Why Smart Kids Fail

When I was in eighth grade, my mother returned home from a parent-teacher conference with my English teacher to report: “Miss Martin said you’d do fine if you would only apply yourself more.” Back then, “not applying yourself” was the term used to explain why an otherwise “smart kid” was pulling C grades (like I was) or even lower. Actually, English class was my only C, except for occasional C’s in math. But English was my strength, math wasn’t. So why wasn’t I succeeding?

Why smart kids fail is a complex topic, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. Just the fact that I was a 13 year old girl growing a half inch a month could be one explanation. There are children who have diagnosed learning difficulties, and those with emotional challenges like depression. This isn’t about those issues. It’s about a mismatch between a child’s learning style and the instructional style which causes a lack of engagement and motivation that eventually leads to failure, even for smart kids.

Learning style, as I use the term, is a function of personality and temperament that is inherent. Learning style shapes your perception of the world, influencing how you approach tasks and make decisions, what captures your attention, what energizes and engages you. It’s part of what makes you a unique individual.

Think of your learning style as you would “handedness.” I’m left-handed and just missed that era when lefties were forced by schools to shift to the right. (The message to kids: your brain is not wired correctly!) How are you wired? Try this now: Pick up a pen with your less-favored hand and write out your full name. How did that feel? Slow, awkward, frustrating? How’s the product look? Not exactly the Palmer method is it? Do you feel successful at this task? Do you feel smart now?

I found out decades after eighth grade that my style is what I call the PERSONAL GROWTH learner. Learning for me is a journey of self-understanding. Life is like a story (drama) unfolding, full of symbolism, darkness and light. Conflict-free relationships are important to my well-being. I will work in school for a teacher I “like” i.e., feel affirmed by. I am verbally and creatively talented, but I get lost in daydreams and my abstract ideas may not seem practical. That’s annoying to other learning temperaments, especially the PRACTICE style (Miss Martin). Her English class was ALL practice, repetition, routine.

The PRACTICE learner literally believes that “practice makes perfect” and sets off on a sequential path to skill mastery. Learning, however, must be grounded in experience. “How does this apply in real life?” is a question often asked. PRACTICE learners are made for school because schools are made by them. Just don’t ask them to think too abstractly—always be prepared with concrete examples. Sound like you or your child?

My husband is a PROBLEM SOLVER learner, always tinkering, experimenting, researching, and reasoning so doggone logically. Even more maddening is the way PROBLEM SOLVERs question authority! That’s not popular in the classroom or at the dinner table. And my friend is a PLAY learner. Fun to be around, but can we ever get serious? Does everything have to be like a game, or worse yet, a competition? Slow down and sit still! Read a book why don’t you?

We possess and use all four learning styles. But parents and educators, if you want to see smart kids SUCCEED, first and foremost understand your own preferred learning style. Otherwise, you might be creating an environment in which one style dominates, and some children can’t succeed unless they are made in your image. Our learning style doesn’t limit what we can achieve or the level, but it does influence the way we choose to go about it. If we don’t experience the freedom to choose our own path, at least some of the time, we might lose motivation and fail to achieve our full potential.

Take our free Learning Styles survey and register for a workshop in your area at www.talentprogramsolutions.org

Dear State Board: Mind the Excellence Gaps!

This Public Comment was delivered at the Meeting of Maryland State Board of Education:

Good afternoon, my name is Dr. Jeanne Paynter and I am faculty in curriculum and instruction at McDaniel College and the Executive Director of Talent Program Solutions.

I am here today to talk about the gravity of Excellence Gaps and suggest some simple but powerful solutions which Maryland policy-makers can implement.

“Excellence gap” is the term coined by Dr. Jonathan Plucker and fellow researchers to describe the achievement gaps at the advanced level.  After more than a decade of well-intentioned reforms to reduce proficiency gaps, data show that Excellence Gaps persist, and have widened.  We need unique solutions to develop talent at advanced levels.

Dr. Plucker recently spoke at the Maryland State Conference on Gifted and Talented Education. He reports that Excellence Gap data are so reliable that they can be used with certainty to predict that a poor or minority student will not, by high school, perform at advanced levels. We have a “persistent talent underclass.” It is rare that students can move up.

Without appropriate intervention, that is.

There is good news and bad news for Maryland Public Schools.  The good news is, as you are aware, that Maryland leads the pack in the percentage of students that score at the Advanced Levels on state and national achievement tests.

The bad news is that we have very large excellence gaps.

According to the Fordham Foundation’s research, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards is not going to be the educational solution for high ability, high potential students.  The standards are more rigorous, but self-admittedly, they were not developed for advanced students. Differentiation of the standards is difficult for teachers and is not widespread.

Then, what are the solutions?

First, there is more good news:  Maryland has research-based standards, COMAR for gifted and talented student identification, programming and teacher professional development.  There are many creative and fiscally responsible ways that the Board can support the COMAR implementation with resources and accountability.

Number Two:  The Board can publish Excellence Gap data and track results with as much urgency as it does with the minimum competency gaps.  [Knowledge is power.]

Third: A no-cost solution. Ask these questions in the discussion of all policy decisions:

  • Ask: How will this decision impact high ability, high potential students?
  • Will it help them, or are there unintentional consequences?

Well-intentioned policies can create barriers to acceleration and differentiation for advanced students. For example:  COMAR requires that school systems have an early entrance policy [well-intentioned], but it allows them to craft rigid policies with stringent cut-offs which present barriers to advanced students [unintended consequences].

Today we have a compelling challenge and opportunity:  Even small improvements in the Excellence Gap statistics represent thousands of students emerging from the talent underclass; Talent that will create their own unique solutions to change our world for the better.

How NOT to Choose a World-Class School

Charter schools, magnet schools, school vouchers, citywide schools.  It’s the language of school choice in public education, a bipartisan school reform movement that has outlasted most and gained momentum under the Obama administration.  The school choice movement borrowed from business a core strategy for product improvement—competition.  Schools competing for their market share of families theoretically will become better or ultimately “go out of business.”

There are some shining stars in the school choice movement, but overall, U.S. schools have not greatly improved their ratings in the global education market. We know this mainly through an international test of critical and creative thinking, the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment).  It’s not that tests scores count everything worth counting, but we wonder, why can’t our schools compete?

One reason may surprise you:  It seems that we Americans who pride ourselves in being educated consumers do not know how to shop for schools.

Let’s take a quiz to find out if you are a wise shopper when it comes to schools.  This is for consumers of school choice as well as of private education.  It’s fall, and it’s time for choice school open houses designed to recruit students for the next school year.  The open house is a sales presentation, but you just need to know what to look for.  So here’s the quiz.

In choosing a school for my child, I would look for:

  1. High test scores
  2. State-of-the-art technology in every classroom
  3. Manicured athletic fields and winning teams
  4. Smiling, friendly teachers
  5. All of the above
  6. None of the above

So which answer did you choose? High test scores?  State-of-the-art technology?  American schools spend a lot of money on those things.  Perhaps you couldn’t decide, and went with “all of the above.”  As it turns out, the correct answer is f. none of the above.  None of these are the essential features of a world-class school, the hallmark of which is a culture that is serious about intellectual rigor.

I learned this from an engaging and thought-provoking book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.  Maybe you’ve read it too, because it was a New York Times Best Seller. Ripley followed three American teens to high schools in Finland, Korea, and Poland, democracies that score at the top or are fast improving on tests of higher level thinking like the PISA.  Her story is a fascinating read, but don’t skip Appendix I, from which I derived my little quiz.

So here’s the Answer Key, based on Ripley’s and the teens’ experiences in the world’s top schools.

How NOT to Choose a World-Class American School:

  1. High test scores: The problem here is that there is so much you don’t know about the test: what it measures, and how scores are derived.  Ripley cites a case where an “A” rated U.S. suburban high school scored lower than twenty-three countries in the rigorous PISA math test. This makes the high test scores that contributed to the school’s “A” rating seem pretty meaningless.
  2. State-of-the-art technology: While the push in the U.S. is to have a whiteboard in every classroom and a tablet in every hand, there is very little technology in the high performing Finnish, Korean, and Polish classrooms. Ripley reports that you will still see rows of desks in front of a chalkboard.
  3. Manicured athletic fields and winning teams: World-class schools in Finland do not even include athletics in the regular school curriculum!  Sports take place outside of school in community centers.  Teachers are never hired based on what they can coach or how well.
  4. Smiling, friendly teachers: Ripley advises you to get your eyes off the teachers and onto the students. Visit classrooms and observe.  Are most of the students engaged? Are they paying attention? Can they tell you what they are studying and most importantly, why?  The teacher’s personality is not the chief cause of student boredom; it’s the lack of rigor and challenge in the work, the lack of an intellectual culture in the school.

So, this fall if you are shopping for a school, be a savvy shopper.  Don’t fall for the bells and whistles; demand world-class academics. Your children will be competing globally against students who met world-class standards. Pull back the curtain.  Talk to students, and listen to the parents.  Are they more interested in the football team than the math program?  Fine for them, but you make sure both programs are excellent before you buy in.

I would add some other questions to those in Ripley’s Appendix.  How does the school serve its most advanced students?  Are there options for students to accelerate at their own pace?  Is the curriculum responsive to differing interests and learning styles?  Does it teach the skills of innovators, like creative thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork?

The U.S. has many models of world-class schools.  They exist in all types of neighborhoods.  If you can’t find one, then it’s time, as an educated consumer, to demand it.

How to Become a Creative Original: Build Character

Suppose that your child or your student has just completed a praise-worthy task: Helped a friend with homework, took out the trash without being asked, written a thank you note.  Which form of reinforcing feedback would you use?

  1. It was a good thing to help your friend.
  2. You are a good friend.

If you picked, “A. It was a good thing to help your friend,” then you are of the mindset that praising the behavior, not the person, promotes growth – the reinforced behavior will continue to develop with effort.  Perhaps you have learned from the “growth mindset” movement that praise which “labels” the person (you are a good friend) is static and impedes development.  You either are, or you aren’t, so making an effort doesn’t count for much.

However, as it turns out, if you want to build character, then saying “You are a good friend” is the right kind of feedback.  Being told that I am a kind person, a truthful person, a generous person—forms my identity. It’s who I am.   When I see another student being bullied, I am more likely to speak up because I am a kind and a truthful person, not because I did a random act of kindness last week.

This ground-Originalsbreaking, paradigm shifting research by psychologist Joan Grusec is presented in Adam Grant’s new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Grant defines “original” the dictionary way: A thing of singular or unique character; a person who is different from other people in an appealing or interesting way; a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity.

Today we are very interested in raising and educating originals with unique perspectives and inventive
capacities.  After all, creativity is the capital of commerce.  The 21st century skills are defined through the Four C’s: creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.  Then, there are two more C’s: college and career readiness.   And now, Grant gives us the Seventh C: Character.

What does character have to do with creativity, or its endgame, becoming an original?  In the chapter “Rebel with a Cause,” Grant reports research on a group of truly world-class originals, Holocaust
rescuers.  These uniquely creative individuals had similar upbringings when it came to learning values. Their parents de-emphasized rules but emphasized the universal moral values behind rules. They encouraged empathy by explaining the effects or consequences of behavior on others.  Through rational explanation, moral standards became an intrinsic part of the children’s identity.  These children grew up wanting to right wrongs and create a better future.   And they did.

Good news! It’s not too late for us adults.  Character as our identity (not our behavior) can move us to become creative originals.  Reinforce your own identity with this positive feedback:  I am a creative original.  I choose not to sit on the sidelines.  I have a singular and unique character and the inventive capacity to create a better future.

 Now change your world!

How to Raise (and Educate) the Next Steve Jobs

In October 2011, I was standing in an airport news stand trying to decide between two bestsellers side by side on the shelf.  First was the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. The second was The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, jobsand Clayton M. Christensen).  I picked up this book and read the question: “Are you the next Steve Jobs?”   Ironically, when this question was penned, Steve likely was still with us.  Now he had completed his goal to “make a ding in the universe.” It is time for us to raise and educate the next Steve Jobs.  Can the skills of the innovator really be taught (and learned)?

Innovators create new ideas, products, and ways of doing things.  Innovations solve complex problems and improve the overall quality of life on this planet.  Since we’re not likely to run out of problems, we need more innovators.  And if altruism doesn’t motivate you, consider that innovation drives the competitive edge in the global economy. Jobs for innovators are less likely to be outsourced or automated.  Now do I have your attention?

So what is the parenting or teaching style that creates innovators? The year 2011 marked another milestone: It was the 65th anniversary of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s paradigm-shifting “permissive” child-rearing philosophy, and also the publication year of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Dr. Spock encouraged the Baby Boomers’ parents to trust their instincts and follow their children’s cues rather than focusing on strict schedules. (Educators, think in terms of student-centered, progressive democratic education.)  Chua’s “Tiger Mom” parenting style restricts children’s free time, focusing them on achieving exacting standards. (Educators, think standards-based education and high-stakes assessments.)

Which style produces innovators? As it turns out, creativity requires discipline and divergence, and so does raising the next-generation-Jobs. My advice here is borrowed from the parents of innovators interviewed in Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators. First of all, parents, are you willing to discipline yourself to be different from the helicopter moms and dads?  Can you “just say no” to constant screen time and “yes” to allowing your children more low-tech unstructured time to play?  Outdoors even?  Can you discipline yourself to provide found objects as “toys” that allow open-ended experimentation and freewheeling imagination?  How about enforcing an hour of “free reading” instead of one of those structured after school sports? Are you observing your child’s strengths and passions and considering them as seeds for greatness or just something they’ll “grow out of” so they can follow your programmed pathway to “success?”   Educators, you face similar challenges.  A teacher-colleague of mine recently told me that her school principal decided to abandon the highly successful “drop everything and read” program because it wasn’t aligned with the new (and heavily tested) standards.  That’s NOT education for innovation.

So maybe Spock (that’s Benjamin) was right that parents need to trust themselves and their children more.  In a world that seems very untrustworthy, that’s taking a risk.  But if we’re going to raise and educate a generation that can innovate their way to a better world, let’s follow the wisdom of the slogan Steve Jobs created and lived: Think Different.