Friday, September 28, 2007

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

I just returned home yesterday from the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony in Washington DC. While the ceremony at the Library of Congress is always fun, this year was particularly nice for me because I got to interview most of the children that morning. I think the quality of fellows continues to improve as more people hear about the program. Among the winners this year were two performers from the Juilliard pre-college program, and another young woman who'd been featured on NPR. Several young writers talked with me about their creative process. The scientists are always a stand-out lot, and among them this year we had a young woman who figured out a new process for recycling plastic, one who figured out a way of penetrating drug resistant biofilms, and a young woman who'd developed a process for a potential urine test for the early detection of cancer. Anyone who's been through some rather invasive and unpleasant cancer screenings will immediately see the benefit of potentially coverting these screenings into nothing worse than a pregnancy test.

After the interviews, I had two main observations. First: These fellows often go to specialized secondary schools. On one hand, this is simple correlation. There are a growing number of specialized math and science high schools, and if you're interested in math and science, why wouldn't you go? Given that the students at these schools tend to be bright and eager to learn, if you're bright and eager to learn, you also would take advantage of them, even if math and science aren't your main gifts. Christina Beasley, one of the young writers, attends a school for science and technology. Much of her creative writing is extra-curricular, but since the students are so eager to learn, there are good programs for them in areas outside S&T.

But there's also a causal connection. To do a prodigious work as a young person, you need time and access (to labs, mentors, etc.) Specialized schools often arrange one or both. Shannon Lee, of Plano Texas, attends a compressed school that caters to gymnasts and actors. Students do their studies in the morning, and their special interest in the afternoon. This works for her musical schedule as well. Nora Xu attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy. She told me that she has no classes on Wednesday, and the school shuttles them to labs, or mentoring situations so the students can pursue independent work. Billy Dorminy, who is homeschooled, has a mom who favors "delight directed" education. He has time to pursue what interests him.

The other observation is that the sweet spot occurs when you have time, access and affection for what you do. You can force a child into a lab (and given the competition to get into top colleges, perhaps some parents do this). You can give them a free day every week to pursue independent projects. But you can't force them to love it, to travel after school and work all night in the lab as Danielle Lent did at SUNY Stony Brook -- and then switch off driving home with a friend to be at school the next day. As Yuqing Meng, a musician, told me, after one particular recital when he was little, he realized that he would always want to do music. Maybe he wouldn't make a career of it. But he couldn't imagine it not being in his life. Yale Fan spoke of doing his physics and comp sci work as a form of stress release.

When you love what you do, you naturally become better at it. You do a lot of of it. You ponder problems as you're taking the bus to school, and you doodle in your other subject notebooks. You figure out problems in this area because you find it fun. When you have a great love for something, and the time and mentors necessary to develop this affection, there's no telling what you can do. (Well, OK, here's one thing you can do: Impress the Senate Majority Leader. Bob Davidson, Colleen Harsin -- the Davidson Academy's principal -- and I got to meet Sen. Harry Reid the other day to talk with him about gifted education issues. When Bob and Colleen mentioned the work some of the fellows had done, Reid about fell off his chair. "A 17-year-old kid can do that?" he asked. Yep!)


Anonymous said...

Yep, this is all amazing. Maybe someone can convince our idiot legislators that perhaps "mediocre for all" is not the way that our country needs to go.

Perhaps those with the skills, motivation and IQ to develop new cures and methodologies need to be nurtured and challenged instead of lumped into classes with kids who couldn't give a rip. Maybe gifted kids need to do something all day other than sit in complete boredom while the teacher goes over worksheets on inane topics that the child learned years ago. Maybe kids that loved to learn anything they could get their hands on before they were stuck in government schools should not have to become cynical, depressed young adults who equate "learning" with endless tedium?

How long before our government gets this? Will our country be able to survive decades of.....

"one size fits all"
"no such thing as a gifted child"
"we are ALL gifted"
"we should leave no child behind at all costs"

How many minds are being wasted because of the whole "NCLB mediocrity is great" attitude? How many cures will never be found? How many peace treaties will not be negotiated? How many products will not be brought to market? How many of our leaders will not be able to think themselves out of a box? How many families will drop into poverty because businesses that could employ them were never started?

How many people do you think might die because we aren't educating the people who can save them?

Jason Jones said...

It is amazing that adults (including legislators) assume that all 17 year olds are like the ones you see at the mall.

Why do people see the possibilites of young people as so limited?

All it requires is investment in their potential.