Category Archives: Bookshelf

Educational Alternatives: Many Paths to Greatness

I have just started reading Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined: The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness. I really enjoy reading books that challenge my understanding and conceptions of giftedness because it is such a controversial label and I am curious to see how others engage with it. With this book just reading the cover intrigues and perplexes me. I am intrigued to see what he means by “intelligence redefined” as someone who not only regularly reviews assessments and identifies students, but works with these same students over a number of years. And I am perplexed by  the final phrase in the title “and the Many Paths to Greatness.” This to me suggests, perhaps without intending to, that greatness should be our goal.

The book begins with his own school story, one that he has shared on this Ted Talk entitled from Evaluation to Inspiration.   Suffering from a central auditory processing disorder brought on by numerous ear infections as a young child, he was labelled learning disabled and relegated to special education classes until the 9th grade. It was then, that he finally felt “seen” by a substitute teacher which inspired him to advocate for himself thus changing the course of his academic career. Now with a PhD in cognitive psychology specializing in creativity, he explores the world of neuroscience to see whether there are genetic links to creativity and intelligence as well as the connection between nature and nurture. In the first few chapters, he explores the history of cognitive assessments, their limitations and their power to impact the lives of many children. The interplay of many elements; DNA, environment, self efficacy and opportunity all contribute to our future success, as do the many  genetic triggers and environmental obstacles that are yet to come. The message to the education system is clear: while the information on tests can be valuable, resist labels and find opportunities to inspire as there are many factors impacting our intellectual and creative growth.

I think what makes the educational journey so difficult for both teachers and parents is that the path to greatness is so personal and undefined and at any moment can spin on a dime. Is success somewhat predicated on the unexpected? Overcoming an obstacle can be a defining moment: would Kaufman be writing this book and conducting this research without the “inspiration” of his school experience? Other obstacles can change our trajectory entirely: my mother compelled to leave her home at fourteen and be schooled in another language, culture and country away from her family. Terry Fox diagnosed with cancer and mobilizing an entire nation while running to find a cure.

One cannot help but have great hopes for the children with whom we share and who will eventually inherit the world and therefore it is good that worry about their education. As parents we fear not doing enough to support them as much as we worry about not expecting enough and so what happens in school can create tremendous worry and have us constantly searching for educational alternatives and “better” ways to teach and learn. Living and working where I do, I know that these intentions drive our system, even though it may not always be visible and may still miss the mark for many.  In the Epilogue (yes I sometimes skip right to the back of the book before reading the whole thing) Kaufman goes to see the substitute teacher, now a middle school principal, to acknowledge her for the impact she had on his life on one single day in Grade 9, simply by “seeing” him. Perhaps that is the most important message in his book-the impact we can have on one another when we look beyond behaviors, labels and expectations and see our students and others in the world as they are-full of potential. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book to see what Kaufman means by greatness and whether that too has been redefined.

Proud to be a part of Hoagies Gifted blog hop. Click on the icon below for more musings on this topic!

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Profiling the Gifted in Popular Culture

One of my favorite tools in helping parents and teachers understand giftedness are the six profiles outlined by Betts and Neihart as they go a long way in describing how differently giftedness can manifest itself in individuals. While there are times that reading through the profiles and discussing our observations can result in an “aha” moment there are just as many where we will note how the child we are speaking of doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. Despite the moniker, “giftedness” does not show up in a neatly wrapped package that is easily identifiable or predictable, but having the profiles is a great starting point for conversations about behaviors, needs and supports both at home and at school.   Interestingly enough, characters and individuals from popular culture often become part of our conversations as well, but to what extent to they help or hinder in educating us about giftedness?

From Sheldon to Rachel, Matilda to Ender, we are enthralled with gifted characters. We are fascinated by the complexity of their thoughts, their unique and amazing abilities, their unusual reactions to situations, their character flaws and how they overcome difficulties. Do they serve us well as we seek to understand more and educate about giftedness? As with any caricature as characters often tend to be, storylines can highlight some qualities of the gifted experience but ultimately fail in capturing the unique qualities of many of the gifted students that I work with everyday. Thinking Sheldon (who is by far and away the gifted “character”  who is referenced most often when people are looking for examples of gifted behavior),  as representative of giftedness would leave one with a very limited understanding.

We are no less fascinated by gifted individuals whose lives in the spotlight have given us yet another glimpse into giftedness. From Elon Musk to Oprah Winfrey, Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson we are not without our iconic examples of giftedness. That their giftedness is tied to astronomical levels achievement carries no small burden for many gifted students whose talents and abilities can sometimes become the focus of who they are. But having said that, there is a benefit to reading biographies of gifted individuals and gaining some insight into their journey. As a songwriter myself, Joni Mitchell’s biography In Her Own Words  by Malka Marom is a favorite. I have learned so much from her struggles, not only with how she saw herself as an artist in contrast to the expectations of the musical community, but also to what she was trying to achieve with her lyrics and music. All this on a landscape of considerable social change helped me to understand the inner world contributing to the music that I love.

But despite some of the drawbacks  to how gifted individuals are represented and/or celebrated in popular culture, I will admit to being very drawn in by how one of my favorite literary characters is being served up in a very modern rendition of a popular mystery series. Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes rates as my favorite series with the major drawback of not airing often enough. If you haven’t seen in yet, watch this short clip Sherlock and John’s First Meeting. A very different portrayal of the gifted detective, I really enjoy the pace with all the twists and turns in the plot. Cumberbatch is a no slouch either!

For more perspectives on giftedness is popular culture, follow the link below:

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Free Time: Critical for Gifted Children Who Engage in Philosophical Thinking?

“Is this a monoculture?” My daughter was four years old when she asked this question as we were driving through a rather large city on our way to an event where my band and I would be performing. I was not surprised by her use of the word, it was from a line in our song written from the perspective of a dandelion: “I don’t fit in your monocultured world…” But to hear a young child ask the question while surrounded by traffic and tall buildings, knowing her penchant for natural outdoor spaces where her imagination could run free, took the whole band by surprise. “Yes,” said the bass player looking out the window, “I suppose it is.”

There is a chapter by Deirdre V. Lovecky in the book Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child edited by Neville, Piechowski and Tolan that speaks to young gifted children being natural philosophers. It is full of examples of some of the complex questions that you might hear from a young gifted child regarding things like time, the nature and origins of the universe, and why we only see one image through two eyes. They are questions that may surprise us considering the age of the child but also signal to us the amazing process by which these young minds formulate an understanding of the world. This is where the gift of free time is so important.

Lovecky asserts that we “need to allow them plenty of opportunity to explore the natural world without giving them predefined answers” as this may “limit thinking because new directions the naive child might take are cut off prematurely.” p.142. She means without the TV, video games and computers that are detrimental to this exploration. A better option for free time would be “common household objects or old-fashioned toys, such as blocks” in addition to “reading extensively or being read to from books with complex language” which can also promote “complexity of ideas.”

While it can be a breathtaking experience to take part in a philosophical exchange with gifted child, the process of forming paradigms based on concepts that evolve out of abstract thinking is complex and can become an emotional minefield for these children when they attempt to navigate the world through these “untested” and sometimes rigid paradigms. This is where the really challenging work of parents and teachers begins.

First they need us to talk about their interesting ideas. This can be pretty taxing on our free time! But as these curiosities evolve into developing paradigms, Lovecky reminds us that “caring adults can help them discover their own internal resources while providing the intellectual, emotional and moral support the children need so they can integrate reasoning and compassion into wise moral choices.” p.143. Seeing the connection between the questions and the paradigms can take a lot of time and understanding.

Ten years later, my now 14 year old daughter tells me how my mother’s farm is her second home. She has a pretty special connection with her grandmother who knew at the age of five, despite growing up in the city of Berlin, that she was destined to be a farmer. There are no pesticides on my mother’s farm but lots of diversity in her garden and her ideas…and a lot of free time. All in all, a pretty safe and stimulating place for an introverted young girl to explore her place in the world with a caring adult who has seen so much.

Check out more perspectives on free time in this month’s blog hop by clicking on the icon below:

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A Summer of Books and Beyond…

“Man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; [the Lakota] knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.”  Luther Standing Bear (c.1868-1939)

One of the things that really surprised me this year during my pull-out sessions were the number of students who told me they preferred not to go outside, whether it be for a fresh air break or a bit of a field trip to the local bird sanctuary. Knowing the draw of a good book, the pull of my basement studio and my fascination with the portal to the world that rests in the touch of a finger on my iPad, there is a part of me that can understand the competition these attractions can provide, but this summer I urge you to not only spend time outdoors, but to really fall in love with where you live in the natural world. If you want reasons I can quote you several books: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, The One Straw Evolution by Masanobu Fukoaka,  Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto or Barbara Kingsolver’s: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I firmly believe that there are things we need to know that only the land can teach us.

My mother, a farmer and avid environmentalist, grew up in Berlin during World War II and says that it was a book that changed her life.  She can remember at five years old reading a book about wilderness survival and held that dream until adulthood when my father brought her to a farm in the middle of nowhere in northern Alberta. She thought she had found paradise in the hard work of making a life on the land. I grew up in a wilderness playground where nature taught me many things perhaps most importantly, the concept of unconditional love as I became a forager for wild berries. To this day I experience it as the land around me and my garden produce (with very little help from me) an unbelievable amount of rhubarb, saskatoons, apples, raspberries and strawberries making me feel rich and loved in ways that I can’t even begin to describe.  (The vegetables take a little more work  and I learn other things from them!)

Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives. Wendell Berry

While I can’t find the English version of the book my mother read, there are other books that can lead to a curiosity and interest in getting outdoors (especially if you read them in the shade of a tree!) My favorites include: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell or Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry. Then start exploring! In our part of the world, there are some great places to get back to nature:

Pipestone Creek: camping, playground…dinosaur fossil bed. Historic Dunvegan: mission and trading post.  South Peace Centennial Museum in Beaverlodge: you don’t want to miss Pioneer Days in July. Two Lakes: if you really want to get out in the wilderness this is a beautiful place to go. Red Willow Falls is a little more difficult to find, but it is definitely worth the adventure getting there. Kleskun Hills: a family favorite, with some great little hikes and a lot of history. There is so much to love about our place in our world…summer is a great time to discover it! Perhaps you have some special spots or books to share?

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
— Rachel Carson
Check out the links below for more summer ideas!
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The Theory of Positive Disintegration

Over the holidays I began reading a book by Kazimierz Dabrowski (along with Andrzej Kawczak and MIchael Piechowski’s) called Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration. Originally published in 1970, it outlines his Theory of Positive Disintegration as well as outlining the role of psychic overexcitabilities in mental growth. The gifted community has embraced the work of Dabrowski for a couple of reasons.

The first relates to what has been observed as part of the lived experience of many gifted individuals as being highly sensitive to the world around them. These sensitivities (overexcitabilities) can create a “collision” within an individual’s environment resulting in a very low frustation threshold. It can be as simple as a heightened sensual awareness where things like the seams in their socks or tags in their clothes become unbearable. It can be as complicated as emotional oversensitivities where they are so acutely aware of their own feelings that relationships are difficult and they can often be seen as “over-reacting”.

While many might see these intensities as a maladjustment, Dabrowski framed them in a more positive light as forming the basic dynamisms for rich positive mental growth. These “collisions” with the world may take an individual (and those close to them) on a journey of self-questioning, shame, guilt, disenchantment as they clash between the environment they are in and what it their minds it could or should be. This “disintegration” is positive as it provides an opportunity for the individual to grow into what Dabrowski considered a higher, more authentic self through a reintegration process; a process by which the individual sees the limitations or paradoxes of the world and then decides who they want to be and how they will proceed with this knowledge/understanding.

While this Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) did not refer specifically to the gifted population, researchers since have suggested that it occurs to a higher degree in the gifted population. In working with gifted students, seeing behaviors through this lens has offered me a unique insight into behaviors that have been problematic for teachers and parents as it  can put a positive spin on what we observe and aid us in assisting students come to a better self-understanding.

The opportunity to read Dabrowski’s original writing has been amazing as it is not easy to come by and it is a fascinating piece of work. Dabrowski’s own story is no less fascinating. A practicing psychiatrist in Poland during WWII, his observations and work with patients during a most tumultuous time in history offered him a unique insight into how people react to the environments in which they find themselves. His work has inspired many researchers in many disciplines and will be the focus of the 11th International Dabrowski Congress coming to Canmore, Alberta this summer. If his work resonates with you, this is conference would definitely be worth attending.

What ‘Steve Jobs’ Tells Us About Gifted

It is often said that gifted students should read the biographies of gifted individuals to gain insight into the struggles that some of our more eminent  individuals have experienced in finding their place in the world.  After reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I would like to add this book to the list of must read biographies. While I have had a number of people say to me, “he may have been brilliant, but he was a jerk” I think that it is worthy to explore what constitutes that evaluation of his character in light of his accomplishments, something Isaacson does very well in the book.

I have been fascinated for some time with Steve Jobs’ story, especially after watching the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley more than 13 years ago. The movie contrasted the stories of Bill Gates and Microsoft to Steve Jobs and Apple as they raced to make personal computers accessible to everyone. Even in that movie, the quirkiness of Jobs’ life story and habits would sometimes overshadow his gifts. “He may have been brilliant but…” stops us from looking a little bit further and trying to understand how the “but” might contribute to his brilliance. In reading Isaacson’s book, I was able to get a better understanding of this and reflect on how some of the gifted students that I work with can also be misunderstood.

One of the things referenced often in the book is the “reality distortion field” that seemed to surround Jobs. One of his colleagues described it as “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any face to fit the purpose at hand.” (Chapter 11) At first read the statement makes Jobs comes across as manipulative in his drive to make people do his bidding.  But as I was reading through the chapter I couldn’t help think about a colleague of mine who refers to the gifted brain as “wired differently”.  Some of my students affirm this when they refer to the loneliness, lack of understanding and alienation they can feel simply because they experience things differently. I wonder if sometimes they feel a continuous pressure to fit into what could be considered from their point of view, the reality distortion field of mainstream society.

Which brings us to wonder what made it possible for Steve Jobs to make what others might have seen as initially unrealistic, into reality. There were two things that really struck me in considering this. The first was his vision. Not only was it idealistic in his genuine desire to make computers intuitive to the point of removing all barriers for the users to be creative, but it was also holistic as he believed every single aspect no matter how large or small, contributed to the whole. So what happened if you were contracted to come up with a contribution to the project and it didn’t quite fit with the vision. Jobs would likely tell you “it sucks” without kindness or tact regardless if you were a mile or a millimeter off the mark. It was not unlike the “all or nothing” mentality I’ve seen from more than one gifted student. In the case of Steve Jobs, his attention to all aspects of production gave us some pretty innovative products. (Yes, I love my iPad!) It also makes me wonder what kind of amazing things lie the in the reality distortion fields of other gifted individuals who aren’t able to negotiate social situations well.

I could go on and on about the book and how his competitive nature didn’t seem to be about money but more about creating not only awesome “stuff” but better “stuff”. How his fascination for simplicity  was underscored by the understanding that true simplicity tends to be incredibly complex. How his very human struggle with lifestyle choices and relationships impacted his health and well-being. It was a fascinating read.

I think I am due to examine a few more biographies. There is a great post at Ingeniosus that will link you to some great biographies for gifted students. As I look through the list I see a lot of “disruptive” individuals…

Temple Grandin and Different Ways of Thinking

One of the highlights of the NAGC was the opportunity to see Temple Grandin speak. I watched The Temple Grandin Story a couple of years ago (a movie she endorsed as very accurate) and have been intrigued by her story ever since.

Temple has her PhD in animal science and is known for her work in the livestock industry as she has revolutionized the way cattle are handled. She was also diagnosed with autism at the age of two. The movie shares her life story: doctors telling her parents at two that she should be institutionalized, a school system that didn’t understand her very well, and the struggles she went through to share her unique way of understanding animal behaviors with those already in the livestock industry. It is an amazing story.

When Temple Grandin spoke she was very different from all the other speakers. Her thoughts jumped a bit, she spoke very quickly and she used a lot of visual images to communicate her ideas. She spoke bluntly about what she thought were some of the biggest problems facing not only education but the world. She was also very candid about how her mind works and how she sees things very differently from others.

So what did Temple have to share with the NAGC? To be honest, my notes are all over the place…it wasn’t easy to keep up with her. But I will try to capture some of the main ideas.

1. We need to find ways to compliment different ways of thinking to work together. She described several different ways of thinking that often get suppressed in a verbal world: sensory based thinking, visual thinking, photo-realistic visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, geometrists and algebraists- each holds a unique way of understanding the world and we should not suppress one in favor of the others. If we can develop complimentary relationships between these thinkers we will be much further ahead.
2. Our system is failing our children with our need for labels. Children should not be their label. She was very clear that she is a scientist first. This has been her passion and life’s work. Many children have unique passions. Talented quirky students need mentors to channel them into challenging careers. We should assist them in their exploration and understanding of these passions rather that trying to label the child and force them to “fit”.
3. We are getting caught up in abstract thinking…as a result we are not “getting things done”. This part of her presentation was particularly memorable as she spoke about the importance of “doing stuff” and how frustrated she was with people like patent trolls (find out more about this here) who do nothing but wait to profit off of other people’s work. It’s time we got back to doing stuff and getting the job done. She told us that she has spent so much time in the construction industry that she knows how to get things done. We need to get kids doing stuff, figuring things out and not afraid to get into the middle of a messy job.

It’s hard not to feel humbled when you listen to Temple speak. She’s so straight forward, not encumbered by the need to be politically correct, full of buzz words or communicating through some of the filters that so many of us employ on a regular basis. When she talks about how her mind works, it’s incredible…like how when she’s trying to figure out if a piece of machinery works, she runs it in her mind to see if all of the parts are connecting properly. I found this particularly intriguing as I had spent the evening before at a Da Vinci exhibit where they build some of his drawings to see if they would work…and they do.

And so I left with this question in my mind. Is the way Temple Grandin thinks really unique or is the fact that she survived a system that didn’t understand her unique? The implications of question have been with me since I heard her speak.

One Simple Intervention

If you are looking for one thing that could make a difference for your gifted child/student this year, you might want to take a look at Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University and her work has been hailed as one of the greatest breakthroughs in how we think about learning. In a nutshell, she explores two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. On her website she asks us to “Think about your intelligence, talents and personality. Are they just fixed or can you develop them?” How you respond to that question can make all the difference.

Now to most of us the answer appears obvious. Of course we must work to develop these things. What is important about Dweck’s work is how we develop and influence the mindsets of children through the use of instruction and praise. When we focus our praise on innate abilities and/or outcomes we can inadvertently develop a fixed mindset. When we focus on effort, we develop a growth mindset. The difference between an underachieving and a successful gifted student might in part involve how we speak to them about their intelligence. “I know you’re smart.. now I want to see what you can do!” According to Dweck’s research, comments like this could do more damage than good. The New York Magazine did an interesting story on it here.

So if intelligence, talent and personality can be developed through a growth mindset, then why would we need a gifted program? The answer to this comes from an understanding of how we organize systems to meet the need of the majority. Education systems organize classrooms based on age as physical and cognitive development tend to follow a certain timeline. But we know that not all students don’t fit that timeline. Just ask my daughter, who in grade six towers over most of her classmates. Her body is on its own timeline and it’s all I can do to keep her fed these days! Cognitive development of gifted students can be on a different timeline as well. Finding ways to keep their minds “fed” so they can continue to develop their intelligence, talents and personality is important work.

There have been years as a teacher where I started students off with the question “Who Am I?” as a way to get to know them and create self-awareness. Perhaps this year my question should be “What am I doing to become the person I hope to be?” Maybe you have another question that might work. If so, please share!

Learning From Our Mistakes

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” – physicist Niels Bohr

I am halfway through my second book by Jonah Lehrer entitled How We Decide. In it he explores the relationship between thought and feeling in the decision making process. It has often been thought that emotions hamper the decision making process, but he argues (with the assistance of a number of studies) that our emotions are secretly working through situations where we experience disappointment to make predictions by finding patterns that lead to success. The more failures we make over time, the better we will come at predicting successful outcomes. It is our feelings that steer us in the right direction by triggering an emotional response when we’re faced with a situation that our brains have encountered before.

How do we cultivate this kind of intuitive or “emotional” wisdom? By exploring our mistakes and allowing our brains to “re-pattern” or learn from them. Lehrer writes “unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before our neurons succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.”

Interestingly enough, he comes back to a study conducted on how we use praise conducted by Carol Dweck out of Standford University who explored the impact of praise on learning. In it she discovered that if we praise a child’s intelligence we discourage them from taking risks but if we encourage their effort, they are far more willing to take risks and in that process learn from their mistakes. Once again, I find myself in the middle of all the data that explains why we must challenge our gifted students but also having more questions about what this might mean for our highly emotional gifted students.

Neuroscience and Destination ImagiNation

I just finished reading an amazing book by Jonah Lehrer called Proust was a Neuroscientist. In it, Lehrer explains how writers, musicians, artists and chefs knew things about how the brain worked more than 100 years before modern neuroscientists made their discoveries. His explorations of the work of Proust, Stravinsky, Cezanne and others is quite fascinating when he compares what they were trying to do with what we are learning now about how the brain works. In his final comments he speaks about the importance for the disparate worlds of science and the arts to recognize what they have to offer each other. He writes “we now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery.” For someone like me, who has always been fascinated by science but in love with the mystery, this book was incredibly inspiring.

So inspiring in fact, that I immediately went to his website Frontal Cortex/Wired Science and today’s post speaks to the importance of constraints when you need to get creative. As a songwriter, I know this to be true. I work with a group of songwriters who set monthly goals (constraints) for ourselves to assist in coming up with original music. Some of my most innovate and creative pieces have come from working with this group of writers. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about how our use of Destination ImagiNation does both things he says are important: the merging of the arts and sciences as well as the introduction of constraints or obstacles in assisting us in thinking in a more all-encompassing way. Sometimes Destination ImagiNation feels so basic when we’re building captivators (weight bearing structures) with balsa wood or designing movie trailers with cinematic effects, but our brains are being challenged to let art and science work together in over-coming the obstacles.