Note: This article is adapted from talks I’ve given in churches in four states. I have declined to give this talk on public school property, mostly because public schools don’t need anyone complaining about their invited speakers.
My rational, scientific husband has had difficulty dealing with my fascination with certain mysteries. When I first told him my topic for this talk, he asked whether he would be able to handle it.
I reminded him that I enjoy reading the Skeptical Inquirer, and I am grateful for the work of “bad science” critic Ben Goldacre in England. We both recognize that science itself is sometimes an iffy proposition: What is considered scientific truth today may change after new discoveries in the future.
For avid researchers who want to delve deeply into the philosophy of scientific change, I recommend reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), or, for lighter fare, this excellent 50th anniversary article about Kuhn in The Guardian: Thomas Kuhn: The Man Who Changed the Way the World Looked at Science.
Science is not static; scientists seek to solve mysteries, and the solving of mysteries can change our view of the world. The non-rational and non-scientific mysteries of today may be considered scientific truth in the future.
I don’t usually speak or write about my favorite mysteries. Why? Because it’s risky to speak of non-rational, non-scientifically explainable phenomenon in the rational circles of our society. When we profess belief in mysteries outside other people’s comfort zones, we risk being dismissed or ostracized. Today I feel compelled to speak, nonetheless, because children deserve adults who will respect them and their experiences, however mysterious.
The Mysteries of High Intelligence
The main mysteries I’ve encountered in my life come from my work with profoundly intelligent children. By “profoundly intelligent,” I mean those rare children with intelligence off the charts. Assuming current IQ tests could measure high enough, I mean children with IQs over 160, and some with IQs up over 200. (The outdated WISC IV had extended norms; I have not yet seen extended norms for the WISC V (2014) or any other current IQ test.)
Over the years, I’ve encountered three types of mysteries surrounding profoundly intelligent children:
(1) The mystery of their high intelligence.
(2) The mysteries they experience.
(3) The mysteries they explore during their lives.
In sections that follow, I will discuss each of those three types of mysteries. First, though, I need to say a few words about the nature of profoundly intelligent children.
The Nature of Profoundly Intelligent Children
By “profoundly intelligent children,” I do not mean children who perform well in school. Some do, of course, but intelligence is not solely about verbal and math ability. The same brain biology that makes a person quick in verbal and math realms can make the person quick in emotions, in the senses, and in the physical realm. For more information, see The Gifted Brain (2016) by the team at the nonprofit organization Gifted Research and Outreach, see Developmental and Cognitive Characteristics of “High-Level Potentialities” (Highly Gifted) Children (2011) published in the International Journal of Pediatrics, see Annemarie Roeper’s chapter titled “Giftedness is Heart and Soul” in High IQ Kids (2007), and see Overexcitability and the Highly Gifted Child (2000) by Sharon Lind.
The brain appears to work best as a unified whole. The best mathematicians use many areas of their brains when solving problems. In mathematically gifted adolescents, the entire brain is involved in the “fast, well-insulated, efficient” biological stuff of high intelligence. See Interhemispheric Interaction During Global-Local Processing in Mathematically Gifted Adolescents, Average-Ability Youth, and College Students (2004) available through the National Institutes of Health. Popular media have perpetrated right-brain, left-brain nonsense, but cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman upends that misconception with this excellent rant: The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.
Profound levels of intelligence affect all parts of the brain and all aspects of a child including academics, emotions, body, and more. The “more” includes many mysteries.
(1) The Mysteries of High Intelligence
In my work with profoundly intelligent children, I’ve heard babies speak full sentences, I’ve met seven year olds successfully taking college courses, and I’ve taught preteens who surpassed doctoral students after just one game theory lesson. I’ve seen five-year-olds read 250-page books. I’ve seen a shocked math teacher remark to himself after an introductory calculus lesson to curious children ages seven to eleven, “I just taught four weeks of math in one hour.” I’ve seen preteens who appear to have been born knowing math; they can pass an end-of-year high school math test without taking the course or looking at a textbook for more than a few hours. I’ve known students who mastered musical instruments so fast that music contest organizers challenged their answers to “how many years have you played?”
The abilities of profoundly intelligent children are mysteries to me. Why and how do extreme levels of intelligence exist in humankind? I do not know. If I had not seen and heard those displays of intelligence mentioned above, I might not have believed them possible.
Because envy pervades our society, bravery is required in order to talk about the seemingly mysterious abilities of profoundly intelligent children. Parents of such children quickly learn to keep their mouths shut, as Juliet Thomas wrote eloquently in Hard Won Truths. For an excellent scholarly article on the topic of envy, see Envy and Giftedness: Are We Underestimating the Effects of Envy? by Catharine Alvarez. I wholeheartedly agree with Alvarez that, “The problem of dealing with other people’s envy is one of the central problems of gifted development.”
Envy isn’t the only problem facing profoundly intelligent children. In his 1869 essay On Liberty, 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized that individuals with high levels of intelligence have a tendency to exhibit originality in thought and action, and that originality often exceeds the comfort zone of others:
People think genius is a fine thing if it enables a man to write an exciting poem, or paint a picture. But in its true sense, that of originality in thought and action, though no one says that it is not a thing to be admired, nearly all, at heart, think that they can do very well without it.
Mill explained in his next paragraph, “In sober truth, whatever homage may be professed, or even paid, to real or supposed mental superiority, the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.”
Fortunately, not all is gloom and doom. Whenever I meet children with high levels of intelligence, I encourage their parents to find other families with children of similar abilities. All children benefit from feeling a sense of belonging, and all parents benefit from having safe places to talk with other parents.
For many profoundly intelligent children, finding true peers is life changing, and possibly life-saving. For more information about the necessity of finding true peers, see Bright Star — Black Sky: A Phenomenological Study of Depression as a Window Into the Psyche of the Gifted Adolescent by P. Susan Jackson, founder of the Daimon Institute for the Highly Gifted. Luckily, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and similar organizations provide financial and other support to many highly intelligent children who need help accessing specialized summer camps, conferences, and other events.
(2) The Mysteries That Profoundly Intelligent Children Experience
Profound intelligence, by itself, is mysterious, and the experiences that some profoundly intelligent children have reported to their parents and others intensify the mystery. In Nature’s Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential (1986), psychologist David Henry Feldman wrote about mysterious experiences of some of the child prodigies he studied:
During the years I have conducted my study, several of my subjects have reported incidents that have made me reflect on a possible connection between prodigies and unknown forces or influences. This chapter presents some examples of occurrences that suggest that there does remain an element of mystery and uncanniness to the prodigy. Perhaps this element helps account for why prodigies and prophecy have been linked throughout history. (From page 187, Chapter 9, titled “Beyond Coincidence.”)
During the summer of 2001, I led a summer institute workshop for parents of gifted children. I felt comfortable enough with the seven participants to mention unusual experiences associated with gifted children. Surprise, surprise–three of the seven families told me that their children had experiences that cannot be explained by science. The experiences recounted by those families included visits from recently deceased relatives, knowledge of what would happen in the future, and feelings of tragic emotions before the tragedy happened.
After that workshop, my ever-scientific husband reminded me that coincidences exist; I reminded him that mysteries exist, too. Some of the stories I’ve heard over the years include what I call “truth markers”–those little bits of information that a child could not possibly know unless the unbelievable–or at least an exceptionally unbelievable coincidence–had happened.
The tragedies of September 11, 2001, occurred shortly after that summer workshop. In the days and hours before those tragedies, more than a few profoundly intelligent children shared uncanny premonitions of the tragedies with their parents.
I was as mystified by those reports of premonitions as I was horrified by the tragedies themselves. I desperately wanted to understand the premonitions. I wondered whether time itself has “bow waves” like those waves that precede the bow of a ship on the water. I wondered whether profoundly intelligent children, with their extra sensitivities, might have the ability to detect bow waves of time. I questioned my sanity for allowing my wonderings to wander beyond reason.
Fortunately, the unusual experiences that profoundly intelligent children have reported are not limited to tragedies. Some children and teens have reported knowing the minds of others so well that their minds feel connected. Newbery Honor Book winner Stephanie S. Tolan based part of her novel Welcome to the Ark on an experience she had with a group of six profoundly intelligent children whose minds appeared to communicate together in silence during a workshop she offered at one of the early gatherings of families with such children. In an interview available on her website, Tolan recalls: “They didn’t realize they hadn’t talked it out. Their ‘telepathic’ interaction had felt so natural to them that they didn’t even realize they were doing it until I pointed out that not one of them had said a word aloud. I’d been in the room with them the whole time. There was no talking. The process had somehow taken place only in their minds.”
As I’ve searched for explanations, I’ve wondered whether profoundly intelligent children have enhanced senses of intuition. Perhaps an extra strong dose of intuition can mimic what some call “mind reading” and “premonition”? Might information about intuition somehow connect the mysteries with science?
I am a firm believer in intuition. In every field I’ve entered, I’ve run into top professionals who write or speak about the importance of intuition in that field. When I volunteered at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center in the early 1970s, when I went to law school and practiced law, when I taught in the Ohio University College of Business, when I learned about politics and political science, when I learned about public administration, when I taught high school and middle school students. Everywhere I’ve been, without exception, experts in the field have recognized the importance of intuition.
Even if an extra strong dose of intuition can mimic what some call mind reading and premonitions, might I be able to connect the mysteries with science? Doubtful. Why? Because science knows precious little about intuition.
(3) The Mysteries That Profoundly Intelligent Children Explore
John Stuart Mill, quoted above, wrote that genius, in its true sense, is originality in thought and action. That originality in thought and action extends to explorations of the mysterious.
The history of science has shown that many great discoveries have come from those who were shunned during the discovery process. Galileo was held under house arrest until his death. Darwin was attacked by the churches of his time. Orville and Wilbur Wright felt great skepticism. More than a few Nobel Laureates have suffered forms of ostracism during the initial years of their great work.
Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) once quoted another astute scientist as follows, “Every triumphant theory passes through three stages: first it is dismissed as untrue; then it is rejected as contrary to religion; finally, it is accepted as dogma and every scientist claims that he had long appreciated its truth.”
We must support children when they buck the system with new ideas and later when they are threatened with loss of tenure or loss of funding for exploring mysteries that others think are hocus pocus or even the work of the devil. We must teach children about the history of science and the importance of bravery in the face of skepticism. All children deserve adults who believe in them, and adults who help them navigate a world that may be unready to welcome their experiences and ideas.
Two Bits of Feedback: All Children & Other Cultures
When I’ve given this talk to audiences that did not necessarily include parents of profoundly intelligent children, I’ve used my favorite mysteries as illustrations to encourage people to embrace whatever mysteries they have experienced in their own lives. Embracing mysteries involves a combination of belief, acceptance, awe, and integration into one’s own religious beliefs. Two audience responses merit sharing here.
One woman, a deeply spiritual person with a long teaching career, commented that all children, not only profoundly intelligent children, are capable of experiencing the mysterious until we beat it out of them in our public schools. I wonder whether we hear more reports of mysterious experiences from profoundly intelligence children simply because they learn to talk at earlier ages? Regardless of whether all children experience the mysterious, I sense that the mysterious affects profoundly intelligent children more than it affects other children.
Another women, a Native American living on tribal lands, came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes. She explained that my stories touched on a large part of her culture that other people simply do not understand. Her tears seemed to be a combination of joy that I was accepting the mysterious, and sadness that so many people do not understand her culture.
Embracing Your Own Mysteries
Maybe you have your own secret bits of non-rational beliefs. Maybe you have experienced having a dream that later happens, or receiving a message via dream or otherwise from a dearly departed loved one, or feeling an animal read your mind, or knowing who is calling before the telephone rings. You might chalk all that up to coincidence, or you might hide that little bit of weird feeling in a quarantined section of your mind, hidden from your rational mind, and hidden from those people would might ridicule you if they knew your truth.
I believe that we should embrace mysteries. By “embracing mysteries” I mean we should not hide them in the far corners of our minds, and trot them out only in hushed tones to close friends. We can and must simultaneously enjoy and question the mysteries we experience. We must also support those who share their mysterious experiences with us.
Let’s embrace the mysterious. Let’s support others who embrace mysteries. Let’s advocate acceptance of one another as part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Lastly, let’s remember that today’s mysteries might result in tomorrow’s ground breaking scientific discoveries.
Acknowledgements and Credits
I thank Stephanie S. Tolan for her bravery in being one of the first advocates for gifted children to speak openly about the mysterious. For a large collection of her essays about gifted children, I highly recommend her latest non-fiction book, Out of Sync: Essays on Giftedness (2016). Although I’d read many of her essays in the past, when this book arrived in my mailbox, I couldn’t stop reading. The book includes essays I’ve long loved, along with some I missed meeting over the years. The book differs from other books about the gifted experience because Stephanie not only provides us with thought-provoking knowledge; she also poignantly shares how that knowledge has affected her personally. Stephanie provides us with information, but more importantly, she provides us with a model of how we might integrate evolving knowledge about giftedness into our own belief systems. I love the respectful, inclusive, and clear nature of her writing. The book is a true gem!
Many thanks to Kiesa Kay and Jennifer Engle Rix for helping me with a draft of this article. I greatly appreciate all their excellent feedback.
The photos are my own, from various locations in Southern California in January and February of this year.
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page June 2016 Blog Hop. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page for their inspiration and support leading up to this Blog Hop.
Please click on the following graphic created by Pamela S Ryan to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants.
If you would like me to give this talk for your congregation or organization, please fill out this form. You may also use this form to send me a private message. Thank you.
What happens when a neuroscientist, a psychotherapist, an aerospace manager, an organizational behaviorist, and a public policy specialist get together? They raise money and begin an ambitious research effort to examine the sensory, cognitive, metabolic, physiological, neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and genetic characteristics of individuals with high intelligence.
Gifted Research & Outreach (GRO), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in California, has begun research and outreach on a multidisciplinary level not seen since 1925 when Louis Terman and others published Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children. In the preface of that volume, Terman wrote:
Our positive knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of such children has been extremely limited, and until this knowledge is available there can be no basis for intelligent educational procedure.
When Terman and colleagues examined 1,000 gifted children nearly a century ago, scientists lacked fancy computerized tools for looking inside brains. Examinations of metabolism, hormones, enzymes, gut bacteria, the endocrine system, and the central nervous system were similarly limited. Today, with medical technology unimaginable a century ago, scientists can better examine the mental and physical traits of gifted children, and can link physiology to psychophysiological reactions and behavior in all children.
Despite the existence of new medical technology, our knowledge of the physical, mental, and personality traits of children with high intelligence is still limited. Although Terman craved that knowledge primarily for purposes of “intelligent education procedure,” today we crave that knowledge not just for educational purposes, but also for social, emotional, and medical purposes.
GRO’s Multidisciplinary Efforts
GRO plans a multidisciplinary effort to research the depth and breadth of intelligence. GRO will then share its research results through open access articles, through outreach efforts targeting parents and professionals, and through writings easily accessible to the general public. The two prongs of the GRO mission–research and outreach–are equally important, according to those involved with the new organization.
The founders of GRO share Terman’s belief that a multidisciplinary approach is necessary for studying children of high intelligence. Psychotherapist Dr. Joanna Haase, who has 28 years of experience working with gifted individuals and their families, explained, “Many psychological theories touch on the physiological, but with our current trend to medicate children as a first response, we need to be very careful to understand what is ‘normal’ in the physiological and psychological make up of gifted children. It is only by having a full and integrated understanding of the ways the brains and bodies of these children differ or do not differ from the norm that we can offer effective support and interventions for gifted children and their families.”
The GRO founders believe that understanding all aspects of highly intelligent individuals will help us understand neurodiversity. Organizational behaviorist Sharon Duncan emphasized, “The fact is that much research has been done on the physiology and psychology of individuals with developmental delays, but not enough research has been done on individuals on the other end of intelligence spectrum. The study of outliers helps us increase our knowledge of all humans. As a society aspiring to an unbiased body of research, we should not allow charges of elitism to dissuade us from studying highly intelligent individuals.”
Dr. Haase agreed that by learning more about the brains and bodies of people with high intelligence, we’ll learn more about everybody. Dr. Haase explained that AIDS research taught us not only about AIDS, but also taught us about medicine in general and about social behavior. She notes that we grew as a society as a result of insights gained during the AIDS research effort.
Barmazel noted: “Many children have experienced problems in school because their behavior was brought into question rather than understanding that their physiological needs were not being met. For example, a child may be labeled with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) when he or she holds their hands over their ears. It may be perceived that the child doesn’t want to listen when if fact they are protecting themselves from the pain of noise. When a child is repeatedly punished for self-protection, he or she can become confused and resentful and turn into a behavioral problem. Arming parents, educators and psychological professionals with knowledge and tools to address such behaviors would contribute to a better academic experience.”
GRO’s Research Efforts
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Tetreault, GRO’s Director of Research, specializes in neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative disorders. Her prior research efforts include studies in autism, the sensory impairments in Parkinson’s disease, and the development of the visual system. Her experience examining sensory and other physiological correlates of neurological conditions matches GRO’s efforts to find correlations and possible causal links between the brain and other aspects of human physiology.
Dr. Tetreault is close to completing Phase 1 of GRO’s research work. For Phase 1, Dr. Tetreault used her neuroscience background to conduct an extensive literature review of research on the brain and on the genetics of highly intelligent individuals compared to those of general intelligence. The results of the Phase 1 literature review will be posted on the GRO website in the near future.
Phase 2 will involve an in-depth review of literature of the potential associations between high intelligence and allergies, metabolism, hormones, social anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and gastrointestinal dysfunction. Those results will be posted on the GRO website after Phase 2 is complete.
GRO decided to perform its literature review of the brain and genetics first for two reasons. One reason is that brain and genetics research articles are plentiful and well validated. Another reason is that the brain is the source of human cognition.
As part of her Phase 1 research efforts, Dr. Tetreault met with leaders of intelligence research from around the world including Richard Haier, Robert Colom, Timothy Bates, and David Lubinski. She also recently attended a talk by Robert Plomin. She plans to communicate with other scientists as GRO’s research efforts proceed.
When interviewing GRO members for this article, I was happy to learn that GRO, for its outreach purposes, currently uses the Columbus Group’s 1991 asynchronous development definition of giftedness. As I expected, most of the studies that Dr. Tetreault reviewed during Phase 1 of GRO’s research used traditional measures of intelligence such as the WISC, WAIS, and Ravens tests. Using the traditional measures will allow GRO to integrate data across multiple studies and disciplines. Because many factors beyond intelligence can contribute to an individual’s achievement, Dr. Tetreault was careful not to use studies that relied on measures of achievement to determine intelligence.
GRO’s Outreach Efforts
The five people involved with GRO bring an impressive variety of credentials and experience to the organization. Dr. Haase and Dr. Tetreault bring their experience in the fields of psychotherapy and neuroscience, respectively. Marc Montgomery, GRO’s Board Chair, brings 35 years of aerospace leadership to GRO. Michelle Barmazel, GRO’s Director of Development, brings an understanding of public policy, business administration, and nonprofits. Sharon Duncan, GRO’s organization behaviorist, worked for 26 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in project and line management positions.
GRO intends to communicate complex technical and scientific ideas to general audiences. As GRO moves forward, research results will dictate the direction of GRO’s outreach efforts. Dr. Haase hopes to share GRO results not only with educators, but also with doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, allergists, and other practitioners. She explained, “GRO wants to take conversations about giftedness to practitioners who run across gifted individuals.”
In the spring, members of GRO, working with a southern California university, are planning to conduct a continuing education conference for psychologists, school psychologists, and other professionals about misdiagnoses and other issues affecting gifted individuals. At the event, Dr. Haase will explain how gifted children sometimes experience intense emotions and existential depressions at early ages. According to Dr. Haase, “Because those emotions don’t disappear with age, practitioners need to help children understand that those emotions are part of who they are, and help them learn how to manage their intensity across their lifespan. Medication is not always a bad intervention, but it should not be the first and only one.”
Duncan acknowledged that although we have anecdotal and case study evidence of the emotional, sensory, imaginational, intellectual, and physical intensities of gifted children, the scientific evidence has not been fully developed, integrated, and disseminated. Duncan believes that GRO’s future research will shed light on what those who work with gifted children have observed. She explained, “Parents often report that their gifted children behave and react differently than their age mates, yet there is little physiological research to support why this is. On a practical level this information will help parents obtain effective social, emotional, and educational assistance for their children.”
Dr. Tetreault hopes that GRO’s research and outreach efforts will provide a map for parents who have precocious children, and help parents learn how to keep their children growing and how to be within their rights to do whatever their little bodies need to be doing while learning. Dr. Tetreault aspires to provide parents and educators with the support they need to give children opportunities to succeed. She notes that in light of the current trend toward standardization in education, “it’s very important for every child’s healthy development that we be able to identify and satisfy their needs.”
Through her research into autism and other neurobiological disorders, Dr. Tetreault has learned that physiological differences often accompany neurobiological disorders. For example, some individuals with autism experience gut issues, some individuals with dyslexia experience nausea, and a subset of individuals with Parkinson’s experience olfactory impairments. In the same vein, GRO hopes that its research on the physiological differences that accompany high intelligence will help us learn more about all people.
Bring GRO to Your Neighborhood
On December 13, 2015, GRO members will travel to Santa Monica, California for a dinner to raise funds for Phase 2 of GRO’s research plans If you are interested in attending the dinner and hearing the results of GRO’s Phase 1 research, contact GRO as soon as possible for a reservation. If you would like host a GRO fundraising dinner in your community, please let GRO know. GRO members, including neuroscientist Dr. Tetreault, are willing to travel. The GRO website includes this contact form.
A Personal Note
As gifted advocate with over three decades of experience, I recall a watershed moment at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented conference about 15 years ago. One session title in particular drew me to Houston: The Neurobiological Correlates of Intelligence. At the time, I was hungry to hear scientific evidence of what others insisted was a mere “social construct.” I went to Houston remembering the near blackout of anger I experienced a few years earlier at a general education conference in Ohio as I sat in shock while listening to a presenter tear apart the very existence of gifted children.
The presentation room in Houston overflowed with people hungry for scientific evidence that gifted children exist. People sat on chairs, sat on the floor, and leaned against the walls. Still other people packed themselves tightly far into the hallway, straining to listen. The presenter spoke for noticeably longer than her allotted time, but few moved a muscle. We were thrilled to learn that researchers had started to find correlations between high intelligence and certain brain characteristics.
I believe that GRO’s scientific research and outreach missions will go a long way towards improving public and political opinion about the unique needs of children with high intelligence, as well as about the links between the brain and physiological conditions. Please join me in supporting GRO’s efforts.
I thank photographer Steve Duncan of Avian Resources for granting permission to use the photograph he took of the Milky Way. For more of Steve’s stunning images, see http://avian-resources.artistwebsites.com/
I could not have written this article without the generosity of the GRO Board of Directors. They granted me interviews, reviewed drafts of this article, answered all my questions about their research efforts, and provided me with a photograph of the five of them to include in this blog. Thank you!
Lastly, I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the October 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic by Tara Hernandez (Thank you, Tara!) below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
Once upon a time, my child gazed happily into my eyes, and we sat hour after hour, breastfeeding contently. Giftedness was the furthest thing from my mind. All I saw was a baby, full of joy, uniqueness, and growth. I fretted about sniffles and rash bumps, not about schools and teachers.
My child’s toddler years, spent happily at the Ohio University Child Development Center under the care of experts, went swimmingly well. My child was free to choose activities, ask for stories, and select playmates. Kindergarten under the guidance of an expert teacher was a breeze. The teacher excellently cared for the needs of each student. Lessons weren’t obviously lessons; what was obvious was the teacher’s love for her students. That’s what really matters to children: above all, they want to be loved.
Stormy Clouds and Deep Water
In first grade my child’s tiny life changed from sunshine and smiles to stormy clouds and deep water. The school’s curriculum, when viewed next to my child’s accomplishments to date, looked remarkably like a recipe for distress. Imagine already knowing how to read, and being forced to spend a whole year pretending to learn how to read.
Do we expect adults to spend year after year of their lives pretending to learn? Of course not! Do we expect adults to bury their real thoughts and needs in order to conform to what a school district prescribes are the needs of every other adult born within the same twelve-month period? Of course not!
By October, my child’s life looked bleak. Stomach aches and refusals to go to school started happening. Other parents couldn’t understand why my child couldn’t just sit respectfully and wait for their children to catch up. In apparent efforts to drag me and my child back to a level playing field, some parents and some teachers spouted now-disproven yuck about multiple intelligences, a mere theory now disproven by cognitive neuroscientists, but still taught in some teacher education colleges and conferences.
Time to Find Kindred Spirits
When you see your child suffering at school, and when you feel others trying to drag you back to their ideas of level playing fields, it’s time to find kindred spirits on Home Planet—an affectionate term for all the places we parents of gifted children feel safe to speak honestly about our children, their needs, and their challenges. It’s time to learn all you can from the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page place for newcomers, from the Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted resource library, from various Facebook Groups, and from real people, too. It’s time to drink from the grail of giftedness.
When you drink from the grail of giftedness, you’ll find compassion, understanding, and downright love among other parents facing similar journeys through today’s educational systems. If you become active as a leader in the gifted community, you’ll see parents cry at presentations, have epiphanies about their own childhoods, and relax when they realize they’re not alone. You’ll find Home Planet; you’ll find your tribe among a mix of people from various religions, races, ethnicities, political persuasions, and sexual orientations. A broad swath of humanity, all with children too different from the norm to fit well into today’s education system. Parents driven by love, who believe that their children’s love and happiness are more important than their children’s seat time in school.
You’ll also learn that giftedness isn’t only about education. Giftedness is about whole lives that are different from the norm, including brains that are different from the norm, and experiences and reactions that are different from the norm. In response to what you’ll learn, you’ll probably change your parenting to the point where your parenting, too, will be different from the norm.
You might hesitate to join us. You might think: Do I really want to enter the world of giftedness, with its perceived tints of inequity and inequality? Do I really want to become an advocate for gifted children, and thus risk the ire of 95% of the other parents in my children’s schools?
Years or decades later, in retrospect, you might ask yourself: Did I really want to explain until I’m blue in the face that gifted education is not elitism, but rather about meeting the unique needs of individual children, needs which include not just academic needs, but also social and emotional needs? Did I really want to spend thousands of dollars on dues, conference registrations, and books over the course of several decades?
I admit that I would have preferred a life without accusations of inequality, without risks of ire from 95% of the other parents, without advocating until I’m blue in the face, and without added expenses. Wouldn’t you?
The Good News
The good news is that my children are grown and happy. More good news is that along the gifted path, I’ve met hundreds of kindred spirits, many of whom have become good friends. We still travel long distances to see each other, and to marvel that somehow we managed to raise our unique children to the point where many of them, oblivious to our sometimes Herculean efforts along the way, see no reason for our interest in giftedness…
…until they themselves have children facing school. Then they call us for advice, and we help them navigate through stormy clouds and deep water to find their own kindred spirits.
Acknowledgements and Credits
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page August 2015 Blog Hop on “Gifted 101.” I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.
The “my child” in the article is an amalgamation of all my children. I didn’t want to pick on any one of them in particular.
The photographs are my own, taken in 2015 in Athens County, Ohio and in Polk County, Wisconsin.
Please click on the graphic below (created by Pamela S Ryan–thanks!) to see the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants, or cut and paste this URL into your browser: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/blog_hop_gifted_101.htm
The February doldrums play havoc in the best of times. Unfortunately, this year’s extraordinary weather events have weighed heavily on the minds of everyone in the USA, the UK, and beyond. Mother Nature’s shenanigans have us all yearning for summer’s freedom and flowers. We want a change of pace, a change of place, and perhaps even a change of heart beyond that supplied by the purveyors of Valentine’s Day chocolates and cards.
Schools of all types feel the February doldrums. Children serve as canaries in the cold mines of winter. Their academic motivations often wane before educators feel their own motivation lows.
What’s the secret to staying motivated?
Instead of fabricating motivation out of cold air, why not embrace chaos, randomness, and disorder? Why not let go of all notions that X academic unit must be completed by Y arbitrary time, and instead use times of low motivation as opportunities to increase student choices and explore student passions? Why not throw curricular caution to the prevailing winds and instead jump-start new interests and motivations?
Intelligence as Entropy
I jump-started my own interests and motivations earlier this month by watching a fascinating TEDx talk that defines intelligence as entropy. In Alex Wissner-Gross: A new equation for intelligence, Wissner-Gross explains that “intelligence is a force that acts to maximize future freedom of action and keep options open. . . intelligence emerges from long-term entropy.”
By “intelligence” Wissner-Gross means all kinds of intelligence—that of humans, animals, and machines. Yes, he’s comparing our own intelligence to that of machines. And, remarkably, he has written software with intelligence approximating that of tool-using animals and stock-trading humans.
Wissner-Gross’s equation for intelligence is that intelligence is a force (f) that acts to maximize future freedom of action (or keep options open) with some strength (t) with the diversity of possible accessible futures (s) up to some future time horizon (tau). He explains, in short, that intelligence doesn’t like to be trapped. Intelligence instead prefers to keep options open.
(Screen shot from the TEDx talk by Wissner-Gross)
Why Listen to Wissner-Gross?
I first watched Wissner-Gross’s TEDx talk late one evening in early February. I went to bed thinking, “This guy might be a fruitcake.” At the time, I knew nothing about Wissner-Gross or his work. I knew that a few fruitcakes have slipped through the careful TEDx vetting process. During my night-thoughts, I tossed and turned Wissner-Gross’s ideas about intelligence being a maximization of future freedom of action.
In the morning, I learned online that Wissner-Gross has impressively maximized his own future freedom of action. He’s a young Harvard physicist who serves both as an Institute Fellow at the Harvard University Institute for Applied Computational Science and as a Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Laboratory. He has a triple major from MIT, a physics Ph.D. from Harvard, and an impressive number of distinctions, publications, and patents. His TED speaker profile calls him a “serial big-picture thinker.” Wow.
Wissner-Gross has smarts, for sure, but how might he convince others that his equation works? He explains, “We developed a software engine called ENTROPIC designed to maximize the long-term entropy of any system that it finds itself in. ENTROPIC was able to pass multiple animal intelligence tests, play human games and even earn money trading stocks, all without being instructed to do so.” The TEDx talk includes video footage of the computer program figuring out tool use, social cooperation, gaming, network organization, problem-solving, and risk-managing.
In their 2013 research article, “Causal Entropic Forces,” Wissner-Gross and MIT researcher C.E. Freer mention the application of their work to various fields including condensed matter physics, particle theory, econophysics, cosmology, and biophysics. Although they do not mention any educational implications of their work, they note: “We found that some of these systems exhibited sophisticated spontaneous behaviors associated with the human ‘‘cognitive niche,’’ including tool use and social cooperation * * * .”
Implications for Education and Motivation
Although Wissner-Gross’s and Freer’s work has not yet entered education circles, I believe their work bears relevance not only to the intelligence of machines, but also to the education, motivation, and intelligence of human beings. At least one writer agrees that Wissner-Gross’s work has human implications: “With broad implications for fields ranging from management and investing to artificial intelligence, Wissner-Gross’s message reveals a profound new connection between intelligence and freedom.” From Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.
I love the notion that intelligence “prefers to keep options open.” I love thinking that education might someday be less of a mechanism for producing educated adults, and more of a mechanism for helping children keep their options open.
I love to think of academic motivation not as “finish this unit and you’ll win X grade or reward,” but rather as “how do we keep your options open so you don’t feel trapped?” Why not cure low educational motivation not with rewards external to the child, but rather with new sparks of option-opening?
Perhaps the core mission of education should be to maximize the future choices of children? By maximizing the future choices of children, might we automatically maximize the intelligence of society as a whole?
Wissner-Gross notes a profound irony stemming from his work. Rather than the fictional scenario of robots gaining intelligence and then using that intelligence to take control of human society, the reverse may be true: intelligence might arise from control-taking. He explains, “It’s not that machines first become intelligent and then megalomaniacal and try to take over the world. It’s quite the opposite. That the urge to take control of all possible futures is a more fundamental principal than that of intelligence. General intelligence may in fact emerge directly from this sort of control-grabbing, rather than vice versa.”
Just in case Wissner-Gross is correct, and just because children really do love grabbing control from adults and experiencing the world on their own terms, here’s my advice to children and educators:
During times of low motivation, (1) embrace chaos, randomness, and disorder, (2) let go of all notions that X academic unit must be completed by Y arbitrary time, and (3) jump-start new interests and motivations.
If Wissner-Gross is correct, increasing children’s chaos and choices might just increase their intelligence.