Identifying and Nurturing Talent: A conversation with Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius
Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and a Professor in the School of Education and Social Policy. Over the past 30 years, she has created programs for all kinds of gifted learners (from Pre-K to Grade 12!), and has researched and written extensively on issues related to talent development. She is the immediate past president of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), from who she has received several notable awards.
Given Dr Paula's vast experience and expertise, both as a scholar and a practitioner, I was very keen to interview her for our EduWise podcast, and make her insights available to parents in India. I requested her for a meeting and she graciously agreed. Our meeting happened on the sidelines of the NAGC convention in Nov 2019, where I was giving a couple of talks.
The purpose of this post is to share some of Dr. Paula’s quotes from the discussion and motivate the reader to listen to the 49 minute interview in its entirety, which has several valuable insights. The quotes have been organized under 5 key points that were made during the discussion.
1. Identify and nurture talent early.
“You can brag that your child is a wonderful basketball player or wonderful musician, but you can't brag, ... it's not socially acceptable.. to brag that your child is, very bright. And so we accept that there are individual differences in talent and ability in many other fields, but not academically.”
“We still have the perception that those kids are blessed to have this high ability, and they'll be just fine. And they don't need anything special. What we forget is that, you know, becoming gifted in some field as an adult is a process that takes place over time, and needs a lot of inputs in the form of, you know, appropriate programming and support from adults, and encouragement from teachers, and acknowledgement by parents.”
2. Cultivate motivation for learning.
“Kids who are in classes where they're bored out of their minds, they're not learning anything, their motivation is not being cultivated.”
“If you have a kid who's in a class, and they can do the work so easily that they never have to put forth the effort, that is not a good thing. Because what the kid learns is....... being smart means never having to work hard.”
3. Build important habits and skills, through appropriate challenges.
“When the work does get hard, and eventually it does for everybody....they don't know what to do. They don't know what to do, and instead of digging in, and putting forth more effort, they might turn away from their skills and abilities, and that's lost talent.”
“If we provide the right level of challenge for kids, it cultivates lots of skills like, having to study, having to learn how to study, having to accept failure, having to focus on deliberately striving for improvement, those are all important skills. That’s what we want kids to learn.”
4. Help child recognize her aptitudes, interests and personality - Critical Parent Role.
“It behooves parents to view their child as having the potential for future achievement, but also that that in order to get there.... it's a process of developing that potential through opportunities, through their parenting, through the messages and values that they convey.”
“Parents should see their child in multiple contexts,... teachers only see the child in school. That's why parents, research shows, are better identifiers of giftedness, than teachers. Because if a child's not performing in school, that doesn't mean they're not doing a lot outside of school. So what parents can look for is to provide opportunities....... taking them to a concert or taking them to a museum or reading books with them or dancing with them or whatever. They don't have to over schedule them into a lot of activities. But they should provide stimulation and things to notice their kids who are, you know, very verbally adept, very curious, kids who notice like mathematical things……”
5. Actively consider out-of-school programs and expert mentoring to complement effort of parents and schools.
“The other thing I would say to parents is sometimes kids are not that engaged in school learning. And so it's hard to get a sense of their interests from school. Maybe they do well in every subject, you know, so you don't know what's really fueling their soul. So I would say to parents, if at all possible, let your child go to outside-of-school programming. Because there, they choose something they're interested in and let them choose something they want to study. Maybe they change their mind after that one experience, but at least it gives them a clue about what their interests are, and maybe what they want to pursue and what they're good at.”
Paula talking about her own experience as a undergraduate student with a History professor and the importance of expert mentoring-
“So I had to read five journal articles on a particular subject and mine was something on the Civil War. But what was so interesting was the methods of Historians on how they gathered evidence by looking at artefacts and kind of, triangulating to make sure that what they thought was, there..... was really true. And this experience .... gave me a sense of their methods. And so that happened for me in college. How cool would it be if students in high school had an experience where they learned how historians come to the conclusions that they come to how they do research?! So that's where experts can help kids. And that's so, so motivating to learn that, you know, it would really turn on kids to going into that deal. So that's why I think experts can help.”