Tag Archives: achievement

Your Career May Depend on You Quitting Social Media

That title is a paraphrase of a byline from an article on the New York Times website. It also appeared in print in the Business Section on page 8 on November 20, 2016. Cal Newport, the author of the article, claims that by continually monitoring your social media sites, you reduce your ability to achieve success in your working life. “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated,” he says. “The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about.” In other words, it requires an ability to put distractions aside and work. The ability to put aside distractions in order to focus on a specific task is becoming a hot commodity in the professional workplace. Social media can diminish that ability because it is by its very nature addictive. Your brain craves that instant hit of recognition, to the detriment of deep, unencumbered thinking.

“The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter,” says Newport. He purposefully does not have any social media accounts–he’s a computer scientist who writes books and also runs a blog. His conscious decision to remove himself from the world of social media in order to focus more completely on his work is counter to what many think of as a way to find opportunities they might otherwise not discover, and to cultivate contacts that will help with future job promotion.

I’ve seen the diminishment of the ability to concentrate and focus firsthand among my high school students. They can’t go more than a few minutes without checking in with the monster in their hand. The idea that “smartphones” (quotations mine) are here to stay and we have to work with them in education is a double-edged sword. We got along fine without them 10-15 years ago. And I’m not saying that there’s any way to go back–the addiction to these attention-sucking monsters affects more than 80 percent of young adults who say they “couldn’t live without” their electronic device.

At some point, of course, I hope the pendulum will swing back, and that people will find a way to cure their addiction and re-engage with each other and with their work. Employers are looking for people who can collaborate with one another to solve problems, and it doesn’t mean via Skype or Snapchat. Face to face communication will remain a dynamic part of working life, as will being able to work independently and deeply on projects. Hopefully (I seem to use that work a lot), people will be able to set aside their instant connection devices and live up to their employer’s expectations. I shudder to think what will  happen if they do not.

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How well does Pre-K prepare children?

I’ve ranted about this before. Maybe, with enough evidence from studies like this, we can go back to kindergarten being what it’s supposed to be: a place for children to learn to interact with others, develop social skills, and just be kids. In other words, let them play. Why throw money into a program that isn’t showing clear positive results? The Finnish study I referenced before says “play is a very efficient way of learning for children…and we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

Learning with joy. I’ve seen what curriculum is like for pre-K and kindergarten, and in my mind it’s too focused on achievement. Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, says “those things you learn without joy you forget easily.” Joy. What a simple word, and what a lot to convey in a simple word. We need to bring back joy into our youngest students’ lives, allowing them time to be what they are, children who eagerly look forward to coming together with their classmates for play.

Learning can take place organically, as each child shows interest and becomes ready. It doesn’t have to be pushed to meet some arbitrary state standard of learning. “There’s no solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So if there are no advantages to teaching kids to read in kindergarten, why push for more funds to teach it to pre-K?

Hopefully the pendulum will start to swing back to a happy medium in this country sooner rather than later. I hope that US education lawmakers will take a stronger look at the early education programs in Finland that lead to such amazing results later in high school, where the Finns have been outperforming the US on something called the Program for International Student Assessment. And Finland wasn’t always seen as such a powerhouse–it’s only been within the last 40 years that Finnish education policies have allowed it to surpass most other countries in assessment of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading.

I want US education policies to reflect a more humanitarian aspect of learning, placing less emphasis on standardized testing and more on the child as a whole person. I remember the stress and pressure my kids were under in kindergarten. Spelling tests. Reading instruction. At the time I just did the best I could to encourage them and help them along. I want this to change for future generations. I want to bring joy back into the classroom, not only at the primary but at the secondary level. Joy. Is it such a difficult concept?

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AP classes don’t really help students excel in college

I’ve just read an article from Brookings that states that Advanced Placement classes aren’t all that effective at preparing students for college, or at predicting college completion rates. This makes me curious and a little concerned; I’ve long thought that taking an AP class would allow one to gain precious credit for a college course. Turns out, not so much apparently. Dartmouth College stopped taking perfect AP scores of 5 in Psychology in 2013, concerned that AP classes weren’t as rigorous as college classes. And researchers found at the University of Sydney that “students with no background in senior high school physics are generally not disadvantaged.” Concerned that the studies consulted didn’t cover a wide-enough area, Brookings consulted thousands of transcripts from the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study and found evidence that confirmed the theory that advanced classes in high school do not prepare students for college-level work.

The study postulates that it isn’t so much that students aren’t learning as it is they are not learning the right things, aren’t focusing on critical thinking, or have forgotten what they’ve learned. And most colleges are making students take an introductory course on writing and argument anyway, as even students from top schools aren’t performing at levels required for post-secondary education.

What to do? The study isn’t suggesting rejecting AP classes out of hand, even though AP class curriculum is limiting, with little creativity allowed for teachers. The authors suggest technical education and “non-cognitive skill development” as better strategies to encourage college completion, rather than the repetitive drilling on subject content so prevalent in AP classes, and enriching classes with creativity and life skills.

This article made me think. I had a “college prep” high school career, even though I only took two years of math. (It was the ’70’s.) I had a rich elective set. I thought I was ready for college level coursework. Erm, no. I took English 101 my first semester in college, which graphically illustrated to me my inability to write a coherent research paper.  Turns out that one college English class was probably the most valuable of my scholastic career, and I’m most grateful to that teacher whose name I’ve long since forgotten.

I would love to see richer content and deeper delving into subjects by teachers constrained by “teaching to the test.” Bring back shop and home ec and woodworking. Free up some time to continue discussions sparked by students, rather than having to immediately go on to the next segment dictated by a test. Let students really learn, and by doing so, increase the likelihood of completing college. Encourage creativity and problem-solving, not how to take a multiple choice exam.

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Why teaching cursive still matters

The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.

In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)

The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)

My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.

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School Start Times & Adolescents

The American Association of Pediatrics has issued a report on the effect of lack of sleep on adolescents, which contributes to a variety of issues, including obesity, mood disorders, and impaired academic performance. I’ve long felt that teenagers don’t get enough sleep during the school year; the early start times, coupled with after-school activities and jobs, plus homework, all combine to add up to sleepy, over-extended kids. The AAP “endorses…later school start times, and acknowledges the potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.” In addition to delaying school start times, the AAP states that it is also necessary to educate parents and the community that comes into contact with the teenagers of the importance of them getting 8.5 – 9.5 hours of sleep per night. These stakeholders need to know about the scientific rationale behind the proposition to delay the start of school. Naps, sleeping longer on weekends, and coffee can only do so much toward ameliorating the sleep debt racked up by adolescents. Starting school later would allow them to get the necessary amount of shut-eye, and research indicates that this would improve many common teen ailments. We need to all get on board with this — we owe it to our kids for them to be as happy and healthy as possible. This is a start.

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Class size and academic results

There has been a long and conflicting attitude regarding class size and academic results, dating back at least to the 1990s. Study results have been mixed; yes, class size matters, no, class size is irrelevant. A meta-analysis out of Australia takes the issue back into the fray and seems to verify what I’ve felt all along–smaller classes impact student achievement, especially at the elementary level. I think that smaller classes allow for more individualized instruction, greater amounts of teacher-student interaction, and gives students a leg up when they continue on to middle and high school. Young students, with their shorter attention spans, can only benefit from more teacher involvement, and the teacher can spend more time on actual teaching than dealing with discipline problems that may arise when there are more bodies in the classroom. This particular study also found that smaller class size went a long way to reducing the minority-white achievement gap, which has all kinds of positive implications for society at large. Results for smaller class size in high school remain inconclusive, but the evidence in favor of smaller classes at the elementary level should provoke education officials into action.

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