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.


Your Senior Can’t Write

Your Senior Can't Write

I don’t know what you have been doing this fall.  Personally, I have been knee deep in college application essays.  I have been reviewing and editing the application essays of 50-plus seniors, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public ones.  Once again, I have come to the same sad conclusion.  As I said to a class of seniors at an elite high school a couple of weeks ago, “You write like third graders.”

Okay, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but it got their attention.  What I meant was that they were making mistakes in their writing—grammar, punctuation, word choice, and more—that they should have stopped making back in middle school, or earlier.  So, think of this as a wake-up call to you, parents, and to your kids.

Here is the big problem:  You can’t really fix a high school senior’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time.  There is too much pressure then, and there is too little time.  Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry.  But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do better.  Those of you who have a middle school kid can do even better.  You can start working to improve your kid’s writing in a serious way right now so that a future fall’s college application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past few weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view.  I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when no one else in your class seems able to do it?”  His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade.  His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it.  She worked shoulder to shoulder with him, line by line, in many sessions.  I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding.  He said that he did not enjoy writing.  But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing.  It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom.  It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made.  It sounds slow and laborious, and it is.  But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem.  Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students.  I wish they could.  Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a one-line-at-a-time basis—or even of 100 students or even of 50 students—day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one.  And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.

Parents of middle school and high school students, do this now:  If you can help your own teenager learn to write well—and by “well,” I really mean correctly—then do so, by all means.  If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your kid’s success than hoping for the best from your kid’s school. 

Parents, I believe this is on you.

The Death of Reading Logs

The Death of Reading LogsMaybe “The Death of Reading Logs” is an optimistic title for this post.  Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

I wrote several posts this summer about summer reading—the joys and the sorrows, the good and the bad, the important and the irritating.  But, I think we can all agree that it is a good thing if kids read in the summer—whether for enjoyment or for skill improvement or for both.  I think we can also agree that it would be great if kids did summer reading because they wanted to and not because they were required to.

With that in mind, let’s look at reading logs.  If you have had a child in elementary school in the past three decades, you undoubtedly know what they are.  Each week, your child’s teacher hands out a form on which your child is supposed to record the title of the book and how many pages or minutes per day he or she reads at home.  Likely as not, you have to sign it before it is turned in.

As a parent, I hated my children’s reading logs.  I spent many evenings looking for a book that would be quick to read (or, honestly, that my child had already read) so that she would have something to write down—because it was already well into the evening and we had just gotten home after three hours of ballet and character dance classes.  My excuses were not nearly so good for my two sons—one who actually liked reading and one who never met a book he liked (except for Way Out West Lives a Coyote Named Frank—thank you, author Jillian Lund).

Reading logs turned whatever reading my children might have enjoyed into drudgery, and they turned me into a bit of a—I might as well say it—fibber.  I would have been glad to see those reading logs spontaneously combust.

All these years later, I am relieved to know that researchers have found that reading logs can actually dampen a kid’s enthusiasm for reading—almost the exact opposite of what they are designed to do.  In an excellent piece last June in The Atlantic, Erica Reischer explained it this way:

“As a psychologist (and a parent), I have long opposed reading logs because of abundant research on the negative effects of external controls (such as rewards, deadlines, and assigned goals) on intrinsic motivation. In other words, when motivation to do an activity comes from outside, via rewards or mandates, it tends to undermine people’s interest in doing that activity for its own sake. This decline in motivation ultimately affects enjoyment, creativity, and even performance….

This research would suggest that reading logs have a similar effect on children’s reading habits, especially their desire to read for fun, making reading less of a pleasure and more of a chore. Imagine telling your child that she must draw pictures for at least 20 minutes daily—and also record how much time she spent drawing and how many different colors she used.

Until recently, however, there were no formal studies testing whether or not reading logs were actually promoting reading. A study published a few years ago, to surprisingly limited attention, in the Journal of Research in Education found that, indeed, reading logs can have a detrimental effect on students’ interest in and attitudes toward reading.”

You should read her article to find out more, if you have any lingering doubts.

If you are reading up on the subject, you will also find some intriguing takes on reading logs from teachers who have published their own ideas about how to know if kids are reading without having to resort to reading logs.  Jessica Lifshitz, a fifth grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Northbrook, Illinois, posted several good ideas—including signs on each kid’s locker, showing the name of the book that kid is currently reading—in a guest post she wrote for the Reader Leader blog for Scholastic.  You should also check out what she had to say.

Parents of elementary school students, do this now:  If you feel the way I did and are persuaded by what experts are now saying, look for the right way to intervene if your child is bringing home reading logs as this new school year gets started:

  • It might be a talk with your child’s teacher to voice your concerns.
  • It might be a talk with your child’s principal, especially if reading logs are required throughout the grades and there are a number of parents who want to weigh in.
  • It might be a talk with your PTA officers to see whether reading logs should be a topic of discussion at the next meeting so that parents and teachers could talk together as a larger group.
  • It might even be a question to take to your school board.

Just do your homework first.  Read what the researchers are saying.  (And don’t forget to let your own children see you reading.  That should do more good than those reading logs.)