Kaufman Redefines Intelligence

You might not know who Scott Barry Kaufman is, but you should.  If you ever heard him speak, you wouldn’t forget him anytime soon.  I had the pleasure of hearing his keynote address a few weeks ago at an Early College high school conference, sponsored by KnowledgeWorks, where I was speaking on one of my favorite topics:  why high school seniors can’t write.

Kaufman, who is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is as smart as a whip—and funny and insightful.  He is well credentialed (Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Cambridge, and Yale University).  But, most importantly, he graduated from my high school (Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA)—albeit a couple of decades after I did.  We bonded briefly over our admiration for a great instrumental music teacher, Leonard G. Murphy.

In his keynote address, Kaufman recounted how he had suffered through many ear infections as a child and, as a result, had ended up with a central auditory processing disorder that landed him in special education classes.  His story about how he got out of them is one for the books.  In fact, you can read about it in his own book—Ungifted:  Intelligence Redefined—and you should.

Kaufman’s personal experience as an elementary and secondary school student set him on a mission to create a new theory of intelligence—one that accounted for more than the usual components.  The definition of personal intelligence that he developed after much research goes like this:

“The dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in pursuit of personal goals”

This definition accounts for a kid like Kaufman, who managed to work his way up to winning the music department award at graduation when he had never played an instrument before he got to high school.  This definition accounts for a kid like Kaufman, who got rejected when he applied to be a psychology major at Carnegie Mellon (not great SATs), managed to regroup and get accepted as an opera major at Carnegie Mellon (no SATs required), and then maneuvered his way from there into the psychology major after all.  You really should hear Kaufman tell the story.  It’s priceless—and also exemplifies the critical importance of “engagement . . . in pursuit of personal goals” as an active component of intelligence.  The guy’s a genius.

Kaufman made a lot of other fascinating points in his keynote address, but you should read them in his book.  Let me tell you just one more, which is my favorite.  This research comes from a study on creativity by E. Paul Torrance, which looked at elementary school children over time, starting in the late 1950s, and then was followed up 50 years later.  In Ungifted, Kaufman quotes Torrance: “One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something—your dream, your image of the future” (p. 281).  Kaufman put it this way in his keynote address: “falling in love with an image of [yourself] in the future.”

My creative middle child did exactly that as a 10-year-old.  He fell in love with an image of himself as he looked about a dozen years into the future.  I didn’t understand it then—neither his image of himself nor the value of his being able to conjure up that image.  But I understand it now, almost two decades later—thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman.

Parents:  Get a copy of Kaufman’s book and read it.  Give a copy to your child’s teacher.  Give a copy to your child’s principal.  If you can put together an audience big enough for Kaufman to speak to, invite him to come tell you how parents and teachers together can nurture creative and intelligent students.  And don’t forget to ask him what the research says about daydreaming—because you probably have it all wrong.

Character Revisited, Singapore Style

I don’t mind being right, and I don’t mind revisiting something important that I think someone might have missed the first time around.  So, here we go.  About 18 months ago, I wrote about a Character Rubric that we had developed at the high school I co-founded in 2009 in New York City.  Now, this reprise of the story is getting a surprising Singapore twist.

The original story went something like this:

The principal, the teachers, and I were troubled by some of our students’ lack of concern about their work and their behavior.  For example, they didn’t do their homework.  It wasn’t that it was too hard or that there was too much of it.  They just didn’t feel like doing it.  Our students weren’t geniuses, even though ours was an Early College high school and the students were on a fast track to graduation (in just three years instead of the traditional four).  They were average New York City kids—no better, no worse—and we all felt they could care a little more and work a little harder.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to assess our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success.  These traits were drawn, in part, from the work of psychologists/professors Martin E.P. Seligman and Angela L. Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan).  After working with our teachers and testing out several versions of our checklist, we came up with what we referred to as our “Character Rubric.”  It was a way for teachers to evaluate students on six important traits—traits that we all felt would make a difference in their ability to succeed in school and later in life.  As we said about our students in the introduction to our Character Rubric, “Without these character traits, all of their intellectual achievements cannot make them college ready and career ready.”

Teachers rated each student twice in each semester, using a simple scale from 0 to 3 to indicate how often the student exhibited each trait:  not at all, rarely, sometimes, or usually.  We also gave teachers examples of student behaviors that defined each trait so that we could agree on what teachers were looking for when making their judgments.  For instance, “Is diligent” (our version of the now-very-popular “grit”) came with behavior examples like “Does whatever it takes to complete an assignment,” “Finishes what he or she starts,” “Keeps trying in the face of difficulty,” “Tries hard to meet the teacher’s standards,” and more.

The Character Rubric turned out to be well liked by both teachers and parents and well tolerated by students.

Fast forward to an article that I read a few days ago (reprinted by BBC News), shockingly titled “Why high-flying Singapore is scrapping grades” and written by Dr. Lim Lai Cheng.  Dr. Lim is formerly the principal of the very prestigious Raffles Institution secondary school and now the Academic Director of the Office of the Provost and the Executive Director of the Academy for Continuing Education at Singapore Management University.  Here is a little background, courtesy of Dr. Lim:

It was no accident that Singapore created one of the world’s highest performing education systems in five decades.

Reminiscent of the examinations for selecting mandarins in old China, the road to success in Singapore has always been focused on academic credentials, based on merit and allowing equal access for all.

This centralised system helped Singapore to create social cohesion, a unity of purpose among its schools and an ethos of hard work that many nations envy.

But the purpose of the education system has changed and Singapore in 2017 is no longer the fledgling state it was in 1965.

Schools have become highly stratified and competitive. More advantaged families are better able to support their children with extra lessons outside of school, such as enrichment classes in mathematics, English, dance and music.

Those who can’t afford this have to depend on their children’s own motivation and the resources of the school to catch up.

Many of us in education have spent at least some time in the past decade admiring Singapore’s work on the education front, including the achievement of Singapore’s students on international tests.  Now, Singapore appears to find itself in a place not unlike some American communities, where more advantaged families can support and enrich their kids’ education handsomely and less advantaged families have to look to the schools for that support and enrichment instead.

What does this mean for Singapore?  Here is what Dr. Lim says:

The next update of the education system will have to ensure that Singapore can create a more equitable society, build a stronger social compact among its people while at the same time develop capabilities for the new digital economy.

Government policies are moving away from parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools and want to put more emphasis on the importance of values.

Schools have been encouraged, especially for the early elementary years, to scrap standardised examinations and focus on the development of the whole child.

I didn’t see that coming, including that Dr. Lim is championing work on values—we called it “character”—from the primary grades right up through the high school years.  By the way, in her article, Dr. Lim also refers to the work of Dr. Seligman (one of our sources for our Character Rubric), whose model she says “advocates that academic success and well-being form a double helix, and that the best schooling must include educating children on values and character, as well as how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves and work towards achieving those goals.”

What does this new emphasis look like in Singapore’s schools?  Dr. Lim describes some of Singapore’s efforts this way:

“Character scorecards” and “reflection journals” have become the staple in many primary schools, to allow parents to follow the social and developmental progress of their children.

An important segment of the new curriculum, at the primary level is family time, and how parents should play an important role in inculcating the right values in their children.

At the secondary and high school levels, “values in action” programmes lie at the core of educating young Singaporeans to be empathetic, socially responsible and active citizens in their community.

For example, students work on projects that serve the elderly, reach out to migrant workers and read to latch-key children in day-care centres.

I like to think that those “character scorecards” are a lot like the Character Rubric we developed—an idea whose time has clearly come.  And who doesn’t love the idea of a “values in action” program for our older kids?  It’s like the community service hours that so many of our high school students already do; however, I get the feeling that it is more central to what Singapore is trying to achieve as a society.

But, here is where Dr. Lim really goes off the high board:

There have also been calls for more flexibility over admissions to local top schools and universities to encompass selection based on character traits such as drive, resilience and passion. . . .

All round, government leaders have expounded a wider definition of success beyond academic grades.

The media and elite schools have been discouraged from showcasing top students and their academic achievements.

Discouraged from showcasing top students?  Does that go too far?  Maybe so.  But more backing for having U.S. colleges look more broadly at applicants would be welcome indeed.  I spend a lot of time on my podcast, USACollegeChat, talking about college admissions and the inequities of the admissions game for so many students, especially for low-income students.  This call to action all the way from Singapore is intriguing and refreshing.

Dr. Lim says much more in her article, including about the connection between school and work, about putting counselors in the primary schools, about bringing in counselors with industry experience to advise students on both school and career options, about actual financial initiatives to promote lifelong learning, and even about “rotating experienced principals to schools that need more attention.”  Just go read her whole article.  Really.

Parents:  Here is some of the advice I gave you 18 months ago—before Singapore’s news.  It’s just as good today.

Take a look at how teachers in your school encourage your children to develop important character traits and values and how they let students know when they need to improve.

Ask your school board whether nurturing students’ character is an important part of the board’s vision.  Is judging the results of that nurturing also part of the board’s vision?  Does the board intend to look at how successful the district is in producing students with excellent character as well as excellent academic skills?  Ask the same kinds of questions of your child’s principal.

Ask your school board or your superintendent or your principal to come up with a Character Rubric to use, if they do not already have one.  If they are having trouble coming up with one on their own, they can probably get a great one from Singapore.


The Harlem Renaissance: Not Forgotten

Today’s post pays tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, which might be one of the most overlooked periods in American cultural and sociological history, but which is certainly one of the most overlooked topics in public K–12 classrooms.  Most students I talk with know almost nothing about the Harlem Renaissance, including students who live within 25 miles of Harlem.

Parents, the next time your child needs to do a report or project for Black History Month, please take a look at the wealth of content that the Harlem Renaissance has to offer.  That is true whether your child is in first grade or in twelfth grade.  I have done Harlem Renaissance lessons with students in a wide range of grade levels and have found something remarkable and suitable at every level.

For starters, my guess is that way too few parents have studied the career of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the brilliant sociologist who was the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance.  The leadership that Johnson displayed regarding how to improve the futures of African Americans was every bit as extraordinary as the artistic endeavors of the painters and poets and musicians and sculptors and novelists and actors and editors who are better known to many of us today.

Parents, read up on Johnson, who left Harlem for Nashville in 1928 to become a professor at Fisk University and who later became its first black president in 1946.  Fisk, of course, is one of our nation’s most respected HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  Fisk is also the home of the world-famous Jubilee Singers, whose story of saving Fisk from bankruptcy in its early days as a result of their worldwide singing tour is legendary.  Johnson eventually brought with him to Fisk some of the black artists and writers he had nurtured in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance—including inimitable visual artist Aaron Douglas and masterful writers James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps.  By the way, Bontemps collaborated with the now-better-known Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes on two fantastic children’s books, which most kids have never read, but absolutely should:  The Pasteboard Bandit and Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti.  (Parents:  This paragraph alone has enough Black History Month topics for your child to research every year he or she is in school!)

Earlier this month, my daughter did a project for an after-school program of elementary school kids.  She chose about 30 artists of all kinds who had contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and wrote a short paragraph about each one.  Each of the children in the program chose one of the artists to learn about, including making a small poster (with a photo) about the artist and presenting that poster to parents who came to a Black History Month celebration.  Your young children could have done the same; your older children could have done even more.  Here are some of those Harlem Renaissance artists, in addition to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, of course—in case you need them next February or, ideally, even sooner:

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, musician

Arnaud “Arna” Bontemps, poet

Countee Cullen, poet

Aaron Douglas, painter

Edward “Duke” Ellington, musician

Jessie Redmon Fauset, writer

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, sculptor

Palmer C. Hayden, painter

Fletcher Henderson, musician

James Mercer Langston Hughes, poet

Zora Neale Hurston, writer

May Howard Jackson, sculptor

James Weldon Johnson, writer

William Henry Johnson, painter

Mary Edmonia Lewis, sculptor

Claude McKay, poet

Horace Pippin, painter

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, sculptor

Paul Leroy Robeson, actor

Augusta Christine Savage, sculptor

Bessie Smith, singer

Henry Ossawa Tanner, painter

James Van Der Zee, photographer

Laura Wheeler Waring, painter

Ethel Waters, singer

When your child needs some source materials, here are two excellent books to hand over:

Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, by P. Stephen Hardy and Sheila Jackson Hardy—This book has short, readable biographies of many of the leaders and the artists, with photographs.

Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance, by Laban Carrick Hill, with a cover illustration by the fabulous Christopher Myers—This is the single best book I have read on the Harlem Renaissance.  It provides more interesting information than you could ever use.  Read it yourself, even if your child does not have a report to do!

Parents:  You will know that you have done your homework on the Harlem Renaissance when you can explain to your child the significance of each of these (or vice versa, depending the age of your child):  the National Urban League’s Opportunity, the Civic Club Dinner, “The Weary Blues,” the NAACP’s Crisis, the Savoy, and the Cotton Club.  So, get Harlem Stomp! and start reading.

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

Carmen de Lavallade: Enough Said

As Black History Month is coming to a close, I have been thinking about an appropriate post and settled on two.  Today’s post pays tribute to the inimitable Carmen de Lavallade.  I am not sure how many schoolchildren study the creative accomplishments and boundary-breaking life of De Lavallade, but I am sure that it is not nearly enough.

De Lavallade, almost 86 and still looking like the most classically beautiful dancer you ever saw, not only has had a brilliant career of her own in dance and theater (in dance companies, on Broadway, on television, and in film), but also has been surrounded for decades by icons of the dance and theater world—from her high school friend Alvin Ailey to her multi-talented husband Geoffrey Holder.  Let me say a word about De Lavallade’s background, just in case you don’t know as much about it as you should.

De Lavallade met a young Alvin Ailey when they were classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles (she graduated in 1948).  She took her friend Alvin to a dance class she had been attending with the great modern dance creator/teacher Lester Horton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As you might know, De Lavallade started taking dancing lessons at a time in our history when black students were not welcome everywhere.  According to a Los Angeles Times interview last October, De Lavallade said, “You couldn’t even get into a dance studio without some student walking out.  I was lucky to find teachers like Melissa Blake, Carmelita Maracci, and, of course, Lester Horton. . . .  Lester opened up that place to everybody—every kind of person in the world was there!”

De Lavallade and Ailey went on to dance with Horton’s multicultural company and learned firsthand everything there was to know about running dance companies.  When Horton died in 1953, Ailey became one of the main proponents of the Horton technique (which is still used today by his world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School and which is the basis of many of Ailey’s best-loved and timeless works).  Ailey and De Lavallade came to New York City, danced together and separately in various companies and Broadway performances, and became the monumental stars they were both born to be.

De Lavallade met Holder in her Broadway debut, House of Flowers, in 1954.  Holder’s career later took him from dancing to painting to costume design to directing.  He won Tony awards for best direction and best costume design in 1975 for The Wiz, the well-known African-American musical version of The Wizard of Oz.  Holder and De Lavallade were an iconic couple until his death in 2014.

Last November, De Lavallade returned to her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School, to talk to the students.  Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Gelt describes the scene in the auditorium:

Tall, slender and elegant with her hair pulled back in a tight bun and a bright red scarf around her swan-like neck, De Lavallade, now 85, choked up when she first began to speak at a morning assembly.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” she told students. “I was you. Alvin was you. You are a part of that history, and you will be a part of that history, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

. . . She shared with the students an anecdote about how she wasn’t allowed to dance with her partner on “something called The Ed Sullivan Show” because the partner was white.

As she talked about making her life’s path as an artist of color, about how the students were part of her history, about how students could make their own history, [s]he asked, “Do you understand?”

. . . “We came through times when everybody told us we couldn’t do it, and we believed it,” she said. “Don’t you believe it.”

My guess is that De Lavallade was a lot for the students to take in.  My guess is that they probably had never seen anyone like her.  Who really has?  The high school, which was about 80 percent black when De Lavallade and Ailey attended it, now serves mostly Latino students.  What must they have thought about “this person who came from outer space,” as De Lavallade described herself later to the reporter?

According to the Times article, De Lavallade spoke insistently to the students, “People are people all over the world.  Don’t let anybody tell you who you can be.  Do you understand?”  It was a simple, but powerful message, delivered by someone who never let anyone tell her who she could be.

And here is one last reason I wrote this post for Black History month.  At the close of the assembly, De Lavallade told the students something that Holder had said.  It is as memorable as any quotation you would ever want to hear during Black History Month.  Here it is:

“I walk through doors. If I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not me.”

Thank you, Ms. De Lavallade, for bringing those words to students who need to hear them.  Let’s hope that your life story and Mr. Holder’s words and Mr. Ailey’s works travel in some way to every school every February.

Parents:  Make it happen.