Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Project

I am blogging from Washington DC, where I attended the Davidson Institute's annual Fellows award ceremony at the Library of Congress last night. I also got to participate in interviews of all the finalists in the morning. They're a fun bunch of young people -- some more intense than others as you can imagine. We learned about the ontology of science, mesmerizing music, nanotubes and Kansas education. It makes one a bit wistful for the days when creativity does not necessarily need to be shoehorned into what you can get a grant for, what you can convince your company's research department to fund, what the major New York publishers are buying and the realities of trying to make a living in incredibly competitive fields.

Indeed, the high school and college years are probably the last years when this is possible. Which brings me to my thesis for today, one that I hope the readers of Gifted Exchange will help me develop over the next few weeks.

I think it is extremely important for gifted children -- not just the profoundly gifted ones -- but perhaps kids who score in the top 5% or so on standardized tests, to have a Big Project during high school.

While there are a lot of reform efforts going on in US education, much of it remains, shall we say, pointless for people who function a reasonable distance from the mean. You spend years learning material you could learn in weeks if you tried, and you often see no point to it, aside from vague societal pronouncements that education is important, and you should stay in school (say this while patting child on the head).

Good high schools often have reasonable classes, such as the AP franchise, which has so far resisted watering down. But still, you can get mired in the day to day. Humans in general, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has postulated, are happiest when they are in the "flow." (Read one article about the new science of happiness here). They are working hard -- absolutely absorbed -- in something that is reasonably challenging, but enjoyable. They are stretched to the extent of their capacities, but not frustratingly beyond.

A big project can hit this sweet spot. For me, I am happiest when I have figured out the thesis of a longer piece and am cranking away writing it (or editing my novel -- I just finished one and am looking for test readers if anyone is interested in giving feedback...). The Davidson Fellows spoke yesterday of their hours in the lab, their hours at the piano bench, these hours which don't seem like hours when you love what you are doing. Rick Warren talks of the Purpose-Driven Life. A Big Project can give a young person a sense of purpose during what is often an alienating stage of life -- when you are old enough to think as an adult, but not old enough for society to treat you as one.

Some young people -- like some of the Davidson Fellows -- think to take on these projects on their own. But most people don't. Some high schools now have multi-year research programs that try to guide students into finding these kinds of projects, and finding the kinds of mentors who can offer effective advice and support. These don't always work well. The Indiana Academy in theory had a research program -- I started it trying to do humanities research and it really just got lost in the shuffle (and gave me the one C ever on my transcripts). But creative writing classes with an emphasis on longer works could also step into the void. As it is, these classes tend to assign short stories because they're easier to workshop, even though there is no real market for short stories in the real world.

The point is -- young people need time and guidance to create the kinds of Big Projects that can give their teen years a purpose. As a side benefit, these projects tend to look awesome on college applications and can often be entered in contests like Davidson and the Intel Science Talent Search. A cynic might say that the rise of Big Projects among high schoolers is solely a function this -- and of parents pushing their kids to do something that stands out on a college application and confers bragging rights. We should just relax in high school, this school of thought goes. There's plenty of time for work afterwards.

The parental pressure worry has merit. The best projects are student initiated. As Barbi Frank, head of the extremely successful John F. Kennedy High School research program told me the other day, she tells parents, "suggest different topics, but don’t make it your passion. Children need to be passionate about it because they’re the ones who are going to be putting all these hours into it for next 3 years."

But I don't think it matters that some kids do these projects to win awards or write better college applications. The real world is all about incentives. As readers of this blog know, I'm no fan of Alfie Kohn's punished-by-rewards philosophy. If incentives nudge a few more kids to try a big project (and indeed, about half of the Davidson Fellows said that the possibility of winning an award affected their decision to do their project) then that's great. Big Projects teach children how to set a goal, break it into small steps, and develop the self-discipline to execute on each step.

These are life skills. Our world will be better off if more children learn these skills at a young age.


Anonymous said...

Laura writes:

The real world is all about incentives. As readers of this blog know, I'm no fan of Alfie Kohn's punished-by-rewards philosophy.


Oh, no. I just posted a reference to Alfie's book last week. I am a fan. I read that book when my daughter was in 3rd grade and it changed my life. I was already headed in that direction, having read "How to Talk to your Kids so they will Listen and How to Listen so your Kids will Talk."

Kohn really inspired and guided me. I remember arguing with a friend of mine about this years ago. She thought I was crazy and bribed the kids for everything, from cleaning their rooms to doing their homework. Shall we say it didn't work and backfired.

I'm off topic but just thought I'd comment on "Punished by Rewards." The only difficulty it's caused me is that if you adhere to it, you are forever swimming upstream. But it's well worth it.

Just my :03 (inflation, you know). To each his own. I only wish the school system would stop with all the bribes and rewards, especially when it's food. Our local paper just did a piece on this, how some school districts are banning candy as bribe.

Anonymous said...

Correction. The book I referenced by Faber-Mazlish is "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids will Talk." I knew that. It was my favorite parenting book, I read it when DD was two.

They have a sequel to that landmark book, "How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk."

The Princess Mom said...

I'm afraid I'm an Alfie Kohn fan, too. Speaking from personal experience (as a gifted kid and mother of gifted kids), it's fairly easy to recognize that bribes are all about manipulating the student into doing something you expect them not to want to do. It might work with toddlers, but show me one gifted preteen who is willing to allow themselves to be manipulated, even toward an end they would work for on their own. Not going to happen. You immediately start to wonder why the bribe is necessary and then, why the briber won't let you make up your own mind about the idea...

Get a strong-willed preteen and if the parent even appears to endorse an activity the child already enjoys, it becomes tainted. BTH1 (Been there, have one). This is where the underachievement spiral starts--the perception that the student should work to please a disrespectful teacher (because the student isn't actually learning anything). Throw in a teacher who thinks rewards like grades and behavior modification techniques are better for changing student behavior than respect, and it's a recipe for academic disaster.

I think getting kids involved in a Big Project is a good idea, but that requires mentors and mentors, even in high school, are hard to come by. A history teacher can't be expected to mentor all 100 of his/her students. Even the Big Project is only available to the gifted kids (which it shouldn't be because most gifted programs are only for globally gifted kids, not kids who are mostly bright but gifted in a particular subject. BTH1, too), the burden of mentoring so many students would increase the teacher's workload ten times.

k-man said...

The problem with Kohn's writings, starting with No Contest (his first book in that vein, before Punished by Rewards), is that he broadly classifies educational tracking and special classes for gifted students, labeling children as "gifted", and even computing GPAs to determine class valedictorians, as unjust "rewards". In his view using terms such as "gifted" and treating children accordingly is just as bad as bribing children to do chores and the like. That's related to the crux of the problem many gifted students face in their public school systems: the notion that it is somehow "elitist" to give them anything, such as advanced work, that other students don't get. Why, that's unfair! Waaaahhhhh!

Kevin said...

Actually, bribes work pretty well with my 12-year-old. We reward him with computer time when he finishes a section of homework, for example. There are other ways to spin it, of course, but we describe it as a bribe.

He often negotiates for bribes---what he would like in return for what we want him to do. The bribes he wants are most often time (15 minutes later bedtime, extra computer time, ...). In most cases the time he requests is substantially less than the time we would spend struggling to get him to do things if we didn't offer bribes.

I'm not a big fan of rewards for everything, but I'm also not a big fan of Alfie Kohn's never rewarding anything. We do try to make praise and bigger rewards (like a new book) be tied to things that are difficult (like getting up, getting dressed, and eating breakfast), not for things that are easy (like getting As).

Anonymous said...

Kevin, I hear you and I respect your views although they are different from mine. Regardless, I never could bring myself to bribe. And it's not as if I couldn't use a little help, make our lives easier. I admit, I was influenced early on by Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards," but even more importantly, "How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen so Kids will Talk," by Faber-Mazlish.

Maybe it's my curse. I always take the harder way. I seem to veer to swimming upstream, by that I mean, swimming against the currrent zeitgeist. My sense has always been the long slow way is the enduring way. For us. Quick fixes are just that, I don't see it as a long term solution.

I respect your views. But I can't help believing, based on what I've seen, that all those bribes are lazy parenting. And taking the easy way out.

I agree with Princess Mom. Gifted kids are so smart, they see through the bribe right away. You bribe, you taint it. And I have vast evidence as I look around me to prove that point.

While I'm willing to at least listen to the other side, I never felt schools did. Especially public school. So heavy on rewards and punishments by introducing grades way too soon and even rewarding children for doing something altruistic. Even when I made my discomfort known, diplomatically, respectfully, it was never considered. Bribes are the easy way out for teachers.

I feel for a teacher, it's hard work. I've done it too. I also substituted at my daughter's private school. One boy was very disruptive so the teacher warned me in advance, threaten to take away recess when he gives you trouble. I came to hate that threat. The disruptive child might quiet down for a few minutes and then you are right back where you started from.

If you're a teacher and looking for alternatives to punishment,there are better ways and Faber-Mazlish have a companion book for teachers. It should be required reading for every teacher. And the threat of losing recess, the stick teachers dangle? Great. The disruptive child just missed recess. Now he's angrier and more pumped than ever. Oh, yea, he'll make a model student all afternoon! Remember, the kids who miss recess the most need it the most!

I'm also deeply against rewarding for what the child already is doing without a struggle. Behaviorists love rewards becusae they seem so easy. Of course your child wants the reward, conventional thinkign goes, so he'll do whatever you say in order to get it. But it doesn't exactly work that way. It can turn kids off to learning and hijack the very concept you are trying to instill.

Take reading. Gifted kids especially are such ravenous readers, for the most part. Mine certainly is. Therefore, there was no way I was going to encourage Accelerated Reader. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. At best it would do no harm so why take the risk? She didn't need the encouragement, she was already reading every spare second. I didn't tell her not to take AR tests, I just never reminded her and she blissfully forgot.

The only time I had a slight pang about AR was the last day of school, the awards ceremony. My daughter, unquestionably, was the the most prolific reader in that school. I know becuase she would do that instead of homework (yes, I know, bribes might have worked but we did other things. Besides which, I tried the bribes as an experiment, they worked once or twice and then we were back to nagging) and read in class. She read all the time. She never got the award becuase she barely took any AR tests, she'd be reading instead.

Momentary pang subsided. We'd live. I would tell her later, you're reading, and that's the reward!

I have friends who are convinced that if they don't slap that "Proud parent of an honor student at Anytown Middle School" bumper sticker on their car, their child will begin to falter. Our parents never paid us to get good grades. Let's think about that one for a moment. What values are we instilling here?