Friday, March 27, 2015

Is it really so terrible to be gifted?

Another sensationalistic headline broadcasts negative stereotypes about the gifted.

A recent article in Business Insider, entitled "Twenty reasons it's horrible to grow up 'gifted'" portrays the image of miserable, angry gifted adults, distressed because they were labeled gifted as children. (I'm not sure how this has anything to do with business, but I'll try to reserve judgment on that.)

Let's look more closely at this article. The author, Richard Feloni, reviewed a Reddit poll asking gifted people if they believed that receiving the label of "gifted" was helpful or harmful to them, and then listed responses highlighting the "top" examples of harmful effects.

  • There was no mention of responses claiming that being gifted was helpful. 
  • There was no clarification that the poll was a completely unscientific survey of people who choose to spend their time airing gripes on Reddit. 
  • There was no mention of published research about gifted children or adults, or even a nod to peer-reviewed conceptual articles or books published by respected leaders in the gifted literature, such as Gross, Webb or Silverman
  • There was no mention about why some gifted children struggle, such as having to face an inadequate education, bullying or negative stereotypes. There were no links to articles attesting to normal adjustment among gifted individuals.

So what can we learn from the comments in the Reddit survey?

Most of the participants complained about parenting practices that left them feeling angry or confused. Poor parenting practices, such as comparing siblings to one another, bribing for grades, or lavishing praise on children for being smart were cited. These participants most likely missed out on the support and guidance they needed to understand what it means to be gifted. It is also likely, though, that conflicts would have occurred within these families, regardless of gifted identification.

Readers unfamiliar with giftedness might assume from this article that being gifted caused the problems cited by survey participants. And one has to wonder if the article's intention was to alleviate envy among non-gifted readers by reassuring them that, yes, being gifted is a horrible experience.

Yet, giftedness is not a choice. Regardless of what you call it, gifted people have an IQ above 130, emotional excitabilities, and exceptional talents above the norm. Children who are not labeled still know they are different from their peers. They might try to mask their abilities from others, but they can't hide from themselves. It is up to parents and teachers to help them grapple with what this means and learn how to handle their emotions, self-image and social relationships.

In fact, I have never...not once...encountered a gifted adult who regretted being identified as gifted as a child. I hear distress about childhood experiences in my psychotherapy practice, but have never heard complaints about gifted identification. If any concerns associated with being gifted in childhood are expressed, they tend to include the following:

  • They were not identified and didn't realize they were gifted gifted until adulthood
  • They never received gifted services
  • They still don't believe they are gifted
  • They were bored in school and never received a challenging education
  • They felt isolated and unable to find enough like-minded peers
  • They felt misunderstood by teachers and peers
  • They felt insecure and unable to live up to their own standards

Of course, there are stressors associated with being gifted. But many of these stressors relate to family, social or school situations that are poorly handled and could have been a problem regardless of giftedness. Many gifted adults were relieved to have been told they were gifted in childhood, as it helped to explain why they have felt so different or isolated or misunderstood. And many also feel grateful about their abilities and opportunities. They get joy from their work, interests and hobbies, and actively seek out peers who understand them.

It is unfortunate that Business Insider would publish such a one-sided laundry list of complaints without providing alternative views, established research findings, or informed opinions about giftedness. Some of the regrets expressed in the Reddit column certainly reflect valid struggles many gifted individuals face. But showcasing their concerns in this article serves no useful purpose, and at worst, perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Strategic practice (It's not how much, but how)

"The first 500 watercolors are just practice..." That discouraging statement came from my 10th grade art teacher. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear as I struggled to prevent the colors from running amok. And, of course, I never got anywhere near the 500 mark. But he was on to something.

Several recent articles have highlighted the importance of practice.

Despite persistent debate over whether innate ability or hard work is more critical to success (including challenges to the entire controversy), few would dispute the essential role of focused practice. Not just showing up and mindlessly clocking in the hours. But practicing carefully, constructively, mindfully.

How much practice?

In "10 years of silence," James Clear addresses the amount of time it takes for highly talented people to develop expertise. He claims that at least ten years of dedicated practice are necessary before they can achieve success, and names gifted musicians, artists, and even athletes like Kobe Bryant to highlight his point. He stresses that Mozart, for example, created his best work after at least ten years of effort. And Bryant, despite his talent and aura of success, is portrayed as a model of dedication and hard work.

How many hours are needed?

Yet, in "Hours, concentrating, listening," violinist Stephen Brivati questions how many hours of practice are actually necessary. He points out that fewer practice hours are needed as long as musicians maintain a higher level of concentration and if they truly learn to listen to themselves. Brivati quotes violinist Ivry Gitlis, who criticized the current emphasis on technical skills: "the fingers of yesterday's violinists followed their souls, whereas today's players follow their fingers." Rather than rote exercises and memorization, musical study needs to access a student's passion and excitement for the music.

It's not how much...but how

Ericsson and his colleagues claimed that dedicated practice accounts for mastery and expertise. This theory led to the popular and often misinterpreted "10,000 hour rule" for dedicated practice. However, a recent meta-analytic review of a large number of studies conducted by Macnemara and colleagues found only a weak association between the importance of practice and expert performance. This was particularly evident in studies where actual hours of practice were recorded and where standardized measures were used, rather than when findings were based on retrospective accounts. Ericsson has disputed Macnemara's findings, though, claiming that inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis were problematic. While this controversy is still not yet resolved, the question of how to practice most effectively remains. As Macnemara notes:
"There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important...It is just less important than has been argued. For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?"

What is the best way to practice?

In "8 things top practicers do differently," Noa Kageyama tackles what constitutes effective practice. He points out that:
"It's true that some degree of time and repetition is necessary to develop and hone our skills, or course. But we also know on some intuitive level that to maximize gains, we ought to practice 'smarter, not harder.' But what does that really mean anyway? What exactly do top practicers do differently?"
Kageyama cites a study of serious music performance students conducted by Robert Duke at the University of Texas. Pianists were asked to learn a short but difficult passage, were evaluated on their learning strategies and later rated on their performance. What became clear was that frequent repetitions and practicing longer had little impact on the quality of their performance. What mattered most was how the musicians spent their practice time. Those who approached learning strategically with an emphasis on ensuring that they would not repeat their mistakes received consistently higher ratings.

What seems clear is that how we practice is essential.

We all know when we cut corners, lose focus, and turn in a sloppy practice or training session. While we may try to fool ourselves and others by putting in the time, we only reinforce negative habits, increase the frequency of mistakes, and slowly drain our creative energy. Long-term problems also can develop, such as chronic procrastination and avoidance, lack of motivation, self-doubt, anxiety and loss of interest in what was once a joyful activity. Practice becomes rote, a deadening task devoid of meaning. Before you log the next hour or two or five, ask yourself the following:

  • How do I want to practice?
  • What skills are needed to improve my efforts?
  • Which areas of weakness do I avoid working on?
  • What is the most efficient way to achieve my goals?
  • How can I remain attuned and focused during practice?
  • What strategies could make practice more engaging and enjoyable? 
  • How can practicing enhance my creativity and passion?
  • Where can I get the training, advice, support or inspiration I need?

Deliberate, mindful practice

Focused, deliberate and mindful practice can ease the burden of routine tasks, and can enhance mastery of complex skills that lead to expertise. Practicing a skill is a necessary stepping stone to mastery, but also can be enlivening itself depending on how you approach it. An overview of what constitutes deliberate practice includes the following recommendations:
"The first element is the design of the practice itself...Perhaps the most important aspect of the practice of future masters is that it allows them to grow continuously...As the pupils' proficiency grow, further specifically conceived exercises take them beyond - or sometimes around - the obstacles that cause most people to stumble."
"A second characteristic of deliberate practice is the presence of a constant stream of feedback. This feedback is most effective when it is immediate and constructive. Of course, a qualified teacher, coach or mentor is vital in providing this continuous, expert guidance."
So, how do you get yourself to practice when you just don't have the motivation or interest? Kaufman suggests that the missing link - what actually motivates someone to engage in deliberate practice - is inspiration:
"I believe an overlooked characteristic that influences the motivation to engage in deliberate practice is inspiration...When people become inspired, they usually are inspired to realize some future image of themselves...It is the clarity of this vision, and the belief that the vision is attainable, that can propel a person from apathy to engagement, and sustain the energy to engage in deliberate practice over the long haul, despite obstacles and setbacks."
What you can do next

Try to identify what needs to change so that practice is enlivening and engaging. Find the right teacher or coach. Determine how to make practice more deliberate, focused and mindful. Find your inspiration and create a roadmap for your future goals. If practice becomes more challenging and meaningful, it might lose its dullness and sense of burdensome routine. If you believe you can accomplish your goals more efficiently, learn something new, or achieve a deeper "connection" to your creativity, it might seem worth the effort. And sometimes, you might even enjoy it.

Let us know what practice strategies have worked for you in the comments section below.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When schools cannot meet gifted children's needs

First, do no harm.

That is the principle physicians, therapists, and yes, teachers, strive to honor. But what happens when school actually causes harm? What can parents do to protect their child's emotional well-being and preserve their intellectual spark and curiosity?

This is the dilemma reflected in Celi Trepanier's new book, Educating your gifted child: How one public school teacher embraced homeschooling, which details the heartbreaking, enlightening, and ultimately inspiring journey she and her children traveled in pursuit of a learning environment that would not only enliven their education, but rescue them from harm.

But wait...What if you have no interest in homeschooling?

This book is still a valuable resource for parents who continue to choose traditional schools for their children. Highly readable, engaging, and informative, Trepanier not only offers advice about how to implement homeschooling, but provides validation, support and research-based findings regarding the struggles gifted children (and their parents) face in traditional school settings.

Gifted children often suffer due to misunderstanding and myths.

Trepanier highlights some of these harmful myths, including beliefs that gifted children are all high achievers who maintain good grades, have been "hot-housed" by pushy parents, come from upper or upper-middle class homes, and can fend for themselves in the regular classroom. She goes on to point out the absurdity of expecting gifted children to, literally, entertain and teach themselves while teachers tend to the rest of the class.

A book grounded in personal experience as well as research 

Trepanier speaks from experience. Once an enthusiastic and successful elementary teacher herself, she is well aware of how little training teachers actually receive about giftedness.  Her enthusiasm for traditional education waned once she had gifted children of her own, and witnessed the ignorance and roadblocks firsthand. She describes, for example, how one of her children was not only prevented from participation in an advanced class, but was actually bullied by the teacher:
The teacher told my son that he had not yet earned the "privilege" of being in her class, adding, "I know your mom think's you are gifted, but you will have to prove to me how smart you are." (p.14)
Trepanier highlights pressure on schools and teachers, such as the No Child Left Behind initiative and the emphasis on testing to reach proficiency levels. These demands leave even well-meaning teachers with little choice other than to "teach to the middle" and help those struggling students meet basic grade-level standards. There is little time left to attend to gifted students' needs. As a result of these initiatives, Trepanier cites research demonstrating that gifted children's test scores have actually dropped. For a variety of reasons, traditional schools are often unable to meet the needs of gifted students. As she states:
Gifted children require a differentiated education that meets their specific learning needs as much as children well below the norm. Gifted children are not merely smarter, as in simply being above average; they are so much above the norm, that the development of their brains - the way they think, perceive, feel, envision, rationalize and learn - is considerably different from children in the normal range of intelligence...Sadly, our current traditional school systems have failed to address this need, and our gifted children continually fail to show adequate yearly progress and fail to reach their educational potential. (p.41)
Educating your Gifted Child offers helpful guidance for navigating the path to homeschooling, an alternative more parents are starting to consider. But again, its information and advice is valuable for all parents of gifted children. The book details the uncertainty and punch-to-the-gut feeling parents experience when they realize that their gifted child is not receiving the educational services he or she deserves. It incorporates the same engaging and down-to-earth style that is part of Trepanier's popular blog, Crushing Tall Poppies, and is both powerful and a pleasure to read. Give it a try!

Trepanier, C. (2015). Educating your gifted child: How one public school teacher embraced homeschooling. Olympia, WA: GHF Press.