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Friday, November 4, 2011

Smart Girls, Gifted Women, and Me

A lot of people dismiss informal/out-of-school learning as unimportant or frivolous. Sure, it's always good to learn more stuff, they say, but the important things you learn in school. Out of school, you might learn some fun factoids or pursue a hobby, and of course there's social development, but as far as academic subjects go, school is where it's at.

And for some people, that's true. But not everyone. I knew early on that I was seriously interested in things that weren't covered in school. By the age of 15, I knew I wanted to major in Cognitive Science in college… something I had no opportunity to study in high school whatsoever. Our school offered one semester of psych, but it wasn't even AP and was considered a blowoff class that no serious student would take. Pursuing my intellectual passion was something I had to do entirely on my own time. I'm living proof that what you learn outside of school can be at least as important as what you learn during class.

This month I'll be sharing some of those informal learning experiences that shaped my career choices in small and large ways. And the main focus of each post will be ... a book. A plain, old-fashioned paper book, the kind that gets forgotten about sometimes as we scramble to create new media learning environments. Don't get me wrong, I love me a good educational iPad app, but we should never forget the vital role books play in learning in and out of the classroom.

First up:

Smart Girls, Gifted Women by Barbara A. Kerr

This is a nonfiction book written by a professor at Arizona State (now at the University of Kansas) who studies giftedness and gifted education, a subject that I now have a master's degree in. The author attended a school for the gifted in the early 60s, and at her reunion was shocked to find that while most of her male classmates had advanced degrees and lucrative careers, most of the equally-intelligent women were homemakers. The book explores the research she conducted on her classmates as well as the lives of eminent women to explore the many pressures experienced by intelligent women that impact their career and life choices.

When my mom gave me this book at age 9, I was not part of the target adult audience. I started out only reading some parts over and over but skipping other "boring" bits, though by now I've read the whole thing as well as the updated edition.

This book didn't just teach me about the idea of intelligence, although that was a big part of its influence. I'd read other books on being a gifted kid, but this was the first time I'd read about actual research relating to it - and the first time I'd read anything about gender and intelligence or career choice. It very much opened my eyes to the inequalities between the genders that are pervasive in our society, and how even smart women have historically been pressured to give up their careers when they have children. This book got me seriously interested at an early age in intelligence as not just a thing that impacted my life but as something to be studied, and in the interplay between gender, intelligence, and career/life decisions. You can plot a pretty straight line from reading this book at age 9 and my Master's degree fifteen years later. I certainly wouldn't call it the only influence, far from it, but it was an informal learning experience that had a lasting impact on my thinking and my career.

This is the first post in a series on the impact that informal learning has had on my life and career. To see all of these, click on the "Informal Learning and Me" tag.

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