By Nancy Weinstein
The United States is failing its gifted students. And despite the national weariness for standardized testing, the answer lies in a test. But it’s a test you can’t study for; can’t tie to teacher performance; doesn’t require billions to fund, and thanks to advances in technology, can be taken anywhere in about an hour. I’m referring to cognitive assessments, the uncontested, most reliable measure of a student’s learning strengths and weaknesses and the best way to engage learners of all abilities.
Back in the day, these assessments were called IQ tests and there was a notion that when it came to smarts, you either “had it” or “you didn’t.” Thanks to a better understanding of neuroplasticity, today we know cognitive skills are malleable and a better phrase to explain them might be, “use it or lose it”.
Gifted students benefit from cognitive assessments not only because they help reveal specific strengths, but because they reveal specific weaknesses. This is the key ingredient in rescuing this segment from a trajectory of anxiety, fear of failure, and most damaging to the country and themselves: burn-out.
I know. I was labeled gifted in kindergarten. And I followed the path described in the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck. In her research on mindset, Dweck describes those of us who hold a secret and deep-seated fear of failure. I did what I thought I had to do: I studied hard, graduated at the top of my engineering class at an Ivy League University and went on to prestigious jobs.
And yet, being told I was gifted became a curse, in a sense. If I was gifted, why did I have to study twice as hard to remember things? If I was gifted, why did I not know how to be happy in my work or find work that made me happy?
By not helping our bright students understand their weaker skills, we are destroying our country’s talent and potential. By telling them they are good in everything, we turn them into imposters, afraid for the world to find out what neuroscientists already know: they aren’t good in everything. Because no one is. Not even those labeled “profoundly gifted.”
Let’s free our best students of the burden of perfection in everything they do. Let’s understand them for who they really are. And let them understand themselves.
The good news is it’s possible. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Brain Behavior Lab developed an online assessment that can be taken in approximately one hour. I’ve set out to make this assessment available online, to be taken anytime, at home, and at an affordable cost.
In the world of complaints about over-testing, we fail to test most of our children on the test most likely to help them. A cognitive assessment provides a liberating confirmation of how one naturally learns. It indicates innate strengths, unique and independent of our current markers of learned achievement. And it shows where students are most likely to struggle.
I can’t imagine how different my childhood would have been if I, and those around me, knew that I had weak memory. That despite my strong capability to learn, it was really tough for me to remember what I had learned. My “genius” status didn’t help me very much when I struggled to remember every date of the Civil War or the every phylum and species in the Animal Kingdom. Instead it drove me to tears.
Our students shouldn’t be striving for perfection in everything. Cognitive assessments can rescue students from the burden of the perfection, freeing them to explore their true strengths and passions. Grant these children permission to acknowledge their weaknesses and maybe even justifiably fail at times. Celebrate them for who they truly are: a person of great strengths with real weaknesses.
Nancy Weinstein is the founder & CEO of Mindprint Learning. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School and The University of Pennsylvania. She lives in the Princeton area with her husband and two daughters. Follow Nancy on Twitter @MindprintLearn.