Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why don't we want kids to excel?

I'm mystified. In the course of a single school year, one classroom in an impoverished school had its students excel.
students learning together - Photo credit: www.islingtongiving.org.uk

But the regional education chief dismissed the innovative methods that inspired the results saying, “The teaching method makes little difference.”

Despite having no special resources, almost all the students in that one class achieved improved, even outstanding, results, yet -- or perhaps because they succeeded without -- he concluded they didn't need more support. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he stated.

Now if THAT were true (that “Intelligence comes from necessity”), ALL students in impoverished areas would excel. But clearly that isn't the case.

What was different in this particular classroom wasn't laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring; in fact, they "had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat." It wasn't specially selected, particularly bright kids, though they did have one special quality according to their teacher: "Potential."

And especially, they did have one overarching advantage: the way their teacher ran the classroom. Instead of teaching, Sergio Juárez Correa decided to inspire his students to want to learn. He asked them questions and let them discover the answers. He let the work in groups and talk about how to figure out the problems. He enabled them to think.

Wouldn't you think that when his students did well on their yearend tests, everyone would be impressed? Since his class not only passed but vastly improved during the year, wouldn't you think administrators would want other classes to have a chance to achieve similar results? Wouldn't you think it would behoove all educational providers to implement similar methods -- if only to prove that they weren't the driving factor?

But no one did. No one rushed to emulate the effective techniques in that one classroom. No one scrapped the industrial top-down rigid model of public education to encourage creativity, innovation, and student-driven thinking. No one argued how much more beneficial to us all it would be if the future became more than a repetition of the past.

Of course the problem is that student-centered education is messy and irregular. Its unpredictability makes it hard for administrators to control. It's more work for teachers. It's more challenging for the kids. It's less standardized, too unlike the testing system that it feeds.

But imagine the possibilities. Students would love to learn. They'd be inspired to do more and try more ideas out and think for themselves. Kids would come up with creative answers and explore new ideas and create better innovative results.

With our education system lagging behind in an accelerating world, parents and teachers who care need to step up their game. Encouragement and attention, two essentials to overcoming less than optimal institutions, go a long way to make up for lack of costly resources, but the key is to praise kids effectively.

In her book Mindset, Carol Dwerk advocates praise for process as the best way to encourage the best learning for everyone, but her research now shows this is especially important for girls. And paradoxically, Dwerk stresses the necessity of experiencing overcomeable failures along the way as essential stepping stones to both resilience and success.

It really doesn't take all that much effort or expensive resources to make a huge improvement in kids' success in schools -- just attention and encouragement and an environment where challenges take effort and creativity and thought. When little stumbles are rewarded as part of the process of achieving improvement and ultimately new challenges, there's no limit on the possibilities.

Really, every parent knows that or we'd have a world filled with non-walking, non-talking, non-functional teens. We start kids off with the right encouragement, so why are we abandoning the process that works and instead demanding conformity, rejecting struggle, and pressuring for perfection? Parents and teachers need to re-examine their motivations and stimulate kids' natural interest in exploring the unknown.

Loosing the genius of curiosity seems a small price to pay for a quantum leap payoff.

I wonder... what you think.
Photo credit: www.islingtongiving.org.uk

Monday, November 4, 2013

What can we learn from old folk tales?

Back in 1917, Marie L. Shedlock published a book on storytelling. One of the folk tales she retold was The Folly of Panic, which I've interpretively adapted here:

And it came to pass that the Lord of the Earth was incarnated as an Eagle, able to fly above the Earth and observe all its features and creatures and ensure that all was well in the domain below.

And the Earth was filled with creatures: There were Bears to the north, Elephants in the jungles, Camels crossing the deserts, and all across the prairies of the world, there were Hares.

Eagle and Hare - http://www.nomad-tanzania.com/blogs/chada-katavi/the-ealge-and-the-hare

One spring, a nervous little Hare, who was always afraid that something dreadful was going to happen, began to fret: "Suppose the Earth were to fall in, what would happen to me?"

She repeated this so often that it became her a mantra. "The Earth might fall in; what would happen to me?" She said it until at last she thought it really would happen.

One day, as she recited her mantra again, she heard a slight noise: a heavy fruit had fallen upon a rustling leaf. But the little Hare was so nervous she was ready to believe anything, and she gasped: "The Earth is falling in!"

She ran as fast as she could to warn the world. First she told those closest to her, and soon all the Hares knew the Earth was falling in. They shared their knowledge wide and far to all who would listen, and quickly the deer, the sheep, and the buffalo, all took up the cry.

In the North, the Bears became concerned for their homes, and in the jungles the Elephants began to grow uneasy, and even the Camels looked across their expanse of desert and worried it might be so. But the wise Eagle, flying above it all, looked down and wondered at the uproar. "There are no signs," he said, "of the Earth falling in. I must investigate."

The Eagle methodically tracked the rumors back to the little Hare and asked her, "What made you say that the Earth was falling in?"
Now, as you undoubtedly know, the tale ended with discovery that her panic was misplaced. The Eagle took the little Hare to see that it had merely been a fruit falling upon a leaf that set off her fear, and they were able to determine that the Earth was not falling in and to reassure the populace. But what if their findings had been different?

What if, upon examination, the Eagle had learned that it wasn't the weight of growing fruits but a noxious poison killing the fruits before their time that was threatening the Earth? What if the Eagle had learned that the Earth might not be caving in but rather dying? The outcome of THAT story would have been different. The Eagle would have been spurred not into reassurance but to a call to action.

The Eagle would have had to rally all the animals together to discover the source of the toxin and to create a magic potion to save their planet.

Updating the Folk Tale
 In today's world, scientists have already identified the toxins poisoning our air. CO2 and methane are damaging the atmosphere; current practices like burning coal and fracking gas and extracting tar sands are threatening the Earth. It's time indeed for someone as powerful as the Eagle to issue that call to action.

If you think that, like the Eagle, our President could bring all the populace together to recognize the dangers and make corrections before it is too late to save our planet, it's time to send out a noisy alert. It's up to people like us – not nervous Hares but informed and concerned citizens – to keep up the cry until it reverberates through the halls of Congress and throughout the world.

You can add your voice: Join Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters or 350.org any of the other groups raising the alert. Panic is certainly folly, but so is ignoring reality.