By Jan DeLisle
“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” – John Dewey
📷Some gifted students seemingly come out of the womb knowing what they want to do in life. A high school senior talks of a lifelong love for animals and prepares for a study in veterinary medicine. Another tells of taking apart a radio as a toddler to see how it works and is accepted into an engineering program. Similar anecdotes can be told by any teacher or coordinator of gifted students. Watching students with multiple areas of interests weave their talents together in advanced studies and creating careers that combine their passions is undoubtedly the most exciting facet of the job of a parent, gifted coordinator, or classroom teacher. Helping students find an area of all-consuming interest, providing opportunities for them to extend and deepen their knowledge, and help them envision a future which includes that passion is a joy and privilege.
Some students, however, wander without specific focus well into adulthood. Helping your son or daughter define an area(s) of interest becomes increasingly important as the transition is made from elementary to secondary school and becomes critical as colleges and careers are considered. A vague or nonexistent vision of the future or sense of purpose can definitely become an economic issue; unfocused students may take longer than the traditional four to five years to complete a degree, if they graduate at all. Frequent changes in fields of study can drain financial resources and patience of frustrated parents.
On the other hand, encouraging or forcing a student to settle on a career before he or she is ready is not appropriate. Students in this position perceive a loss of control over their life. The most unfocused students with whom I’ve worked are those who believe this to be true. Their solutions can range from aggression and lashing out, passive aggression and willful underachievement in school, to depression and self-harm.
What can we do to help our children find their passion and purpose in life without taking over? Instilling a sense of wonder in children from the time they are babies can help.
Babies are born curious–as frantic parents all over the world will attest! When curiosity is lost, so is a passion for life. Parents can provide freedom to explore in expanding circles of safety as children grow and share in the excitement of exploration. When that circle expands to school, other adults will become your allies. Teachers continually apply learning in their classrooms with real life and possible careers. Students are encouraged to think like disciplinarians or professionals in a field, using the vocabulary and methodologies of the discipline (Kaplan, 2000; Kaplan, 1974). Those who see an application of instruction in the scope of their personal goals rarely have motivation issues (Anderman & Midgley, 1998). A student with an eye on journalism or becoming an author understands that learning the intricacies of excellent writing are skills to be mastered. Digging deep into historical trends and patterns of human behavior is a joy to a student who envisions a career as a history professor, diplomat, or living history re-enactor.
Mining at school
A gem that can be found in school is the gift of time for students to work individually on a study of their choice. Elective courses in Independent Studies are offered in many schools or may be arranged with a receptive teacher in the area of the student’s interest. Texas includes in its array of course offerings Independent Studies in all of the core academic areas and outlines four levels of student-designed study, to include Independent Study/Mentorships (IS/M). These IS/M courses provide interaction with professionals in the field and internship opportunities. Independent Studies can help students decide what they like and do not like about a field of study or career. For our multi-talented gifted students, finding out what they are not interested in may be more important than finding another area that intrigues them.
Venues for students to share their interests can occur throughout the school years. In elementary school, stations can be created within the classroom by a student with a current passion. The child can work on them when they complete their regular work, “buying time” to work on their project by demonstrating via pretesting that they have mastered the content being taught. Allowing students to be Resident Experts (Winebrenner, 2001) within the classroom, and reporting on current events in their area of expertise, is easy for teachers to incorporate in the classroom and helps other students see real-world application for what they are learning.
Mining at home
As parents, you have many more opportunities to informally dig below the surface for that prized ore of underlying interests. Reflective listening plays such an important role:
-“You really seem to enjoy history/math/science/writing/art .. is this correct?”
-“You spend a lot of your money/time on this? I can see it’s very important to you. Do you think this might be something you’d like to do in college/when you grow up?”
-“You really enjoy shows on the History/SciFi/Science, etc. channel. What do you like about them?”
If you avoid value loading your comments, the child can explore his or her thinking and make you a partner in their adventure.
Passions can often be traced to an impactful experience. Make the time to visit museums, historic sites, re-enactments, and exhibits, anything that may be intriguing to you or your son or daughter. Lying under a star-filled sky to watch a meteor shower can trigger a fascination for space. A love of history can be traced to a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, Plymouth Plantation, or Sturbridge Village. Political careers can be rooted in early visits to the voting booth and the discussion of civic responsibilities that arises from that trip. For those who enjoy hands-on, interactive learning experiences, field trips can have a powerful impact. Encourage your child to see the world through all their senses and, most importantly, with “new eyes.”
In his book, Teach Your Child How to Think, Edward de Bono (1994) suggests ways to foster creativity and conceptual flexibility. His “Po” thinking, a lateral, out-of the box thinking term, encourages individuals to look for possibilities and potential without the limitations that are typically imposed. Parents, teachers, and professionals in the field can cultivate a child’s sense of wonder by exploring the mysteries, puzzles, and challenges in his or her area(s) of interest. Behind-the-scenes tours can often be arranged on field trips. For an avid young person who lives and breathes marine biology, a backstage pass at an aquarium makes a life-long memory. Likewise, an employee-guided tour of a technology company can turn a tech-savvy student into a career techie.
Finding appropriate summer camps, or other out-of-school learning experiences, is especially important (Ware, 1990). A myriad of choices is available in practically any field of interest and at almost every age level, if not locally, within the state that you live. For the more adventurous, national and international programs are found on the internet, listed on your state’s gifted and talented organization’s website, and on the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) site. Many of these camps are designed for gifted or high ability children and have the focus, depth, and intensity that your son or daughter craves. A deep dive into an area of intrigue can spark a passion for life – or eliminate further interest. For a multi-talented young person, narrowing interests can be the most important development.
Encouraging students to keep a journal about the topics that intrigue them or a portfolio of photographs of school and home projects that consume their attention can provide a valuable resource. Memory can be unreliable. As a parent, you can help manage this documentation. Just as some schools use portfolio assessment, a folder or drawer that holds programs, brochures, photos, etc. of events that grabbed your child’s attention can be a great source for meaningful conversation about the trends and patterns in your child’s life. Conversations with juniors and seniors in high school can center on these journals and portfolios of cycling passions, areas of long-term interest, and higher education and career goals. Some students may discover a pattern in their “passion of the month.” This reflection can help ground their thinking and the conversation about higher education choices.
Using the web to unearth a passion
The world is changing so rapidly; it is difficult to keep abreast of the discoveries and new thinking that will affect the future in which these students will live and compete for jobs. Immediate access to ground-breaking ideas and exposure to the intriguing “what if” questions can be found using internet resources. When your son or daughter is surfing the web or playing videogames, encourage them to check out www.ted.com, which includes several years’ worth of presentations at the TED conference. The topics, concentrated in the areas of business, technology, entertainment, science, design and global issues, are widely varied. TED’s byline is “ideas worth sharing.” The level of expertise is inconsistent, but all speakers have a surplus of one thing in common: passion! Each speaker is totally engaged and in love with the topic that is being presented, and the enthusiasm is contagious. Some of the most passionate and persuasive TED speakers are children, incredibly bright and articulate. Many independent studies begin as a result of a TED talk that sparked an interest.
Twitter is another excellent source of news in all areas of life. Twitter’s continuous, short, infoblasts and tweets keep the busiest adult apprised of news from around the world. Tweets can stimulate interesting dinner conversation that is intellectual and engaging, and motivate your son or daughter to run to the internet to check out a story in greater detail.
In Boys Adrift (2007), Leonard Sax states that one of the reasons American boys are disengaged is because they spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games. Brain research demonstrates that 8+ hours of game playing accounts for the atrophy of the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex of the brain, which controls motivation and concentration. Separating boys and girls from computers is unrealistic and undesirable, considering the power of this tool, but we can provide a more constructive alternative to the mindless repetition prevalent in many of the video games our children play. There are excellent video games that involve high levels of critical thinking, problem-solving and foster creativity, but too many “shoot ‘em ups” rely more on a quick trigger finger than a thoughtful solution.
Many people will play a role in helping your son or daughter discover their life’s path. When asked about career choices, people often name a particular person who motivated them to work in this field. Teachers often ignite the passion that translates into a vocation or avocation. Secondary school counselors use a variety of inventories and interviews to help students hone personal interests and goals. They help students wade through the plethora of choices in colleges and major courses of study. Interesting to note is the increasing number of students declaring a double and even triple major. However, parents play the most important role because they have the luxury of a long-term relationship and see fleeting or repeating interests. Casual remarks or observations can be a signal of a heightened interest. Casual questions allow your child to examine this “probortunity” (de Bono, 1994) in a non-threatening environment. A probortunity is seen as a mystery to be solved, a challenge, or an opportunity to change or make things better. Parents can help make connections between these interests and possible career opportunities through vacation side-trips, weekend field trips, and introductions to friends who work in the field.
One note of caution; parents may want to wait to invest in extensive lessons or expensive equipment that will support a new interest; this “band-wagon” approach often works in reverse. Be sensitive to whether your unconditional support might be too overwhelming for a “probortunity.” Teachers struggle with how much to challenge a student without creating too much pressure or stress, which can shut down learning. Parents, too, walk this fine line as they press their hopes for their child’s future without supplanting their son or daughter’s own dreams.
Children may follow in a parent’s or other significant adult’s career footsteps because they value the intensity and deep commitment; the field comes alive for them. If, however, their interests are elsewhere, validation of their passion creates a platform for positive dialogue for the discussion and evaluation of study and career choices. You are engaged in a treasure hunt, and when the treasure is discovered it will amaze and delight your child and, most importantly, become their purpose in life.
Anderman, L.H., & Midgley, C. (1998). Motivation and middle school students [ERIC digest].Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early ChildhoodEducation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 421 281)
de Bono, Edward (1994). Teach your child how to think. New York: Penguin Group (USA).
Kaplan, S. N. (1974). Providing programs for the gifted and talented: A handbook.Ventura, CA: Office of the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools.
Kaplan, Sandra (2000). “Think Like A Disciplinarian.” USC Theory and Practice: Curriculum and Instruction for Teachers.
Sax, Leonard (2007). Boys adrift. New York: Basic Books.
Ware, Cindy (1990). Discovering interests and talents through summer experiences [ERIC digest]. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children. (ERIC EC Digest #E491)
Winebrenner, Susan (2001). Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom: Strategies and techniques every teacher can use to meet the academic needs of the gifted and talented. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing
About the Author
Jan DeLisle, MA, is the Gifted and Talented Coordinator for Lovejoy ISD in Texas and has been working in the field of gifted education for 20 years. She is a member of the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented (TAGT) Executive Board of Directors and a SENG model parent group facilitator. Her on-going passion is the study of creativity and her signature by-line is “Embrace the Intensity!”