Empowering the Abstract-Intensive Child—and Her Future Adult

When I was about ten years old, I got in trouble with a friend’s parent for something that now, twenty five years later, still cranks up my blood pressure as I reflect on it with the perspective of an adult.  My crime, essentially, was trying to start a business.  It all started when I invited a few friends to pool some of their savings to buy supplies for our planned artisan trinket shop, to be launched at the craft shows that frequented the local rec center.  A couple friends did—including one whose contribution of $20 was impressive enough to reach the status of angel investor, if that had been in my vocabulary in 1992.  Or, more technically—and here’s the rub!—she pooled her parents’ money, which we then all marched four blocks to the store on our own (“free-range” parenting was not a crime in the 1990s) to invest in our supplies.

I was clearly the ideating leader of the enterprise, so the less-than-angelic investors told my mom that they had actually wanted more change back from the twenty than they received—a detail my friend had wholly failed to convey to me and which horrified me to hear after the fact—and my friend’s dad punished “her” by forbidding her to play with me for a week.  This had the effect of my being excluded from all neighborhood play, as the friend was more popular than I was.  I remember sitting there on our porch swing, listening to them having fun around the block and knowing that I was not allowed to join them, wholly confused as to why I had been deemed bad, and certainly learning the lesson that I should never try something like that again.  The trinket enterprise collapsed.

This incident came back to my mind as I pondered the topic for this month’s Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop: What should we teach gifted children, other than academics?  My pondering is, of course, from the perspective of an adult who’s trying her hardest to Do The Thing that she’s always wanted to do: to bring one of her many ideas to fruition, to create something of valuable and get it out there into the world.

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It bears repeating that giftedness is a nebulous concept, and even once we agree on a definition, the people within its circle will still be diverse.  My musings here are in line with my proposed neutral term for “gifted,” abstract-intensive.  This encompasses the creatives, ideators, and idealists who like to sail along 30,000 feet above everyday reality; and who live, breathe, and do with intensity.  On the other hand, I suspect these proposals may fit a much broader circle of kids, dubbed “gifted” or not.  All I can say is this: I have some ideas on what might have helped a kid like me, who grew into an adult who is still determined to Do The Thing.

And I can sum up the theme in one word: empowerment.  How could we help young ideators learn to Do Their Thing effectively?

A foundation of self-awareness is essential to this goal, so the first thing I’d do would be to talk to them about what it means to be “gifted” or “abstract-intense.”  This would both affirm what’s true in the statement “all children are gifted” and refute what’s false.  Kids who are not in the program, after all, may well be very bright and/or talented in a way that just isn’t in line with the particular emphasis of the gifted program.  If the abstract-intensive kids understand precisely what traits they were selected for and realize that others don’t share these ways of thinking, they’ll be better prepared to capitalize on their strengths, respect the strengths of others, and understand their own areas of weakness.  An early exercise in meta-cognition might, for instance, have shed some light on why a neighborhood kid would be overwhelmed by “our” (read: my) proposed business plan—and, moreover, why she might not have let on!  And hey, I’d wager that that this might help prevent impostor syndrome in adulthood, too.

So that’s the foundation for my extra-academic training, but the core would involve parents, teachers, and/or interested community members teaming up to help these young ideators take a project through to completion.

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This means taking a young person’s project seriously.  The major hurdle I see here, of course, is that parents who never had such support themselves may not have a clue how to support their child’s project, even if they want to.  My mom’s family came from a working class background and my dad’s came from poverty; they sure didn’t know any writers or how you got started; they assumed, I think, that educators would help me with this, but this did not pan out.  And while my dad was also a born ideator, he himself rarely anyone to help him bring his ideas through to fruition, so he in turn did not know how to help me with mine.

This is where schools and community members could theoretically step in.  It truly does take a village, and the impact of even one adult taking one of my projects seriously could, I think, have really saved me much of the trouble I’m dealing with right now, as I stubbornly persist in trying to become a trinket magnate launch some of my ideas.  My friend’s dad, I might add, destroyed any chance that he’d get a return on that $20 investment.  Just imagine if he had said, “Hey, what happened here?  Ah, I see, you invested that money on materials.  Well, remember, you have to repay your investors.  How exactly are you going to earn the money back?”  (My inner ten-year-old insists that I note that he did get some change back.)  On the other hand, if I had ended up a modern-day Bolshevik, biographers could well have faulted that parent for teaching me that accepting business investment was a condemnable act.

On that note, the interested adult—whether a parent, teacher, or other mentor—will surely need to help the children determine if a project is feasible or not.  Sometimes it obviously won’t be, but even that can be an opportunity to talk about why, or to explore how they might at least take a few steps toward their goal.  If some form of the project is realistic, the next step is to hold them accountable until completion.  This is something my dad said he wished someone had done for him: it would have taught him that ideas can become reality, but only with dedicated work, and probably also the support of allies.

This, in turn, means getting them out there in the real world.  The more practical, hands-on experience these kids gain, the more they’ll be able to land the planes of their ideas on the ground of concrete and practical reality, rather than orbiting forever in the stratosphere of ideas.  In my admittedly non-expert opinion, an abstract-intense kid could easily knock a couple days off of classroom time every week and replace it with kid-sized exploratory internships or self-directed work with people who care about their ideas, giving needed context to their academic work.  Okay, kid, you want to make and sell crafts?  Here’s what goes into it—now see if you can make it work!

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Following this, we should teach them what it really means to succeed.  In other words, memorizing content and getting top grades is NOT the end goal!  Dear gifted kids, I know you’re good at this; beware of clinging to the delusion that this means you are being educated!  It’s easy for high-achieving students to expect that once they graduate, they can just put their GPA on their resumes, get picked by employers, and keep getting A’s, if in the form of a performance evaluation rather than a report card.

But this, of course, is not how it works.  And this is a problem, because the most interesting jobs for abstract-intense kids will want them to have learned to independently ideate and, more importantly, know how to follow through on those projects.  Unfortunately, in my case, what I learned is that school and work are places you follow directions and get the “right” answers as judged by a Scantron, putting your projects on hold because they’re not what’s important.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Actually selling a few crafts and being able to pay my friend’s parent back would have been one great example of success—and even if it wasn’t feasible, I could at least have learned something from being encouraged to recognize that as a goal that I could succeed or fail at meeting.

Speaking of putting projects on hold—that brings me to one more thing: include in the gifted program’s formal curriculum the likes of home economics and shop.  Remember how we taught these kids what it means to be abstract-intensive?  Well, many of these students will have their noses in books so often (and get praised for doing so throughout their formal education) that they never take time to learn to effectively feed themselves, change a flat tire, manage their finances, or otherwise do practical, everyday activities.  There’s a debate in the management world about whether it’s better to train people in their areas of weakness or to focus on building their strengths and let someone else do the stuff they’re bad at.  I tend to lean toward emphasizing the strengths—but only after meeting a minimum level of competence in all that’s essential to the job, or to life.

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Ultimately, we want to get our abstract-intensive kids—and all our kids—to be good enough at things they’re not gifted at but will need to face in life, and then to spend the rest of their time furthering their natural strengths.  These are the things that put them in a flow state as they contribute to society, and they are the things that give their life meaning.  Supporting kids’ own real-world projects would help kids make sense of the academic content we teach them, and to meaningfully apply it.  In the end, isn’t that really the point?

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This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for many thoughtful takes on this topic!

Image credits: Jill111, pixel2013, JESHOOTS, trinhkien91, KarstenBergmann, and M_Caballero at Pixabay

15 thoughts on “Empowering the Abstract-Intensive Child—and Her Future Adult

  1. I love the title “abstract – intense” thinker and I love that you advocate for children to understand their “title.” All children should embrace their learning styles and personalities and not hide behind them. It is so very important for us to be a community and bring all resources together to teach our youth. Roycemore School in Evanston does just this. It is called the P3- Personal Passion Project! They have time to find mentors and create/learn something they are passionate about. #griffinshowcase
    How are other schools integrating this idea?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your comment and kind words, and I hope you’ll forgive my late response; I was traveling and then when I got there, the power was out!

      And I’m really thrilled to hear that this idea has already been realized at Roycemore! (To be clear, I’m not a professional educator, just an interested amateur…and also a writer, so I’d love to learn more and write about places that are making this happen.) Just learning the term “Personal Passion Project” has just enabled me to discover other places that are doing this. For instance, take a look at this blog from Australia:

      http://thelearnersway.net/ideas/2014/12/23/personal-passion-project-reflections

      It’s long and full of fascinating insights on what it would look like if my blog post here were put into action, and then some! I recommend it to anyone who feels like they want more after reading what we have here. I’m particularly struck by the lower and higher order thinking skills, and realizing that so much of my education was just the “remembering” and “understanding” with virtually no “applying.” Even in the gifted program! Which I loved at the time just the same because I was with kids who were more like me…and occasionally they’d let us go and create things. But the post I linked above would have fit so well into the curriculum. I’m thrilled that Personal Passion Projects are now widespread enough to be able to google the term and find out more. Thank you for sharing this with me!

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  2. Oh man dream gifted programmes are like crack to me. Would you have your programme in it’s own classroom or in a separate school? Where do you stand on the balance between authoritarian and democratic methods in gifted education? Why isn’t the blog hop link working? Hook me up man, I’m jonesin’ bad. *shakes uncontrollably*

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    1. The blog hop moderator is getting over something nasty, but it will be up eventually! The hop isn’t about dream gifted programs necessarily; just about what gifted kids need to learn other than academics.

      On authoritarian vs. democratic, I tend to be for letting kids do what they will as much as possible and then letting them reap the consequences. I am not a parent or a teacher, though, so take that for what it’s worth. Sometimes if they democratically opt to do something harmful, grown-ups do need to step in, however authoritarian that seems. I know that’s not a deep answer, but again, I’m pretty unqualified to have an opinion, except to say that I do think learning from experience and letting kids develop agency are really, really important. If they don’t want to do something they “have to” do, try to get them to see why they have to do it, and let them face the consequences if they don’t. Obviously that’s not always going to be effective, but it’s where I’d start and hope to use it as often as possible should I ever have authority over any small humans.

      I also am agnostic on separate schools vs. classrooms. I experienced both…well, actually, Montessori wasn’t a gifted school, but it effectively worked as one because every kid was working to his or her ability. When I was 5 or 6 I was friends with a developmentally delayed boy of 11 who was in my class. It worked out! Then when I was in a magnet classroom in fifth grade, well, I guess the trick there is to follow my guidance to make sure kids understand what it means to be in that program. And the more I think about it, the more I think most kids (not just abstract-intense ones) should do personal projects! So yeah, to answer your questions, I’d have to do a lot more thinking and perhaps read some studies. But here’s where I’d start from. Opinions subject to change! What are your thoughts?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Without experience of either I think separate classroom or school would largely dependent on demographics – whetheryou had enough gifted children to fill a whole school, even a small one. A thought that does appeal is if you had a massive school of 2000+ students you could have multiple specialist centres in a schools-within-schools arrangment. Then you could have the high achievers school, sports school, performing arts school, STEM academy and the gifted school co-located and sharing facilities.

        I agree with your idea for projects and wish I’d got to do some of that. Despite some reservations I also love the idea of democratic schools. But at the same time I love the ‘mountaintop monastery’ concept of a gifted school – “make me a superhuman I don’t care how much it hurts”. When you consider what gifted children could potentially leave school able to do – equivilent to a masters degree in every subject, speak nine languages, special forces level combat ability, master artisans in several crafts, skilled in a range of arts, dancer, gymnast, acrobat, strongman… I’d have psychoanalysts, con artists and former spies training them in the most advanced social psychology. Now I think about it, learning acting could have multiple benefits. And I’d screen them for psychic, magic or spiritual talents, and while they wouldn’t all have it, if anybody was going to have exceptional capacity in those areas, it would probably be some of them.

        A more structured and authoritarian (presumably charismatic rather than punitive) would be especially good for teaching things that need a long time and regular practice without much reward, that most people aren’t good at motivating themselves to do. I wrote more about this and came up with a possible solution in a conversation on Lucinda’s blog http://www.laughlovelearn.co.uk/2017/05/08/started-homeschooling/#comment-10577

        With the level of resentment that opposes gifted education a thought occured. In 18th and 19th Century Germany, wealthy Jews built houses that looked very modest from the outside and the parts that visitors would see, to avoid inflaming Gentile rage. But the inside that only the family would see was done up like a palace. We could do something like that. The ugliest building the council has that no department wants, that’s the gifted school. Even a porta-cabin on some waste ground would do, as long as it gives gifted children what they need. Maybe if it looks like somewhere drug addicts would go for clean needles that would keep the neurotypical ego soothed.

        To go off on something of an associative thought tangent here, that might not be so bad. I remember reading suggestions that being gifted should be classed as a disability. While my response to that was “they’d better freaking not”, I could see benefit from being classes as a ‘high risk group’. That is basically accurate but also something you can still maintain some self esteem with and even take some degree of pride in. I watched The Betrayed Girls about child abuse in Rochdale (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-icZJM2ePE if you want to see the full horror of it). I thought about the sexual health workers who blew the whole thing open and the personalities and methods of those who work with vulnerable people like the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team, the Doncaster Family Nurse Parnership who work with vulnerable teenage mothers, or Crew in Edinburgh who do harm reduction with stimulant drug users. As well as their personalities (basically some of the best people on earth and Sara Rowbotham is practically the patron saint of the North of England now), their methods are similar in being humanistic psychology, motivational interviewing, harm reduction and everything to do with individual empowerment. I though those personalities and methods would be very well suited to working with gifted children in a democratic school as well. Just like they provide their clients with an oasis where they are understood and there are people who put up with them, despite often working out of very rough premises.

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        1. Yikes, totally missed this post! Sorry about that, DY. But lots of fun thoughts in here. 🙂 I, probably unsurprisingly, lean toward teaching some humility rather than letting anyone think they’re a superhuman, but at the same time, building up confidence in one’s own abilities (which for some reason too many people gifted in any way, abstract-intensive or not, lack). Though that’s perhaps something only time can teach, a form of real wisdom…sizing up one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and those of others, and parsing out respect all around (both the kind that is properly given to talents, and the more basic human decency variety).

          But this absolutely lines up with what you say about “humanistic psychology, motivational interviewing, harm reduction and everything to do with individual empowerment.” That’s it EXACTLY! And throw in some form of working democracy in a school? Now that’s an abstract-intensive utopia!

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  3. “In my admittedly non-expert opinion, an abstract-intense kid could easily knock a couple days off of classroom time every week and replace it with kid-sized exploratory internships or self-directed work with people who care about their ideas, giving needed context to their academic work.” And “Supporting kids’ own real-world projects would help kids make sense of the academic content we teach them, and to meaningfully apply it. In the end, isn’t that really the point?”–both of these statements remind me of the virtues of homeschooling, and how we hope to use it to provide this for our kids. These are great thoughts–thank you for writing them!

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    1. Thank you! I’m not a parent but might potentially be one in the future, and though I’d not ever thought of homeschooling as an option before getting into the gifted community online, I’m now thinking that it sounds like a pretty fantastic opportunity in a lot of ways — that is, if I’m ever up to it. (My default idea was Montessori, which worked so well for me, and which is still what I’d love to do, but it’s SO EXPENSIVE where I live, as opposed to the school that was run by my grandparents’ next-door neighbor and who waived the already not-exorbitant tuition when my dad lost his job, etc.) But yes, at any rate, there are so many inspiring homeschooling moms and dads out there. I wish you all the best with it!

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      1. Thank you! I’m a big fan-from-afar of Montessori, too! Have never experienced it, but have heard rave reviews from both those who’ve taught it and who’ve used it for their kids (there are actually homeschoolers who employ Montessori methods, too!). In fact, we have friends who have done the “one year homeschool, one year Montessori” thing to help mitigate the expense of it but also give mom a much-needed break during an especially tough year of medical issues with a younger child. They LOVED it. So hey, all kinds of options available to you, should you ever be in a position to consider them! 🙂

        Btw, on the point of being up to it–homeschooling is FAR more doable now than it was 25 years ago. There are endless curricular resources and opportunities to collaborate with community educational establishments and programs, plus a co-op or support group in every mid-sized town, for the most part (and often half a dozen co-ops for towns on the east coast, it seems!). And then there are all the free online printables and downloads and advice columns… I find all the help almost overwhelming, personally, ha! So never feel like you *can’t* do it; let it be a choice of “do I want this for my kids or not?” (assuming you ever have kids). Because you absolutely, totally can. 🙂 There are hard days, sure–but with kids, there are always hard days, even if they’re in school for half of it. Homeschooling gives you twice as many chances to connect, share your values, and demonstrate you’re always there, even if you’re not your best. That kind of steadfastness in a parent is, in my mind, irreplaceable. You can absolutely have that in the dynamic with out-schooled children, of course… but homeschooling doubles the opportunity. Just my two cents… and now I’m done with the sales pitch. 😉

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        1. Thanks, Gritty Momma, for the encouraging comments! It does sound like homeschooling is a much bigger thing than it was when I was a kid. Options are a wonderful thing to have — and Montessori homeschool? Now that’s something to think about!

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  4. I cannot contribute much to the discussion because I myself am not especially gifted, I’m just average, or maybe above average, like all children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. My parents were immigrants, working class, very poor. Yet they payed from their little disposable income music lessons for me. When I was fourteen, my mother died and I was on my own, but I had great teachers, all lefties who were delighted to see a working-class kid in an upscale grammar school and promoted me by all available means. My teacher at the Music University in Vienna, a world famous virtuoso, also took special care of me, I owe her so much. And then there were a yogi and a Zen priest who accidentally crossed my ways. That’s it, basically, that were the formative influences in my life.

    Nature or nurture? A moot question, because it’s most likely a mixture with different percentages for each person. Genetics, epigenetics, family, society, education, environment, nutrition all play a role. It’s hit and miss, it’s good luck and the right timing. Sometimes the stars align — often they don’t. And a humane society has to help the gifted as well as the less gifted find their right place, position, niche where they can contribute to the common good and live a fulfilled and happy life. A humane society also has to repair what went wrong — or try at least.

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program). The first part of this slogan still stands, the second part needs to be modified, because in the coming times of scarcity, as we reach planetary boundaries, the expectations and assumed needs will have to be drastically scaled back.

    As a music teacher I had quite a few talented pupils, some more talented than I. They became professional musicians or music teachers. I always told them: “a teacher who is not surpassed by his pupils is not a good teacher.” The pupils were never pushed toward success. Talented or less talented, they got the same attention and support; the main goal was always to help them develop their personality, using music for self-realization, artistic expression, psychological healing.

    Do limited resources in an education system mean, that special care for gifted pupils inevitably results in less care for the less gifted? Will a for-profit education system try to get rid of the less gifted? Does the separation in more and less gifted create a class / caste / elite mentality?

    I became friends with Montessori teachers and was very impressed. The pupils from Montessori schools were serene and collected.

    Homeschooling always can be done in addition to regular school. Being in a classroom together with other kids is social education. Sometimes painful, for instance if one is bullied, despised, shunned by classmates. But that is life with all its imperfections, and school has to prepare for that.

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    1. I can’t help but wonder, judging from your comments and your blog, whether you might actually be what I call “abstract-intensive.” I prefer this term because most adults won’t identify with the term “gifted,” and moreover, it had to define what that even means; it’s just a value judgment without any concrete definition. That’s why I don’t care for it myself, but sadly, it’s the only term that most people know to point to this particular population. Abstract intensity wouldn’t be the same thing as a talented music pupil, of course, and wouldn’t preclude others from being recognized as “gifted” in other ways.

      And to be sure, I agree with most of what you’re saying here. No one gets pushed toward “success.” At any rate, I’d argue that “success” is actually something that’s as hard to define as “gifted” — and my definition would be closer to helping them develop personality, self-realization, expression, and healing. What better definition of success is there than that?

      The resource question is also an essential one. I’m not in a position to influence policy on that, of course, but to the extent that I advocate for abstract-intensive children, I always envision this in a broader context where other special programs are made available for other kids who might need them. When resources are in short supply, depending on the situation, I might even agree that the “gifted” kids aren’t the first priority…but even in such cases, some recognition that these kids are different is essential and still might be able to be addressed in some effective way. And hey, what I say here about projects might be beneficial for all students…I simply can’t say, because I was this type of student. I can only say so much about how like or unlike other students I was. On that note, the people we consider “elites” are not necessarily abstract-intensive. Teaching kids about their unique strengths and how they fit in to a broader social ecosystem could be done in such a way as to draw attention to others’ strengths as well. The lesson planner has some power here; society’s values of course will win out, but again, it’s frequently not the abstract-intensive ones who win in this case.

      Which brings us to the issue of kids being bullied. I think you were discussing the socialization of kids specifically in response to homeschooling and not gifted programs per se, but it made me think of something. Max was in a gifted magnet in high school. My district’s gifted program was only in elementary school. Max was around kids who were like him; I was not, and I got emotionally and sometimes physically bullied. This means I did indeed “learn” eventually to “get along” with the other kids…but I did this by suppressing the very “weird” things that are suddenly admired now that I’m an adult who is able to spend more time with kindred spirits. And people wonder why I hide those things and don’t spontaneously offer them up at social gatherings or even in the workplace! There’s a lot of unlearning that I had to do that didn’t seem to show up in Max and his magnet friends. That’s not exactly a scientific study, of course, but it’s what’s in my field of view. So I think that as much as one needs to learn to get along with all sorts of people, there’s something to be said for putting kids with kindred spirits as much as possible. (This has to be balanced somehow with getting to know all types of kids. I’m no expert on this and I’m sure it would be hard. But so much good could come from doing this even a little better than we do now…and could perhaps mean that fewer parents pull their kids into homeschooling because of bullies.)

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      1. With the economics of gifterd education, I’m not sure if it is more expensive in principle. Obviously if they have every resource and the best of everything, it will be more. But the primary things gifted children need is to be around others like themselves and have a teacher who understands them. Since they would be in school and costing money anyway, grouping them together in one classroom wouldn’t make much difference to costs. And if it’s an accelerated programme that sends them off to university two or more years early, it may end up being cheaper overall.

        In a resources crunch I suspect the gifted would actually be the first to get the chop, as they are some of the least likely to grow up to be obedient workers and consumers.

        On socialisation, in my experience between the ages of about 10 and 13 is when you have the highest desire and capacity to be friends with people different to you. That was the time I was closest to having a normal life. But if you never felt like you belonged before that, it’s all built on sand and never feels secure. Then at age 14 it all turned to crap again. I suspect that in full-time separate gifted education, that age range would still be the prime years for understanding the diversity of people and having the widest variety of friends.

        What ages did you change schools? Where I live you go to infant school for the first three years (although I only remember two classrooms), not including nursery that I didn’t go to because it wasn’t compulsory. Then junior school for four years (last year there was probably my best year in school), then high school at 11.

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