Seeing the Smart in Students


Karim Ajania


As a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the late 1980’s, I had the privilege of working with two remarkable mentors: Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, my doctoral thesis advisor, and multiple intelligence theory pioneer Professor Howard Gardener.

Under the guidance of Professor Lightfoot, I conducted research on multicultural school curriculum. I discussed this research in an interview for African Peace Journal. Click here for the interview.


Harvard University Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Under the guidance of Professor Gardener, I conducted research on gifted children.

My research in both these disciplines, multicultural school curriculum and gifted children, informs the work I do today with Pencils for Africa.

I would summarize and conclude all my research on gifted children in these four words:

All children are gifted.

The burden of responsibility rests with the teacher, not the student, to find these gifts, nurture them, and then allow these gifts to blossom. Certainly, there are exceptionally gifted children.


Take for example, the case study of Ronan Farrow:

Ronan was accepted to Bard College at age 11 and graduated at age 15 after which he spent a year as a humanitarian field worker in Sudan, focusing on documenting the genocide in Darfur.

At age 16 Ronan was accepted to Yale Law School and graduated at 19. While at Yale, Ronan interned with the chief counsel at the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. After graduating Yale and passing the New York Bar, he became UNICEF Spokesperson for Youth and was then appointed Special Advisor for Humanitarian and NGO Affairs in the Obama administration.

For his services to refugees Ronan was awarded the Refugees International Humanitarian Award.

In addition to his education at Bard and Yale, Ronan was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.


As a parent reading this, particularly a parent of a middle school child, you may think that the example of Ronan has nothing remotely to do with your own children. The general viewpoint is that exceptionally gifted children are in a completely different stratosphere from ‘regular kids’.

The research I conducted on this subject of gifted children reveals a more nuanced viewpoint:

While exceptional aptitude and skill are impressive, they are like seeds germinating in a garden.

These seeds still need to be nurtured and tended to in order that they might blossom and bloom.

Ronan received a lot of diverse and dynamic opportunities as a child that encouraged his gifts, through multidisciplinary and multicultural forms of learning, through international travel and through hands-on community service, and by being well-informed of the world around him.

All of this thoughtful and insightful nurturing of his gifts allowed Ronan to blossom into his educational and humanitarian accomplishments. Perhaps most important of all, Ronan was allowed to feel empowered from a young age, by being given access to global policymakers.


Three important lessons then:

First, it takes a village, a community, a multidisciplinary approach, to nurture gifted children.

Second, all children are gifted and the responsibility rests upon the teacher to find these gifts.

Third, students should have access to global policymakers and be allowed to interact with them.

All three of these lessons provide the framework and core construct for Pencils for Africa (PFA).

We set our own limitations. We must strive to dismantle our limitations and open our eyes to unlimited vistas and horizons. We must find our own song and sing our song.

— Nelson Mandela

The PFA program begins by seeing the gifts – seeing the ‘smart’ – in the entire PFA Team.

Next, the PFA program dismantles all presumed limitations as to what the PFA Team members can accomplish by having their gifts nurtured and empowered. The gifts of the PFA Team are nurtured by dedicated mentors and by a global supportive community. The gifts of the PFA Team are empowered and given a voice through regular interaction with global leaders and policymakers.

7 Gifted and Smart Young Leaders

Here are 7 examples of smart and gifted PFA students and their accomplishments:


Carly, PFA Co-Editor-in-Chief

Carly manages a portfolio of 10 nonprofits doing work in Africa as the CEO of Portfolio PFA.


Charlotte, PFA Co-Editor-in-Chief

Charlotte is conducting an interview with the Director of School for Life Foundation in Uganda.


Lucia, PFA Co-Editor-in-Chief

Lucia recently wrote to the United Nations to address the need for clean drinking water in Africa.

J-Nic-2 2

Nicolas, CEO of OPPC with CNN Hero Jackson Kaguri

Nicolas is working with CNN Hero Jackson Kaguri for literacy of marginalized children in Africa.


Shannon, Editor of African Kitchen Table

Shannon has interviewed filmmakers, educators and humanitarian field experts working in Kenya.


Charlie, Samburu App Team Member

Charlie is part of the Samburu App Team which is developing a technology app for the Samburu.


Colin, CEO of Unscramble for Africa

Colin is working with the Managing Editor of African Peace Journal on the Unscramble program.

Reflections on Walden Pond

My fondest memories of attending classes and conducting research on gifted children when I was at Harvard, was when we sometimes transferred classroom sessions from Cambridge to Concord, Massachusetts. It would usually be a sunny autumn day and the location was Walden Pond.

Pondering the need to see and nurture and empower the ‘smart’ – the gifts – in school students within the atmosphere of Walden Pond gave us doctoral students a deeper sense of purpose.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with their song still in them.

— Henry David Thoreau

Educators take the longview.

On one level, they realize that today’s middle school student may well become tomorrow’s global policymaker. On a deeper level, the real sense of purpose for the educator is to bring out the unique abilities and gifts of the student in a way that they can find and then sing their own song.

In the end, it should be the right of every person, whether child or adult, student or teacher, to find their own unique song and to then experience the joy and the freedom of singing their own song.