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Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child | Education | The Guardian
"Even Einstein was unexceptional in his youth. Now a new book questions our fixation with IQ and says adults can help almost any child become gifted"



"When Maryam Mirzakhani died at the tragically early age of 40 this month, the news stories talked of her as a genius. The only woman to win the Fields Medal – the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel prize – and a Stanford professor since the age of 31, this Iranian-born academic had been on a roll since she started winning gold medals at maths Olympiads in her teens.

It would be easy to assume that someone as special as Mirzakhani must have been one of those gifted children who excel from babyhood. The ones reading Harry Potter at five or admitted to Mensa not much later. The child that takes maths GCSE while still in single figures, or a rarity such as Ruth Lawrence, who was admitted to Oxford while her contemporaries were still in primary school.

But look closer and a different story emerges. Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, one of three siblings in a middle-class family whose father was an engineer. The only part of her childhood that was out of the ordinary was the Iran-Iraq war, which made life hard for the family in her early years. Thankfully it ended around the time she went to secondary school.

Mirzakhani, did go to a highly selective girls’ school but maths wasn’t her interest – reading was. She loved novels and would read anything she could lay her hands on; together with her best friend she would prowl the book stores on the way home from school for works to buy and consume.

As for maths, she did rather poorly at it for the first couple of years in her middle school, but became interested when her elder brother told her about what he’d learned. He shared a famous maths problem from a magazine that fascinated her – and she was hooked. The rest is mathematical history.

Is her background unusual? Apparently not. Most Nobel laureates were unexceptional in childhood. Einstein was slow to talk and was dubbed the dopey one by the family maid. He failed the general part of the entry test to Zurich Polytechnic – though they let him in because of high physics and maths scores. He struggled at work initially, failing to get academic post and being passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office because he wasn’t good enough at machine technology. But he kept plugging away and eventually rewrote the laws of Newtonian mechanics with his theory of relativity.

Lewis Terman, a pioneering American educational psychologist, set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who excelled in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman expected they would. But he did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both physicists – whom he dismissed from the study as their test scores were not high enough.

There is a canon of research on high performance, built over the last century, that suggests it goes way beyond tested intelligence. On top of that, research is clear that brains are malleable, new neural pathways can be forged, and IQ isn’t fixed. Just because you can read Harry Potter at five doesn’t mean you will still be ahead of your contemporaries in your teens.

According to my colleague, Prof Deborah Eyre, with whom I’ve collaborated on the book Great Minds and How to Grow Them, the latest neuroscience and psychological research suggests most people, unless they are cognitively impaired, can reach standards of performance associated in school with the gifted and talented. However, they must be taught the right attitudes and approaches to their learning and develop the attributes of high performers – curiosity, persistence and hard work, for example – an approach Eyre calls “high performance learning”. Critically, they need the right support in developing those approaches at home as well as at school.

So, is there even such a thing as a gifted child? It is a highly contested area. Prof Anders Ericsson, an eminent education psychologist at Florida State University, is the co-author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. After research going back to 1980 into diverse achievements, from music to memory to sport, he doesn’t think unique and innate talents are at the heart of performance. Deliberate practice, that stretches you every step of the way, and around 10,000 hours of it, is what produces the expert. It’s not a magic number – the highest performers move on to doing a whole lot more, of course, and, like Mirzakhani, often find their own unique perspective along the way.

Ericsson’s memory research is particularly interesting because random students, trained in memory techniques for the study, went on to outperform others thought to have innately superior memories – those you might call gifted.

He got into the idea of researching the effects of deliberate practice because of an incident at school, in which he was beaten at chess by someone who used to lose to him. His opponent had clearly practised.

But it is perhaps the work of Benjamin Bloom, another distinguished American educationist working in the 1980s, that gives the most pause for thought and underscores the idea that family is intrinsically important to the concept of high performance.

Bloom’s team looked at a group of extraordinarily high achieving people in disciplines as varied as ballet, swimming, piano, tennis, maths, sculpture and neurology, and interviewed not only the individuals but their parents, too.

He found a pattern of parents encouraging and supporting their children, in particular in areas they enjoyed themselves. Bloom’s outstanding adults had worked very hard and consistently at something they had become hooked on young, and their parents all emerged as having strong work ethics themselves.

While the jury is out on giftedness being innate and other factors potentially making the difference, what is certain is that the behaviours associated with high levels of performance are replicable and most can be taught – even traits such as curiosity.

Eyre says we know how high performers learn. From that she has developed a high performing learning approach that brings together in one package what she calls the advanced cognitive characteristics, and the values, attitudes and attributes of high performance. She is working on the package with a group of pioneer schools, both in Britain and abroad.

But the system needs to be adopted by families, too, to ensure widespread success across classes and cultures. Research in Britain shows the difference parents make if they take part in simple activities pre-school in the home, supporting reading for example. That support shows through years later in better A-level results, according to the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary study, conducted over 15 years by a team from Oxford and London universities.

Eye-opening spin-off research, which looked in detail at 24 of the 3,000 individuals being studied who were succeeding against the odds, found something remarkable about what was going in at home. Half were on free school meals because of poverty, more than half were living with a single parent, and four in five were living in deprived areas.

The interviews uncovered strong evidence of an adult or adults in the child’s life who valued and supported education, either in the immediate or extended family or in the child’s wider community. Children talked about the need to work hard at school and to listen in class and keep trying. They referenced key adults who had encouraged those attitudes.

Einstein, the epitome of a genius, clearly had curiosity, character and determination. He struggled against rejection in early life but was undeterred. Did he think he was a genius or even gifted? No. He once wrote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

And what about Mirzakhani? Her published quotations show someone who was curious and excited by what she did and resilient. One comment sums it up. “Of course, the most rewarding part is the ‘Aha’ moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight.”

The trail took her to the heights of original research into mathematics in a cruelly short life. That sounds like unassailable character. Perhaps that was her gift."
sfsh  parenting  gifted  precocity  children  prodigies  2017  curiosity  rejection  resilience  maryammirzakhani  childhood  math  mathematics  reading  slowlearning  lewisterman  iq  iqtests  tests  testing  luisalvarez  williamshockley  learning  howwelearn  deboraheyre  wendyberliner  neuroscience  psychology  attitude  persistence  hardwork  workethic  andersericsson  performance  practice  benjaminbloom  education  ballet  swimming  piano  tennis  sculpture  neurology  encouragement  support  giftedness  behavior  mindset  genius  character  determination  alberteinstein 
july 2017 by robertogreco
How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off - The New York Times
"Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.

What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, many learn to keep their original ideas to themselves. In the language of the critic William Deresiewicz, they become the excellent sheep.

In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner. “Those who do must make a painful transition” to an adult who “ultimately remakes a domain.”

Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.

Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school."



"Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.

No one is forcing these luminary scientists to get involved in artistic hobbies. It’s a reflection of their curiosity. And sometimes, that curiosity leads them to flashes of insight. “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition,” Albert Einstein reflected. His mother enrolled him in violin lessons starting at age 5, but he wasn’t intrigued. His love of music only blossomed as a teenager, after he stopped taking lessons and stumbled upon Mozart’s sonatas. “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty,” he said.

Hear that, Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads? You can’t program a child to become creative. Try to engineer a certain kind of success, and the best you’ll get is an ambitious robot. If you want your children to bring original ideas into the world, you need to let them pursue their passions, not yours."
creativity  parenting  prodigies  childprodigies  innovation  learning  howwelearn  education  training  freedom  2016  children  alberteinstein  curiosity  play  malcolmgladwell  benjaminbloom  gifted  itzhakperlman  music  sports  andreagassi  practice 
february 2016 by robertogreco
The Problem With Grit - Learning Deeply - Education Week
"In recent years, Angela Duckworth's work around "grit" has been widely taken up in school reform circles as a way of thinking about building students "non-cognitive skills," which are presumably critical for later life success.

As with any concept that gains popularity, there have been detractors. The most prominent critique is that an emphasis on grit is a way of "blaming the victim"--rather than take up larger questions of social, economic, and racial justice, if only the most disadvantaged kids were a little "grittier" they could make it in life. I am sympathetic to this critique, but I also understand why schools and parents would want to focus on the variables they can control, and thus see building students' abilities to persevere and respond to adversity as critical in their success.

Today I want to raise a different sort of critique, one which has actionable consequences for schools that are interested in work around grit. And that is that a focus on grit is taking a heavily impoverished view of human motivation; in the long run, most people do not persevere at things because they are good at persevering, they persevere because they find things that are worth investing in. The implication for schools is that they should spend less time trying to boost students' grit, and more time trying to think about how their offerings could help students develop purpose and passion.

One good starting point for this discussion is Benjamin Bloom's 1985 book, Developing Talent in Young People. Bloom retrospectively studied people who by their early twenties had achieved considerable success in their fields--Carnegie Hall pianists, Olympic swimmers, among other fields. In a recent talk at Harvard, Duckworth cited this study as an example of the role of grit in producing exceptional practice. But the book actually tells a much more ecological story of how these people developed: the swimmers, for example, began by playing in the pool when they were little, then they became part of local swim clubs and swim teams, then somewhere between 8 and 12 their identities shifted from "I'm someone who swims" to "I'm a swimmer," then there was a long period of deliberate practice, a shift from local coaches to regional and eventual national coaches, and finally another period of play, this time at a much more sophisticated level.

You can see in this trajectory a mix of formal and informal learning, individual fortitude, and becoming part of a community of practice. And, for most of these folks, as is true for many who have become real experts in a domain, intrinsic motivation and identity as someone who cares about the domain is more important than sheer stick-to-it-iveness; and success and increasing mastery provides its own reward which in turn motivates more effort and engagement. Boiling that down to "grit" seems certainly reductionist and potentially highly misleading, in that the implications of the grit argument would be more about boosting perseverance, whereas the more holistic view would show how institutional environments can and should be shaped to create opportunities for growth and mastery.

Relatedly, if you spend a lot of time in classrooms, you will see why national surveys continue to report that 70 percent of high school students see themselves as bored or disengaged. Many classes are terribly unengaging places, with lots of worksheets and little connection to an authentic purpose. The places where many of these schools seem most alive are actually in their extracurriculars--in plays, musical performances, student newspapers--where students have the opportunity to connect to a real domain, where there are opportunities for repetition and practice, but where it is linked to an adult world that students want to emulate and join. The best disciplinary classes have the same characteristics--students are learning how to be historians, thinking like mathematicians, doing real world projects--but these are relatively few and far between. There are two ways to see this situation: 1) that students in most contemporary classes should increase their grit and perseverance; or 2) that many classes need to be made more interesting and engaging places that are more connected to authentic purposes. While some might subscribe to the eat-your-broccoli theory of school reform, I tend to think that, in the long run, schools will be more successful if they are places that students would actually want to attend.

While grit gets all the play in school reform circles, it is not actually the leading theory of motivation among psychologists. The most well-known scholarship on motivation is actually Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's "self-determination theory," which synthesized decades of research to argue that people are fundamentally seeking autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that they thrive in environments that enable them to maximize these qualities. Research on (and experience with) adolescents also suggests that they are particularly developmentally primed to explore their individual identities (autonomy), take on roles where they can assume responsibility (competence), and have opportunities to connect and work with others (relatedness).

Most high schools are organized in ways that run directly against these needs: students are expected to sit passively, assimilate the thinking of others, work individually, and are rarely given opportunities to take significant responsibility either for others or for their own learning. Not surprisingly, some of the schools that are most known for "deeper learning" in the Hewlett Foundation networks and elsewhere feature heavy doses of project- or problem-based methods, stances that create opportunities for students to exercise autonomy, develop competence, and work within communities of practice.

One interesting wrinkle of self-determination theory is that it does not rely exclusively on intrinsic motivation. The theory acknowledges that as people set goals they are seeking to pursue, or work in fields in which they are developing competence and capacity, there will frequently be tasks that are not intrinsically enjoyable but are necessary as part of the larger goal. Thus to say that schooling needs to create more opportunities for authentic engagement and opportunities for students to grow towards mastery is not to deny the reality that there are some basic things to be learned and some portion of this learning will be tedious and dull. But the key, as was true for the practice of the Olympic swimmers or Carnegie Hall pianists, is that the learner is willing to accept this tradeoff as necessary for a larger objective which s/he does feel is worth achieving.

Pushing grit is the easy way out. It not only enables us to bypass harder conversations about structural inequalities, it also frees us from thinking harder about whether basic elements of the "grammar" of schooling need to be rethought. Young people show grit all the time - they pick themselves up after losses on the playing field, retake the stage after flubbing their lines, continue to search for love after having their hearts broken. What these experiences have in common is that there is something they are seeking, something that they are hoping to attain. Our goal should be to organize schooling in ways that similarly promote the kind of purpose and meaning that will sustain students' commitment when the going gets tough."
grit  jalmehta  2015  education  schools  angeladuckworth  benjaminbloom  perseverance  curriculum  fortitude  practice  motivation  psychology  mastery  growth  edwarddeci  richardryan  self-determination  self-determinationtheory  autonomy  competence  relatedness  responsibility  deschooling  unschooling  projectbasedlearning 
september 2015 by robertogreco

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