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Chase the Challenge


I heard a fable once about a boy who caught a bee and kept it in a glass box for quite some time. The air holes in the lid allowed the little bee its necessary oxygen but not its freedom. The bee raged against the box’s glass walls, trying mightily to fly on its way, but, of course, it was unable to escape. After many, many days of flying into the walls, the bee began to give up. It had learned the limits of its new home. It now flew within the box’s contained space and ceased to angrily crash into the walls. Days more later, the boy lost interest in his little hostage and took the box’s lid off so the bee could fly away. But it didn’t. Although now having the option of roving as it was able, the bee unknowingly restricted itself to the same space that had once been its cage.

In the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, Ferdinand the bull chose to take it easy every day, smelling flowers beneath the cork tree instead of wrangling with the other bulls. One day he was stung by a bee and understandably reacted with a big to-do of anger and aggression toward the bee. Those witnessing his reaction assumed him to be the strongest of the bulls. Selected as a result to take on a matador in the bullring, he was woefully ill-prepared for the task. Rather than take on the challenge of the approaching matador waving the big flag, he opted to literally sit it out. Because he had eased through his days smelling flowers, he didn’t know how to do that which he was capable of doing. As one reviewer of the book wrote, “He is praised all around for his power, until the day of his bullfight.”

Our gifted children often experience the same thing! We praise them for their power, but often don’t provide them with a real bullfight. In some cases, they are able to slide through the system (ease through their days smelling flowers) without ever experiencing a real challenge; then, on the day of their bullfight, which may be in high school for some, or in college for others, when they first hit that first hard subject that requires serious study, they are ill-prepared, lacking the study skills and perseverance needed when it comes to facing challenges.

The bee and the bull are both capable of more, yet neither reaches its potential – one due to forced restriction and one due to lack of desire to put forth the effort.

How can we help our gifted children relish a challenge? How can we help them want to put forth the effort when it’s actually needed? How can we help them know that they can b r e a k o u t o f t h e b o x ?

“Appropriate academic accommodations” is the most obvious and most necessary answer, whether those accommodations are achieved via compacting, acceleration, differentiation, telescoping, or other strategies.

But beyond that?

A lot of gifted students get used to getting everything “right” the first or second, sometimes third time that they try it. Many of them, frankly, skate through school. They develop a myth in their own minds that they should always be able to do anything the first or second, sometimes third time that they try it. Yet we as adults know that Life has a different plan for them in that regard. At some point (hopefully sooner rather than later), learning will get more difficult.

When I meet with my GT students, we do HARD work together. And at first this is a big shock to many of them. After they try a problem for the third time and don’t get it, their anxiety levels begin to s k y r o c k e t. Their terror at “not knowing” is palpable.

But we talk about it. I warn them. “This is supposed to be hard. I’m not expecting you to solve these problems lickety-split. It’s okay if you have to try 20 or 30 times before you figure it out. It’s okay if it takes you 20 or 30 minutes of effort to solve just one problem. As a matter of fact, that’s what we’re aiming for here today: hard work and hard thinking. If it’s not challenging for you, then I’m not doing my job right. It’s important to learn how to handle something challenging in Life! This is one place to learn that. Keep after it. You can do it. Stay in the struggle. Relish the challenge!”

And after many, many minutes of attempts, ‘failures,’ and continued attempts, someone ecstatically exclaims: “I did it!!!”

And when they do solve that first hard problem after working so hard at it, we talk about how it feels so much more satisfying to solve a problem you’ve actually had to struggle with than it does to “solve” the problems that are a piece of cake. This is important, because it helps them begin to understand why a hard-earned B in a challenging class is a far more meaningful badge of honor than an easy A in any easy class.

In our modern-day, instant-gratification, fast-food society, kids are growing up with quick access to everything: information, resources, answers, food, and just about anything else their little hearts desire. Fed-Ex can have it there tomorrow. The Internet can show it to them right now. There is less and less anymore that we have to persist after. Which only compounds the myth these gifted little squirts believe about themselves… that they should be able to know it instantly.

I notice some interesting reactions when watching the kids take on these challenges. Some of them, especially at first, don’t have very healthy strategies for dealing with the frustration they feel when they can’t immediately solve a problem. In the beginning, when they still more or less lack the ability to persist on hard problems, they avoid the struggle by turning usually to one of the following:
1- Some will cheat (their eyes slyly glancing to a neighbor’s work, for example)
2- Some will goof off (using their abundant creativity to build castles and monsters with the problem’s manipulatives, or joking around with a neighbor about what they had for lunch)
3- Some will give up (they say “I can’t do this,” or they simply sit quietly and try to wait out the class period, hoping I won’t notice that they’re not actually doing anything)

Extrapolate these reactions ten years into the future. Imagine these gifted youngsters now as college students, experiencing a class that is challenging them like none has ever challenged them before. If they haven’t learned better strategies for coping with challenging work in the intervening years, they will resort to what they know… the coping ‘strategies’ that come easiest: cheating, distracting themselves with something fun (video games, for example), or quitting. Is there a disturbing trend of cheating on our college campuses today? Yes. Do you know any bright kids who turn to a fun distraction the moment what they were doing gets hard? Do any of you know a gifted person who quit college because suddenly school was hard and s/he didn’t know how to deal with the challenge level? Are any of these three options what we want for these kids‽‽ Of course not.

But until we provide them with appropriate academic accommodations and until we help them learn healthy strategies for tackling a challenge, they will continue to resort to the quick and easy escape when faced with a hard problem.

On the other hand, asking for help, being persistent, starting over, taking a break, going at it backwards, trying again, looking at it from another angle… All of these are far better options than cheating, distracting, or quitting!

One very effective (and also very fun) method that I use to help these kids relish a challenge is with the use of the Rush Hour games. Yes, at first glance they look like just some toy for little kids, but I assure you they are far from a simple game for tiny tots! The harder levels will even challenge most adults. Essentially, they consist of a series of puzzles that get incrementally more difficult. The goal in each is to get a certain piece out of the puzzle by figuring out how to move the other pieces out of its way. The original version uses cars (hence the name “Rush Hour Traffic Jam Puzzle”). There’s also a version with safari animals, a version with railroad cars, and a junior version for the very young. You can even play it online.

The stack of numbered puzzle cards (40 or 50 total cards, depending on the version) allows my students to find the right challenge level for themselves. They can move themselves ahead if the puzzles are too easy or they can move themselves back if they think they previously moved themselves ahead too far. It’s fun and it’s HARD and they love it. And I love that it has proven to be such a great way to help them realize that being persistent on hard problems is important … and finally solving those hard problems is far more exhilarating than already knowing the answers.

The following are some comments that I overheard my gifted 3rd and 4th graders saying while working on Rush Hour recently:

“My brain feels like it’s going to explode.”
“I’m getting closer!”
“This thing is a monster!”
“It’s taunting and haunting me…”
“I think I’m about to blow up.”
“It’s like my arch-enemy!”
“Whoa! That took me awhile!”
I also heard the following conversation… One student who is new this year said, “Wow, this is really hard.” Sitting next to her was a student I’ve been working with for a few years. She told the new student: “Don’t tell her it’s hard. She’ll just say something like, ‘Thank you for the compliment.’ You’ll get no sympathy!”

They all worked really hard for our entire time together – and some of them only solved one or two problems. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they were persistently working on hard problems. They weren’t cheating. They weren’t distracting themselves by building towers of cars. They weren’t quitting.

Instead, they were trying again and again and again and again. They were asking for help when they felt like they’d hit a wall. They started over if they felt they’d worked themselves into a corner. They were persistent on something that was exquisitely challenging! And THAT was the success.

So what do they learn and internalize from this activity? Here are direct quotes from the kids:

“If you hear someone else say, ‘I did it,’ it makes you feel like, ‘Okay, I can do it, too.’”
“It helps you know that you can do hard stuff.”
“I realized it took a little while before you could figure out what you were doing.”
“It’s important because it stretches your understanding of persistence and how to handle your frustration and how to think positive thoughts when you’re struggling.”
“It’s important because you have to think a lot and plan alternatives.”
“It’s frustrating and very exercising for your brain. It’s also interesting to think that someone figured out how to make this so hard.” [The person who “figured out how to make it so hard” was Nobuyuki Yoshigahara.]
“It feels like it was worth it!”
“It’s definitely frustrating, but it gets fun.”
“It was interesting and frustrating, but when you solve one you’re happy because you worked hard and didn’t give up.”
“It was hard, frustrating, mean, and intolerant! It wasn’t a happy problem.”
“This is a good problem for the mind because it helps you use your head before you make moves.”
“It was challenging and frustrating and I probably could’ve gotten it if I had worked just a little longer and harder.”
“It stretches your brain. For us, school is not challenging enough. This was good because I feel like I’m learning. It’s good to come in here and do something I have to think about before I can know it.”
“It’s good when it’s hard because we can stretch our learning. And it actually is kinda fun for me when something is challenging.”
“If you only do easy things, you’ll never learn the harder stuff.”
“There might be a challenge up ahead [in the future] that you NEED to do for some reason, so you need to get harder stuff so that you can practice for that day, for that finale.”

I also asked them two questions on their way out the door that day: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how persistent were you today?” Most replied with answers of 9 or 10, a couple with answers of 8. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how frustrated did you get today?” Nearly all of them answered with 10 (or higher, like “ten and seven-fourths”). I replied, “Wonderful!” After the kids left, the other teacher in the room (I use her classroom at that school) said to me, “When you asked that first boy how frustrated he was and he said ‘10’ and you said ‘wonderful’ – I was a bit taken aback at first. I thought, ‘How could that be wonderful?’ But then I thought about it and realized that for these kids it is a good thing because it means they’re actually doing something that’s challenging them.”

Exactly :o)

For anyone interested, you can purchase the various Rush Hour games from Zanca, MindWare, and ThinkFun.

And some related food for thought:

“In the ordinary elementary school situation, children of 140 IQ waste half of their time. Those above 170 IQ waste nearly all of their time. With little to do, how can these children develop power of sustained effort, respect for the task, or habits of steady work?” ~ Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development, Leta S. Hollingworth, p. 299 ~

“The surest path to positive self-esteem is to succeed at something which one perceived would be difficult. Each time we steal a student's struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence. They must learn to do hard things to feel good about themselves.” ~ Sylvia Rimm ~

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but by perseverance.” ~ H. Jackson Brown ~

[A final FYI: The Ferdinand paragraph of today’s post originally appeared in my book, “Intelligent Life in the Classroom.”]


Yes -- and we should keep in mind that the IQ numbers Leta Hollingworth used aren't the same as modern ones, either. There isn't any neat way to compare ratio scores (which vary with age) to deviation scores, but by and large the modern numbers would be noticeably lower. She's not talking here about kids who are vanishingly rare.

Thank you for summing up my childhood. School was so frighteningly easy that we would do stupid things like race each other through work sheets (30 seconds! yes!!) or write the spelling words backwards and forwards on the test, then flip the paper over and write the mirror image. It drove the teachers crazy... and we learned none of the persistence strategies that you describe above. My daughter is currently in kindergarten (grade-skipped to enter a year early) and she is already bored. She told me, "Mom, I like school, but I don't learn anything." She's reading at 4th grade level or beyond and wanting 2nd-3rd grade math at just barely five. I think next year we will keep her home because the schools in our area just can't keep up with her. At least at home we can model the value of persistence and give her the hard challenges that she so enjoys. It's frustrating to feel like the school system is so ill-equipped to meet the needs of our gifted kids, much to their detriment in their adult years.

Charlotte, I have a DD very similar to yours and I am homeschooling her. Email me if you are interested in exchanging ideas.

Tamara, thank you for your insights - they'll help me to challenge my DD.

This is great and so true! I wrote about a related incident with my son(http://blogs.parentcenter.babycenter.com/momformation/2007/12/30/urgh-he-did-it-again/)and am going to follow up next month citing this piece.

Tamara, you're right as usual. But it bothers me that the other teacher was distressed that a student was frustrated, then realized "for these kids" it was good. Shouldn't all students be allowed to feel challenge, frustration and subsequent victory?

Great point, Lessa. Absolutely - *all* kids should be allowed to feel challenge, frustration, and subsequent victory! I think she said it, though, from the point of view that "these kids" don't often experience that level of challenge in school whereas most other kids do (to varying degrees, for sure, but nonetheless...) I mentioned this topic the other day to the lady who used to have my job many years ago. (She is retired and volunteers in our schools now). She told of an incident with one of her gifted students here (this was about 20 or 25 years ago) who not only was skating through school but also did a lot of the activities in her gifted class rather easily, too. But then one day in 4th grade she finally hit that hard problem that stumped her. After struggling with it for the whole class period, she asked (with obvious frustration and exasperation), "So is *this* what it feels like to not know how to do something?" And then she also realized: "Wow, there are kids in my class who must feel like this all the time..." Neither thought had occurred to her before... not until she, too, felt that frustration of not knowing.

My daughter has been playing the online Rush Hour games all morning--and happily working her way through to solutions--thank you!

The article was great!I have now
realized that cheating,fooling around,
pulling out your game system and quitting is a really bad thing to
do when something gets extremely hard.

Wow, this was my childhood also. "a hard-earned B in a challenging class is a far more meaningful badge of honor than an easy A in any easy class". I only found this out in college when I took a calculus class without the appropriate prerequisites (an atypical form of grade skipping, perhaps?). My life-long reaction to the boredom was escapism - the form of the escape changed over the years, usually for the worse. This calculus class came at a time when I needed a new escape, so I plunged into my schoolwork. What a difference that has made in my life.

I completely agree with both Helen and Lessa. Tamara, will you please come and teach at my kids' school?????

I just came across this article from the December 2007 Scientific American. How to Raise Smart Children

I found that the word EFFORT was the key word for success.

I try not to tell my students that they are smart, BUT that they are good thinkers, good problem solvers, good question askers. I would personally deal with those persistent question askers as they solve a problem because I might learn something, too!

My favorite classroom poster of all time has a kitten sitting in a boot. The saying on that poster is: IF I learn from my mistakes I ought to be a genius! I also remind the children as they are struggling that they are NOW on their way to becoming a genius and I can say that I knew them when they were young. I have students who as adults are amazing me with their accomplishments.

Thank you for the article. It is most enlightening since I am noticing some behaviors from my DS (7yo) that may be a result of little to no challenge at school. For one, he does as little as possible to get by in school. He is reading and doing math at least two grades above so the teacher is not concerned about his learning. He also gets frustrated when we (parents) challenge him with work that is harder than presented at school. I am definitely going to introduce him to the Rush Hour games that were mentioned in the article.

As an educator in CA, I am often frustrated with the lack of resource and funding for gifted students. It seems that most of my district's budget support ESL students. Many remedial programs have been put into motion in order to raise test scores. However, the gifted students who would benefit tremendously from challenging, culturally and artistically inspired curriculum receive nothing.

Wow. The Rush Hour game may help us. My 4th grade boy is twice exceptional having a wonderful math talent while coping with adhd. Before this year, he was never challenged in math as 1 year ahead was the most our school would allow him to be...and he figured out multiplication when he started K! this year he could go into the gt program and do sixth grade math. But, he doesn't know how to work through challenges (adhd doesn't help). The class work is going great but they do math olympiad test which would be really good for him to exercise his mind...if he knew how. He is also skating through the rest of the content areas (as long as he isn't asked to write).

On another note my K girl who wasn't a preschool reader has suddenly decided reading is for her and has nearly finished the 1st grade levels. Only I've found out that the school district 'won't allow' the teacher to present the next level (I in the F-P scale) books to the K class! They only allow the kids to work one year ahead. She's learning to read like I did...not especially early but fast and well. I was bored all through elementary school and now I see that in the cards for her.

My kids don't seem to be suffering the boredom well...my K girl will ask for harder material and my 4th grade wrote an essay on how the teachers were plotting to make the kids so bored they exploded so the teachers could eat their brains. (no offense to any teachers who are working hard to help our kids)

The Rush hour games are fun, but not really very challenging (at least not for my 6th grader). Making up your own puzzles for the Rush Hour set (with the constraint that there be a solution, but only one) is a somewhat harder challenge with the same pieces. The new "Escape with the Gold: Treasure Quest" puzzle is a somewhat harder variant that my son bought for himself.

Hello everyone! My name is Tanya Thompson and I am the Director of Education Programs for ThinkFun, Inc. (the maker of these games you are referencing like Rush Hour, Treasure Quest, etc...)
A teacher friend of mine alerted me to this blog post. I must say I am very excited to read this discussion.
We just launched ThinkFun Game Club in October 2007 at the regional NCTM conferences. The response from educators have been as passionate as Tamara first blogged. As a teacher myself before I came to work for ThinkFun last summer, I too understand the power these games hold in the classroom. Our ThinkFun curriculum is based around Problem Solving through Play! It is revolutionary and should be a part of every classroom in America.

Please check out our website www.thinkfungameclub.com. I would also love to hear personally from Tamara and any others who would like to develop a relationship directly with ThinkFun. Please reference this blog when you email me. We are very interested in working with even more teachers in the field to make our program be the best it can be!

We can change the world!
Tanya Thompson
[email protected]

Thanks Tamara, for the great post. I, too, was one of these kids who eventually got a college English teacher who turned a paper back to me with the comment "great ideas but you must learn to write more clearly." I was devastated since I'd been coasting through school with A's for 12 years!

One related issue I've dealt with since I've been working with teachers of the gifted who use the Great Books programs is that since some students find it easy to read the words and get the basic facts of a complex text, they think they have fully understood it. We strive in our Shared Inquiry discussions to get all students to think deeply and critically about the idea in great literature, not just to read the words and get the facts. Some gifted students can be initially resistant to re-reading texts and discussing them because they are so sure they've already got it and don't need to hear what others think (we emphasize discussing questions with more than one answer).

Surprisingly to me, some parents and teachers of gifted students also sometimes forget that simply having students read a "harder" book is not always what they need (especially since some at their reading level are not age-appropriate in terms of themes, language, etc.). Taking a really rich text and accepting the challenge of thinking deeply about how it is written and why, and about the bigger "real life" issues it addresses helps students in similar ways to what you're describing in your post because it helps them see there's more to reading than just filling in bubbles on a test sheet. Keep up the good work and the great posts!

Our girls are young, but I already see the need to work with the schools to keep them challenged. I feel like the schools are so busy trying to bring up the bottom of the class that our girls get overlooked. Yes, they can do the work. Now what are you going to do to challenge them? It's a question I think I'll ask a lot in the coming years.

Actually, I believe because the test that Hollingworth refers to is older and therefore considered outdated and largely thought to produce inflated IQ scores for modern day students, so although many would appear to have higher IQs today the equivalent IQs scores would actually be lower.

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