I grew up in libraries. Summer days were spent blissfully in the mobile library that came to my neighborhood every week. Every week I’d escape the blistering heat outdoors and enter an air conditioned magic castle. To me, it was magic. I would spend hours gazing at the shelves of books, taking out any one that caught my eye. I checked out at least 10 at a time, devouring them over and over until the next week’s visit. Thinking back on this time still makes me happy–I was a solitary kid, not many friends, but books filled in that gap and I made many, many friends among the intriguingly scented pages. I still love the smell of books in a library.
So when I heard about an article that advocated retaining the stacks in a campus library in lieu of moving them offsite, I was intrigued. In the article, Ann Michael, writing coordinator at DeSales University, recommends keeping the books onsite, even though as writing coordinator she would benefit from having the extra space. She wants instructors to push their students into the stacks, allowing them to get lost, allowing them to make serendipitous discoveries. As she puts it,
“The curious, inquisitive, emotional human mind — which is not an algorithm seeking one specific text or trained upon one set of parameters only — can find on those shelves a physical object that provides something unavailable through virtual technologies.”
A physical book can also be something beautiful in and of itself, with a tactile element lost in a world of electronic devices. And browsing in real time teaches students that finding good, reliable information sources takes time. Having a real, live librarian help with a search in a way that no software program can, and having a physical being there to share in a “Eureka” moment can enhance the whole library experience. As well, “books offer more chances for surprise and delight,” says Michael. The physical experience of interacting with book, the titles on the spine inviting deep thought and contemplation, may just offer a student a chance to find something that will change their life.
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?
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.
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.
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.
There’s a working paper out of Harvard Business School Social Science Research Network that upholds the notion that reflecting on lessons learned aids in performance and perceived self-efficacy. The authors studied over 300 participants, some from varioius Northeastern universities and some from India, upon which to test their hypothesis. The authors state “In our field study we showed that taking time away from training and reallocating that time to reflection actually improved individual performance.” This emphasizes the importance of taking time to think about what you’re learning, as opposed to being fed information on a continual basis, without taking a breath. You need time to digest information in order to process it and make sense of it, thus learning smarter, not harder. To me, this makes perfect sense. I need time to think about the things I learn, letting them seep slowly into my consciousness, unfolding and unfurling their nuances as I contemplate their place next to the facts I already know. That journal that your English teacher made you keep? More useful than you could imagine.