Category Archives: Book Reviews
Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles
Many middle and high school students are exhausted, stressed, tempted by maladaptive behaviors, and not necessarily optimally prepared for adulthood. Challenge Success is an organization that addresses these issues by advising schools about best practices for improving learning, supporting social emotional development, and fostering students’ long-term success. In Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles synthesize a decade of experience as leaders of Challenge Success and recent educational research about student learning and engagement. The result is a clear and practical guide for parents and educators interested in changing their school cultures to promote more holistic, ethical, creative, and analytic development in students.
Pope, Brown, and Miles outline the elements of a process for changing a school’s culture. Reform comes about when all stakeholders (i.e., school administrators, staff members, faculty, parents, and students) collaborate and listen to one another to identify knotty problems, understand their root cause, and work together towards solutions. Impending changes should be communicated clearly to all parties and changes should be made incrementally.
The authors summarize their recommended changes with the acronym SPACE. That is, reformers can consider: (s) students’ schedule and use of time; (p) project- and problem-based learning; (a) alternative and authentic assessment; (c) creating a climate of care; and (e) education not only for students but for parents and faculty too.
With regard to scheduling, the authors suggest that the school day be restructured to start later thereby aligning with adolescents’ natural circadian rhythm. They urge more breaks in the day for reflection and socializing and a block schedule in which classes have longer but fewer meetings to facilitate deep learning. They suggest also that the school calendar be adjusted so that semester exams occur before winter break to make the vacation more restful.
A major contributor to students’ exhaustion is heavy homework loads. In high preforming schools teenagers spend about three hours per night on homework. However, the vast majority of students do not think that their homework is helpful. Indeed the authors argue that homework is not necessary for a rigorous curriculum or for developing a strong work ethic. Given the contribution homework makes to students’ stress and academic disengagement, it should only be used to review skills or prepare for in-class activities. Further, worthwhile homework allows for student choice, is tailored to each students’ skill level, and connects to the overarching concepts in the course.
Pope, Brown, and Miles argue that maintaining student engagement—their excitement about school, their willingness to put effort into their work, and their belief that school is worthwhile—is essential for maintaining physical and mental health and reducing cheating. Project-based learning (PBL), in which students have a driving question that they try (often for a couple weeks) to answer, can improve engagement.
Testing, especially when it is based heavily on memorization, is another contributor to student stress. The authors reconceptualize assessment as a montage of frequent and diverse forms of measuring progress and showing a students’ full range of abilities. Teachers can create this montage by including assessments in which students must apply knowledge to real world problems, allowing for self-assessment, and providing feedback to students with the opportunity for revision.
Well over two million students took Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 2013. Pope, Brown, and Miles, however, urge caution before adopting an AP curriculum and they suggest critical examination of existing AP programs. They recommend considering the cost of the program and the risk of teaching to an imperfect test. If AP programs are adopted, they should be part of a larger reform effort and available to all students. The authors state that AP programs do not make students better prepared for college or more likely to gain admission. Additionally, they are not an efficacious way to close achievement gaps.
The authors conclude with several recommendations for overall wellness. Schools with a “climate of care” seek to promote social emotional learning, a sense of belonging, healthy relations with teachers, and opportunities for counseling. They teach stress-relief practices to students and teachers, promote an integrative, mind-body wellness and fitness routine, and recognize that wellness need not come at the expense of academic excellence. Schools and parents should work together to protect students’ time for play, day dreaming, and family.
As many Challenge Success schools have shown, when everyone affiliated with a school works together to identify why students are overworked and underprepared and when they are willing to consider the reforms to school policies outlined above, it is possible for students to have both a more rigorous academic experience and a more balanced life.
Pope, D., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform our Schools by Ron Ritchhart
Do your schools and learning communities promote curiosity, innovation, collaboration, empathy, determination, and analytic thinking? Ron Ritchhart, a senior research associate at Harvard Project Zero and a fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia, argues that although these are the most critical skills to impart upon students, they are not the skills that typical learning cultures foster. In Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, Ritchhart asserts that we can build learning spaces that emphasize thinking by focusing on our construction of expectations, language, time, modeled behavior, learning opportunities, routines, interactions, and the learning environment. Ritchhart acknowledges that there are many paths to creating cultures of thinking, but all schools that have successfully shifted towards cultures of thinking had a clear vision, tools to help them achieve that vision, plans to facilitate long-term change, and the wisdom to celebrate growth. Because Ritchhart provides numerous concrete tools for fostering a culture of thinking, this book is a useful guide for any bold teacher or educator ready to transform his class or school into one filled with thinkers.
In a culture of thinking, all participants bring a passion to the task at hand; they share a vision, common goals, mutual respect, and special language. No one—including the leader—dominates, but rather all input is valued. Participants listen actively and taking time for reflection is encouraged.
Ritchhart contends that classes in which expectations are less about student’s obedient behavior and more about goals for knowing, doing, and achieving are closer to promoting a culture of thinking. Teachers should monitor students’ learning and understanding more closely than their work product and recitation of knowledge. With continuous feedback, teachers should work to promote independence in students and a sense that their intelligence can grow. Doing so means teachers need to pay close attention to their choice of words. Language should be inclusive, warm, humble, and questioning. Focused listening is a critical preliminary step in using language effectively to create a culture of thinking.
If teachers value student thinking, they need to make time for their students to wrestle with ideas. Students need time to formulate complex answers and test themselves. Teachers should reflect about the core concepts or skills they want their students to learn, and focus on those. Ritchhart argues that managing one’s time can be very difficult and even futile; instead, he advocates managing one’s energy by engaging in, as much as possible, activities that are satisfying—activities that give more energy than they demand.
When we appreciate that the way we spend our time is a signal of what we value, we may shift our patterns to ensure that we spend time on critical activities such as creating personal connections with students and giving extensive feedback. Indeed, interactions in which educators listen to students, ask thoughtful questions, promote collaboration, and are supportive, respectful, trusting, and encouraging of risks are exactly the kinds of interactions that Ritchhart argues promotes a culture of thinking.
This book provides examples of instructors who demonstrate that when teachers show themselves to be authentically passionate about their topic area, lovers of learning, and reflective individuals, they model for their students the skills necessary to be a thinker. Teachers can allow students to demonstrate these same attributes by creating novel learning opportunities that are easy for students to begin, that can sustain them for the depth of investigation the students wish to pursue, and that give students a chance to produce something valuable.
Having well established routines in which students know what to do, can provide structure to thought and to the learning process. For example, teaching students to make a claim, support it, and question it gives them a pattern they can successful employ across learning situations. Finally, Ritchhart shows that while teachers may feel as though they do not have much control over the physical environment in which they teach, there typically are slight adjustments that a teacher can make to create a more comfortable and collaborative learning space. Ordering desks in a “C” shape can signal that discussion is encouraged; displaying samples of student learning products can enlighten and enliven a class; giving students tools to fidget with in a non-disruptive way reduces behavioral concerns; soft lamp lightening rather than harsh overhead lights creates a calm space to learn.
Ritchhart argues convincingly that shifting towards a culture of thinking is a worthwhile investment in nurturing the type of adults we hope to see in the next generation.
Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools. John Wiley & Sons.
Resilience—the ability to recover from a set-back—is one of the most important traits and mindsets to instill in children so that they may thrive in adulthood. This is the theme of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, Third Edition, by Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg. Ginsburg is a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, a counselor and researcher about child development, and a father of two adolescent girls. The “seven crucial Cs”– competence, confidence, connections, character, contributions, coping and control—comprise the skills parents should foster in their children to promote resilience. Although Ginsburg humbly states that much of the book is “commonsense parenting,” this guide, aligned with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is helpful to all parents and youth services providers because of the practical tips and tricks he provides for reflecting about and improving one’s parenting practices.
Children and adolescents experience stress from parents, friends, school, demanding extracurricular activities and the media. While stress had an evolutionarily productive role (i.e., spurring us to escape predators), and, while it can still be harnessed to increase productivity today, chronic stress may lead to poor health and risky decision-making. Given that many of the behaviors parents hope their children will avoid arise as a stress-coping mechanism, it is important to address children’s stress directly. Ginsburg offers numerous strategies to help children and adolescents (and their caregivers) manage stress and build resilience. He suggests physical exercise, meditation and reflection, proper nutrition and sleep, engaging in creative activities, volunteering in the community, having multiple friend groups and older mentors, and learning to ask for help. He discusses some of his clinical techniques for redirecting stress-related behaviors, such as making a decision tree. More than any of these tactics, the most critical parenting practice for building resilience and managing stress is ensuring that children know they are loved unconditionally, that their parents will always be a source of stability, and that home can be a safe haven.
Another crucial parenting practice is setting high expectations for children. Children will fulfill the expectations set for them, whether they are low or high. One of the greatest challenges of parenting is knowing how much to protect a child. Loosening protective reins to allow children to work on their emerging abilities and build on their strengths gives them an opportunity to gain competence and confidence. When children or adolescents meet expectations, praise should be realistic and based on effort. When they fail to meet reasonable expectations that parents set, parents need to avoid lecturing. Criticism should be focused. Punishments should be clearly related to the offense committed. Parents should not equate discipline with punishment; rather they should think of discipline as a way of teaching and scaffolding behavior. To understand why a child has not met an expectation, and to connect more generally, parents need to learn to listen. Doing so means creating opportunities for discussions, listening intently without interruptions, and being non-judgmental.
Parents need to model the behaviors that they hope to cultivate in their offspring. The actions that children observe will impact their behavior much more than the messages they are told. As such, parents should embody the values they hope to pass on, such as giving to charity, avoiding prejudice, delaying gratification, communicating emotions effectively, and devoting oneself to important relationships. Ginsburg argues that the aim of parenting is to raise children who will grow into people who will be successful at ages 35, 45, 55 and beyond. At each of these ages parents need to care for themselves and model a full life for their children by engaging in their own interests and maintaining their own social relations outside of their children.
These parenting practices encompass an authoritative parenting style in which parents set clear expectations, offer an overabundance of love, and urge their children to develop their own independence. Authoritative parents offer their children lots of time, attention, and opportunities for emotional vulnerability, but they do not spoil their child by indulging each material desire.
While nearly the entire book is relevant to any parent, Ginsburg offers a few specialized tips for populations that face unique challenges such as military families or adolescents with depression. Beyond the recommendations in this book, Ginsburg also refers his readers to online resources with a wealth of information about promoting grit and resilience and reducing stress. Ultimately, he suggests that first and foremost a parent should trust her own instinct about what is best for her child as this is the most important ingredient for “giving kids roots and wings.”
Ginsburg, K.R. & Jablow, M. M. (2015). Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings (3rd ed.) Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, provides a compelling call to action grounded in psychological and neuroscientific research in Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Adolescence (roughly defined as ages 10-25) lasts longer than in previous generations. Comparisons of today’s U.S. adolescents to adolescents of previous generations suggest that they are doing no better in terms of critical social, health, and societal measures. Comparisons to our peer-nations suggest that U.S. adolescents are doing worse. Thus, Steinberg urges parents, educators, policy makers, and other actors to rethink how they raise and interact with adolescents. Recent research about the adolescent brain suggests that adolescence is a unique time for developing skills to flourish, but this must be balanced against adolescents’ proclivity for risk-taking and poor self-control. Incisive and comprehensible, Age of Opportunity is a worthwhile read for educators and parents of adolescents as well as anyone interested in understanding the causes and implications of shifting demographic trends among young people.
Steinberg argues that society needs to invest in the period of adolescence because the brain will never again be as plastic. Research in the last fifteen years illuminates the unique features of the adolescent brain. Neural connections among various regions of the brain, which mature at different rates, are reorganized during adolescence. The more we use particular skills the better connected the regions of the brain that facilitate those skills will be. The brain systems that undergo the greatest change during adolescence are those that control reward-seeking, relationships, and regulatory behaviors. Remembering is also exaggerated during adolescence. The adolescent brain continues to develop towards an adult-like form well into the twenties, which parallels societal changes in the protraction of adolescence into the twenties.
In the mid-1800s, adolescence—bookended by menarche (first period) and marriage—lasted about five years. In 2010, it was about fifteen years and by 2020 Steinberg suggests that it may be as many as twenty years. Obesity, low birth weights, and exposure to light, stress, and certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals have all hastened the arrival of adolescence. Steinberg presents evidence that maturing too early can increase the risk of problems like teenage pregnancy, contraction of STDs, psychological disorders, school disengagement, and even cancer. However, Steinberg argues that contrary to the media’s messages about lazy and self-indulgent 20-somethings who are unwilling to commit to a career or marriage, extending adolescence on the older end can actually improve social and cognitive development if the time is used productively to experience novelty.
One downside of prolonged adolescence is that it expands the time in which people are prone to take unreasonable risks. Connections between the brain’s limbic system, which plays a role in emotion regulation, and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for inhibition, are slow to develop. Also, adults make decisions about riskiness by relying on parts of their brain that control their gut (i.e., they have a “gut reaction” to risky events), but adolescents rely more on areas associated with deliberative decision-making. Adolescents’ brains respond more strongly to the pleasure of rewards than do adults. Together this helps explain why, across the globe, we see a pattern of adolescents taking more risks, seek rewards, being less deterred by losses, behaving impulsively, and acting more violently than people at any other developmental stage. This developmental change was once evolutionarily adaptive for tasks such as finding mates outside of one’s family. Nowadays, to reduce adverse adolescent behaviors, Steinberg argues that we ought to create an environment with more adult supervision to help adolescents regulate their behavior so as not to be harmed by their own risk taking.
In particular, adolescents from economically disadvantaged backgrounds need these supportive structures. Low-SES adolescents typically have less “psychological and neurobiological capital.” Steinberg defines psychological capital as noncognitive skills (e.g., self-regulation) important for success and neurobiological capital as advantages procured from a protracted period of brain plasticity. Self-control, a skill critical for success, can be developed with training in mindfulness, consistent aerobic exercise, and interventions aimed at boosting working memory.
Parents can support productive adolescent development by adopting an authoritative style in which they show their child equal parts warmth (e.g., tender touches, emotional understanding), firmness (e.g., clear expectations, fair punishments), and support (e.g., praising effort). Educators can support authoritative parenting, make school more challenging and academically engaging, and teach self-regulation. Policy makers should continue their work to reconceptualize adolescent health education, driving restrictions, and criminal punishment. The last several decades have brought legislation geared towards helping people survive adolescence. Taking into account new research about the adolescent brain and the changing cultural construction of adolescence can usher in new policies and practices geared towards helping students thrive.
Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom by Darcia Narvaez, PhD
In her 2014 book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom, Darcia Narvaez aims to increase virtuous morality, empathy, and cooperativeness among adults. Anyone interested in understanding the evolutionary, biological, and social bases of morality or seeking to improve ethical behavior can learn a great deal from this book.
Narvaez argues that our sense of morality—or how we function as social beings sharing with one another life’s victories and challenges—is shaped by the integration of our physical, mental, and social experiences as well as our evolutionary history. Modern times have drawn us away from some of our intuitive wisdom about how to create communal societies and led to shrinkage of our moral and emotional capacities. This trend can be reversed, she argues. Both our culture and one’s interpretation of experiences can be altered to increase empathic concern and communal orientations, which will help create societies in which all life (humans and other natural creatures) flourish.
Narvaez begins by reporting about the decline in social interaction, health, and ethical decision making in the U.S. She believes that humans are dynamic, but early exposure to suboptimal learning environments affects our physiology, brain development, and epigenetics. Changes at these levels affect a person’s moral reasoning and ability to act consistently in a virtuous way. Citing Darwin, Narvaez argues that we evolved to be cooperative, connected, moral beings. Only recently have we abandoned the wisdom our small-band hunter gatherer (SBHG) forbearers knew about acting communally. In fact, when people (and even other animal species) are raised in supportive conditions, they tend to cooperate with one another. There are cultural differences in the emphasis placed on competition and cooperation, but cooperation is generally more adaptive.
In our early years, Narvaez asserts, we develop an “empathic core” that impacts both our understanding of ourselves as moral beings and our socio-emotional imaginative abilities. Only with responsive parenting do these systems develop properly such that we have emotional and cognitive understanding of social dynamics. When raised by inattentive parents or in a dangerous environment, our social capacities may underdevelop, and our stress response may become hyperactive. For example, we all have a “safety ethic” that helps us navigate relational stress, but among individuals who experienced early social trauma, the safety ethic may lead people to make decisions based on their own preservation rather than on maximizing group success.
Not only is the influence of early social experiences observable behaviorally, but also we see changes in people’s brains and physiology. Narvaez states that the right hemisphere, more than the left, is associated with emotional and moral processes like affective empathy, interpretation of social relations, emotional modulation, and stress regulation. The frontal lobe as a whole and especially the orbital frontal cortex, which is the primary projection of the emotional limbic system, are also critical. They aid with processing affect, making moral decisions, and imagining moral paths. When these systems are well-formed, they keep us regulated and integrate cognition with the feelings that guide our morality. When these structures are underdeveloped because of early stress or damaged because of injury people may display a lack of compassion, love, and respect as well as signs of sociopathy or other forms of maladaptive social coping.
Narvaez reviews the traditional moral wisdom in Ancient Greek, Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Native American traditions as well as “primal wisdom” from SBHG societies. Primal wisdom can teach us to view the self, and not just society, as communal, expansive and integrative. We are each equal partners with the rest of the world around us. A return to this view of oneness and reciprocity might help arrest some of the moral decline in the western world that framed Narvaez’s investigation of modern human morality. A more holistic moral orientation would help us also to raise wiser children.
Narvaez observes that across religions and cultures the most important virtues are humility, love and authenticity. However, even if an individual is not born into a society or culture that facilitates development of these qualities, that person can (and should) still change herself to have a fuller moral imagination that seeks to facilitate communal thriving and a reverence for nature.
Narváez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
“I think, therefore I can change what I am.” Walter Mischel, a Columbia University psychology professor renowned for his research about self-control, concludes his 2014 book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, with this modification to Descartes’ famous proposition. Mischel, the creator of the “marshmallow test”, argues that self-control and the ability to delay gratification are critical for long-term health and for social and professional success. These skills are detectable at an early age, responsive to training, and able to help us shape who we are. His admission of his personal self-control short-comings (e.g., at one point he smoked more than 3 packs of cigarettes a day while aware of the adverse health effects) and the strategies he used to exercise self-control illuminate his presentation of the field of self-control research.
The Marshmallow test (formally known as “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm”) exists in many iterations, but the basic set-up begins by having a researcher ask a preschool child (age 3 or 4) to select a tasty treat. The researcher leads the child into a room with a one-way mirror in which there are no toys or colorful distractors; there is only a chair and desk with the tasty treat and a bell atop it. The researcher explains to the child that he can ring the bell at any time to bring the researcher back into the room so that the child can eat the treat, or if the child waits until the researcher returns, then he can have two of the tasty treats. The difficulty of the task arises from the tension between our “hot system,” which acts quickly and reflexively and our “cool system,” which acts slowly and reflectively.
Mischel and his colleagues found, across several cultural settings, individual differences in children’s likelihood of delaying. Decades later, brain imaging of those who delayed immediate gratification as a child compared to those who did not revealed greater activity for the delayers in the brain’s prefrontal cortex—an area associated with impulse control. Mischel is careful to frame these results by noting that categorizing people as high or low-delayers, as though self-control is a stable and universal quality, is inaccurate. First, self-control is context-specific. For example, politicians (e.g., Bill Clinton) famously exert extreme self-control to be disciplined decision makers in their professional lives, and yet show an enormous lack of self-control in their private lives. Second, Mischel emphasizes that self-control abilities are changeable. Both nature and nurture play a role in determining self-control ability.
Several specific strategies can promote self-control. Mischel and his colleagues found that children were more or less likely to eat the marshmallow depending on how and what they thought about during that time. For example, children encouraged to think about how delicious the marshmallow would taste waited a shorter time than students who were encouraged to think about the marshmallow abstractly or to imagine it as something else, like a cloud. By about 5 or 6, children realize that obscuring the reward from view may help them delay. One trick that helped Mischel quit smoking was to associate cigarettes with the prospect of developing cancer and a haunting encounter he had with a man about to undergo radiation treatment.
Mischel encourages the use of “if-then” plans—plans in which people recognizes that if they are confronted by a trigger of the behavior they are trying to control, they will engage in a specific, more constructive behavior instead. To help self-regulate when recalling emotionally charged events (like the end of a romantic relationship) Mischel says that if people recalls the situation from an objective, fly-on-the-wall perspective, rather than recalling themselves as an actor, they are likely to be more level-headed. Mischel reports on research that suggests that individuals who view their current selves as closely related to their future selves save more for retirement.
To promote self-control in children parents should try to minimize the stress their kids experience, teach them that choices have consequences, encourage autonomy rather than controlling decision-making processes, and (perhaps most critically) model the type of self-control they would like their kids to exert. Executive function—the cognitive skill that allows us to assert self-control over our thoughts, actions, and emotions—is critical for students’ success. Mischel argues that there is no ambiguity about the need to promote executive function skills in school. He offers KIPP charter schools, schools that emphasize character development and college-going, as a model for how schools can help students (including economically disadvantaged students) learn these skills. With practice and the techniques that Mischel describes, we can resist the marshmallow, so that we can work towards becoming a better version of ourselves.
Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow test: mastering self-control. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do suggests that the best way to instill a love of reading in kids is to start the child reading now, regardless of his age, and have fun doing it. In his 2015 book, Daniel T. Willingham, University of Virginia Professor of Psychology, offers digestible, practical tips, supported by psychological research about what parents of kids of all ages—newborn through teenagers—as well as K-12 teachers can do to encourage kids to read. Although Willingham mentions positive life outcomes associated with being a devoted reader, the book is premised on the belief that reading is an intrinsically valuable activity for learning about our world and appreciating the magnificence of it and its inhabitants.
Willingham argues that students should be internally motivated to read and eventually be able to decode text easily and understand a work’s meaning. He is troubled by the fact that enjoyment of reading decreases across childhood and that enjoyment is very low among high school students. Students who learn from their parents that “we are a family that reads,” who see themselves as a reader, and who enjoy reading are likely to read more.
The greatest difficulty in learning to decode text is mapping letters with their sounds (e.g., “o” can sound like “oh” or like “uh”). This is a challenging task in English given that the language is an amalgamation of other languages. Predictably then, students in first grade in almost all western continental European countries have twice the reading comprehension scores of first grade students in England. Another challenge—promoting comprehension while reading—can be addressed by increasing learners’ general knowledge as background information is key to comprehension and filling in a text’s implied information.
Willingham provides reading preparation tips for caregivers of infants through preschool age children. Baby talk or “motherese” helps very young infants distinguish sounds as do rhyming and word-play games. As early as nine months babies can recognize some words. Building their vocabulary through constant talking is important. Adults can help children realize that letters have meaning and are ubiquitous by pointing them out in signs and logos. Willingham offers tips for making reading a fun and beneficial part of a family’s regular daily routine, as well as tips for creating an environment in which young children want to read for leisure. More important than the age (within reason) that a child begins reading is indulging the child’s abundant natural curiosity to help them acquire general knowledge.
In kindergarten through second grade students learn the mechanics of reading. After reviewing the debate about teaching reading through phonics or whole-world instruction, Willingham concludes that in both theory and practice teaching phonics is the marginally better way to teach reading to the majority of students. Most U.S. elementary school teachers use a “balanced literacy” approach that draws on both instructional practices. Willingham argues that less time should be spent on non-essential language arts activities for students in K-2 and more time should be spent teaching other subjects (e.g., social studies, science) that increase students’ general knowledge. Adults should model enthusiasm for reading and help the child feels like a skilled reader. Willingham emphasizes the value of parents and children reading together daily for short bursts of time. Parents should ask their children questions, such as “what did you do today?”, so that kids practice telling a coherent story.
Fluent readers in third grade through high school should be able to read with prosody such that they understand how the text might sound if spoken. They should be able to make inferences from texts and reason about an issue based on content they read. Parents of these older children ought to continue encouraging reading and making it part of family-time.
Technology plays a large role in education at older ages. Because of online content people are actually consuming more words today than ever before, but students are not good at discerning credible sources. Some argue that with all of human knowledge so easily “googleable” students do not need to learn as much content. Willingham generally disagrees; background knowledge is key to comprehension.
Although this book is written for the typical reader, Willingham alludes to a mechanism for teaching dyslexic, reading-disabled, or garden-variety poor readers when he says that supporting students who find reading challenging means acknowledging the difficulty that they experience, praising the effort that they exert, and exposing them to enjoyable reading materials. He cautions that many reward schemes (e.g., praising performance) may undermine the intrinsic pleasure of reading.
With an abundance of suggestions, Willingham charts a path for cultivating learners who first and foremost find reading pleasurable and secondarily are stronger students because of it.
Willingham, D. T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. John Wiley & Sons.
What is worth knowing? What should students learn in school? Or, as the insolent student in the back of the room might ask midway through a lecture, “why do I need to know this?” These are difficult questions to answer and made all the more challenging because educators must prepare students for an unknown tomorrow. In his newest book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and founding member of Project Zero, David Perkins, offers a framework for responding to these questions. Perkins does not tell his readers what is worth knowing—the answers are dynamic and person-specific. However, he provides scaffolds to help school boards, textbook authors, principals, teachers, parents and students make decisions about what is worth learning. Curricula, he argues, should be “lifeworthy,” “lifeready,” and embedded with interdisciplinary thinking and 21st century skills.
Lifeworthy learning, a phrase coined by Perkins, teaches students ideas and skills that are likely to matter in the lives they are expected to lead. Lifeworthy learning is not sufficient if students think only about that information and not with that information. To think with knowledge students need “lifeready learning”—knowledge they use to solve problems, weigh options, make decisions, and better understand their world. Perkins contends that given that students’ level of school engagement decreases as they progress through the educational system, increasing the lifereadiness of curricula is critical.
He argues that the educational research community aggressively tries to address race- and income- based achievement gaps, but an equally if not more harmful gap in education is the relevance gap. Closing the relevance gap between what students are taught and what they will need to know in the future can be achieved when educators consider whether content is lifeworthy and lifeready. Teaching students with the goal of promoting “big understanding” leads to deep insights into how the world works, how to take action, how to be ethical, and how to apply knowledge in varied circumstances.
Perkins argues that educators need to think more about what to include in curricula. One problem he identifies is the “crowded garage effect”—new content is continually added but rarely removed from the curriculum. Currently, curricula attempt to touch on a broad range of topics, but coverage is shallow. Smart sampling or choosing to cover only exemplary, resonant and accessible ideas or cases within a discipline can help stem this problem. Rather than seeking to develop experts, the goal of pre-university education, according to Perkins, should be developing “expert amateurism,” so that students understand basic concepts within a discipline and can apply them appropriately and in a range of circumstances.
Perkins emphasizes the need to inspire wonder in learners, which can occur in part by asking penetrating questions. When we press students to think about what the real issues behind a problem are or how things would be different if not for an assumption we make we can ignite their passion.
Perkins suggests changes to: 1) the way disciplines are approached, 2) the way thinking is taught, and 3) the emphasis placed on relationship skill development. Given the types of challenges students will need to address in the future and the types of skills future employers will need in their employees, today’s curricula should build bridges between disciplines, reframe existing disciplinary content in terms of real-world challenges, and include additional disciplines (e.g., social science disciplines) in the curriculum. Teaching students about different ways of knowing, the ways of reasoning within a discipline, and metacognitive skills are often neglected because of the pressure to cover content. Perkins suggests that students should be taught a discipline’s content and ways of thinking in unison. He says that to be productive citizens of the 21st century, students need to develop empathic abilities and ethical understanding. He offers a comprehensive list of personal and interpersonal skills and knowledge that are worth knowing.
Perkins tells of an instance in which Gandhi lost a sandal on the train tracks. Unable to retrieve it because the train was in motion, he tossed his remaining sandal next to the lost one. One sandal did him no good, but an abandoned pair might have great value for someone else. Perkins argues that Gandhi demonstrated “big understanding” in this moment of insight. He took action to advance an ethical outcome. Cultivating this kind of wisdom is a tall order for schools amidst a packed curriculum. Yet teaching only facts is too low a bar. Inspired by this example, Perkins concludes by suggesting a compromise: “maybe a reasonable aspiration for education, even pre-university education, is not so much wisdom but knowledge on the way to wisdom.”
Perkins, D. (2014). Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. John Wiley & Sons.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao
Amidst the adoption of controversial Common Core state standards and as students across the U.S. prepare to take end-of-year exams, it is important to reflect about the implications of a centralized and test-based educational system. Chinese-educated University of Oregon Professor Yong Zhao’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World, is a polemic against authoritarian educational systems. He argues that China’s leading performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has made western countries, including the United States, admire and strive to emulate China’s educational system so as to avoid China developing a superior workforce. However, Zhao argues that China’s two thousand year old tradition of authoritarian educational system produces good test-takers but extirpates the critical qualities, such as creativity, that actually produce thought leaders and make a society and its workforce thrive. The greatest threat the U.S. faces from China is not that the Chinese educational system is better, but rather that the allure of its flawed educational system might lead the U.S. to diminish its investment in developing entrepreneurial, divergent thinkers thereby compromising what has made the U.S. educational system so successful.
Zhao explains that in 2009 and 2012 students in Shanghai were the top performs in the world in all three PISA exam subjects (math, reading, and science). China’s educational system garnered praise. President Obama described the realization that China was outeducating the U.S. as a “Sputnik moment.” Zhao argues that this hype is misplaced in part because the PISA exam is a flawed measure. Data collection and analysis techniques are widely criticized. Some claim the test is culturally biased. A PISA score is merely an indicator of content mastery in three academic subjects; it does not measure social-emotional aspects of development that are critical for educating young people who will be successful adults. One test cannot possibly serve as a proxy for summarizing the strength of an entire educational system. Zhao argues that PISA scores indicate the extent to which students have been “homogenized” to think a certain way and cannot assess their creative capabilities.
According to Zhao, Chinese students perform well on these exams because of a tradition dating back to at least 605 AD when the Keju testing system was invented to “meritocratically” select people for highly sought government posts. The Keju test, which was administered until 1905, did make citizens highly value education, but it rewarded obedience and respect for authority, while diverting some of China’s brightest minds away from being innovators. Zhao says today’s college entrance exam, gaokao, drives similar intense competition and denies students the opportunity to develop themselves holistically. He describes a secondary school, Mao Zhong, in which students and parents work relentlessly for a year and spend thousands of dollars, to improve college exam scores.
Even if PISA scores were a perfect indicator of an educational system’s quality, the myopic focus on test scores has deleterious effects. Zhao argues that students from rural areas and students with disabilities are disadvantaged and overlooked. The testing culture has fostered an insidious, rampant, billion-dollar cheating culture. In 2013, when a cheating scheme for the college exam was stopped, rioters in the Hubei province chanted, “there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” At several levels of the educational structure a system of rewards and punishments exists to promote publishing academic papers. This has propelled China to become the second largest producer of scientific journal articles; however, some of these are based on false results and those that do not falsify results are not as highly regarded (as measured by citations) as research from other countries. There has been a 32-fold increase in patents, but many are essentially useless. The recent Atlanta test cheating scandal is an early indicator of the corrupting influence that an obsession with test scores can have here as in China.
The Ministry of Education made some attempts to dilute the emphasis on testing and rank, but these changes did not materialize. There is a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts; no individual student or parent is willing to cease doing everything possible to increase his test score and prospect of admission to a selective school when he knows that other students will still be doing the same, regardless of governmental messages to the contrary. Thus, not only does an authoritarian educational system suppress creative thinking, but a society that has become authoritarian in its educational practices is difficult to change. This should serve as a warning to us here. To create and support an educational system that produces globally-minded, innovative, citizens for tomorrow, it is critical to encourage the pursuit of intellectual passions and to scaffold social emotional development.
Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. John Wiley & Sons.
Because the 2014 writing guide Steven Pinker authored is truly essential for improving writing, all writers would certainly benefit from reading it. “Purists”, as Pinker calls the sticklers for grammatical rules, might identify four or five errors in the previous sentence. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Pinker, a psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, argues that the “texting generation” has not ruined English as some fear; rather poor writing has always abounded. Pinker’s aim is to help good writers become better. He draws on psychological and linguistic research to explain in an entertaining voice the underlying principles behind why his practical tips will improve writing.
Pinker reminds us that good writers are avid readers who have honed their writing craft over time. Good writing requires critical analysis of language usage and decision-making in the face of ambiguous and evolving rules. Pinker characterizes writing as an unnatural way to communicate because it deprives us of many of the tools we use in speech. Style is critical for building understanding and trust between writer and reader because it helps preserve the elements of oral communication that can get lost on the page.
Pinker says the most damning obstacle to good writing is the curse of knowledge. Cognitive science research suggests that people are minimally competent in knowing what another person knows or thinks. They are not good at imagining what it would be like for another person not to know something that they know already. The curse of knowledge leads to the overreliance on jargon, abbreviations, and onerous chunks of information. It leads to the underutilization of explanations, examples, concrete descriptions of visual images, and digestible packets of information. The best way to avoid these problems and to write with the needs of the reader in mind is to revise. Asking someone with less knowledge about the topic to edit a work is critical. Pinker says that authors often organize their ideas in an arbitrary order rather than in the order that will facilitate the reader’s understanding and retention. Creating an outline and being clear in one’s own mind about the purpose of the writing can help minimize this tendency. A writer should also repeatedly edit her written work.
Pinker argues that writing in a classic style can help people avoid the pitfalls that make writing stuffy. Good writers assume that they and their readers are equally intelligent, but unequally familiar with the topic at hand. Clarity and simplicity are the hallmark of good writing. Good writers are not anxious, apologetic, or trite. For example, they make claims in the first person and avoid the use of clichés.
Syntax is important because it converts a nest of jumbled ideas into a coherent string of words. Psychological research shows that people more easily comprehend meaning when a topic is introduced before the comments about the topic are made and when related ideas are next to one another; this is also syntactically desirable. Extra words, varied terms for the same concept, and the use of multiple negative words encumber readers with a greater cognitive load and more demands on working memory; brief sentences are preferable.
Pinker concludes with two lists. One is a catalog of grammatical rules and word-meanings that purists might embrace. He argues that the items on the list are not necessarily violations of grammatical conventions. For example, there is a place for “ain’t” in English; beginning a sentence with a conjunction is usually just fine; dangling modifiers with clear subjects are permissible; ending a sentence with a preposition often leads to better comprehension. Those who are sticklers for language will find this list interesting and challenging; those who are tired of having their grammar corrected may find this list vindicating; all English-language users can benefit from being exposed to the controversies on this list. He concludes with a list of common grammatical or word-meaning mistakes made by writers that are true errors to be avoided. Pinker uses humor and pithy comics, has a flexible attitude about writing rules, and explains the underlying cognitive motivation for these rules. This makes his writing style guide an approachable, useful, entertaining, and clear tool to helping any competent writer become great.
Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York, New York: Penguin.