Gifted Education for Innovative Learners

By Ande Nokte

midtown The vision for Midtown International School began over seven years ago in an ambitious strategic plan designed for a dramatically new approach to early learning. It was an exciting and pivotal time in my life: we had just added twins to our family, we were fostering an international high school student, I was beginning to put together applications for my doctoral program, and I decided that starting a preschool would be just the right thing to add to my plate. As a mother of three, a traveler, a philosopher, an avid reader, and a teacher, I had a clear vision for what needed to happen in the first years of life to create lifelong patterns of successful learning. The research was all published; the science was sound; the theories were well-formed and cogent; there were even a few elementary schools beginning to embrace some of the key concepts. The struggle I had, then, was why is no one doing this stuff for preschoolers? So we did. International Preschools moved from a group of four students to 250 students in two campuses in just seven years. It has truly been an adventure and a reward to see those ideas become reality.

And here we are, at the seven year mark, bringing the next phase of the strategic plan to reality with Midtown International School. There are a number of things we know and believe about schools and learning:

  • small class sizes maximize learning opportunities
  • foreign language learning is more successful if it’s done early
  • science literacy requires lab time
  • music literacy improves dramatically when students learn to play an instrument
  • higher order cognitive skills (like analysis, evaluation) require practice
  • arts integration creates greater opportunities for many learning styles to interact with the curriculum
  • student-planned travel increases retention of knowledge (for language, social and cultural studies, and even math and science standards used in the planning process)
  • technology is a fantastic instructor for basic skills
  • accountability can be measured in narratives and projects (and what teachers are held accountable for is generally what they will teach)
  • primary sources go through fewer layers of interpretation and can be used to create a solid framework for understanding any subject matter
  • the degree to which international education is infused into the day to day culture of a school relates directly to the presence of values of tolerance, curiosity, and understanding
  • recess and daily physical activity during school hours create a healthier and more successful student population
  • subject-matter teachers are more effective when they are subject-matter experts
  • teaching via a child’s academic strength can improve upon his or her weaker areas
  • understanding and embracing each student’s learning style is as important as differentiating instruction based on sets of skills and abilities
  • enthusiasm for learning trumps all other indicators for academic success
  • environmental education and awareness are most effective when accompanied by time spent outdoors

I’m sure I could go on and on for pages! Just as I wondered years ago when I started my first school, I now wonder, where is this school? In reality, this laundry list of knowledge isn’t really critical for all, or even many, students. There are dozens of fantastic public and independent schools in the Atlanta area that embrace many of these ideas and do so exceptionally. The students who attend these programs receive an excellent education. Parents choose schools that are a great fit for their family, values, and educational philosophy, and often that means prioritizing the above ideas.

So what do we do for those parents, students, and educators who choose to embrace and expect all of these statements? My experience has been very firmly that if we commit to creating an environment that upholds and stands behind this vision for education, it will become the reality of our school. Some simple changes to the traditional model of independent schools gives MIS viability and sustainability in embracing this high-reaching vision.

First, MIS is committed to keeping tuition and fundraising dollars in the classroom. Avoiding the high costs of excess administrative staff and expensive supply vendors opens the budget 14-18%. Next, smaller class sizes reduce wear and tear on technology, facilities, and, frankly, our teachers. Using instructional technology to introduce basic skills frees up class and instructional time for the invaluable experiences that engage learners at a higher level.

Generating and facilitating community partnerships with Atlanta’s unique and diverse museums, gardens, foundations, and universities leverages resources for our students, teachers, and classrooms. Symbiotically, these partnerships build community awareness and appreciation for these incredible sources of expertise right in our backyard.

Thank you for sharing some of your time with me today. I am always happy to meet to discuss any questions you might have beyond what is covered here. If MIS sounds like it might be a match for your family, please reach out! We look forward to hearing from you!


Midtown International School
500 Amsterdam Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA 30306

Gamification, Psychology and Suitcases on Wheels


By Juan J. F. Valera Mariscal

Making a connection between psychological theory and games is innovative in itself. It is at the same time something simple, a bit like inventing a suitcase on wheels: both the suitcase and the wheel had already existed for centuries, but the revolutionary -and surprisingly recent- idea was to combine both concepts.

In the fusion of psycholgical theory and games we find the foundation of the concept of Gamification: the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems.

In his book Gamification by Design, Gabe Zichermann writes that gamification is 75% psychology and only 25% technology. We can easily understand that technology may refer to programming and design, but what exactly can psychology bring to gamification? If we look at the most experimental psychology carried out in the 20th century, we can see that it actually is highly and widely relevant to gamification.

The first attempts to turn psychology into an objective experimental science, which would allow it do get away from its more traditional and speculative nature, led psychologists to focus on observing behavior. In order to study behaviour, they had to start from something simple: a reflex – stimulus and response. From this angle, the mind becomes a dark realm, a mysterious and impenetrable Black Box. It is possible to unravel this mysteriuos box by looking at the effects of external elements on it (the stimulus) and observing how these are reflected in the person’s behavior (the response).

The first experiments were carried out on animals: Paulov’s now famous dogs and his Classical Conditioning. Therefore, disciplines such as Behaviourism and the Psychology of Learning developed and became increasingly more complex.

It was also observed that behaviours could be associated with reinforcements. When the latter were well designed and implemented, it was possible to build a powerful system for behavioural change. Thousands upon thousands of experiments in the world’s most prestigious psychology faculties continuously refined and expanded these ideas related to behavioural psychology.

But the evolution of these ideas went further still, and the Black Box Model was criticised. New psychologists thought it necessary to look into this black box without straying to far from Behaviourism. They theorized that thinking was a behaviour in itself and continued with an experimental model that includes what’s called Cognitive Psychology.

Thanks to this line of research we can learn, for example, how our expectations influence our decision to take part in a game, to accept a challenge or to interact with somebody. We start seeing concepts like self-efficacy, modelling and self-esteem. They are aspects that are essential to bear in mind in order to understand why people play and more generally why they behave the way they do. Therefore, they are essentials in order to design any application that has the intention of influencing people’s behaviour to train them or motivate them.

The field of psychological reaserach and theory developed following a greate number of courses. Humanist Psychologists also appeared on the scene, studying motivation and what moves people to action – why they act. Studies in these areas include those by Maslow and Herzberg, which are nowadays considered almost as a classic cultural heritage. These scholars have also left behind them disciples who are continuing to delve into the minutiae of human motivation.

More recently, new studies have been published on the psychology of Positive Emotions. It is the field of psychology which explores the roots of what makes us feel good: why are people happy? What makes people feel good? Someone can work for one reason but, beyond that reason, there are factors that make one person feel better than another even if they are both in the same circumstances.

Alongside these studies, we can mention the research carried out by Seligman – which deals with the concept of optimism – and the body of research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that led to his Flow Theory. The theory of Flow is an attempt to explain happiness that curiously draws a connection between perfection and the experience of playing a game, whatever the game or culture. The “optimal experience”, he said, corresponds astonishingly with the experiences of people who play video games. The remarkable fact is that we can design almost any human activity in such a way that we can carry it our just as we would in a game.

The various conclusions drawn from the field of psychology give us a huge number of concepts, experiments, data and statistics that we can use to understand what makes Gamification work, and even how to make it work better. However, one of the most exciting aspect of this union between psychology and games is the simplicity it suggests. We can get closer to real motivation and genuine personal improvement if we look at the most comprehensive model of game mechanics and dynamics: here we’re talking points, badges, levels and challenges instead of reflexes, motives, reinforcement, feedback, complexity, competences and expectations. This makes it easier to spread awareness of gamified design and make it more understandable. Of course, we could just as well call it “psychologicized” design, but few would disagree that to use the word “game” is inherently more appealing.

On the other hand, another exciting aspect is that Gamification per se is an experimental design. That is to say, it is a process set within a controlled environment in which we can analyse variables concerning its subjects objectively. That allows us to research, compare and contrast theories continually – which will most likely lead to the generation of several new theories. With Gamification, we are bringing the idea of a laboratory into the wider world. The repercussions of this will hopefully be the broadening of knowledge and benefits for humankind.

Gamification joins Psichology and Game Theory. Just like the suitcase and the wheel, they are ideas and concepts tha have existed for a long time. The revolutionary idea was to combine both concepts. After all, who would ever think now of actually carrying their suitcase?