Are You A Multipotentialite*?

I met this lovely woman at the SENG conference and and now enjoying her blog. Though you might too.

Your Rainforest Mind

I am not a multipotentialite. But I’ve known many. Many. I’ve lived with one. Most of my counseling clients fit the bill. Several friends. I suspect that I’m not one so that I can better help all of you who are. If I were one, too, well, things could get messy.

CC Flickr Martin Lambe CC Flickr Martin Lambe

For those of you who are new to the term, let me explain. In an earlier post, I described how you may be overwhelmed  by your extraordinary curiosity. Not only that. You may, in fact, be as capable in the field of chemistry as you are in philosophy or as skilled in music as you are in literature. And you want to do it all. Depth and diversity are exciting, stimulating and necessary.

You’re afflicted with multipotentiality. Thus, you are a multipotentialite. (a term coined by Emilie Wapnick*, thanks Emilie)

You may be like my client. I’ll call…

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The Empty School

The Empty School

Some wonderful food for thought. Why do we need administration and brick and mortar schools anyway?

Careful Planning and Instruction? No Thanks!

Careful Planning and Instruction? No Thanks!
February 18, 2012 — Pam Sorooshian

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) got me thinking back in the 1980s when they were strongly against early academic, and especially early reading, instruction. I took their arguments to heart, and my own young children freely played their way through their preschool years and were not given any type of early instruction. Instead, we created a rich and stimulating environment in which they could learn through play, experimentation, exploration, investigation, collaboration, and doing what brought them joy. And they learned. A lot. There was no stopping them. After that, school was a big disappointment. The very idea of school is that someone (usually some committee of experts) decides what, when, and how children should learn, and eventually the requirements filter down to a classroom where a teacher tries to inspire, cajole, or flat-out force the kids into learning it. WHAT a difference from the way my children had been learning until then!

My own thinking about learning was firmly rooted in the radical ideas of John Holt and A.S. Neill, both of whom I’d read before I ever had any children of my own. Both argued for supporting children’s learning without curriculum, lessons, or other imposed-from-above methods by offering real-life experiences and encouragement and assistance to a child pursuing his/her own interests. I had managed to get my children into an cutting-edge public school which had ungraded classrooms and an unusual amount of freedom for students. There were no tests and no grades. Classrooms had learning centers and children were free to move around the room, working on activities of their own choice for much of the day.

So what was wrong? Why did I continue to be so dissatisfied with the schooling my children were receiving? Even while I spent my time volunteering at the school, working in the classroom, running PTA events, promoting “teacher appreciation” and school spirit, I was disappointed with the way my children were being educated. There were good times and bad, but, overall, I thought it was stifling, and I could see that it was slowly, but surely, dulling the children’s initial bright-eyed curiosity.

And then we simply stopped doing school. We pulled the kids out of formal school and we stopped worrying at all about lessons, teaching, curriculum, assessment. We focused on creating a joy-filled and stimulating family life in which the children could discover and follow their interests. They watched, read, listened, played, built, created, explored, investigated, experimented and learned. They talked and wrote and sang at the tops of their voices throughout the day. We spent days outdoors at the beach, in the woods, hiking, swimming, and relaxing. We spent days cocooned in the house, cooking and playing games. Life happened. Learning happened.

Now they are grown. And, maybe surprisingly in light of our unconventional choices, they are quite successful in very conventional ways including work, college, relationships, and hobbies. All three are leaders in their communities. They turned out just fine, thank you very much!

The NAEYC, which inspired me so much at the beginning of my parenting journey, seems to have moved in a different direction. In their position paper, “Where We Stand on Learning to Read and Write,” they state, “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.”* I could not disagree more. Children DO become literate automatically in the same way they learned to walk and speak automatically, if they are given the opportunity. Careful planning and instruction are totally unnecessary and can do far more harm than good. What children (of all ages) need is a rich and stimulating environment with caring adults who engage with them and support them. A rich and active home life with attentive parents and books, games, music, conversation, and socializing among people of all ages, is ideal. Ideal!

Yes, in today’s society, most children will continue to go to school. But it is NOT ideal for young humans to learn in crowded classrooms with 20 or 30 other same-age children and one adult providing lessons decided on by committees who don’t even know these particular children. It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. Children who learn in a rich and supportive environment do not need to be constantly assessed and tested, for example. Children naturally challenge themselves. They don’t want to be bored or frustrated – they want to learn. If adults are paying attention and are responsive to children’s expressed interests, they will automatically provide appropriately challenging activities. When curriculum is planned somewhere else and imposed on children, it is almost certainly inappropriate to any particular child and children will respond by becoming apathetic or either passively or actively resistant. Then schools are dealing with many recalcitrant children, and a vicious cycle is begun in which schools try one method after another to force learning and children become increasingly resistant.

The problem is a very basic one. It will take a paradigm shift to solve it. The entire education system is based on a faulty premise and my family, and many others like mine, are the proof. The faulty premise is exactly what is stated in the NAEYC ”Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.” This is just wrong and the more careful planning and instruction are utilized, the more difficult it seems to become to get children to learn.

Children do not need to be cajoled or forced to learn. The urge to learn is as natural to human children as it is to all other animals, and their learning can be equally joyful, intense, satisfying, and successful. Education “experts” are on the wrong track as they write and rewrite learning objectives, learning standards, or new “student learning outcomes.” They redesign curriculum and they test and test and test again, hoping against hope that the newest educational fad will be the one that works.

*Here is a link to a summary of the NAEYC paper. I’m not recommending it, just citing it as the source of the quote I used.

How Being Gifted Means Being Different

How being gifted means being different

In education on July 29, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Over the last couple of years I have spent time off and on doing research into giftedness and living with unusually high intelligence.  It has been far more interesting and enlightening than I expected.  So I figured I would share some of what I have learned with y’all.  Today I will focus on some of the differences which tend to be characteristic of those with unusually high intellegence.  Tomorrow, I’ll get into why so many gifted people have a hard time recognizing themselves as gifted and why it is so important for them to understand their giftedness and teach their children to do the same.

First, the differences.  I always figured that high intelligence was just about how a person learns new information and skills.  What I have found out, however, is that high intelligence entails not just being able to learn new things quickly and easily, but affects a person’s entire experience of life.  People with unusually high intelligence take in and aquire information differently, process that information differently.  They frequently experience emotions and physical stimuli more intensely than others.  They have motivations and drives which others often find odd or bizarre.  In short, being unusually intelligent tends to create a whole life experience which is markedly more complicated and intense than what most people experience.

Psychologists who deal with highly intelligent people label these areas of high instensity and complexity “Overexcitabilities” or OEs.  They are generally divided into 5 catagories: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional.  (This article has a pretty good basic examination of OEs.)  While not every highly intelligent person will have an area of OE, most will have at least one or more areas of OE.  These OEs are areas in which the highly intelligent person has unusually strong, frequent or deep reactions and experiences.  For example, a person with intellectual OE may be unable to stop thinking about the things which interest him or her.  They can get lost in figuring out some theoretical problem and spend a lot of time seeking out information and ideas related to the issue.  While this is just the sort of person you want to sic on a complicated problem, a person with intellectual OE can find the pace and intensity of their thinking exhausting.  They can also be impatient with others who aren’t able to intellectually keep up with them or highly critical of others and their ideas because they themselves are able to quickly and easily assess ideas for problems and flaws.  A person with this OE is not just aquiring information more quickly than those around them.  They are dealing with an interacting with that information in ways which are fundamentally different than others.

One of the real challenges that people with high intelligence face is learning how to deal with these OEs in ways that are healthy for themselves and others.  Even more so than for most people, the things which are their greatest strengths can also be very destructive for an unusually intelligent person.  This is why it is very important that kids who are gifted are taught about their giftedness, how it affects them differently than other people and how to manage those areas of OE that they have.  Because they are dealing with an unusual level of intensity and complexity, a gifted child may take longer to get his or her areas of OE under control than a normal child dealing with similar issues of self-control.  For example, it is not at all uncommon for a gifted child to be prone to inappropriate emotional outbursts well past the age that most kids have stopped throwing fits.  While we often attribute this to a lack of maturity, perhaps due to focusing so much mental energy on intellectual development, the reality is that this struggle probably has its root in an emotional OE.  When a person experiences emotions much more frequently, intensely and easily than other people, it only makes sense that it is going to take more time for them to learn to tame and manage them.  We can probably compare it to the difference between saddle training a wild mustang and saddle training a horse bred on a horse farm.  While the mustang may end up being the more magnificent animal, it is also to be expected that it will take more time to bring the wild animal under control than it will the domesticated one.

In addition to dealing with OEs, one of the problems which a lot of kids and adults with unusually high intelligence have is that they do not understand the ways in which they are different from most of the people around them.  They may realize that they learn things more quickly and easily than others, but may be wholly unaware that others don’t share their endless curiosity and may not have the strong feelings about things that they do.  Highly intelligent people may also find themselves odd man out because it is in their nature to think and work outside of the box.  They may know that they are doing this, but may not realize how threatening and disconcerting this often is to others.  They can be blindsided by the negative reactions they receive for doing things which they see as positive.

This fundamental different-ness combined with a lack of insight into the reality of the how other people’s minds work underlies a lot of the social difficulties which highly intelligent people often experience.  Unfortunately, the social problems that unusually intelligent people, particularly kids, commonly experience are usually pinned on some failure on their own part.  However, a good part of the social problems highly intelligent people experience are rooted in a lack of tolerance for their differences.  Take a child who uses vocabulary that his peers aren’t familiar with and responds to being shown a frog with an explanation of the life cycle of frogs and the similarities and differences between frogs and toads.   The other kids don’t usually think, “wow, he’s really smart.  I wonder what else he knows.  I bet he’d be an exciting person to get to know.”  They just think, “what a weirdo.”  How is the child suppose to handle himself to solve this problem?  Should he somehow figure out how to change his very nature so that he doesn’t care about the things he sees around him?  Should he not educate himself about the things which interest him?  Should he magically know which of the words that he effortlessly picks up his peers won’t notice and learn for many years to come so he can refrain from using them?  Should he cynically assume that other people suffer from what to him is an appalling lack of curiosity and not share what he knows (after all, he really likes it when people tell him new things)?  Obviously, pinning the “weirdo” reaction on the gifted child and expecting him to become more “socially adept” in order to avoid triggering it is wrong and ridiculous.  Far better to teach greater tolerance for these differences to the other children.  It would cost the gifted child a huge part of himself to “fix” this social interaction, while expecting greater tolerance from more normal kids would be a benefit to themselves as well as the gifted child.

OTOH, it is entirely likely that the gifted child will prattle on about frogs and toads far past the time available and without regard for the fact that others may have things they would like to contribute to the conversation.  So gifted kids do need to be taught to manage their tendencies in order to be respectful to others and capable of engaging in reciprocal conversations and relationships.  However, many gifted kids and adults struggle with figuring out what they are doing “wrong” in social situations.  They have taken the time to master the art of listening, asking questions, making small talk, providing positive feedback, making jokes, being intentionally kind and thoughtful, modulating emotions and reactions so as not to startle or discomfort other people.  And yet they can still find themselves isolated without knowing why.  The simple fact is that we can (and should) encourage gifted kids to develop good social skills, but if we insist on blaming them for all of their social problems, we are being very unfair.

I personally began to get an inkling of the idea that I might be different from other people in ways that I hadn’t previously realized a couple of years ago.  A woman from my bible study who I was trying to get to know (and who was being rather unresponsive) commented in a discussion, “I always think I’m so unique and different, but the more I get to know other people, the more I realize that they are interested in and looking for the same things as I am.”  It really hit me that my experience of life was just the opposite;  I always thought of myself as normal.  Yet the more I got to know people, the more I realized that other people are pretty much nothing like me.  What is so funny is that other people saw me and interacted with me and seemed to know immediately that I was different.  Yet I, the one who is supposed to be so smart, was frequently oblivious to this.  Actually, I wasn’t so much oblivious to it as I was oblivious to the effect that this difference has on the way people respond (or don’t respond) to me.  Once I started looking into giftedness, things started to make more sense to me.  While it is a little discouraging to realize that there is really nothing I can do to change some of the negative ways people respond to me, it is also freeing to realize that this doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong.

I have found that especially being a mom, when you are very different, it can be hard to find others who “get” you.  Unlike fields like medicine or engineering where gifted people are the norm, motherhood pulls in people from across the range of the intelligence scale.  One of the things which I appreciate about the internet and this blog is that it is much easier to find people who share my interests and probably a few of my OEs online than it is in real life.  So, especially to my regular readers and commentors, thanks so much for joining in here.  It’s nice to have an outlet where you are appreciated rather than just labeled “weirdo”.

A Short History of Education Philosophy

Education, What are we Talking About?

Many people today are unaware that most schools do not operate with a standardized curriculum that is tied to a particular educational philosophy. Most schools’ teaching and learning methods are in fact a hodge-podge of educational theories, with teachers recreating the teaching methods used by their teachers. Of course, there are schools that specialize in a certain method such as Montessori Schools and Waldorf Schools — but most schools have no uniform theory. If the United States is to improve education, then people will have to simply know more about it. There are questions we should be asking, such as what educational theory backs up standardized testing? Before we make longer school days, let’s determine what we will be doing during this time and discern what theory supports our work. If America is to tackle the education debate, we will simply need more education to know what we are talking about.

For the average parent or citizen concerned with education, here is a very abbreviated walk through educational history presented with the hope that an understanding of today’s classroom becomes a bit more clear. The history of education is naturally a multidisciplinary study that combines philosophy (what is important for people to learn), psychology (how our personalities and social systems affect our learning), and science (how the brain actually functions).

Chinese Roots
Educational theory has a history that can be traced back to the fifth century BC, when Confucius developed a method of study in which students read examples of problems and then worked hypothetically to solve them. This evolved into the modern-day practice known as the case study, which is becoming widely accepted in business but has its greatest application in the study of law. Another prominent fifth century thinker was the philosopher Lao-tzu who wrote, “If you tell me, I will listen. If you show me, I will see. But if you let me experience, I will learn.” This is perhaps the first recorded learning theory, demonstrating that
the concept of experiential learning has been around for a very long time.

Greek Pillars
Socrates and his most prominent student, Plato, entered the educational history scene around 300 BC. Socrates involved his students in the learning process by asking them engaging and thought-provoking questions. Today we refer to this approach as the Socratic method. The process assumes that the answers are within a student, and if he wrestles with them, he will
jog his mind and the mind of his classmates into understanding by searching for the answers. Plato took this idea a step further when he developed a theory and a practice known as the dialectic. Plato posited that real learning happened in the exchange between students, not just the individual probing for answers to questions, but in a dialogue about the questions. This theory led to the founding of the first known university, the Academy, in Athens around 385 BC. Plato also believed that all knowledge is innate and it is through various experiences that we release this knowledge. In addition, around this time Aristotle emerged as the first known advocate of the “whole-person” approach to education. He believed that education should involve the mind, body, and soul (head, heart, hands) and that in order to nurture each aspect we must use play, physical training, music, debate, and the study of science and philosophy. Aristotle was therefore the first person to make the history books that divided learning into separate categories intended to nurture different parts of our growth.

Empty Bucket
When schools became organized (around the tenth century), the methods of Socrates and Lao-tzu were laid to rest in exchange for a method that maintained that students are “empty vessels” and that the teacher can “pour” knowledge into them. Learning happened through transmitting content from teacher to students. This approach to learning is called pedagogy and infers that the teacher is responsible for all decisions about learning because the teacher is the one who knows best. This is the method still used by most classrooms today.

Blank Slate
John Locke, the English philosopher who lived in the late 1600s, advanced the hypothesis that people learn primarily from external input. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690), he asserted that at birth a child is a blank slate and empty of ideas. We acquire knowledge, he argued, from the information that our senses take in about the objects in the world. Locke believed that individuals acquire knowledge most easily when they first consider simple ideas and then gradually combine them to form ones that are more complex. Much of today’s curricula is organized around this concept.

Father of the Progressive Movement
John Dewey is considered the leading progressive educator of the twentieth century, although his ideas reach back to fifth-century BC China and the Greeks. Dewey believed that two essential components in education are the experience of the learner and critical inquiry. He emphasized hands on learning and opposed blank-slate and empty-bucket methods in teaching. His ideas prompted a drastic change in the United States educational systems
beginning in the twentieth century. Dewey’s theory that education must engage with and expand experience has continued to be a significant theory informing current educational research. Dewey criticized educational methods that simply amused and entertained students, a practice commonly referred to by progressive educators as the “sage-on-the-stage” syndrome. He also believed that education should fulfill and enrich the current lives of students as well as prepare them for the future.

Gestalt Principles
In 1912, the German psychologist Max Wertheimer founded Gestalt psychology, based on the idea that everything is an integrated whole. In education, this introduced the concept that rote memorization is not as effective a learning tool as problem solving. In the former, the learner learns facts without understanding them. Such learning is stifling and easily forgotten. In the Gestalt model, students are introduced to the underlying principles embedded in all the concepts they study. They go deeper into the content to see how it integrates with other content. This type of learning comes from within the individual and is not imposed by the teacher. Information learned this way is generalized and therefore remembered for a long time.

Developmental Stages
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who lived to see a number of developments in educational history during his lifetime, from 1896 until 1980, and his teachings still influence the field of educational philosophy and child development. Piaget stressed a holistic approach to education. He believed that children construct understanding through many channels: reading, listening, exploring, and experiencing their environment. A Piagetian-inspired curriculum emphasizes a child-centered educational philosophy or what we call “teaching the whole child.” He is considered the father of constructivism. Constructivism is a theory of learning that says that children learn in stages and that these stages are closely aligned with a child’s age. This idea is combined with the cognitive developmental theory that suggests that children cannot be filled with information they are not ready for. Instead, people must “construct” their own knowledge through experience, building on existing knowledge and beliefs, and cannot grasp the next level of thinking until they’ve mastered the step before
it. Piaget’s theories about developmental stages spawned many educational movements in the early 1900s, many of which are still in existence today.

Montessori Method
Maria Montessori, like Piaget, saw children as natural learners. In 1907, the Italian physician-philosopher-educator opened her first school in Rome. Her method developed to expand Piaget’s developmental theory by assigning age ranges to a child’s learning stages, from birth to adolescence. She believed that children had three-year periods of sensitive development, and she grouped them in age groups, accordingly: birth to age three; age three to age six;
age six to age nine; and age nine to age 12. Like the Greeks, Montessori saw children as competent beings, and her instructional methods encouraged maximal decision-making. She also believed that the environment children learn in makes a significant contribution to their ability to learn. She was the first to introduce children’s furniture into the classroom.

Waldorf Education Picks Up on Piaget’s Concepts
In 1919, Austrian-Swiss philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner founded a progressive school for the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany. Although the school was shut down during World War II, it regained acceptance afterward, and more such schools followed worldwide. Like Montessori, a Waldorf education’s curriculum follows a pedagogical model of child development. Steiner’s model divides childhood into seven-year developmental stages rather than three-year ones, each having its own learning requirements. Waldorf education subscribes to the Aristotelian notion of educating the whole child and emphasizes education that inspires creative and imaginative development in addition to the analytic development that most contemporary schools prefer. Waldorf aims to integrate practical, artistic, and intellectual approaches into the teaching of all subjects.

Under the Right Conditions, We Can Learn Anything
In the 1950s, American psychologist-educator-inventor-poet B. F. Skinner established his own philosophy of science, which he called Radical Behaviorism, and advanced his theory of “operant conditioning.” Conditioning is the scientific term for learning, and operant refers to the concept that people perform actions that change their environments — for better or worse. Each environmental change gives a person feedback. When the feedback is positive, it reinforces the behavior and increases the likelihood it will be repeated. If the feedback is negative, it will decrease the chances the behavior will reoccur. Skinner believed that when behavior was positively reinforced, it was apt to be repeated. This led to the practice of positive reinforcement and introduced to teaching the concept of punishments and rewards. He also believed that the reinforcement must be immediate. This approach led to the idea that through the use of behavioral objectives (descriptions of what a person is being asked to do) and immediate, positive feedback, everyone should be able to learn anything and everything. This philosophy permeates much of our curriculum today and is partly responsible for the idea that given the right amount of learning in a small enough
dose, everyone can master the entire curriculum.

Bloom’s Taxonomy
In 1956, American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom published his “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.” Building on Skinner’s theories, the taxonomy identifies a ladder of mental steps that a learner goes through to reach full understanding of a concept. The taxonomy begins with simple concept definitions and works its way up to the student’s ability to synthesize and evaluate the concepts. This taxonomy is widely used today as a way for teachers to build lesson plans ensuring that learners are moving past rote memorization and toward synthesis of information, thus enabling them to reach the highest cognitive level possible. The taxonomy proved to be extremely valuable in the specification and analysis of student goals and outcomes and the need to design classes to attain them. This approach
provides teachers a way to match what they want the student to learn with the plan they have for teaching.

Multiple Intelligences
Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University and co-director of Harvard’s Project Zero. He is widely known for his theory of multiple intelligences, introduced in his book “Frames of Mind” (1983). In his book, Gardner proposes a novel notion: that “intelligence” should be formally measured in more ways than simply through the widely accepted logical-linguistic IQ-type formalized tests used in most school systems. Frames was very well received by those in the educational arena. Gardner suggests that everyone has elements of each of the intelligences, and we use them depending on our preferences and the kind of tasks we are called to do. This viewpoint is in direct contrast to many of the language and logic theorists who believe that there is only one kind of intelligence, that we either have a lot of it or not that much, and that there is virtually very little that we can do about it.

While this timeline is not by any means exhaustive, it informs our conversations regarding standardized testing, homeschooling and charter schools. We have a great deal of history and theory to inform us about what is best for children. This is followed up by recent studies in brain research that adds scientific findings that are affirming the assumptions of these theories by unpacking how the brain develops. Any real debate about testing and accountability, teaching and learning should keep educational theory in mind if the decisions are truly for the benefit of the learner.