Monday, September 21, 2015

Gifted Exchange turns 10!

Believe it or not, this blog turns 10 years old this week (on the 23rd, exactly). If it were a kid, it would be a 4th grader -- or perhaps an accelerated 5th or 6th grader.

My own interest in gifted education came from my experiences in school. I wound up writing about the topic for USA Today, and then Jan and Bob Davidson hired me to help write their book, Genius Denied. I learned a lot in the process.

Years later, my interest in this topic has broadened to raising my own children -- kids who ask questions for which I have no answers, and who must sometimes be distracted in church by asking them to calculate how many seconds are in a week (that occupied a reasonable amount of time with no calculator).

The folks at the Davidson Institute helped pull some examples of the most-read posts over the past 10 years. All of these topics are still ripe for discussion, and I hope to start new posts related to these topics over the next few months. In the meantime, have fun perusing the archives!

Sept. 29, 2011: The Case Against Delaying Kindergarten

Dec. 3, 2007: Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior

Sept. 26, 2005: The Magic of Boarding Schools

Jan. 11, 2006: The Life and Death of a Prodigy (The New Yorker)

June 13, 2012: Summer reading time

August 3, 2010: Take a test, skip a grade?

September 20, 2009: Gifted Children and Sleep

June 15, 2009: Should Gifted Kids Know their IQ Scores?

September 2, 2008: Are 20% of high school drop-outs gifted?

December 22, 2011: Are Legos for girls?

June 20, 2008: Did NCLB hurt gifted students?

July 25, 2010: Time: The Case Against Summer Vacation?

June 24, 2010: How do you talk about your gifted kid?

June 4, 2009: Why do gifted kids drop out of college?

March 26, 2009: The Importance of Preschool

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Intel and the Intel Science Talent Search

Years ago, I had a gig with Scientific American writing a weekly column for the website called "Where are they now?" This recurring feature looked at past finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, later called the Intel Science Talent Search. It was a fun gig for me. Armed with a list of names of finalists since the 1940s, I'd Google them and see who I could find. Some people were easy to find (e.g. Ray Kurzweil) -- others were more obscure. I'd write about their high school projects, and their current careers. I was so taken with some of the stories that I later went back to several people (including Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann) to interview them for the career section of 168 Hours. I attended the finalists event in Washington DC once, where Colin Powell was the guest speaker (that was kind of cool).

Anyway, from a PR perspective, it always seemed like a pretty good deal for Intel. Every one of the 40 finalists would be featured prominently in their local print and broadcast media. Many major national outlets (like the New York Times) did close-to-annual features as well. From a recruiting perspective, it probably didn't hurt to have 40 of the top young scientists have a very fond, perhaps even evangelical view of the company. All this for the price of the scholarships and administration -- a small chunk of change to a Fortune 500 company.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn that Intel has decided to stop sponsoring the contest. According to this story in the New York Times, they're continuing for the next year or so, and then will be stepping back. No particular reason was given for why it's no longer seen as the right move for the philanthropic side of the company.

It's possible some other corporation will step up (the Times article speculated about Google). I hope someone will. While there are other contests out there (for instance, the Davidson Fellowships!) it's never a bad thing to have young scientists rewarded. The existence of prizes and prestige encourages high schools to step up their scientific game, and give kids a chance to do independent research. Indeed, a number of high schools have established research programs precisely to get kids to become finalists in Intel and other programs such as the Davidson Fellows. Here's hoping this is a good thing that will continue.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The skill of performance

My 5-year-old starts "real" kindergarten later this week. Long-time blog readers know that our district is perfectly fine with letting you hold back your child for a year, but his late September birthday means getting around the Sept 1 cut-off involves jumping through a lot of hoops. We chose not to push it. He's a pretty relaxed kid, and indeed, we have friends who just made the cut-off who've decided to repeat kindergarten, partly because so many kids are red-shirted. If you turn 5 in late August, you are literally a year and a half younger than many kids in the class.

He did a full-day kindergarten program at his pre-school last year and is now in "real" kindergarten for half day. The other half he'll attend a kindergarten enrichment program. I think it will be a good fit. He's been on the cusp of reading for a long time. I'm pretty sure he can do it, but doesn't want to. I'm hoping the peer pressure will push that over the edge.

But one thing I was interested to see he's developed recently is some fairly serious skills at performing under pressure. Both my boys tried out for swim teams this summer. The 8-year-old's is a real team, but the 5-year-old's development team try-out was no less nerve-wracking, at least for me. What I didn't realize going in is that it's not just about whether you can swim -- that at least is fairly straightforward (he can do a passable crawl and backstroke). What the coaches were looking for is whether your kid, as a 5-year-old, can leave you, take instruction from a coach he just met, and jump into the pool in front of everyone and do what he's told.

I watched as my 5-year-old calmly listened for his name, went to the edge of the pool, and jumped in when the coach said to jump. Then he swam just as he'd learned in front of everyone. No nerves. He told me afterward he felt very confident about the whole thing. "Of course I can swim, Mommy!"

In life, I think this ability to perform under pressure is an important skill. I'm doing a lot of public speaking these days, which involves similar thinking. You need to be able to get up in front of any crew and talk in a relaxed, engaging manner. It is not in any way natural for me, but if my 5-year-old is already able to just roll with it, he'll do fine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Congrats to the 2015 Davidson Fellows

This past week the Davidson Institute for Talent Development (which sponsors this blog) announced the winners of its flagship Davidson Fellows awards. Every year, DITD awards $10,000, $25,000, and $50,000 scholarships to young people who've done amazing things in science, music, math, literature, and the arts.

You can read about this year's fellows here.

Some highlights: A young man who proved a mathematical conjecture that had been open for the last decade, a young woman who built some next generation supercapacitors and a young woman who undertook a literary exploration of mixed ethnic identities.

Gifted young people are capable of amazing things when given the space and guidance to develop their skills and talents. Here's hoping that even more children get the chance to do such things in the future.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Collaboration: the agony and the ecstasy

There are lots of trendy management theories out there (believe me -- I get sent a lot of review copies of the books!) But one that seems to get major attention, to the point of trickling down to schools as a “skill of the future,” is collaboration. (See this article for one example of skills master teachers are hoping to inculcate).

Yes, teams are great. People can often do more together than they can on their own, and working with other people can be quite pleasant as you get to know and support each other. I find the current urge to encourage “serendipity” by arranging tables so people bump into each other in particularly hip workplaces to be laughable, but it is true that random conversations can spark interesting ideas. Humans in the future will presumably work together (just as humans do now).

That said, the urge to increase collaboration in schools can, when it comes to gifted kids, often wind up teaching the exact opposite lesson: collaboration is terrible and a waste of time.

When workers are collaborating at, say, Google, or in the education department of a major university, you’re talking collaboration among a small set of similarly intelligent, highly motivated people. The average middle school class, however, is not nearly so organized. Many gifted students have had the experience of being put into a team for a project, and then doing the lion’s share of the work. In this experience, collaboration doesn’t produce something better than you’d do on your own. It slows you down and makes the work worse.

This is exacerbated by the problem that few teachers actually teach how to collaborate. Though humans have been hunting and gathering together for eons, it’s not a natural skill to know how to collaborate well. Specialization plays a big role in effective teams, with each person’s job being understood. Group members have to trust that each member is pulling his or her weight, and respects the outcome. Getting such “buy in” (oh, that word! I have been reading too many business books) is certainly possible in a classroom, but it’s going to be more readily in place when people have applied for their jobs and have an interest in advancing their careers. Few classroom projects involve establishing processes, and reviewing how each step has gone to iterate toward a better outcome. Often, it’s more “work on this problem set together,” with this somehow teaching the miracle of collaboration.

The best way to teach collaboration, so people can see its benefit, would be to do it within ability/readiness grouped classes. Then group projects selected by people who are interested in a specific topic could bring the passion and trust. When those are in place, then the steps of cohesive collaboration can be learned and taught. Without all that, though, the benefit is a lot less obvious.

What’s been your experience with group projects?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Math Olympiad and math education

Every year, various nations gather to compete in the International Math Olympiad. This summer, the US team won for the first time in 21 years. It was certainly cause for celebration, though the headline on the Christian Science Monitor story caught my eye: "US wins Math Olympiad for the first time in 21 years. Is math education improving?"

Well, maybe. Broad measures still put the US pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as international math comparisons go. What may be happening is that the US does what it does very well in many other international competitions (like the athletic summer Olympics). When the country does want to win something, it has a pretty amazing ability to pull together resources, including the best people and practices from around the world, and make it happen. It's wonderful that the U.S. might be treating its young mathematicians with the same nurturing focus that young athletes have long enjoyed.

This is Gifted Exchange, and I'm glad that there are great opportunities for the most extremely talented young mathematicians. That is somewhat a different matter, though, from how mathematics is approached in your average school, where a 1-2 year acceleration is the most a gifted student can hope for. There's some evidence that elementary school teachers are often ill-prepared to teach math to their students, and their biases against it can drive promising people (particularly girls; all members of the winning US team were male) out of it.

Being good at the top and being good all around need not be pitted against each other. But they do require slightly different things. Better math education more broadly requires teachers who know and love math, particularly in the early grades as children figure out what is exciting to study and what is not. People who know and love math, though, often have different and more well-paying options than teaching elementary school. It's a tough problem to solve.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who's in and who's out

The Davidson Institute sends me a list of headlines related to gifted education each week. I’ve been keeping this blog for almost 10 years, so I see a lot of headlines. And over the years, I’ve noticed something about these articles. So much of the literature on gifted education is about who’s in and who’s out.

Perhaps it’s about the demographic make-up of who’s in and who’s out. Perhaps it’s about a cut-off on a test. Perhaps it’s about a district that has a gifted program, but doesn’t have enough seats for all who qualify so selection is done by lottery (kind of a bizarre approach in general -- how about adding more seats??) Maybe a district is re-evaluating how it chooses children for gifted programs. That may be a worthy endeavor, especially if the new approach is to screen all children, rather than just those whose parents ask. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the popular imagination, gifted education is all about selection.

Once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing.

But of course, that’s not the case at all. Children can be accepted into a gifted program, and then have absolutely nothing change whatsoever except for a few minutes weekly of a half-hearted “pull out.” (Or an even more half-hearted claim that the curriculum is being enriched for everyone). Even a self-contained gifted class could be taught badly, or not taught at a level that is helpful for the top end of the curve within the class (or the bottom end, I suppose). Acceleration is generally a great idea, but in a worst case scenario, the work isn’t actually more challenging, or the child’s area of greatest need for acceleration still isn’t met.

I really wish there was more focus on what actually happens once someone is identified as gifted. What does a good, accelerated curriculum look like? How do gifted kids learn differently? When work is truly challenging, children struggle -- and that’s a good thing. It’s a wonderful confidence boost to throw yourself into something difficult and find you are making progress.

When the conversation is all about who’s in and who’s out, then giftedness is just a label -- a gold star of worthiness that other people naturally resent. And so article after article talks about districts modifying their programs to keep some people from being in and some people from being out, because while that’s fine for varsity baseball, it isn’t for academics. It’s as if all the coverage on the baseball season was on team selection, rather than how the team plays.