Now that the holidays are behind us it seems our thoughts are turning to the summer.  A couple of listings of summer programs likely to appeal to highly motivated kids came to my attention today.  I’m going to pass them along to you – but first, a disclaimer or two.

When my brother and I were growing up, around this time of year our father would summon each of us for a private conversation about our summer plans.  Every year it began the same way:  “Nina,” he’d say, “I want you to have a meaningful and productive summer.”  In his view, those long weeks of summer needed to be planned for and used wisely – but it was up to each of us to think about what had meaning for us, and about how to make the time productive.  He was eager to help us build our plans and make our arrangements but the job of finding our path of meaning was ours.  My brother and I used to tease him about the “meaningful and productive” speech but my father knew what he was talking about.  We had plenty of down time but we also loved working hard at our passions -- theatrical productions, music-making, camp jobs, or swimming lessons.  (Thanks, Dad!)

So what is the best way for a gifted youngster to spend those summer months?  Your gifted kid is gifted, and s/he is also a kid.  Some want to spend the summer months indulging their love of learning.  Others look forward to pursuing their love of athletics, or nature, or art.  And some will look forward to unstructured time in which to read or work on a personal project.  All of these are wonderful ideas and I urge you not to pressure your child into participating in an academic experience if that is not what s/he is looking for right now.

I hope all of you with school-age children will help them think about making their summers meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.  Here are some lists that might help.

  • The apparently tireless blogger The Common Mom has assembled an incredibly exhaustive and well-researched listing of academic camps, nation-wide. 
  • The Davidson Institute has just put out their January eNews-Update which includes listings of day and residential programs of special interest to gifted students.  These listings are primarily focused on academic programs but they include several outstanding arts and outdoor programs too.

 
 
You don’t often think of the National Bureau of Economic Research as having a lot to say about either gifted education or school choice, but this fascinating paper has some insights that are potentially relevant in both of these areas.   The authors review recent literature on the development of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, with (as you’d expect from economists) a particular emphasis on outcomes.  In other words, is there a correlation between cognitive measures like IQ or achievement testing and outcomes such as socio-economic status?  How about non-cognitive attributes – and which non-cognitive attributes are important to look at in this context? 

For the purpose of this survey, the authors focus on the so-called Big Five personality measures: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.   And their focus is on remedial programs: what type of support helps turn things around for at-risk populations?  Among the study’s key findings:

  • Prevention is more effective than remediation, and programs that target young children by providing support for developing cognitive and non-cognitive skills have been shown to be successful.
  • Of the non-cognitive traits, conscientiousness correlates most strongly with positive outcomes; agreeableness also correlates strongly with some of the outcomes examined.  (Conscientiousness covers such qualities as perseverance, organization, impulse control, ability to delay gratification, and work ethic; agreeableness refers to altruism, empathy, and perspective-taking.)
  • Although much less is known about the effectiveness of programs aimed at adolescents, “[t]he available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that offer mentoring, guidance and information.”
  • Both cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be developed at any stage, but it appears that non-cognitive skills are more malleable than the cognitive ones at later ages (adolescence and beyond.)  All skill development is crucial during the early years.

In other words, it’s important to support children’s developing academic skills, social/emotional skills, and executive functioning skills, but if the cognitive skills are not in place by the time they hit the teen years that gap is going to be harder to close.  All of this seems to suggest a good argument for providing optimal educational experiences for young children.  Many families assume that their kid will do just fine in a less-than-stellar educational setting in the early years, but that come high school (or college) suddenly the stakes are higher; this study may suggest exactly the opposite.  And please note that when I refer to “optimal educational experiences” I emphatically include strong support for developing non-cognitive skills.  Parents of highly able children must do their best to provide support for students’ talents but must also keep in mind the need to foster personal wellness – and that includes attending to social wellness (agreeableness) and life skills (conscientiousness.) 

This study also ties in with one of my pet peeves: the assumption that secondary and post-secondary education is all about course content (cognitive skill) and not so much about educating the whole person (non-cognitive skills.)  High school and college students are adolescents, and no matter how brilliant or motivated they are adolescents are still growing and changing as human beings: the whole person deserves to be cherished and attended to, not just the part of the person that learns math or reads Finnegans Wake.  Indeed, since asynchrony is one of the hallmarks of extreme giftedness, it should come as no surprise that many highly gifted individuals need very little extra support in some areas and quite a lot in others.

Finally, as a former student of Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut, I can’t help connecting this study’s findings with Renzulli’s Three-Ring Model of giftedness.  Renzulli defines giftedness not in terms of potential but in terms of gifted behavior – and the behavior he’s most interested in is creative productivity.  His model finds that three attributes are required: above-average intelligence (cognitive skill,) task commitment (conscientiousness,) and creativity.  Interesting: creativity doesn’t show up in any description of the Big Five of personality development that I could find.  Might that suggest that anyone and everyone needs some mix of cognitive ability and conscientiousness to be successful in life, but that creativity could be the uniquely defining feature of giftedness, if we define it in terms of creative productivity?  Food for thought.

 
 
I had not planned to use this blog to comment on developments in the MIT part of my life – but then I suppose the divisions between the components of one’s life are not actually that tidy or clear-cut, anyway.  Nevertheless, I recently read such an insightful and important blog post by one of my MIT alumnae that I wanted to share it and to add a few comments of my own.

First, a bit of background: earlier this month it was announced that MIT was removing from its web presence “indefinitely” the online lectures and videos by Walter Lewin, a beloved and revered professor of physics.  Indeed, MIT’s newspaper quoted the Provost as saying that MIT was cutting all ties with Professor Lewin, including revoking his emeritus status.  All of this followed from MIT’s investigation of reports that Lewin had sexually harassed a female online student, and perhaps others. 

Like many members of the MIT community, I was ambivalent about these actions at first.  I have always been absolutely passionate about eliminating the barriers to women studying and being successful in sci-tech fields; and as a member of MIT’s Sexual Assault Education and Prevention Task Force I have had these issues at the forefront of my consciousness these past weeks.  Still, as a librarian, I am also passionate about the need to preserve the historical record: Walter Lewin has been part of MIT for decades, and there’s something uncannily Orwellian about just “disappearing” his course content.  (As I said to an alumnus, shall we disallow all reference to Charles Lindbergh because he was a Nazi collaborator?)  At the end of the day, I was reassured to learn that Prof. Lewin himself owns the copyright to all his videos: they remain available elsewhere on the web.  MIT’s action does not suppress this content, which remains accessible and which is undeniably superb (even I, a hardcore physics-phobe, have watched and enjoyed a couple of Walter Lewin’s videos!)  MIT is simply saying that inclusion in its web space implies the school’s approval.  “This is us – this is what we’re about” is the implicit message of making our course content available to the world, free of charge.  That the personal actions of one of our very illustrious profs are considered unacceptable – that being an internet rock star doesn’t exempt you from the ethical behavior MIT expects from all of us – is rather wonderful.

But leave it to my former Random Hall resident to highlight some really important features of this story.   Preeya has done a superb job of tying in a couple of elements that are of deep concern to me.  For one thing, although she frames her comments in terms of the way physics is traditionally taught, I think her observations about teaching style extend way beyond just that one subject.  You’re right, Preeya: this IS both a diversity issue and an educational issue.  Educators at every level all around the country are increasingly aware of the huge range of learning styles.  Some of the variance in both teaching and learning styles may well be gendered.  Some of it is cultural (people from different parts of the world have different social expectations, and teaching/learning are social activities); and some of it is individual (people with different neurological or cognitive styles will learn differently.)  Just as there are numerous learning styles, so too there are numerous teaching styles.  Lecture works for some but just doesn’t do it for many; and as Preeya points out, struggling to master the material works for some, while others – legitimately – need to be guided and supported in that process.  There is no single best way to teach physics or anything else; great teachers (and great institutions of learning) find ways to present the same material in a variety of ways.

We don’t just do this because it’s the right thing to do.  We do this because diversity helps everyone.  People from different backgrounds and with different ways of thinking and perceiving will approach problems in different ways: having the benefit of everyone’s perspective helps advance a discipline, an organization, and society in general.  I think about this a lot when I visit elementary and secondary schools, too: what learning styles are best served by a school’s curriculum and instructional approach?  What type of student would learn best here?  When many people hear the phrase “gifted education” they immediately think of that happy individual who is able to thrive and learn well in a traditional educational setting.  I, ironically, think of someone quite different: the individual whose intellectual flame requires something different, additional, or special in order to burn bright.

But Preeya, one thing concerned me about your post, and that was your describing yourself as “one of those women who leaked through the pipeline.”  I hope you meant that to be ironic, or at least as a commentary on the pipeline itself and not on you.  This statement is distressing in two ways.  First, it pains me to think that in any part of your consciousness you believe that you somehow “slipped through” or got away with something.  And second, it pains me to hear you describing any aspect of your educational or professional career in the past tense.  As someone who is well acquainted with both you and with the pipeline, allow me to point out that you have two things in abundance: talent and time.  You didn’t leak through anything.  You’re a brilliant, insightful person; MIT was lucky to have you.  And from my perspective, having celebrated my 60th birthday by finishing a master’s degree and launching a consulting business, that pipeline turns out to be a lot longer and a lot more nuanced and multi-dimensional than our society wants you to believe.


 
 
We all have blind spots.  One of mine is about boarding schools.   When we were looking at high schools for our son, we stalwartly ignored several suggestions that we look at a few: were certainly weren’t ready for him to be off on his own, and honestly I don’t think he was either.

But as an educational consultant, this is a bad blind spot to have: there are wonderful boarding schools within a few hours’ drive of Boston.  I decided I needed to know more about New England’s boarding schools, and to think more expansively about boarding school in general.  Why would a family choose boarding school for high school, or even for junior high?  Would there be situations in which I would recommend boarding schools for a particular student?

In search of answers to those questions last week I joined a group of IECA members in touring six terrific boarding schools.  The schools in question were: Brooks School, Hillside School, Cushing Academy, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Concord Academy, and St. Mark’s School.   The experience was revelatory.  Each of these institutions does a superb job, they all have stunningly beautiful campuses, exciting curricula, and a range of academic, athletic, and arts offerings  – and they’re all different.

Now you’ll note that none of these programs has the word “gifted” anywhere in their names or mission statements.  Does that mean they’re not appropriate for a talented, motivated learner?  Of course not!  There simply is no one-size-fits-all solution to educating gifted kids.  The good news is, if you’re willing to shake up your assumptions and if you have the resources to consider a wide range of locations and alternatives, we here in New England are sitting in an astonishing cluster of educational opportunity.

In short: I could absolutely imagine recommending any of those boarding schools to the right student, under the right circumstance.

I look forward to visiting more boarding schools and to continuing to raise my consciousness.  But don’t worry: I still know that day school was the right decision for our family, and it may well be for yours, too.

 
 

It’s that time of year – the admissions season, and the time all those school rankings come out.  Some of us take a guilty pleasure in sneaking a peak at the rankings, not unlike the guilty pleasure involved in turning on just a few minutes of the Oscar awards ceremony or the Miss America pageant.  We know we should know better.  We know such arbitrary competitions are silly (at best,) and even potentially destructive: the attempt to rationalize and quantify subjective criteria and come up with a single “winner” or “best” in each category threatens to homogenize taste and to overshadow options that don’t conform to a stereotype.  When it comes to the school rankings, most of us know that the “best” school is not necessarily best for every student.  And yet, it’s pretty hard for some of us to refrain from taking a peek at those rankings.  Is my alma mater still highly ranked?  Is my town’s high school among the top ten?  What school should my daughter or son plan to attend?

I’m going to plead guilty to this: I just love to look at those rankings.  (Full disclosure: I also take a perverse pleasure in the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, and sometimes even the country music awards the name of which I’ve forgotten.  Heck, I haven’t lived in New York for nearly thirty years but I still care about the Tony and even the Obie awards.)  I know I shouldn’t worry about whether the value of my BA, or my son’s, slips if our shared Alma Mater drops in US New and World Reports’ rankings – but it’s hard not to.  Similarly, despite all my best intentions, I made myself (and no doubt my family) absolutely crazy with this stuff when my son was applying to high schools and subsequently to colleges. 

It’s my hope, as an educational consultant, to help other families avoid the more corrosive aspects of the school rankings game.  The first thing I encourage families to do: take a careful look at the methodology used by any given ranking.  Stop and think for a minute: what criteria are being applied?  Those schools that they say are the best – what, precisely, are they supposed to be the best at?  What values do these lists reflect?  Most important: if a ranked list is based on values that you do not share, why would you care about it?

This fall a couple of related news items caught my eye and reaffirmed my belief that the “usual” rankings reflect values quite different from mine.  First, LinkedIn came up with its set of university rankings.  According to LinkedIn, they derived their rankings by “analyzing employment patterns of over 300 million LinkedIn members from around the world.”  This, they claim, helped them identify “the desirable jobs within several professions and which graduates get those desirable jobs” and ultimately “to rank schools based on the career outcomes of their graduates.”   I admire LinkedIn for sharing as much information as they did about their methodology; the results, I’ll have to say, strike me as underwhelming for one very important reason: there are many populations who don’t use LinkedIn.  The programs are ranked for each professional area, but many professional areas aren’t included.   Best places to study pre-med, pre-law, economics, sociology, education, environmental science, music?  You won’t find them here.   Further, is an analysis of employment patterns of people who take the time to join a social networking site really an accurate barometer of the worth of those individuals’ educational experiences?  Doesn’t this instrument entirely miss the population of people who simply have no time for, or interest in, LinkedIn?

Here in the Boston area people like me who are addicted to the school rankings eagerly await the annual Boston magazine high school ranking issue.  This year was a shocker: Boston’s September issue included, as always, lists of the top private and public high schools.  Before the month was out, they completely revised their list of public schools, and retracted their private school list, taking the latter down from their web site entirely.  Again, I applaud them for taking these steps and for sharing their rationale for doing so.  But casting one’s eye over the public school ranking that remains available online, it’s easy even for a casual reader to think of ways in which schools might “game” this system to their advantage.  Just one quick example:  one of the metrics used is “student-teacher ratio.”  A most appropriate data point and an important one: but who counts as a “teacher”?   How are part-time faculty (if any) counted?  Are athletic coaches included?  Guidance counselors?  One can easily imagine a poorly administered survey coming up with varying responses, even if we assume that all the schools are doing their best to provide accurate answers.  I’m far from being the first person to note that, as laudable as Boston’s decision to take down a flawed ranking may be, the episode calls into question the integrity and value of the whole rankings game.

Now, here’s one ranking of which I’m particularly fond and which gets relatively little ink: the Washington Monthly College Guide.  Their values resonate for me: “We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).”   I still wish teaching were part of the formula, perhaps in addition to research; but this methodology makes a refreshing change from the process used by US News and World ReportsWashington Monthly even has a ranking for affordable elite colleges.  I urge you to check it out.

 
 
I wonder why so many people become belligerent when they hear the word “gifted.”

When I say I’m an educational consultant, people often become wary.  It’s clear that any second I’m going to launch into a marketing pitch.

But when I say that I’m an educational consultant who works with gifted kids, people frequently become downright hostile.  I wonder why that is.  Perhaps they take exception to the very concept of giftedness: to some, it might seem to imply a value judgment – as if the kids I work with are in some way “better” than some other group of kids.  Or, given the circles in which I tend to move, perhaps people find “gifted” too soft a term.  The problems with IQ testing are well understood; is there, in fact, a better metric for “giftedness”?  What is giftedness anyway?  Or maybe they think it’s an indulgence, a form of bragging – that these kids are, in my privileged world, special little snowflakes.

When my son was little he attended an independent school for academically gifted kids.  On the sidelines at soccer games and similar places where beleaguered Moms mix and mingle, I became so tired of the antagonism I encountered that I started telling people that he attended a special needs program.  And it was true – my son really needed that school.  But I wondered then and I wonder now: why, when I told people that my kid had special needs, did I get sympathy; but when I implied that my kid had special strengths, why did people get angry?

Perhaps I do see gifted kids as special little snowflakes.  Indeed, I’ll have to confess it: I see every kid as a special little snowflake.  I simply don’t assume that the purpose of education is to fix, remediate, or provide that which is broken or lacking.  Rather, I envision a learning environment in which strengths, passions, and talents are celebrated and nurtured.  This isn’t in any way antithetical to the need to build core skills, require mastery, adhere to standards, and so forth.  Most of us need both.

 
 
I was disappointed recently when I learned that a school – one to which I’ve referred several highly able students – has decided to eliminate its honors option for freshman English.  The rationale is well-meaning enough: the teachers wanted to avoid “tracking,” or pigeon-holing kids.  They wanted, in short, to keep the playing field level.

The problem, of course, is that the playing field isn’t level.  It never has been.  Some kids need extra help or support in certain academic areas; others thirst for extra stimulation, extra challenge.  In Massachusetts we all endorse the former need.  How ironic that well-meaning, dedicated, devoted educators shy away from the latter need!

I asked my friend who’s on the English faculty in this school how he ensured that students who were already strong in English continued to be challenged in his class.  “Oh well,” he assured me, “there are always ways to say to a student ‘I’m counting on you for more.’”

Very true.  What I didn’t say to my friend (but wish I had) was this: when does the student get to say to the teacher “Hey – I’m counting on you for more, too!”  Yes, it’s always easy to pile on more work – to put more pressure on the very kids who already put plenty of pressure on themselves.  But how about that student who thirsts – not for more of the same, but for more complexity, more depth, more opportunities to explore and develop original ideas based on the material presented in class?  Let’s not allow our egalitarian impulse to deter us from developing students’ talents and interests. 

A desire to leave no child behind should never result in holding another child back.  A classroom is not a dog-sled.