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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The nurture of potential

All over the country and I dare say the entire world, parents, psychologists, teachers, scientists, policy makers and professionals across all disciplines are re-examining and re-defining the ideas of giftedness and gifted education. In a relatively young nation such as the United States, real and occasionally romanticized portraits of gifted individuals abound -- the lives of politicians such as the framers of our Constitution, entrepreneurs such as railroad and automobile magnates or technology gurus such as the recently departed Steve Jobs are scrutinized in an effort to learn more about giftedness. I suppose the thinking is that if we understand their lives by tracing their childhoods and their educations, investigating their support systems such as family and relationships with others, or studying their character traits, we may be able to stumble across a few commonalities that somehow can lay the basis to unlocking the gates to giftedness and thus lay the foundation to a model of...gifted education.

Three prominent gifted education scholars recently published a lengthy report entitiled "Rehinking Giftedness and Gifted Education-- A Proposed Direction Forward Based on Psychological Science." The authors, Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell and their comprehensive report do not disappoint, and for a pre-school - 8th grade school such as Quest Academy,  a portion of their proposed definition of giftedness holds particular promise in that it gives a school such as ours significant food for thought but also (re-)affirmation of how the faculty and staff of Quest Academy carry out their work in educating young gifted children.  

The authors state that "...giftedness can be viewed as developmental in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted."

As with most developmental processes, we seek an outcome. Although eminence is fluid in that eminence demands ever increasing degrees of innovation (e.g. eminence begets eminence), the authors in a way view eminence as the ultimate destination in giftedness or the ultimate pursuit of gifted education. Somewhere along this climb to the mountaintop, the authors suggest that achievement is the component by which eminence may be achieved. Achievements are validated by results in a variety of assessments such as performances or products. Implied is the notion that achievments are to be judged, presumably by those who are considered eminent or at least those who have "passed" or preferably "surpassed" the agreed-upon measures of achievement.

And thus, the authors steer us toward a starting point -- a point at which potential is to be developed, nurtured, and nudged toward achievement and ultimately toward eminence. Potential is the ground level. In examining potential in a scientific context, specifically in the scientific domain of physics, we view potential as "energy that is stored in a body or a system due to its position in a force field or due to its configuration." (Mahesh C. Jain - author of Textbook of Engineering Physics). The position within a force field speaks to environmetal factors (i.e. nurture), while the configuration rests in nature. In my opinion, the nature versus nurture debate is especially relevant when we speak about the development of potential.

Our work with young gifted minds is indeed about optimizing potential to prepare them for a culture and system of achievement. The fundamentally most important discovery here is that an initial and sole focus on achievement may be misguided -- learning at a younger age is much more than performing or producing. I recently asked one of the authors, Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (whom many Quest Academy teachers know as the main professor in the Northwestern University graduate-level gifted education certificate program), at what point we might switch our teaching perspective from a potential to achievement focus. She responded that each domain or field (e.g. the arts, philosophy, literature, gymnastics, mathematics, engineering) have varying switch points. I suspect that it is also different for each individual student.

Interestingly enough, Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius suggested as a general rule of thumb, it may be advantageous to develop a child's familiarity and comfort level with achievement by the time they enter high school. Thus, our work at Quest Academy was re-affirmed in that our faculty beginning at pre-school and through 8th grade start out with a focus on potential and each and every year offer carefully orchestrated and increasing degrees of achievement, never losing sight of the fundamental task of fostering and nurturing potential.

Friday, November 11, 2011

21st Century Literacies fit gifted students

Twenty-first century education is becoming…less fuzzy. Twenty-first century education is evolving. We are in the midst of a shift – we are “jumping the next curve,” as author Guy Kawasaki would tell us. To reach our 21st century destination in education, we must not only embrace but more importantly guide the change that is occurring in the way our students are now learning and living.
One such way to guide our students is to lay out new literacy standards – and indeed, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has laid out 21st century literacy standards. It is exactly work such as this that helps us wrap our arms around 21st century learning. The jump to the next curve in this instance is to look at literacy standards in a new way – in a 21st century way.
“Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable,” according to NCTE.
At a gifted education school such as Quest Academy, students show great interest in becoming technology-literate because these literacies require higher-order thinking skills beyond reading comprehension. Furthermore, these literacies enrich learning – they offer far greater possibility to advance one’s reading and writing on any one given topic.
NCTE has laid out six 21st century skills, some of which I will attempt to expand on in the context of higher order thinking. According to NCTE, 21st century readers and writers need to:
1.       “Develop proficiency with the tools of technology”
2.       “Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally”
3.       “Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes”
4.       “Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information”
5.       “Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts”
6.       “Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments”
Just looking at Standard 3, it is becoming clear that one’s writing needs to become more focused than ever before on one’s audience. Technology enables our writing to be “consumed” throughout the world and to be “filtered” for special audiences. Gifted students will relish the opportunity to compare and contrast communication styles across the globe or determine if a text needs to be designed and formatted differently for older and younger generations.
Standard 4, for example, is already pre-loaded with classic higher-order thinking skills such as analysis or synthesis. Let’s suppose for a minute that 2nd graders have been assigned to research Martin Luther King’s life – a simple “google search” will steer them to a myriad of excellent…and – quite frankly – horrible web sites. Among the top five Google searches for Martin Luther King is a site entitled that includes racist statements. The site is camouflaged to “trick” kids. Kids need to learn to judge web sites in addition to knowing how to find out who publishes web sites.
Standard 6 speaks of ethical responsibilities – the topic of ethics itself is rich material for gifted students. The Internet can serve as a platform for gifted students to change the world to a better place. Creating web sites or games that promote ethical and service-learning related ideas are terrific opportunities for gifted students to put their creativity and intellect to practical use.
The gifted education community, in my opinion, would be wise to endorse these 21st century literacies. They represent rich and value-added opportunities for gifted students.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students

In anticipation of the November 16 community evening at Quest Academy featuring a presentation by renowned gifted education scholar and psychologist Dr. James T. Webb on the subject of “the social and emotional needs of gifted students,” I thought it wise to reflect on this topic. For ticket information, please click here.
“Students must be able to develop a healthy perspective about their own talents and limitations, and those of others; a positive self-image; a positive regard for the processes of learning and inquiry; and a commitment to a guiding set of moral and ethical values,” according to Drs. Dona J. Matthews and Joanne F. Foster, authors of Being Smart about Gifted Education.
Often we read of the hyphenated version of social-emotional needs. Clearly those two needs are interconnected in myriad complex ways, while sometimes it may behoove us to look at each issue as a separate need.
Having now worked as Head of School for almost five years at Quest Academy (, a school specializing in meeting the needs of gifted students, it is clearer than ever before that educating the “whole child” is, in my opinion, paramount in a school, where children have been identified and taught as gifted students. Dr. Webb would tell us that “cultivating courage, caring, and creativity are as important as academics and developing intellectual abilities.” Similarly, Dr. Kirk Erickson, who conducts testing for Quest Academy applicants, states:
"Having advanced intellectual and academic achievement skills are wonderful qualities, but they are not the only things that may predict success. Things like personal motivation, creativity, and work habits are but a few of the skills that are also important. One area that is just as vital, but often overlooked is social and emotional intelligence. The way we relate and interact with the world around us, and how we mange our internal sense of self is often the greatest measure of our potential as human beings."
So what is the “whole child?” Simply put, it is about addressing all the needs a child has – according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), this encompasses:
  •  a need for a healthy environment and learning about healthy lifestyle choices
  • a physically and emotionally safe environment
  • engagement in learning and connection to school and the larger community
  • access to personalized learning
  • a challenging environment shaped by a well-balanced curriculum
Maybe more to the point is the question what defines the “whole gifted child.” This is where it gets difficult as gifted students are not following generally agreed upon developmental milestones, particularly in their intellectual development. Gifted children just do not follow a predictable or “even” developmental pattern – they often follow an asynchronous pattern. In other words, a gifted child at age ten may have intellectual needs equivalent to a 15-year-old, social and emotional needs of a 13-year-old, and physical needs of a ten-year-old. Gifted children, in short, may find themselves at varying developmental levels and may experience polar emotional reactions such as excitement and anxiety or pride and self-doubt in almost one and the same moment. As a result of such asynchronous development, gifted children may be misdiagnosed – and indeed Dr. Webb frequently talks about gifted students being misdiagnosed in an environment, where the needs of gifted children are not recognized or validated.
Gifted children, in my opinion, deserve a different kind of education. This education must be shaped by teachers and parents who understand asynchronous patterns. It is in that spirit that I invite you to the November 16 evening (7 p.m.) with Dr. Webb here at Quest Academy. Dr. Webb will present to our faculty in the afternoon – in the evening, he will address parenting issues such as:
·         motivation and underachievement
·         discipline, power struggles, and self-management
·         intensity, stress and perfectionism
·         acquaintances, friends, and peers
·         complexities of modern parenting
·         misdiagnosis
·         finding a good educational fit.

We hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Potential in Search of a Spark

In the past two weeks, national publications have confirmed what Quest Academy parents and other gifted education advocates have always known to be true – the needs of gifted students have taken a backseat, particularly as the No Child left Behind (NCLB) legislation took effect almost ten years ago. That’s nothing new as far as asserting that gifted kids don’t get what they need – but what is new in these articles is a) concrete research that shows that high-performing students lose ground as they reach higher grade levels; and b) tying the neglect of meeting gifted students’ needs to the economic strength of our nation.
Each publication posed two eerily similar questions. The Christian Science Monitor asks: “By leaving no child behind, do we drag down the best and the brightest …?” For the complete CSM article, entitled “Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling,” please see The most recent issue of Education Week, reporting on a Thomas B. Fordham Institute study,  simply asks: “Is helping kids at the bottom improve hurting kids at the top?” For the complete Education week article, please see
This type of questioning is not new. Advocates of gifted education, including my colleagues at the Illinois Association for Gifted Children (IAGC), have long pleaded for greater attention and care to meet the needs of gifted students. Indeed, IAGC executive director Sally Walker and immediate past president of the National Association for Gifted Children Ann Robinson come right out and state that “top students  need proper funding, too.” For a link to that article, please see
I will say it again – there is nothing new in pointing out that the best and brightest students are the ones who actually are being left behind.
The key to reversing this blatant neglect of gifted students is to provide actual research that shows how students who excel and achieve early in school eventually lose ground. Quest Academy families and students will be happy to learn that the developers of MAP testing (the testing that was introduced at Quest Academy two years ago), have tracked high achieving students early in their school years only to discover that by middle and high school that once-early achievers become average. By tracking scores of 82,000 students, “the study found, for example, that of the students who scored at the 90th percentile or above in math as 3rd graders, only 57.3 percent scored as well by the time they were 8th graders.” From our experience with MAP testing here at Quest Academy, we know that the test adapts to student answers and thus removes any grade-level ceiling of achievement – the test can adapt to maximum standards as opposed to being confined to minimum standards. It seems to me that the study’s sample size is sufficient enough to conclude that indeed a significant number of early achievers lose ground – I believe this is due to kids losing interest and motivation as a result of insufficient challenge and inspiration. In other words, we are talking about potential that has not been ignited.
It is this loss of potential on which the Christian Science Monitor story focuses. “It might seem that the country has bigger problems to worry about than smart kids who are bored silly. But student success is linked to the success of the national economy…” Citing a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the article points out that improving the overall academic performance to a level of attaining the 15th rank worldwide on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment would increase the US gross domestic product by more than $40 trillion. While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of such economic modeling, I intuitively know that fostering our nation’s best and brightest students would spur economic growth. I think we all understand that the loss of gifted students’ potential results in fewer discoveries (patents), fewer solutions, less creativity…in short less growth. Speaking of this potential that our gifted children offer, the article concludes that “it’s potential…that the U.S. can’t afford to waste.”
Who will champion the cause and mission of gifted education? How many more arguments must be put forth that a focus on gifted education is ethically and strategically the right thing to do? It seems to me that we had committed as a nation to leave no child behind – let us apply that mantra to gifted students as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Engaging the Gifted Learner

In advance of the August 29 Opening Day of the Quest Academy school year, our faculty met the preceding week. During a meeting led by our new Director of Teaching and Learning Beth Blaetz, our faculty was asked to produce visual representations of our curriculum that is so heavily influenced by the idea of linking all student learning to conceptual ideas – to lead our gifted students to grapple with our school-wide “Enduring Understandings.” An example of a Quest Academy “Enduring Understanding” for the subject of science is: “Classification is a thought process used to provide order.”

One such visual representation transmitted the idea of ignition. Igniting young gifted minds is indeed what our curriculum is intended to do. One of our school’s 15 Belief Statements reads as follows: Curriculum that first emphasizes conceptual understandings and applications facilitates the subsequent successful retention of discrete knowledge and specific skills.” For a complete list of the Belief Statements:

This belief statement is closely tied to the work of “Understanding by Design” curriculum experts Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Designing the curriculum with big-picture conceptual understandings in mind is a necessary recipe to engage the gifted learner. It affords the gifted learner opportunities to grapple with abstract ideas, simultaneously providing the gifted student “hooks” (i.e. pathways in the brain) onto which they may attach more concrete and specific skills and knowledge. This curriculum design makes learning authentic, connected and relevant. It provides a reason for learning specific skills and knowledge.  

Imagine you are teaching a unit on comma placement. It is a valuable and necessary skill on one’s quest to become a great writer. Through a process of inquiry that will yield essential questions, we would first steer students to the understanding that spoken language uses techniques such as pauses, hand gestures, and voice fluctuations to provide greater meaning to the spoken language. From there, we guide students to the idea of written language. “How do we provide greater meaning in written language?” You can clearly begin to recognize that students will reach a meaning-laden framework as to why punctuation such as commas matters. The Enduring Understandings established at our school for the area of Writing are that “writing relies on conventions” or “the effectiveness of written language depends on organization.”

Gifted students are intrigued by conceptual ideas and passionate about enlarging their conceptual understandings with detailed and specific skills and knowledge. Here, too, we design our curriculum with the determinations of “important to know” and “worth being familiar with.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Transformation of Gifts to Talents

As we approach Opening Day of the 2011/12 school year at Quest Academy, I thought it wise to review our school's Belief Statements. For this initial "Gifted Education Perspectives" blog entry, I have chosen the statement listed in bolded letters -- it may well be my favorite one! For a complete list of the Quest Academy Belief Statements, please see

"Giftedness is exceptional intellectual, physical, creative, and/or affective capacity that can be transformed into extraordinary ability."

This belief statement is closely tied to the work of gifted education theorist Francoys Gagne, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology at the Universite du Quebec. Gagne developed the Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT), offering what I consider to be the clearest and most common-sense distinction of the terms 'giftedness' and 'talent.' By offering this distinction, Gagne makes a clear case that gifted learners require a special education to lead to superior talents.

"Giftedness designates the possession and use of untrained and spontaneously expressed superior natural abilities (called aptitudes or gifts), in at least one ability domain, to a degree that places an individual at least among the top 10% of his or her age peers."

"Talent designates the superior mastery of systematically developed abilities (or skills) and knowledge in at least one field of human activity that places an individual within at least the upper 10% of age peers who are or have been active in that field or fields."

Gagne outlines four basic giftedness areas:
  • intellectual
  • creative
  • socioaffective
  • sensorimotor.
These gifts are developed into talents. Thus, I prefer to think of school as a place of talent development.

School most certainly is among the most influential environmental catalysts to facilitate the successful development of talent. Certainly parents, coaches, and other mentors can play a significant part in talent development. But Gagne also points out that intrapersonal catalysts play a significant role in the development of talent. Motivation, volition, self-management, temperament, and acquired styles of behavior definitely influence the development of talent. It is my personal belief that we can help students develop and identify the optimal intrapersonal attributes required to develop talent. I call this area of teaching the "magic" that teachers possess.

For more information on Gagne's work, please see