about it. Who wants to be like everyone else anyway?
  • Don’t listen to others when they tell you you’re not smart. It doesn’t matter what they think. It just matters what you think.
  • There are going to be difficult days, but you will survive them.

For parents he adds, “When you ask a school for accommodations, don’t take no for an answer.”

Creativity Revisited

The holidays are getting in the way of my blogging, but not in the way of my book sales. I am thrilled to announce that I have only 12 books left from the second printing, for an initial distribution in the first year that will be the full 800 from two printings. First-come, first-serve for the few copies left!

Recently Harvard Business Review posted an article on its blog entitled, “The Three Threats to Creativity.” I was happy to see that their thinking aligns with mine, although the ramifications of their findings to our children and country are depressing, to say the least.

The ingredients of creativity discussed in this article are:

1. Smart people who think differently. The concern is that a narrow focus on basic subjects is not only endangering the acquisition of deep knowledge, but it is also limiting the development of creative or inventive thinking.

2. Passionate engagement. This article repeats what I have written before: dreaming, intrinsic motivation and love of learning and challenge are keys to success. The upshot is that workers today are more often expressing frustration than enjoyment in their positions.

3. A creative atmosphere. The researchers find that workplaces are reverting to assembly-line type atmospheres rather than promoting openness, collaboration, and exploration.

I can only keep hoping that our education system will catch up with the times. May all your children and grandchildren know the joys of dreaming, exploration, challenge, collaboration and life-long learning in the home, their schools, and eventually in the workplace.

 

Reading, discussing, questioning, and thinking with Grandma.

Our Babies Need a Different Education

On October 26, public radio had a story on the skills today’s babies will need to master in order to become successful adults. Learning to crawl, clap, walk, and talk, they reported, are a beginning, but technology has expanded/changed what must become the face of education.

I say expanded because we need to start with the appalling statistics that I mentioned in my post on September 27. I repeat: this year, out of 30 developed or industrialized nations, our children ranked 25th in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Needless to say, the basics have not changed – speaking, reading, mathematics, and science will continue to be the bottom line. And, in a global economy and mobile society, speaking and reading will require something we as Americans have never been required to master in the past – competency in multiple languages.

The story emphasized the importance of creative thinking and problem solving. With technological machinery now able to accomplish many of the tasks that people were required to do in the past, it is the creative, effective, and efficient use of those machines that is left to human endeavor. Interestingly, one of the age-old problems with gifted programs is that some students are removed for parts of the school week to participate in what are called pull-out programs. Often the focus of those programs has been creative problem solving. The problem? Thirty years ago, we as educators knew that creative problem solving should be taught to all children in the regular classroom. It’s no longer a case of “should be,” but rather a fact that these skills must be taught to all children if they are to be competitive in the future job market. Gifted children do need appropriate curriculum and instruction, but pull-out programs that give them a hint of the basics for a successful future while others are left in the dark is NOT it!

Yes, we must tackle the problems of the achievement gap – the unconscionable problems of inequity within the system. And, for all children, we must address the issues of quality. Society today is nothing like it was when I was born. The education of our children, however, has not changed, not expanded. Outdated practices and content do not add up to quality. The system must change.

Turn Curiosity Into Passion

Recently, Oprah aired a show about “dream jobs.” Not surprisingly, the common element between all the stories these people told was passion. They loved their work. It was hard to distinguish their work from play.

Parents of preschoolers can learn from the story of Michael, a boy I worked with and later interviewed regarding his talent development. Michael knows he had high academic ability even at a preschool age, but it’s unclear to him whether his parents noticed it or created it. “Preschool life was a series of educational games and activities, and I loved it. When a child is young and malleable, curiosity and optimism are the pre-stages of passion,” he explains. “I was naturally curious, but my parents modeled these characteristics and encouraged them in me.

“I remember little about formal schooling before third grade. That’s because my parents shaped my education, and that is as it should be. They took charge of making sure I stayed challenged and excited about learning. To do this, they moved me to a private school when they determined the public school stifled my curiosity.“

At his new school, Michael says he was never bored, but always challenged. He experienced a delicate balance between boredom and anxiety that helped his curiosity and optimism to grow into a life-long excitement for knowledge.

Later at a special program run by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin in cooperation with WCATY, Michael’s architect-mentors modeled pure love for what they were doing. “For the first time I thought of myself as a passionate person. I define that passion as the lack of a dividing line between work and play. My motivation was purely intrinsic. The external environment of Taliesin provided a challenging course of study, but it was up to me to take from it as much or little as I wanted. There were no grades or bad consequences for doing less than my best, but I always felt stimulated. Taliesin simply allowed my joy of learning to evolve.”

Michael came away from that program with a deep understanding that passion comes from the heart. He further explains what he learned. “Passion is a strong emotional affinity for some kind of activity. For some people it is innate and for others it needs to be developed. That’s why parents need to cultivate curiosity in their young children. I think developing one’s passion requires conditioning a child’s curiosity for learning and optimism for life at an early age into his or her own areas of interest.”

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Creative

On July 10, there was an article in Newsweek headlined, “Research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong and how can we fix it?”

Reading the article took me back to the early days of my career in gifted education when E. Paul Torrance was still alive and at the forefront of the research as well as development in the area of creativity. It takes me down memory lane in terms of all the work I’ve done over the years with direct or indirect goals and outcomes related to creativity development.

There are several important messages from the Newsweek coverage to discuss in relation to my current interest in writing and publishing children’s picture books on the topic of “smartness.” The first is the misunderstood definition of creativity. It is not just about imagination and playing with ideas. In reality creativity is the “production of something original and useful…to be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” I hope and believe that in “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” I portray the importance of encouraging our children to develop and use both kinds of thinking.

Second, the article reports that preschool children ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Often those questions start with, “why?” and tragically, as the article continues, it stops! I could never describe the issue of low motivation for learning that so often occurs by middle school if not in earlier grades better than with this quote from Newsweek: “They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest. It’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.” It’s not all the fault of parents – some teachers encourage questioning and others don’t – but nevertheless parents need to keep the spirit of curiosity alive regardless of the school’s role in their children’s development from year to year.

Third in importance for today’s parents and grandparents to understand is the long-term benefit of promoting the skills that “Grandma” (in my book) says she values from early childhood on. The research points out that children whose curiosity, imagination, and divergent and convergent thinking are encouraged over time tend to excel, i.e. they finish high school and they finish college at much higher rates. This only makes sense. If they stop asking questions and start languishing in the classroom by or before middle school, a downward spiral is inevitable.

The bottom line of the Newsweek article is that although we have always valued creativity in American society, we are not purposely fostering it. We need to do that. Creativity doesn’t just happen!

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!

Young Learners

I dreamed of influencing new generations of motivated learners when I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart.” At book signings as well as readings like those with my grandson’s preschool class, I realize that is beginning to happen. This little girl epitomizes what the book is about. She is joyous; she breathes enthusiasm for learning. When I first saw her, her eyes were sparkling with awe as she gazed at all the mechanical devices and aerial fantasies that decorate Ella’s Deli on East Washington Avenue in Madison. Her mother tells me she was excited to meet a real author AND to have me write her name and my name in her own book. This little girl, and my grandson and his friend as I read to them in Lafayette, Colorado two weeks ago, demonstrate the wonders of early learning. Their curiosity, motivation and  awe – for books, the outdoors, meeting people, and exploring the world – delight me.