Tag Archives: gifted education

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

Stepping into a New World

14 Oct

Those (possibly very few reading here) who know tarot will recognize the “Zero” card in traditional decks as The Fool.  The image for this card usually includes someone about to step off the cliff of the known world into empty air—carrying or wearing a pack.  He is shown as care free and smiling.  We consider it inherently foolish to step off solid high ground, oblivious to the fall that clearly seems so certain.  But there may be something other than foolishness involved.  There is an aphorism that says, “when you must move forward beyond the edge of the cliff one of two things will happen—firm support will appear under your feet, or you will sprout wings and fly. 

Stepping off the very edge of the known world takes radical trust.  Not just trust, but the ability to trust in trust itself.  When the solid ground you’ve been standing on begins to shake and crumble beneath your feet, it may be wise rather than foolish to grab a few tools and step off.

I think about this new world thing today because I just returned from the OAGC fall conference in Ohio where I gave a keynote on Monday about the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was contributed to the field by the Columbus Group (yes, in Columbus on Columbus Day!)  At that conference there were inevitably many people acutely aware of tremors in the ground beneath their feet. 

In my small sessions for teachers questions were raised about how those dedicated to “doing no harm” to their gifted asynchronous students (or any others in their classes, for that matter) can be effective in a system that allows little breathing room and punishes teachers if their students do poorly on the tests that have come to rule the academic calendar.  We spoke of good, even great, teachers leaving the field because of massive frustration.  “It should not be this way,” we agreed.  I reminded them that some states are beginning to change draconian testing policies and suggested that when things get bad enough, even massive systems have to change, a bit at a time.  Finally, I found myself telling them to do whatever they can manage, and keep up their own spirits and their willingness to stick with it by finding at least one thing to be grateful for in every school day.  Then I apologized for having only the tool to give them that Bernie Siegel offers to cancer patients facing uncertain outcomes.  Has teaching come to this?  But I don’t apologize for the tool, because it is a very powerful one.

New forms arise out of chaos, but it takes courage to hold on through the chaos.  What we pay attention to expands in our experience, so it is important to focus on what works, no matter what else is going on around that. 

For myself, what I noticed to be grateful for in the very large gathering at OAGC (as well as back in March at the NJ state conference) was the strongest sense of a shift in consciousness I have ever felt in such gatherings in this country.  There is a growing awareness that our old way of thinking about “mind” as referring solely to rational thought within a rational/material world, is insufficient.  No matter how good it is, the rational mind cannot predict what the world our children will face as adults will look like, what they will need to know, or what skills they will need to have to find a place in that world.  As the pace of change continues to accelerate, educational patterns based on ideas about the human mind from decades, even centuries ago, will fail.

I put up a slide asking the conference attendees to consider their own definition or “sense” of what mind is, using at first these three images:


The first represents, of course, the traditional scientific belief that mind originates and resides in the physical brain, the second symbolizes the mechanistic cogwheels of intellectual/rational/logical  thought, and the third a kind of nebulous, wispy not quite physical “something,” hard to pin down or “understand.”

Then I added a fourth image from painter Alex Gray:

        energy body

This one acknowledges an energy basis of both mind and body.

The feel of a very big room full of educators, when offered these images, is more open these days.  There seems to be a growing willingness to consider new ideas about what mind, what consciousness, may be. 

This is deeply heartening to me, because the ground we’ve been standing on all these centuries (while we have been developing, using and relying on our quite splendid rational minds to understand and analyze and tame the material world) is demonstrably crumbling beneath our feet.  Materialism, with its emphasis on separation, on particles rather than waves, leaves out something absolutely essential—what might be called the “heart” of humanity.

Here is a slide I have used in several talks to try to help broaden the concept of what mind consists of:

 Aspects of Mind/Consciousness

Awareness                           Perception                     Emotion/Feeling

Intellect                                Imagination                    Memory

Will                                       Intuition                          Compassion                

Only a few of these aspects are addressed in most school curricula.  We need to consider the world our children might help create if we began to recognize and value more of what can be called the non-rational aspects of our consciousness.  The rational mind, focusing on analyzing, separating, labeling, categorizing and creating hierarchies, has brought us to where we are today, disconnected from each other and from the nature that supports us.  We see the effects of this disconnection all around us and in every evening news broadcast.

The Columbus Group focuses not solely on intellect and achievement, but on the “whole child” in the education and raising of gifted kids.  It is essential that we also begin to recognize “whole mind,” the “whole being” as we look to the human future.  According to Jack Kornfield Sanskrit has only a single word for “mind” and “heart.”  Imagine the difference it would make if we could heal the separation we now see between these two aspects of ourselves!  It shouldn’t be such a huge stretch now that the field of neurocardiology is showing that the heart both receives and processes information. 

The members of the Columbus Group who went to New Zealand in April for our Symposium on Asynchronous Development all felt something personally transforming happened there.  That symposium began with an indigenous ceremony specifically recognizing the connectedness of all peoples, all beings, all aspects of our universe.  Such a different way of beginning an educational gathering surely had a part to play in this noticeable sense of transformation. 

For me this week it was a lovely synchronicity that October 12th is not only Columbus Day, but is called Indigenous Peoples Day in some places.  The old world (that had long been inhabited when Columbus set sail to “discover” it) possessed valuable—non-rational—tools of consciousness most of Europe had forgotten, tools that are likely to be useful or even necessary for taking our own next step as the ground continues to shake beneath us all. 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

8 Feb


An early Valentine’s Day post. This is a subject that I’ve been thinking about for years but seldom speak about and have never (as far as I can remember) written about. One reason it is hard to write and speak about love is that there are so many definitions of this single word and it is used to mean so very many things.

But let’s pretend we all know what we’re talking about here, and I’ll just go ahead; you can decide for yourself (as always) whether this post resonates with you or not. As they say in 12 step groups, “take what you like and leave the rest.”

I have begun to believe, after all these years talking about highly and profoundly gifted individuals, that love has pretty much everything to do with it. We speak of kids who have a “rage to learn,” of kids who have a “passion” (sometimes permanent, often ephemeral) for a subject or a project or a system or a field of study. We’ve seen kids “on fire” to explore something new, who are driven from within to understand, to investigate some mystery or other, who can’t bear to put down a book before they’ve finished it. What is it that we’re seeing? Love.

We’ve seen kids who are traumatized by news broadcasts that show images of man’s inhumanity to man, or to animals, or to the Earth itself. We often explain that trauma by saying they feel innately “connected” to humanity, other living beings, and their home planet. When kids become distraught over bullying or conflict on the playground, even when they themselves are not the target, or protest practices they consider unfair, we call it “empathy.” We could call that, too, love.

Parents have told me of children who “hate” a school subject nevertheless willingly putting time and effort into that subject, or children who make it through an entire school year with few complaints even when—as in the “awful” years—there was almost nothing new or challenging to learn, just because they “like” the teacher. Love, again. The best mentors we find for children with a passion for a subject are adults who share that same passion. The relationship that develops between subject, child and adult—love.

It is often said that as individuals, we cannot fully love another until we are able to love ourselves. Years ago my son said that I should give up the effort of trying to make anyone “feel sorry” for gifted kids, because people see them as having so much more going for them in life. And of course, in one way it is true—they have greater than average capacities that could lead them to the achievement and success so valued in our culture. But they’re also children, trying to figure out who they are in a world that makes it quite clear that whoever they are, they “don’t fit.” How do they learn to love themselves?

Highly gifted kids often suffer the whiplash that comes from systems that aren’t able or don’t wish to really challenge them to give their best, yet at the same time demand perfection in all things—“if you’re so bright, why can’t (or don’t) you…?” If they do shine when challenged, and rejoice in that (as is natural and only fair), they may be accused of arrogance, and if they don’t shine as they and others expect, they feel and may be treated like failures. And in cases where parents are overly invested in their children’s unusual or extreme gifts kids may feel they are loved not for who they are, but solely for what they do; that does not feel like love! A girl once told me that her parents were so insistent that she become a brilliant concert violinist (because she had the talent) that by the age of 15, she still had no idea what she loved to do, because she’d never been allowed the time to explore anything else.

We live in a world that doesn’t much like the word “gifted,” because it seems to mean that God or the Fates, or Life or the Universe has bestowed a gift on some minority of individuals, a gift that has been withheld from everybody else. The backlash is in the often heard (and often disputed) statement “All children are gifted.” I’ve argued against that statement myself, over and over again, usually by using an analogy: “all children have height, but not all children are tall.”

But my own belief about humanity is that every single child and every single adult has value, has a vital place in the world. As a fiction writer, I am aware that every character in a novel or even a vast, sprawling saga, is there for a reason and has a part to play in the story. And science has shown us that each human being is unique. Even among identical twins, there are no two identical human beings.

At the same time all of us belong to a larger oneness, the web of life, the interconnectedness of all things—all of us are, as some have said, “star stuff.” It is a paradox, this individuality and oneness.

It seems likely to me that every individual is born with the capacity for love of one kind or another, though the direction of that love is individual. My husband truly loved to do crossword puzzles. For me doing a crossword puzzle is about as enjoyable as sticking a needle in my eye. But both of us loved words and the stories they can create. We followed that love in different ways.

Consider a change in terminology. What we call “gifts,” could also be thought of as “loves.” Now imagine an education in which love really did have everything to do with it. Imagine, instead of categorizing and grouping children by their abilities, we were to purposely set out to help them find what it is they love and then to support that, even as we help them learn what else they’re likely to need on their life journey. What would that change? How would such a world look?

The symbol of Valentine’s Day is, of course, the heart. Gifted children are often expected (or even required) to “live in their heads,” and when we focus relentlessly on their intellects, we teach them to value that shard of who they truly are more than any other. The HeartMath Institute has shown that the human heart’s energy field is very much larger than the brain’s, and that learning to create coherence between brain and heart is beneficial not only to the individual, but to those around them. Far from competing, our heads and hearts work best together, energizing us and allowing access to ways of knowing and connecting seldom tapped or even recognized in education. It shouldn’t surprise us, by the way, that a standard method of creating heart-brain coherence is to focus on an image or memory that evokes love.

We could use 364 more days to focus on the heart, and to acknowledge what Love has to do with it!

Meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day!

If you wish to explore the findings of the HeartMath Institute further, you might start here: https://www.youtube.com/embed/QdneZ4fIIHE


Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time 50 Years On…

3 Dec


November 29 was a big day for birthdays of writers of massively successful books for kids.  Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle were all born on that day. But as loved as all these authors are, it’s Madeleine’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, that I am moved to talk about today. It was published fifty years ago—something I find not only hard, but quite annoying to believe—and has sold over 10 million copies.  Having been rejected by publisher after publisher, many of whom believed its foundational concepts of theoretical physics “too hard” for kids, it won the Newbery Medal in 1963.  

(If by some chance you or the gifted kids in your life haven’t read it, I urge you to head for your book store or library or ebook and remedy that oversight as soon as you reasonably can.) 

When I told my friend and sometimes collaborator Katherine Paterson, another Newbery medalist, that I had just reread the book, having had to get it from the library because my own copy has disappeared, she sent me a copy of this year’s anniversary edition, for which she wrote the introduction.  A brand new copy (with all sorts of lovely extras) now sits on my desk, with newly written blurbs on its back cover, such as this from Scott Westerfeld: “…Hers were the first books I read that mixed math and magic, the quest and the quantum.” 

I had read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my son when he was six years old because he was in great need of meeting Charles Wallace Murry, the profoundly gifted, highly asysnchronous little boy who is the younger brother of Meg, the novel’s profoundly gifted protagonist.  My son needed to know that there were other kids who were as different as he was feeling in the first grade, and in pretty much the same way.  The profoundly gifted characters in this book—and the companion books that followed—Charles Wallace, Meg, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, have given super bright children a sense of having peers and companions in the world for half a century. 

But it is not the giftedness of the young characters, or the anniversary year, or even the occasion of Madeleine’s birthday last week that motivates my writing about it here just now. It is the book’s plot. I reread it because I needed to be reminded of the particular evil the children struggle with once they tesseract to the planet Camazotz where they hope to rescue Mr. Murry, who has been imprisoned by IT, the planet’s all-powerful leader. The evil “shadow” that has fully engulfed Camazotz, and threatens other planets, including Earth, is uniformity.  IT is not so much a person as a singular consciousness that enforces absolute conformity of thought and action. The people of the planet, IT assures the children, are happy, content and safe because they are essentially identical.  There is no need for individual thought. 

Recently I posted “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word” in response to the conflict in the gifted field over what giftedness means and how the educational world should address it.  The effort to unite the field under the single banner of talent development has been presented as a more politically viable, more efficient, more fundable and less complicated method of holding a place for gifted children in the country’s educational system than continuing to contend with varied points of view and a multiplicity of approaches.  

When my husband read that post, he accused me of having become a raging radical when he wasn’t looking, and asked whether I was actually calling for the replacement of all the schools in the country with learning communities. “What would you do with the 80 or whatever percent of people who are okay with the current system?”   I reminded him I’ve always raged a bit.  I used to say I wanted schools to be bulldozed and the ground salted so they couldn’t grow up again.  (Put it down to OEs!)

But his point had sunk home.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Camazotz.  A Wrinkle in Time does not seem to me today quite as brilliant as it seemed when I read it originally.  But its evil is demonstrably evil, which is why I reread it in the first place, to support my own extreme distaste for age-grade, lockstep, factory schooling–way too much uniformity. 

The danger of uniformity of thought and the total dismissal of all other viewpoints seems a bigger threat than ever in today’s world.  One has only to think of our recent election and the hostilities that are still going on in its aftermath to see why some would find relief in everyone thinking the same way they do. People whose ultimate goals and intentions are much the same have come to think of one another as enemies thanks to a disagreement over how to achieve those goals and intentions.  The more I thought about Camazotz, the more IT-like my own wish to rid the world of factory schools began to sound. 

And then I encountered an interview with Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose new book Birth 2012 and Beyond considers what she calls humanity’s “Great Shift” to conscious evolution.  Her thoughts are just what I needed.  Many people who have commented on my “Redefining the Wrong Word” post in various venues have spoken of the need for and the supreme unlikelihood of a paradigm shift of sufficient magnitude to fundamentally change education.  Hubbard’s “conscious evolution” is a way forward.  

She suggests that allowing people to find something new to do or commit to in their own lives that can help with positive evolution, “is far better than if you ask people to do the same thing together” [italics mine].  She speaks of social synergy and explains how it differs from cooperation.  “Cooperation could be many different things, including ‘We’ll help you if you help us.’ Synergy happens when one group has a yearning to express something that another group feels the need for, and vice versa.  So you get to be uniquely more of who you are by joining than you do by remaining separate.  …That’s a big growing edge for human endeavor right there. When we come together in synergy, each person or group gets celebrated, amplified and empowered.” 

What if we could find ways for all the groups who care about and work for gifted kids (the kids themselves, parents, teachers, counselors, academics, theoreticians, pediatricians, school administrators and yes, politicians) involved in social synergy, working in their own individual way, but jointly focused on the best developmental future for the kids?

Pretty much everything on the planet is in the midst of massive change.  The time is past for top-down planning and the old hierarchies.  There is no single “IT” mind that can possibly have the answers to all the questions humanity needs to address.  We need to stop seeing different ideas as a threat and begin to look for what aspects of other points of view could support, supplement, or create new possibilities for our own.  There is no them and us in our need to support the growth and development of our children—WE are part of a fully interrelated whole, and it is our very differences that create the possibilities for positive evolution.  

And speaking of massive planetary change, how can any of us be satisfied with an educational paradigm designed quite purposefully to put limits on all the variety of developing minds with both the ability and the desire to push ahead into unexplored territory?  Almost everything that faces us these days is unexplored territory, whether we like it or not!  Instead of labeling these out-of-the-ordinary minds arrogant or elitist—or odd or broken, let’s invite them all into the conversation about possible ways to move forward.  Any for whom the past methods seem to provide what they need, let them stay with those.  Transition times are just that—times when the old and the new overlap.  But let us please quit kidding ourselves that past methods are “best methods” and acknowledge that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of possibilities. And let’s give young minds more respect than we have generally granted them before.  Let’s not just talk—let’s listen!  

There are other values in A Wrinkle in Time and the later books about the Murry family that may seem to be fantasy.  But who knows what real synergy could begin to show us?  There is a great deal more to mind than intellect and it could be time to quit limiting the rest of mind, too!  

Instead of what’s wrong with other thoughts and other ideas, let’s begin looking for what’s right with them.  Just as there is no one-size-fits-all method, there are none that are all brilliant or all worthless. Imagine that our lives depended on developing synergy.  They just might!