Around the Web: Direct Instruction

In this article entitled, “Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills“, Alfie Kohn makes the case against Direct Instruction (DI).   He defines DI as instruction “in which teachers read from a prepared script in the classroom, drilling young children on basic skills in a highly controlled, even militaristic fashion, and offering reinforcement when children produce the correct responses – appeared to produce the best results.”

This paragraph really him home.

When a didactic, basic-skills focus was compared to a child-centered focus in 32 preschool and kindergarten classes in California, children in the former group did better on reading tests (consistent with the short-term advantage found in some of the other studies), neither better nor worse on math tests, and terribly on a range of nonacademic measures.  The skills kids had lower expectations of themselves, worried more about school, were more dependent on adults, and preferred easier tasks.

Better on the test.  Not so good in social or emotional areas. And this is just one of several studies captured in the article.

So what do you think?  Is there any reason to expect that the direct teaching of skills in order to improve outcomes on a test ever make sense in PreK/12 education?

I welcome your comments.

Parent Perspective: By the numbers…or not.

Around the world, millions of people waking up today and focusing on new numbers for their new year. Lose 10 lbs before the summer.   scaleOr work out 3x per week. Read 100 books by the end of the year. Spend 15 minutes per day meditating. Regardless of the merits of the goal, using numbers can be tremendously motivating. For many, numbers keep us moving forward when we might otherwise give up.  Even small goals can seem more achievable with numbers. “I will have one cookie, not 12.”  And many would say that without measurement, there is no way to define success. Measurement via numbers is how the world evaluates job performance, company health and the efficacy of processes.  Sales people have goals which roll up to company revenue. Athletes and teams set times to beat, averages to improve, and wins (and loses) to record. Politicians need votes to win elections and polls to see if their work is well-received by the constituents they serve. Numbers hold us accountable to the roles we play and goals we seek to achieve as individuals and as members of a group. Numbers can also help an outsider make a judgment about a system, activity or pursuit that they are not actively engaged in. They offer hard data for the person who is not doing the work themselves. They show progress. They are “proof.”

However, using numbers to evaluate a system is not always straight forward.  We don’t judge the success of a gym by the weight-loss stats of its membership, although one could surmise that if everyone is dropping LBS like crazy, it is a very effective gym. However, that would imply that the gym can control who walks in the door, with what abilities and how much effort they put forth while they are there. We don’t determine the success of a library by the number of people who have read the books they checked out. That would assume that the library can control the quality of the writing or the schedules and intent of the readers.

Never the less, there is really one visible example of using numbers to make judgments about individuals that aim to prove a point about a larger system. Education. In traditional schooling, the numbers are mandatory. They are compulsory. You can’t NOT get scored because without the numbers, outsiders have a harder time determining what is working or what isn’t.

But the kids in the system may not be better for the score, even if the system is.

walnutcove-grades Kate Atkinson wrote a blog post on the Huffington post earlier this year about how grades and numbers have an unintended consequence, beyond the proof of merit of the system.

If you are in high school, there is a good chance that you have felt defined by your GPA, ACT scores, numerical averages, test grades or the number of AP courses you take. You may have felt inferior to a peer whose class rank is above yours. You may have been looked down upon because you take “regular” math instead of Accelerated Calculus. You may have felt less intelligent because everyone you know is taking more AP courses than you. For the majority of my high school career, I have been just like you. I didn’t share my unimpressive class rank with anyone. I lied about the B I received in math class because I knew my peers would think lesser of me. I constantly allowed low test grades to make me feel inferior.

Kate is made to feel “less than” because she is compared to the mean in order to achieve a holistic view of the system, but it does not serve her as an individual. As an advocate for a Sudbury school, I am not anti-grades, anti-testing, or anti-accountability. Instead, I am FOR giving humans the choice of how, when and on what they elect to be evaluated. The person who chooses to dance with hopes of professional dancing knows evaluation is part of the gig. For the student who elects to go to college, aspiring to be an engineer, accountant, or doctor, etc., course grades are an essential part of determining progress and preparedness for the tasks is expected. The difference is that the person makes the choice to be evaluated. If a student like Kate subjects themselves to a score or grade, they have a choice about how to react, just like a person who sets a goal to lose weight can use the number to motivate themselves. And if the number is not what they had hoped, they can see it as a success or failure. That is up to the student.

One of the most asked questions I hear about Sudbury is about how students who are rarely tested are able to perform in the “real world.” Again, I go back to choice. If I choose to work for someone or do something that requires testing, training, metrics, etc., then I also understand the role that those numbers play in my ability to be successful. If I don’t like the score, I change my methods. I work harder. I ask for help. Or I try something else. The fact is that traditional schooling is the only place were humans are involuntarily evaluated with little to no consideration to how it impacts their sense of worth or personal path.  No evaluation of a diet, exercise regimen, new year’s resolution, exam from an institution of higher learning or job evaluation forced upon humans because, in every case, the person makes the choice to be evaluated. But kids don’t have that choice…that is, unless parents give them a place where numbers are treated very differently. Enter Sudbury.

Step one.

Tonight, December 29, the Sudbury School of Jacksonville held its first informational meeting.  With 8 people in the room, we discussed the Sudbury model, watched a short video about another Sudbury School and shared the story about how my husband Josh and I came to pursue this path, for not only our family, but our community.

In attendance were educators with grown children, as well as parents with small children.  We had folks with kids in “A” rated schools who believe their kids should enjoy school more and parents looking for alternatives to schools that they don’t believe are a great fit for their kid(s) now.  There were lots of questions and we took lots of notes.  The biggest surprise of the night was a woman in town who had researched starting a Sudbury school a few years ago!

It. Was. Awesome.

Thank you to all of the folks who came out.  It was so more exciting than I anticipated and I think it was a wonderful beginning.

If you missed it, not to worry. We are planning our next meeting for on Sunday, January 11th from 3 to 4.  (Kids are welcome, if the weather is nice.  They can play outside and we’ll have a sitter here to help out.)  I hope you’ll join us.

In the meantime, feel free to join our Facebook group or like the school’s brand new Facebook page.

Finally, here are a few links to articles and videos I came across in the last few days:

The Pressure is On.

2014 is nearly over.

And I am only “half” ready.

If 2014 is any indication, the time will zip by.  On the one hand, I am excited about a fresh start.  But there are HUGE unknowns that loom ahead.

The biggest one is the daunting challenge of how to change the course of our kids’ education.  The amount of time we have to make a meaningful change seems like it keeps getting smaller and smaller.   I know that there are others of you out there who are feeling uncertain of the path your kids will take too.  Maybe you have a teenager and you feel you only have a few years left to make a difference.  Maybe you are coming up on a transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high and you want to do something before your kid settles in to the next school.

Regardless, we all feel time slipping away.

For me, with each day, the pressure is more intense.

pressure

I think schools are feeling the pressure too.

Public and charter schools have more required of them, with less funding and, in some cases, with less time to impart the knowledge needed to pass the standardized tests that measure the success of their teachings.  The test scores not only impact the kids, but are often computed into the ratings of the staff’s performance and can affect the schools’ funding.

The stakes are high.

Maybe that is why so many traditional school systems are starting earlier and earlier to get kids ready.  Whether it is having middle school kids pick a track for high school that aligns with a specific career or college path, or piling on more and more homework to “help” with preparation, schools are requiring more instruction and more work in an effort to push kids to be their most successful.

In fact, I recently read an article about a kindergarten in New York who cancelled its end-of-the-year show in order to devote more time to college and career prep.

The interim principal writes,

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.

And currently, the determination of who is a strong reader, write, and so on, is a series of assessments…standardized tests. Not a successfully executed end-of-year show.

I do not fault the school for making the judgment call.  In fact, if I was them, I may have done the same thing.  If you can only be successful as a school or as a system if your students do well on a test, then surely, you must prepare for the test.  Starting earlier is a natural conclusion.

However, there are several problems with the way our system has evolved.  First, not everyone does well on standardized tests.  Moreover, even if you do well on tests, the methods of instruction most schools use to prepare kids for the tests is ideal for only a fraction of the population.  Generally, traditional schooling is not multi-sensory.  It is lecture based.  It utilizes rote memorization.  Most people don’t learn that way.

In addition, success in life is more than being able to do well on tests. I want our kids to have schooling that reflects modern society.  They need to learn to be self-motivated.  They need to learn to be adaptable.  They need to be able to be curious and innovative.  To achieve this, schools need more individualization.  More customization.   More interaction. More experiential-learning opportunities.  They need to be given freedom and responsibility.  They need opportunities to practice making choices for themselves.  They need to become accustomed to taking responsibility when those choices don’t pan out the way they’d like.

To the contrary, traditional schools pick the time, the place, the lessons, the curriculum, the delivery methods and the measure of success. Kids decide on next-to-nothing about how they are taught and that is doing them a disservice.

I also think that the assumption that a show would not help the students become “strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers” is also flawed.  Time and time again, we learn that life’s softer pursuits can be a great teachers.  Music. Art. Games. Theater. Sports. Cooking. Gardening.  All of these things require reading, writing and decision making.  They just cannot be assessed on a test.  And really, shouldn’t our 5 year-olds have an experience that exposes them to the world around them and allow them to lean into learning things that really interest them?

Shouldn’t we all have that?

When I was looking for a path that would give my kids the best start in life, I NEVER would have predicted that I would be an advocate for something like a Sudbury School.  No grades. No grade-levels. No lesson plans. No tests.

That said, I have come to realize that while some kids are getting exactly what they need from traditional schools, there are plenty more kids would thrive in a new or different environment. Sudbury may not be for everyone, but if you are feeling the pressure to find something else that might be a better fit for your kid, consider joining the effort to open a Sudbury School in North Florida.

Feel free to comment below and I will reach out to you with details about our upcoming information meetings.

Happy new year and much joy, prosperity and health to you and yours in 2015.

~Jennifer

Minecraft, Candy Crush and mix tapes.

My kid loves Minecraft.

Every morning, I come down the stairs to find him building, battling, surviving in this weird pixelated world. I have tried to understand his obsession.  Heck, I even bought a book about how to play, but I admit, I don’t get it.

As the mom, when it comes to Minecraft, I thought it was my job was to:

  1. Strictly monitor and restrict them amount of time he spent playing.
  2. Watch out for cyber-predators and/or ultra-violent content.

Turns out that I may have only needed to worry about the latter of the two.

This past August, Forbes reported on the topic in an article entitled, “A Surprising New Study On How Video Games Impact Children.”  They share the findings of Author Andrew K. Przybylski, Phd., who conducted a study of “2436 male and 2463 female young people, ranging in age from 10 to 15 years.” The study is entitled “Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Adjustment,”

…The findings do indicate “that electronic play has salutary functions similar to traditional forms of play; they present opportunities for identity development as well as cognitive and social challenges.” In other words, video games are comparable to other kinds of imaginative play.

Huh?  You mean all this time, there is a really good chance that I have been telling my kid not to PLAY at his favorite EDUCATIONAL activity in the world?

I know that play is critical, but I had just assumed that he needed to be outside with a ball or a bike, using Legos or creating with paints, paper and glue.

The Sudbury Valley School encourages kids to spend their time doing what they please.  That includes packs of kids playing video games in a social setting.  This is tough for some parents who are considering the Sudbury model.

If you are like me, you are asking yourself, “How will they learn anything?” and  “What if that is all they do?”  Their blog has a FAQ section that covers this popular topic.

[Some kids] spend tremendous amounts of time playing video games and [outsiders] see it as mind- numbing. We know – because we see the kids and we know the kids – that it’s the opposite of mind-numbing, that they only play a particular video game until they’ve mastered it and then they go on to something else. They also play in an extremely social situation with other kids, talking all the time, and they develop very deep social relationships. And we know that the kind of concentration they put into each video game is mind-building and not mind-numbing…

Video games like Minecraft foster creativity, ingenuity and social behavior.  Heck, even games like Candy Crush are beneficial to a point.  Adults who play have a chance to take a mental break and generate a small “win”, maybe a badly needed one on a tough day…so I have heard. (I might be on level 416.)

http://kretas95.deviantart.com/art/Minecraft-Wallpaper-426843152

Wallpaper from kretas95

In fact, Minecraft itself is getting notoriety for being an education tool.  In a recent online article, 2machines.com shares:

Through experimenting and working together, kids begin to develop skills in creative thinking, math and geometry, and even a bit of geology. And to complete large tasks, they need to plan a strategy, define goals and work together to execute and see the mission through — sort of like having a real job.

In fact, the Journal of Adolescent Research published a study comparing children that played video games to those that didn’t. “Video game players, regardless of gender, reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school and positive mental health,” Paul Adachi and Teena Willoughby, the authors of the study, concluded. “Video game players also had less risky friendship networks and a more favorable self-concept.”

What society deems is a waste of time has changed over the years and I am guessing we all have done something to fill the time that was not super-productive on the surface.  (Again, Candy Crush.)

Listening to music and making mix tapes was my “time-waster”, but it didn’t feel that way to me.  In retrospect, I can even find value in my hours and hours of hunching over the tape-recorder.  I learned patience (because I had to wait for the right song to come on the radio), organization (because I had to decide which songs I wanted, in what order and for what length of time on the cassette) and generosity (because we all know that it was the ultimate gift.)  Maybe it was not algebra or The Iliad, but I was having fun, I felt good about myself when I was making them, and I probably learned a thing or two.

I know that I have to re-frame how I see the role of video games like Minecraft in my house.

Lesson learned.

Child’s play

I asked my friends on Facebook about their favorite childhood memories and here are a few of the replies.

Steven said, “Playing outside until the streetlights came on…Riding my bike to the mini mart because it was two miles away, not on every street corner.”

From Holly, “Getting lost in the dense woods behind my house–climbing rocks, walking barefoot in the brook. And the slight fear of never really knowing if we (friends or siblings) would find our way out before dark.”

Erin shared, “Playing outside after school, building forts in the woods, playing kickball after dinner – flashlight tag etc. No worries.”

Tonia – “We swung on a rope from the tree, canoed and splashed in the lake, ate junk food, and played Milles Bournes and Nerds all night. When we biked home, it was all downhill, so we coasted, no hands, all cocky, but we sometimes braked because we were really whipping along the country highway.

And from Kimberly, “My mom would pick up a KFC bucket for dinner on the beach.”

Ask your friends.  Here is what I bet you’ll get.

Jumping into puddles and climbing trees. Building forts and acting out skits. Digging your toes in the sand or getting dirty in the mud. Board games and getting dressed up for no reason.

They remembered the joy of play…Activities with no “purpose” other than to have fun.

And therein lies the problem.  I look at my kids’ schedules and there is little room for real play.  They have school. Homework. After-school sports. Scouts. Academic computer assignments. Music lessons. Tutoring. I have signed them up for these things and, even though I have limited them to one sport and one other activity each week, they are slammed with stuff.

Play, and the freedom to do it how and when you want, is relatively non-existent for the modern kid – my kids are no exception.

, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting expert, talks about play in a Huffington Post piece earlier this year.

“Many children lack sufficient time to engage in child-directed unstructured play. Children are so busy with academics and so overloaded with adult directed activities that they don’t have time to simply be children.

And she goes on to say that playing HELPS kids become better adults.

Through play, children learn to master their fears, assert their needs, process and cope with their emotions, and learn to get along with others. Play helps children resolve conflict and relieve stress.”

Yup.

The belief that play is critical and that kids should have more time to do it are two of the many reasons I was drawn to the Sudbury model of schooling.  I want my kids to learn, to be happy and to be productive members of society.  AND I want them to enjoy the process along the way.  I want their young lives to be joyful and interesting. And it turns out that allowing them encouraging them to play is a great way to do all of that.

Now I realize that the world of “Mayberry” is gone for most Americans.  No longer can you let your kid run around the neighborhood until the dinner bell is rung or the sun goes down.  But, we can create a space to allow kids to be kids.  There is plenty of time to knuckle down and be serious later in life, but childhood is fleeting.  Even if you have no interest in choosing a school like Sudbury, you can make an effort to create room for real play time in your kids’ week.

While we may not be able the replicate the literal freedom of the past, we can give our kids the time and space to make their own best childhood memories.