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Why Education Needs More Radioactive Spiders

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Education needs more radioactive spiders.

Stay with me.

Remember Peter Parker? His childhood wasn’t easy. Both of his parents– Richard and Mary– were killed on a mission as double agents. Raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens, Peter spent most of his childhood without an identity.

Now, Peter was a good student. He had a real knack for chemistry, mathematics, mechanics, biology, physics, and photography. But he lacked confidence, drive, and self-belief. He was bullied constantly by the other students. He was lonely, shy, and socially isolated.

One day in high school, he attended a science exhibition about radiology. In a moment, something happened that forever transformed him.

He got bit by a radioactive spider.

This changed everything. He suddenly realized he had all these powers. He was much stronger and quicker than he ever realized. He could climb walls effortlessly. He discovered he had finely tuned sense perceptions. He even used his extensive science knowledge to design a special kind of “liquid cement” that could shoot out of a “web-shooter.”

With his newly discovered abilities, he immediately went for fame. But it went to his head, and when placed in a position to catch a thief, he did nothing. Later, he found out the same thief killed his Uncle Ben. If he did something earlier, his Uncle Ben would have survived. He realized that with great power comes great responsibility.

But in this moment he also realized something else: for the first time in his life, he had an identity. Who was he? He was Spider-Man.

***

Now, more than ever, education needs more radioactive spiders. Figuratively, of course. What we need is for more teachers to show students just how much possibility resides within them, and to then provide them with a safe space to find their identity.

Unfortunately, every single day, extraordinarily talented and creative individuals sit in our classrooms bored out of their minds. What we must realize is that potential is not enough. Potential needs a catalyst; a reason for expression.

Positive expectations matter. So many kids with with a specific learning disability (e.g., dyslexia, autism, ADHD)– who have areas of strengths and weaknesses– are labelled “learning disabled.” They are fed a steady stream of negative expectations on a daily basis, and this has a major impact on their performance.

Elisha Babad found that the expectations teachers bring to the classroom have systematic effects on their grading, and also affects the standardized test performance of the students. Kathleen Cotton found that teachers with lower expectations for their students offered fewer opportunities for their students to learn new material, gave insincere praise (which the students were quick to pick up on), provided less stimulating and lower-level cognitive questions, and gave less effective but time consuming instructional methods.

Children are very sensitive to the overt and covert signals they are receiving from their friends and teachers. While teachers may try hard to suppress their low expectations, they still display a fair amount of communication “leakage.” Jan Pieter Van Oudenhoven and Frans Siero found that even though teachers gave students thought to be learning disabled twice as much overt verbal praise, they simultaneously gave more negative nonverbal feedback, such as exhibiting discouraging head movements.

This expectation leakage has serious effects on brain development. Kenneth Kishida and his colleagues had people take an IQ test alone as a measure of their baseline level of ability. Then they gave the participants another IQ test in a small group setting. Importantly, after each test item they were given feedback on their performance ranking within the group. While everyone performed worse in the group setting, those who suffered the most were those who were told they were “low performers.” Not only did these folks perform significantly worse than their baseline level of performance, but they also showed brain changes in areas associated with fear and working memory (amygdala, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and nucleus acumbens). These results suggest that the lowered expectations brought about anxiety which prevented them from showing their true colors. Low expectations literally shut down their brain.

***

What about the other end of the spectrum– those who are high performing in school? Well, they, too, can be heavily impacted by expectations. Like Peter Parker, there are so many children with an incredible knack for something– whether it’s science, math, writing, photography, art, music, dance, theatre, etc.– who fall between the cracks. So many of these children don’t flourish because it is expected that they will automatically do everything brilliantly just because they have a knack for something. Unfortunately, there is often little effort to help students with high ability figure out how their rapidly developing abilities fit in with their simultaneously developing self.

Consider a study by Jennifer Fredricks and colleagues, in which they conducted in-depth interviews with gifted and talented adolescents. Their gifted sample consisted of students aged 17 to 21 who were identified as gifted by their elementary school and were also in the top 25 percent of GPA. These college students were asked to recollect on their high school experiences in gifted education. In contrast, the talented sample included students in grades 9, 10, and 12 who were perceived (by themselves and by parents and teachers) as being highly competent in at least one nonacademic activity, who valued engagement in that activity, and who spent considerable time in the activity after school. Nonacademic domains included sports, instrumental music, vocal music, drama, and dance.

The researchers found striking differences in the responses between the two groups. The students in the talented sample reported a great love for their domain, a strong sense of identity, more frequent flow experiences, and the desire to engage in their domain all the time. In contrast, the gifted sample didn’t appear to be nearly as wrapped up in academics as much as the talented adolescents were in sports and the arts. Many of the students in the gifted sample were depressed and had a bleak vision of their future.

The researchers speculate that there was more passion for nonacademic domains because individuals’ need for challenges, autonomy, competence, and relatedness were more likely to be met in athletics and the arts than in academic domains. Youth in the talent sample talked more about having opportunities for making choices, receiving public recognition for their ability, and being supported and encouraged by teachers and peers. Tellingly, the researchers found that when students in the gifted sample were given greater freedom of course selection, they reported greater enthusiasm.

This study highlights the fact that passion isn’t an automatic consequence of performing well on an IQ test or getting good grades in school. Passion is activated by a clear set of conditions, and these rules apply to everyone; no one is immune. We’re all human, with fundamental needs, even if we may differ in our level of development in any one slice in time.

***

Those who are often the most vulnerable to having an identity crisis are those with advanced ability in some area and who also have a specific learning disability. On the one hand, these students are constantly being told that their identity is “learning disabled.” On the other hand, they know they are capable of amazing things. This creates conflict and confusion at a crucial time in their adolescent development, when they are in the throes of figuring out who they are and just how they would like to contribute to this world.

I personally witnessed the power of the radioactive spider. Prior to 9th grade, I had no identity other than “learning disabled.” I was placed in special education very young due to an auditory processing disability that constantly left me one step behind the rest of the kids in the classroom. Despite coming home and writing elaborate fantasy stories, or acting out soap opera plots in my head, it never dawned on me that any of that counted as smart or creative.

Until I got bit.

One day in 9th grade, a special education teacher who I had never seen before came into the special education classroom. She looked past my label, and saw my boredom and frustration. But most importantly, she saw possibility.

Taking me outside of the classroom, she asked why I was still in special education and why I wasn’t taking more challenging courses. This seemingly simple question snapped me out of my ordinary state of awareness. Everything suddenly clicked as I realized I had no good answer to her question. I suddenly realized that I was holding myself back.

From there, I signed up for everything I possibly could sign up for. I tried out various identities, from latin scholar to actor to opera singer to cellist. Some things didn’t click. But some did. Slowly but surely, with a newfound belief in my abilities, I found my identity. As a result, I went from a C/D student to a straight A student. The grades naturally followed from my newfound identity.

I wonder how many children we judge too soon. I wonder how many we write off as “stupid” or “slow”, when all it would take is a radioactive spider bite to show us all what they are really capable of achieving. I also wonder how many high ability children fall between the cracks because of bullying by classmates, or by the messages they are receiving from teachers that indicate that high ability is all they need. That identity, purpose, and perseverance don’t matter.

Unfortunately, in this standardized testing culture, the teachers who inspire and enable others to see what’s uniquely inside them are about as rare as radioactive spiders. But hopefully someday I can change my analogy, because there will be so many teachers transforming students that they will become an entirely common species.

I’m convinced that there is so much more possibility in all students than we realize. Imagine what would happen if educators helped all students see in themselves what is possible, and then helped them integrate that into the core of their identity?

I bet we’d have a lot more superheroes.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Rachel Ruiz at BOOST Collaborative for inspiring this post, and Amanda Stern for encouraging me to pursue it.

Disclaimer: Portions of this article were taken from my new book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

image credit 1: wikipedia.org; image credit 2: marvel-movies.wikia.com; image credit 3: digitalspy.com

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 3:37 pm 09/9/2013

    Dr. Kaufman,

    You are correct without question. But, it sounds as if you imagine a world without teachers’ unions.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Satya Narayan Tiwary 3:32 am 09/10/2013

    A great teacher activates, motivates, inspires and orients students towards study. Arousing interest is the main job of a teacher.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Steve D 10:44 am 09/10/2013

    Richard Dawkins is right. There is a “God Delusion” in the world. The god is human nature, which to many people is always benevolent, altruistic, and good. People don’t commit crime because they’re selfish or because it’s an easy way to get what they want, they commit crimes because of poverty, lack of breast feeding, or spanking. In education, people don’t lose interest in learning because it’s easier not to learn, they do it because of the educational system. Every human failing is ascribed to some externality.

    We have poured so much effort into improving teaching methods and media over the last half century that if any improvements were likely to come from that approach, we should be seeing them now. If it were true that humans were naturally inquisitive and eager to learn, anti-intellectualism should be a rare and aberrant condition, as pitiable as impotence. In fact, why should the teaching method matter at all? If people really are naturally inquisitive, why wouldn’t they find education fun regardless of the method? For some reason we don’t have to try different approaches to persuade people to eat or have sex, why should learning be any different?

    The tragedy in our society is not that so many people outgrow their childlike love of learning, but that most never do. Children have a superficial and shallow curiosity, as seen by every article on how to keep children entertained on long trips. The adult equivalent is the ten second sound bite. Every activity, no matter how rewarding, sooner or later stops being immediately gratifying when the need for discipline and sustained effort appears.

    Link to this
  4. 4. edusupport 12:52 am 10/8/2013

    Being one of the tutors at http://www.papersville.com/ I think a great and responsible teacher is the one who motivates its students, inspires them and bring their focus towards studies. Creating interest and motivation in the prime objective of a teacher.

    Link to this

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