New Book Encourages Parents to Foster Love of Learning

Two gifted education experts urge parents to pay less attention to test scores and place greater emphasis on nurturing a child's interests outside the classroom.

<p>Neag School of Education professors Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis. Photo by Peter Morenus</p>
Neag School of Education professors Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis. Photo by Peter Morenus

“Parents have been sold a bill of goods on test scores,” say two professors in the Neag School of Education, Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis. “We want to help them do more to promote a love of learning in their children.”

Renzulli and Reis, a husband and wife team from UConn’s National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, have written a book called Light Up Your Child’s Mind: Finding a Unique Pathway to Happiness and Success (Little, Brown and Co., 2009).

It is intended for parents, offering them practical advice on how to play a more meaningful role in a child’s education both in and outside the classroom.

The idea for the book came about when Reis and Renzulli were contacted by an agent who had seen an article about their work in Psychology Today. That led to the search for a collaborator, someone who, Reis says, “could take the heart of our academic research and make it interesting and accessible for parents.” They found that person in Andrea Thompson, a New York-based freelance writer who has worked on several books dealing with parenting and psychology.

While the book includes research and interviews with parents and children, for Reis and Renzulli it is also a very personal story. They freely discuss the problems their own children faced as students: a son was, they say, “a classic underachiever,” while a daughter was found to be gifted but learning disabled, what Reis and Renzulli call “twice exceptional.” Now young adults, both have successful college and graduate school records and professional careers, and had no objection to being part of their parents’ book.

Each child also illustrates the book’s different approaches to parental involvement. With their son, Reis and Renzulli say, there was little they could do to prod him through his adolescent school years.

“It was difficult personally, but we also felt that, professionally, this was something we should fix,” says Reis, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology. “Ultimately, we realized that this was going to have to be his decision, not ours.”

With their daughter, says Renzulli, the Raymond and Lynn Neag Chair for Gifted Education and Talent Development, he and Reis were her “best advocates,” helping her teachers understand both her strengths and her weaknesses.

“Teachers are receptive,” says Reis, “to parents who say ‘I’m looking for a way to help my child be more engaged at school, and this is what I know about him or her that might be helpful to you.’”

Throughout the book, Reis and Renzulli reinforce the message to parents that can be found in its earliest pages: “We urge a different focus,” they write in the Introduction, “one having less to do with good grades and the ‘right’ colleges and more to do with early experiences in creative thinking and productivity.”

While not wanting to diminish the importance of grades and scores, Reis and Renzulli say they dislike seeing bookstore shelves crammed with standardized test preparation study guides that parents have been led to believe are the keys to success.

Equally – if not more – important, they argue in Light Up Your Child’s Mind, is nurturing passions, interests, and talents outside the classroom, not unlike the effort parents undertake when a child plays soccer or basketball.

“There’s as much to be gained,” Renzulli says, “from taking a child on a museum visit, or on a bird-watching hike, or on a local archaeological dig. All of it helps promote a love of learning.”

As for school itself, enjoyment and engagement go a long way toward stimulating academic achievement.

But if it sounds as though Renzulli and Reis want to replace an “eat your vegetables” approach to education with one that favors “eat more ice cream,” nothing could be further from the truth, they say.

“We’re advocating a buffet,” Reis says. “School should be a selection of introductions to big ideas, to names, events, and people, coupled with choices made by the student in the areas he or she is interested in.”

Renzulli, who was recently awarded the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education for his contributions to learning in the U.S., says years of experience have taught him that engagement works: “I can get more out of anybody, diapers to doctorate, if I start with something in which they have an interest. We all do better and work more effectively at something that we’re turned on to and enjoy.”