Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"There is no recipe for raising children to be successful adults, but parental warmth and affection make more of a difference than any other factor… The main finding… was that 'subjects who had warm mothers or warm fathers were more likely to be rated as higher in social accomplishments 36 years later.' - Radcliffe Study, Quoted in the Boston Globe (4/8/91)

I remain intrigued by the idea that to really help students, we need to be helping families.

Not trying to transplant things from the family to school, which is a risky proposition, and based on the belief that we can somehow isolate certain factors and replicate them outside of their natural circumstance. Transplanting practices that should be happening in the family, but aren't, also holds the obvious drawback of further weakening the families.

I call this the A-to-C fallacy.

A is where we are (in this case, wanting to help children who are struggling).  B is a known mechanism for fundamentally helping (in this case, parental warmth and affection).  C is where we want to be (in this case, children becoming successful adults).

B is the hard work. In the world of farming, it's planting, watering, cultivating, weeding--all the things you have to do to get the harvest (C).  In the education equation, a significant part (arguably the largest) of B is healthy families.

But because B is hard work, because we're not always in direct control of B, and because we're always trying to improve or be efficient, we look for shortcuts, ways to skip the work, and ways to go somehow more directly from A to C. This is a trap.

Remembering the importance of B, committing ourselves to working on B, and remembering that what we want (C) is B's natural outcome, means that we're thinking deeply and carefully.

So then my own personal question becomes: who's doing really good work to strengthen families, and how can I help them?

Monday, July 27, 2015

"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." - Marcel Proust

There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Knowledge can be taught, but wisdom must be obtained by oneself. Wisdom is self-discovered. Galileo said: "You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself."

Knowledge is crucial, and can be transferred in machine-like fashion from one individual to another. But if we focus only on knowledge, we will find ourselves in the barren wasteland of information without understanding.

Wisdom is about how we work as human beings, and we are not machines. It is wisdom, not knowledge, that saves nations from destroying themselves and others. It is wisdom that understands human needs, cognitive biases, and emotional growth. It is wisdom that balances and bridges conflicting information. It is wisdom that reflects on history and builds carefully for the future. It is wisdom that thinks about how to help future generations become good thinkers.

We live in an age of knowledge, but our greatest need right now is wisdom.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another." - G.K. Chesterton

A little self-reflection is badly needed right now.

What do we believe about children, about learning, and about the role of education in a society? And what do these beliefs tell us about the soul of our culture?

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." - Paolo Friere

Here is the initial synopsis of Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes," from Wikipedia:
[It] is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn't see any suit of clothes until a child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!" 
For those interested in truth versus narrative, or the social dynamics of power, one of the most interesting parts of the story has been left out. In Wikipedia's fuller description of the plot, the important conclusion to the story is included:
Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspects the assertion is true, but continues the procession.
The procession continues.

Most people tell this story as way of emphasizing the need to regain a child-like purity of vision, to be able to see and tell the truth, even when everyone else is pretending and going along with a lie. And of how we easily we can be manipulated by being told that if we were smart enough, then we'd believe that lie that others are telling us.

But there is more.

Do we recognize the truth, either initially like the child, or ultimately like the crowd, but stand idly by as the procession continues?

Do we say, "well, that's just the way things are?"

Or are we sometimes even holding up the imaginary cloth, part of the continued procession, because we depend on the King's support?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"All children are born geniuses, and we spend the first six years of their lives degeniusing them." - R. Buckminster Fuller

I've never really liked the use of the word genius in pithy quotes about education. It's always felt to me that claiming every child to be a genius was sort of the height of silliness--an exaggerated, rose-colored, and naive view of what could be a more pragmatic acceptance that children are likely to excel in different areas, and not all of them in academic pursuits. And that some children are born with difficulties and constraints, not by any fault of their own, who deserve no less love and attention from the adults in their lives.

But I recently came across this definition of genius, and it allowed me to shift my view. "The word genius derives from the Latin gignere, 'to beget.' The word also carried the meaning of a guiding spirit, present with every individual from birth: literally, a spark of the divine" (from What is Generative Literature? Introducing “The Generative Literature Project”, emphasis mine).

This idea that every child has a spark of the divine surely resonates with parents. We may be intimately aware of the struggles of our own children, but we also deeply believe in them.

Our willingness to see that spark in each child, whether we believe it is divine or just evolutionary potential, is critical to building a healthy culture of learning, and a healthy society.

Robert D. Shepherd gives us a scientific view of the same:
Every child born today is the product of 3.8 billions years of evolution. Between his or her ears, is the most complex system known to us, and that system, the brain consists of highly interconnected subsystems of neural mechanisms for carrying out particular tasks.... The truth is that there are, quite literally, billions of intelligences in the brain–mechanisms that carry out very particular tasks more or less well, many of them sharing parts of the same machinery to carry out subroutines.Over that 3.8 billion years of evolution, these many intelligences were refined to a high degree....
Almost every new parent is surprised, even shocked, to learn that kids come into the world extraordinarily unique. They bring a lot of highly particular potential to the ball game. And every one of those children is capable, highly capable, in some ways and not in others. 
On the religious side, we can turn to the Quakers. Because Quakers believe there is “that of God” - an Inner Light - in each person, a "hallmark of the Quaker school experience is the basic belief that we are all teachers and learners and that each child has unique gifts and talents" (quoted from here). And the Quakers are not alone in believing this as a part of their core religious tenets.

Religious terminology carries a lot of baggage these days, but I think if I ever write a book, I might call it The Divine Learner.

So, are all children born geniuses? Yes, of course... if we believe them to be so.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction." - E. F. Shumacher

It's really hard to not do anything. To not solve a problem for someone else. To not create a program to fix something.

But sometimes, not doing anything is the best thing.

For example, when a student needs to go through the discovery process on his or her own. Or when solving a problem for a group would ultimately be disabling, thwarting the building of their own constructive and creative capacity.

I can remember when I had significant responsibilities for a lot of people. A wise friend said, "don't ever respond immediately to any problem that is not life-threatening." He told me to wait 24 hours before calling people back, because doing so allowed them to figure things out on their own.

Not doing anything can look to others like a cop-out. But it can also reflect deeper thinking, which usually has a hard time competing with the enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and allocation of resources that come from taking action.

It takes some courage to defend not doing anything, but it's often the best decision.

Interview with Erica Renee Goldson - The Valedictorian Who Spoke Out Against Schooling

Today I interviewed Erica Renee Goldson, who in June of 2010 gave a valedictory speech at Coxsackie-Athens HS Class of 2010 that went viral on the web. A YouTube video and the text of her speech are at her website, for ease of viewing her ten minute speech is embedded below--worth watching before the interview!