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Sally Reis on Talent Development and Strength-Based Learning

The following commentary on ENHP Day keynote speaker Sally Reis, vice provost for academic administration at the University of Connecticut, was written by Beth Parker, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Nursing.  It clearly summarizes Reis' ideas and hints at the excitement she generated among faculty and students in her audience.

On Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to hear Sally Reis, Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Connecticut, speak at University of Hartford. Her talk was entitled “Talent Development and Strength-Based Learning,” and she prefaced the lecture with the quote: “A rising tide lifts all ships.”

Dr. Reis is well-known in Hartford for her work at the Renzulli Academy, which was founded by her husband, Joseph Renzulli. Renzulli is also at the Neag School of Education at UConn, and is a well known researcher in the field of educational psychology. Renzulli Academy is Hartford’s academy for gifted and talented students, unequivocally demonstrating the highest test scores in the city. Gifted and talented education is a controversial topic, but Dr. Reis’s talk was focused differently: using enrichment programs and opportunities to offer rich, challenging curriculum to all students. She argued that providing even one hour a week of enrichment to students can profoundly affect student lives.

Sally Reis

Renzulli’s principle of gifted education suggests that gifted children possess three attributes: above average ability, task commitment, and creativity. Dr. Reis extends that philosophy to education of all children by emphasizing that schools should be talent development factories rather than test score producers. After all, if test scores increase but students hate learning, what are the long-term consequences for the students? Enjoyment, engagement, and enthusiasm facilitate true academic achievement. Therefore, her model of schoolwide enrichment focuses on a pedagogy based on student interests, modifying curriculum, and augmenting learning with specific enrichment activities. Dr. Reis supported her lecture with compelling evidence showing that when teachers use enrichment- and strength-based learning, students learn more and make more continuous progress. Creative and joyful teaching doesn’t result in lower test scores; rather, scores increase when we use creative teaching methods and differentiated instruction. Specifically, traditional curriculum can be compacted such that teachers have more time for unique instruction based on student strengths and interests. Enrichment activities provide supplementary learning that turn students into independent explorers and investigators.

Dr. Reis’s talk was thought-provoking and motivating. Certainly, test scores and performance provide benchmarks with which a school system can assess global learning and student progress. But the more holistic approach of using student aptitude and interest to guide learning and enrich the curriculum raises a lot of points about the roles in which schools can and should shape student lives. There comes a point at which improving standardized test performance may actually detract from fostering the creative and exploratory aspects of learning that underlie successful and continuous academic achievement.