Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When It Makes More Sense to Eat the Marshmallow

Almost everyone has heard of the marshmallow test. Researchers left small children in a room with a marshmallow. They told them – if you wait to eat the marshmallow, I’ll give you two when I get back. Then they watched what happened. Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the door clicked behind the researcher. Others resisted the urge with a variety of (adorable) strategies. A follow up study of the children showed that the marshmallow resisters – the ones who could delay gratification for a better reward through self-control – were more successful in the future. Schools have begun to spend a lot of time parsing how best to develop this capacity in children.

Then Celeste Kidd thought differently. She was volunteering at a homeless shelter and began to wonder – what if one of these children were given a treat and told to wait before they ate it? Could their likely quick gobbling be explained by a theory of self-control?  She thought that expectations would play a bigger role. These children might expect to have their treat stolen – a big risk in a homeless shelter – and they might not expect adults to follow through on their promises – a big risk when adults are suffering. For these children, then, the most rational choice would be to eat the marshmallow right away. That is, it isn’t that they lack self-control, but rather that they are making the most sensible choice given the situation.

She decided to test her hypothesis by adding another element to the marshmallow test. She began with an art project. The children were given an old used crayon package and told they could use those to draw a picture or wait until the researcher returned with a brand-new set of exciting art supplies. All the children waited. After a brief delay, the researcher returned either with the promised set or without it, apologizing and saying, ‘‘I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all. But why don’t you just use these used ones instead?’’ Then the marshmallow test was done. As usual, the children were given a marshmallow and told that they would get two if they could wait. Children who experienced the unreliable researcher who did not bring art supplies waited on average only 3 minutes. Children with the reliable researcher waited an average of 12 minutes. In other words, the children quickly learned to adapt their expectations from their experiences and acted accordingly.

It makes me wonder how many of the conclusions we draw about children are misguided. We keep trying to look inside for their motivations, aptitudes, and abilities, when we need merely look more often outside and ask what prompts their actions. Perhaps then, we might begin to break the cycle of expectations that closes around the children who can expect little (why wait? why ask for help? why try?); teachers, seeing their “lack of self-control” expect less of them. And so it goes - unless we see things differently.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What is the cost of "best practice"?

In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose begins with a story of mysterious crashes of United States Air Force planes in the late 1940s. After multiple inquiries led nowhere, researchers wondered if the pilots had gotten bigger since the cockpit, based on average sizes, was designed in 1926. Using ten dimensions of size most relevant to flying, one of the researchers made a startling discovery – out of the 4063 pilots measured, not one airman fit within the average range on all ten dimensions. Even more surprising, he found that using only three dimensions, less than 3.5 percent of pilots were average sized on all three. In other words, there is no such thing as an average pilot. As Rose puts it, “If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” In an environment where split second reaction times are demanded, a lever just out of reach can have deadly consequences. Adjustable seating was designed. Not only did it prevent deaths, but it opened the possibility for people who aren’t even close to “average” – like women – to become pilots.

The dimensions of a learner are even more multi-faceted, complex and diverge, we know, as widely. Yet we continue to measure our children according to averages that don’t fit anyone, to apply solutions based on averages, to focus on “best practice” gleaned, of course, through averages. Consider John Hattie’s widely touted list, a synthesis of now more than 1200 meta-analyses about influences on learning and ranked according to effects on student achievement. How is the effect size calculated? Through the observed change in average scores divided by the standard deviation of the scores. Hattie chooses 0.4 as the point when the effect size is significant enough to make a difference to students. How did he choose that number? The average effect size of thousands of interventions studied is 0.4.

Our focus on “best practice” is like lavishing all our time to refine the fixed pilot seat, making it more precisely fitted to average. The trouble is, no matter how effective our strategies are “on average,” they don’t necessarily (or even likely) fit the children in front of us in our classrooms. Perhaps it’s time to spend our time thinking in a different direction entirely. Who knows what possibilities might open.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stopping to be Still

Heartbreakingly, it was almost a year before I understood Percy. He is a quiet boy. Very. In writing, he seldom managed more than a sentence, neatly printed, most often trite, but every once in a while, so poetic and rich that it rocked me back on my heels. Those few sentences should have been an obvious clue for me, but I continued blithely to give him strategies for generating ideas in answer to his terse – “I can’t think of anything.” One day his mother said to me, Percy wants you to know he has too many ideas. That’s what makes writing hard for him.

I don’t think I did anything very much to help him with this difficulty that all writers face. I simply saw him differently – as a writer, rather than a non-writer – and then he saw himself differently. Suddenly, he was writing.

I’m thinking of Percy now, as I stare blankly at the blinking cursor. I have promised myself to pause each year and write about my brother on the anniversary of his death. It’s been twelve years. My mind is a jumble of too much, of all the changes this year, the death of our step-sister, the birth of the babies, his youngest son’s travels around the world, his oldest son’s new girlfriend, the Syrian refugee crisis, Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump, Pokemon Go. Life has relentlessly gone on. And yet a part of me stands still always, locked into a time when the tragedies and joys, the silliness and seriousness of life were shared with Marc.

I wonder, often, if we need more stillness, more pauses. I wonder if, as a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, aunt, friend, teacher, I would be better for stopping more often, for listening, not so much to what is said, but for the silences, for the story behind the blank page, for the avalanche of words waiting beyond the brief phrase. I wonder if it’s always what we can’t find words for that’s most important, and if what matters most is stopping long enough to feel our way forward with our heart to hear what can’t be said.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Can Data Tell Us Who We Are? And Does It Matter?

Christian Rudder’s book Dataclysm explores who we are when we think no one is looking – our lives told through every Google search, tweet, Facebook like. He is one of the founders of OKCupid, an online dating site; data, he says, unlike surveys or small scale experiments doesn’t merely tell you what people say they prefer, but shows how they actually act and interact in private. This information, he argues, is not only useful for selling and surveillance, two of the most common practices at present, but it also tells “the human story.” Rudder’s idea “is to move our understanding of ourselves away from narratives and toward numbers, or rather, to think in such a way that the numbers are the narrative.” He promises to “put hard numbers to some timeless mysteries” that had previously been considered “unquantifiable.” His title captures this grand vision for data use: data is not only an “unprecedented deluge” but “the hope of a world transformed – of both yesterday’s stunted understanding and today’s limited vision gone with the flood.” 

So what are the “timeless mysteries” that are uncovered? Using millions of pieces of data, he reveals the “nexus of beauty, sex and age.” As she ages, women find older men attractive. For men, no matter his age, a women’s at her best when she’s in her very early twenties.  Although people say they aren’t racist, they make choices and draw conclusions according to race. Woman are overwhelming judged by appearance. We pick on the weak. These are the “facts that need facing,” Rudder says, proved by the data that will “ends arguments that anecdotes could never win.”

It seems na├»ve to hope, however, that more proof of racism, sexism, meanness as an act to inflate importance, even with incontrovertible facts, will change actions. In education, we know the Big Data stories well. They, too, aren’t new stories. Here are a few: if you live with poverty or with a learning exceptionality, if you belong to one of the involuntary minorities, then your likelihood of success in our current system is limited. The data, however, even when gathered in the millions, while noisy with never-ending streams of information about “what’s wrong” and “what works” is silent about how to change actions in the future.

Still, more data has become the new answer to every question. Gathering data, of course, feels like action – parsing, graphing, creating colour graphs, pointing fingers. I’m not sure there are any fresh insights to be gleaned at scale, though. We simply get confirmation of what we already know. All the surprises exist on the edges, after all, the outliers and anomalies, the information outside of our data entirely. Big Data, Rudder argues, lets us tell the story of Everyman. Perhaps. But how can Everyman’s story help us? In schools, we become mired in inevitability (what can you and I do about poverty and its grip on the future of our children?); we see the deluge of “facts that need facing” instead of the child who surprises us, if we pay attention, by being entirely unique, unexpectedly extraordinary (I haven’t met a child, yet, who isn’t). 

What we need in the midst of this deluge of data that tells us that we bully the weak, our children aren’t learning and our prejudices continue are heroic stories to remind us of how we can act differently anyway. We need to see the one child, never data sets, who looks at us in hope, her big brown eye flooded with despair, and know this: we must move mountains today so she can learn unobstructed by prejudice tomorrow. No other data is necessary.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why Some Slow and Boring in Schools is Good for Kids

I recently listened to Will Richardson’s TedX Talk. He is an advocate for revolutionizing schools. Like many, he believes that our current system makes no sense of the world we live in today where extraordinary learning is now in our pockets. Based on his conversations with about 50,000 people, he constructed the lists below: what we want for schools (the items on the left) and what we don’t want (the right).  Yet what we don’t want, he says, still describes schools today. (I won’t quibble now about his description of schools except to say that it doesn’t describe the schools I’ve been in; they are a blend, rather, of the two lists.)

He argues that the disconnect between the way we all intuitively know we learn best and the way we are taught in schools points him to this surprising truth: “Schools aren’t built for learning.” He notes that his own children learn deeply on their own as they follow their passions, thanks to the abundance available through technology.  He shows his son’s chemistry vocabulary quiz (pity his children’s teachers who are routinely held up as examples of what not to do). His son, he says, got 100% on the quiz, but no doubt will forget the words, because it isn’t something he wanted to learn more about. This shows, he says, another example of why schools are unproductive. Why not make the work relevant? Meaningful? Connected to his passions? Engaging? Our challenge, he says, is to make schools amazing places of learning for kids. We know what to do, he argues. All we need is the commitment and courage to shift the description of schools to the items on the left.

It sounds so right, doesn’t it? But I keep wondering if it is important for each moment of our children’s lives to be exciting, creative, thought-provoking, personalized to their particular interests. Are there things kids ought to learn even if they don’t want to learn them? (“Gimme never gets” springs to mind.) Are there things that can’t be – or shouldn’t be – wrapped up in student’s “passions” or particular interests? (The history of residential schools, for example.) Certainly, as many argue, why learn anything, when everything can be looked up (is it sufficient to simply look up respect for others or calculus?) but that only works if you know what you don’t know. Or are interested. Or can learn independently. Giving students a set of base concepts and vocabulary opens possibilities for all students that they might never know existed. Passions, after all, always fall within our knowns. But what if our goal in schools is to spark new passions? Then we need to present what kids don’t know yet - which is never as comfortable or as easy.

What’s more, forgetting isn’t just what happens when you learn in a straight row in age-related groups with no real world application. When I was 18 I learned to speak Dutch by being deeply immersed in the language. It was powerful, relevant, real world, challenging and self-directed learning. But I’ve forgotten the language now. Remembering demands that we use what we learn, not merely that we are taught in a particular way.  It’s hardly surprising that many students forget many things they learn in school. Not all of us will be mathematicians or chemists or study literature. We won’t continue to practice many of the concepts we learned in school. But some of us will. And all of us will have had an introduction and opportunity to understand the basic literacies in key learning disciplines that will allow us to learn further when/if we choose to in the future.

And there’s something else. I couldn’t fully articulate my unease with personalized learning and this fashion for following passion (although I’ve tried) until I read, recently, this excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness.
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
Yes. That’s it exactly. No harm will come to children from the slow processes of memorization, of copying notes, of listening, of reading long texts, of learning “boring” things, of waiting. Not all the time, of course, but in balance with exploration, discovery, passion.  And perhaps they will grow stronger, drawing on inner resources, building the capacity to accept that the pace of life varies and we must often adjust our own to others. I worry, instead, about this “cut flower” generation we are cultivating with personalized learning. How will they resist the lure of instant, fast, fun, intriguing that has always beckoned but now sits in their pocket? How will they step outside of their personal desires to meet the slow, hard, effortful and other-focused demands of healthy relationships, peace on earth, environmental stewardship? Their future, our future, depends on it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Short Love Letter to Teachers

School’s out!  I just wanted to be sure that after the mad month of June with stuffy classrooms, report cards, endless end-of-year events and summer-crazed children added to your usual litany of things to do someone took the time to tell you how much you are appreciated. I wish there was a parade in your honour, a brass band playing, and a rousing round of “For s/he’s a jolly good fellow!” I wish confetti came pouring down from the ceiling as the last bell rang and a huge cheer went up as each child you taught shook your hand and thanked you. I wish a TV crew was outside of the school and ran up to you as you left asking for an interview, begging for just a few words about how you managed to get Jimmy to read, Suzy to sit long enough to hear a story, Janice to stop hitting the other children when she’s frustrated, Calvin to stop crying long enough to engage in activities. But even if that didn’t happen, even if you didn’t get a single card or mug, not one thank you as children ran out of the room cheering (not for you), I hope you know that you are amazing. Your work is a gift beyond measure to our children and to our community. Thank you. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

CrossFit Learning?

A friend of my son’s said that he started CrossFit to “outsource his motivation.” It is an idea that has stuck with me, and inspired me to start my doctorate, so that I can continue to learn deeply and reflect on teaching and learning.  I could learn by myself, of course, but something (a new mystery novel, a friend’s invitation to coffee, Facebook, a squirrel running across the lawn) always gets in the way. The “outsourcing” comes from reading lists, assignments, deadlines and expectations. I love it. I also started CrossFit to the astonishment of friends and family. Give me 10 books to read and I’m up for the challenge; ask me to run 10 kilometers (okay, 10 meters) and I’ll start to whine. Yet surprisingly, since it is a grueling one-hour work-out, I love CrossFit. Why? I’m not sure, yet, but I am hoping there is something in the process that I can bring back to the classroom to encourage kids to engage joyfully in the sometimes grueling work of learning. After all, CrossFit is designed to do what we try to do in K-12: teach anyone, no matter their skill level, across a broad range of disciplines.

Oddly, as I start to research CrossFit, the first thing I discover is that a lot of people think it is dangerously cult-like. What draws people and keeps them “entranced”? (I would definitely find this power useful with 12 and 13 year olds!) What makes it dangerous? And why do so many people attack CrossFit with such vehemence?

The danger, I’ve come to learn, is that the work-out is hard and because it includes a strong level of competition (at least, you are encouraged to improve and the side-by-side improvement of others may lead some to compete), the argument is that some people add too much weight too quickly, for example, and hurt themselves. Perhaps, as the critics argue, CrossFit can be blamed. Still, there are always choices and ways to scale the workout to fit your level, and the coaches (at least in my “box”) encourage good-fit and safe options. Surely we need to know our own bodies, our strengths and limitations. Aren’t we each in charge of what’s right for us?

However, the critics cite competition as over-riding our ability to make sensible choices. In CrossFit, although you aren’t competing directly against each other, not only do you do the workout side-by-side with others, but everyone posts their workout results publicly on a whiteboard daily, so you can compare your progress. (We always conflate comparison and competition, don’t we?) For example, in a recent workout (WOD in CrossFit talk) of 200 m run, 15 air squats, 10 push-ups, and 5 pullups repeated as many times as possible (AMRAP) in 15 minutes, I managed just over five and a very large, extremely fit young man half my age completed nine repetitions. Still, I didn’t feel in any way diminished by his success, but was rather inspired.  If I were alone it’s very doubtful I could have even completed five repetitions. I need to think further about the role of competition in the classroom, something that we’ve been eliminating as far as possible, emphasizing, instead, cooperation and collaboration.

I wonder if it’s exactly this element of competition framed within supported skill progression, that, like videogames, makes CrossFit so popular. Indeed, there are other ways CrossFit, like videogames, is “brain-friendly” (we are, after all, “wired” to compete). For example, it uses novelty – every day is a different work out. Not only does this capture and keep our easily jaded attention, but it pushes us to think about, rather than simply “do” the workout, maximizing our effort. The workouts in CrossFit are still just workouts, but the combinations are always shifting. I definitely think I could use this strategy more effectively in my classroom.

The level of challenge is high (some say extreme), but each workout has scaling options to make it accessible to anyone (consider the vast difference between me and the very fit young man!) and certainly simply completing the workout, even using every scaling option, releases the “happy” chemicals dopamine and endorphins. Posting times keeps you accountable to the challenge. Every workout is an opportunity to challenge yourself just a little more to perfect a skill, to add weight, to increase speed, to add more reps. It’s impossible to be “bored.” The movements change every 10, or at most 20 minutes and within those time-frames, there is often opportunities to progressively challenge yourself on a given task. This is the biggest challenge for classrooms, to choose tasks challenging enough for the most “fit” students with sufficient scaling options so that all students can do the same task, progress while doing it, and feel satisfied at the end.

The power of immediate feedback, something we already know is deeply valuable for learning, is available through the 12 – 1 coaching ratio. In weight sessions, the coach divides the group in half to better watch and support. I can’t get over how helpful small points are – core tight, eyes ahead, move your hands out slightly on the bar. I know how little help it would be if at the end of each workout the coach said – that was a C+. Next time, work on keeping your core tight. It’s the learning in the moment that matters most. How can I do this more in my classroom? (Yes, classroom ratios are closer to 30:1 but I know I could use the strategy of dividing students more effectively.)

Perhaps what astonishes me the most is the use of repetition. Although there is a new configuration every day, the format stays the same: “buy in” to warm up, skill development and then the workout of the day. (This formula of variety within routine is perfect for our brains!) In the skill development section, we gather in a circle to review the skill, even those who have practiced the same skill for several years. I love this unrushed awareness that complex skills take thousands of repetition, that the nuances take time, that review is essential.  I think about how I can do this more effectively on a daily basis.

Perhaps what makes CrossFit most “cult-like” is that it instills a sense of community. Every session begins in circle, and every person says their name and answers a question – favourite restaurant, least favourite CrossFit exercise (burpees almost always “win”), weekend plans. You begin to know each other in small ways. Encouraging each other is a part of the culture. Peer coaching and support during the workout are common; high-fives at the end are routine. We know that community matters in classrooms; we know that daily community routines can make a difference.
And still. While I think there are elements of CrossFit that we can weave into classrooms (and, of course, we already do), there is a reason, I think, that so many people relinquish their sense of responsibility during the training, why so many feel repelled by the movement and call it a cult. CrossFit taps into the way our brain works to keep us motivated. But it’s a mindless approach. We don’t make choices and decisions; we follow routines. Certainly CrossFit does not support mindlessness; it assumes its clients are already mindful. Yet mindless competition is dangerous; it’s the law of the jungle. A mindless community is a cult.

CrossFit’s methods are a path to fitness, but it is our daily mindful choices, even at CrossFit, that are the path to health. In schools, “brain-friendly” strategies can improve learning, but getting an education is something different. An education, to use today’s jargon, is mindful. Mindfulness demands slow time, down time, reflection, pondering. Mindfulness requires solitude and stillness. It is inevitably “boring.” Mindfulness, however, allows us to make just, good, wise decisions even when our brain is engaged by speed, variety, challenge, competition, community. Mindfulness comes, not only by sitting cross-legged on a mat and breathing deeply, but when we stick with a knotty math problem or write the third draft of an essay or read a difficult text. With a pipeline to distraction in our pockets and available 24 hours of every day, we need mindfulness more than we ever have before, yet instead we are all lured to find ways to make education like our phones, like videogames, like CrossFit, always on, fast, effortlessly engaging. Mindless. If we succeed I think we’ll be leading our children down a primrose path to learning, but we’ll fail to educate them.

For now, I’ll keep going to CrossFit. But I’ll keep my mind on. Will I use CrossFit techniques in the classroom? Certainly. But I’ll try very hard to remember that the most important part of education isn’t merely learning (oh, this is the low hanging fruit, isn’t it?), but something much more elusive.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Is there anything wrong with a toddler playing on a phone for a long flight? Maybe.

On a flight home recently, I sat next to a mom and her toddler. I suppose he was not yet two, since he was sitting on her knee for the two-hour flight, I gave them my window seat and the little one happily looked out the window for take-off, sucking assiduously on his soother, pointing and grunting. (I’m not sure if he couldn’t yet talk or if his soother made it impossible; he didn’t take it out at all.) I pulled out the book I’m reading – Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. The mother gave me an ironic smile when she saw my book and gave her phone to the boy.

The toddler spent the rest of the time engaged with the tiny screen, expertly navigating the interface to find his games, opening the photo app and scrolling through the pictures, playing a video, and listening to his mother’s commentary on his actions (that’s Jordan, there’s the birthday cake, you fed the penguin). He was quiet for the whole trip (I was grateful), fussing only at the end when his mother tried to take the phone to text her husband.

So mission accomplished, right? The toddler is quiet and happy. His mom didn’t abandon him with the device, but continually interacted with him. It isn’t much different from reading to him, singing with him and playing games. Is it?  

But it worries me, nonetheless. He seemed not simply engaged, but hyper-engaged. Every moment was filled with flashing images and constantly changing entertainment. I was imagining what it would have been like without the device. Harder for the mother – and me – and the little one, too. Perhaps he would have had some favourite toy and played imaginary games with it – driving a car around the window and on the table tray, building a magazine tower for the toy to climb, engaging with the woman in the next seat to find out what games she knew. Perhaps he would have fallen asleep as most of the rest of the passengers had – it was a late afternoon flight – and rested for a little while. Certainly the digital games he played were educational (for example, in one numbers flashed up to show how many bits of food he’d fed to the animals and he had to choose food that matched the their colours), but it seemed, now that I think of it, almost robotic: the machine was doing all the thinking, and the boy was being led along. I suppose that’s what worried me. His mother’s engagement was passive, too. And mine.

I’m worried that we are relinquishing some important responsibility – Sherry Turkle claims it is the responsibilities of mentorship and she may be right. By the time we figure it out, though, it will be too late for a whole generation of children.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Diet for a New World

The New Year has arrived, so we know what’s coming. The next best diet. There will be an app for that, of course, articles in all the glossy magazines at the grocery checkout, a new book topping best-seller lists, another super-food, and at least one miracle routine (drinking kale and hot sauce smoothies three hours after standing on your head, perhaps).

And yet the answer to what really works best will remain the same. David Katz and Stephanie Meller researched the medical evidence for and against every mainstream diet. What works best won’t surprise anyone - a diet of minimally processed foods, predominantly plants, and including whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Yet despite scientific evidence and common sense, people continue to seek a different answer. And there is always someone willing to provide it.  In an interview Dr. Katz said, “I really at times feel like crying, when I think about that we’re paying for ignorance with human lives. At times, I hate the people with alphabet soup after their names who are promising the moon and the stars with certainty. I hate knowing that the next person is already rubbing his or her hands together with the next fad to make it on the bestseller list."

I know how he feels. We are constantly at the whim of the next new thing in education, too, and, like Katz, I feel like we are paying, or at least playing, with the lives of our children. Every few years, millions of precious education dollars are spent to follow a new idea when, really, if we stopped to think, the answer for how to teach is as simple (and as hard) as eating healthy foods.

Indeed, all the most important things in our lives - health, relationships, learning, saving the environment, peace on earth – are simple. They are just hard to stick with and take a long time. John F. Kennedy said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.” You could substitute health or learning or saving the environment or relationships. Perhaps it’s our human nature that has us seeking a different answer; we keep looking for a technological fix that will make everything easier and faster.

Perhaps it’s time, though, that we turn our ingenuity toward finding a diet for a new world. The recipes won’t be new. The hard part, the part we need to work on the most, will be slowing down, being patient, persisting, digging deep and resisting the temptation to dash madly off in all directions after the next shiny new thing.