Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Should Student Success Include Happiness?

Should Student Success Include Happiness?

By Vicki ZakrzewskiPeter Brunn | May 25, 2015 | 5 Comments
If we want our students to become happy adults, research suggests that schools should focus more on students' well-being than academic success.
But does that brand of success lead to happiness? Several studies have found that childhood emotional health and kind, helpful behavior—two major factors that contribute to our happiness—are the greatest predictors of life satisfaction in adulthood. The least important predictor? Academic success.
For sure, getting a job is a huge and important part of adulthood. But anyone who’s ever been an adult knows that there’s more—so much more—to life than work. And scientists have determined that experiencing positive emotions and having a sense of meaning in both our work and our personal lives are critical to our well-being.
So rather than making it an either/or situation—either job skills or happiness and meaning—what if we taught students both? In other words, what if teaching them how to build happy and meaningful lives was integrated into the cultivation of their future employability?
Research on the importance of helping students develop skills that lead to happy and meaningful lives behooves educators (and policy-makers) to at least consider the possibility. Yet how exactly does learning to cultivate a happy and meaningful life fit into education? And even more importantly, how do we teach it?

Where happiness fits into education

According to leading happiness researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky, happiness is defined as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
In other words, happy lives are usually made up of a combination of positive emotions and meaningfulness—both of which contribute greatly to a child’s learning process and well-being.
Emotions play an integral role in education, affecting students’ motivation, attention, social functioning, and ethical decision-making. For example, enjoyment of learning motivates students to put forth greater effort, whereas boredom only decreases effort. Anxiety lessens students’ ability to problem-solve, but hope and pride can increase self-efficacy. Thus, creating safe and caring classrooms and designing engaging lessons, both of which promote positive emotions in students, should be high on a teacher’s agenda.
One caveat: Emotion researchers state that feeling positive emotions all the time should not be the goal, as this actually lessens our well-being and happiness. And in certain circumstances, negative emotions such as anxiety can actually motivate students to study harder.
Instead, educators should recognize and validate students’ emotional lives and help them work withall their emotions in a rich and balanced way. In this way, teachers are promoting students’ emotional health, which is foundational to happiness.
In addition to positive emotions, happiness also depends on a sense of meaning—that our lives and our experiences make sense and matter. Students often complain that what they’re learning in school is not relevant to their lives, which can lead to disengagement.
Yet researchers have found that students who see the connection between their school work and their future work goals find more meaning in what they’re learning—on one condition: their goals must benefit others in addition to themselves, and not be oriented towards making money. This is a finding that holds true across diverse socio-economic and racial lines. In other words, focusing too much on money and careers can actually contribute to a sense of meaninglessness.
Research also shows that students who hold this kind of prosocial orientation experience greater well-being, are more likely to persevere in tedious academic tasks, and stay on track for college. Moreover, teachers who encourage their students toward this kind of approach to life are, once again, laying the foundation for happy and meaningful lives.

But can you teach happiness?

For teachers who want to help students develop happy and meaningful lives, does this mean that you have to completely rethink your curriculum and how you teach?
Not at all. In fact, educators who include social-emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness in their classrooms are subversively cultivating their students’ happiness and sense of meaning by fostering their emotional health and prosocial skills.
But there are some subtle nuances to the teaching of these skills that can enhance students’ happiness and sense of meaning even more.
  1. Make SEL and/or mindfulness a part of every lesson.
    If you think about it, life does not parcel neatly into 50 minutes of academic content and then 20 minutes of happiness skills, such as SEL and mindfulness. Instead, life requires us to have the content knowledge and, at the same time, the know-how for getting along with others and, frankly, ourselves.
    Teachers who integrate SEL directly into content areas help students develop socially and emotionally by making these skills relevant to their daily lives. Incorporating SEL and mindfulness into the day does not need to be complicated, nor does it need to take a lot of time. For example:
    • Before introducing a tough math concept, remind the students that if they start to feel frustrated, instead of quitting, they might do some belly breaths to help them stay calm and focused on the task at hand.
    • Carefully select books that allow students to consider how a character in the text might be feeling. Allow them to explore what choices the character made and try to understand and empathize with why the character made those decisions.
    • Start and end the day with two minutes of mindfulness practice, so that students learn the value of approaching life with a sense of calm and focus rather than distracted “busyness”.
  2. Let students work things out.
    Imagine how awesome it would be if we only worked with people we got along with… but that’s not life!
    One of the greatest things teachers can do to help students cultivate skills for happiness and meaning is to give them opportunities to work with other students who challenge their social capacities. In this way, students learn the ins and outs of happiness-boosting qualities such as compassion, kindness, and forgiveness.
    Yet, standing back and observing when cooperative groups are struggling can be really hard for teachers. And sometimes, just to avoid the whole situation, teachers will “engineer” working groups so that they’re only made up of students who get along with each other—or they’ll just throw cooperative learning out the window.
    But rather than fearing the chaos that can ensue when students make behavior mistakes, educators might try embracing those golden moments because that’s when students can really learn. In order for them to develop the skills and strategies they need to build positive relationships, they need chances to learn from their mistakes. Many SEL programs teach conflict resolution skills and the regular practice of mindfulness can help students become aware of when their ire has been roused and make the choice to respond in a more kind and helpful way.
    In academic content areas we might start a lesson by saying, “I know some of our groups have struggled to work together. So what can we do today to make working together go more smoothly? What ground rules do we need to set? What tools do we have if things get tough?” And then after the lesson, reflect on what worked and what did not work. Make a list that you can refine and revisit each time students work together.
  3. Build in time for reflection.
    Reflection helps us build meaning in our lives. It allows us to bring our humanity into what we are doing by asking how something changed our thinking, our view of the world, our beliefs about others or ourselves.
    Teachers who give students time to reflect on what they’re learning and experiencing—both internally and externally—help make the curriculum relevant to students’ lives. They see that not only are they learning content knowledge, they’re also learning to connect with each other, to be empathetic, to understand their own needs and the needs of others. In other words, they’re learning the foundation of what it means to live a happy and meaningful life.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, “What exactly are we educating for?” As our society evolves and as we gain a deeper understanding of who we are as human beings, the answer to this question is changing. No longer is it enough to train for job skills—because how we live our lives really matters.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why is University Still Here?

Universities are supposed to be dead. These bastions of higher learning have been on Silicon Valley’s hit list for much of the past decade, and disruption phasers targeting the industry have certainly been set to kill in the years since the global financial crisis.
And yet after years of efforts, we have arrived in 2015 and almost nothing seems to have changed about the way we get our degrees or even just our continuing coursework.
MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – were supposed to be the vanguard of the new online education movement, surging to popularity in 2011 and 2012 following a rash of press about the end of higher education as we know it. Since those discussions though, MOOCs seem to have fared poorly. Just take a look at their popularity:
Coursera and Udacity's Google Search Traffic
Coursera and Udacity’s Google Search Traffic
If we use Google Trends to search for the names of the two most well-known MOOCs, Coursera and Udacity, we see that both of them seem to have stalled in terms of search traffic, a sign of weak new user growth (one way VCs can get a feel for a startup’s word-of-mouth distribution is to look at its search traffic – if a friend mentions a new company, people tend to search for it on Google or the App Stores).
As any founder will try to convince you, traffic is not the only metric to judge a company, but it is one of the most crucial, particularly in a space like education where popular acceptance of a credential is critical to the success of the entire endeavor.
What happened to the revolution? Education is arguably the most important activity of our society, providing the basis of the knowledge economy and ultimately our prosperity in the modern world. There are incredibly smart people thinking about this everyday, both inside the ivory tower, and in colorful co-working spaces across the country. How could we go so wrong?
What the world is discovering is that humans are going to be humans (a discovery we seem to make a lot in startup-landia). We failed to ensure that motivation and primacy were built-in to these new products, and in the process, failed to get adults to engage with education in the way that universities traditionally can.

The Motivation Challenge

Just take one of the most repeated attacks against MOOCs: their incredibly low rates of course completion. Depending on the course, the signups to completion ratio can easily be in the low single percentage points, with an enormous drop in the opening weeks of a course as people either commit or leave.
New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult.

This was, frankly, a dumb metric to condemn MOOCs over – it’s essentially the bounce rate for websites. Who cares?
However, motivation (and also patience) is the key ingredient for success in education. While drop off rates in course completion are partially indicative of the quality of the MOOC education product, they are far more valuable as a reflection of the limited dedication to continuous learning that most adults have in the first place.
I realize that this can be hard to accept in an industry like software startups where the rate of autodidacts is probably one of the highest in the world outside universities themselves. Nevertheless, there is a reason that teaching colleges spend so much time discussing how to inculcate lifelong learning, since that is simply not the default for most people. Family and job demands (aka life) can easily preclude this sort of on-going investment of time into education.
Besides lack of time though, the key challenge for open online education was connecting learning to more pecuniary outcomes, namely job performance, promotions, and new job searches. Outside of programming, which seems to be a unique area of learning with a high return on investment, few courses seem destined to transform a working adult’s job prospects.
Indeed, Google Trends as well as other media sources seem to corroborate the notion that MOOCs were more successful overseas, where students often have strong financial incentives to improve their skills but lack the kind of plentiful education that is available in the West.
Without internal or external motivation, online education products have faltered. All the structure of online courses ends up being just overhead compared to reading a book or an article, without any clear additional value either in terms of education or in terms of economics.

A Lack Of Primacy

The motivation problem should have been obvious from the start. Libraries and books have been widely available throughout the United States for easily the last century. While video lectures may be an improvement over books, there were also companies for years that sold lectures online or by mail order, albeit often at a steep price. Those who wanted to be educated had the means to do so.
There is another element to motivation though that is crucial to recognize in our early experiments with online open education, and that is the power of primacy. Primacy is making education the primary activity of a student’s day, or perhaps more specifically, the primary thought activity of the day.
Primacy is deeply connected to motivation, since it makes learning the default rather than a conscious decision that we make throughout the day. Furthermore, primacy also allows us to peer deeper into knowledge, since we can make connections between facts and theories that we might otherwise miss out on.
When we attend a physical university, we automatically give primacy to education. There is something about the configuration of a college campus, the schedule of courses, and the mobs of students roaming around that places us in a mindset for learning.
There is also financial primacy that comes from paying large tuition bills. Traditional forms of online education through universities like Kaplan or University of Phoenix still benefit from this sort of primacy, since students are paying incredible sums to receive their education. Money speaks to us, especially when it is leaving our bank account thousands of dollars at a time (or adding up on our student loan summaries).
New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult. Without a physical presence, there weren’t the social peer effects of friends encouraging us to attend our classes on time, or shaming us about our poor performance.
These products often tried to emulate the feel of a course by forcing students to take them concurrently. The effect of that model, which Coursera particularly prioritized, appears on the surface to have been unsuccessful, while also reducing the convenience that should be the hallmark of online education.
Open education is absolutely needed – course materials should be distributed as widely as possible for as cheaply as possible. Knowledge deserves to be free. But that openness also makes it hard for these materials to gain primacy in the lives of their students when they are just sitting on the web like every other web page.
From the results so far, it doesn’t seem like we have the answers here yet. Online communication tools have proliferated and significantly improved since the founding of the web, but we still have yet to build the kinds of high-quality and deeply intellectual communities that can handle more than a few dozen members before disintegrating. We need to think about the aspects of primacy we can bring to the web that can rival traditional universities.

Education 2.0?

There are few areas of startups today that continue to be as exciting as EdTech, but we have to be cautious in getting ahead of ourselves. Unlike shopping or socializing online, education is simply not as native an activity for many adults today. We can’t just assume that if we build it, they will come.
Instead, we need to think more deeply about motivation and primacy in order to build a new mix that takes advantage of the internet’s best properties while competing with the quality of the university experience.
Strong examples of this abound already. Duolingo, for instance, uses a mix of spaced repetition methods along with gamification elements to encourage language learners to stay the course. That model emulates certain aspects of physical learning that may be just enough to keep the motivation levels going among students. We will have to see the results in a few years.
Education is crucial for the success of our entire economy. Silicon Valley is right to throw resources at the problem, which remains extensive. However, we need to see humans for what they are, and find the tools and techniques to make sure we help all of us accomplish the dreams we are setting out to do.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

'Most Likely To Succeed': Schools Should Teach Kids To Think, Not Memorize

Our education system was perfectly prepare workers for routine jobs that no longer exist. As we try to out-drill and out-test Korea we are leaving millions of young adults ill-prepared, uninspired and lacking the skills they need to thrive in an innovation economy. After seeing this film, you'll never look at school the same way again

Fourth-grader Scout is struggling to keep her composure during a parent-teacher conference as the teacher expounds upon the character-building aspects of having failed a math quiz. She fixes her tearful gaze in the distance. "I know that face," says her father, filmmaker Greg Whiteley. "That face is saying, 'This is bullshit. This whole thing called school is bullshit.'" 
Whiteley's latest documentary, "Most Likely to Succeed," delivers a message Americans need to hear, and desperately: our schools are failing our children, leaving them unable to think critically and contribute to an innovation economy.

The educational system is broken. Or at least outmoded, says Larry Rosenstock, founding principal and CEO of High Tech High, a network of schools upending the current framework in California. "We have a system that was created over 100 years ago and everyone has a mental model that says that's the way it has to be," he told The Huffington Post.
For too long, the primary focus of education has been the acquisition of knowledge, explains Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab. "The whole idea is: [if] you know more stuff, you're going to be better off, for whatever sets of reasons. And the only way to get it is through the teacher," he says in the film. "You don't have to do that anymore. Today, content is ubiquitous, it's free, it's on every Internet-connected device, and it's growing exponentially and changing constantly."
High Tech High's methods eschew the traditional instruction of what educators call "content knowledge" -- equations, dates, facts. Instead, the schools strive to foster creative problem-solving with a multidisciplinary curriculum. In lieu of tests, students present collaborative projects that require artistic vision, mathematical prowess and historical understanding. As in life, failure is not a letter grade.
But success is what most students find. Boasting a 98 percent college-matriculation rate among graduates, High Tech High warrants a closer look, and Whiteley's documentary devotes a full year to examining the project.
"The film derives its strength from Greg [Whiteley], a caring father who starts on this thinking we should have more testing and longer school days, and he makes the same path and the same journey as he wants our audience to take, " says executive producer Ted Dintersmith. "I spent 25 years in venture capitalism, and I could see a few things very clearly: one is how quickly routine jobs are going to be replaced by automated solutions."
Stressing the urgency of changing the education system amid America's lousy job market, he added: "The only surviving skills that will save young kids are creative and innovative. As the current school system is now, for 12 of 16 years, you're not in an environment that brings that out of them."
Rosenstock strives to uncover educators who connect student work to the practical world. Mark Aguirre, a humanities teacher at High Tech High since 2001, is a prime example of the type of educator Rosenstock seeks out. "You've been trained to raise your hands," Aguirre tells his students in the film. Out of character for most ninth-grade teachers, Aguirre employs Socratic seminars, instructing his students to imagine a classroom without his presence: "You need to talk to each other and get used to that instead of always looking at me."
As often as parents and students embrace Rosenstock's model, others communicate uncertainty, particularly as High Tech High's unconventional approach relates to teaching math skills.
"We're not for everyone, and parental anxiety about math is most common," said Rosenstock. "Parents think, 'If my kid's good at math, they're smart; if my kid is bad at math, they're not.' We know that's not true. Anxiety about a child's math ability slips off around ninth or tenth grade, when the level of math that the child is doing is still what the parent can handle. After that, it's no longer math that they can do themselves because they don't use it because they don't need it." By focusing on application, High Tech High dispenses with rote memorization.
During our conversation, Rosenstock stepped into the hall at High Tech High to read aloud from a prominent banner scrawled with Campbell's law: "The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
"Most Likely to Succeed" implores viewers to consider the human consequences of education. "The question is," said Rosenstock, "who do you want your child to be?"

How to Stop Worrying

Ever feel like you can't turn your brain off? Worried about how to stop worrying? We all deal with this when life gets challenging.
There is a way to overcome worry that doesn't involve alcohol or a straight-jacket.
The answer is thousands of years old -- but now science is validating those ancient ideas. You've probably even heard of it: Mindfulness.
Yeah, it's all the rage now. But nobody ever seems to really explain what it is or how to do it.
Let's fix that.

You Are Not Your Thoughts

What is mindfulness? In his book, The Mindfulness Solution, Ronald Siegel, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, gives a pretty good answer.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:The working definition of mindfulness that my colleagues and I find most helpful is awareness of present experience with acceptance. 
You might say: But I'm aware. I'm present. I'm accepting.
And I'd say: No, you're not.
You're not aware; you're staring at your iPhone.
You're not present; you're worrying about the future.
You're not accepting; you're shaking your fist at traffic because the world doesn't match the vision in your brain of how it "should" be.
Very often, we're all stuck in our heads.
We're not taking the world in; we're just listening to the stories we tell ourselves about the world, trusting the endless parade of thoughts flitting through our heads instead of actually paying attention to life around us.
One of the fundamental tenets of mindfulness is that we all take our thoughts wayyyyyy too seriously. We think our thoughts always mean something. In fact, we think we are our thoughts and our thoughts are us.
And that's one of the reasons we worry so much and experience so many negative emotions -- because we take our thoughts about the world more seriously than the world itself.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
Mindfulness practice brings all sorts of insights into the workings of the mind. Perhaps the hardest to grasp is the idea that thoughts are not reality. We’re so accustomed to providing a narrative track to our lives and believing in our story that to see things otherwise is a real challenge.You know as well as I do that all kinds of ridiculous thoughts go through our heads. And sometimes you know not to trust them. When you're tired, drunk, angry or sick you don't take your thoughts as seriously.
Mindfulness says you should go a step further. Because you have lots of crazy or silly thoughts all the time. And they can make you anxious or bring you down.
(For more on how to never be frustrated again, click here.)
The great psychologist Albert Ellis said we should dispute our irrational thoughts. Great advice -- but it can be difficult. You have to be exceedingly rational for it to work.
And sometimes disputing those thoughts can be like a "Chinese finger trap" -- the more you resist, the more they ensnare you.
So what can you do?

Observe. Don't Judge.

Sometimes you can't easily dispute those worrying thoughts. So mindfulness simply says: let them go.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
Mindfulness practice helps us avoid the trap of counterproductive thoughts by learning to let them go.
You can't turn your brain off. And even if you meditate for years you can never fully clear your mind. But you can see those troublesome thoughts, recognize them, but not get tangled in believing them.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
Remember, this practice is not about emptying the mind, getting rid of difficult emotions, escaping life’s problems, being free of pain, or experiencing never-ending bliss. Mindfulness practice is about embracing our experience as it is—and sometimes what is can be unpleasant at the moment... We usually try to feel better by decreasing the intensity of painful experiences; in mindfulness practice, we work instead to increase our capacity to bear them.
And scientific research shows this really works. People feel better and are more engaged with their work after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
Dr. Davidson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited a group of pressured workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation for three hours per week over an eight-week period. They compared this group to a similar group of coworkers who were not taught meditation. On average, all of the workers tipped to the right in their prefrontal cortical activity before taking up meditation. However, after taking the eight-week course, the meditating group now had more left-sided activation than the nonmeditators. The meditators also reported that their moods improved and they felt more engaged in their activities.

I know, I know: Easier said than done, Eric.
Ignore your thoughts? Let them just float by? Sounds great but how the heck do you do that? Especially when they're emotionally powerful feelings like worry.
(For more on how to deal with anxiety, tragedy or heartache, click here.)
The key is attention. Yeah, that thing none of us seems to have anymore.
But there's a way to get it back.

Don't Distract. Immerse.

I've posted before about how important attention is to happiness. And one of the key practices of mindfulness is meditation, which has been shown in scientific studies to improve attention.
While I'm a huge believer in meditation, yes, it can be hard and takes time. Is there another way? Yup.
Next time you're worrying, remember that your thoughts aren't real. Life is real.
So turn your attention to your senses. To the world around you. (No, not to your smartphone.)
How does that cup of coffee smell? Did you even notice the people nearby?
Don't distract yourself. Immerse yourself in the world around you.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
The approach teaches people mindfulness practices with a particular emphasis on not taking any thoughts too seriously but rather staying grounded in sensual reality here and now... Instead of fantasizing about the next moment of entertainment, you can turn your attention to the sights and sounds of standing in line, buying a cup of coffee, and walking down the street. Instead of getting frustrated because the train is late, you can study the other passengers (discreetly), notice the architecture of the station, and attend to the sensations in your body as you sit and wait. There is always something interesting to do—just pay attention to what is occurring right now.
(For more on how to meditate and be happier, click here.)
I know what some of you are thinking: The worries keep coming back, Eric. Smelling the coffee didn't make them go away.
No sweat. We have tools for this.

Noting And Labeling

Rather than dodging, disputing, or distracting (which can all lead to you just wrestling with those ideas further) acknowledge the thoughts. "Note" them.
You're not avoiding your thoughts. You acknowledge them... and then turn your attention back to your senses. To your breath. To the feel of the chair beneath your butt. To the person next to you.
For thoughts that keep playing like a broken record, try "labeling" them. Siegel suggests giving the thought a funny name that trivializes it: Oh, that "it's not going to work out" tape is playing in my head again.
Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
When the thoughts arise, label them silently before letting them go. You don’t need very many categories. You might choose labels such as “planning,” “doubting,” “judging,” “fantasizing,” obsessing,” or “criticizing.” The particular labels aren’t crucial; what matters is using them to avoid being captured by stories or repetitive tapes. Once you label a thought, gently bring your attention back to the breath. If you find that your attention is repeatedly carried away by particular stories, try making up a humorous label for them. Give these greatest hits their own names, such as your “I blew it again” tape, “I can’t get no respect” tape, “I never get what I want” tape, and so on.
Sound like silly, hippie nonsense? Well, you know those worries that bring you down and make you sad?
A study found mindfulness therapies were just as effective as antidepressants. In fact, many who practiced them regularly were subsequently able to ditch their medication.

Via The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems:
In another, more recent study, MBCT was shown to be as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapses of depression and allowed many subjects to discontinue their medication.
(For more on how to be happy and successful, click here.)
Okay, let's round this up into a simple system you can use.

Sum Up

Here's how to stop worrying and start being mindful:
  1. You are not your thoughts. Sometimes they're downright ridiculous. Just because you think it, doesn't make it true.
  2. Observe, don't judge. Acknowledge the thoughts, but let them float by. Don't wrestle with them.
  3. Don't distract, immerse. Do not check your email for the 400th time. Take in the world around you. Turn to your senses. That's real. Your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself about the world aren't.
  4. Note or label intrusive thoughts. Yeah, the thoughts fight back. Acknowledge them. Give the intrusive ones a funny name.
  5. Return to the senses. Really pay attention to the world around you.
And when I say to pay more attention to the world around you, that doesn't just mean things. It's also people.
What ends a lot of relationships? "You don't pay enough attention to me."
When we endeavor to let the thoughts in our head go and embrace the world around us, we can focus more attention on the ones we love.
As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, in a number of Asian languages "mind" and "heart" are the same word.
So mindfulness isn't a cold or clinical process. It might as well be translated as "heartfulness."
Let the thoughts float by and turn your attention to the people you love.
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Let Kids Learn Through Play

In second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.
The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.
But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.
One expert I talked to recently, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.”
The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?
In the United States, more academic early education has spread rapidly in the past decade. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have contributed to more testing and more teacher-directed instruction.
Another reason: the Common Core State Standards, a detailed set of educational guidelines meant to ensure that students reach certain benchmarks between kindergarten and 12th grade. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted both the math and language standards.
The shift toward didactic approaches is an attempt to solve two pressing problems.
By many measures, American educational achievement lags behind that of other countries; at the same time, millions of American students, many of them poor and from minority backgrounds, remain far below national norms. Advocates say that starting formal education earlier will help close these dual gaps.
But these moves, while well intentioned, are misguided. Several countries, including Finland and Estonia, don’t start compulsory education until the age of 7. In the most recent comparison of national educational levels, the Program for International Student Assessment, both countries ranked significantly higher than the United States on math, science and reading.
Of course, these countries are smaller, less unequal and less diverse than the United States. In such circumstances, education poses fewer challenges. It’s unlikely that starting school at 7 would work here: too many young kids, disadvantaged or otherwise, would probably end up watching hours of TV a day, not an activity that promotes future educational achievement. But the complexities of the task in this country don’t erase a fundamental fact that overly structured classrooms do not benefit many young children.
Some research indicates that early instruction in reading and other areas may help some students, but these boosts appear to be temporary. A 2009 study by Sebastian P. Suggate, an education researcher at Alanus University in Germany, looked at about 400,000 15-year-olds in more than 50 countries and found that early school entry provided no advantage. Another study by Dr. Suggate, published in 2012, looked at a group of 83 students over several years and found that those who started at age 5 had lower reading comprehension than those who began learning later.
Other research has found that early didactic instruction might actually worsen academic performance. Rebecca A. Marcon, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, studied 343 children who had attended a preschool class that was “academically oriented,” one that encouraged “child initiated” learning, or one in between. She looked at the students’ performance several years later, in third and fourth grade, and found that by the end of the fourth grade those who had received more didactic instruction earned significantly lower grades than those who had been allowed more opportunities to learn through play. Children’s progress “may have been slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduced formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status,” Dr. Marcon wrote.
Nevertheless, many educators want to curtail play during school. “Play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn’t achieve anything,” says David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University who has studied the topic for decades. “But it’s essential to their development. They need to learn to persevere, to control attention, to control emotions. Kids learn these things through playing.”
Over the past 20 years, scientists have come to understand much more about how children learn. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, has spent his career studying how the human brain develops from birth through adolescence; he says most kids younger than 7 or 8 are better suited for active exploration than didactic explanation. “The trouble with over-structuring is that it discourages exploration,” he says.
Reading, in particular, can’t be rushed. It has been around for only about 6,000 years, so the ability to transform marks on paper into complex meaning is not pre-wired into the brain. It doesn’t develop “naturally,” as do other complex skills such as walking; it can be fostered, but not forced. Too often that’s what schools are trying to do now. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t increase access to preschool, and improve early education for disadvantaged children. But the early education that kids get — whatever their socioeconomic background — should truly help their development. We must hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to this science.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Failure can be productive for teaching children maths

Don’t worry, it’s better to fail first. demandaj

Learning from mistakes, errors, and failure seems intuitive and compelling. Everyone can relate to it. But if failure is a powerful learning mechanism, why do we wait for it to happen? Why can’t we design for it, understand how and when it works? What if designing for failure while learning a new concept or skill could result in more robust learning?
Let me frame the question more concretely in the context of learning maths. When learning a new concept, should learners be first taught the concept and then solve problems, or solve problems first and then be taught the concept?
The first option is relatively straightforward and one that most of us can relate to: teach students the concept first, show them how it is applied to solve problems, and then get them to solve problems on their own. This method is commonly known as direct instruction, and is highly prevalent in schools all over the world.
The second option is not as simple. If students don’t even know the concept, what is the value of getting them to solve problems on that concept? Obviously, chances are they are not going to be able to solve the problem.
Why then design for them to fail at solving problems before they have learnt the concepts required to solve those problems? Unless of course, it is conceivable that under some conditions and for carefully designed problems, the process of generating sub-optimal or even incorrect solutions to problems can be productive in preparing students to learn better from the subsequent teaching that follows. I call this method “productive failure”.
By failure, I simply mean that students will typically not be able to generate or discover the standard or correct solution by themselves. By productive, I mean this failure can be turned into deep learning provided the teacher can build upon students’ ideas and solutions, and teach them the concept properly.

Teach first, or fail first?

So, which teaching method – direct instruction or productive failure – is better for learning a new maths concept? There are good reasons to believe in the effectiveness of both.
Direct instruction reduces our working memory load. This is important because we have a limited working memory capacity and if we strain or overload it while searching for solutions for which we don’t have the necessary conceptual knowledge, we are not going to learn anything.
Because direct instruction helps manage this capacity better by focusing students’ working memory resources on learning new information rather than searching for solutions, it should lead to better learning. From this perspective, productive failure would be an ill-advised method, because jumping right into problem solving without having learnt the required concepts is a sure-fire recipe for overloading your working memory.
Yet, there is a reason to believe in productive failure. When students generate sub-optimal or incorrect solutions, their prior knowledge is being activated. This is critical when learning something new because it allows us to integrate new knowledge with what we already know. And it should in turn lead to better learning.

Where’s the evidence?

So, how does one choose between the two methods? For the past ten years I have been testing this, both in randomised-controlled experiments as well as in noisy, messy classroom-based experiments, in India and Singapore.

Try, try and try again. GlobalPartnership for EducationCC BY-NC-ND

In several comparisons, I have found both methods to lead to high levels of basic knowledge about the targeted concept. This is the kind of knowledge that gets tested on standardised tests. But productive failure students invariably demonstrate significantly deeper conceptual understanding and ability to transfer what was learnt to novel problems than direct instruction students.
These findings have now been independently replicated by researchers in the USA, Canada, Germany, and Australia. Interestingly, in my research, I have also found evidence that the greater the number of sub-optimal or incorrect solutions students produce, the more they seem to learn. In other words, the more times they failed to produce the correct solution, the more they learnt when their teacher taught them the concept properly.
While these findings challenge the conventional wisdom and practice of direct instruction to teach new concepts, this is not to suggest that direct instruction is a poor form of teaching. Clearly, it is able to achieve high levels of basic knowledge and skills.
But if the aim of teaching and learning is to go beyond the basics and engender deeper conceptual understanding and ability to transfer knowledge flexibly to new situations, then it seems that designing for a certain level of failure in the initial learning phase as opposed to minimising it, may well be productive for learning in the longer run.