Category Archives: Book Reviews
“We should simply try to make the world as happy as possible” (P.333). That this principle might serve as a universal moral philosophy is one of the central claims in Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene, professor of psychology and director of the moral cognition lab at Harvard University, explains what morality is, why we develop it, how our brains support our moral decision making, why we sometimes fail to optimize universal happiness, and how a deeply pragmatic, universally-acceptable moral philosophy might help us achieve peace and flourish. Specifically, Greene argues that we developed morality because it promotes cooperation within a group—it allows people to favor “Us” over “Me.” Because we are more connected than ever before, many of today’s social problems arise because of a tension between moral tribes, or a tension between “Us” and “Them.” While the brain’s automatic moral reasoning makes us very efficient at solving “Us versus Me” problems, we must rely upon our more effortful and inefficient moral manual mode to address problems of “Us versus Them.” Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that suggests that our actions should be guided by the pursuit of the best outcomes for all involved in a situation, may be our optimal moral guide.
Greene distinguishes two types of moral dilemmas. The first is the well-known “tragedy of the commons” in which, if each individual pursues his own best interest (e.g., acquires more cattle to graze on the commons), doing so will undermine the collective good (e.g., the commons will be over-grazed). Cooperation within a group helps us avoid this problem and supports our group’s survival. We evolved a moral compass because it helps us cooperate. The second moral dilemma is the “tragedy of commonsense morality” in which the morality one tribe has developed to deal with the “tragedy of the commons” conflicts with the moral common sense of another tribe.
Greene explains research his and other research teams have conducted about the factors that shape moral decision-making and the brain systems that support it. The research uses variants of the following hypothetical scenario: five people are facing an impending death and an action the research participant takes could save the lives of those five people while costing one person to lose her life. All else being equal sacrificing one life to save five is desirable. Under certain conditions, however (e.g., if one must actively inflict force), people do not report that they would save the five lives.
Different regions within our prefrontal cortex (PFC) (i.e., the ventromedial and the dorsolateral PFC) are especially active when reasoning about different scenarios and the PFC is involved in planning the actions necessary to achieve the desired moral outcome. The anterior cingulate cortex is implicated in recognizing and managing conflicting moral outcomes and sends a signal to the dorsolateral PFC to help adjudicate.
To be moral individuals we need an evolutionarily and culturally shaped automatic intuition about moral behaviors, especially for Me versus Us problems. We need the discipline to reason about difficult moral situations such as Us versus Them situations. Finally, we need the meta-awareness to know when to trust our instincts versus when to reason more deeply about the situation. If different groups have different opinions about whether a moral transgression occurred, the moral quandary is likely an Us versus Them problem; if there is no controversy, the issue is likely a Me versus Us problem.
Utilitarianism, a flexible and pragmatic philosophy which attempts to maximize the overall quality of peoples’ experience in the long run for all relevant parties, may be the best way for everyone to address difficult moral quandaries. Some criticize utilitarianism for expecting too much of people. Greene reminds us that expecting people to be perfectly selfless would undermine their own happiness and thus is inconsistent with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism simply asks us to be marginally less selfish. Conversely, some misunderstand the term “happiness” and criticize utilitarianism’s pursuit of happiness as frivolous and hedonistic. Utilitarians intend to encompass all the qualities that facilitate living a long, productive, and fulfilling life within the term “happiness” not just fleeting pleasures.
Greene concludes by offering advice for transcending our moral tribalism and acting in more universally moral ways. We must seek to reason about complex moral issues rather than rationalize our positions. Acknowledging our own ignorance may moderate our moral opinions. We should recognize—but be weary of—our moral instincts when confronting complex Us versus Them issues. Appeals to “rights” and “duties” are often counterproductive, as they silence debate rather than facilitate discussion. Finally, we can all afford to give more to “make the world as happy as possible.”
Greene, J. (2013) Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.
Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD
Educators have long known that students’ emotional experiences greatly impact their learning. Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang offers a neurobiological account of why this may be the case. In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Immordino-Yang explains in a series of essays that the brain constructs complex emotional experiences that help us learn, socialize, and act morally by coopting the same brain regions that help us regulate our viscera and basic survival-related mechanisms. She argues that, contrary to centuries old theory that emotions interfere with rational thinking, our “emotional rudders” steer our rational actions and ability to learn. Learning occur through a complex interplay of our biological beings, psychological selves, and cultural contexts.
Immordino-Yang is uniquely positioned to offer insights from affective neuroscience for education because of her interdisciplinary background and experiences; she was a junior high school science teacher and currently is a human development and affective neuroscience researcher, an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, and the rising president of the International Mind Brain and Education Society. She encourages educators to join with her in a critical conversation about how to build bridges between an understanding of the complex process of students’ learning and feelings in real-world classroom settings and the lab-based neuroscientific research about the brain’s construction of emotion.
Immordino-Yang argues then that our ability to learn is contingent upon our ability to feel emotions. For example, individuals who suffered brain damage in a part of the frontal lobe that impacted their social and emotional behavior (but not IQ) were subsequently unable to develop intuitions in new learning situations to guide rational thought or action. Students benefit when emotions, such as interest and inspiration, are harnessed in the classroom and when educators respect students’ emotional intuitions. It is not surprising that these social emotional experiences matter so deeply for learning and creativity when we consider that our ability to feel these emotions is evolutionarily entwined with our ability to regulate our basic life-supporting physiological functioning (e.g., breathing).
In an fMRI experiment Immordino-Yang found that feeling admiration or compassion for other people activated brain networks associated with inwardly-directed thoughts rather than thoughts about the outside world. As such, she constructs a compelling argument that supporting students in developing their ability to reason complexly about the future and about social, emotional, and moral quandaries may necessitate giving students time to reflect and direct their thoughts inward.
Immordino-Yang offers a fascinating case-study about the affective skill, emotional prosody, and general functioning of two boys—Nico and Brooke—who have each had one hemisphere of their brains removed. These boys are both remarkably successful and even show a good deal of proficiency with tasks typically thought to be governed by the hemisphere that they have lost. For neurologically typical students these boys’ ability suggests the power of capitalizing on one’s unique strengths and the importance of reframing problems such that they are solvable given the skills that one possess. Immordino-Yang suggests also that these boys show that our emotional experiences affect us throughout the learning processes—even in the way we come to gather information when learning. Drawing on her work with Nico and Brooke as well as recent advances in our understanding of the brain’s mirror neuron areas, which maps both one’s own actions and the observation of another’s’ actions, Immordino-Yang argues that our interpretation of actions is culturally situated. Students must understand a teacher’s goals and intentions and develop an appropriate plan for their own actions.
Immordino-Yang concludes with a timely discussion about the way in which social and affective neuroscience can help us understand how to facilitate interactions with digital devices. The more the human-computer interaction is like an authentic social interaction—in which goals are transparent and each party has a role in shaping the exchange—the more satisfied people are likely to be with the design of the technology.
Howard Gardner aptly summarized Immordino-Yang’s strength in the foreword of this fascinating book: “Mary Helen stands out for the way in which she has drawn on the findings and perspectives of [multi-disciplinary] scholars, initiated important lines of research in these areas, brought together her work with those of other innovative scholars into original powerful syntheses, and articulated the educational implications of cutting edge work in psychology, neurology, and other strands of the cognitive sciences.”
Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2015) Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
Happiness, comfort, and mindful attentiveness to one’s surroundings seem like states we should all desire. Yet, Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener warn that these psychological states alone are unlikely to lead to professional achievement and personal satisfaction. Rather, we should seek emotional agility and wholeness. In their 2014 book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that our current cultural obsession with comfort and positivity and our quest for happiness has made us less resilient, more anxious, and less happy. Negative emotions (e.g., anger and guilt) and seemingly undesirable traits like Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy are underappreciated and underutilized. When we accept and integrate all parts of our personality, including the seemingly dark ones, and seek to be whole, we will be closest to living a healthy, joyful, and meaningful life. Biswas-Diener, a lauded positive psychology expert, and Kashdan, a psychology professor and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University have written this refreshing ode to our dark side to appeal to anyone who just cannot read yet another “how to get happy” book and yet seek more personal growth and fulfillment.
Universally, people have a strong desire to experience happiness. Indeed being happy is associated with better health and well-being. However, pursuing happiness directly won’t lead to it; rather an understanding of the advantages of varied emotional experiences and emotional, social, and mental agility might. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that since the 1990s Americans have developed an insatiable addiction to creature comforts. We have come to believe that comfort can be found in the external world and in material goods. This addiction has weakened our ability to use our psychological tools to ease discomfort, made us impatient, and led to the rise of helicopter parenting. Examining the way in which other cultures tolerate unpleasant feelings suggests that we too can learn greater emotional resilience when we break our addiction to comfortableness and move away from seeing happiness as a moral imperative.
Nearly every “negative” emotion can actually be quite useful in guiding our actions in positive ways. For example, anger, especially when carefully regulated, is actually associated with optimism, risk taking, skillful negotiation, and creativity. Guilt can make us behave more ethically and with the interest of the collective in mind, even when no one is watching. Anxiety helps us focus especially during dangerous times. Conversely, positive emotions can hurt us. Happy people are less attuned to details, worse at detecting lies, and more reliant on stereotypes in stressful situations. Unfortunately, our culture can at times be oppressively and disingenuously happy.
Recently, mindfulness, or gently observing one’s surrounding, has received much praise for its role in promoting happiness and meaning. Yet, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener argue that mindlessness is equally valuable and a huge part of our mental life. For example, when we tune-out and operate on “auto-pilot,” we are better at rapidly discerning how much to trust someone. When we mind-wander, we consolidate information and are more likely to remember it. Mind-wandering also facilitates combining ideas in novel ways such that we are more likely to become inspired. When we speak impulsively, without concern for saying the right thing, we actually convey our message in a more sincere, understandable, and helpful manner. Ultimately, mindful and mindless experiences each have their place and ought to be used in tandem.
Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy compose what psychologists typically call the “dark triad.” Kashdan and Biswas-Diener rename this collection of seemingly wicked attributes the “Teddy Effect.” Teddy Roosevelt is illustrative of the way in which these “negative” personality qualities can be harnessed to great effect. We all manipulate others. Roosevelt, who was quite Machiavellian, was a master manipulator, which contributed to his success as a leader. He had a grandiose sense of himself and felt entitled, but this helped him navigate uncertain situations with confidence and think creatively about how to overcome challenges. While psychopathy is associated with callousness and lack of empathy in the common perception, psychopaths in anxiety-inducing situations are actually more likely than others to act altruistically when there is a potential to be glorified for doing so.
We should seek balance between experiences that are pleasurable in the short-term and meaningful in the long-run. We need experiences that are novel and exciting balanced with experiences that are comfortable and familiar. We should seek to understand, identify, and harness all our emotional experiences. When we are whole—good and bad—we will be best.
Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. New York: Penguin.
Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire
“Contradict yourself!” Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and Carolyn Gregoire, senior writer at the Huffington Post, offer that valuable piece of advice to those seeking to be creative. Their new book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind provides a compelling description of ten habits, skills, and personality dimensions of the creative person. This book, inspired by a widely popular article by Gregoire, is sure to resonate with any individual who feels the urge to create and will be informative for educators who seek to inspire habits of creativity in others.
The stages of creativity have traditionally been defined as progressing from a period of knowledge gathering and preparation for insight, to an incubation period in which ideas form out of conscious awareness, to illumination in which there is a creative breakthrough, and finally to verification in which the idea is tested. Kaufman and Gregoire argue that this model describes the messy creative process too cleanly. The creative process requires disciplined switching between rational and imaginative thinking, each of which is supported by distinct networks in the brain. The creative person harbors paradoxes, prefers complexity, extracts order from disorders, takes risks, perseveres, and feels passion.
Kaufman and Gregoire assert that a drive for exploration and an openness to new experiences may be the most essential force for enabling creative achievement. Dopamine, which the authors dub “the mother of human invention” is the neurotransmitter that urges us to explore. Creative people explore by enjoying artistic and imaginative hobbies outside of their domain of expertise and engaging in intellectual “cross-training”—learning ideas from across disciplines. Creativity is enhanced when we have novel experiences, whether those experiences are cross-cultural exchanges or simply driving home from work using an unusual route.
Creative people do not think of work and play as divorced; they do not pit effort and inspiration against one another. Playful adults are less stressed and more successful. For children imaginative play enhances creativity, but youth today have too little time for free, uninstructed play. Like play, experiencing passion is important. Passionate children are more likely to grow into creative adults, especially if they pursued a “harmonious passion” out of a deep curiosity and love of the activity. Inevitably, creative pursuits will present hurdles, but possessing an image of oneself as someone who will overcome any obstacle to achieve her creative dream can help one realize that dream.
Day dreaming is typically characterized as a costly distraction from important learning and instruction. Kaufman and Gregoire argue that in its positive constructive form day dreaming is valuable for planning one’s future, engaging in self-reflection, and even feeling compassion for others. They praise the uninterrupted sick-in-bed day, the long hot shower, or the leisurely walk in nature, all of which are known to have spurred creative insights. The advantage these activities confer may be in part because they are solitary. As many artists know, alone time is critical for developing emotional maturity and a sense of oneself. Indeed, it is when we are alone that the brain network that enables creativity is most likely to be active. Aloneness can help us hear more clearly our inner intuitions and gut feelings, which are valuable guides.
In the vein of the contradictory creative process, as valuable as day dreaming is, the opposite, mindfulness, facilitates creativity also. When we are mindful, we experience more of life by focusing on what we observe. Indeed mindfulness has been shown to increase activation in the brain network that supports imagination. Just a few minutes of meditation before a test can boost performance. One step we can take towards increasing mindfulness is to put our smartphones down and spend less time “grazing” on social media.
Creative people are typically more sensitive. They respond strongly to emotional, cognitive, and physical stimuli. Sensitivity allows the creative person to make herself vulnerable, which can help produce creative achievements. Sensitive individuals who are reared in harsh conditions, may experience that upbringing as even harsher than less sensitive others would. The suffering artist is a common trope; it is true that people who have experienced adversity are inclined to express themselves creatively as this can be a way of coping with and making meaning of that adversity.
Being a creative person in our society takes tremendous courage and perseverance. It means breaking from the crowd, contradicting norms, and taking risks. Often the external reward for doing so, if it ever comes, is delayed. Nonetheless, as Kaufman and Gregoire show, we all benefit when we laud creativity in all its messy, contradictory beauty.
Kaufman, S.B. & Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. NY, NY: Perigee, Penguin Random House LLC.
Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson, PhD and Lou Aronica
To better serve more students and encourage creativity, inquiry, a diversity of skills, and the ability to live a fulfilling life, we need teachers, principals, and policy makers to charge forward with the revolutionary idea of personalized and holistic learning. Authors Sir Ken Robinson, who delivered a TED talk about creativity and schools that has been viewed more times than any other TED talk, and Lou Aronica make these claims in their new book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. After explaining clearly the shortcomings of our current education reform narrative, Robinson and Aronica offer a compelling vision for a new educational system and a theory of change that can be implemented either from outside of or within school systems.
Robinson opines that, since the introduction of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the federal government’s role in education has increased significantly. The current focus, however, on raising standards and accountability is misplaced because the problems can be addressed only by larger scale changes in the type of learning experience we provide to students. The increased amount of standardized testing that accountability measures require of students, for example, is exacerbating our problem of teaching to too narrow a skill set, killing creativity and entrepreneurialism, and leading to the deprofessionalization of the teaching profession.
Robinson urges that, as we think about educating students for the future, we need to face several concerning trends: the decreasing monetary value of a college degree and the rising cost of earning one; a bifurcated academic and vocational class system contributing to rising income inequality; the social and financial drain of having nearly 1.5 million students (who are disproportionately racial minorities) drop out of high school each year; and the boredom and demoralization of those who remain in school.
One way to address these issues, according to Robinson and Aronica, is by shifting our educational system from one modeled after industrial revolution era manufacturing practices to one more analogous to mass farming practices. Doing so would better serve the economic, cultural, social, and personal purposes of education. Our current model has a pyramidal structure in which only a select few students—those who have most successfully conformed to the “student mold”—make it all the way through the educational system to earn advanced degrees. To keep pace with changing economic demands and to foster a wise citizenry that can support a healthy democracy, schools need to: serve the whole student (not just the student-reader, writer, or mathematician) and cultivate his multiple intelligences; recognize the interdependence between students and their community and allow them to pursue their interests in an authentic, self-paced, and playful way; and serve all of its members regardless of their home or financial circumstance.
Robinson and Aronica offer advice for teachers and principals about how they can effect change within the educational system. The core objective of the art of teaching is to facilitate learning, and yet teachers get bogged down in so many extraneous responsibilities. The authors urge teachers to focus on building strong relationships in which they engage their students, enable their students’ curiosity and help them find their passion, maintain high expectations, and empower their students. Principals can help by giving equal weight in the curriculum and culture to subjects like art and physical education, offering opportunities for interdisciplinary learning, and letting students have a voice in decisions about curriculum content while also ensuring that the ideas presented in the curriculum are diverse and taught with depth and dynamism. The strongest leader has a vision and a plan of implementation, but also empowers all members of her community to be innovators who generate ideas for improvement. The authors provide an alliteration of the 8 skills schools should try to promote: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, and citizenship.
The authors note also that supporting student learning is not the responsibility solely of the school; it occurs through an interactive partnership among the school, family, and community. Parents, for example, should take a keen interest in their children’s learning while resisting the urge to become overbearing and controlling about school work.
Robinson and Aronica conclude that, even among individuals with good intentions to support educational reform, combatting entrenched thinking about standardization and conformity rather than personalization and creativity is a challenge. They urge reforms to keep students’ enthusiasm for learning at the forefront of their efforts. With a vision for the future, the belief that change is possible, an understanding of why change is good, the resources necessary to catalyze reform, and an action plan, the revolution for which this book cries is eminently possible.
Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.
How might we encourage more curiosity among young people and particularly among those with lower levels of curiosity? How might we make their minds intellectually hungry? Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the program in teaching at Williams College, tackles these questions in her new book, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. She reports that curiosity, the urge to understand that which is uncertain or unexpected and the mother of intellectual achievement and learning, wanes over childhood and can be squelched in school even when teachers report a commitment to fostering curiosity. She outlines curiosity’s development across childhood and shares techniques that parents, teachers, and students can use to foster curiosity. Her personal stories of life as a curious person make this informative book also engaging and relatable to a wide audience.
Engel lauds curiosity because kids who are habitually curious learn more and when a child is momentarily curious, her learning is optimized at that time. She notes, however, that curiosity is stifled because schools often treat it as a distraction from “real learning.” Early in her career Engel realized that teachers care about cultivating curiosity even though they often fall short of doing so. An accurate measure of curiosity might help teachers foster curiosity and give them the incentive to do so amidst competing demands. However, creating a measure of curiosity has proved elusive because curiosity can vary so greatly within and between individuals as well as between cultures.
Curiosities are often brief and transitory, but the perseverance to find answers to questions that pique curiosity is important. The likelihood and appropriateness of engaging with transitory versus prolonged curiosities changes as people get older. To babies so much in their world is novel, and they have a strong preference for attending to this novelty. Toddlers point and ask numerous questions to understand physical, biological and cultural processes in the world around them. Older children’s interests tend to be more specific, refined and long-lasting.
The extent to which a child is curious about her world is strongly predicted by the curiosity her parents, and later on her teachers and other caring adults, exhibit. Children are likely to seek explanations for unexpected events when they see adults do the same and when they trust that adults will provide opportunities to explore. Novelty-seeking behavior in toddlers and question-asking in older children is tempered by fear; babies who are securely attached to a parent and children in a warm classroom environment (i.e. kids who are not fearful) are likely to explore and inquire.
Engel discusses the importance of difficulty, periods of uncertainty, gossip, reading and down-time for satisfying curiosity and promoting learning. When students struggle to learn a new concept initially, they ultimately learn it more robustly. As such, creating uncertainties by introducing interesting intricacies of a problem can lead to better retention of information and a positive cycle of more learning. Teachers can help students appreciate that temporarily not knowing something can feel exciting, and satisfying a curiosity can be pleasurable.
Peer interactions help satisfy curiosities. Gossip about peers is perhaps our most intense, inherent, and universal curiosity. Children are easily and deeply enchanted by storytelling. Stories about peers’ circumstances and personal attributes can serve as a social glue and a way of learning cultural values. Although curiosity about people around us is robust, there are age, gender, and cultural differences in type and amount of gossiping. There are also cultural differences in language use, question asking, and story telling that can impact curiosity. For example, cultures with more formal education are also the cultures that encourage more question asking.
Engel argues that reading is an invaluable way to satisfy one’s curiosities, and many answers to the questions that interest children can be found in books or on the internet. Furthermore, students’ alone-time to explore their individual curiosities independently and to reflect outside of school helps them become more academically successful and intellectually engaged as life-long learners. Opportunities for down-time are declining. Most hours of a student’s day are scheduled, and teachers struggle to allow children to explore very much at school because exploration can lead to time consuming false starts. Engel provides us a much needed window into the fact that nurturing curiosity involves false starts. Pursuing curiosities requires time, stimulating materials to explore, and people who model curiosity. As we shift to provide students with these ingredients we may be able to keep more minds hungry into adulthood and provide them with tools to feed that hunger.
Engel, S. (2015). The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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.