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What is Genius? Part 1: Calli’s Love Life

Finding genius is not about finding ability. Finding genius is about unlocking the creative potential of the human brain.


Last week, Marilyn Price-Mitchel, PhD, posted on her blog The Roots of Action a nice review of my book under the title: “So You Think Your Child’s a Genius.” Last month in “Finding the Genius in Every Child” Robert Shepherd argued convincingly that the purpose of education should be to “discover the genius in every child.”

But commenter Diana Senechal suggests that Shepherd “tone it down,” writing: “Instead of positing that every child has genius, why not simply say that almost every child has strong natural ability in some area and is capable of improvement in others?”

To which I say, “Because, Diana, every child has A genius, and because education is not primarily about abilities nor ‘areas’ needing ‘improvement.’”  When it comes to education another definition of genius is more useful: the guiding spirit of a person.

Yes, educators should be finding The Genius in Every Child. That’s why I wrote the book. However, the genius we are looking for is the voice of their character, the engine of their curiosity, the source of their creativity, not some “strong natural ability.” Education is not about the strength that is obvious, but the genius that will lead the child to lead the life they are meant to lead.

Calli is one of 4 million children going to kindergarten this fall for the first time. How well will her school serve her?

Calli’s preschool teacher had complained all last year that Calli was an “excellent student,” but that she was disruptive. She talked too much. In a shocking bout of myopia the teacher even blamed Calli’s behavior on the fact that, “Everything is too easy for her.”

So when Calli went off to kindergarten three weeks ago, her parents and grandparents were naturally anxious to know what would happen, and asked every day when she came home from school, “How was school today?”

Predictably, Calli would say, “Fine.”

Then of course, the question, “What did you do?” got the reply, “Not much.”

When Grandma asked for more one day , Calli confided: “I don’t talk about my love life with other people.”

If you work with children–certainly with children under eight–you come to realize that genius is in your face every day–you just have to notice it. If you hear a statement from a five-year-old like “I don’t talk about my love life with other people,” and have a tendency to think, “Wow, maybe we should get her tested for giftedness,” you’ll miss the reality that she HAS a genius.

Although, unfortunately, schooling is often a mechanism for sorting kids according to ability, an educator’s business is not talent and ability. Although, the rituals of schooling create the illusion that those with academic ability are more likely to succeed, don’t believe it.

Success is not a function of academic ability but resilience, not a result of knowing you’re smart but loving a challenge, less about IQ than EQ.

Even though the world is moving on and leaving “schooling” in the dust, here in America when adults approach a school, they revert to 19th century thinking. They wonder, for instance, if their child will be (1) one of the gifted ones, or (2) normal, or (3) one who “learns differently,” even though the idea that there are three kinds of students in the world is obviously insane.

I have met Calli. At five, she is an experienced human being. As such she can dope out the social dynamics in almost any situation. She knows the needs, values and interests of each of her relatives. After three weeks she has her teacher’s figured out. These days, she is concentrating her energy on a new set of potential friends and enemies and thinking creatively about human challenge #1: harmonizing her needs, values and interests with those of all these new people.

Calli will need her genius as a guide to pursue her “love life” in such a way that her classroom becomes a harmonious hum rather than a mean-girl society. Calli’s high emotional intelligence could go either way. Her genius wants no child to feel excluded. Therefore, the teacher would do well to focus on helping Calli find her genius.

Paradoxically, the best way to call forth Calli’s creative genius would be to design activities that engage the interests and passions of all her students. (Genius lurks in paradoxes.)

My genius is telling me that Calli’s teacher’s genius has the power to make her classroom a heaven on earth.

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6 Responses to “What is Genius? Part 1: Calli’s Love Life”

  1. Peggy Gomula September 12, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    Rick, I really like the way you think. I just forwarded your article on to my 3 daughters who are all teachers. Thank you for being a positive force in the world of education.

  2. Rick September 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Wow, three daughters, all teachers! I’d love to hear from them (when they are not too busy that is. ha ha)

  3. Min Yi September 12, 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    Beautifully said: “the genius we are looking for is the voice of their character, the engine of their curiosity, the source of their creativity, not some “strong natural ability.” Education is not about the strength that is obvious, but the genius that will lead the child to lead the life they are meant to lead.”
    Thank you!

  4. Gary Gruber September 13, 2012 at 5:07 am #

    Education means literally to “draw out” not to “put in” and the genius of any teacher is to encourage the creative spark in children to be inflamed with the love of learning. Be sure to see this illustrated video on blocking creativity in children by Ken Robinson:
    http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner/2011/01/27/education-as-a-roadblock-to-cr/

  5. Shirley Munk September 13, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I, too, like the way you think Rick..your book is on my Amazon list. I watched in amazement as my three year old streamlined the process of making dumplings one year. She watched me make a few and decided that things would go much faster if we did six at a time and divided up the task….”I do this and you do that part Mama, that way we’ll get this done faster” Peak efficiency…from a three year old. Pure genius.

    She’s 11 now and I marvel at the genius of her social skills and am so curious to know what she’ll be doing in another 10 years..and hoping she’s excited about it.

  6. Rick September 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    Great comments, all. thank you. Gary, thanks for bring in Sir Ken. I had him in and took him out to keep it shorter.
    Shirley, great story about your daughter. I would love to hear an 11-year-old version. I can’t imagine her not being excited 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 60 years from now.

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