This issue of Family Matters completes an outline of seven types of excellence highly relevant to our evolving world – referred to asRising Stars. In the last newsletter, I discussed the risk of relying on outdated models for assessing who is gifted, and what constitutes a gift. Imagine if we limited our search for the next great investment to only well established stocks; if we chose important new artists on how closely their work resembles those in art history books; or in any way decided to gamble the future solely on what had worked well in the past.
Simply stated, human excellence is precious capital that should not be wasted because of a failure to connect the dots – to connect the evolution of human capability with the evolution of human needs.
A remarkable realization of many educators today is that the location of knowledge has changed. It no longer lives exclusively in books or the minds of society’s wisest people. Today, knowledge is defined less as a designated set of facts than an idea that reflects the way young minds work – how they sort and absorb information. Those who peer into the future of knowledge will see that the way young minds work is determining what is important to know. The importance of “facts” hasn’t disappeared, but their attainment is primarily a challenge of access – and virtually everyone between the ages of 5 and 21 has mastered challenges of access – one need only point and click.
What Can’t Be Easily Measured
As a society, we can’t afford to overlook types of promise that escape traditional forms of measurement. Yet that is exactly what is happening all around us. Legislation intended to support students with learning differences has created a sub-culture of evaluation and measurement, where quantifying “deficits” is the single biggest factor in receiving services. As well, in the U.S.,No Child Left Behind has intensified the focus on traditional forms of achievement. In both cases, we have allowed the convenience of intelligence testing to dominate our perception of kids’ ability. Our oversight may become an unfortunate legacy if we don’t work toward recognizing the many gifted minds flying below our radar.
In the Mismeasure of Man, the late, great Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould explained how antiquated, yet statistically convenient methods of measuring capability are partly responsible for racial, class, and gender bias when it comes to assessing intelligence. He eloquently wrote that as late as two hundred years ago, craniometry (physically measuring a skull) seemed a perfectly legitimate approach to determining a person’s potential. Although IQ testing is a more scientific approach to measuring exceptionality than craniometry, it still suffers from the myopia of all deterministic approaches to gauging a person’s promise. In the end, the true value of a human mind is decided by a consensus of other human minds.
Equal Opportunity for Neurotypicals and Atypicals
An important advancement in how we rethink excellence has to do with acknowledging the contributions of people who, at least in some ways have been thought of as impaired – even disabled. Broad social fear of “disability” has led many of us to minimize our differences, and cover up our “deficits.” Yet the science of personality teaches us that every kind of human trait is adaptive in at least one context, or it would not survive natural selection.
In some cases, deficiency in one area clears a path for exceptionality in another. Think of the remarkable Dr. Temple Grandin, an autistic professor who has used her natural tendency to think in pictures as way to help design humane animal pens. What might a fourteen year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome teach us about the emotional needs of very shy children? How might the reading difficulties of a socially ambitious tween contribute to shaping a unique and compelling communication style?
A disability may not guarantee great achievement, but if we can see that many forms of excellence are derived from the novel intersection of traits and abilities, disability does not rule out the possibility of exceptional contributions.
Seven Types of Excellence
In Part I of this newsletter we considered the first three types of Rising Stars: 1. Navigators 2. Magicians 3. Sparkplugs. Below, are my outlines of the remaining four: 4. Translators 5. Locomotives 6. Rangers 7. Conductors.
For the sake of clarity, each category describes a type of person, although some readers may see the children of interest in their lives as an amalgam of multiple types. Each category of excellence is powerful in distinct ways – most notably with respect to how some people rise to serve the common good of others. To help you relate these categories to the children or students you work with, I’ve tried to include a brief psychological profile of each group, including some indications about how they think, react and problem-solve.
Translators are interdisciplinary thinkers. Even from a very young age, they have an uncanny knack for applying their existing fund of knowledge to new interests and cognitive challenges. Think of Translators as “hybrid” thinkers. These kids are able to look past the traditional boundaries that demarcate a field of knowledge in the interest of seeing important commonalities. They tune into the underlying (and abstract) concepts among subjects. They might be interested in how playing Legos helps in understanding the building blocks of nutrition, how “Webkinz” illustrates basic economics, or how animal behavior could be applied to search and rescue work. Translators are typically excellent analysts and enjoy exhibiting their unique talent for translating a particular knowledge set to a new application. Some Translators are kinesthetically focused – like the child athlete who quickly grasps how to translate kite flying in how to sail a boat, or how the motion of a paper airplane helps explain the trajectory of a curveball. Translators often serve as “peer tutors” because they naturally tune in to the best way to explain things to others.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits
Multiple/diverse interests Strong intellectual curiosity Analytical Not impulsive, but may have a variable focus due to persistent curiosity Think problems are fun Low threshold for boredom Attracted to abstraction Can read for hours High tolerance for failure; willing to experiment to achieve success More curious than perfectionistic Good grasp of what is important to society Willing to accept basic parameters of social conventions Want recognition focused on their achievements rather than themselves Rejects the idea of “knowledge hierarchies” (“math is not more important than shop class”) Intuits that facts can be “bent” Uniquely tunes into several “frequencies” of knowing simultaneously “Jack-of-all-trades,” perhaps master of a few Often enjoys “tinkering,” puns, brainteasers Has a wide variety of acquaintances and friends
Says: “Yeah, except if you look at it this way, you’ll see that we could”
Believes: The answer already exists – you just have to find it
Perceives: The big picture; that problems have common denominators
Wishes: S/he could find more friends that that found problems fun too
Understands: That the secret to novel/revolutionary solutions is quiet persistence
Leads by: Always being “out front” with respect to curiosity, a passion for learning, and an abundance of new ideas
Better than others at: Accepting ambiguity; seeing the big picture; delaying gratification, reserving judgment until a solution has been proven, but ultimately bringing clarity and innovation to situations and problems.
Parenting a Translator requires: Helping her or him attend to peer relationships. Connecting all that the Translator reads with the practicalities of daily living. Remembering not to give these kids too much space is also important. Translators are some parent’s dream children in the sense that they are good at occupying themselves from an early age. They may need extra encouragement to go outside, get off the computer, etc.
Teaching a Translator requires: an understanding that concepts and abstractions can be intoxicating to the Translator. Translators see facts primarily as “waypoints,” a way to map how to jump from one knowledge set to another. Translators often have trouble staying “on task” or editing their responses. Teachers of Translators need to assist these students in applying their hard thinking to tangible projects. These students also benefit from ample opportunity to articulate their ideas, whether orally or through written work. These students can be skeptical of conventional wisdom and will challenge you to prove your points persuasively. Young Translators tend to be teacher’s pets because their manner of thinking enables them to quickly learn new material. Adolescent Translators may be difficult to engage in more routine classroom activities and will find fifty examples where your generalized model fails to apply.
Potential pitfalls: May inadvertently become a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Can take a long time to make simple decisions. Can also come off as aloof or socially disconnected. Some Translators are in a near perpetual state of restlessness, causing parents to worry about them emotionally. They don’t always tune into the same interests as peers.
Promises: These young people are capable of extraordinary contributions, whether scientific or social. As workers they are able to subordinate personal needs for the sake of a larger goal. They are often the invisible driving force behind technology that changes lifestyles. (Think of the three young men who invented YouTube.) In information-rich environments, they are the ones who are able to mine the data for golden discoveries.
Locomotives ride on duel rails of drive and responsibility – their core values. These are the kids who consistently show up when the going gets tough. Interestingly, Locomotives come from divergent backgrounds and different life perspectives. The nine year-old who is determined to raise the most money by selling the most girl-scout cookies (in the rain, sleet, or snow) is as much a Locomotive as the seventeen year-old who jumps into a frozen lake to rescue someone who fell through the ice. They are the kids who show up at the skating rink at 5 a.m. everyday for practice. You can’t put the brakes on a Locomotive because they are tenacious, stubborn, and just won’t quit.
While their actions may appear to be fueled only by emotion, locomotives are kids with a strong awareness of a particular destination. They are able to hold a vivid image of that destination in mind to propel themselves toward accomplishment.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits
Engaged Goal-oriented Concern for others expressed more by deeds than words Trustworthy Will not be interrupted or ignored Forceful and driven Consistent in beliefs Resistant to change Fiercely independent Convinced – often stubborn and inflexible High energy in bursts Self-motivated When the going gets tough, keeps on going Strengthened by adversity Likes to impress others Gains admiration of peers and adults Does not like to be left alone or unoccupied Impatient and sometimes hot-tempered Dislikes ambiguity and suspense Chooses future occupation based on prospects for being the best Enjoys challenges that require exertion and stamina Likes a good argument
Says: “I think I can, I think I can-I know I can, I know I can!”
Believes: My success depends primarily upon me ( internal locus-of-control); failure is not an option
Perceives: A tangible goal without distraction
Wishes: To set a record; to scale a mountain that’s never been scaled; to impress others with extraordinary feats of physical or cognitive stamina
Understands: The value of hard work
Leads by: Willpower, endurance, unshakable focus on performance goals
Better than others at: Looking adversity in the eye and blocking fear or self-doubt. Showing up, no matter what.
Parenting a Locomotive requires: Calm authority. Locomotives have a firm idea of what s/he wants to accomplish, and hesitancy on your part will incite their impatience, and any resistance may spur their own. For better and worse, Locomotives are stubborn. They’ll cling to a cliffside if it will bring them one step closer to accomplishing their goals. A mastery of the Socratic question and ability to avoid head-to-head combat will be among the many diplomatic skills parents need. Providing opportunities for flexible thinking is a plus. Parents should expose Locomotives to a variety of positive outlets for their energy in order to find a mutually agreeable focus for a Locomotive’s irrepressible effort. The term “cut your losses” is a foreign concept to this child. But take heart, most Locomotives are so busy they don’t have time to get into trouble.
Teaching a Locomotive requires: Relating your subject to their object of interest. Locomotives will be able to handle mountains of homework, but teachers only engage them, and gain their best effort, when they tap into a Locomotive’s belief system. These kids are anxious to identify with mentors they believe in. In the absence of such mentors, they will attempt to take the reins themselves. If a Locomotive wants to get into an Ivy League school s/he’ll be sure to get straight A’s – but if the goal is to be a Hollywood star s/he’s just as likely to drop out at sixteen and hitchhike to Los Angeles to get a stage career moving.
Potential pitfalls: Locomotives may have a difficult time appraising when it’s time to redirect their efforts toward another pursuit. They dislike any hint of failure, and may persist, even in the face of diminishing returns. They have a hard time shifting out of high gear and can be exhausting to family and peers worn out by their dreams and demands. Because they tend to be opinionated and outspoken, they suffer from embarrassment or furor when they have to back down
Promises: Locomotives are life’s “doers,” knocking down roadblocks and making the impossible, possible. When properly channeled, their persistence, resilience, and tenacity are awe- inspiring. Locomotives have a higher than usual rate of success, and because they are born leaders, they bring out unsuspected energy and capacities in their followers.
Rangers retain an essence of the wildness of nature in the midst of leading a “civilized” life. These kids are like Huck Finn who “lit out” to the great river, or the girl who can intuitively and effortlessly communicate with dogs or horses; perhaps a young Jane Goodall or Jacque Cousteau. A Ranger’s comprehension of what is wild keeps us in touch with our ancestral roots in the natural world. By sensing and understanding the deep rhythms of nature, these kids are destined to heal those parts of ourselves that feel alienated from nature. Rangers are in flow when they are negotiating a rough sea, riding bareback on a horse. They often communicate surprisingly well with infants and young children, the elderly, or those with mental/cognitive disabilities because the can sense the “energy” and intention of others nonverbally. They like the window open and their shoes off, and they’ll be first to pet a strange dog or stray from the marked trail.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits
More comfortable outdoors than indoors Kinesthetic, often “good with hands” Adventurous and active Tend to be athletic May be physically strong, but strength is an outgrowth of their interest in being outdoors and doing things, rather than a goal itself Self-reliant Able to think strategically about how to “collaborate” with nature Pragmatic in the face of uncertainty Draw heavily on past learning in new situations Able to withstand personal discomfort, work hard physically, ignore or even embrace harsh weather conditions Do not need to talk to feel close to someone High level of empathy for animals Sensitive to environmental changes, noticeable effect on mood, outlook, disposition Bored or overwhelmed by too much verbal stimulation Honest and unpretentious
Says: “Let’s go out”
Believes: Life’s best moments happen outdoors
Perceives: Forms and rhythms found within nature
Wishes: For more time connecting with the natural world
Understands: That experiences, rather than things, make him/her happy; that “Steve Irwin was way more than just a crazy crocodile guy.”
Leads by: Authenticity and guiding others
Better than others at: Understanding animal behavior; tolerating environmental discomfort; appreciating, respecting, and interacting with nature, being patient with those who learn or communicate differently. Can be highly spiritual.
Parenting a Ranger requires: An understanding of how uncomfortable many aspects of contemporary life are for Rangers. The compassionate Ranger parent will sacrifice a weekend of relative comfort to take a Ranger (and her or his beloved dog) camping, and try not to panic when their Ranger decides to ford a fast-running stream, or brings back a really cool snake s/he found in the woods. The effective Ranger parent knows that what seems recreational or vocational for many kids is the lifeblood of existence for their Ranger child, who needs to connect with wildness on a visceral level. Rangers communicate best when they are doing an activity, preferably outdoors, because physical activity, rather than prolonged stillness, helps to focus a Ranger’s mind.
Teaching a Ranger requires: Delaying an ADHD assessment until one has seen the child in his/her natural environment. Because schools don’t always have “natural” ways for Rangers to showcase their skills, the special talents of Rangers may fly under the radar of school. It’s worth asking if a child likes to camp, garden, hunt, fish, sail, hike, ride horses, or raise animals. Students who affirm a strong interest in such activities will appreciate the opportunity to run errands, move a stack of chairs, or do a work-study project. Rangers come in all learning styles, but tend to learn by doing (kinesthetics). They appreciate the opportunity to practically apply coursework. In all probability, the full extent of what Rangers have learned can only be gauged by giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. Potential pitfalls: The Ranger is often waiting to get out of school so that s/he can pursue his or her real interests. Younger Rangers may appear to lack interest in education. However, it’s more accurate to say they have a problem with the structure of school, rather than a lack of interest in learning. Rangers may find the company of animals preferable to people.
Promises: When people say “salt of the earth” they are thinking of a Ranger. When we sit on a crowded beach and see someone off in the distance, paddling a sea kayak to a distant island, the sense of envy, curiosity and wonder they evoke in us reminds us of our primal roots. Rangers show us that we have an existence outside our own skulls, and outside our homes. They are the “diplomats of Gaia” – bridging the gap between contemporary society and our evolutionary roots in the animal kingdom. Think Cesar Millan, (the Dog Whisperer), “surfer- philosopher,” organic farmer, or tribal elder for a sense of the Ranger. In a technological future, they will encourage us to “get real” and guide us toward healthier balance with the earth.
Conductors are masters of orchestration. They are excellent at getting people to work together by projecting empathy, and by understanding how skills and abilities fit together. By age ten, these kids may have fifty friends on speed dial, and be able to remember personal details about each one. They are particularly well attuned to what is significant to know about other people. They have excellent radar for both verbal and nonverbal communication, and are able to relate effectively to a great variety of people. These kids also have the ability to expand or narrow their circle of focus as needed. A Conductor can listen intently to one “player,” or step back to appreciate the sound or actions of a larger group. Conductors see connections where others see only differences.
Psychological and Cognitive Traits
Affiliative Directive, likes to be in control Excellent non-verbal perceptual skills Accept and enjoy interdependence Can shift between interpersonal relating to systematizing in the interest of helping people work together Perceive relationships where others see primarily differences Can objectify other people’s attributes in the interest of identifying valuable human resources Feel most in “flow” when they are directing the interactions of other people May prefer to influence others overtly or covertly Excellent listeners Get energized, rather than intimidated, by large groups and social interactions Anticipate and avoid interpersonal conflicts before they get out of control Act as a conduit/messenger for different groups/cliques adapting to people who are different with varied interests socially attuned, interested, and active
Says: “I know someone who can help you, and someone you can help.”
Believes: People are interesting, and groups are greater than the sum of their parts.
Perceives: The unique perspectives and contributions of individuals
Wishes: To be the key person who organizes a group
Understands: That nothing gets done without help
Leads by: Influence, creating consensus, diplomacy, stature, strongest link in the chain
Better than others at: Managing chaos; resolving conflicts between others
Parenting a Conductor requires: Understanding this child’s need to “conduct” the actions of others. A young conductor may come off as bossy or opinionated when their true desire is to be helpful. As children, Conductors often want to “jump the gun,” by attempting to direct activities where they might not have achieved sufficient mastery. Still, the budding Conductor demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the intentions of others. Parenting these kids involves helping them to slow down and combine their considerable listening skills with patience. Sending Conductors to social activities where they will be expected to follow, rather than lead, is sometimes a recipe for frustration. A high degree of moral direction is imperative because they tend to have so much social influence with peers.
Teaching a Conductor requires: Being sensitive to their desire to influence and interact with others. Giving these students a supervised opportunity to use these skills in the classroom will result in a stronger student-teacher partnership. At times, a Conductor wants to feel more like a colleague than a student. Rather than perceiving this need as an expression of self-importance, teachers should recognize the Conductor’s strong desire to be useful. It is also advantageous to be aware of covert Conductors – kids who may seek to influence or engage groups in more subtle ways. These sorts of skills can result in both positive and negative social outcomes. Teachers who openly discuss the Conductor’s special abilities with her or him will be most effective at directing those abilities toward constructive outcomes.
Potential pitfalls: Because they are so affiliative, and want to be helpful, these kids can get overextended quickly. Conductors may struggle with taking direction from others and, as a result, come off as bossy. The emotional maturity of some Conductors may cause them to live an “adult life” at a relatively young age. The excellence that fuels a Conductor’s communication skills can potentially also be used to divide and ostracize.
Promises: Conductors are the “thread that bind people together.” They will go on to serve as bridges for disparate groups and organizations. They will readily accept the hard work of leading, especially when it involves an opportunity to use their interpersonal radar. Think politician, grassroots organizer, mediator, or future Oprah.
What’s the Hurry?
One of the least well understood aspects of child development is how incredibly early kids establish career expectations, in the broadest sense, for themselves. Most people think these beliefs take shape during high school, perhaps even college. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding, because research has established that most kids start locking-in on the status and ability levels of their future occupations in elementary and middle school.
Our ability and willingness to reconsider the gifts of the current generation of children and adolescents will make all the difference in how effectively we orient kids, themselves, to the value of these gifts. They need to see and hear us reinforce the value of these gifts. Our excitement about these attributes will ultimately be distilled as motivation, confidence, and creativity. The most precious gifts of generations to come will not be determined by psychological tests, but by their significance and contribution to the greater good.
For the sake of convenience, I will compile all Seven Types into a single article, and will post that article on my website in the near future. For now, I hope that you have enjoyed this two-part discussion of Rising Stars, and that it is somehow useful in working with the important children in your own life. And if my intuition is correct, I suspect that more than a few readers have seen themselves in these descriptions. That’s okay, because the critical first step in acknowledging the gifts of others is to honor the value of what may have been unseen, or under- appreciated in ourselves.
All newsletter content – Copyright, 2009, Adam Cox
Violent Video Games and Movies Numb Sensitivity to the Pain of Others
A new article in the journal Psychological Science (March, 2009) highlights how detrimental violent media is to a person’s potential for empathy. Researchers Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson had previously demonstrated that exposure to violent media produces physiological desensitization- lowering heart rate and skin conductance-when viewing scenes of actual violence a short time later. Now, in their newest studies, these researchers have shown that violent media also affect whether or not someone will offer help to an injured person.
In one study, 320 college students played either a violent or a nonviolent video game for approximately 20 minutes. A few minutes later, they overheard a staged fight that ended with the “victim” sustaining a sprained ankle and groaning in pain. People who had played a violent game took significantly longer to help the victim than those who played a nonviolent game- 73 seconds compared to 16 seconds. People who had played a violent game were also less likely to notice and report the fight. And if they did report it, they judged it to be less serious than did those who had played a nonviolent game.
Similar results were found among moviegoers. The researchers staged a minor emergency outside the theater in which a young woman with a bandaged ankle and crutches “accidentally” dropped her crutches and struggled to retrieve them. The researchers timed how long it took moviegoers to retrieve the crutches. Participants who had just watched a violent movie took over 26 percent longer to help than either people going into the theater or people who had just watched a nonviolent movie.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. Our son is a junior in high school. Last summer, he went to a residential art camp and decided that he wants to become an artist (painter). We are very supportive of the arts but this year academically he’s done far worse than he is capable of. He was a straight A student, now he’s getting Bs and it’s not that the work is too hard for him. He comes home and draws and paints all night and gets very angry and defensive if we say anything. He is trying to create a portfolio for college admissions but we are concerned that he is trading his future by focusing too soon. We have just learned that he has late assignments in his mathematics class and we are worried that his grades will go down further just as he is going to apply to college. We accept that he wants to study art but feel that he needs a more practical option such as going to a traditional four-year college that has a major in art, or a more applied field such as computer design. He has had interests fade in the past. How do we talk some sense into him without making him more angry?
Annika F., San Diego, CA
As a former art student myself I understand your son’s passionate interest. As a parent and psychologist, I also totally understand your alarm. It sounds like you might have a “Locomotive” on your hands! This is a situation where you rightly have chosen not to go head-on and forbid your son’s interest. (Although on some level your son may hope for just that – some kids thrive on perceived “oppression,” because it makes their quest – whatever it is – seem more heroic and dynamic.)
There are two approaches you might consider. Adolescents don’t like tocapitulate, but they are often willing to negotiate. To the greatest extent possible, clarify the two issues: your son likes art (okay), and your son is slipping in school (not okay). Calmly explain what your expectations are, and ask if there is something you can practically do to help get your son back on track academically. Be open to art schools your son might be interested in, and suggest that he be open to considering other school that offer an art major – and accompany him as he visits a range of schools. The most important thing to do right now is to be encouraging and affirmative about those activities that build your son’s self-esteem.
The other approach may be to involve a trusted mentor – someone your son looks up to and who has a high credibility/cool factor. His art teacher or a professional artist could be great allies. Not only will they be able to discuss the pragmatic issues of being an artist, they may offer some insights into potential career options for you. A session or two with a family therapist might be in order, as well – to have a neutral third party help you bring your concerns into the open, help your son feel like he has an equal voice, and to gently assess whether or not there’s an underlying cause that is making art feel so much more gratifying than other areas of potential accomplishment.
Bear in mind that the junior and senior years of high school can be the frustrating “home stretch” for bright students who desire autonomy. Just when grades matter most, “performance fatigue” can kick in, sometimes most acutely for highly creative students. The timeline of development doesn’t always segue perfectly with the college admissions schedule. Simply acknowledging this fact to your son may help him realize that you’re truly on his side.
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