Monday, February 18, 2013

On Education, Stress, and Success

I'm starting another run at the Futures Forum Project:  three subjects over two periods with one teacher (two team-teaching this year) that emphasizes an intentional digital footprint as we write for an authentic audience including students from classes in the 14 other participating schools.  Whew!

There's no way I can implement every idea suggested by the other teachers in the program, so this is my weeding out time - figuring out what's most important to try this time with the kids.  I've come across several links and videos lately that have me thinking about education in general.  Some recent articles discuss a survey that suggests our kids are miserable and totally stressed out in school, yet elsewhere articles complain that they're too apathetic and aren't trying hard enough.  Is the stress making them shut down?

I happened upon a Malcolm Gladwell video (which I can't find now) in which he discusses a study by James Flynn that shows that Chinese kids outperform American kids consistently at everything, but they have similar IQ measures.  Flynn thinks it's entirely because of our culture, and he traces the problems back to the 1950s when teenagers became their own distinct culture.

I have some issues with the assumption that teens have changed dramatically in the last 60 years.  For thousands of years, at least since Socrates and Plato lived, children have been a bit of a mess.  The piece that begins, "The children now love luxury..." is either widely misquoted or misattributed, and, to my knowledge, a primary source has never been found to support it.  But here's what Plato actually had Socrates say in Republic Book VIII (562e-563c) (h/t Bernard Suzanne) as he rails against the desecration of the family as reflective of the his description of the destruction of state and soul:
"...anarchy finds a way into private houses....the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons, while the son likens himself to his father, and feels neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, so he may be free....To these, said I, such trifles do add up: the teacher, in such a case, fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils have in low esteem their teachers as well as their overseers; and, overall, the young copy the elders and contend hotly with them in words and in deeds, while the elders, lowering themselves to the level of the young, sate themselves with pleasantries and wit, mimicking the young in order not to look unpleasant and despotic."
So it's certainly nothing new that kids have rolled their eyes at teachers and parents, and adults have become more lenient to try to appease the little monkeys.  It might explain why class averages used to all hover in the mid-60s and now they're in the low-80s as we cower under parental badgering to lower our standards so more students can succeed.  But, more to the point, I think it likely that the adolescent period - that liminal phase between childhood and adult - has always been, and will always be, somewhat difficult to manage.  But it is the case that China has tried a different approach that makes kids work much harder and with more persistence than Canadian or American kids.  They don't mind erring towards the despotic when instructing their young.  But China also beats Canada in another measure: suicides per 100,000 people.  China's rate is more than double Canada's.

There are so many many factors affecting the suicide rate in both countries.  There are also many factors affecting school performance.  I'm not convinced we should all follow the Tiger Mom book of suggestions, but I do think we need to give kids more of a push to succeed, and it can be very tricky finding the right way to light a fire under them that motivates them without consuming them.   Our kids here run the gamut from being so stressed out they plagiarize and weasel around for extra marks, to being not motivated enough to complete anything.  There's a sweet spot somewhere between the two -  but how to get there?  

Malcolm Gladwell, in his talk, suggests grade six is when it all changes.  That's when hands are no longer thrown in the air to ask questions by children eager to learn for its own sake.  This is when grade anxiety and social anxiety start to take hold of the kids.  It makes sense to me because that's when they have to start thinking about working hard enough to get into the right stream and then the right school and right job.  And, at the same time, they have to maintain complex social dynamics and maybe even think about dating.  And on top of all that, their bodies are all changing in weird ways or not changing fast enough, and that's totally freaking them out.  It's a heavy burden for an 11-year-old.  I think for some people, this state of anxiety never leaves them.  They never get to a point that they feel like they're on the other side of it all.  But that's a bigger problem than how to run a high school.  

What makes kids persistent instead of apathetic besides being provoked to stress out about it? The newest rhetoric is all about letting kids fail, and I think that's a good start.  They need to learn how to be gracious losers and let their losses inspire them to try harder rather than give up completely.  Part of that path is to present tasks that are slightly out of reach so it's very clear they can be achieved with just a bit more work.  That's something that requires individual instruction to monitor a child's ability, but can also be reached by teachers who offer a variety of projects to students.  That's a part of the FFP program that's a keeper.  Sure some of the lazier kids pick easier projects at first, but then they see what others are doing and some of them start to up the ante for themselves - especially when students are able to see what everyone else is doing in all the schools in the region.   Some of them.

Jessica Lahey wrote a bit on letting kids fail.  The piece starts with a mom who admitted to writing a plagiarized essay for her daughter.  She advocates what's now called authoritative parenting (formerly assertive parenting) in which parents praise the effort, not the result.  I had the benefit of being raised with this training from my own folks:  "Your grades aren't a measure of your self.  Don't worry about how well you did; just make sure you always put in your best effort.  Try to do your best, not be the best."  All that jazz.  They just laughed when I brought home a 12% in Latin or 52% in geography because they knew I was prioritizing and putting in the time elsewhere, and you can't be good at everything.  But I wonder if high school is too late to sing this song for kids raised differently - either too sternly or too leniently.  We can only try to get this message through to them.

Any behaviour provoked by rewards runs the risk of reward-addiction in which the behaviour will only work if rewards are imminent.  Some FFP teachers avoid a numerical mark until report cards have to be completed as a means towards getting students to work for the experience of learning rather than the mark, but I worry about students whose only motivation is a grade.  There was a recent article about a soccer league that decided to stop keeping score.  A girl interviewed said, "If there's no score, how are you going to have fun?".  She plans to keep score in her head, but worries that teammates will lose their motivation.  This is where individual motivators have to be explored, but it gets complicated if some kids get graded and others don't.

I told some of the other FFP teachers that I wouldn't have ever read a book if I wasn't forced to in English class with the only punishment being a failing grade.  I never did well in English, but I got all those novels read.  But eventually a few of them in the later grades resonated with me - and I started reading more for the joy of it.  But I couldn't have gotten there without the earlier reinforcement of marks.  So I don't want to throw out marks entirely in favour of just feedback.  I do a lot of "formative assessment" (rough drafts, process work, and unmarked quizzes) to help students work towards a most successful final project, but I also give little graded incentives along the way.

And I wouldn't have read those books if they weren't thrust upon me.  Left to my own devises, I would have picked the shortest reads or tried to read the same books repeatedly and never known what it is to fall in love with a book.  I would never have challenged myself to read any higher level than necessary.  This is where I'm on my own in the FFP group.  I want to dictate content rather than let students discover it for themselves.  I want to cram the greatest variety of ideas and events into their heads then let them have freedom to choose how to show they've learned something.  The only thing that stuck in my head from the waste of a year that is teacher's college was a study that found the number one factor that determines how much content a student learns in a course.  It's not how entertaining the teacher is or how good the textbook is or how creative the projects are.  It's how much content the teacher tells the class.  I'm still banking on that one:  tell them stuff; let them work with the material on their own, and then have them show you what they've learned.  It's old-school (literally) and "factory" model, but it's very effective with most kids.    

Another link making the rounds uses hyperbole to suggest we shouldn't try to teach high-school like it's a university.  But we do have to "backwards design" high-school courses at least enough to keep the requirements of universities, colleges, and the workforce in mind until higher education institutions make entrance exams for each program.  Because of the variety of students we serve, we necessarily have to be flexible enough to accommodate everyone's abilities and ambitions or lack thereof.

Finally there's a video circulating of a school program that's really cool:

I think this can succeed because it's expected to run with just a handful of very self-directed students.  (But I'd like to know how credits are granted relative to other science/math courses.)   One problem with FFP is that they're hoping it can work with everyone.  I maintain that this type of program in which students are encouraged to create their own path works brilliantly with only a small group in the class.  Most kids want to passively learn what's necessary to them in this select group of courses, and then be entertained.  And that's okay.  As I said a year ago, we need people to be observers of the work created by a driven few.  I could have tightened up this post much more if I hadn't been sucked into 11 hours of House of Cards this weekend.   But someone has a job because I paid my Netflix fees.

I already have kids this term who don't want to work on computers.  Some teachers in the program commiserated with me and suggested that I shouldn't have to deal with kids who hate computers in the class.  But if this program is about opening learning up more, then making it all computer-driven just takes it down a different, but equally-narrow path.  I'm accommodating a small pen and paper group even if they defy the FFP mandate.  I'm a rebel like that.

With outsourcing and a wintery economic climate, school isn't just about getting a good job.  It has to be about how to thrive in a very different society.  A CBC doc explores how hard it will be for this generation to get a job.   Most students have to give up on the idea of the standard trajectory of higher education to work to home-ownership; maybe they need to consider a different path of sharing a home and job with friends or family members.   Maybe everyone who can swing it should be considering part-time employment.  I question some of the goal-setting we do in schools today since many goals students are working towards don't exist in the same way as they once did.  A reasonable goal might actually be to be cooperative and compassionate with neighbours if the bottom falls out like this rather than to become an English teacher.

More than learning how to polish a resume, teens need to learn how to become adaptable and resilient - how to roll with the punches.  And a sense of how the world works - something they can get in a good civics course - is necessary not just so they know about abject poverty here and elsewhere or global climate change, but to give them a sense of how it all fits together, and how they fit in the grand scheme of things.

It seems to me the anxiety that hits teens is, in part, due to the self-centeredness that comes with the burgeoning independence that's part and parcel with this stage of life.  One way to get past this angst is intentionally shifting to an other-centeredness and recognizing their tiny place in the world.  It's not to say they're not each important, but that the world is bigger than us all.  We start with nothing, and we end with nothing.  What have we lost?  Nothing!  We just have to manage the between bit with grace and integrity.  I always say this, but it would do us all a world of good to stop looking towards success and prosperity and upper management dreams of the future, and look towards practicing equity and compassion and sustainability right this minute.  It's a different version of success - one that's been bandied about for centuries, but a necessary one for us now.

Something like that.  Sorry it's so rambly!

ETA:  Hey - I just found a video that says pretty much the same thing:

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