Your Genius

Awakening Genius


Thomas Armstrong

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Every student is a genius. I do not mean this in the psychometric sense of the word, in which an individual must score above the upper 99th percentile on a standardized measure of intelligence to qualify. Nor do I mean it in the sense of every student as a grandmaster chess champion, a virtuoso on the violin, or a world-class artist. These are some of the currently accepted meanings of the word genius in our culture and are not particularly relevant to the topic of this book.
For the meaning of genius used here, I have gone back to the origins of the word itself. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (1991, p. 664), the word genius derives from Greek and Latin words meaning "to beget," "to be born," or "to come into being" (it is closely related to the word genesis). It is also linked to the word genial, which means, among other things, "festive," "conducive to growth," "enlivening," and "jovial." Combining these two sets of definitions comes closest to the meaning of the word genius used in this book: "giving birth to one's joy."
From the standpoint of education, genius means essentially "giving birth to the joy in learning." I'd like to suggest that this is the central task of all educators. It is the genius of the student that is the driving force behind all learning. Before educators take on any of the other important issues in learning, they must first have a thorough understanding of what lies at the core of each student's intrinsic motivation to learn, and that motivation originates in each student's genius.
The word genius has a rich multicultural history. The ancient Romans used it to refer to a guardian spirit that protected all individuals throughout their lives. All persons were born with their own unique genius that looked after them, helped them out of difficulties, and inspired them at crucial moments in their lives. On a person's birthday, the Romans would celebrate the birthday of the genius as well as the individual. The accomplishments of individuals were often attributed to their personal genius (The New Encyclopedia Britannica 1980). In the Middle East, the term has been linked to the word jinni, or genie, that magical power chronicled in the Arabian Nights that lay dormant in Aladdin's lamp until a few rubs on the side of the vessel "gave birth" to a sometimes jovial and sometimes not so jovial spirit.
The genius is a symbol for an individual's potential: all that a person may be that lies locked inside during the early years of development. So, when we say as educators that we want to help students to develop their potential, we're essentially saying that we want to assist them in finding their inner genius and support them in guiding it into pathways that can lead to personal fulfillment and to the benefit of those around them.

The 12 Qualities of Genius

To provide a structure for educators that can make the concept of genius useful, I've expanded its meaning to include 12 basic qualities: curiosity, playfulness, imagination, creativity, wonder, wisdom, inventiveness, vitality, sensitivity, flexibility, humor, and joy. Unlike Gardner's eight intelligences these 12 qualities are not based on any established criteria. The concept of genius could just as well be represented by 3 or 15 or 50 different qualities. However, the 12 qualities included here represent a wide selection of qualities that give structure to the somewhat elusive notion of genius. They are aspects of life that every educator has some familiarity with both inside and outside the classroom. And although these qualities may lack the rigorous application of criteria found in the theory of multiple intelligences, they are supported, as we will see later, by research in the neurosciences, anthropology, developmental psychology, and other sources as well. Before sharing some of this research, however, I'd like to describe the 12 qualities that constitute the basic building blocks of each student's intrinsic genius.


Children are naturally curious about the world around them from the earliest weeks of life. The squirmy behavior of the infant is actually a manifestation of its sensorium engaged in a full- scale exploration of the world: this is active curiosity at its highest pitch. Once walking, the toddler moves toward whatever arouses curiosity. Once talking, the young child is constantly asking "Whazzat, mommy?" As the child grows into the elementary school years and acquires greater knowledge of the world, that curiosity branches out into hobbies, pastimes, collections, and interests that may change weekly. In adolescence, socially approved curiosity may weaken and be replaced by a more subterranean curiosity given over to the biggest questions about life, death, love, self, and truth.

The most curious thing is that often educators do not see the student's curiosity when it appears. Instead, they may regard it as "off-task" behavior, irrelevancies, silliness, and even rudeness. A teacher may be following a lesson plan on the American colonies when a student asks, "What's that necklace you're wearing made of?" In a behavior modification classroom that may result in a point off. At the very least it may throw a teacher off balance. An experienced teacher, however, knows how to take that question and make it serve the lesson plan's objectives ("It's made of shells. Do you think that some of the colonists might have worn shell necklaces?"). But more than using a child's curiosity to serve the needs of any particular lesson plan, educators need to recognize that these kinds of innocent questions emerge out of students' genius-their often insatiable need to find out everything they can about the world. Educators need to regard this curiosity as a healthy drive and not as an impediment to the smooth operation of their classroom. A major question should be how to take that intrinsic curiosity, in whatever form, and make it available to the curriculum.

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Nowhere can we see students' genius more clearly demonstrated than when they are at play. When children play they reinvent the world. Kids who build forts and pretend to be kings and queens are internalizing social structures, mirroring historical movements, and playing out mythological themes. Play allows kids to work through emotional conflicts, develop and test hypotheses about the world, investigate complex social roles, prepare for full-fledged participation in the family and community, and develop more appropriate ways of relating to peers. As the inventor of the kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel (1887), put it:

Playfulness, however, extends far beyond the kindergarten. It's really an attitude toward life that informs the behavior of the 4th grader who dances his way into the classroom as well as the playful manipulations of an l1th grade "wise guy." Teachers sometimes mistakenly think they're bringing play into the classroom by having kids play "games." Ironically, the formal rules and competitiveness of structured games often force playfulness into hiding. Playfulness is more likely to come up unexpectedly during the classroom day-for example, in the middle of a geometry lesson (the kid who starts walking around the room in a triangle pattern), while lining up to go to the lunchroom (the student who mimics the gruff lunchroom lady), or during sustained silent reading (the kids who create a "burping" symphony). When truly valued as an important component of students' genius, playfulness can find its way into many parts of the school day in an appropriate way.

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It's almost a clich‚ that children have vivid imaginations. A Gary Larson cartoon portrays this humorously by showing a mother entering her son's bedroom, with the boy cowering in bed. The mother exclaims, "How can you tell me there's a monster in this room when you can't even describe his face to me!" And in the corner of the room, a monster stands with a bag over his head!

Very young children are often terrified in the middle of the night because their dreams (and nightmares) appear as real as outer perceptions. Scientists call this facility "eidetic imagery," and some research suggests that this capacity exists to a far greater extent in childhood than in adulthood. Children and adolescents can close their eyes and see all sorts of images: swirls of color, cartoon pictures, video-like images of places they'd rather be, and, in particular, stories and fantasies of wishes and dreams. Children and adolescents are constantly telling themselves stories in their heads, perhaps heroic sagas in which they play the hero or heroine, or space-age odysseys gleaned from Star Wars movies, or monster truck races in which they outpace the field, or turgid romances of loves lost and gained. All this may go on while the teacher is talking about the times tables or the Treaty of Versailles. In terms of sheer entertainment value, the Treaty of Versailles generally loses out against these personalized dramas! The imagination has come to be associated with something negative daydreaming rather than being viewed as a potential source of cognitive power that the student might use to write stories (e.g., "My Role in Writing the Treaty of Versailles"), put on plays, create works of art, initiate deep dialogues about significant life issues, or engage in other activities that relate to important school outcomes.

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The word creativity is closely linked to the word genius, since both words have the root meaning "to give birth." Essentially, creativity designates the capacity to give birth to new ways of looking at things, the ability to make novel connections between disparate things, and the knack for seeing things that might be missed by the typical way of viewing life. Children and adolescents being relatively new to life, are naturally creative because they haven't been brainwashed, so to speak, by the conventional attitudes of society. Consequently, students are always coming up with novel images, words, and actions that may delight, enlighten, or inspire adults. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once declared that all music is derived from a basic melody that children throughout the world use in their own self-created songs and chants, related how Dagomba children from Ghana create social and political songs that have a direct influence on the culture. Russian writer Kornei Chukovskii (1963) once declared that young children were linguistic geniuses because of their ability to come up with creative expressions, and suggested that children had created an entire Creole language in Hawaii in the last century through the intermingling of many peoples and languages.

In the classroom, this creativity manifests itself in the poems, drawings, novel observations, and unique expressions that pour out of children at irregular times during the school day. It is apparent, for example, in Maria, a 3rd grader who writes: "I used to have a teacher of meanness/But now I have a teacher of roses"; in Alex, a lst grade "bad boy" who moves like a flamenco dancer; or in Don, the 10th grader who, an art teacher once told me, could turn any piece of solid wood into a human face. Creativity not been the subject of intense focus, extensive research, or high levels of funding in American education. Typically, educators have relegated the topic of creativity to gifted education, and research in creativity has been used to identify children for admittance into gifted programs. But by limiting creativity to gifted education, educators have effectively isolated it from the mainstream of American education where it could do the most good. Creativity is a part of every student's birthright, and by recognizing it as such, we can make a good start in bringing it to the fore in every classroom.

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Wonder is the natural astonishment that children and adolescents have about the world around them. Most of us, at one time or another in our youth, have lain on our backs looking up at the sky on a starry night wondering how far the universe went on. This kind of experience reveals the dual meaning of wonder: as a verb ("I wonder how far it goes on") and as an emotional experience ("Wow! It just goes on and on ... !"). It also underlies something particularly profound about the learning process that receives virtually no attention in education: those learning experiences that have the greatest impact on students are often those that involve awe or wonder. Such experiences emerge almost incidentally in the classroom when, for example, a student first encounters a blossom opening up in a classroom biology experiment, or sees a prism breaking light up into the colors of the rainbow, or experiences a particularly moving play or musical piece.

Wonder doesn't show up as a "skill" on any competency checklist and thank goodness it doesn't; for by measuring some things we destroy them. But wonder nevertheless is a component of genius that both reveals the depths of our students' minds and deepens the learning process whenever it occurs. To reduce wonder to an "experience of affect" puts it on a level with those momentary cheap thrills that popular culture seems to thrive on. The experience of wonder is an encounter with the mysteries of life, and our students are particularly well equipped as natural geniuses to revel in this way of encountering the world.

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Out of wonder may come wisdom. The student who is able to experience the wonder of the world directly, without the blinders of preconceptions and clich‚, has access to a certain precocious wisdom different from that of elders who have acquired their wisdom from years of experience; but this strong and silent knowledge nevertheless can have the force of deeper truth behind it.

Wisdom expresses itself in many ways. The 1st grader who draws a globe and a rainbow image during art class and says quietly that it stands for world peace is revealing a certain kind of wisdom. So too is the high school junior who writes an impassioned philosophical treatise on the nature of human goodness as a civics assignment. Wisdom may come across in a simple comment made during recess to help a younger child feel better or in a child's particularly sensitive intervention to help resolve a classroom conflict.
Robert Coles has done a particularly good job of revealing wisdom in children by documenting their struggles with poverty and discrimination as well as by revealing their deeper thoughts about religion, politics, morality, and other basic life issues. Like so many other qualities of genius described in this book, wisdom has not been given much credence by educators as a trait worth studying in the classroom (though a teacher may give it value by saying about a particular student, "That child is wise beyond his years"). However, along with Coles's work, there is a body of research suggesting that real wisdom and philosophical understanding exist in children and adolescents and are worth paying attention to as an educational resource.

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Though closely allied to the concept of creativity, inventiveness is student who is able to experience included here as a separate dimension of genius because it implies a certain "hands-on" quality that might be neglected when people think about creativity. Children and adolescents are naturally inventive, coming up with often bizarre and funny uses for common things. I'm reminded of the 1st grade student who drew an image of a boy with peanuts pouring into his head (the top half of which was conveniently hinged to allow for this); the peanuts were ground together inside of his brain and blended with butter in a tube to make peanut butter, which he then sold door to door on his skateboard. Kids are always having these kinds of zany thoughts, which we're likely to dismiss out of hand without marveling at their truly geniuslike nature. It takes something rather extraordinary to turn an empty milk carton into an "owl car wash," or to design a Rube Goldberg-type device that moves ping- pong balls into sockets, causing bells to ring and a miniature pig to spin around, thus moving an alligator's head that functions as a pencil sharpener. But students generally have little time to exercise their "inventive" muscles because educators may fear such amusing side trips of the mind take valuable time away from the core curriculum. Inventiveness should be seen as a part of the core curriculum-as part of a genius curriculum than can allow kids to contribute their cognitive fancies to whatever is being studied and thereby immeasurably enrich the experience of learning.

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Other words I might have chosen to express this dimension include aliveness, spontaneity, or vibrancy. But vitality seems to best express the image of children or adolescents being awake to their senses, totally and immediately responsive to the environment, and actively engaged in each and every moment. This dimension should not be confused with impulsivity, which has a certain driven or automatic quality reflected in unconscious and irritating behaviors. The vitality of the child or adolescent has a definite positive quality, though it might be judged as irritating if the environment around the student is dead. Vitality is really the essential spark of genius; the direct energy of the life force surging up into the world and making a direct impact (some teachers might say a "direct hit") on the classroom atmosphere. It's the enthusiasm of a kindergartner who has something special to share for show-and-tell. It's the high-energy demonstration of a science fair project by a 4th grade girl. It's the electric performance of a high school senior portraying Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sometimes teachers worry about containing this vitality in the classroom, believing that the best classroom is a subdued classroom. And at times, this vitality may verge on chaos. But at such times, it may be important for teachers to remember Nietzsche's comment: "One must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star"; who spoke of "organic chaos" in her definition of a creative learning atmosphere. The truly brilliant moments of teaching and learning are those in which deadness dies and vitality reigns supreme.

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This quality of genius refers to the incredible openness that children have to the world. From the earliest days of life, the sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes of the world flood the baby's sensorium, and the infant responds to each stimulus in a fresh and unique way. Although children and adolescents develop defenses as they grow to shield themselves from the more painful onslaughts that the world delivers, they are still highly sensitive to the experience of life compared to many of the adults around them who have erected walls to keep much of life safely outside. Sometimes the child's or adolescent's openness is regarded in a negative way, as "vulnerability," and the word sensitivity itself is often considered a deficit term (as in "you're just being too sensitive"); however, in the context of the qualities of genius described here, sensitivity is a clear asset that enriches the experience of life by making it more vivid. The child who cries after reading a sad novel is having a richer experience of the work than one who simply derives a purely intellectual knowledge of the plot. The student who becomes incensed when a teacher's opinion on pollution contrasts with his own can use his sensitivity to engage more intensively in the dialogue. The sensitivity of children and adolescents allows them to be more deeply affected by great works of art, music, dance, and literature, and to be moved by the events of history and the discoveries of science and math. Educators must respect this sensitivity, for its misuse and abuse can lead to subtle forms of brainwashing, to emotional scars from being exposed to inappropriate learning techniques, or to being led astray by poor role models. However, when wisely and delicately handled, the sensitivity of children and adolescents serves as a keystone to learning at its best.

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This quality of genius refers to the plasticity of the child's (and to a lesser extent the adolescent's) mind; the ability of the child and adolescent to make fluid associations, to move from fantasy to reality, from metaphor to fact, from the inner world to the outer and back again. Like so many of the qualities of genius described earlier, this trait is often regarded as a liability. Child development texts report that as children grow up they must learn to distinguish fantasy from reality. This is quite correct and highly desirable as far as coping with the demands of the outer world. However, there is also an advantage to being able to move voluntarily between the worlds of fantasy and reality, or between other kinds of worlds-social, imaginal, physical, artistic, intellectual, and more. In such flexible journeys one can find the roots of culture itself. Children seem to have this ability to go on such fantastic voyages-for example, moving from a discussion about a bruise on the head, to thinking about what a bruise on an insect's head might feel like, to wondering whether insects have their own hospitals, to planning an "insect emergency room" as a class project.

Teachers who think in inflexible ways (as in "This learning event must relate to instructional objective x, y, or z") are likely to be stymied by this kind of thinking, and yet it is used in one of the oldest and most revered approaches to learning-the ancient art of storytelling-and also in one of the newest and most cutting-edge ways of processing information-hypertext language in computer software, which seems to branch out from one subject or topic to a multiplicity of ideas. By honoring the flexibility of the child or adolescent mind, educators can help students explore a broader expanse of knowledge than is possible through the more conventional "chunk-by-chunk" style of learning.

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Many people have asked me during my workshops on multiple intelligences whether humor is an intelligence. I don't believe that it qualifies as an intelligence under Gardener's criteria, but I certainly feel there is something quite special about humor that deserves recognition. It seems very compatible with the other qualities of genius; for humor is a trait that, like creativity, breaks out of ruts and routines and causes a crackle of excitement or aliveness to occur in a group of people. Humor lifts us out of the dreadful seriousness of nongenius life, breaks the tension that drudgery all too often fixes upon us, and gives us something new: a funny angle, a new perspective, a broader view of life.

The genius preschooler seems to be always finding things in life to be amused by- In the classroom, a student's sense of humor may often seem to the teacher to be a distraction from the serious business of learning. However, humor should more appropriately be viewed as evidence of a different kind of mind at work. Humor can emerge anywhere around the curriculum: in a funny pun or limerick, a whimsical cartoon or drawing, the ludicrous gait of a character in a Shakespearean comedy, or even in a humorous answer to a math problem ("But Mrs. Jones, 2 plus 2 must equal 5 in some alien's math system!"). Recent research has linked humor to health, and educational research has shown that it promotes teaming on a number of different levels. It's time educators gave humor more than just a fool's place in the curriculum.

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If genius has any core component, it is probably the experience of joy. Ask some of the great minds of our time to explain what motivates them in their work and generally you will not hear them talk about pay checks or even the Nobel Prize (though these certainly have their allure). More often they may speak somewhat mystically of an experience that sounds like joy. Young children may not be as articulate, but if they could speak about what motivates them in their most passionate play experiences they would probably speak of 'o (they speak of it anyway through their sparkling eyes, their bouncing bodies, and their squeals of delight). As Piaget once wrote: "On seeing a baby joyfully watching the movements of his feet, one has the impression of the joy felt by a god in directing from a distance the movement of the stars."

Joy is something mysterious that cooks up from deep inside of us when a new connection has been made, a new insight obtained, a new feat accomplished, or a skill mastered. Such joy can be witnessed in the brilliant grin of a high school student who witnesses the invention that he's been toiling on for the past several weeks finally work for the first time. joy is in the 7th grader who twirls across the stage in the school musical. joy shows itself in the lst grader who jumps up and down after reading his first story. The neurochemistry of the joy of teaming is still unclear-it might have something to do with neuronal connections stimulating a release of neuropeptides into the nervous system. But however it occurs, its importance cannot be underestimated. Without joy, learning is soda pop without the fizzle - flat and tasteless.

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