Tag Archives: learning through exploration

Music Smart

In “Color Me Purple,” my book for children ages 8-12, the character Gommgi is music smart. She loves music and is recognized for the excellence of her piano performances. In this photo, I met a music smart child in the making. The research says that smart children often hum and sing early, have the ability to reproduce songs easily, show a strong desire to play an instrument, and display an emotional sensitivity to music. Little Maeve, while playing at her Grandma’s, broke into lullaby as she hugged and rocked her doll. She decided her lilting version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” needed piano accompaniment, and after playing one chorus invited me to join her in a duet version. Yes, Maeve definitely is showing an early love and talent in music!

Wherever their curiosity and interest takes them, catch the moment!

Grandma Says Start Advocating Early

Eric Heidin, Olympic skater and gold-medalist, once remarked that it all began because someone gave him some skates. This is an apt metaphor for advocacy. Someone must provide the skates. But Eric received more than that. Advocacy for him meant also receiving an arena, a coach, time for practice, competition, guidance, caring when he struggled and lost, and pride when he achieved and won. It means the same for all children with talents, whatever the field of endeavor. They must be given the materials and the tools for learning. They need someone who can feed their passions and guide them through the hard work and determination it takes to succeed. They need to stretch their limits and be respected for their goals and accomplishments. Advocacy for talent development is advocacy for excellence, whatever the domain. Advocacy for appropriate educational options is essential along every person’s road to success and happiness.

In the literature on talent development, Peggy Dettmer (1991, p. 170) presents stages of advocacy that she believes can help parents and teachers become more effective in bringing about educational change. Attention is the first stage, because if you are going to make a difference, you must first gain the attention of key people in whatever constituency you need to affect. After attention, the interest you’ve roused in the situation invites participation by those you need to assist you. Their concern for the students you’re trying to help should follow. Those who are concerned should be ready to get involved with your situation. As they grow in knowledge they should become more willing to make adjustments to the curriculum, policy, or program. This leads to their commitment and puts them in a position to provide encouragement for others to support your efforts. They will be able to help you promote an optimal match between learner characteristics and curriculum or program. Finally comes resolve to make the change successful, perseverance to see that this is accomplished, and progress toward realizing the educational goals you had in mind. Dettmer suggests that as your children go through school, you will need to cycle through the stages again and again at increasingly sophisticated levels.

These descriptors need not occur in any set order. You might or might not experience them as stages. Chances are your advocacy will require you to work at increasingly complex levels, but you might simply consider these helpful key words that inform your thoughts, feelings, and actions as you guide your child’s talent development.

“Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” can help you to start advocating at the basic levels for your smart and talented children when they are preschoolers or in the early grades. In honor of National Gifted Education Week from July 17-23, I will offer a special sale of the book throughout July. See the Contact Ellie Books page of this blog for details.

Early Learning: Not a Fast Track to Kindergarten or College

On May 13, one month to the day after psychologist Sharyl Kato and I did a presentation for our 500-member Rotary Club on early learning in honor of “Week of the Young Child,” The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?” I certainly hope, and believe, that our audience knew that Sharyl and I were suggesting no such thing. To say this article is disturbing to me is putting it lightly. From this blog, it is clear that I am someone who believes in the importance of early childhood learning, so why am I loathing what I read? Because it tells the story of a 3-year old child being reprimanded by a teacher for sloppy writing. Because the children in these preschools are being forced to learn, sitting with workbooks, and being given homework. “Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said a leader of one of these organizations that tutor small children. He continues, “If they’re out of a diaper and can sit still … for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

I’m glad my point of view was expressed in the article by  Kathy Hirsh- Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and the author of “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.” Kathy states, “When you’re putting blocks together, you’re learning how to be a physicist.” When you’re learning how to balance things and calculate how tall you can make your building, you’re learning how to be a physicist. Having your kid drill and kill and fill in worksheets at 2 and 3 and 4 to the best of our knowledge so far does not give your child a leg up on anything.”

Some people, thankfully not too many that I personally know, get the wrong idea that because I wrote a picture book entitled, Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, I am promoting ‘pushing’ young children to learn. If you look at the illustrations in the book and listen carefully to the message, it’s clear that I am in Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s camp. Early learning is about talking, exploring, experimenting, imagining, asking questions, and doing all the things that just come naturally. A child in the book dances with her imaginary friend. A boy builds with his erector-set-like blocks. He hangs upside down from a tree. She imagines horses flying through the sky. Grandma asks them what if.. and other open-ended questions.

Early learning is about reading with your children, and sharing a love of books. It’s about catching young children in the act of noticing something they love and encouraging their curiosity about the world around them. It is encouraging their questioning with more questions as well as a search for answers. It’s helping them to dream about all the things they can be when they grow up and knowing that they can follow those dreams.

Early learning is not a fast-track to kindergarten or college. It’s about establishing a life-long love of learning. I’m not against early admission to kindergarten or college if it’s right for the  individual child. But early learning is good for all children. Learning to value their talents and abilities is good for all children. Realizing that learning is fun is good for all children. Fast-tracking is good for some. Negative feedback, dull workbooks, and sitting still for inappropriate lengths of time is good for none.

Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!

 

Modeling for Young Learners

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself. —John Dewey

Smart children are evident from the day they are born. You notice it in their eyes. They look at you with an alertness that astounds you. You were told a baby couldn’t focus, but this child seems aware of everything around her. Those eyes are so penetrating that it feels like she has a wisdom a baby just plain can’t have. But she does. You are observing genetic attributes. Genetics is one factor in determining how smart a child is.

As your baby grows, you notice he exhibits natural traits that seem different or more advanced than they appear in other children. Those traits may include:

  • Is alert or keenly observant
  • Is highly curious
  • Is intense
  • Is highly sensitive
  • Sees the funny as well as the serious sides of things
  • Asks questions
  • Makes connections, or puts things together in new ways
  • Learns with ease, or masters new skills quickly
  • Has an extensive vocabulary
  • Thinks abstractly.

But, nature alone will not ensure your child will grow up smart. No matter how smart she is at birth, education (or nurture) is the key to her development. Researchers have found that potential talent cannot be realized unless it is valued in the child’s environment.

The cliche, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” is true when it comes to being smart or talented. Parents and grandparents can nurture the characteristics you started observing on day one. Children learn by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to an infant establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon he will be able to read to you. You can then introduce him to more complex literature by selecting books to read that he can understand and discuss, but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, his personal growth may signal that the oral reading years are coming to an end. When that happens, he can tell you the books he would like you to read independently as he reads them too. Thus you can still discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading “together” for years to come.

If you are curious and ask lots of questions about the world around you, your young child will be encouraged to ask questions too. Don’t feel you always need to have the answers. You don’t want to model knowing it all. The curious child is full of “why…?” and “what if…?” questions. Ask her questions that start with “how might we…?” “what would happen if…?” “suppose…?” or “what are all the ways you can think of…?” to stimulate a variety of thoughts and responses.

If you are posing questions, you are talking with your child. If you are reading with him, you are talking with him. When you talk with your child in these ways, you are modeling the kinds of things that are important to you, and you are building his vocabulary and knowledge base. Studies of  language development in children from birth to age three have demonstrated that the more parents talked with their children, the faster their vocabularies grew and the higher their intelligence scores. Early language acquisition builds the foundation for comprehension upon which all later learning experiences are added.

The modeling experience involves doing many things together—reading, talking, listening, exploring, thinking, wondering, laughing, and even crying together.

I was deeply touched when my friend Nancy sent me photos of her reading to her grandchildren’s classes. Not only does it reinforce for me the importance of the message of “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” but it shows Nancy being that model, not only for her own grandchildren, but for their classmates as well. Thank you Nancy for joining me in spreading the word that it is good to read, explore, question, imagine; listen, talk, and wonder. Thank you for joining me in sharing the message, “It’s good to be smart!”

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.

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!

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.