Games & Giftedness

By Anne Hayden Stevens, CTD Creative Studies Coordinator

A recent Chicago Tribune article on Minecraft discusses leveraging the game to help students think both creatively and critically while engaging them on their terms. We have been integrating games into our curriculum for many years here at CTD. We realize that our students truly thrive in challenging, student-centered interactions with their gifted peers. What happens to these relationships as networked strategy games move online?


Game play is used in many industries and science fields to train workers and to explore theoretical models. Game designer Jane McGonigal believes that we can heal ourselves or solve world problems with games. She designed a game to move out of a concussion-induced depression. She determined that doing small missions each day to build different forms of resilience (mental, physical, social, and emotional) could help her heal. Her game, Super Better, is currently being used as a healing tool by thousands of users.

Due to the popularity of Center for Talent Development’s recently piloted Design Studio: Minecraft Edu course in our Saturday Enrichment Program, we are running it over the summer as well as in a special two-day accelerated course this June 14-15. Families and students love the course because it offers history, science and strategy, as well as game play. Students at all expertise levels collaborate, share interests & knowledge, and build new skills together. Students tackle challenges that build mental and social resilience: designing castles, building houses together, and learning how to build with redstone. Students also demonstrate emotional resilience, facing server failure and damage to their projects by other students.

Our student population is accustomed to hitting the academic ceiling in school. Minecraft has no ceiling: the game cannot be won or completed. This is both liberating and engaging. Observers in our MinecraftEdu classroom noted ‘flow’ in the student’s engagement with the server world and each other. This is supported by gaming research, which states that game worlds can be powerfully motivating for students.

Minecraft (and a host of other creative building games) challenge the dusty notion that games are counterproductive in our daily lives and learning. Minecrafters challenge themselves with sustainability, crafting and sharing recipes, and building complex traps and systems. Advanced Minecrafters build new servers for their in game, in room peers, cultivating skills in Java and backend programming.

Our CTD Minecraft instructor noted,

MinecraftEdu encourages and allows for collaboration on a level not seen in other games popular with elementary students. For instance, there is no collaborative aspect to Angry Birds or Temple Run, but elementary students will play those games for long periods of time. While playing Minecraft, students are being asked to think spatially, strategically, and use multiple bases of knowledge (as opposed to practicing over and over to figure out exactly when to press ‘jump’).

This teacher observation points to the transfer capacity of skills gained in Minecraft. Gaming is compelling in part because we explore social structures in games. Networked gaming, whether supporting citizen science, or harboring international crime, is our future. Current global projects indicate that we will crowd source solutions to world problems through games. We are preparing our Center for Talent Development students to cultivate the resilience and technical skills they need to help shape the future.

CTD’s Accelerated Weekend Experience is offering a two-day Minecraft course on June 14-15 for grades 4 through 9. Look out for more Minecraft courses through CTD’s Fall 2014 Saturday Enrichment Program, Gifted LearningLinks, and Summer Program.

Six Steps Toward Better Parenting of Gifted Children

By Audra Nelson, Parent

Audra with her kids

Author Audra Nelson and family

As a parent of three bright, high-energy kids, I spend most of my days feeling tired. Grateful and happy, but tired. There are simply not enough hours in the day. For this reason, I have a love/hate relationship with parenting advice. The advice often sounds great, but just thinking about how to implement it can wear me out.

The Center for Talent Development’s recent Opportunities for the Future Conference was chock-full of fantastic parenting advice. Strangely, though, I left feeling energized. Maybe because it’s summer, and the days truly are longer. Or maybe because the advice seemed too important NOT to implement. Either way, I’m excited to act on the following six ideas shared by keynote speakers Drs. Del Siegle and D. Betsy McCoach.

1. Talk about how talent develops. Don’t let giftedness be the elephant in the room with your kids. Too often, gifted students believe every challenging task is a test of their giftedness, and they live in fear that people will find out they aren’t as smart as everyone thinks they are. Remind children that they have a role to play. It’s not about being gifted; it’s about using your gifts and developing your talent, achieving and learning more each day.

2. Teach kids that mistakes make us smarter. Too often, children buy into the belief that smart kids do well without working hard. We need kids to realize that working hard makes you smart! As you stretch yourself and overcome challenges, you create new pathways in your brain. Every mistake leads you closer to success. As parents, we can help kids build their brains by providing them with enrichment opportunities such as those offered by CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program or Gifted LearningLinks.

3. Avoid -EST words. As adults, we know it’s rarely, if ever, true that we are the best, brightest, fastest or any other -est. At some point, our kids will learn this lesson, too. If they grow up thinking they are the -EST, the reality will come as a shocker. As parents, we can help build kids’ confidence and give them a realistic view of the world by avoiding “-est” words and exposing them to other kids of equal or greater ability. The earlier that students “swim in a bigger pool of talent,” the easier it is for them to develop a mindset centered on learning and growth rather than a performance mindset in which ability is a fixed entity.

4. Give specific, developmental compliments. John Hattie did a meta-analysis of the education research to find out what makes the most impact on a child’s education, and this was it: individual feedback. The next time my daughter asks if I like her drawing, I’m going to stop and really look at it. And instead of saying, “That’s the best portrait you’ve ever drawn,” I will take note of something specific. Maybe I will say, “I really like the realistic colors you’ve chosen,” or “You spent a long time working on that. You must be learning to pay attention to detail.” I will make the time to respond to her in a way that will influence her learning, not just allow me to get back to my agenda.


All family members find topics of interest at the Opportunities for the Future Conference.

5. Document and recognize growth. Showing kids how much they’ve learned year to year gives them a visual of growth and an understanding that growth is not fixed, but malleable. When my son moans and groans about handwriting practice, I can encourage him by showing him the improvement he made from preschool to kindergarten.

6. Advocate, advocate, advocate for gifted education. Research suggests that in a typical 180-day public school year, gifted kids spend nearly 75 days on unnecessary repetition, approximately 80 days on content previously mastered and only 25 days on new material. The research on gifted students’ growth over the course of a year is equally dismal. Gifted kids seem to be learning more during the summer, away from school, than they are learning during the academic year in school. In a system that evaluates teachers on achievement, rather than individual growth, teachers have every incentive to pull up low-achievers and, sadly, to let high achievers be. Gifted education needs parent advocates. Let’s get started today!    

If you attended the conference this past weekend, what were your takeaways? If you didn’t, what do you think of the ideas above?

CTD sponsors the Opportunities for the Future conference every year. The event offers a wide variety of sessions and workshops for gifted students and their parents.

Food for Thought: What’s Important About Education?

Entry for the 2011 Summer Program T-shirt Contest

A recent article quoted a six year old’s reflections on his experience in a mixed ability classroom:

“They feed me peanuts all day. I like peanuts and I get full, but what I really want is one big juicy hamburger.”

The article discusses the need for differentiation in mixed-ability classrooms. “Despite research suggesting that gifted children perform better academically when instructed together with similar ability peers, support for these programs is at an all-time low,” the article warns. How can parents and educators ensure that gifted students aren’t left with peanuts? Options recommended in the article, appropriately titled New options emerge to enrich gifted students’ education, include computer-based supplemental activities, professional development opportunities for teachers, and additional challenges provided by parents to help serve gifted students.

But what is the essence of that big juicy hamburger? What elements of education are the most important to foster within today’s youth?

This month, ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) presented their reflections on this topic in a newsletter article titled “What Is The Purpose of Education?” In it, they addressed how education is an evolutionary phenomenon in that throughout time, education has shifted based on societal needs and changes. Yet leaders in education agree that the value of good teaching and the essence of education haven’t changed. James Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, gets to the meat of the matter: “The most significant skill [young people] can develop in the 21st century is the same skill that served them well in prior centuries: a mind equipped to think, the most important work skill of them all.”

Share your methods for motivating and challenging your gifted student(s)!

Looking for supplemental opportunities for fall? Registration for fall courses with CTD’s Gifted LearningLinks and Saturday Enrichment Program is now open.

Your Move: Chess as Curriculum?

 New York Times: Maybe Teach Them Math, Science, and Chess

This report by the Chicago News Cooperative for the New York Times shows that the enjoyment of chess is not limited to boys-only clubs in high school, but that it can be a valuable learning tool, particularly for young students. Exposure to the game at a young age can help students develop “discipline, analytical thinking, time management, focus, and patience”. These are crucial habits for gifted learners with cognitive ability that may arrive ahead of their ability to sit still for long periods of time.

There are other benefits as well. Gifted girls who may shun the game in middle school can instead foster a lifelong love of chess with the influence of female mentors like grandmaster Susan Polgar, who took up chess at age 4.

“My dream is to get in front of education decision makers and convince them to make chess part of the curriculum for K through second grade. That’s when thinking patterns and habits are formed. It should be mandatory, like physical education,” says Polgar.

Do you think chess should be mandatory in schools? Has your child benefited from learning chess?

If your gifted 5th or 6th grader has an interest in chess, logic, and game theory, consider enrolling in the Saturday Enrichment Program (SEP) course, “Recreational Math”, which will incorporate strategies and mathematics of two-player games of perfect knowledge such as chess, go, nim, and mancala. Students will explore, develop and employ strategies and higher level reasoning skills as they evaluate their alternatives and discover cause and effect relationships. The course begins January 14, 2011.  Sign up here!

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

by Amy Gyarmathy

As a mother of a 14 year old, I often hear (accompanied by a foot stomp), “I can’t wait until I get to run my own life”.  The irony, of course, is that we spend much of our youth wishing adults would stop telling us what to do. Then, once adulthood sets in, with all of its choices and lack of guarantees, many of us find ourselves beseeching others: “Just tell me what to do!”

Ultimately, even if your child goes on to earn a doctorate, s/he will spend more time out of the classroom than in.  And they will spend far more time out in the real world than as your snuggle bunny.  They will face choices both big and small.  Life requires critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills are the cognitive abilities to identify, analyze and evaluate information, as well the ability to recognize personal biases.  They are also the capacity to develop (and present) reasons in support of one’s stance, and to make intelligent decisions regarding what to believe.

In the classroom, critical thinking skills help students not only understand the material, but evaluate what they are learning and incorporate the knowledge on a personal level.

So, critical thinking is important in both school and life, but how do teachers teach students to think critically?  By asking the right kinds of questions at every skill level.

To better understand questioning strategies, it helps to be familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a classification of educational objectives.  For the purpose of exploring critical thinking skills, we are focusing on the skills in the cognitive domain.

In Bloom’s original taxonomy there are six levels, beginning with the most simple skills and moving to the highest, most complex skills (Bloom et al., 1956), .

Knowledge is the most basic skill of remembering specific information—things like math facts, dates and vocabulary.   Questions at this level require basic regurgitation of information: What is 2 x 4?  When was Plato’s The Republic written?

Comprehension is demonstrated by a student’s ability to organize, compare and to state main ideas.   Questions at this level require the ability to understand meaning: What is the difference between apples and oranges?  

Application is the demonstration of being able to actually use the new knowledge.  Questions at this level often require taking what they’ve just learned and applying it in a different way:  Looking at this list of foods, choose four to make a healthy lunch. 

Analysis breaks down information into parts and examines it.  Questions at this level often require “evidence” to support the answer:  Compare and contrast the Sioux to the Iroquois and explain which nation preserved its way of life longer.   

Synthesis is the process of taking the new information and compiling it in new ways—this is where more abstract, thinking-outside-the-box skills come into play.  Questions require creation and design:  Create a robot that will not run off a table.  

Evaluation is the ability to present and defend opinions by making judgments about information.  Questions often do not have a right answer:  How would you handle a friend being ridiculed on the playground?   

It is the last three levels—analysis, synthesis and evaluation—that require critical thinking skills.  The first three are important in solidifying the core knowledge necessary:  you need the vocabulary to speak intelligently about a subject, you need your math facts to be able to solve word problems.  Too often, however, too much time is spent at these levels.

Part of this is due to the emphasis on basic skills testing.  The lower level questions have definitive answers—they are right or wrong, and therefore easier to assess.  The higher level questions are far more subjective and harder to quantify.  They often make children—even academically gifted children—uncomfortable, as they have been programed to believe that there is only one “right” answer.  I have seen students struggle with questions at this level: “Just tell me the answer”, they will whine, and sigh when told that there IS no right answer.

But it is with these higher-level questions where a child’s critical thinking skills are developed.

It is also at this higher level you can really see children’s brains shift into high gear.  For gifted kids, once they get past needing to be “right” or having the “best” answer in the class, this is where they are able to demonstrate their exceptional thinking skills.   They come up with wild-but supported-theories and solutions.   They often demonstrate an amazing ability to solve-and pose-problems with an insight never seen before.   And as kids have exposure to these kinds of thinking, it becomes a tool they can use for the rest of their lives.

Which is where critical thinking skills really pay off.   My daughter’s new ability to get all over the city via public transportation required her learning the basics—the bus and train schedules, where the stops are—and then required her to apply her knowledge.  But it is in the reflection (Was she late?  Was there a better route?) that her critical thinking skills kick in and lead to better choices next time.

Center for Talent Development programs incorporate critical thinking into all of our  course curricula.  Whether your child enrolls in the Saturday Enrichment Program (new fall session starts October 1) or any of our other out-of-school learning opportunities, they will expand their knowledge base while gaining important skills on how to apply that knowledge effectively.

Amy Gyarmathy is a program coordinator for CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program and the parent of a gifted teenager.

References and Resources:

Bloom, B., Englehart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: McCay.

Venture into the Visual

Creative Studies students study their interpretations of the same photograph of a tree. This experiment is done while we study the pixel grid, the foundation of all digital photographs. It reveals how the most simple digital translation—reduce this photograph of a tree to a one color image—can generate a wide range of results.

by Anne Hayden Stevens

Why are stop signs red?  How did writing develop?  What is “abstract”, and how do we use abstract images and ideas?

The Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program stretches your child’s thinking and encourages them to engage creatively with complex concepts. Your gifted child is full of questions (and theories!) about how the world around them works.

Our new Creative Studies classes address the questions your child has about the visual world in particular.

Take a moment to think about what “enrichment” means.  I define it as a way to deepen the level of inquiry into and comprehension of phenomena our kids experience every day. Creative Studies unpacks the visual artifacts of our media-rich existence, from picture books to the electromagnetic spectrum, and explores the role they play in our lives.

Modern culture relies on visual design more than ever. Tools once reserved for the adult world (like PowerPoint or digital photography) are now staples in the elementary school classroom. Through analysis and understanding of the visual underpinnings of these tools, we can cultivate a sense of empowerment and aesthetic understanding to communicate ideas effectively.

The arts are an excellent context for exploring the endless range of possible solutions to a problem. Creative Studies in-class experiments are often open-ended.  Students must frame problems for themselves and develop their own goals through discussion and trial and error. This approach nurtures self-sufficiency and a sense of creative authorship. Many problems in the adult world involve these sorts of challenges. Our Creative Studies experiments provide early opportunities to explore the emotions and intellectual challenges of the open-ended question.

Based on my experience teaching Saturday Enrichment classes, I’ve found that students like having a context to probe and discuss the media they consume regularly.   Kids who love to draw, build or design, begin to see the connection between their interests and the making of visual culture. Our gifted children may be the innovators of their generation. Creative Studies courses lay the groundwork for using visual language as part of their innovation toolkit.

Creative Studies classes will debut this fall at the Northwestern University site of the Saturday Enrichment Program.  Eight-week courses are offered as follows: “Studying the Visual World” for grades 2-3, “Images and Text” for grades 3-4, “Art and Science of Color” for grades 5-6.

So, share your thoughts: How can creative study enhance the learning experience of our gifted children?   Are you aware of other program models that venture into this arena?

Anne Hayden Stevens is a visual artist with an MA in Visual Studies from UC Berkeley. She has developed the Creative Studies program exclusively for the Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program, where she has taught since Fall 2010.

Fun with Density on a Rainy Day

Today, we are continuing with our series of posts containing  fun and educational activities you can try with your gifted learners when stuck inside on a rainy day.

Nina Diehl has taught for CTD in the Saturday Enrichment Program & Leapfrog Summer Program since 2006. We caught up with her recently and asked her to share one of her favorite classroom hands-on activities, and how she chooses lesson plans for her CTD courses:

“At CTD, almost every single lesson is a hands-on experience, so I have to plan accordingly. I look at the best practices like inquiry science, differentiation, and mathematical discourse and I think, ‘These would really work with CTD kids,’. While these practices are useful for students of all abilities and backgrounds, they seem to be particularly successful with the gifted population,”

Thanks, Nina! Now, check out this neat density-measuring activity you can try at home:

Measuring Density

Boats float. Pennies sink. But what about corn syrup and vegetable oil?

Density is an important physical property of matter. Density is how much something weighs compared with how large it is. Imagine a rock that is the same size as a cotton ball. Do they weigh the same? Of course not. This is because they have different densities. The rock is heavier so it has a greater density. Students often have experience with density in kindergarten with simple sink/float activities. Items that float are less dense than water. Items that sink are more dense than water. This experiment takes sinking and floating one step further with liquids.

This lesson is appropriate for students in preschool through sixth grade.

Materials Needed:
• A tall transparent glass
• Water
• Corn syrup or pancake syrup
• One or more of the following liquids:

  • Honey
  • Liquid dish soap
  • Vegetable oil
  • Rubbing alcohol tinted with 1-2 drops of food coloring

• A paper and pencil to record data


1. First, pour a layer of water into the glass. The layer should be about the width of your finger.

2. Next, make a prediction. What will happen when you pour syrup into the water? Write down your prediction. Now pour the same amount of syrup as you poured for the water into the glass. Record what happened. You can draw a picture, write a description, or both.

3. Continue to pour each type of liquid, one at a time, into the glass. Before you pour, make a prediction. After you pour, record what happened.

4. After you have poured all of the liquids into the glass and recorded your results, draw a conclusion: What did you learn about liquids from this experiment? What does this have to do with density?


If your child is younger or has difficulty writing or drawing observations, a parent may write down what the student observes after each step of the experiment. Younger children may also need help pouring the liquids carefully.

If you have a child in upper elementary or middle school, your child can develop his or her own chart in which to record the data.

Additional Resources and Links:  This website gives some kid-friendly (and parent-friendly) information about many aspects of science. It also includes some quizzes to help you test your knowledge.

View Nina Diehl’s math blog here.

Did you enjoy this experiment? Don’t miss Mrs. Diehl’s “Involving Dissolving” course this fall through CTD’s Saturday Enrichment Program!   New, eight-week sessions begin October 1 at our sites in Evanston, Chicago, Palatine and Naperville. You’ll find a range of engaging subject matters for gifted kids from preK thru Grade 9.  In addition to the regular morning schedule, this year, we’re offering afternoon courses in Evanston, Chicago and Palatine.  Classes fill quickly so register today to ensure your child gets into his or her first choice!

CTD student in the news: Success without “Tiger Moms”

From the Sunday Chicago Tribune, March 6, 2011:,0,7345883,full.story

Krystle is a former CTD student, where she participated in NUMATS, Gifted Learning Links, and the Saturday Enrichment Program. Her achievements have continued into her high school years, where she has won numerous academic awards in both science and the humanities, as well as participated in several successful community service activities. She is currently a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. (To read more about Krystle’s project, click here.)

As a parent, how do you feel about the “Tiger Mom” profile? What kinds of parenting methods have been most effective in helping your child to succeed and be happy? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.

Welcome to Center for Talent Development’s blog, Talent Talk.

We’re an accredited learning center and research facility that has been serving gifted students, their families and educators for nearly 30 years. We offer a variety of high-quality, engaging programs including online learning, Saturday and weekend courses and summer programs for gifted students in PreK through grade 12 plus an above-grade-level testing program (Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search) for students in grades 3 through 9, which helps identify gifted students’ strengths and guide their talent development. We’re also a resource center; we hold conferences for families and instructors and conduct research.

Talent Talk Content
We plan to post material on Talent Talk twice a week – news items, stories by our students, and our popular “Ask Paula” feature where you can ask CTD’s director a question. CTD staff members with areas of expertise – from child development to social-emotional support to professional development – will write about what they know best. We’ll also post highlights of various research projects (by CTD and others).

Research: Gifted Students’ Social Lives
In this inaugural post, we’re introducing you to some interesting research we have been conducting. Many parents, educators and students have questions about the social experiences of gifted students. Are they happy? Do they have friends? Do they feel connected? These are important questions to consider, and our research is providing some answers.

We conducted a large-scale, multi-year study to investigate how gifted students perceive the quality of their relationships with others and their level of comfort with various social situations.  The study involved more than 1,500 students who participated in NUMATS, CTD’s above-grade-level testing program, or other CTD programs from 2005-2008 and compared our results to the norms for similar-age students (of all ability levels).

Counter to the stereotyped view of gifted students as “nerds” with poor social skills, we found that, overall, the perceptions of the gifted students in our study regarding their peer relationships and social abilities were above average. Most of the gifted students in our study reported having fewer friends but being happy with both the number of friends they had and the quality of their friendship. The students also felt fairly comfortable in and able to handle most social situations, and they generally did not perceive their giftedness as a factor leading to negative peer pressure. We are still analyzing all of the findings, but we’ll keep you posted on our work.

Your Thoughts
Do your experiences seem to match what we’re finding in our research? What questions do you have about social-emotional issues? What resources have you found most helpful? We’d like to know.

Return to this blog regularly for lively current information and discussions.

Once again, welcome to CTD’s Talent Talk. And, if you have something you’d like to say or a subject you’d like to know more about, just add a comment!

Follow us on Twitter @CTDatNU for updates!