London, Summer 2012

By Joanne Foster

The world is getting ready to celebrate the 2012 Olympics and 2012 Paralympics in London. It’s a time to harness and also build upon the enthusiasm generated by the athletes, and learn from the demonstration of unity showcased by these representatives from countries all across the globe. Let’s cheer not only their accomplishments but also the pride they convey—in their strengths and abilities, their training and efforts, their nations, and their camaraderie.

 The Olympics and Paralympics are not just about athletic achievement. They’re about accepting one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and differences. Moreover, each course of events is a celebration of diversity. All of the athletes, regardless of race, colour, gender or sexual orientation, convene excitedly and share two common goals. The first is to strive to do their best. And the second is to unite in the spirit of fellowship.

The 2012 London Games are a time to showcase understandings of harmony, diversity, and good will. There will undoubtedly be many opportunities for children to watch the events unfold, and to learn the meaning and value of these important attributes. However, what else can children learn from the events? They provide a wealth of summer brain-strengthening opportunities—at a time when young brains may not be getting enough of a workout. Schools are out, so it’s really up to parents to carry the ball, if they so choose. Here are some practical suggestions.

Encourage discussion about the merits and drawbacks of competition. Have kids find out ten things they don’t already know about a particular sport or athlete, and then share their findings. Any similarities? Differences? Or suggest that children try and learn something about another country’s training regimen for a sport, and then compare it with their own country’s training program. Talk with kids and work out interesting “I wonder…” or “What if….” or other sorts of questions together, and then look for answers. Possible trigger words that can act as springboards for inquiry and learning about the Olympics and Paralympics include sponsorship, motivation, challenge, technology, tradition, media, practice, and perseverance. Children can make a list of other words and think about why they matter, and how they might apply to their own efforts in one or more areas.

 The Olympics are a time to showcase understandings of harmony, diversity, and good will, as well as excellence on many fronts. There will be opportunities for children to watch the events unfold, and to learn the meaning and value of these virtues—and more. Hopefully these lessons will be remembered well past the concluding ceremonies, and spur children to be all they can be, in various kinds of arenas, and beyond.

Connections and Interconnections

I recently gave a presentation at the inaugural Brain Power Initiative Conference, held in Toronto. After two days of enlightening workshops, I asked myself, “What was the most important take-home message?”

The answer: We can and should be working toward energizing, meaningful, and ongoing connections, from the inside out, and back again. (Others might have different answers to the question, and I’d enjoy hearing them.) I’ll explain my rationale.

To begin with, presenters discussed neural connections and plasticity (the brain’s capacity to change). The brain is dynamic, constantly evolving and reorganizing itself in response to experience. This flexibility occurs across the lifespan but the focus of this conference was on understanding the implications of brain functioning for learning and teaching at home and school. Children benefit from exposure to lots of different types kinds of learning opportunities, including environments that are rich in language and music. Parents and teachers can help children maintain a balance between stimulating activities (including time for playful exploration), and thoughtful reflection—so children can process, consolidate, and extend information. All of this helps support healthy brain development.

In my presentation, I discussed practical connections bridging what’s being learned about brain functioning to what happens in classrooms, and on the home-front. We can and should tap into research and information from the world of neuroscience to enhance children’s capacity to learn. We all know the importance of physical health, nutrition, safety, and emotional nurturing. However, what are some educational approaches and strategies that parents and teachers can use to foster children’s growth, using what’s being learned about brain science? Learning options can draw from emerging technologies, and should be responsive to children’s interests. Tasks should be appropriately challenging, and require effort, because that’s how people learn best.  Children can be encouraged to hone their inquiry and thinking skills (for example, fine-tuning their ability to analyse, judge, compare, prioritize, contrast, or predict, as well as problem-find and problem-solve).  When engaged in these tasks, a person’s brain integrates new information into existing networks, and adjusts existing patterns to incorporate new information, all the while increasing brain activity, making neural connections, and enhancing competencies.

The third kind of connection that I came to appreciate at this conference was the human variety, evident across different groups and individuals. Everyone welcomed the chance to collaborate, listen, share ideas, and network. Neuroscientists, teachers, parents, policy-makers, musicians, artists, researchers,  psychologists, and people from various walks of life gathered to discuss children’s development—all recognizing that the brain changes over time in response to a broad range of  learning opportunities and activities, and all keen to provide children with the best learning experiences possible. Indeed, boosting connections on three levels—neuralpractical, and human—is a multi-tiered, interactive, and inspiring way to facilitate children’s development. I look forward to next year’s conference, and to hearing about further advances in brain science and their possible practical applications.

Challenge and Effort

May 17, 2012

In this blog I share my views about a thought-provoking presentation, and share some insights about learning.

Last week I had the good fortune to meet renowned psychologist and researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, and to attend a presentation she gave to parents and adolescents at Branksome Hall, an independent girls’ school in Toronto. I was pleased to hear what Dweck had to say about mindsets and intellectual growth—and delighted to observe the rapt attention of the audience. Hundreds of people filled the auditorium, and it seemed to me that everyone left with a more positive attitude about learning, a better understanding of brain-related functions, and a deeper appreciation of the power of persistence. Dona Matthews and I often refer to Dweck’s work in our writing, and I found it informative and affirming to hear first-hand about her ongoing research.

Dweck discussed the difference between a fixed mindset (intelligence seen as a fixed trait), and a growth mindset (intelligence seen as a malleable quality that can be developed). She said that intelligence is “a platform from which you grow”—and went on to explain how neural plasticity affords us the ability to learn more and more over time. The key is to acquire and sustain a growth mindset. It’s also important that adults model growth-mindedness for their children. To that end, Dweck laid down three basic rules.

Rule #1: learn at all times. Try to think deeply about things, and pay attention to what you’re experiencing. Figure out what you don’t know, and need to know. Participate in study groups, find a mentor, attend meetings and conferences, and find other avenues for learning. Don’t worry if you don’t look smart. It’s OK to make mistakes. See them as opportunities to learn.

Rule #2: work hard. Effort is what takes you to the next level, allowing you to use your capabilities, and strengthen them over time. Practice and commitment matter. Struggling can be beneficial. It’s good to stretch systematically, by building upon what is known and pushing past traditional comfort zones. This leads to personal growth.

Rule #3: confront deficiencies and setbacks. Don’t perceive them as humiliating, but rather as challenges. Find ways to capitalize on circumstances (strategize!) and turn them into avenues for learning. That’s how people become resilient, able to recover from failure and improve themselves.

Dweck closed the presentation by reiterating that when it comes to developing a growth mindset, everyone should take a close look at their personal value systems. By learning to see that what’s easy is boring and a waste of time, and that what’s more difficult is interesting and worthwhile, individuals become energized, put forth the necessary effort, and become much stronger as a result. Brain power intensifies; confidence, motivation, and effectiveness increase, and there’s no limit to what people can achieve. In other words—in fact, in Dweck’s words—“Always challenge yourself!”

In Being Smart about Gifted Education, 2nd Edition (2009, Great Potential Press) and other work, Dona Matthews and I examine growth mindedness more fully, and disclose why this is one of the secrets to raising smarter kids.  To read more about this go


March 5, 2012

Does curiosity matter? Yes! Have you ever given thought as to why? Read on—if you’re curious…


“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”  ~Albert Einstein

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

I begin this blog with words from two oft-quoted individuals who provide interesting perspectives on curiosity. According to Albert Einstein, his abilities pale in comparison to his sense of wonder. Eleanor Roosevelt believes curiosity should be at the top of every parent’s wish list because it’s the most useful attribute any child could possibly have.

If you reread those quotes, leaving out the last word, would you fill them in the same way? Would others? (Just curious…)

I am inclined to conduct a couple of informal experiments and ask 100 parents and 100 teachers the question, “What is the most important thing we can teach children?” I can only speculate at this point but I would venture that very few respondents would say curiosity. I think I’d hear words like knowledge, respect, integrity, organization, enthusiasm for learning, perseverance, and many other fine answers—all of which are all the stuff of valuable lessons. However, perhaps curiosity is something we tend to undervalue because it is not really a prerequisite for learning. It’s more of a motivator. And, in fact there are many different kinds of possible motivators. For example, there’s speculation, controversy, playful exploration (see our last blog for more about this), guesswork, humour, and countless other ways to spark the mind and also generate inquiry. Curiosity is only one way.

And yet, it is a very important one. Curiosity is a prime activator not only for stimulating inquiry but for igniting the imagination, and acquiring information. “This is the most curious tea party I’ve ever been to,” said Alice as she set about finding her way in a strange land, and in unusual and challenging circumstances. Indeed, curiosity gives rise to important questions—to the why, where, what, who, when, and how of the world we encounter, where and when we encounter it—and curiosity can help shed light on meaningful answers, too. It lies at the core of what makes children want to know more about life, keeps them engaged, and has the potential to fire up the sort of passion that ever-inquisitive Einstein referred to in the quote above.

It is perhaps curiously coincidental that shortly after writing this blog—albeit before adding this paragraph—I received the most recent issue of Teaching for High Potential (Winter, 2012, published by the National Association for Gifted Children). Esteemed researcher and author Felicia Dixon focuses on the importance of encouraging children to become self-directed learners. She discusses “inventive thinking” which involves learning to think critically and creatively, question vigorously, and aspire toward discovery. In short, Dixon advocates providing ample, rigorous, and motivating opportunities for kids to challenge themselves—to be “chronically curious”—and thus become better equipped to deal with contingencies and changes productively; ready to face, and also change the face of, the future.

Perhaps I should ask 100 children, “What makes you smart?” Or, “What is the one thing you’d like a fairy godmother to bestow upon you?”

I may do that—as a matter of curiosity… J


February 13, 2012

This is a story about the unexpected—and about the power of making connections.

Last week I was contacted by a former student – after 34 years! I received an e-mail from a fellow who asked if I’d taught at a particular school back in 1978, saying that if, indeed, he had found me, he wanted me to know I’d had an impact on him. He wrote, “Thank you for being such a great teacher, and encouraging me to think freely and giving me the confidence to achieve my goals.”

He actually apologised if his message seemed “weird.” On the contrary. Imagine how delighted and surprised I felt!

I remember this student—even though I’ve worked with countless pupils since then. I taught him Grade 4. I wrote back, and said I recall he had red hair and freckles, boundless energy, a love of sports, and that he was very bright. He’s a busy professional now with a family of his own, and yet he took the trouble to track me down, even after so much time had passed. It was an unexpected and special treat to hear how his life had unfolded, and to know I may have had some small part in it.

I don’t share this story here because I think I’m such a great educator, or believe I have such a good memory, or because I want to pat myself on the back. Nor do I share it because I think everyone should reach out to a teacher from days gone by. (Though I can attest it’s something lovely to consider doing.) I share this story because this person’s simple decision to be proactive and send that e-mail made a huge impression on me – in two ways.

Firstly, it’s overwhelming to think how a teacher’s impact can transcend the years. What we do in a classroom has a direct bearing on our students’ learning, achievement, self-confidence, and more—and we may never know the extent of that. Unless they choose to reconnect, we say goodbye to our students at the end of the school year, wish them well, and can only hope we’ve helped them on their individual paths toward a happy and productive life.

Secondly, I wonder if people realize how much it resonates when they connect with teachers. I’m not only referring to situations involving past experiences. I’m thinking of contact between parents and the teachers who are currently working with their children. It’s wonderful to have someone reconnect after more than three decades.  But, connections are also important for the here and now. A kind word, gesture, or appreciation of effort is meaningful, lasting, and something any teacher would enjoy. The sooner the better – but it goes to show it’s never too late…


January 25, 2012

Smart kids can grow up to be smart crooks. At a time of rising cyber-crime, identity theft, and other cleverly destructive and intrusive violations and disturbances, it’s a good time to stop and think about what that means for people who are involved in raising smarter kids.    

Over the past month, both Dona and I have been the victims of thieves. In daylight, on pleasant city streets, on different continents, and in varied circumstances, we each had our locked car broken into, and personal property stolen. The incidents were upsetting and intrusive, but thankfully no-one was hurt. The perpetrators did their nasty business while we were out and about, and left the scenes of the crime almost as if they’d never been there.

What does all this have to do with raising smarter kids? Lots, actually.

Firstly, we live in a world where people are not always who or what they seem to be. The crooks and scam artists of today are often savvy and clever in ways we can hardly imagine. They don’t necessarily “look unscrupulous” (whatever that means). They can gain access to a car’s electronic entry code in a heartbeat while sitting nearby as you unsuspectingly lock your vehicle and hear a reassuring beep sound emanate from its hood. They can steal your identity online and elsewhere. They may appear sleek but act slick. And so, we have to teach children to be alert and careful. Even the smartest child is no match for a devious person who is out for money, possessions, or information, or who might have other ulterior motives or intentions. In fact, it’s quite possible that the smart crook was once a smart child. It’s interesting how some people choose to use their intelligence in socially productive ways, and others do not.

Raising intelligent children means that we have to instill positive values. Parents can model and encourage ethical behaviour. Our children are the “next” generation, and they’re the key to a better, safer, more principled world—one in which consideration of others really does matter. Children’s intelligence can be used to build society or to damage it, and so parents have a huge role in helping kids learn to direct their abilities productively.

As adults it is good to show strength and resilience in the face of setbacks. Most material items can be replaced. A calm and measured response is far better than a frantic one, and helps children learn that situations can be resolved over time. And, of course, we are never too old to learn how to safeguard our belongings, and learn from our mistakes. (Don’t leave anything of value in a car. Duh.)

Last year, I had my purse snatched from where I had it carefully tied to my chair at a restaurant.  I was in the company of three other people sitting at a small table, and none of us saw a thing! I thought I was smarter as a result of that incident, but as it turns out, this most recent car break-in taught me that I’m still learning about protecting my belongings.

We are all in the process of learning things—and that includes our children. Let’s strive to help them better realize and understand the stark realities of life, how to respond intelligently when things go awry, and how to bounce back effectively from unsettling occurrences. Above all, let’s teach them to act with integrity and honesty, and to be respectful of others.

For more:

Bang the Drum! Blast the Horn! Pound the Keyboard! Or…

December 31, 2011

As one year ends and another starts, we’re surrounded by a sense of celebration. The new year is usually seen as a time energized by exuberance, fortified by relationships, and buoyed by hope for what lies ahead. We anticipate new beginnings, and often do so boisterously—and noisily.

Sometimes it’s helpful to take some quiet moments, too.

As we reflect on the recent past we can (should?) discern what we did well on behalf of our children, and what we can do better in the months ahead. We can identify our concerns, prioritize, and carefully work out how to address them. We can plan more quality time with family members—time to listen, talk, laugh, explore, read, and play together. We can create opportunities to share stories, build dreams, encourage positive mindsets, and lovingly guide our children toward fulfillment and well-being. We can acknowledge the people who have shared our family journeys, and supported the achievements along the way. We can give thanks for what we have, and appreciate all that we can do and all that our children can do—and continue to foster their developing capabilities, intelligences, sensitivities, and value systems. These are the gifts that really matter.

In contrast with the conventional approach to New Year’s Eve, we need not look to the future by means of banging, blasting, or pounding. Sometimes strong and forceful action IS required. Most often, though, a thoughtful, measured approach works best. By embracing and modeling hard work, persistence, creativity, and collaborative effort, we help children learn a different kind of forward momentum—the kind of calm, purposeful strength that will intensify their resolve and fuel their progress, step by step, day by day.

May the new year be filled with happiness, productivity, and harmony. And, may the noise we experience not be discordant. Rather, let it reflect excitement, gratitude, joy, and the celebratory spirit of accomplishment.

School Days

November 19, 2011

Teachers play important roles in children’s development. Parents who understand what goes into good teaching can support their children’s teachers, and help their children have the best possible learning experience at school. In this blog, Joanne Foster talks about an approach to education that involves a respectful co-creation of meaningful learning experiences, including honouring children’s interests, preferences, and creativity; and a commitment to professionalism.

“Teachers acknowledge students’ interests and preferred approaches to learning; they collaborate with students respectfully and creatively in the design and evaluation of instruction, retaining their professional imperative to ensure academic standards are met.”

 “Students come to school to learn more than just subject matter; they come to learn to be learners. …self-knowledge is essential to effective, autonomous, life-long learning”

Lannie Kanevsky, Gifted Child Quarterly, Vol. 55, #4, Fall 2011, pp. 280 – 299

I applaud Lannie Kanevsky for these views, which I’ve taken the liberty of extracting from her article in the current issue of Gifted Child Quarterly. Let me explain why these two quotes resonate so strongly for me.

The first statement (which appears on page 280 of the journal) is about teachers. It neatly ties up what educators should aspire to do in their classrooms. The focus of Kanevsky’s article is differentiation, but the beauty of this particular description of best practice is its oh-so-sensible three-pronged approach. Look carefully at what this respected author is saying about teacher-oriented action. Firstly, she emphasises the importance of honouring children’s interests and preferences. This is crucial to joyful learning.  Secondly, she gives a thumbs-up to collaboration with students —while at the same time paying heed to respect and to creativity, and noting how important it is for teachers to thoughtfully design and evaluate their instruction. (That’s a hefty but extremely practical message!) Finally, she recognizes that educators invariably have a curriculum they are obligated to teach, and standards to which they must adhere.  In other words, she understands that professionalism cannot be compromised.

If only all teachers adhered to these three principles! Teaching would be more robust, and learning would be targeted more appropriately.

The second quote (from page 296) is about students. They, too, have responsibility for what transpires in classrooms.  Kids have to be ready and willing to learn. They have to be disposed to put forth the concerted effort that is required so as to think and act in ways that will enable them to grow. They have to learn to be persistent, to ask relevant questions, and to invest time in practice so they can build upon their knowledge. As Kanevsky eloquently states, they have to actually “learn to be learners.” This is what schooling is all about. Subject matter is important (that goes back to the imperative referred to in her first quote) but it is the motivation, the drive, the passion for learning that fuels further intellectual growth and well-being, at home as well as at school.

The self-knowledge piece that Kanevsky also refers to has to do with becoming aware of one’s own habits of mind, aspirations, and capabilities. However, this sort of wherewithal doesn’t just flick on like a light-bulb. It takes patience, reflection, hard work, encouragement, resilience, and support. And, it takes time. In short, self-knowledge accrues from lessons about these capacities—these processes of learning—and these lessons should be infused into every school program.

Which brings us full circle, back to the first quote, and the responsibility of the teacher. Clearly, respectful co-creation of meaningful learning is at the very heart of what makes classroom activities beat with the kind of fervour that will inspire children to become better learners and, down the road, more competent adults.


September: Changes in the Air…

September 12, 2011

Summer is officially winding down, and September heralds the beginning of autumn, cool starry nights, and the glorious beauty of the changing leaves. Meanwhile, parents, teachers, and children are thinking about what the new school year will be like. Exciting? Daunting? Full of new opportunities, and chances to extend previous challenges?  In this blog we offer some practical strategies for parents who are looking for ways to help children successfully manage the changes in the air…

September is traditionally the time when children start a new school year. Many kids navigate the change from leisure to learning without a hitch, whereas others find it more difficult to settle into “back to school” mode. Parents often ask us, “How can we help children during this transitional period—and through the months ahead?”

Here are four tips for success:

#1 – Be attuned to what’s happening in your children’s lives. Listen. Observe. Don’t be pushy or annoying. (Kids HATE that!) Do make an unobtrusive effort to be more “in-the-know” about the highs, lows, and rollercoaster moments in their lives. Parents who stay on top of things are better positioned to advise, guide, and trouble-shoot more effectively.

#2 – Respect children’s views, honour their interests, and try to accommodate their learning preferences. Children learn in different ways. However, they learn best when they are happy, appropriately challenged, and motivated.

#3 – Give children access to relevant, stimulating learning opportunities—along  with whatever else they might need to enable learning to happen as seamlessly as possible (including materials, work space, ample sleep, and nutritional food).

#4 – Be available to offer reinforcement and encouragement. Acknowledge children’s efforts, and help them see the value of a strong work ethic.

Later in the month, as September begins its fade into October, and the school year revs into full gear, be both watchful and wise, and be ready to advocate for your children, if necessary. (More on that elsewhere in our writings, and in future blogs)