Friday, January 22, 2021

Creating a learning map: A self-discovery tool for the gifted

How can you make sense of your winding, circuitous path through the world of learning and education? How can you understand your child's experience?

One tool that offers greater insight is a "learning map." By creating a map or timeline of your learning journey, you can understand the life experiences, support, and roadblocks that have influenced your education and achievement. And that understanding may help you navigate your gifted child's experience also.   


Build your learning map or timeline

1. Start with a blank piece of paper and draw - perhaps a path or train tracks or winding road. It can be curvy or full of sharp angles. Think of the layout of your children's board games as examples. Get as creative as you would like with colors and design. Write notations of specific "stops" along the way. Include significant ages and events (a household move; a new school), and leave room for comments and insights.

2. Begin with your earliest memories related to learning. These might include others' appreciation for your talents or accomplishments ("Wow, you read so well." "Did you really just build that amazing LEGO rocket?"), or memories that evoke discomfort ("Why are you so lazy?" "We just know you'll become an artist, just like your mom.") You also may have memories of early achievements or boredom or not fitting in with peers in elementary school. 

3. Continue with how your learning and education unfolded as you progressed through elementary and middle school. Notice memories of your parents' and teachers' reactions to your strengths and struggles. How did this affect your drive to achieve, your identity, and your passion for learning? What schools, teachers, coaches, or family members had the most impact? There might be specific memories of bullying from other students, criticism from teachers for not following rules, or weary reminders that you were not living up to your potential. There also might be awards and accomplishments, and some teachers who really "got you." Who were your closest friends? What activities were a joy... or a burden?

4. Follow up with high school experiences. What was your high school identity? Were you popular? On the fringes? An outlier? Labeled as a "jock" or "theatre kid" or "nerd?" What classes, activities, or extracurriculars excited and energized you? Where did you excel the most? What classes or experiences were negative and why? Were you bored or frustrated or ashamed that you were not always the top student? How did teachers or family react to your accomplishments - or areas of underachievement? Did any of their comments have an impact? How much did your friend group influence your approach to learning? Were there life events (family problems, loss, a relationship breakup) that thwarted your drive to learn?

5. Continue with college, technical or professional school, or career. What was exciting, eye-opening, meaningful, and enriching? How did your social life change after high school? How did your identity change? Were there challenges involving choices and decisions related to choosing a career path? How did family expectations, social pressures, financial concerns, and relationships influence you? How did your path correspond with your personal dreams and expectations? Did you take risks, push yourself, take a safe path, or compromise based on practical considerations?

Why is this helpful?

As you work on this map, vivid memories of accolades, criticisms or regrets may stand out. You also may gain insight into factors you had not previously considered as significant. Keep in mind that various influences may have contributed to your reactions and experiences. For example, was it solely your teacher's blunt critique of your efforts that sidelined your pursuit of an acting career? Or did a parent's job loss and financial worries solidify your view that you must find work that guaranteed a more reliable income? Was it merely that inspirational math teacher who encouraged a hidden talent? Or did that supportive group of "math nerd" friends also create a safety net, shielding you from peers who mocked your skills?

And pay attention to both external influences and events, as well as your own desires and priorities. For example, I initially blamed a boring middle school math and science curriculum for my dramatic decline in interest. Upon further reflection, though, my other preoccupations at that time were the likely culprits - hunting down acne remedies, wondering whether a boy would EVER notice me, and outrage over social injustice - leaving little room for the discipline and detailed focus required to master science and math.

Gaining greater self-awareness and a humble appreciation of the many factors that influenced our career paths is a powerful experience. This level of self-knowledge also affects our parenting, as we may have more empathy for our child's dilemmas, recognize and sidestep potential roadblocks earlier, and appreciate what aspects of our past we hope to replicate and what we long to change. 

You may choose to share your learning map with your spouse, partner, friends, family, or even your children (depending on their age and receptivity to this). Include their feedback, questions, and challenges as additional, useful information. Have you held onto a perception that does not fit with the facts? Perhaps you always assumed you were deficient in a particular area, but receive challenging feedback that you are more than competent. Maybe you have regrets for not pursuing a particular career, when in reality, you realize you never would have enjoyed it. 

After you have drawn the map, written your comments, shared it with trusted others, and incorporated their feedback, put it away for a while. Return to it in a few months. Add additional comments and ideas. Notice if you have a slightly different perception after this second look. Put it away and return to it another time. If the map evokes too many troubling feelings, consider working with a licensed mental health professional to help you further. Most importantly, use these insights as a guide in your parenting journey as you navigate challenging decisions with your gifted children.

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