Tag Archives: education

Dr. Clementine Beauvais: Pushy Parents and Gifted Children

Dr Clementine Beauvais

Behind every ‘gifted’ child is a pushy parent, says Cambridge academic Dr Clementine Beauvais

Dr. Clementine Beauvais is an “education researcher” and children’s author based in Cambridge in the UK. Recently, she was interviewed by journalist Emma Higginbotham about her latest research project in advance of a public talk which is part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Clementine’s talk is titled: “Gifted children – or pushy parents? ‘Prodigious parenting’ from Leopold Mozart to Mozart for babies”. The premise of her talk is to open discussion and dialogue on the social construct of gifted children and their (possibly) pushy parents, examining how modern literature perceives the role of parental involvement in the achievements of gifted or highly able children. In looking at how these parents and children are perceived, she suggests, we may examine our own attitudes to education and parenting issues.

As anyone with any experience of gifted education or research will recognise, putting the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘pushy parents’ together is a hot-button issue. Journalists too know that to gain attention for their work they need good headlines to pull readers in, and Ms. Higginbotham does just that. “Behind every ‘gifted’ child is a pushy parent” says Cambridge academic Dr. Clementine Beauvais”, her piece is headlined. Pithy and absolutist, it has the word gifted in quotation marks and the authoritative stamp of an Oxbridge academic, no less. The perfect storm was bound to erupt.

And it did. From experts in the field of giftedness and intelligence research to outraged parents, the commentators were quick to protest this lazy myth that they have seen trotted out so many times. Comments on the article and on Clementine’s blog were expansive and challenging. Some suggested that she should do some basic research into giftedness before using her academic position to undermine the field. Many took issue with her use of quotation marks around the term gifted, and her assertion that giftedness is merely a social construct. An interesting debate ensued on her blog, and seemed to take her a little by surprise.

Of course there are pushy parents. We have all seen them in action, making sure their child is front and centre or top of every queue until the child has internalised the message and can maneuver herself into prime position with every fresh opportunity. Ability or giftedness has nothing to do with this style of parenting, they just see the world as a competitive place where resources are scarce. Their children are not going to wait their turn for their share, they are going to go out and take it before someone else does. By pushing their children they give them what they see as the skills and confidence to do so. Parents of gifted children do not have a monopoly on this strategy, but as pushy parents often produce high achieving children, giftedness is regularly conflated with the behaviour. So, the article headline and throwaway comments notwithstanding, what is Clementine Beauvais’s angle?

Commenting on her blog, some offered scholarly advice to investigate giftedness from some reliable sources before delving any further into her research. Some berated her for what they saw as a negation of their own experience of parenting a highly able child. Most were critical and a few were dismissive. Some of her own replies shed a little more light on her focus. She explains that her research is about “representations of gifted children in literature and culture (including the discourses of scientific and educational research)”. Her first post on the subject summarizes what she sees as the current discourse on gifted children. She writes that:

“So part of my project involves looking at texts – from the scientific literature, from educational manuals, from non-fiction, from literature, from policy documents etc – which either reinforce or attempt to deconstruct these popular understandings of giftedness.”

Her second asks if adult focus on childhood happiness informs perceptions of giftedness. It also touches on the history behind modern childhood, a relatively recent development which has lengthened the time our children spend dependent on us and in education. While this is all very interesting, researching gifted children from all the angles she mentions would be an enormous task. Looking at the construct of giftedness from cultural, literary, scientific and educational perspectives? In just three years? Many eminent academics have spent entire careers researching giftedness and intelligence differences in just one of these fields. Several recent papers and books might address some of the issues Clementine would like to examine. The ones that come immediately to mind are David Yun Dai and Joseph Renzulli’s 2008 paper “Snowflakes, Living Systems and the Mystery of Giftedness” (behind paywall) as well as Dai’s book “The Nature and Nurture of Giftedness”. She might also want to take a look at Scott Barry Kaufman’s fascinating book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” and “Explorations in Giftedness” by Sternberg, Jarvin and Grigorenko. In fact anything by Robert Sternberg is worth reading from an academic perspective. But if Clementine is going to do her subject justice, she has a lot of reading ahead of her!

Nevertheless, examining giftedness from a sociologist’s viewpoint is a worthy endeavour. Stepping outside our own definitions and looking at what people think, as expressed in language, literature and culture is a fine research topic. Done well, it would be of great benefit to those who work  (or parent) in the field of giftedness or intelligence research. Linguistic and cultural narratives tell us a lot about where we must start in designing an education system which would cater to all. We may have to take a step backward, into an examination of how we came to be perceived as pushy or gifted, in order to move forward. Clementine’s research focus may make some gifted advocates uncomfortable, but it may also serve a very pertinent purpose.

Those of us who deal every day with giftedness, gifted behaviour and intelligence differences need to be mindful of how we react to the myths and stereotypes. It goes without saying that we should challenge them but perhaps we can do so without feeding the myths on the flip side. There is plenty of rigorous, peer-reviewed academic research which supports what we experience in our everyday lives. By placing our lived experiences of these issues in the context of research we could have a more powerful answer to the types of lazy journalism we encountered this week.

But I can’t shake the feeling that we have all walked ourselves into being part of Clementine’s big laboratory!

References

Dai, D. Y. (2010). The Nature and Nurture of Giftedness: A New Framework for Understanding Gifted Education. Education & Psychology of the Gifted Series. Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.

Dai, D. Y., & Renzulli, J. S. (2008). Snowflakes, living systems, and the mystery of giftedness. Gifted Child Quarterly, 52(2), 114-130.

Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted: intelligence redefined. Perseus Books Group.

Sternberg, R. J., Jarvin, L., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2010). Explorations in giftedness. Cambridge University Press.

Genes, Intelligence and Jumping to Conclusions

Statue facepalmLast Wednesday morning on his Newstalk Radio show, Pat Kenny had his weekly science slot with resident expert Luke O’Neill, Professor of Biochemistry and Academic Director of the Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin. The chosen topic for discussion was genes, intelligence and the education system. (It begins at 31 minutes into this podcast).

The discussion was littered from start to finish with misrepresentations and misinterpretations. Given Professor O’Neill’s stature as an internationally renowned immunologist who has done a great deal to make science accessible to the general public, we were very disappointed that he was so casual about his remarks and that he had so little understanding of the science behind the topic he had chosen to present. In our last post, we discussed the application that Kenny and O’Neill saw for this study within our education system. Here, we look at the “science” upon which their conclusions were based.

For his opening remarks, Prof O’Neill stated “You’re born with a particular set of genes that sort of govern intelligence to some extent. And a big study just came out. 10,000 twins were assessed, which is a good group to look at ‘cos identical twins who are separated at birth and you can follow them in schools and so on and it’s 60% genes and 40% environment is what governs your ultimate intelligence. And for some subjects like maths it’s 70% genetic. So no amount of schooling, almost, is going to help someone who doesn’t have the genes to be mathematical.”

In 1994, Robert Plomin, Professor of Behavioural Genetics at King’s College London, began the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a longitudinal study of all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996. They are not all identical and none was separated at birth. In December 2013 an interim study was published, looking at the GCSE results of the twins who have now turned 16:  Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16. This, we presume, was the subject of Luke and Pat’s discussion.

As stated clearly in the study title, it was looking at GSCE results, or academic achievement rather than intelligence and, to quote Plomin himself, “GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence.” So, this wasn’t actually a discussion of intelligence at all, something which is vastly more nuanced and complicated than GCSE grades and IQ scores.  Prof O’Neill casually sidestepped this and then went on to confuse the term heritability with inherited. The two are not the same.

The concept of heritability belongs to the field of genetics and can be quite tricky for a non-expert to get their head around. Heritability is a measure of the extent to which differences in the appearance of a trait within a particular group of people, can be explained by a difference in their genes. It refers to the group, not to the individuals and it does not refer to the passing down of a trait from parent to child. It is incorrect to say that if intelligence is 0.6 heritable, then 60% of a person’s intelligence is inherited from their parents and 40% is due to the environment.

Achillea growth in different environments

In the 1940’s, scientists Clausen, Keck and Heisey studied the growth of the yarrow plant, Achillea. In one experiment, they took seven Achillea plants and made three clones of each. One of each clone was planted at coastal height, one at mid elevation and one higher still, at the timberline.

In the diagram to the left, the seven clones are ordered from left to right according to their growth at the lowest elevation. The second line shows them in the same order at middle elevation and the top line shows them at the highest elevation, the timberline. The three clones of each plant are shown directly one above the other.

Comparing the clones of the same plant vertically across the three different environments, although each is genetically identical, their growth is very different. The difference in height cannot be explained by any difference in their genes, therefore height is almost 0% heritable.

Now compare the seven different plants at each elevation (horizontally). Here, the environment is the same for all the plants, so the difference can only be explained by the difference in their genes. The very same trait, height, is almost 100% heritable in this scenario.

You might also notice that the relative heights of the different clones is not always the same. For example, the plant on the far left is the tallest at sea level and at the timberline, but the plant in the middle, is the tallest at the mid level.

So, you cannot take the heritability of a trait as measured in a particular group of people in a particular setting and then apply the result to any old group of people you fancy and in any environment. Bear in mind also, that it is unlikely in the extreme that maths ability, or any other ability, is controlled by one or two genes. So, to extrapolate the results of Plomin’s study to say that anyone is born with the “wrong genes” for maths or any other subject, and that no matter how hard they work at it, they are wasting their time, is absolute nonsense.

It is this sort of misunderstanding that leads to the fixed mindset that prevents too many of us from trying new things or persisting in the face of difficulty. We may not all have the potential to be geniuses, but given the right “environment” and the right attitude, any of us can be perfectly competent at far more than we might think. It is a great disservice to our children to lead them to believe that they will never be good at something because they were born with the wrong genes.

Pat and the Professor versus Genes and the Gifted

Lada vs LamborghiniLast week’s science slot on Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk featured a discussion between Pat and his regular guest Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College’s Biomedical Sciences Institute. The topic was genetic research into human intelligence, an interesting and potentially controversial subject. We had several problems with this slot which we intend to highlight over the next while, but in this post, we take issue with some of Pat Kenny’s comments about why bright children shouldn’t be given the same support as other children. This is one of the most pervasive myths about gifted children and one which we continue to try to dispel.

In the course of the discussion, Pat said: “So if kids with high intelligence are growing up in what you might call underprivileged surroundings, their brain power will probably pull them out of their difficulties or else turn them into master criminals but they’ll use their brains somehow. But those who don’t have that kind of brainpower will end up consorting with other people of not so much brain power and their lot will not get better.”

Professor O’Neill responded by saying “Well that’s the sad truth and this is a horrible truth, nobody likes to think of intelligence just being genetic you see, because that can give rise to all kinds of problems later, and there’s eugenics and things but that does seem to be the evidence.” He explains this by using the analogy of different car engines using the same petrol, engines representing the genetics and the petrol the environment – the performance of the cars will be different, the more efficient the engine the better the performance even if they all get the same petrol.

Pat goes on to suggest that “so…. you could let the smart fellas, if you like, look after themselves. All your resources should go into the less smart people to give them the opportunities in life that they can enjoy?”, a point agreed to by the Professor who later goes on to say that with the right funding in education “you can tailor the education to specific kids needs and that benefits that kid hugely”. Well that sounds like a great idea, tailoring education to meet each child’s needs. But wait, they mean to exclude gifted children, because their “engines” are already powerful enough, and we need to hold them back until the less powerful “engines” catch up?

The casual disregard for gifted learners or those with “high IQ” is feeding into a stereotype which we work hard to dismiss. We listened in astonishment as they seemed to say that the ideal education system is one in which individualised learning is available for all except the really clever ones who will be able to “look after themselves”. They appeared to be claiming that as the research now shows that “genes (for intelligence) will emerge”, we can justify exclusion of equal provision for these children within the education system in order to redress the balance in favour of less “brainy” children.  What a discriminatory suggestion! It is as preposterous as suggesting that children who struggle in an academic environment should be sidelined while those with more “brainpower” as Pat calls it, would be supported to reach their potential. I doubt many educators in Ireland would agree with either system, but Pat and the Professor really thought they were on to something based on incorrect interpretation of brain research and a large dose of wild extrapolation.

It is hugely disappointing that two well-regarded professionals, both from a scientific tradition, would peddle this populist nonsense and feed the stereotype that giftedness is enough of an advantage that these children should be almost artificially held back by withholding educational resources until other children have “caught up”. In fact, gifted children are at risk if their abilities are not recognised and supported like any other child’s. Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly in need of support for several reasons, among them issues such as  family and social problems, lack of expectation, lack of educational support or tradition in the home, or lack of financial resources to support extra activities such as CTYI. Research from the Centre for Academic Achievement in Dublin City University shows that putting a robust support system in place is of enormous benefit not just to the individual students, but for their families, schools and fellow pupils. Supporting highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds opens up possibilities and potential that they are unlikely to find if left to “look after themselves” as Pat and Luke suggest. It is simply wrong of them to advocate such a thing based on a very shallow understanding of the research referenced on the show and no regard at all for pedagogy.

Every child, every single one, should be able to expect the support that they need to succeed. Gifted children need as much support as any other child to reach their potential, they will not simply make it on their own, and have even less chance if their needs are wilfully ignored. Dr. Colm O’Reilly, director of CTYI and Ireland’s leading expert in gifted education and research said in a RTE documentary in 2010: “We tend to have the attitude of ‘well, sure it’ll all work out in the end’. For a lot of them, it doesn’t work out in the end and they end up underachieving greatly, and what do we say then? ‘Well, they weren’t that smart to begin with’. I can’t agree with that. The reason they underachieve is because we never did anything for them in the first place, to allow them to fulfill their potential”.

As the Professor says, tailoring an education to an individual child is indeed of great benefit to that child. Would that we had the resources to do that in our schools, but they are stretched to almost breaking point by cutbacks these days. To suggest however, that some children should be effectively ignored in favour of others, is against all educational principles and is discriminatory and misguided. Pat and the Professor should research their topics before launching a broadside at gifted children and their futures.

 

 

Neuroscience and Education: Myth versus Reality

Neuromyths in EducationEver since the time of Plato we have been attempting to discover how humans learn. Our fascination with the brain has endured and evolved as scientific research has delved deeper and deeper. Many of us think we know a fair amount about the human brain and how it works, but we are bombarded with some very prevalent myths that have taken hold in our vernacular and in some cases, our educational environments. Here we examine the three most common ones, find where they come from, how they are used in education and see how we can extricate ourselves from their grasp.

Myth 1: We are either Left-brained or Right-brained

We have all heard the theory that we have a dominant side to our brain which determines our way of thinking, our approach to learning and even our personality. Creative or logical? Rational or emotional? Verbal or visuospatial? Probably to do with which side our brain ‘leads’ with, according to this myth. The idea that people are either left-brain or right-brain dominant has been around for some time and, like most myths, has a grain of truth somewhere in its core. Two early brain researchers working towards the end of the 19th century discovered that damage to specific brain areas resulted in language deficiencies and concluded that some speech and language brain areas were lateralized. Broca’s Area  is found in the left frontal lobe and is named after Paul Broca who discovered that damage there caused difficulty in language and speech production.  Around the same time, Karl Wernicke found that language comprehension is localised in the left superior temporal gyrus and damage to this area results in what is now known as Wernicke’s aphasia. Both found on the left hemisphere of the brain, the conclusion that speech and language dominates the left side is clear to see. (Incidentally, Wernicke’s area is found in the left hemisphere in about 95% of right-handers and 60% of left-handers, so as with everything to do with the brain, it’s not all black and white!)

Adding to the basis of this myth were laterality studies of split-brain patients from the latter half of the 20th century. Split-brain patients in these studies usually suffered from epilepsy so severe as to be life-threatening and treatment involved surgically separating the corpus callosum, the main means of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. In a series of experiments  by Roger Sperry and colleagues at CalTech on these patients, further empirical evidence was found that language function is largely lateral. This underlined the belief that the left hemisphere is more ‘verbal’ than the right hemisphere and led some researchers to the conclusion that one hemisphere is more dominant than the other. From there, the idea rolled on into different teaching strategies for left-brained and right-brained learners, and the notion that the characteristics can somehow be divided into different brain hemispheres.

Of course this is not at all as it seems because our brains are so interconnected that while some brain functions are lateralized, most are bilateral, particularly in higher order cognition. The over-simplified notion that the ‘left-brain’ is logical or analytical and the ‘right-brain’ is emotional or creative is just plain wrong. We have one brain, not two!

Myth 2: We are Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic learners

This myth is based on the idea that children can be divided into three different ‘dominant’ learning styles; Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic, or VAK. This view seems to have many origins and some amount of research.The assumption is that children learn best when material is presented via their dominant sensory modality. A quick internet search will demonstrate the prevalence of this myth and, although there are many caveats in the information, many people continue to believe that learning outcomes will be improved if a child has material presented through his or her dominant sensory channel. In reality, very little empirical evidence has been produced to back up the theory. However, learning outcomes do appear to be improved when material is presented using all of the different modalities. In other words, although children, and indeed adults may have a preference for a certain way in which they like to learn, they use all their senses to do so and therefore presenting learning material in a variety of ways is more likely to result in improved outcomes. The improvement in performance, if there is any, from being taught exclusively in one’s own learning style has yet to be determined.

So, although preferences in styles of learning do exist, the myth that we can be categorized into one style or another is false. Our brains are so interconnected that information from each modality is shared within and between others, so we learn in many varieties of ways rather than just one. Researchers have attempted to make clear that this is a preference or a strength whereas the education industry has been inundated with ideas for the classroom which do not take into account the evidence that a variety is what is required, rather than a crude classification of children into groups or types. The attraction of this myth is that it confirms what we know, that people learn differently and in their own unique style. It is neat and simple, learn through your dominant style and you will be smarter. Of course, good teachers everywhere already present material to children in a variety of different ways, to keep their attention and their learning styles satisfied, but the notion that by using each modality separately the brain processes the information independently is patently false.

Myth 3: We only use 10% of our brain

Amazingly, this brain myth is one of the most persistent even though there is not a shred of evidence to support it. It has been claimed that this particular idea gained traction when Albert Einstein said the he only used 10% of his brain during a radio interview in 1920, but this hasn’t been confirmed by a transcript and no record of the interview exists. If he did say such a thing it is doubtful he intended a whole industry of brain-boosting and brain-expanding theories and products to come of it! The truth is that we use all of our brain, 100% of it. As John Geake puts it:

“…if you are only using 10% of your brain, then you are in a vegetative state so close to death that you should hope (not that you could) that your relatives will pull out the plug of the life-support machine!”

In more recent times fMRI has revealed more information about what parts of the brain are used during which activity and confirms that even during sleep or restful times we are using all of our brains.

So why do these ideas persist? The answer probably lies in several directions. Technology is letting us know more and more about the human brain. In previous times brain research could only be carried out post mortem which told us the basic structure but left us in the dark about much of the workings of a live brain. With the advent of PET and fMRI we are learning more detail about what the brain does and how it does it but it is important to remember that neuroscience research is carried out in a laboratory. Extrapolating from neuroimaging data to classroom strategies needs to be done very carefully and very cautiously. Not every new piece of information about the brain can be applied in a pedagogical environment.

The media who report on advances in brain research also need to shoulder some of the responsibility for spreading and sustaining neuromyths. Good headlines seem to count for more than accurate reporting these days and research is all too often oversimplified in an effort to pull in as many readers as possible. Somewhere along the way, the caveat about what can be taken from a particular study is left behind in the wake of the interest-grabbing headline.

Add to this the lucrative industry which has grown up around these and other myths (such as the Mozart effect) and we can see that there are interests other than neuroscientific advances at issue. Educators and parents are bombarded with products, games, websites and apps aimed at maximising a child’s potential, and who doesn’t want that? Sorting out the activities based on sound pedagogy and brain research is often too confusing and time-consuming, and so the most attractive idea or product takes hold, and so the myth lives on. The key to debunking the myths is to understand that we use every bit of our brain in all of its interconnected glory, between and within hemispheres and that it is still probably the most complex thing we will ever own.

References:

For a more indepth look at these myths and others check out the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in psychology, 3.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research, 50(2), 123-133.

Goswami, U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7(5), 406-413.

Teachers Needed for Study of Gifted Education in Ireland

Survey

The Irish Centre for Talented Youth (CTYI) at Dublin City University has commissioned the Centre for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary to conduct some research around the area of teaching gifted students in Ireland. This will be the first research of its kind and we hope it will lead to the development of better provision both for gifted students and  for their teachers.

The Irish education system currently makes no specific provision for gifted students. Indeed, the term “gifted” is one often avoided, with “exceptionally able” being preferred by the NCCA when drawing up its draft guidelines in 2008. The fact that gifted education is a distinct area of education and psychology elsewhere in the world is often not appreciated here and, apart from Dr Colm O’Reilly of CTYI, we have no resident experts in the field.

Despite a lack of training, recognition or support, many individual teachers recognise that gifted students often need extra or different support in order to do well in school and are doing their best to provide this within an already hectic system.

We know teachers are busy, but we would really appreciate it if you could help by completing one of the surveys linked to below, one for Principals and one for Teachers. There are no difficult or trick questions, but we believe you’ll find it interesting and thought-provoking. It should take about 20 minutes to complete and the password requested at the start is wm.  It is hoped to have completed surveys back by Friday December 4th.

 
This survey will be distributed to all schools directly from CTYI shortly. They have asked us to raise awareness of it in the meantime.
Please spread the word among your colleagues.
Thank you!