In this Issue . . . Director's Message | Developing Potential into Achievement | The Talent Development of Three CTD Scholars | CTD Snapshot: What Parents Can Do to Guide Their Students’ Talent Development
There’s nothing more hopeful than students identifying their talents, pursuing their passions, and building a better future for themselves and their larger community. In this issue of Talent, we discuss the philosophy underpinning Center for Talent Development’s mission to help students find and develop their talents and how parents and educators can guide students on these lifelong journeys of learning and fulfillment.
Rather than focusing on high academic ability or giftedness as an innate trait, CTD’s approach to talent development, which we refer to as the “pathways approach,” emphasizes students having opportunities to identify their talent and pursue their interests, work to develop their academic muscles, acquire new knowledge and hone their skills and become agents of their own talent development—all in pursuit of reaching their full potential.
As we look forward to the next year, there is an opportunity to help students think about their long-term goals and vision for the future. Having longer-term goals or vision, motivation, and deep commitment are central to the pathways approach.
This past year has been particularly full of challenges for students. They have tested and built on their resilience, growing as independent learners—with encouragement and adults doing their best to help them along the way. I hope your families will start the new year happy, healthy, and stronger for having achieved and grown in ways many of us never knew were possible.
Director, Center for Talent Development
How can parents and educators guide students toward a bright future? In this issue of Talent, Center for Talent Development director Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius shares her vision for creating pathways for students to explore early interests, develop skills, cultivate expertise, gain professional experience, and become bold, creative achievers and contributors. She also shares insights into her own journey, and the joy and fulfillment she has experienced through dedicating her career to developing talent in promising students.
When Rena Subotnik, Frank Worrell, and I worked on this monograph, we examined a great body of literature on talent development across various fields, and through this learning process, three fundamental tenets came out:
These tenets help to inform CTD’s pathways approach. It's an evolving framework, and our staff continue to evaluate and refine our programming to engage our broader community of scholars, educators, and parents.
Pathways is the unique way we approach talent development here at CTD. At its core, it reflects how giftedness is malleable and developed over time. Because we believe it's a developmental process requiring certain inputs and supports, we begin early. To make our programs developmentally appropriate for young children, we start with playful, discovery-based learning in the younger years. The focus is less on scores or tests and more on providing enrichment classes that enable students to be with other kids and adult mentors – to see what interests them and to engage with more challenging content.
The focus for elementary and middle school students is on building foundational skills at a more accelerated or advanced level in their areas of interest and strength. For older students, we offer more fast-paced courses that require evidence of readiness to be accelerated, but also courses that try to expose kids to authentic problem-solving within specific areas of study, or domains.
Giftedness starts out general and is applied more specifically over time. In other words, kids may be able to learn at an advanced rate, no matter what you give them, but eventually, they choose areas of focus based on their interests and strengths. We have carefully created courses that build on one another, to provide opportunities for students who have an early love of a subject to build their skills as they grow and develop.
But we also are aware that a lot of kids don't define their interests until middle school, high school, or even college. Offering an array of courses is important so students can discover where their interests might be leading them and how various subjects or domains are connected. We try to move them from early dabbling to a more defined area of study, and then up to courses that help students pursue college majors or career paths. They can get a picture of how their learning is actually applied by professionals working in the field. We provide these pathways within subject areas from Pre-K all the way through grade 12, which is unique among talent centers, so that students can experience different learning environments while following those pathways.
We nurture kids' interests to enable them to have the confidence to challenge themselves, take more ownership for their own development, and forge their own paths.
And we hope there are effects beyond CTD. Students may choose to investigate other summer programs, a contest to participate in, an internship, a dual enrollment program in their school or through their state, or other online courses that fuel their passion. We nurture kids' interests to enable them to have the confidence to challenge themselves, take more ownership for their own development, and forge their own paths.
The field of education is in a period of much shifting and reevaluation. Students of color and students from low income backgrounds and under-resourced schools are under-identified and underrepresented in gifted programming. This has been a problem for a long time.
Developing models to work with students who have been left behind or overlooked has been a focus of CTD since its inception. CTD’s pathways approach is part of a broader conception of giftedness that focuses on nurture over nature. Research tells us that demonstration of ability is very malleable and achievement is a result of opportunity. If you believe that giftedness is this innate quality that displays in high achievement, then all you're about is identifying kids with high achievement and serving them. Kids who have had less opportunity to learn or access to educational opportunities are not going to necessarily show what they're capable of on typical tests or in their school performance.
This research is directing us to think differently about giftedness. The traditional model has been to “identify and then serve” and we're turning that around to “serve then assess” – especially for children from low-income backgrounds. We offer enrichment to provide a lens to see ability manifested. Once children have had opportunities to develop their abilities, we have a better framework with which to assess, "Shouldn't they be accelerated?" and in what areas.
Educators need to work closely with families and capitalize on their assets. Families may lack financial resources but have emotional support for their children. We need to be there to provide information about their child’s abilities so they can be supportive, be advocates, and not be afraid to push for resources and programming for their child. At the classroom level, teachers need to provide a multicultural curriculum and culturally responsive instruction and monitor their own beliefs and expectations to reduce bias and ensure they have high expectations of all students.
In the last five years, CTD has placed a greater focus on working with educators and school leaders in the form of professional development, consulting, and program review. We had schools coming to us saying, "Our gifted program is under scrutiny and it's difficult to defend," or, "Our gifted program is not serving students representative of our school population." We've responded by trying to work one-on-one with school districts. Teachers are busy serving students, as they should be, and often have a difficult time keeping up with the research. Our job at CTD, because we're at a university, is to consume that research and help translate it into best practices for schools and educators. When we work with them, we share the core tenets of the pathways approach, emphasizing the view of talent as a developmental process that always starts with potential.
We offer enrichment to provide a lens to see ability manifested.
The other reason the pathways approach is important to discuss at this time is related to the research telling us giftedness becomes domain-specific. The field has been focused on IQ, or general reasoning ability, and a lot of the programming still focuses on general cognitive ability. This may be appropriate for adjusting the pace of learning and placement during the early years of schooling. But as kids specialize and their interests and their talents become greater within particular areas, we need more programming within specific spheres of knowledge. The pathways approach emphasizes that as children develop, we put greater emphasis on nurturing specific talents within domains of performance.
As students get older, we need to provide what we call "tacit knowledge" about careers and educational paths, and provide them access to people in those fields who can talk to them about their own experiences. Many students don't know a lot about educational paths, and career possibilities because it's not in their realm of experience. We should do this for all kids, but especially for students who may not be able to access this information in their more immediate environment or their community.
The main things we want students to come away with is recognition of their talents and interests and knowledge of opportunities that will develop them as well as provide support from peers and adults. That's important for kids who might come from schools where there isn't a gifted program or where they feel a sense of isolation from not interacting with like-minded peers. Our programs give students the opportunity to take ownership in their work and to demonstrate leadership skills, as well as develop their psychosocial skills – such as cooperation, sharing, and being a part of a team – which we know are critical for talent development.
We provide online community opportunities, often in the form of interviews with different people doing really interesting work, to give students an idea of how they could eventually do that kind of work. We want students to leave with a sense of possibility.
A big mantra among CTD’s leadership is “Challenge plus support.” Talent development requires more than just knowledge, especially as students advance to the upper levels of high school and beyond. Being able to stick with a difficult problem, overcome a perceived failure, take a few risks by choosing something where you don't know if you will succeed – we know these qualities and skills are increasingly important as children grow. We believe those qualities and skills can be developed. At CTD, we encourage that development by hiring teachers and staff who understand high-achieving student needs. For example, when we present material to students that is harder than they've encountered and they feel stymied, or they don't get that ‘A’ they expect to receive, CTD teachers, teaching assistants, and residential staff are there to support them and to help them reformulate the perceived setback into a goal for improvement.
We want students to feel supported and gain confidence to stretch their learning and growth. That's important because as students progress, they will encounter more challenging situations and increased competition. They may go from being at the top of their class to a college environment where they are one of many strong students. We want students to gain the perspectives on their ability that will help them manage challenging situations; to be energized to move forward on their path; to investigate the possibilities and choices that lie ahead; and to have the confidence to pursue opportunities.
There's a lot of speculation on this. I think it depends on the level of support they have. We expect learning losses. The prediction is that the learning losses will be greatest in math and reading. There's also hope that we can catch students up quickly. Educators are learning what works best for students in terms of online learning. I don’t think students will ever go back to only face-to-face instruction.
But the psychological toll is different. We see kids feeling isolated or depressed, and certainly, we need to provide support for them. There might be some positive outcomes. There may be kids who become a little bit more autonomous about reaching out for support. Kids strengthen their coping skills for difficult circumstances, but again, that depends on the support of their families, community members, and educators to help them with those skills. So much is unknown, and my best recommendation for parents, if they have the energy, is to use this challenging time as an opportunity to help their children understand and further develop their coping skills.
When I was a student at Northwestern, I focused on early childhood development and did my dissertation on fantasy play. I still love that area. Joyce VanTassel-Baska came to Northwestern with what was then called the Midwest Talent Search Project. I was finishing my PhD, and she had a job, and I took it. It was working on a grant to support teachers to learn how to identify kids who were typically under-identified for gifted programs. I fell in love with the field, I think partially due to having been this nerdy, studious girl that my parents called an overachiever—which I always hated! It was revealing to me to see myself in some of the writing, and to learn about the issues I encountered as a female in the '60s in terms of opportunities.
I became enamored with the field and stayed with it. I had a wonderful mentor in Joyce VanTassel-Baska. She introduced me to colleagues in the field and provided me with many opportunities, including attending the National Association for Gifted Children where I met Rena Subotnik, who now works at the American Psychological Association. She and I formed a friendship, and now, along with Frank Worrell from the University of California at Berkeley, we have been writing together for the last ten years. We had a great opportunity to produce a monograph for the Association for the Psychological Sciences on where giftedness and the field of gifted education was going. In that task, we reviewed a ton of literature and tried to reorient the field toward a greater reliance on psychological science as a way to view giftedness. A really fun aspect of the project was reading literature from the fields of sport and music. They're way ahead in terms of deliberate talent development and fostering psychosocial skills. It was very gratifying to learn about and to be able to suggest that those kinds of efforts be applied in academic areas.
I'm intrinsically interested in anything talent development and have been for 30 years. It's just a passion with me!
How can a preschooler’s curiosity about animals lead to a career as a conservationist? Will today’s middle-school gaming enthusiasts become tomorrow’s engineers? If young learners have the opportunity to cultivate their interests at every educational stage, the possibilities for discovery and achievement are limitless. By utilizing a talent development approach, like CTD’s pathways model, students have the power to map their own learning journeys through pivotal encounters with STEM, the Humanities, leadership, and more. Early enrichment activities encourage students to explore, refine, and pursue their interests over time, leading to challenging high-school honors classes and lifelong passions. With wide-ranging interests and a shared enthusiasm for learning, three longtime CTD students shared their experiences with the educational pathways that they believe will guide them through school and beyond.
Eeshani Buddi took her first CTD classes in the Leapfrog program at the end of second grade. Beginning with introductory classes on zoology and medicine, Buddi created her own multifaceted approach to learning by selecting courses across the disciplines, gaining an understanding of new topics each year. “I enjoyed my experience the first year and I haven’t missed a single summer since,” the current Appleton North High School senior says.
Buddi is preparing for her first year of college, where she plans to study Anthropology. “It ties my academic and personal interests together,” she explains. Her scholarly journey has been one of continuous observation and curiosity, and by studying human behavior and societies, Buddi will be able to build on a well-rounded experience gained through academic exploration and acceleration. A grammar class in CTD’s online program set the stage for an Equinox class in composition and rhetoric, and a Solstice class in chemistry was a precursor to AP and high-school honors courses in the same subject. Buddi notes that “summer courses at CTD helped build a strong academic foundation,” encouraging her to “take the advanced courses to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects.” She says other students should know the importance of pursuing various interests that may not be offered in their school or state.
CTD has allowed Buddi to make connections among peers as well as academic disciplines, and her recent experiences demonstrate thorough engagement with her interests and her community. In addition to a varied schedule of challenging courses and personal pursuits (including music and Bharatanatyam, a traditional Indian classical dance), Buddi has launched initiatives inspired by social issues studied at CTD. She founded the Appleton North Interact Club, which has made a local impact by planting trees, fundraising, supporting nonprofit events, and serving meals at the Salvation Army. The club has grown tenfold since its inception, receiving a citation with platinum distinction from Rotary International, and Buddi views this success as an outcome of a key class at CTD: she took Taking Action: Leadership & Service in 2017, and credits the course with enhancing her “interest in being of service to the community.”
Sophomore Miles Reeves has also found a talent for civic engagement, and he traces his current interests to his ongoing CTD coursework. Beginning with his first elementary school classes at CTD’s Francis Xavier Warde site, Reeves discovered unexpected avenues for learning. “Through these courses, I was able to explore fascinating topics in science, social studies, and more without my younger self even knowing I was learning,” he says. “These courses exposed me to things like forensics, social justice, and unique moments in history I would’ve never been aware of in [my regular classroom], all in an engaging way for an early elementary schooler.”
It was through this course that I learned the most about myself, my hometown, and my privilege and place in the world.
As themes emerged in his CTD coursework, Reeves refined his interests in law, government, public policy, and related fields. The popular Order in the Court: The Law through Fable & Fairy Tale Trials for grades 4–6 offered a precursor to Spectrum courses like Persuasion & Debate Honors and Supreme Decisions: Law of the Highest Order, and Reeves says his CTD experiences have helped him in AP Human Geography and AP U.S. History classes at Walter Payton College Prep. His CTD work in civic leadership and service proved to be his favorite class, and it provided him with direction and a paradigm-shifting awareness of pressing social issues. “It was through this course that I learned the most about myself, my hometown, and my privilege and place in the world,” Reeves says. By participating in service-learning projects throughout Chicago, he and his classmates worked to help communities in need. “It opened my eyes to careers and life paths focused around help and service in a way I would have never seen,” Reeves shares. He says he has always “wanted to do something with the law, the markets, or the courts,” and he now has a focused passion for direct community engagement as well.
In addition to giving Reeves a setting to pursue his academic interests, CTD helped him create a pathway to personal understanding. Taking a variety of advanced and enrichment courses in middle school and high school can offer a preview of the college experience, and Reeves says CTD students can connect with peers and “have access to mentors and teachers from all kinds of real-world fields that you might actually want to pursue as a career.” “You are given independence to pursue your own interests, make cross-curricular friends, and truly find yourself,” he says, and he urges new CTD students to approach the programs with enthusiasm and a sense of possibility. “If you’re already excited to go and have picked a topic that interests you, all you need to do is show up to class with an open mind and ears and you will benefit immensely.”
For Annie Ostojic, CTD provided encouragement during her early scientific pursuits. “I participated in the NUMATS testing program from third grade on, and I truly believe that it helped to guide me as well as provide confidence that I could excel in advanced work,” says Ostojic, who also took CTD classes in pre-algebra and cell biology. With a lifelong passion for STEM, Ostojic was “born with goggles and a beaker in hand,” and she credits CTD classes and
NUMATS with supporting her at crucial stages of her education. “NUMATS helped to show me how I was progressing academically so that I could modify my school course pathway accordingly,” she says, adding that her NUMATS scores helped her argue for accelerated classes in school.
“My personal philosophy is to never stop challenging myself to use my talents and skills to impact positive changes in our world.”
Today, Ostojic is in her first year at Stanford University, majoring in electrical engineering and exploring “connections between electrical engineering, biomedical applications, and artificial intelligence.” This course of study is a natural progression for Ostojic, who was recently awarded a prestigious Davidson Fellowship for her work in STEM. Her fellowship project on gene functions in cancer treatment was designed to address a widespread medical need, as well as an issue close to her heart: cancer has directly affected Ostojic’s family, and she identified a way to use her scientific expertise to help others. The resulting project incorporated “artificial intelligence deep learning image classification of heat maps and mathematical modeling to determine gene functions in pathways and cancer connectedness,” she explains.
Named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list while still in high school and an alumna of internships at Arrow Electronics and the U.S. Department of Defense, Ostojic is already an accomplished innovator, researcher, and public speaker. As she continues to learn and pursue her interests in an ever-changing technological landscape, Ostojic recalls the value of enrichment and accelerated programs in shaping a talent development pathway.
“With programs such as NUMATS and CTD, there is so much you can do to broaden your knowledge and explore different STEM fields,” she says, sharing a valuable perspective for other students exploring their interests. “My personal philosophy is to never stop challenging myself to use my talents and skills to impact positive changes in our world.”
An important part of the parents' role is to help their child with these challenges in their day-to-day interactions. For example, when a kid brings home a test score that they're disappointed in, instead of rebuking them, parents might respond, "Okay, let's figure this out. Did you put time and energy into studying? Did you feel confident that you knew the material? If you did and you still got this grade, then let's think about your study skills." Parents can try to help their child keep track of assignments and break them down into small steps so that the student learns how to do that for themselves.
Parents might encourage children who get very anxious, perhaps over having to give a presentation, by helping them to be realistic about what might happen: "The world is not going to end if you make a mistake. You have to view this as getting experience, and you can improve.” Or they might share techniques for breathing to dial down anxiety. It's hard for parents because they may not feel equipped to be an emotional coach. But motivation, being able to rebound from setbacks, knowing when to lead and when to be a team member—these are all things that every child needs to learn, and that parents can help model.