Srinivas Jallepalli is the founder of Sankalpa Academy, a growth mindset school that seeks to offer gifted education to all children. Sankalpa Academy is located a few blocks from the Thinkery in the Mueller area and will be launching in Fall 2018.
In my last two blog posts (the first two of a three-part series), we argued that all children should receive gifted education and that education needs to be cognizant of a child’s core competencies such as empathy and grit. In fact, our assertion was that schools should go beyond mere awareness and also seek to nurture and develop these competencies. Can we offer all our children a foundational education, so tomorrow’s change makers are authentic seekers who pursue purposeful lives? Is this only an aspiration or can a school truly deliver on this promise?
According to the National Education Association (NEA 2015), K-12 education spending averaged $11,355 per child in the 2013-14 academic year. With an average class size of 25, we spent about $283,875 per classroom. The average public school teacher salary for the same period was $56,610 or slightly less than 20%. In other words, a significant fraction of the budget appears to be allocated for auxiliary instructional and support staff, infrastructure and other fixed costs. Perhaps some of this budget should be redirected towards staff that can support a truly gifted education?
Most gifted education programs, we should note, traditionally focus on the cognitive skills of a child. More importantly, they have been limited to content acceleration and occasionally some enrichment. However, while simple content acceleration is cost-effective and a good first-step, it does not develop the full potential of our children. Children gain more foundational skills when presented with gaps in learning that they then have to bridge through exploration and risk-taking. Many tools, such as carefully crafted project-based learning and one-on-one Socratic discussions, can be used to gently guide a child, as needed, while the child builds resilience and risk-taking skills. As we have seen from the previous blogs, exploration-based education is not simply aspirational, many schools around the world pursue this objective. The devil is, however, in the details. To support and not frustrate a child, we need to understand the needs of each child on an individual basis. While some schools have been using adaptive software tools to provide an individualized academic experience, these tools, by themselves, often help more with content mastery than with competency development. They do not have much of an incentive to focus on a child’s curiosity, creativity, empathy or exploration skills, for instance. A truly gifted education therefore requires significant individualization and access to master teachers. And, even though this kind of personalization can be expensive, it should be cost-effective in the long run as it builds agency and enhances a child’s engagement, understanding and retention.
Authentic and meaningful education entails much more than resilience and risk-taking. With small classrooms, master teachers, school psychologists and yoga instructors, the ensuing discussion will show that it is possible to understand and accelerate the development of the full repertoire of each child’s gifts and core competencies. The ultimate validation of any educational process, however, is in the engagement of the child. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot force it to drink. Has the child developed the right mindset and love of learning? Is the curriculum too challenging for the child or is it not challenging enough? Is the child being given enough opportunities for independent investigation or is he/she being too coddled? Is the child risk-averse or resilient? A curriculum that is empowering, intentional through an individualized learning plan (ILP) and an environment that is purpose-driven and focused on a growth mindset should provide the best conditions for promoting the engagement of a child. Purposeful achievement and belonging give children a strong sense of joy and pride and thus strengthen the cycle of further engagement and learning. We need to closely monitor each child’s engagement through classroom observations and parental input as it is a very important indicator of his/her growth potential. This engagement is a result of the environment the child experiences and six other core competencies (curiosity, cognition, empathy, ambition, creativity and communication). A gifted education program should be built using an intimate understanding of the child’s key opportunities along all of these growth dimensions.
The environment is one of the most important drivers of learning and the first one in our list. In addition to basics such as diet and sleep, environment provides all the sensory input that feeds our body and mind. Educators should cultivate an authentic, caring and empowering relationship, provide a rich set of real world experiences and obtain a good understanding of his/her zone of proximal development. At a bare minimum, we should try to ensure that a child’s environment does not cause anxiety or other debilitation, whether it be due to physical or emotional safety or a sensory processing disorder (SPD). These can limit a child’s ability to even function, let alone learn. And, while exploration and discovery are very powerful vehicles for learning, there is also a role for deliberate and thoughtful external scaffolding. According to Vygotsky (Vygotsky 1978), the potential for cognitive development depends upon the "zone of proximal development“ (ZPD). ZPD is a measure of the difference between what a child can learn from others versus what they can learn on their own. It is important to find the right balance between the two. Parental input, a child’s self-report and classroom observations should give us plenty of information for understanding the strengths and opportunities presented by a child’s environment. We may be able to introduce new experiences, alter the classroom experience and/or offer mindfulness meditation and yoga to a child suffering from SPD, for instance.
The environmental experiences fuel the curiosity that a child expresses. Fluency and domain knowledge, the empowerment felt by the child, the number and nature of open-ended questions can all help boost a child’s curiosity. On the other hand, poor preparation, fear of criticism, insecurity, very high expectations, entrenched dogmas, fixed mindset and habituation to apathy are some of the common barriers that can stifle our curiosity. Also, as Chris Jackson's hybrid model of learning (Jackson 2005) suggests, excessive urge to explore can sometimes lead to poor social outcomes and dysfunctional learning unless other attributes such as cognition, empathy and ambition are able to channel it appropriately. It is therefore necessary that we have a good understanding of a child’s curiosity, opportunities for fostering it and its integration into the overall intellectual profile of the child. This should be possible through testing and classroom observations.
It is our IQ and cognitive skills that help us harvest the information that we receive as a result of our curiosity. Since IQ is known to be malleable up to adolescence (becoming more stable thereafter), there has been a lot of interest in investigating the avenues for increasing a child’s IQ. For example, a study by Sally Grantham-McGregor in the Lancet medical journal shows that the IQ of severely malnourished preschool children increased significantly when the children were given opportunities to play (Grantham-McGregor 2007). This 2007 study is ground-breaking as it demonstrates that IQ can indeed be improved through empowerment and exploration (fantasy play). There are several reports (Jaeggi 2008, Nisbett 2012) that sustained and adaptive working-memory (WM) training through brain exercises can measurably enhance a wide range of cognitive skills. These studies suggest that WM training can improve fluid intelligence i.e. our ability to solve problems in novel situations. However, there are also claims that WM training is only effective in the specific domain of memory training and that it does not generalize well to other domains beyond working memory (Dunning 2013, Monica 2013). These conflicting reports appear to suggest that WM training needs to be novel, adaptive and sustained. If it does not constantly challenge the child, it may become more of an unconscious, muscle memory training exercise than a set of conscious experiences that primes a child’s brain and trains him/her to overcome the fears of novelty and risk-taking. Such confidence may be required to dissuade the mind from slipping into accepting distractions and mental chatter as the path of least resistance. For instance, a curriculum that is designed to monitor a child’s ZPD and provide such novelty should be able to exercise our brain in new ways. This can help create new synaptic connections and facilitate construction of new learning. In addition, broader interventions such as nourishment, home life and access to greater opportunities have all been shown to play a significant role in enhancing cognition (Diamond 2011). Adequate physical exercise, diet, sleep and stress management are also helpful for reducing mental chatter and readying the brain. Finally, recent studies by Katherine MacLean et al. (MacLean 2010) and Hölzel et al. (Hölzel 2011) offer compelling evidence that meditation can significantly improve concentration and produce changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes.
The environment, a child’s curiosity and cognition help build the information database for a child. It is then the child’s value system and emotional intelligence that color the information in the database and power the child’s priorities and motivation. Emotional literacy and perspective taking are the affective and cognitive parts of empathy. Our emotional intelligence and empathy typically begin with self-awareness. Children need to first understand their own needs and emotions since we cannot fully understand another person or relate and respond to their experiences if we don’t first appreciate our own hopes, fears and desires. This is possible only when one feels a sense of safety and security. Research shows that affectionate relationships and pleasant social interactions are likely to foster improved emotional awareness by boosting oxytocin levels (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003, Domes 2007, Eisenberg-Berg 1978). It has also been shown that reasoning with children, even very young ones, about the impact of their behavior on others and the need for compassion and kindness can help promote their empathy (Zahn-Waxler 1979). Recent research also suggests that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, helps people perform better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence (Kidd 2013). Literary fiction often leaves more to imagination, inviting readers to make inferences about characters. This primes the readers’ sensitivity to emotional nuance and complexity. There is interesting research also into the biology of empathy. Davidson has shown that loving-kindness meditation focused on unquestioning love for others is able to significantly modulate our amygdala (Davidson 2010). Amygdala nuclei, located deep in the medial temporal lobes of the brain in the limbic system, have been shown to play a pivotal role in the memory and processing of emotional responses (Amunts 2005). This modulation is also believed to result in an increase in a person's sociability and social connectedness (Hutcherson 2008). One can get a good report on a child’s empathy through classroom observations and activities as well as parental input and a child’s self-report.
A healthy environment that fuels curiosity, enhances cognition and builds empathy should do wonders for a child’s motivation. Even though some parents feel that ambitiousness is determined at birth, purpose driven goal setting, grit and gratification deferment skills can all be developed. These are the skills that pave the path to success. Creating portfolios of accomplishments, risk-taking and resilience through failures can help build the confidence of a child in his/her talents, goal-setting abilities and grit. Greater awareness and control over our thoughts is believed to help us overcome impulses and thus lead to mastery of delayed gratification (Haines 2012). The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments conducted by Prof. Walter Mischel in the late 1960s (Mischel 1972, 1989) showed very good correlation between gratification deferment skills of four-year old children and their success later in adult life. Of greater interest, perhaps, are the experiments that showed that it is possible to gain increasing control over urges for instant gratification with practice (Baumeister 1999; Hayton 2010). Finally, Lewis and Linder published an interesting study that looked at the effect of choking under the pressure caused by a fear of failure and ways to overcome this stress (Lewis 1997). These kinds of stress management techniques can also help develop the confidence and ambitiousness of a child.
While creativity has some overlap with IQ and ambition, it is still a distinct, higher order competency. This is a critical skill for entrepreneurs and thought leaders. There was wide-spread belief that children with the highest IQ were the ones who were the most creative. J. P. Guilford's work showed that there is a threshold I.Q. level above which correlation between creativity and classical intelligence breaks down (Kozbelt 2010). Guilford's work (Guilford 1967) inspired two of the common tests used today for assessment of student creativity, the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking or TTCT (Torrance 1998) and Williams Creativity Assessment Packet (Williams 1980). While TTCT is focused on divergent thinking, Williams’ taxonomy calls for eight hierarchical thinking skills, four are cognitive in nature and the other four measure affective abilities. Williams' four cognitive skills, Fluency, Flexibility, Originality and Elaboration are identical to those in TTCT. Fluency looks at the quantity of ideas one can generate in any given situation. Flexibility goes a bit further and looks at the ability to generate variations of the initial thoughts and resisting premature closure. Originality is an even higher order skill, it is the ability to generate unique possibilities. Finally, elaboration stands for the ability to expand on these ideas and lay them out in great detail. Elaboration helps our ideas get understood and accepted. For many children, conformity resulting from peer pressure, societal expectations and judgmental feedback and disapproval of fantasy stifle their creative potential. As one might expect, researchers such as Gregory Feist have found that creative people are often highly ambitious and impulsive, that they tend to exhibit high levels of self-confidence and a penchant for ignoring conventions and take risks. Surprisingly, they also found that creative individuals often had lower levels of conscientiousness (supporting Chris Jackson’s hybrid model of learning) and few qualms about exhibiting some degree of arrogance, contempt and hostility (Feist 1998). This study again suggests that it is not sufficient to only support and promote creativity in children, we need to also take a holistic view of a child’s development.
While communication is the last skill on our list, it is perhaps one of the most important. George Bernard Shaw once said that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. While most schools have very good programs for communication and language arts, we still find that too many children graduate out of high schools with sub-optimum communication skills. One key reason for this is that many programs, even those in gifted education, do not promote enough reflection and empowerment. For example, there aren’t enough opportunities for precis writing, debate and listening and reflection. In the words of Dorothy Nevill, the nineteenth century English writer, "the real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."
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