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.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

New methods of school discipline - and how it might affect gifted kids

My friend Katherine Reynolds Lewis has a lengthy story in Mother Jones magazine this month called "What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?" Over the past two years, she visited schools and juvenile justice facilities implementing the theories of psychologist Ross Green. The idea is that reacting to an out-of-control child in anger, and implementing negative consequences, escalates the situation and increases the chances of trouble later on. Children who are punished come to view teachers and principals as enemies. They don't want to be in school. Children who are suspended become less engaged in school over time (naturally) and often wind up dropping out, and often wind up in trouble with the law as well.

The best approach, Lewis argues, is to help children develop the ability to control themselves. Executive function has to be developed over time. We can train ourselves, and children, to develop this function. The children who act out most often have the least developed executive function, so punishing them for outbreaks is like punishing someone for a bad grade on a test. It's one approach, but a more effective one is to change strategies and practice learning the material again.

A key component of all this is discussing with the child what the problem is, and then coming up with solutions for solving that problem. A child who starts throwing chairs when angry can decide that when he gets that feeling again, he can retreat to a safe space somewhere (like a counselor's office) and have some alone time. Yes, having a child rush out of the class might be distracting, but less so than if the same child throws the furniture. And over time, the child will likely learn to calm himself down without viewing the classroom as a hostile place.

At least that's the theory. Unlike many educational theories, this one has some backing in numbers. In schools that try these programs, suspensions decline. In juvenile justice centers that try it, incidents where children are restrained decline, and there are fewer repeat offenders.

So what's the implication for gifted kids? Contrary to popular opinion, gifted kids aren't always the golden children in school. Many act out because they get bored, or they feel misunderstood. A positive discipline approach might involve talking with the child about what the problem is and brainstorming other solutions. Perhaps the student might decide that she wants to read when bored, or get a chance to do a computer game she likes. Having a child do something different when she recognizes a problem brewing requires a lot of wisdom from a teacher. The teacher has to trust that she can still control the class even if a child is implementing her own solution. But experienced teachers can likely do that, and the long term gain is often worth it. Indeed, there are often short term gains. An outbreak disturbs the entire class and derails a lesson. A quiet departure, or a child reading at her desk, does not.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Will a gifted program keep families in (or attract them to) a district?

Plenty of districts have pared back gifted programs in recent years. So I'm always interested to read about districts that are doing the opposite. A recent Washington Post article outlined plans to introduce more gifted programs into the DC public schools for several reasons.

First, many high achieving children in the district are simply not being served. It's no secret that the district has struggled with low performance, and when many children are struggling to get to a basic level, teachers don't have time to deal with the kids who could use more challenge.

But more intriguingly, the article floats the idea of gifted programs being a way to keep families in the district. Many families leave the district around middle school as they start to ponder their children's preparation for college. Others are drawn to high-performing charter schools (of which DC has a few).

One of the original ideas behind charter schools is that the competition would spur district schools to improve. While I certainly think that schools should offer gifted services regardless, if it takes the existence of charter schools to nudge the district to do the right thing, then it seems that the charter schools are doing their job.

I did note, though, that the district is treading carefully. Rather than identifying children for self-contained programs, the article talks about a whole school enrichment model. I know that the politics of these things are always tricky, but still, this at least seems to be a move in the right direction. What I'm curious about is if it will work. Will families stay in a troubled district because of a gifted program? Would it lure families back in?

It might. If people have made it to the school years still living in a city, then they may be city people. In the calculus of this conversation, the short commutes, restaurants, shopping, etc. get weighed against lousy schools. Parents generally decide that the schools will decide the answer. But if there are options, then the suburbs need not be inevitable.

Did you ever choose to live in a district because of a gifted program?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Summer learning

From a parental perspective, summer vacation is a mixed thing. If school has been your primary childcare during the year, suddenly you need a new situation. For some kids, the summer learning slide is real. But there’s also much to like about summer, too. If your during-the-year schooling situation hasn’t been perfect (and even if it’s great, it’s rarely that) summer gives a chance to try out new things. There are new friends, new programs to study certain subjects intensely, or even just a break from the routine. Gifted kids often like to throw themselves into projects, or spend all day reading a really good book.

We’re trying to get a mix this summer of structured and non-structured stuff. My 8-year-old has a week of church camp, a week of Lego camp, and 2 weeks of an outdoor camp. My 5-year-old has a week of art camp, and then the Lego and outdoor stuff too. My 3-year-old has 2 weeks at her pre-school’s summer camp. (The baby will be working on solid foods and sitting up). We’ll be hitting the beach for two different weeks over the summer.

One thing I’m excited about is my 8-year-old’s book club. He and a few other kids at school get together once a month to discuss a book they’ve read. They actually seem to discuss it too! (Unlike at a grown-up book club -- maybe it’s the absence of wine...) Part of the fun was simply discussing what his selection would be for the month we’re hosting. We got to talk about what kinds of books make good book club fare and what might not.

If my kids were slightly older, I think I’d encourage them to try something entrepreneurial for part of the summer. Even a lemonade stand can be a good lesson in math and marketing, and I suspect we will all need a lesson in marketing at some point in our careers. I’m aiming to encourage some more math-related games on my kids’ Kindles, and my 8-year-old has discovered the world of ebooks, which is fun. He’s got a lot of time for reading as he goes to sleep ridiculously late, and I make him go into his room at 8:30. The 5-year-old is deeply into Legos, and I think that some larger, more complicated projects will keep him entertained. Plus, he is just on the cusp of learning to read, so that will make for great discoveries.

What do you have planned for your kids this summer?

In other news: I have a new time management/productivity book out this week called I Know How She Does It. You can visit my personal blog, www.lauravanderkam.com if you want to learn more about it.