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.