Friday, December 13, 2019

What The Research Tells Us To Do

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Economic Forum, and Unicef (and according to the dubious measurement of standardized test scores) Finland has the best schools in the world. They have achieved this status by building their educational system on evidence. The US languishes around the middle of the pack, often falling into the bottom half according to some measures. We have achieved this lack of success by relying upon the busy-body guesswork of policy makers, billionaire dilettantes, and administrators who listen to them.

It shouldn't be surprising that the system based on evidence, on research, on reality, would outperform the one based on the fantasies and feelings of people who are not professional educators. In Finland, they do not try to teach kindergarteners to read because the evidence tells us that formal literacy instruction should not start until at least the age of seven and that children who are compelled into it too early often suffer emotionally and academically in the long run. In the US we are forcing kindergartners, and even preschoolers, to learn to read. There is no, as in zero, research that finds longterm gains from teaching to read in kindergarten. In fact, the research that has been done tends to find early instruction reduces literacy in later years.

The evidence tells us that early childhood education should focus on equity, happiness, well-being and joy in learning. This is what Finland has done by basing their educational model on childhood play, which is, again according to the overwhelming preponderance of research, the gold standard. The US has based its early childhood education on standardized testing, increased "instructional time," bottoms-in-your-seats carrot-and-stick standardization, and an ever-narrowing focus on literacy and math despite the evidence that it causes longterm harm to children, because people in power who know nothing about education think that sounds good to them.

We are through the looking glass here. We are doing harm to our children. We are subjecting them to decades of "education" that is, again according to the evidence, doing them far more harm than good, while children in other countries are being provided the best education available because the adults are adult enough to look at reality and act accordingly.

This is not my feeling. This not my opinion. This is not my philosophy. These are the facts as far as we can currently determine them. It is cruel, even abusive, to base our educational system on other people's feelings and fantasies, even if they are rich and powerful. For the sake of our children, we must demand play-based education because, damn it, that's what the evidence tells us.

(Please click the links in this post. Most of them take you to articles, research, and papers that provide even further links into the evidence.)

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Work Of Creating A Community

We didn't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which was okay because we didn't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally needed to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school was all about.

The kids in our 4-5's class had been playing a lot of "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.

At one point, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when they asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. An adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which was our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."

I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we working on in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do: figure out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a story about a study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results, just the most recent one.

If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"That's Not True!"

"Let's play Tiger Babies."

"I want to be a polar bear baby."

"You can't because tiger babies would eat polar bear babies."

"That's not true! Polar bear babies eat tiger babies!"

"That's not true!"

I stepped closer because it was the sort of argument that could escalate, which is always the case when "truth" is at stake. And truth is always at stake when children are engaged in dramatic play.

Of course, by definition, dramatic play, like all fiction, is about the imagination, a place where "truth" is, at best, subjective. Indeed, the children were engaged in a counterfactual game, one in which they were asserting something that is objectively not true: that they, human children, were in fact animal babies. In that context, it seems absurd to be arguing over truth, and adults often respond that way when they feel compelled to intervene, yet games like this are not only crucial for children seeking to understand their world, but also one of the things that makes humans human.

As far as we can tell, we are the only species that regularly engages in counterfactual thinking, a term used in psychology to describe the phenomenon of imagining the world in ways contrary or different from the way that it is. It is both the bane and the glory of our species in many ways. On the one hand we are cursed with the ability to imagine an impossibly perfect world which too often serves to make it even more difficult to make peace with the real one. On the other hand, counterfactual thinking is always the first step in changing the world from what it is to what it could be.

Indeed, the entire world of today is counterfactual from the perspective of a Stone Age human. The modern world is a product of counterfactual thinking, as will be any future that includes humans in it.

There are a whole host of things children are learning as they engage in counterfactual play. It gives them the opportunity to work on understanding what goes on in other people's minds, it is a safe place in which to engage in higher order thinking, it lays the foundation for literacy, it requires the social necessities of negotiation and compromise and agreement. It's easy to dismiss children's dramatic play as silly, as a waste of time even, especially when we hear them intensely arguing over "truth," but what they are doing is exercising their imagination and creativity. They are, quite simply, learning the skills that will make tomorrow.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Intelligence Has Nothing To Do With It

A couple days ago, I took an online IQ test on a lark. It appears that my IQ is between 133 and 149, "or it may even be higher!" which means it may be over 160, so you might very well, right now, be reading the words of a bona fide genius.

Art: Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

Naturally, I'm joking. No intelligent person puts any stock in the validity of tests that purport to measure intelligence. I sure don't, especially a self-administered online test that only took a few minutes, but there was a part of me that was nevertheless disappointed to learn that I'm pretty much average. We all know about the cultural biases that go into these tests, so of course, being a middle-aged, middle-class, white male, one might expect a person like me to score between 133 and 149. And that's the most reliable thing about most standardized tests: they tend to be very good at predicting the demographics of the test takers, but little else.

"Intelligence" is a cultural construct, something that is dictated by the dominant culture. If history is written by the victors, then intelligence is defined by the victors, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other ways of being smart, they just might not get you into your college of choice. A Google search will tell you that there is not just one type of intelligence, but rather two . . . or three, or seven, or eight, or nine. The dictionary definition is "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills," not identifying what specific knowledge or skills qualify, which suggests that intelligence is not so much about what one knows or does, but rather the capacity for growth.

One of the things that I valued most about my decades as a parent and teacher in cooperative preschools was that the children's parents attended school with them. Every parent absolutely knows that their child is a genius. They've seen it with their own eyes. They've been astounded. They've been inspired as their babies have applied themselves in their sponge-like way to acquisition of knowledge and skills, the connections they've made, the epiphanies, and the apparent ease with which it all happens. And when they get to observe their child in the classroom they get to see that they are right -- their child is a genius! And so is that one, and so is that one, and so is that one . . . Indeed, genius is not the rarity our IQ tests would have it be, but rather the norm, at least during these preschool years.

So what happens? The social construct of intelligence happens. This invention of the dominant culture happens. It sorts the children according to socio-economic status, letting just enough high achieving minorities through to prove the rule of this thing called intelligence. It's as if the concept of intelligence exists primarily as form of social control, as a way for one group to assert its superiority over another in the guise of "objectivity." Or maybe it calls into question, not the concept of intelligence itself as much as the attempt to measure intelligence, because it's only through measurement, through judgement and ranking, that we can sorting winners from losers.

This is the dark heart of academic testing, grading, and assessment. No matter how well-intended, the game is always rigged, at least so long as we presume to measure this non-existent thing called "intelligence." As cooperative preschool parents learn, there are as many types of intelligence as their are children. Education is emphatically not about intelligence, but rather about growth. As educators, we should not be here as referees enforcing the rules that determine who wins and loses, but rather as fellow travelers, supporting each child as they use their unique abilities to become their best selves. Intelligence has nothing to do with it.

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Monday, December 09, 2019

Teaching Mindfulness

I was recently asked in a public forum if I've ever taught mindfulness to children. The question threw me. Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, can you repeat the question? 

Mindfulness is a radical Buddhist practice in which one focuses one's full attention on the present moment. This is something toward which I strive, even as I find it exceedingly difficult to achieve for any more than a few minutes at a time. Yesterday, ironically, I was reading a novel in which one of the characters said something about mindfulness that sparked a train of thought that took my brain so far away from the present moment that I had to re-read several paragraphs. I find it a slippery thing to accomplish, requiring discipline, concentration, and practice. A quiet mind is a healthy thing, something valued by medical and spiritual practices from east to west.

Mindfulness as a concept has broken through into our popular culture, really taking off as a popular phenomenon in recent years. There are more than 100,000 books being sold on Amazon with some version of the word in the title, not to mention the proliferation of mindfulness workshops and seminars and gurus. My social media feeds are full of mindfulness memes.

As I reflected on being stumped by the mindfulness question, I had to admit that I've never attempted to teach children the practice of mindfulness. Yet I've spent my professional career surrounded by it. I see it being practiced wherever there are young children engaged in self-selected activities. A child bent over a puzzle in the midst of a noisy classroom is not just working a puzzle, she is the puzzle. Children negotiating their way through their games of princesses and super heroes are fully there in the moment, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. And the younger the children are, the more mindful they tend to be: a baby staring off into the middle distance is, in that moment, the entire universe.

Every day, if I can manage to be mindful enough to see it, I am inspired by the children's ability to be mindful. How can I pretend to teach mindfulness to the experts? We are born mindful. The challenge, is to not lose it as we grow up and it seems that the best place to start is to not unlearn it in the first place. As important adults in children's lives, we too often allow our agendas, our drive to move from here to there, our unquiet minds, to override the mindfulness of children. We insert ourselves, uninvited, into their play with our ideas and concerns and scaffolding and witticisms, drawing their attention away from the present moment, often in a jarring manner. We can't teach mindfulness to the experts, but we can leave them to it. And maybe if we can manage to allow them the time and space for it, they won't grow to forget this wisdom with which they were born.

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Friday, December 06, 2019

Is This Stealing The Fun From The Children?

In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for a magazine called Landscape Architecture entitled “How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play.” Perhaps it wasn’t the first time that the phrase “loose parts play” was used, but it was this manifesto that in many ways kicked things off. In the nearly 50 years since its publication, the idea has grown, first slowly, and then suddenly in recent years as more and more early childhood educators have made Nicholson’s theory a centerpiece of their play-based programs.

That the theory emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Nicholson was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals, we are, in effect, excluding children (and adults) from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, “stealing” it from the children.

Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.

The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as aspects of it are becoming more mainstream. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At it’s core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about democracy, about self-governance, and the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”

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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Teaching Values

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.  ~James Baldwin

I don't claim to be a parenting expert.  I'm just a guy who has spent a lot of time playing with children, from that I've learned a little bit, and because of this blog people write me for my take on things. If there is any one thing that people write me more than anything else, it's something along the lines of, "I've tried everything and nothing works." I'm talking about universal parenting aggravations like getting kids to eat their vegetables, take a nap, or participate in household chores. And these are important things. Not only do we want our children to be healthy, rested, and responsible today, but these behaviors represent the values of good health and responsibility that, if we can only "instill" them, we know will serve our children throughout their lives.

While I try to be more sympathetic than this with individual readers because I know they wouldn't write to some guy on the internet wearing a red cape unless they were truly at the end of their rope, my answer to their dilemma is really quite simple: Quit trying.

You can serve children healthy food, but you can't make them eat. So quit trying.

You can put children into their bed, but you can't make them sleep. So quit trying.

And you can't make them clean up their room without the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment. 

So, I suppose I could reply to these parents that they haven't, in fact, tried "everything," because obviously you could always come up with a carrot that is sweet enough or a stick that is painful enough that you can get a child to do what you want them to do, but I would never suggest that anyone consciously step onto the vicious cycle of reward and punishment. Rewards and punishments may appear to work in the moment -- the promise of ice cream may well motivate a child to eat a few peas; the threat of having toys taken away may well motivate a child to tidy up -- but human nature dictates that, being unnatural consequences, the value of the rewards and the severity of the punishments must be regularly increased or they lose their effectiveness. Not only that, but the lessons taught in the long run, to be motivated by the approval or disapproval of others, are certainly not what we wish for our children. Values must come from within; they are not imposed from without: that's called obedience an unsavory and even dangerous trait.

Whatever we publicly proclaim, our actual values (as opposed to the values to which we aspire) are always, always, always most accurately and honestly revealed by our behaviors. When we eat junk food, we demonstrate that we value convenience or flavor over eating healthily. When we don't get enough sleep, we demonstrate that we value our jobs or our hobbies or our TV programs more than rest. When we let our homes become cluttered and dirty, we demonstrate that we value something else over a well-ordered household.

No, the better course, I've found, when it comes to teaching values is to simply give up trying to make another person do something that you want them to do. If you value healthy food, then eat it. If you value being well rested, then sleep. If you value a tidy bedroom, then keep yours tidy. And ultimately, with time, sometimes lots of time, it will be your role-modeling of these behaviors that your child will come to imitate, not on your schedule, but one of his own, which is all we can expect of our fellow humans.

You cannot instill values in other people, you can only role model them. And while I've avoided mentioning them in this post, no matter what your priest, rabbi, pastor, imam, or guru says, this goes for moral values as well.

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