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A Message from New Zealand…

21 Nov

Back from NAGC in Charlotte, and intending to post a blog about the final panel of this year’s convention, I am instead sharing what Rosemary Cathcart (the newest member of the Columbus Group, whose Reach Education online course won an award this year from NAGC’s Professional Development Network–and who flew from the other side of the world to receive it) posted in NZ yesterday. This message is needed around the world wherever people assume that giftedness is not innate to the individual, and equates with achievement.

“I can do it. Anyone with persistence and hard work can do this.” 

Is mindset a basic truth, or a damaging fallacy, or simply muddled thinking? How does it really relate to giftedness?

[First posted on the tki gifted community forum (New Zealand) on November 20 2017]

There has been a good deal of discussion on this site in recent days about Jo Boaler’s concept of mindset, and it’s evident that many people are feeling somewhat confused about this whole subject, and just where it fits in relationship to giftedness

That’s very understandable. We all know that some degree of effort is required to master any skill, from the simplest to the most complex. We all know this from the daily experience of our own lives. It’s true for every human being, and as David Attenborough and other wild-life experts have shown us, it’s also true for every animal and every bird on this planet. Even insects and spiders: as the story of King Bruce and the spider reminds us, mindset is hardly a new human discovery. Not only practice but the will to maintain that practice until competence is reached is a fundamental life skill for all living creatures.

It’s also true, of course, for gifted individuals. They are not somehow exempt from the universal need to practise to achieve. They too need persistence to keep going when success or competence does not come immediately or easily.

So what’s the issue?

Jo Boaler’s argument is that the stronger the will and the more sustained the effort, the higher the level of competence eventually reached. Because, as a general statement, that’s demonstrably true, she has gone on to claim that this somehow disproves the notion of giftedness. Her assertion is essentially that what we call giftedness is just people who’ve tried harder and longer and with more persistence to achieve. The implication is that any individual who has the will and the determination  – the “grit” to use the term commonly applied – can reach a gifted level of performance.

But here’s the flaw:

Achievement is dependent on two qualities: sustained effort–AND innate ability level. This latter reality also sets boundaries to what can be achieved.

Perhaps it takes an extreme example to best show how thoroughly misleading Boaler’s argument is. At the NAGC convention I’ve just come back from, Stephanie Tolan in a presentation on asynchronous development spoke of a child aged less than four months who was already talking in groups of up to three words and who was able to greet a surprised visiting doctor by saying “Hello” as he peered over the edge of the cot. As Tolan said, this child’s hugely precocious speech can hardly be put down to months or years of practice or “grit”! (As a matter of fact, I myself have a niece who was speaking at four months – it happens, generally leaving parents feeling thoroughly gobsmacked and wondering “What on earth do I do now???”).

You and I, as people who work with gifted children, also know this from our experience with them, even if not quite to that extreme. We see the child who not only grasps concepts so much more fully than age peers but who generates questions which go far beyond the boundaries of the regular curriculum. Routinely we find ourselves working in an entirely different conceptual landscape from that of the regular classroom. (I’m thinking, for example, of a local four year old who wanted her kindy teacher to explain the difference between infinity and eternity…..).

You and I also see how gifted children are often denied recognition, not only of their innate ability, but also of their need too for sustained practice. Regular school work just doesn’t require the effort, the sustained struggle, that builds persistence. It’s a double whammy for them, and Boaler’s misguided attempt to make all human beings fit the same simplistic model seriously compounds this issue.

Why did the mind-set theorists get it so wrong?

My own guess is that the underlying issue here is the narrow focus Boaler and the mind-set people and also the talent development people and all too often our school systems have on quantifiable achievement. If what primarily matters about a child is how far up the scale they can get, then you simply don’t have that depth of understanding which would enable you to recognise the complex inner experiences which shape the responses of the gifted child and which so significantly differentiate those responses, not just in quantitative ways, but in fundamental nature from those of most age peers.

It’s not, and it never ever has been, about one child being “better” than another. It’s about recognising and celebrating the wonderful and exciting diversity of human ability and accomplishment. Don’t you agree?

 

Dr Rosemary Cathcart
Director, REACH Education
www.giftedreach.com 

No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

7 May

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and those who perceive giftedness as achievement leading to success, fame, fortune or eminence (achievement that is at least theoretically possible to anyone willing and able to work hard enough to beat out the competition and collect the rewards) suddenly seemed both especially virulent and especially ludicrous.

As I drove the eight hours home from Louisville, the positions within that argument and my whole history of writing and speaking about the gifted began a kind of slow dance in my mind and heart with the three lives in my family that had just ended. Something fundamental in my way of looking at the culture within which we live, was changing—had changed. It has been many months since then, but it feels as if I may have grasped enough of the change now to share it—I’m still a writer, after all, and this is what I do.

Always before, as I thought and wrote about the needs of gifted children and adults, I envisioned, as maybe most of us do, life stretching out from birth to something akin to infinity. Never mind that all of us claim to know the certainty of death. We tend to be woefully unprepared for its visitation. It shocks us with the cessation of a process we cannot somehow grasp as “finished.” We are left picking up shattered fragments of some picture that there just wasn’t time to complete, trying to decide what its meaning can have been now that it is over—there are no more choices to be made, nothing to add, no new turning or opportunity to watch for. What meaning was there, and how much of that meaning had to do with racking up awards or recognition, financial success or lack of it, children to carry on a name or a family vision? Consider these three lives:

Life Number One

When we were married in 1964 my husband was a professor of theatre with three sons, ages 2, 3 and 4. He was in the process of completing his doctorate and we expected to build a nice, secure future in academia. Six years later, when the structure of the academic world began to constrain his creativity, he left college teaching for the uncertainties and risk of work in the professional theatre. It was amidst those uncertainties that our son, the fourth Tolan male, was born. Over time, through plenty of ups and downs, my husband became well known in the regional theatre world as a director, manager, producer and idea person, and he went on teaching from time to time. Actors tended to love working with him. Though he eventually retired from both directing and teaching, the young actors he had worked with in his early years still regularly appear—as senior citizens now, of course—in television, film and theatre. At his memorial service many people (both actors and former students) told of how his faith in them, his ability to spot, encourage and trust innate talent, and his passion for sharing his love of theatre had helped to shape their careers.

Life Number Two

The first born son was a clear example from early childhood of the gifted, hard-working, disciplined and organized achiever. With a clear view of what he wanted in life, he moved steadily and successfully through his many years of education, took on the financial burden of a superior medical school, studied abroad, and became an eminent pediatric infectious disease specialist, researcher and educator, widely known and steadily published in the major journals. He was brilliant, but also caring enough to give his cell phone number to the families of his patients and to his colleagues alike. His much sought-after advice was available 24/7. When he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in July at the age of 52, he was working at three hospitals and well on his way to being nationally recognized as one of the clear leaders in his field. The often repeated message delivered at his memorial was that it would take many individual doctors now to fill the gap his death had left in his field.

Life Number Three

The second son (age 51 when he succumbed to esophageal cancer in April) was a caring “people person,” who seemed, from earliest childhood, “allergic” to competition. Always available to lend a hand to someone in need, or to rescue an animal and provide it a home, he majored in Religious Studies and Political Science at Indiana University. While working in food service during high school, he had discovered a love for cooking, and after college (following his father’s example of daring to follow a dream that did not guarantee either financial or job security) opened a restaurant—a time he often said was the happiest in his life, cooking good food for hungry and appreciative people. After an economic downturn that resulted in his restaurant’s closing, though he found a variety of ways to be of service, he never managed to get a handle on worldly success, let alone fame or fortune. A cousin, however, once called him the kindest person she had ever met. In the varied work he did over his lifetime he was loved and admired by the people whose lives he touched.

What would the argument about innate gifts vs. worldly accomplishment have to say about these three lives? All three showed the sort of asynchronous development typical of the gifted in the Columbus Group frame of reference. But which of them would the world have recognized as gifted? And which of them would claim the term for themselves?

I ask now, what, finally, does it matter? Life matters. Individuals, in all their complexity, matter.

As for whether a person, looking back on his life, would consider himself a “success,” no one else could possibly know. For everyone life is a series of peaks and valleys. What looks like a valley of failure from the outside might be felt as one of life’s greatest successes once survived and moved through. And some of the peaks of success as viewed from the outside might have felt barren and meaningless once achieved. Achieving “success” must finally have to do with the individual’s own goals, wishes, dreams, visions and passions.

I recently sent a message to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of UnGifted (a book with two subtitles: “Intelligence Redefined” and “The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness”) to congratulate him on the book and tell him that I think his definition of intelligence, is the best and most inclusive I’ve ever seen. But that second subtitle takes me back to the cultural worldview that 2013 shattered for me irrevocably. “Paths to Greatness.” Hiding there is that cultural sense that an individual’s worth has to do with finding a path to recognizable achievement: greatness. It is not just that we think of ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings,” it is that we want or expect ourselves and those we care about to do something others would recognize as “great.”

We’ve all heard the saying that life is a journey, not a destination. And yet how many of us live each day of our own lives as if that were true, looking for meaning and joy in the steps of the journey, open to our own loves and passions, trusting that whatever someone else may say of us, however someone else judges us, we both know and value who we are in ourselves?

And which way of looking at life are we sharing with the children we live or work with?

When Guiding the Gifted Child was published way back in 1982, it included the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. (I don’t remember for sure, but suspect it was Betty Meckstroth’s idea to include it.) A bit of that poem is what I want to share here: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

If we are to have something truly worthwhile to offer children, it seems to me it needs to be not just child-centered (yes, we need to see them as who they are, not who we expect them to be or become), but life-centered. We humans have vast individual differences, which is, arguably, how we have survived on this planet as long we have. As I said at the end of my cheetah piece all those years ago, life here operates on the principle of bio-diversity. Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?

Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?

27 Nov

NAGC 2012

 As George Betts pointed out today or last night on FaceBook, this year’s convention of the National Association for Gifted Children was perhaps the most polarized, fiercely divided convention in recent years.  A year ago the organization’s president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius gave an address that argued the need for the field to come together under the umbrella of a new and singular definition of giftedness, of a unified concept that could and should direct both educational programming and research—Talent Development.  It is unlikely that she had any idea before she gave that speech advocating unity that it would unleash a firestorm of controversy and develop over the following months a split just about as intense and fraught as the current split between America’s political parties. 

Oddly, my own experience of the convention was extremely positive overall.  Others who share my focus on the internal world of the gifted child, and on the fundamental developmental differences between the gifted and other children, had been stirred up by such an overt challenge to and dismissal of their perspective.  They showed up to any sessions that fit that perspective with an unusual level of passion.  I doubt that in the more than 25 years I’ve been attending and speaking at NAGC I’ve ever experienced more enthusiastic and responsive audiences. 

As usual, the Columbus Group gathered after the convention, to share with each other our experiences over the last year and consider what we as individuals and—now that we’re out in the open—as a group, can and should do going forward.  I arrived home wiped out and faced with only two days to get ready for Thanksgiving.  I’ve been home now for a week, and my mind has been seldom at rest as I’ve pondered my experiences in Denver. 

Patricia Gatto-Walden and I did a presentation this year, titled “What the Kids Want You to Know: It’s My Life.”  A group in the UK 20 years ago took the keynote of the World Conference (a speech focused on gifted education as a way to make the best use of each culture’s natural resource of bright kids to benefit their country) to the kids at summer camps for the gifted and asked for their feedback.  Taking a cue from them, we read aloud the shortened version of Paula’s speech that appeared in Compass Points to our Yunasa campers.  Expecting no more than a handful to show up, we invited anyone who wanted to respond to it to share their thoughts for an hour long session.  So many kids (nearly a third of the campers) were willing to give up regular camp activities for that hour, that we could barely fit them into the room we had available.  They spoke enthusiastically for the full hour and several of them asked afterward that we send them the full text of the Subotnik, Worrell and Olszewski-Kubilius monograph that had formed the foundation for Paula’s speech.  

Few of these kids knew anything about NAGC, and one of the first questions they had was, “Does this organization have kid members?”  

We said it does not.  Quite naturally, the kids thought this was outrageous—“How can it be for gifted kids, then?  Don’t they get it that we have pretty good ideas about what we need?  Do they think we don’t think about education during all the time we’re in school?”  

What shocked me was not their question, but that I had never asked it myself.  I’ve been aware, of course, that schools bring kids to NAGC, most often to perform, sometimes to serve as panel members in a session or two.  But kid members? I hadn’t considered it necessary.  

A Moment in the Wayback Machine 

From the time my five year old son had the “head-on collision” with school that led me to begin learning everything I could learn about gifted kids, I have thought that it isn’t really the existence of kids with unusual intelligence that creates a need for specialized “gifted education,” it’s the way education is structured in this country and in most of the rest of the world.  It’s a factory model created well over a hundred years ago and it has changed only slightly since. Children are treated pretty much as interchangeable cogs (or, with an emphasis on product, as “widgets.”) 

At the very first gifted conference I ever attended a speaker said, “If God had known what schools would be like, He wouldn’t have made kids the way he did.”  I thought it was a clever statement, but its full impact escaped me at the time.  After all, school was school!  I’d known what that meant since my October birthday allowed me to start kindergarten at age four in a system with a December cut-off date.  

In the 1980’s, when I had begun to write and speak about the needs of gifted kids, I said in several talks that if school were done differently, we wouldn’t need the designation “gifted kids.”  

People invariably argued with me, pointing out that gifted kids would still learn faster, more broadly, more deeply, and more connectedly than others and we’d still have to diagnose those learning differences.  I agreed that gifted kids wouldn’t vanish—but that if we found a way to individualize education to meet the needs of every student, doing the same for the gifted would be just part of the deal.  I kept remembering what my son said one year when I asked him after we’d moved—yet again!—whether the kids at his new Quaker school would tease him for wearing Kmart sneakers instead of the currently popular expensive brand.  “Mom!  Nobody teases anybody for being different in a school where everybody’s different!” 

The absolute joy of that school was that the children were treated as individuals.  Yes, they went to classes mostly based on age, but within those classes, probably because of their specifically Quaker focus on that of God in every person, each child was respected for being him or herself.  But it was a small school and “everybody knew” (including me) that the whole country’s public system just couldn’t afford to be run that way. 

When that school ran out of grade levels for my accelerated son, I briefly considered homeschooling, because we lived in Norfolk, VA, the only city in the USA where at that time homeschooling was legal. I’d been reading John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling and conversing with him by mail for a couple of years by then, loving his ideas and the freedom they provided for the kids. He didn’t focus on gifted kids–just kids.  A friend of mine had illegally homeschooled her son back in Ohio (which had necessitated “hiding” him in the house all day every day) and insisted that it was the only way to individualize sufficiently to truly meet the needs of an exceptionally gifted child.  But it was not in the cards for my family—I didn’t have the necessary patience and my extraverted son was horrified at the whole idea and refused even to consider it. 

What Do We Mean by Child? 

As I’ve thought about how the two sides in the current definition argument might possibly come together, it has occurred to me that maybe gifted isn’t the problem word.  The problem word is child.  Why does NAGC not have child members, when its stated mission is to serve children?  Because today children are still defined by the field of education not as young individual human beings with individual needs and minds and drives and lives, but as a class of beings in need of being taught by adults what they presumably will need to know when they become adults.  

There is an extent to which that definition makes sense, of course.  Children have a lot to learn and there’s a long period of dependency during which they need to be sheltered, touched and held and cared for, fed and dressed.  Human children need to interact with other humans (though not exclusively with adults) to learn language. Much of what they learn begins with observation and imitation. And of course there are all those tricky things like silverware to handle, stairs to navigate, windows not to fall out of, streets to cross. Plus there are reading, writing and arithmetic, which many of them will first be exposed to in school.  

But what we believe about children has changed. There was a time when a child was thought to be an empty vessel, waiting for adults to fill it up with information.  (Just last year I saw a YouTube about educational reform that actually still said this!)  Science long ago showed that belief to be in error.  Human children are learning creatures determined to explore and manipulate their environment, to test and try, to build and tear down, to question and experiment and interact with whatever other living creatures they encounter—all of which can be classed as “play” in the early years.  And today in any household with technology, they mostly find a way either to use that technology on their own or get someone to show them how. 

The sooner we put them in “school” where the primary activities are to sit still, be quiet, listen, wait for and then follow directions, answer questions “correctly,” and judge themselves in terms of how other children are doing at these tasks, the sooner we begin to limit their natural modes of learning. Instead of play that expands their experience and mastery, learning becomes what they do (or rather what they are directed to do) in school.  There is very little difference in what they are directed to do, one student to another, and little if any concern about individual interests or personal choice.  Natural learning gives way to coercion, solitary activity directed toward a predetermined goal, and a teacher’s external validation or criticism of their efforts. 

(One could ask oneself just what sort of adult life these “lessons” are designed to prepare them for.  Factories, yes.  But factories are either in other countries now or use a lot of robots.  Schools should not be in the business of programming human robots!) 

Meantime, as the Yunasa campers told us last summer, the adults don’t ask them what they need or listen to them when they express their needs anyway.  

And What Do We Mean by School? 

Like it or not, times have changed! How often have you heard one adult say to another, who is struggling with some aspect of current technology, “what you need is a ten year old.” When my now nine year old grandson was two, he was already more adept at using his father’s computer to find what he wanted to interact with on the internet than I was.  Now he scoffs at my efforts to learn something new on my “too smart” phone.  It isn’t only theory that tells us that learners can be teachers and teachers learners.  It is our everyday lives. And there is a tsunami of information available to and through the new technologies that kids are more adept at finding than many of us. 

It is long past time to give up schools or redefine them as learning communities, where it is not just age that creates groups, but interests (passions), knowledge, experience and needs.  In such learning communities there could be webs rather than boxes–language, math, history, geography, art, meant to be dealt with separately in small blocks of time–webs that could interweave what is known in service of creating something new, or helping the learner to grasp new information and move into and understand greater complexity.  And children need to have a voice in how such learning communities would or could operate; because children are unhampered by the structures and restrictions of prior experience; they lack our long memory of “how it has always been” that would hold them back from imagining how it could be.  

Our gifted kids, so very interested in learning, so passionate about exploration, could genuinely help to lead the way.  One of their major differences (at least until we squash it out of them with work sheets and grades and gold stars and tests, grade point averages, boundaries and limitations) is their rage to learn and understand, and to do something with meaning.  Those same kids who discovered at two how to find what they wanted on a computer screen, have ideas about how learning can happen, progress and change.  And how the technology so many of them love and the games so many of them play, could enhance learning for themselves and other kids. They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways! 

Teachers who love their profession and have passion for their subject matter could, in learning communities, be freed to practice that profession instead of struggling to prepare a broad spectrum of kids in a narrow age range to succeed on standardized tests that really can’t measure either student learning or teacher competence. 

We can’t have what we can’t first envision.  And we are in a deep and dreadful rut.  I started a Face Book page (www.facebook.com/deependxgifted) last November in hopes that those who visited it could begin thinking in new ways and sharing their visions about how education could happen if we began over again without schools.  We didn’t get far.  FB pages aren’t that great for collaborative thinking—everything gets pushed down the page and disappears. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be taking place. 

We have to find a way to make things work better.  I would welcome the best ideas of the Talent Development folk, but I would want them to acknowledge the existence of kids whose inner experience of the world really is different from the beginning.    It isn’t just our field that’s in crisis and conflict.  Our whole world is at stake.  Pretty much really!  New thinking, new ideas and new partnerships are essential as everything continues to change at warp speed. Let us outsource factory schools to some other planet so that we don’t have to find ways to keep squeezing human children into boxes designed for widgets or robots.

I end all my talks with the following quotation, meant for every human, child or adult, because we need to know that we are not interchangeable!

“You are not accidental.  Existence needs you.  Without you something would be missing from existence, and no one could replace it.”  –Osho

Found this on A Space for Learning, 11-12-12

Off the Charts! — Book Debut

13 Nov

Twenty years ago the field of gifted education was beginning to define giftedness very specifically as achievement—as doing rather than being.  One of the leaders in the nation’s gifted community was claiming at that time that schools “created” giftedness and that children who were not achieving academically were clearly not gifted (and therefore should not be taking up the limited numbers of “seats” in gifted programs).  Dismayed by the narrowness and external focus of this definition, a group of us whose experience with the gifted had shown us that unusual intelligence was an internal aspect of the child, apparent well before the start of school, gathered to discuss how we might help to refocus attention on this way of understanding the gifted population.

Out of our meeting in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1991 came the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was quickly recognized and adopted by many teachers, parents and counselors throughout the country and around the globe.  A phenomenological view of unusual intelligence, it provided a way of comprehending both the potential for extraordinary achievement and the struggles the gifted face in being out of sync both internally and with the expectations of the broader culture.

Last year at the national conference of the National Association for Gifted Children (just a few months more than 20 years after that first Columbus Group meeting) the suggestion was made in the presidential address that the field of gifted education should unify its disparate viewpoints by adopting Talent Development, with its clear attention to the issue of extraordinary achievement, as the single driver of both this field’s educational programming and its research.   So it was that members of the Columbus Group, that has continued to meet throughout these two decades, decided it was an important time to put out a book to remind the field of the critical “other side” (the inside) of giftedness, which is part of the gifted individual’s experience whether in or out of school, whether achieving in the eyes of the world at any given moment or not! 

So, we’re thrilled that the book (conceived only a year ago, and with chapters from 14 experts on the needs of gifted and highly gifted individuals) is to be available online from Royal Fireworks Press (http://rfwp.com) as of today (though at 1pm EST it wasn’t yet up on the website).  Dedicated to the memory of Annemarie Roeper, the book includes her last writing about the population of children to whom she devoted her life. 

We had hoped to have the actual books at NAGC this week, but weather (a modest incursion of Hurricane Sandy on its way to devastating the North East) intervened and stopped electricity to the presses.  

Prepublication discount!  The list price of the book is $30 but for online orders this week (through November 18th) the price is $25. 

Included in the book are chapters on the historical foundations of the definition, methods of identification, characteristics of asynchronous development, understanding individual needs, gifted adults, counseling, parenting and family issues, and educational options from a group of authors, each of whom has decades of experience working with, researching, and writing about “off the charts” kids and families.  

On a personal note:  the other thing that happened last year at NAGC that particularly motivated me when the idea for the book was being considered occurred at my presentation for the Counseling and Guidance network called “The Asynchronous Cheetah.”  (My cheetah metaphor was developed originally for a keynote at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted in 1992—the same year the first article about asynchronous development was published in Understanding Our Gifted.)  When I mentioned the Columbus Group during that presentation, an attendee raised her hand and informed me that when she had been doing some research on asynchronous development for her graduate degree in gifted education, her professor had informed her that the Columbus Group didn’t exist.  “It’s a fiction,” he told her. 

Laughing at that representation, I explained that not only was the Columbus Group not a fiction, but it had actually met the evening before in the conference hotel. 

It’s quite true that I’m a fiction writer, and I’m really fond of fiction and the fundamental truths that are often explored in the pages of a novel.  But I prefer not to think of myself as fictional.  So–for those who may be interested in the Columbus Group’s “true story” and the reason a leading figure in gifted education could make the assumption that it wasn’t real (as a group, we have flown quite purposely under the radar all these years) I wrote an introductory chapter giving the “true story” of that 1991 meeting and the definition that grew out of it.  So if you’ve ever tried to find out more than what could be gleaned from the usual citation of the “unpublished transcript” of that meeting, you can learn why you couldn’t.  There are hours of audio tape from that meeting, but no plans to publish the transcript!

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Denver for NAGC 2012 and hope to see some of you there.

Pondering the Olympics Yet Again…

5 Aug

Every time the Olympics come around (winter or summer) I am thrown into contemplation about the difference in cultural acceptance between finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential athletic superstars, and finding and nurturing children whose innate attributes show them to be potential superstars of the mind.  The whole world seems to understand and accept the need for these physically adept kids to have unusual coaching, to be withdrawn from “normal expectations of childhood activities” in order to focus on and develop their gifts, and to find some way to support their passions.  Everybody seems clear that you have to “set the bar high” to encourage growth and improved performance, and that the child himself or herself needs real inner drive and passion to flourish in such a work-focused atmosphere.

This is not, of course, to say that the path from discovery to Olympic superstardom (or otherwise) is easy, for kids or coaches or parents.  There are emotional prices to be paid all the way around.  When we watch a youngster (or occasionally an adult) devastated at getting a silver (only second in the world?) as if they have failed, a twinge of annoyance may accompany the compassion.  But we understand the cultural pressure to be “the best,” and its emotional effect.  And we celebrate the moments when an excited newcomer says what a thrill it is to be at the Olympics at all, or a driven competitor dances with real joy at winning a bronze.

With every Olympics, as I listen to the stories about how these young or adult athletes are models for younger kids, who watch their heroes breathlessly, imagining their own future possibilities, developing their own passions and sense of personal power, I long for that same story to be told for and about our brilliant kids.  NBC focused a moment last night on two kids from North Carolina (the state I live in) who traveled all the way to London to watch Michael Phelps go for more gold.  The story celebrated the effect of role-modeling.  And I got a little wistful.

But this year, fresh from the week of our most recent Camp Yunasa, I find myself processing this all a little differently.  Yunasa is the Lakota word for balance, and we created the camp for highly to profoundly gifted kids in a quite purposeful way to focus on “wholeness.”  There is a spiritual focus that pays attention not just to the unusual gifts these kids bring into their lives, but also to the meaning they can find in being and developing who they are.

photo by Nicholas Farrell

Like most camps, Yunasa wants the kids to have fun, and like most camps specifically for gifted kids, one of the most important things campers get out of it is the opportunity to hang out with their “tribe,” to make friends with kids who get them, enjoy many of the same things, laugh (amazingly enough!) at their jokes. Yunasa is known for group hugs! 

photo by Nicholas Farrell

But we structure the experience carefully around five attributes of individual life: mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self and ask the kids to consider the need to give some attention to all of these.

My own hope is that our campers–particularly those who come back year after year–will become mindful of the meaning of their own gifts and passions, resilient in the face of the world’s lack of understanding, and resistant to a cultural message that defines the value of a human life in terms of competition and winning.

The contrast with the Olympics could not be clearer to me this year.  The absolute focus on competing and winning is inevitable in these games.  Add the national pride issue–which country wins the most medals–and for the first time I’m feeling also a little grateful that the spirit of the Olympics is not readily transferrable to nurturing our brightest minds.

Ideally, in service to the competition, individual passion and effort and skill are celebrated in these games.  And teamwork, too.  What I would love to see is the best of the spirit of discovering gifts, nurturing passion, effort, skill and cooperation that is exhibited in the training of Olympic champions provided also for young unusual minds–along with real celebration of those gifts!  But I would also want for our mermaids/cheetahs a focus on the importance of the whole self and the meaning of that self in the tapestry of life.

Raising Exotics

11 Jul

Long, long ago (1988 to be exact) I wrote a piece I called “Giftedness–Nature or Nurture?” It was not an academic piece attempting to answer this old question.  It was a gardening metaphor that I hoped would assure parents that the task they faced raising highly gifted kids was as tricky as it felt, but possible.  It was written in first person plural because I, too, was a parent facing uncertainties.

As written originally, I don’t recommend it!  But when I was talking recently to a parent fairly new to dealing with her more than usually unusual PG child, I thought this pre-cheetah, pre-mermaid metaphor might at least help her not only recognize but accept the challenges and begin to trust herself to meet them.  So here’s an update for just that purpose:

When we have a baby it’s like being given a flower seed that it’s our job to grow. Determined to be responsible gardeners, we start by doing the normal and absolutely necessary things. We plant it. We water it.  As it first sticks its white-and-soon-green self up through the ground, it looks pretty much like any other brand new seedling.  Maybe this gardening thing won’t be too hard, we think–after all the world is full of other people doing it.

But when the young plant begins to put out real leaves, they look nothing at all like the leaves of the plants people around us are growing.  Our seed didn’t come pre-labeled in a package that included an explanation of its needs. Full sun? Partial shade? Acid or alkaline soil? Lots of water or hardly any? Sand or loam? The gardening books and the gardening sites online don’t seem to show the specific sort of plant we’re dealing with.  Our seed, we eventually learn, is an “exotic.”

We can’t tell at this early stage whether it’s going to be 4-6 inches high (good for a garden border) or 24 inches high with an absolute need for a fence or stake to lean against. Is its blossom going to appear early or will it bloom only after several growing seasons?  Will the flowers be so large and spectacular that the stem will bend over from their weight, or will it have tens or hundreds of tiny flowerets clustered around the stem so that no single one stands out? We begin to realize we’re going to have to be ready for anything.

What pests are likely to damage it? Is that wasp buzzing around it going to lay eggs that will sap its strength or disfigure it, or is the wasp only going to pollinate the flowers? And how do we tell before it’s too late?

Mostly, as the plant grows we do what we can and hope that we’re doing it right, or at least not too badly wrong, second-guessing ourselves at every turn. What we want is expert help, so we visit garden clubs devoted to raising exotics; we read blogs written by experienced exotic garden specialists.  None of our efforts turn out to be quite as comforting as we’d hoped.   Exotics must absolutely have shade one expert says.  But our plant seems to be constantly leaning out for sun.  Browning leaves, a leading blog tells us, mean we’re giving it too much water–either that or we’re giving it too little.  Which is it? we ask in frustration.  And how do we tell?

“Everybody knows” of course, that exotics are sensitive and particular and must be treated with extreme care and given precisely what they need, or they will be irreparably damaged, their blooms stunted or perhaps destroyed in the bud.  There was, of course, that exotic seed that got dumped in a parking lot and ignored and somehow managed to find a crack in the pavement and bloom anyway.  That one gets coverage on the nightly news, but many passionately committed gardeners rush in to remind us that it was a one in a million miracle and we should not be lured into letting down our guard.

But here’s something all gardeners can be sure of.  Each individual seed comes with the whole blueprint, the whole plan, and all the “design capacity” necessary to become what it is meant to be.  As important as nurture is, nature is considerably more resilient than we may believe.

Yes, it’s a particular challenge to raise an exotic.  But close observation, common sense, and some basic gardening instincts are amazingly useful.  It’s fine to check out the exotic gardening clubs and the expert blogs and listen carefully.  Much of what can be learned that way will be helpful.  But if your plant leans toward the sun, no matter how many others (even the experts) claim shade is essential, go with sun.  If, after a time in full sun, the plant begins to wilt–don’t be too frightened to transplant to a slightly shadier location.  Watch and listen, and trust yourself.  And don’t forget that plant blooming in the crack.  Miracle, maybe.  But in some ways every seed is a miracle.

“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential

I was.  I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests.  But my potential?  Suppose I got a 98 on a test.  “What happened there?” my father would ask.  Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class.  “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.”  There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives:  A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.  

It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset.  As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” 

Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin.  These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others). 

Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field.  That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field.  I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child.  How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion?  (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.)  And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?

This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions.  Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success. 

Here’s the thing.  None of us lives up to our potential!  We all use only bits and pieces of our minds.  Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.  

Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course.  From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another.  Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain. 

There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them.  There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance.  I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic.  So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page.  She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.  

I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain.  The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words.  Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.”  The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty.  (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing.  At least not yet.) 

It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.   

You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing.  We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational.  What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences?  Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language.  But there are children who do it.  Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak.  But the success of this (now not at  all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought. 

Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs.  Zero hours?  Really?  Yes.  There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems.  Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed.  How is this possible?  The very easy answer is that we don’t know.  The list goes on and on.  The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits. 

Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.”  Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all.  A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them.  And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life.  Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside.  And then there’s the impact of life itself.  It can be very, very tough.  There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.  

And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation?  Let’s just get over this potential thing.  Potential is unlimited.  A single human life is not.