Like-Mindedness and the Denial Gene

by Justin Vawter

All men have a denial gene when it comes to aging and their ability to play sports.  It’s a complex chromosome that activates somewhere in a man’s late 20s and then takes full control of the prefrontal medial cortex by his late 30s.  You can observe this phenomenon every weekend, as men with knee braces, back supports, and talcum-powdered loins take to the field or court to “put the smack down” (a stagnated phrase left over from a time when the man’s physical prowess allowed him the mobility of said smack).

I have this gene.  That’s why, this summer, I signed up for mixed-aged martial arts at the Lone Eagle Fighting Arts dojo.  Here I am, with my entry-level white belt, surrounded by a group of kids who are all two feet shorter and at least two belt degrees higher than me.  Fortunately, there were other adults who looked just as awkward as me, and we all lumbered through the steps together.  

This is mixed age.  This is community.  This is what your gifted child needs–a group of like-minded individuals brought together based on interest and ability.

It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth lesson that I lost sight of the age gap.  Perhaps my denial gene kicked in, but there I am kicking a practice dummy, giving both my daughters high fives, and taking advice from a 12-year-old girl with a green hair band that matches her karate belt.  This is mixed age.  This is community.  This is what your gifted child needs—a group of like-minded individuals brought together based on interest and ability.

In 1993, Miraca Gross published her study where she looked at the social isolation of gifted children, concluding that when gifted children were accelerated to be with intellectual peers, the isolation disappears and the students are able to form warm and supportive relationships with older classmates.  As adults, we have all experienced this phenomenon.   For example, colleges do not make your age a prerequisite for attending class.  I know this first-hand because I’m in the same program as Noel Jett, the eighteen-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas (DeLeon, 2015).  Why then, to quote Sir Ken Robinson, is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are…their ‘date of manufacture?’” (2010).  

And Sir Ken wasn’t simply being tongue-and-check; the very same study from Gross (1993) has some chilling evidence: “In almost every case, the parents of [intellectually gifted] children retained in the regular classroom with age peers, report that their student’s drive to achieve, the delight in intellectual exploration, and the joyful seeking after new knowledge, which characterized their children in the early years, seriously diminished or disappeared completely” (pg 8).  

Whether it’s at the dojo or school, you need to find ways to get your intellectually gifted child with like-minded peers.  In the school context, this takes the form of subject acceleration (where the subject matter is streamlined) and grade acceleration (where Timmy completely skips 3rd grade).  

Perhaps the same denial gene that tells me to high kick with no regard for tomorrow’s aching muscle is also responsible for perpetuating an inadequate system in the face of research and reason.

Be warned, all ye’ brave parents, while acceleration is well-researched as an effective intervention for precocious youth, you generally won’t win any friends at your school. Other parents will misconstrue your advocacy as elitism; administrators will baulk at paperwork and adjustments to the master schedule; and the teacher, who is tasked with challenging every student, will take personal offense to being told that her class simply isn’t challenging your son or daughter.  Perhaps the same denial gene that tells me to high kick with no regard for tomorrow’s aching muscle is also responsible for perpetuating an inadequate system in the face of research and reason.  “What? He doesn’t need to advance grade levels.  He’ll be fine after he ‘levels out’.”    

After you’ve come to terms with these obstacles and have still mustered up the courage to move forward, start by learning the vocabulary and approach.  One resource is this publication out of NSW; it’s straightforward and helpful. http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/policies/gats/assets/pdf/polimp.pdf  

Quick side note: I would love to know the experience and suggested resources of my readers who have attempted (successfully or not) to advocate for acceleration.  Your stories help me to build a trove of anecdotes when I work with schools.               

The take away is that there are ways to find like-minded peers inside and outside of the classroom.  I joined a mixed-aged martial arts class because of my over-active denial gene; however, I have become invested in the process.  When I’m there, I’m surrounded by other students who are training with equal gusto, regardless of their age.  Imagine some bizzaro world where every 40-year-old in the neighborhood is required by law to show up to karate at 7pm.  I’m not saying that I’d be the best, but I guarantee I would be one of the few who are eager to learn the sport.  This is your kid in class.  She’s looking around and wondering why the others don’t want to do more math problems or read for fun.  It’s up to you to seek out and advocate for ways where your child can be surrounded by like-minded peers and community.     

References

DeLeon, J. (2015, June 12).  Studying gifted young people.  The North Texan. Retreived from http://northtexan.unt.edu/node/5704

Gross, M.U.M (1993). Exceptionally gifted children. (Print) London: Routledge.  

Gross, M.U.M. (2000). Exceptionally and profoundly gifted students: An Underserved population.  Understanding our Gifted.  Winter 2000.

Robinson, K. (2010).  Changing education paradigms. Video. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms      

Justin is a teacher, gifted specialist, curriculum writer, and fledging practitioner of karate.  He is best known for his creation of mixed-age programs and professional development in the field of gifted education.  You can find learn more about him here.

We’re pleased to join this month’s Gifted Homeschoolers Blog Hop with this post! Click image below for a complete list of this month’s collection.

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“Poke the Box”: Inviting Students to Wonder and Initiate

by Ben Koch

In his 2011 book, Poke the Box: What was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time?, prolific marketing and business expert Seth Godin implores us to reclaim the curiosity that drives INITIATION. Simply put, initiation is the will, the habit, the discipline, and the audacity of starting things. New things. Risky, untested things with a pretty good chance of failure. His metaphor of “poking the box” invokes that unique mix of boldness and insatiable wonder that drives the doers of the new economy. When you poke the box, you are curious enough to want to manipulate, analyze, and maybe even reverse engineer it, despite the high risk of failure. How’s that thing work?! This, says Godin, is the true path to innovation.

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Click to view book on Amazon.

While the book invigorated and inspired the entrepreneur in me, it was the educator and parent in me who began to mentally overlay Godin’s vision onto the world of schools and classrooms. I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?

I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?

Poking the box is so crucial, asserts Godin, because “without the ability to instigate and experiment, you are stuck, adrift, waiting to be shoved” (p.4). Hmmm. I think back to the hundreds of classrooms I’ve seen, and I realize I’d never thought of the classroom environment in quite that metaphorical light–how is a classroom that values compliance and linear, pre-ordained objectives like a BULLY that shoves students into submission?

Godin frames this desire to initiate in terms of types of capital. There can be financial, network, intellectual, physical, and prestige capital, for instance. All crucial to some degree for success. The most important capital, though, the one difference-maker, says Godin, is Instigation Capital: The desire to move forward. The ability and the guts to say yes. “The ability and the guts.” I like that his definition includes guts, because guts imply courage, and courage implies risk. Are our learning environments creating students willing to take risks? Because that’s the key stepping stone, the primal ingredient for developing students into adults who later possess instigation capital.

If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo. Indeed, in his mini chapter Where Did Curious Go? Godin laments the fade of true, insatiable curiosity, that hungry, hellbent drive to just KNOW: “Not the search for the right answer, as much as an insatiable desire to understand how something works and how it might work better.” (p. 24). He’s careful, though, to distinguish between the merely creative person, and the person with initiative: “The difference is that the creative person is satisfied once he sees how it’s done. The initiator won’t rest until he does it” (p. 24).

In the context of the business world, Godin highlights the contrast between that which is  “allowed and not-allowed.” Invariably, employees can rattle off a running list of what’s not allowed at work. But who knows what IS allowed? Why not focus on that, on the realm of the possible? Godin feels we “might be afraid of how much freedom we actually have, and how much we’re expected to do with that freedom.” (p. 37) I immediately applied this filter on the classroom. Pick a random student and ask her to list off all the rules of what not to do to avoid getting in trouble. Now ask the same student what IS allowed. She’s likely to give you a most befuddled look. Classrooms are about constriction and control, not about expansion and possibility.

If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo.

Three years ago, after over a decade in the public school classroom, I walked away to launch my own education company with a friend and business partner. I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it at the time, but looking back now, I see the classroom as a box, slowly but surely becoming a hermetically sealed cube, not to be tampered with. The quest for correct answers driven by high-stakes testing has created a system which values conformity and douses curiosity like a dangerous torch. By upper elementary, most students have complacently accepted the “A, B, C or D world” and stopped wondering about the off-the-page option, let alone how to initiate it.

So, through our company, we started poking all kinds of boxes, seeing what OTHER ways we could enrich the students who needed it most. What types of programs and curriculum and learning environments, when “unshackled” from the constraints of mainstream schooling objectives, really work? Turns out, having the freedom, the curiosity, and the guts, to see education with new eyes, as a system to POKE, has been extremely fruitful.

Well, here are 4 well-wrought and tested pieces of experience-wisdom from these last 3 years of creating “alternative” learning spaces. Am I sharing these to get your kid into one of our programs? While that would be swell, my real motive for sharing is because I sincerely believe these lessons can be applied in virtually any learning environment. Whether you’re a radical unschooler or still teaching in a traditional classroom, there are degrees to which the following can spark up your learning environment to increase initiation capital for your students:

1 Create Mixed-age Learning Interactions

Research on asynchronous development tells us the arbitrary “date of birth” metaphorically stamped on your gifted child’s behind might just be the least important thing to consider (watch a thought-provoking animation of this from Sir. Ken Robinson’s Changing Paradigms talk), and yet our entire industrialized school system hardly wavers from that one organizing principle. We thought, “well, they say intellectual peers are key for gifted kids, so let’s open up the environment to let those connections happen organically.” Nearly all our programs, from our flagship summer camp to our after school enrichment courses, are mixed age, open to grades 1-8. Parents are encouraged to let students gravitate to a course based on their passion. Because where there’s passion, there’s curiosity, and where there’s curiosity, there’s…you guessed it, the drive to initiate!

2 Take Leaps of Failure

Some of the greatest moments of discovery over the last 3 years have taken place when I, as the teacher, stood at the brink of an unknown step right alongside a student. “Will this work? I don’t know! What’s gonna happen? No idea. But is it right? Who cares?!” True, sometimes these mystery steps ended up as face plants onto academic concrete. But many times these moments of unknowing revealed wildly unforeseen solutions and pathways that, had I been the “expert,” we never would have facilitated. Our notion of teacher as “sage on the stage” was so exploded, in fact, that we had to invent a new term to describe our role with students: inspirator. Part educator, part inspirer. An inspirator drives ahead with the same curiosity of his student, and willingly takes leaps of failure.

3 Remove the Burden of Grades

We create academically rigorous, interdisciplinary courses designed to push kids through their zone of proximal development. This ain’t fluff, folks. And we’ve never offered a single numerical/letter grade. Yet students carry through to the very end, digging deep, creating elaborate final projects, and beaming with excitement for the “next step.” How do we do it? Why do students even care? Turns out there’s life after the carrot and stick! Remember when you were 6 and you spent 5 solid hours building a LEGO universe, because your whole being was invested in it? When students meet authentic, passion-driven curriculum that aligns with their own curiosity, there’s a chemical reaction of which the by-product is intrinsic motivation. It’s a thing! And no it can’t be bottled!

4 Embrace Creative Play

Many of our programs are based on the concept of creative play–that students “open up their minds to what’s possible, take chances, solve problems, collaborate and become better creative thinkers and doers” (see the Imagination Foundation).

One event, for example, is inspired by the remarkable story of Caine, the (then) 9 year old boy who transformed his dad’s parts shop into a “maker” arcade of cardboard, tape, and trinkets. I’m still overcome with emotion every time I see it. We host an annual event (like many others around the world with the encouragement of the Imagination Foundation) called the Cardboard Challenge, in which students show up and are presented with one simple challenge: “Here’s a bunch of random stuff, mostly cardboard. By the end of the day, we need a functioning arcade game. Go!” In the beginning, we worried about perception. Would parents see value in this? On the surface it appears loose and unstructured–few see the hours and hours of prep that had gone into creating this open learning environment. Then, at that first event, we saw magic happen. Real, intense, mind-bending alchemy of extraordinary imagination, creativity and problem solving. By not placing boundaries with expectations, young INITIATORS searched for their own boundaries. My first thought, to be honest, was lamentation over the years of wasted opportunities in my classrooms when I’d had too little faith in the organic power of creative play.

You don’t have to be a zany “edupreneneur” like us to approach your gifted students’ learning in this way. Wherever you are–a homeschooling mom, a Middle School principal, a 3rd grade public school teacher–poke that box! Initiate a new learning situation. See what happens.

References

Godin, S. (2011). Poke the box: When was the last time you did something for the first time? Irvington, N.Y.?: Portfolio/Penguin.

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