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Archive for the ‘intelligence’ Category

First of all, I’d like to announce my participation in Blog Action Day this coming Monday!
Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
On “Blog Action Day”, October 15, thousands of bloggers will post about one topic – the environment – in many different ways. In the site’s last stats announcement, more than 12,000 blogs have been registered to participate, with a combined total of more than 11 million readers! If you want to include your blog, the banner on the right is linked to the site.

Speaking of the environment, pause for a brief thumbs-up to the IPCC and Al Gore for the Nobel Peace Prize!

And now I redirect back to my topic.

If you haven’t already done so, please read Gifted labeling: a force for good and evil, Part 1. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps to understand the controversy.

Here are my own thoughts on the matter:

I think that what being labeled “gifted” does for a student is separate intelligence from grades in their mind. This can be a force for good or for evil (hence the title) depending on how the student uses this information. The reason I used the flip of a coin to describe it before – it’s not actually that great of an analogy – is that there are typically two alternate results, both being “different sides of the same coin.” That’s why both good and bad results have been observed from informing kids of their giftedness, because it could easily go either way.

Result 1
We’ll start with the good result: the student is happier, or at least has a higher self-esteem after being told. There’s now a reason behind their always feeling different. If their identification means placement in a gifted program, there’s a chance for them to learn about themselves and meet other people like them – which is important for any gifted student. I can say that for myself and all the other gifted kids I knew at the time, being pulled out for the gifted program was the best part of our day, if only because we could hang out together and talk about things that other kids thought were weird. Almost like a support group.

For underachieving gifted students, being identified can be even more important. The separation of smarts from grades means that bad marks reflect their work habits, not intelligence. In means higher self-esteem and in some cases higher achievement, if they realize that they are capable of better if they tried for it. Again, placement in a gifted program should be ideal. Being surrounded by people like themselves can work wonders.

Result 2
The less desirable one: separation of grades and intelligence gives gifted students a new reason to slack off and be snarky about it. For this group, it means that there isn’t a reason to worry about grades anymore. If they really are as naturally gifted as everyone seems to think they are, they’ll do just fine, no need to sweat for anything. Additionally, knowledge of having a higher IQ than roughly 98% of the population (the traditional IQ-based definition of giftedness) will definitely inflate some egos and may create some precocious brats out of this group. Sometimes these people turn around in later life, sometimes they don’t. Their futures are much more uncertain than those of Result 1.

Sometimes, when identification doesn’t mean inclusion in an adequate gifted program or any program at all, students that might otherwise have been happy R1s can develop the traits of this other group. It’s not easy being a gifted kid with no one to talk to, and the lack of a support group might cause them to lose their motivation to achieve. That’s not always the case, but it happens, and with alarming frequency. Few gifted kids actually grow up into gifted adults.

Both of these results are the same sides of a single coin: the separation of intelligence from grades that being labeled “gifted” causes in one’s head. Calling them “results” might be inaccurate, because one can turn into the other over time… a better word might be “paths”. In the end simply telling a student that they’re gifted can change things for better or for worse. Regardless, I think kids should always be told of their giftedness anyway. It’s their right to know, and isn’t it worth it for the chance of making things better?

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When I started to write this, I realized that I wanted to say more than could fit in a single post. So, instead of trying to cram it in, I’ve divided it into two parts, the second of which will be posted on Wednesday or Thursday night. This first part will be mostly an introduction.

That said, there’s some controversy in the world of gifted education about whether or not to tell kids if they are gifted. The most mainstream article on the subject is Po Bronson’s in New York Magazine, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids. It doesn’t explicitly mention an application with gifted kids other than the introduction, but it might as well. Even more recently, a Washington Post article, Labels Aren’t What Kids Need, takes the same stance and even cites the same Mindset theories of Carol Dweck. Both of these are against telling kids that they’re smart/gifted. On the pro side, Hoagies’ Gifted has the article Should we tell them they’re gifted?. Both the pro and con arguments are equally intriguing, and I highly recommend reading the articles linked – they’re not just applicable for gifted kids.

From the Washington Post article:

“What most parents don’t realize is that the gifted label can harm not only those who don’t receive it, but also those who do. Labeling can create what Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a ‘fixed’ mindset of intelligence — the belief that your intelligence is set in stone… In 1998, Dweck conducted an experiment in which she gave two evenly matched groups of elementary school kids the same nonverbal IQ test. When one group of children did well, they were told that they must have worked very hard to get their results. The students in the other group, meanwhile, were told that they must be very smart to have done so well.

Dweck found that as time went on, the kids who were told that they were smart ‘fell apart when they hit a challenge. They lost confidence in their abilities. Their motivation dwindled and their performance on the next IQ test dropped.’ By contrast, the children in the group praised for working hard tended to seek out challenges and persist at difficult tasks and ultimately learned more.”

…suggesting that telling children of their giftedness will discourage them from seeking out challenging situations and taking risks. Po Bronson’s article goes more in depth about the study, and Dweck concludes: “When we praise children for their intelligence… we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Kids told that they are gifted will apparently try and keep up their “smart” image by doing the minimum amount required, no more.

On the other hand, the Hoagies’ Gifted article approaches it from a completely different angle:

“What are you going to tell your daughter when she comes to you in tears, saying that the other kids are all mean to her because they won’t talk to her? It’s not that unusual for a gifted 3 to 6 year old to have a good working vocabulary that is 5, 10, or 20 times larger than the vocabulary of a ‘normal’ child the same age. They won’t talk to her because they can’t, they literally don’t know 80-95% of the words. Without discussing her exceptional abilities, how are you going to explain that to her?

It isn’t a question of feeling different – gifted kids know that they’re different – it’s a question of how they feel about being different. If adults treat that difference as something to be hidden, the intellectually gifted child will learn that intellectual gifts are shameful and intellectual ability is to be hidden from others like a dirty secret. Since it is a central part of the way they experience the world, they will learn to think of themselves as defective and shameful, and grow up profoundly ambivalent about themselves and about being successful.”

This one tackles the child’s emotional and psychological well-being, which I think is much more important than achievement. There are too many case studies I’ve read of people who’ve gone through most of their lives – or at least adolescence and college – before they realized they were gifted, and thought, “That explains everything.” And if only they’d known, maybe they wouldn’t have always thought there was something wrong with them, tried to develop it, and have done something with it instead of wondering what was wrong.

Optimally, we want gifted kids to grow up with both a work ethic and a healthy psyche; to be iconoclastic and challenge-seeking, but also at peace with themselves and their differences. Fantastic idea, but likely unfeasible in our lifetimes. Getting around the political incorrectness of admitting some students can be gifted long enough to think of tackling their problems on a wider scale is far enough away on its own.

And that’s your quick introduction – stay tuned for part 2: why giving the gifted label is like flipping a coin (but not really)!

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EDIT: This post has been chosen as a finalist in the 2007 Edublog Awards! Thank you to all its readers! :)


Earlier today, a friend and former teacher of mine made a post (private on another blog, and therefore unlinkable) to his students about the seven ideas featured in the book “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”, which reminded me about a post I had wanted to make for a long time. (Quick explanation of the above, said former teacher is currently teaching a special unit on Leonardo da Vinci to some grade eights at my former middle school and using blogs as a learning device – very cool!)

The things mentioned in that book are ubiquitous in literature about characteristics that separate creative giants from the rest of us (there is indeed such literature, and a fair amount of it), give or take a few points. These seven things plus others – which I will go into greater detail with later – are the attitudes that contribute if not lead into genius… and they’re so very ignored by schools and society in general!

This is how we kill each trait that may yield another Da Vinci:

1. Curiosita (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Intense and insatiable curiosity; constantly learning due to a desire to ask and answer questions
The Murder: In schools, for the most part, students learn only what the teacher decides they will learn. Student questions will often go unanswered if they lead away from the material (go off-topic), or if there are time constraints on what must be learned that leave no time for these questions in class.

2. Dimostrazione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Constant testing of knowledge through experience and persistence; accepting of and learning from mistakes
The Murder: Except in the sciences (and sometimes even then), knowledge is simply given and expected to be absorbed rather than questioned and tested. On tests and labs, wrong answers cost the students their grades, therefore it becomes unacceptable to make mistakes. Mistakes are less about learning experiences and more about losing marks. Questioning societal norms is a very negative thing, even if they don’t make sense.

3. Sensazione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Fully noticing and observing things with all senses, but especially sight (seeing things that others miss, seeing the details)
The Murder: Except in the sciences and a handful of other subjects, students are usually taught passively through the use of only one sense, listening, or maybe sight (diagrams, photos, etc.). Classrooms and assignments may be incredibly unstimulating to most (or all) senses.

4. Sfumato (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? An acceptance of ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty out of a realization that life is not black and white (also an art technique using shadow famous for its use in da Vinci’s paintings)
The Murder: A student’s answer is either right or wrong, usually with no middle ground tolerated. Standardized tests are mostly multiple choice, and in the case of an ambiguous result, students must choose the best possible answer, not a possible answer, even though more than one is really correct. Life and its problems have more than one right answer; multiple choice questions have only one best answer.

5. Arte/Scienza (From “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Interest in both the arts and sciences and interdisciplinary work that combines them
The Murder: High school courses are most often strictly defined as an “Art” or a “Science”, and they never mingle; interdisciplinary courses at this level are rare. In college, an undergraduate usually receives a either Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science, though there is more flexibility here than in high school. Scientists and artists have their own professional domains which almost never overlap.

6. Corporalita (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Keeping one’s body in good shape; attending to nutrition, fitness, and general physical well-being
The Murder: Physical Education programs – especially in the United States – are being severely cut, and obesity has been described as an epidemic. Junk food is readily available and sometimes may be the only option in a high school cafeteria. Fast food is cheaper and more convenient than healthier food ($4 for an entire meal at McDonald’s or $4 for a single, small-sized fruit bowl?).

7. Connessione (from “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What? Acceptance and appreciation for the interconnectedness of everything in life; interdisciplinary approaches and thinking
The Murder: Facts and concepts are taught in specific classes that are independent of each other, and students are moved from individual class to individual class without knowledge of how the two might be connected. Boundaries like that between art and science are rarely crossed or their connectedness even explained. Facts and ideas might be taught with no explanation of the links between them (ie, learning individual details and facts but not the big picture).

8. Drive, energy, intense focus (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Energy and desire to focus intensely on one’s work and interests (often the same thing); merging of work and play
The Murder: Each class is allotted a certain period of time that is inflexible. Despite the student’s interest in a particular class, they must conform to this schedule. Many schools have required curriculum that force a student to give up desirable or necessary electives for core classes they may not need. Students must go to school and all perform well academically, despite their individual talents and aspirations. Musicians and artists especially must break focus on their real interests to attend required academic classes, and may be too drained to work on their own by the end of the school day.

9. Confidence, willingness to take risks, and tolerance of failure (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Willing to continue on with creative work despite rejection; ability to sell oneself and one’s talents
The Murder: Many creative people must face multiple rejections until their idea is sold, and they must accept that if their idea or creative contribution is too radical, society may not yet be ready for it (many artists and writers have only been recognized after their deaths). However, as mentioned above, mistakes and failure are not tolerated in schools and this learned attitude may carry on throughout life. Instead of learning the value of taking risks, students are taught to fear any mistakes that might result. Students are often “babied” – all team mates get a ribbon or a trophy for “participation” – and do not gain the real-world skills they need to sell themselves.

10. Independence, introversion (from various studies on creative genius)
What? Willingness to spend lots of time alone working and honing skills; acceptance of possible isolation
The Murder: The social climate of high school severely discourages spending time alone, especially when spent “working”, and loners are isolated and considered antisocial and friendless. Refusing to conform and “sticking out from the crowd” is highly discouraged by peers and teachers. Creative individuals may have to accept that if the world is not ready for their ideas, they may find few people who understand and support them.

This is how we kill the spirits of our up-and-coming da Vincis. These ten things are the most commonly cited characteristics of highly creative people… and they’re heavily discouraged in the early years by the education system and social climate of adolescence. This is why we won’t see another da Vinci for a long, long time – or why, if we do, he/she would not have come from the system we currently have in place. At every turn schools and society are set on pushing back the most creative individuals. Their common traits are not welcomed nor encouraged, and certainly not nurtured. This must not persist, because I think the world is long overdue for another da Vinci-type right now.

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The “rage to master” is one of the most important ideas in the study of talent and giftedness. The term was coined by Ellen Winner, I believe, in her 1996 book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. To paraphrase her definition, it describes the intrinsic motivation of gifted and talented children to master an area of interest; it’s absolutely obsessive in nature, driving the child to focus intensely on that subject matter and voraciously consume new information and skills. If that sounds a bit dramatic, well… it is. A child with the rage to master can happily spend – and often would spend, if allowed – whole days at a time focusing on their chosen domain. These are the type to work into the early morning hours on a regular basis every time they’ve discovered a new facet of that domain, to hell with the consequences.

(I can put a face to all of that, since I happen to be one of those to “suffer” from a rage to master, myself – but unlike my much more focused peers, my domain constantly changes. I may devote a week to learning everything there is to know about the Zodiac killer of San Francisco, then drop it and spend a couple of months mastering natal astrology. I can attest to the intensity described above – each obsession is inevitably full of long nights, hours and hours of devotion to that area, and the consuming of all my thoughts throughout the day. Very good for developing a wide knowledge base, very bad for school and my sleep cycle.)

When you combine the rage to master with something called “deliberate practice,” you may get a child prodigy. “Deliberate practice” is a recent term coined by Professor K Ericsson, one of the leading experts on expertise. Deliberate practice is meaningful practice. It means focusing on improving areas of weakness, using different techniques to learn deeper, and concentrating intently on the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, among other things. An example of deliberate practice in schoolwork would be not to study an entire unit for a test, but assessing the student’s weakest areas in that unit and focusing on studying those ones more intensely; similarly, in music, it can mean focusing on a single area of weakness in a piece instead of playing a whole song through several times for practice.

But why is this so important, really?

I think the rage to master can help solve the problem of anti-intellectualism today. The rage to master, sometimes with the added benefit of deliberate practice, can solve two mysteries that might have added to it: it explains how child prodigies can break the “10-year rule” (forty hours a week for ten years to master any field), and it explains why some people just seem to know everything.

1. How child prodigies break the rules.

When the 10-year rule was first published, psychologists were confused; if it took a decade of full-time labor to master a domain, why could child prodigies less than ten years old still perform at an expert level? The answer is the rage to master, along with deliberate practice. Child prodigies have it; their older counterparts don’t. Whereas an expert may start later in life and practice – not always deliberately – for the alloted amount of time until they gain expertise years later, child prodigies start earlier and do the same amount of practice more quickly. For a potential prodigy with the rage to master, their chosen domain enters every facet of their lives. They have the intrinsic will to completely immerse themselves in that area and almost all of that time is spent on deliberate practice. Child prodigies are not born with their amazing gift; they do the same amount of work any other potential expert would, but they do it faster.

The rage to master explains why the rest of us aren’t prodigies, too. It’s easy to be jealous of a child prodigy if they happen to excel in your adult domain, but consider: if you knew that to reach that same level so early, you had to devote every waking moment of your life for the next few years to intense, exhaustive practice in that domain, would you? Who has the kind of iron will you need to do that but a child with the rage to master?

2. “You’re so smart!”

I think one of the reasons anti-intellectualism is so dominant in western culture is that some people just seem to know everything so effortlessly. For the most part, that’s a lie. Like the case of the child prodigy, there is just as much work involved; the only difference is that it’s not necessarily done faster… it’s just not always seen. No one has the superhuman ability to just know things. “Know-it-alls” do work hard to know what they know. And the reason that we all don’t “know everything” is, similarly, that most just aren’t motivated enough to put in the work – they simply lack the rage to master. Anyone can seemingly “know everything” if they can devote hours a day to learning new things, but many aren’t willing to put in the time and effort.

(Some people do just learn easier than others, but that’s often a result of deliberate practice, whether they realize it or not. There are unconscious techniques that such people use to absorb information that most don’t, and they’ve “practiced” these techniques to their most efficient. Alternatively, it can be a minor anomaly in brain development, like a milder form of savant syndrome.)

The rage to master needs to be more widely understood, I think, to help counter today’s widespread anti-intellectualism. It’s just not socially acceptable to be gifted, or a prodigy. Call me idealistic, but if the rage to master was better understood, I think it might help to change that. There is work involved in becoming highly talented or intelligent, whether it can be done in ten years or two. Those with the rage to master focus on learning and improving in their chosen field to an extent that most people just don’t have the will to. There’s nothing particularly superhuman or ‘unfair’, per se. There is a lot of work and devotion involved that most people don’t usually see, and maybe if that were better understood, we wouldn’t have as much of a problem with anti-intellectualism as we do now.

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Sincere apologies for the lack of updates these past few weeks – things have been… not well, in my life. Things have been bad enough that I haven’t been able to find the motivation to write (at least not to my satisfaction), and I can’t really focus on anything for a long period of time. I hope that this state is only temporary, and while I’ll try to at least update once a week, I can’t promise anything regular until my real-life issues ease up a bit.

On a more happier note, I have been able to focus on what I’ve adopted as my new pet project: intellectual giftedness. Is it just me, or have there been a lot of articles about talent lately? Most recently, I think, was an article in the New York Times about athletic talent (which does have a lot to do with intellectual giftedness), followed by an article by Po Bronson in the New York Times Magazine about praising children that specifically mentions its implications to gifted children, and the creation of a blog dedicated to the research of talent by David Shenk. Further back, there was an article by the authors of Freakonomics on expertise and practice, an article in the NYT about the draining of gifted education resources, and another (more empirical and scientific) article about expertise and practice in Scientific American.

So, I’m certainly not the first.

Despite the recent surge in talent/expertise-related stories in the news, it’s been impossible to find print resources locally. The three libraries in my immediate area had only a few books in the gifted call numbers (155.455 and 371.95 for psychology and education of, respectively), mostly just “What Do I Do?” guides for the parents of gifted children. (One of those libraries did have half a dozen or so books about giftedness on order, but they hadn’t arrived yet.) To get anything beyond the basics, I had to make a weekend trip to the seven-story central library downtown, and even that one had less than twenty books in both call numbers – only three or four of which would be useful for any serious research. Even then, the copyrights were mostly late 80s/early 90s, precluding any recent developments.

What I’d really like to work from is The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Written by the leading expertise psychologists of today with a 2006 first-edition copyright and 900 pages, it’s the ideal resource for my research. However, at an Amazon price of $152.95 CDN ($130 USD) and with no copies in any of my local libraries, it doesn’t seem likely that I’ll have one in my possession any time soon. Meanwhile, the Freakonomics authors have provided a PDF of its table of contents on their website as a teaser. What I wouldn’t give for the full version…

Anyway – I mention all of this because my research into giftedness and intelligence will probably spill over into my blog in the next few weeks. As always, I’ll be keeping my subject matter varied (wandering?), but my posts may circle the idea of intelligence for a while.

And that’s what I’ve been up to.

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