CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 14 . . . . December 5, 2014
An understanding universal to all parents or caregivers is this: raising children requires multiple forms of information be it from grandparents, other family members, community elders, media and/or institutions. For instance, when my first child turned two, I rushed to the public library for books about raising toddlers. I needed help, and, since my mother, aunts and uncles were thousands of kilometers away, I turned to a familiar and trusted institution.
No parent, no family, no teacher has all the answers to questions about raising children, and more often than not, support is needed. Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster recognize this and have produced a book loaded with information that comes in the form of anecdotes, quizzes, checklists, lists of secrets and much more. Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids is a publication for those who turn to books for guidance and illumination to help them raise their children. It is particularly relevant for parents caught up in the web of the information society. One of those webs is the one related to intelligence—a construct that is unpacked and well-elucidated throughout the book. It is geared toward parents/caregivers with gifted children and/or who dream of producing them and seek an “edge”, an advantage for doing so.
For those who are appreciative of a go-to manual for developing “happily productive kids”, this 289-page book contains valuable insights. Nonetheless, I am perplexed by the title. What does “Beyond Intelligence” signify? One guess would be that the title of the book invites parents to look beyond intelligence in order to raise “happily productive kids.” If that is the case, then the book begins with the unproven assumption, even false premise, that parents are pre-occupied with the “intelligence” of their children. Such a preoccupation has not been part of my experience or observations about parents. They are usually interested in raising well-rounded individuals and citizens based on culture(s) and context(s).
Beyond Intelligence appears to be based on the assumption that children can be successfully raised outside of considerations of race, culture, ethnicity, etc., which, in the real world, informs the schooling experience of thousands of children in North America. Also, the subtitle of the book foregrounds the notion of knowledge as commodity, suggesting that the secrets that were/are being kept from us will now be revealed through the offerings of Matthews and Foster. However, one has to buy or borrow the book to have access to these “secrets”. By highlighting the notion that it is offering up “secrets” for raising “happily productive kids”, the authors set high expectations of the book that readers will want to adjudicate as they journey through the 10 chapters of this handbook on parenting.
The introduction is written in a lively manner and provides a useful overview of the rationale and premise of the book, but not brief summaries of each chapter. By way of the introduction, the authors appeal to parents’ concern for their offspring, fears about “profound and rapid” technological changes, preparing children for earning a living when they grow up and giving parents the information edge on child rearing in “straightforward, cost-effective and life-affirming ways.”
Chapter One is a phenotype for most of the other chapters in the book in that it includes a quiz, anecdotes about real children (using pseudonyms) whose purpose is to concretize and illuminate points the authors wish to make, selected quotations, and a list the promised “secrets” that readers need to know. The goal of the chapter is establish a working definition of what is meant by intelligence and, to do so, the authors ask readers to take a quiz in order to clear up misconceptions about the meaning of the concept. The problematization of the concept of intelligence is of value and so is the authors’ definition. According to Matthews and Foster, “intelligence is the ability to understand complex ideas, adapt effectively to the environment, overcome obstacles, engage meaningfully in various forms of reasoning, and learn from experience. It develops incrementally and varies across time, situations, and domains” (pp. 24-25). Such a “dynamic” definition of intelligence appears contrary to the fixed notions of intelligence inherited from cognitive science and behavioural psychology and is welcomed.
Matthews and Foster construct intelligence as a “process rather than an innate essence that some people have more of than others.” For them, “intelligence is more about doing than being” (p. 25). In the “Secrets” section of the chapter, readers will find a list of noteworthy suggestions that parents/caregivers can implement to spur children’s positive development.
Punctuated with seven quotations from white men ranging from Socrates, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin, and E. M. Forester to American psychotherapist Rollo May, the focus of the second chapter is intelligence and creativity, with the latter concept being the one spotlighted. The discussion of creativity has merit, and, similar to intelligence, it is presented as a fluid concept; something that can be learned, developed and enhanced through social interaction and practice over time. Matthews and Foster embrace University of Toronto scholar Daniel Keating’s perspective on creativity—a concept that brings “together domain-specific knowledge, divergent thinking, critical thinking and effective communication” (p. 30).
This “four-point” conceptualization of creativity is broad and nuanced, and, to the authors’ credit, each aspect is explored in a reader-friendly way. Furthermore, readers are likely to feel empowered and experience a sense of agency after reading chapter two because of (1) the reminder that creativity is learnable and teachable (2) that it develops “step by step over time” and (3) the inclusion of “ten creative thinking habits” and (4) the list of “secrets” that link creativity and intelligence and suggestions for nurturing them.
The information provided in Chapter Three is worthwhile. Spread over 35 pages, it provides suggestions and tips for each stage of child development from “diapers to diplomas”—infancy to adolescence. Given the detailed content of the chapter, the authors encourage readers to “sample”, that is to say, pick and choose what is meaningful to explore about parenting children at various stages along the developmental continuum. Some of the topics covered are ideas for “building a better brain” in the early years accompanied by a checklist of “brain building experiences.” While beneficial, many of the suggestions (e.g., interactive science and natural history museums, musical performances, impromptu family sing-alongs, side-walk buskers, karaoke, opera, symphony orchestras, open-air concerts) appear to be geared at urban, middle and upper class parents and teachers in such contexts. This is true of the book as whole, but, to be fair, the list does contain ideas such as “walks in nature, sports activities: watching and participating, and exploring farms, ponds, orchards and beaches.”
Some of the advantages of dipping into this chapter again and again is the emphasis placed on parent agency and the discussion of mentoring and mentorship as well as the “secrets lists” which encourage parents to respond to their baby’s “sounds and actions with smiles, affectionate body language and echoing gurgles…” Two of the secrets that I particularly enjoyed are: “Ensure your child has ample time for unstructured playtime, both independently and with others and be “enthusiastic and positive [,] encourage playfulness in your child” (p. 85). Overall, Chapter Three offers plenty of fruitful ideas informed by research in psychology and other disciplines.
A valuable attribute of any handbook for parents is one that offers meaningful critical perspectives, and this is the strength of Chapter Four. Entitled, “A Parents’ Guide to Tests and Assessments”, the chapter is advantageous to savvy parents. In a period of high stakes testing and top-down accountability regimes, Matthews and Foster explain the difference between tests and assessment: "tests yield scores, whereas assessments yield findings and recommendations” (p. 88). Aspiring to make parents “test-wise,” the writers identify four important principles that parents should keep in mind when it comes to tests and assessments. I bring forward the first one because of its utility to parents, and it goes as follows: “tests of intelligence and ability are far more limited than human potential” (p. 88). Every parent/caregiver, teacher, and educational policy maker needs to know and heed this principle because of the long history of anxiety and suffering that educational tests and assessments have caused. Matthews and Foster score high points for addressing the “hidden costs of labelling children” and for providing a checklist outlining the drawbacks of the gifted label and some of its associated benefits (p. 100). Such information is worthwhile for assisting parents with decision-making around testing and labeling.
Though replete with quotes from an all white cast of experts and achievers, the instrumentality of Chapter Four to parents cannot be denied. Its strengths come from the authors’ criticality of how tests and assessments have been used, and its hard-nosed belief in the capacity of human potential and developmental possibilities to trump tests and assessments and privileging movement away from a “mystery model” to a “mastery model” that is not only applicable to gifted children but all children. Matthews and Foster explain that “the mystery model is a belief in the innate, permanent, and mysteriously superior intellectual qualities of some select children—a belief that’s not consistent with current knowledge about the brain and its development.” Alternatively, the more hopeful “mastery model” is “based on observations about the way abilities develop over time, with appropriate learning opportunities” (p. 99).
Since the emergence of public schools, considerable attention has been given to the roles of parents at school. Matthews and Foster engage this subject in the fifth chapter. The information found in this chapter is not uncommon in other books on the subject. Through story-telling anecdotes, two checklists: An “A” List of What Matters Most in a Child’s Educational Experience and one on “Advocacy Strategies for Parents,” inclusion of a “Home and School Quiz” and a list of “secrets” about parents’ roles at school, mainstream readers are substantially informed about the roles and responsibilities of parents at school. The authors underline the important role of parents and stress the importance of collaboration with teachers regarding “intelligence building and high academic achievement” (p. 108). In addition, parents are reminded to encourage self-discipline in their children, to “identify and challenge their assumptions about intelligence and learning” and to “start with the classroom teacher” (as opposed to outside consultants) at the “early stages of educational problem-solving.” All together, the advice found in Chapter Five will be welcomed by many parents.
The next chapter appears to shift the spotlight from parents’ roles to “teachers’ roles, responsibilities and requirements” (p. 129). In Chapter Six, Matthews and Foster explicate the role of teachers to assumed parent-readers, speak on behalf of teachers, and appear to be directly addressing teachers as well. The shifting perspective may be puzzling or confusing for some readers.
The authors write from an insider’s perspective (they work with pre-service and in-service teachers) and are authoritative. For instance, they identify a list of five essential requirement for teachers and indicate that the “first essential for teachers is an appreciation of children’s remarkable difference from each other” (p. 130). Another example of their authoritative stance is the incorporation of six suggested checklists aimed specifically at teachers. Also included is a quiz that, however, is addressed directly to parents (e.g., Quiz: Your Child’s School). Though there are readers of this monograph who are likely to be teachers as well as parents, the authors shifting stance—speaking to parents and speaking to teachers is noteworthy.
There is valuable information in Chapter Six. However, the number of checklists, the quiz, and the “secrets” may prove overwhelming for some readers. Item 10 of the quiz on “Your Child’s School” is worthy of comment. This item relates to “School milieu” and asks: “Are students excited about learning? Is the school safe, inviting, spirited, and encouraging of diversity? (Y/N). The diversity the authors are referring to is not clear. Is it strictly development diversity that is being considered, or does it include cultural, linguistic, racial, social class and diversity related to gender identity? These are topics on which the authors have remained silent throughout the book.
Chapter Seven contributes to this handbook/manual for parents by detailing information about “decision-making about schooling.” Readers are provided with the by now familiar checklists, quiz and a list of “secrets to aid their decision-making. Special to this chapter is explication of three types of evidence (e.g., anecdotal, theoretical, and empirical) that parents can use in the service of their decision-making and inclusion of community-based learning options (e.g., cultural institutions such as museums, zoos, historical centres and archives).
In Chapter Eight, readers find a more overt discussion of the “high ability” learner and the social and emotional well-being of children “who are ahead of their peers” (p. 174). While the authors have been careful not to be too pronounced in their focus on gifted learners, there can be no doubt that this is a discourse that is stitched into the fabric of every chapter of the book, and it is one about which Matthews and Foster are knowledgeable. The emotional well-being of all learners is important, and the explicit discussion of emotional challenges associated with “being different” adds to the educational capital of the book. Some of topics covered are: emotional intelligence, developing resilience, boredom, fear of failure and fear of success, perfectionism, laziness, procrastination, and self-confidence. A frequent reminder from the authors in this chapter is for parents to “seek professional help” when it is needed. As is evident elsewhere, the discussion found in Chapter Eight is thorough.
The social context of schooling is featured in Chapter Nine where “friends and others” are focalized. Social well-being and relationality are indeed important and motivate coverage of explorations of why friendship matter, how parents can help, bullying, cyberbullying, social contexts, and siblings. The preceding are buttressed by three checklists and 10 “secrets” about the social context of schools for children who are “intellectually advanced” or different. Parents will not leave empty handed or headed after reading this chapter; it is packed with good suggestions.
Such suggestions are carried right through to Chapter Ten—the final one and where the authors land quite nicely by framing the discussion around “Raising Children to Thrive.” The chapter opens with an appeal to “reflectivity … or mindfulness” and proposes that such practices can help people to “apply their intelligence thoughtfully” (p. 233). This chapter points toward the moral education of children but wobbles while trying to address ethics, character education and intelligence together without providing sufficient contextualization and or bridging of the concepts.
The authors overstretched by attempting to address the question of what parents should do if their children are not intelligent in the midst of a section about ethics. Though it is useful for parents to be advised that “intelligence is something that children build for themselves with support from their parents and others” (p. 237) and that they are offered advice about how to encourage and nurture and well-being in their children, the information seemed out of place and should have been placed elsewhere. However, aside from the preceding points of detraction, the final chapter is true to form and includes a quiz (though lengthy) and the final “secrets for raising happily productive kids.”
Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, is an ambitious book that has much to offer. Although the authors overreach with the inclusion of multiple quizzes, checklists, and lists of secrets, it offers much for parents/caregivers, teachers and others to consider and learn. The book succeeds in broadcasting the understanding that intelligence is built, not fixed or innate, and, in addition, accentuates the view that “parents can create environments that support the likelihood of talent developing” (p. 237). I suspect that “talent development” is what the authors mean when they talk about “happily productive kids” because the concept was not clearly defined or explored in the book. What is a “happily productive” Pre-K, Kindergarten, or Grade One student? About this, I am not clear and truly wanted such clarity. Nonetheless, the major discourse that is woven throughout the book is that of “intelligence building and academic achievement” and how to inspire and make that happen. It is heartening that a book such as this one is in the publication chain because of its potential usefulness to many parents. The value of the book would be even greater if an index had been included.
Anchored in the logics of positivist, technical-rationalist thinking, and the perspective that we have the power and control to produce the kids we want, Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids is primarily aimed at white (Euro-centric), mainstream parents. The photograph on the cover is that of a very happy white child. The cover of the book shows no hint of the racial pluralism/diversity that has marked North American societies for centuries and schools for decades. The image on the cover suggests that the book is aimed at the parents of white children, and, if this is not the case, the photograph on the cover makes it difficult to come to another conclusion. Thus, from the very beginning, the front cover of the book sends subtle messages. These messages exclude and narrow the pool of potential readers of the book. Additionally, differences based on race, social class, culture, ethnicity or inter-cultural, cross-cultural relations are not prominently featured in the book, and, because of such exclusion, the publication shrouds itself in unconvincing neutrality.
My final critique of the book relates to the statement that Charter schools “… tend to be free of many of the burdens imposed by public system regulations and union rules, allowing for more teacher initiative and educational innovation” (p. 161). This neoliberal stance from authors who have likely benefitted from gains garnered by unions, flies in the face of the abundant teacher zest, verve, inventiveness, creativity, passion and productivity that exist and will always exist in unionized workplaces where teachers have a greater chance of being respected and included in decisions aimed at continuous school improvement on behalf of all learners.
Teacher and faculty unions have encouraged my strong commitment to broadening and deepening the potential of every child, and every learner, and to value the contributions others make toward such goals. Therefore, I acknowledge the considerable labour and investment the authors have expended in producing a work that speaks to building and encouraging the limitless potential of the children on whose behalf they write.
Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.