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Archive for April, 2010

What does that mean?  Sustainable usually refers to ecology, or generally to practices that seek to be self-supporting and do not merely consume a resource out of existence.  So what does it mean to attach the term “sustainable” to education?  Two things. First, that we should have a system of education that in fact  does not consume resources without replenishing, and second, that the very idea of practicing sustainability in the more general sense is something that children are made aware of as they are “educated”.

Taking up the first point (and the second in the next post) let’s recognize that the system of education typically in place today is not meeting the general needs of most students.  Students are dropping out of high school and college, they are stressed and over-worked to the point of growing anxiety and other emotional disorders as well as increasing incidences of suicide.  We are treating the resources poorly and destroying them.  According to creativity expert Ken Robinson, schools “experience out” the natural creativity of children.  We see decreasing levels of creativity as the years of school go by, he reports.  So from the point of view of sustaining what is required for education: the very children who are to receive the education, the traditional model is not succeeding.  But, we already knew that.



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You can’t repair education from the top down.  The problems are at the root and we’ve got to start by cultivating a new kind of learner, one who can take control and who knows how to do this.  Oh yes, and that it’s his/her responsibility as well.

We need to start with the early childhood set.  Yes, we can offer some remedies to older children and it will serve them well, but let’s really get this right from the ground up.  Even the world of traditional education knows all the research about how quality early childhood programs support significant gains for these children.  We know all about the neural pathways being formed and the consolidation/formation of the child’s self in the first six years of life.  What we don’t SEE in programs is much change as a result of knowing this. There’s a disconnect between what science knows and what education does (to paraphrase Daniel Pink, see Drive).

When we create early learning environments for these little ones we end up creating small versions of what we offer older children.  It’s as if the thinking was, “oh, they need some too?” and the result is just the same pap that is offered at elementary, middle and high schools: only smaller, to fit the little ones.  It’s still overwhelmingly adult-directed, adult-organized, and not allowing for real thought to develop in the children.  How can we talk about education if we’re not cultivating thought?

We need a revolution.  We need to seriously rethink what we are offering and come up with something that is based on who children are at different stages in their development, not just the “same ol’ ” that’s been kicking around for 150 years, “just because”.

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The Jacket Story

Once upon a time, right?, there was a boy who came home from school and tossed his jacket on the floor.  His parents would pick it up eventually and hang it up.  One day they decided that this was crazy and they told their vary capable son that they expected him to hang up his own jacket.  The next day he came home and tossed his jacket on the floor.  Every day he continued to do the same.  One of his parents would remind him to hang it up and so it would get hung up and all were happy, mostly.  The parents felt satisfied that they were no longer hanging up their son’s jacket.  But – weren’t they?

I have told this story to people over the years and those close to me simply refer to “the jacket story” when talking about building dependence when one thinks one is building INdependence. The parents in the story are enabling their son’s dependence on them to get the jacket hung up.  He’s not doing anything independently.  The point is that we want children to grow to think for themselves, by their own steam.  You can’t achieve this by being the catalyst all the time.

Stop hanging up the children’s jackets already!  Let’s create some thought.

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Yeah, you know it.  “We don’t need no education…. we don’t need no thought control…”

They had it right, didn’t they?  Images of the school as sausage factory; conformity-creating school houses…. that’s still the status quo.  That has to change.  This is what “changing the education conversation” means.. it means getting away from the stale system that is in need of serious ground-up reform.

“No dark sarcasm in the classroom…. hey! teacher! leave them kids alone!”…. yes, change this.  Let’s bring respect into the classroom.  Let’s keep teachers away from children who do not respect them.  Sadly, this is more than a small minority.  And it goes unnoticed and unidentified.  Many teachers out there aren’t even aware that some of their style is disrespectful.

Let’s turn education into thought, not thought-control.

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Regardless of gender or gender-identification, there’s a way to offer help and guidance to children/students and a way not to.

Most often when someone comes calling for help they are looking for the answer.  Too many parents and educators provide it.  I think it’s clear why this is not the best approach: it’s in the discovering of answers where the true value lies, not the final solution.  To paraphrase M. McLuhan, “the process is the message”.

Now, there’s a more subtle layer at work here.  There are many folks who stop short of providing the answer/solution b/c they understand the above.  They see the dependency-creation of that approach.  BUT, many parents and educators will provide the essence of the solution, leaving the student to then carry out the steps. The thinking is that “I’m not doing for” b/c the child is the one doing the doing.

Truth be told,  this isn’t actually creating independence… you think you are b/c you’re not actually doing the doing, that the approach is the best one.  But if you’re doing the thinking, then you’re leaving little of real value for the child/student/learner.  Figuring out what to do or how to do is the most important part of learning.  This often happens with parents “helping” with homework.  They will tell the child how to think through a math word problem, for instance, and the child will then go about doing the math for the problem.  But THAT’S THE EASY PART.  The value of the activity is thinking about what and how to solve the problem.  Robotically doing the calculations is nothing in comparison.

Best approach is to ask “what solutions do you see/imagine?”… get them to generate ideas to try out.  Either they’ll work or they won’t, but learning will take place.  Ask why they think what they think and encourage them to try it out.  This encouraging to think and experiment is the most valuable lesson as it fosters creative thinking and initiative – a sense of being capable of managing through a situation.  Isn’t that what life requires?  Let’s prep this way.

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“If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything”, that’s what educator Marva Collins said.  She knew something about learning that too often is forgotten.

Why do school traditionally focus so much on “how many did you get wrong? how many right?”  In doing so a culture of “the right answer” is created.  The emphasis is on that and not on the learning.  When a young child is learning how to ride a bicycle do we emphasize how poorly they are doing as they wobble slowly down the sidewalk before falling over? “Well, that’s not exactly riding a bike, dear” is this what we say?  Or do we say “Hey, that was close, you’re really doing well… this bike riding stuff is not easy.”

When anyone begins to do anything new we have to first get oriented to it, then explore it and see what it’s all about, then work at mastering the skills involved, and eventually we develop a level of proficiency- some of us a high level, others something less.  We all become as good as we can be.

Learning is about the process.  It is simply about just improving.  Why isn’t that the culture that lives in our traditional classrooms?  It surely isn’t.  Not when children themselves learn to focus on right answers, and have the stress of getting “straight As”, etc.

Mistakes are natural.  We should celebrate them.  That “mistake” is a bad word in our school culture is a nasty reality.  Why on earth set children up this way?  When you are first exploring something you won’t be perfect, if ever.  Your lack of complete mastery means that you’re making some mistakes – you’re not getting it all right.  So?  This is the way that learning something happens.  Professional baseball players, the best ones, make mistakes 70% of the time (if batting “.300”).  Professional actors in live theater miss lines and have to recover on the spot with their other players – they make mistakes and they are excellent at what they do.

This piece of our traditional school culture is drowning children by constantly pointing out what they can’t YET do.  It’s beating up on them as they go through a perfectly natural process that they can’t avoid.  How did this ever arise?

Do what you can today to stop this.  Whether it’s with your own children who you send off to school daily, or if you’re at the front of a class teaching – talk about this and then ACT in a way that shows this new emphasis, otherwise your words will be empty and you’ll do more damage by telling your students things that you don’t believe or put into  practice (don’t ever do that).

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success and control

It turns out there’s  a link between success and our ability to control ourselves.  In the world of psychology research this is called “self-regulation”. You can think of it as emotional regulation too.

If you learned, very young, to have this control, this self-regulation ability, then you are more likely to be productive and happy and less likely to end up “maladapted” .  Children who do not learn to self-regulate end up with severe challenges in adolescence and beyond, and are far more likely to end up in prison or in other situations where you’d rather not be.

What role do schools play in developing this control?  How does one even develop self-regulation?

Fortunately self-regulation is a natural propensity for human beings – it’s what we’re designed to become.  But, a propensity is not a certainty.  We also have minds that reason, but we don’t all function according to the principles of logic all the time because we still have to choose to exercise that reason, it’s not on auto-pilot.  Our brains are designed to allow us acquire language because they are “concept makers”. Our brains organize and integrate all the information that comes in and are able to hear/see all the instances of “dog” as one general thing, forming the concept “dog” for us to then be able to attach that label to and then use.

Okay, but what of schools?  What we need are schools that function in a way that support the development of self-regulation.  One of the things that is essential, it turns out, in developing this is the time and ability to concentrate.  The time young children spend concentrating is critical to their developing the ability to regulate themselves.  Something goes on in the brain during concentration that supports the development of brain architecture which leads to regulation/control.

But our schools aren’t designed to foster concentration.  Concentration is that time when you select an activity and engage with it on your own, for the time that you determine, according to your interest.  Ever try concentrating on something you have no interest in?  Good luck.

In a typical classroom the student is  given a task and there’s a lot of “instruction” and talking.  That’s not conducive to concentration.  Listening is not the same a concentrating.  You may be engaged in focused listening, and it’s certainly a form of concentration, but something else is going on when you engage in a quiet, chosen task where you have the time you need to work through the challenge.

We need to make some changes to schools that allow for greater student “task choice” in order to create the possibility for true concentration.  The risks are too great.  This is just becoming known, this is on the fringe in developmental psychology.  But it’s there.  Let’s jump on this and work to help children develop this skill that is natural to us but has long been unidentified.

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