Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Duh" Research Strikes Again

Interesting piece in the New York Times this morning--The School Issue - Preschool - Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? It's yet another in that long series of discoveries by researchers that kids learn better in ways that unschoolers have advocated for decades.

Researchers are coming to believe that impulse control and behavioral skills are more important than IQ, but they're finding that formal instruction in those skills is often ineffective. One program, called Tools of the Mind, is taking another approach:

At the heart of the Tools of the Mind methodology is a simple but surprising idea: that the key to developing self-regulation is play, and lots of it. But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days. If you want to succeed in school and in life, they say, you first need to do what Abigail and Jocelyn and Henry have done every school day for the past two years: spend hour after hour dressing up in firefighter hats and wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend.

I can't help but notice (again) that this program shifts the responsibility for learning to kids and away from teachers--that little matter of autonomy makes a difference every time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Super-Duh! (& more from Deci)

Nice little article from Alfie Kohn in yesterday's New York Times ("When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’") about the potential baleful effect of positive reinforcement:
Conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

Kohn goes on to describe research by Edward Deci (of Why We Do What We Do) and two Israeli researchers about the effects of using affection as a control mechanism:
Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.

It turned out that children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed.

In a companion study, Dr. Assor and his colleagues interviewed mothers of grown children. With this generation, too, conditional parenting proved damaging. Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations now felt less worthy as adults. Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

Go read the whole thing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Oh, Noes?! Not So Much

Nifty little bit over at Wired (Clive Thompson on the New Literacy) on what the Stanford Study of Writing is showing about the effects of technology and the Internet on the ways people write.

Turns out all that fretting and moaning about Twitter and Facebook and texting destroying our kids' ability to write is all wrong. All that modern technology is creating a population that not only writes habitually but is accomplished at writing for many diverse audiences (and is--not surprisingly--relatively unenthusiastic about writing done solely for a grade).

Learning by doing, indeed.

Friday, August 28, 2009

See You Next Time? Someday?

When my kids were little, they wanted to grow up to be LeVar Burton.

Actually, that's not quite right. They didn't want to BE LeVar Burton--they just wanted his job.

They weren't alone, though. I wanted his job, too.

We all thought there couldn't be any more fun or more interesting job in the world than to be the host of Reading Rainbow.

So it was a shock this morning when I woke to NPR telling me that today was the last broadcast of Reading Rainbow on PBS. The reporter said, "Even if you can't remember a specific episode . . . "

Even if you can't remember a specific episode?

I can't count the specific episodes I remember. I mentioned the puppy episode (Book: Best Friends; related segment: Guide Dog puppy raiser), the cat episode (Book: can't remember; related segments: tigers at the then-MarineWorld/AfricaUSA and actor getting made up for Cats role), the one where Juila Child read the story about the mixed up real and artificial cakes, and the comedy show (Book: Ludlow Laughs, read by Phyllis Diller; related segments on slapstick) in the lament I sent this morning to my daughters (now in their 20s).

My older daughter wrote back:

And the hat one, with Zelda Rubinstien reading the book? And the here-are-all-sorts-of-different-jobs one, with the pizza guy and the dog walker and the professional LEGO builder? And the fashion one? AND THE STAR TREK ONE?!?!?!?! AND WOULD WE EVEN HAVE GONE TO **ANY** RENAISSANCE FAIRS WITHOUT THE RENAISSANCE FAIR ONE?!?!?!??!?!?!

Which, of course, made me think of more: Dinosaur Bob and Dinosaur National Monument; The Ox-Cart Man, read by Lorne Greene, with LeVar visiting Old Sturbridge Village (and because of which Kate and I went to Old Sturbridge Village when we went back east to visit potential colleges for her); the devastatingly affecting Vietnam Memorial episode with Maya Lin; Humphrey the Wayward Whale, which was fun because it used news footage from one of our local TV stations; Abiyoyo, with Pete Seeger; the one with the woman who decorated those amazing Ukrainian eggs; . . . I won't go on, even though I could easily list a dozen more.

And why are we losing Reading Rainbow after 26 years? (Among PBS children's shows, only Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers have had longer runs.) We're losing it because nobody will fund it, because the powers-that-be have decided that "phonics and reading fundamentals"--the how of reading--are now more important than the why of reading, the joy of reading.

Reading Rainbow was never about telling kids that reading was good for them. It was all about showing them the doors that reading opens, the worlds we can reach and explore, the way one adventure leads to another, and more beyond.

No matter how much phonics and decoding skills are dressed up to make them appealing and entertaining, they're still mechanical skills that kids are told are good for them. Reading's important, and these are the skills needed to become a successful, serious person--in other words, learning to read's a chore, and we have to try to make it fun, because otherwise it'd be too boring to bear.

Reading Rainbow always took the approach Frank Smith recommends in Joining the Literacy Club. Learning, Smith says,

is primarily a social rather than an individual accomplishment. We learn from other people, not so much though conscious emulation as by "joining the club" of people we see ourselves as being like, and by being helped to engage in their activities. Usually we are not even aware that we are learning.

and that

Literacy is more than the shunting of information between one person and another. It is the exploration of worlds of ideas and experience.

The NPR story says that Reading Rainbow operated on the idea that its kid viewers already had reading skills, but I'm not so sure about that. My kids were entranced by the show long before they learned to read, but they loved the storybooks on the show and they loved the related segments. We made countless library and book store trips in search of books we learned about from Reading Rainbow and looked into local versions of sites and activities we saw on the show.

Reading Rainbow never helped my kids learn to read, in this dreary modern phonics-and-reading-fundamentals sense. But it helped them in a more truly fundamental way--it helped them WANT to read, and without that, all the decoding skills in the world won't create a reading child.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Here's Another One

For my collection of "duh" research, that is.

This one's not really a new study but a summary of current thought on the importance of free play--not organized sports, not music lessons, but real FREE play--in child development.

The Serious Need for Play: Scientific American

I knew this already. It's sad that so many people now see real play as wasting time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What I'm Reading This Month

In progress:

Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

Maya Frost, The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education (This one's an uncorrected proof of a book scheduled for release in May.)

Shashi Tharoor, India: From Midnight to the Millenium and Beyond

and occasional browsing excursions through the replica 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica my brother sent me for Christmas.

On deck:

Robert Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life

Ken Follett, World Without End

Jonah Lehrer, Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stats and More Stats

For the past few years, I've had fun downloading and browsing through the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Census Bureau. This week I finally got around to downloading the 2009 edition (published in October), which is 30 sections and 6 appendices full of all sorts of goodies, like:

—There were 240,800 blepharoplasties performed in 2007 (mine, to repair a ptosis, isn't included there, since it was in 2008, so I supposed it'll be included in next year's abstract.

—The likelihood of a 3- to 5-year-old to visit a library is greater when the mother holds a baccalaureate (52%) or graduate (60%) degree (though nothing about the father's education, unfortunately).

—More 18- to 24-year-olds play sports (49.4%) than garden (20.7%), but—not too surprisingly—more 55- to 64-year-olds garden (56.6%) than play sports (16%).

You never know what weird and interesting little tidbits you'll find.

And then a bit later, I came across the 2008 Feltron Report, which is the past year's life of a graphic designer named Nicholas Felton, distilled into graphs and maps. When I first looked through it, I wondered what on earth it would be like to keep track of that much data in order to produce such a report.

But it turns out that Felton and another designer, Ryan Case, have created a website called Datum (still in private beta) for people to collect and report similar data about their own lives. It's about as ferociously geeky an idea as I've seen in a long time, but looks like it could be really interesting.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Bookshelves May Be Doomed

Like most book people, I can get effusive about the rituals of reading books, about the feel of a nicely bound book, about the smell of the paper and the binding. Many book people—and I used to think I was firmly among this group—find the very idea of electronic book readers appalling. They can't imagine that any ebook reader, no matter how wonderful, could ever satisfactorily replace Real Books.

Now, having worked in a real bookstore a couple of decades ago (it's defunct now, of course), I have fewer illusions about the wonderfulness of physical books than many people. Books are messy—they get dusty fast and even brand new books shed paper lint all over. They're heavy, they take up room (and that's a big problem for those of us who are constantly running out of shelf space), and sometimes it's hard to find just the part you're looking for in them. But it's never been easy for me to give away books (though my shelf-pruning skills have improved as the linear footage of books I own has grown) or, eek, throw them away.

But the drawbacks to physical books have never come close to making me look for an electronic book reader, and none of the current crop, like the Sony Reader or Amazon's Kindle, have done much to change my mind. The idea is good, but the execution is lacking. Neither is particularly attractive and both have monochrome screens which are slow to refresh—they scream "I am an electronic substitute for a real book."

But I'm beginning to be able to envision an appealing ebook reader, thanks to my iPhone. With one of the available ebook apps (I've got Stanza), I can (and do) carry a few classic books (most of Austen, Moby Dick, all of Shakespeare) around with me all the time. On the iPhone, they're in color—text pages are true black and white, not that irritating grayscale—and I can flick through multiple pages with the touch of a finger, do searches, and make notes. Of course, the pages are small, and if you bump up the print size enough for presbyopic eyes to cope, you're left with only a couple of sentences per screen, so it's not the ideal way to read.

But imagine something the size of the Kindle or Sony Reader, with an iPhone-style touchscreen. You'd have the capacity to carry a minor library around with you, the gestures to browse through and manipulate the text with ease, and the visual appeal to satisfy the eye.

One of these days Real Soon Now, there will be an ebook reader that will satisfy even Book People.

And Another Thing . . .

I'm still irked by that quote from Bush I posted about last time:

"How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don't test?"

I was annoyed at the idea that the typical odious multiple-choice-fill-in-the-bubble-standardized test is the only way to determine whether someone can read. My brain kept repeating, "Have them read to you" over and over, like that irritating Tijuana Brass tune they were playing in the salon where I got my hair cut the other day.

I've another problem, though, that's perhaps more serious: Why is knowing that a child can read at grade level so important?

"Reading at grade level" is such a dismal achievement. Goes well, I suppose, with "performs calculations at grade level." Just imagine the excitement in a high-performing classroom where all the students have managed to read and calculate at grade level, the thrill shared by the kids and their teacher, knowing that they've reached the mandated level of skill. What is left for them to accomplish?

I worry that we're creating a generation of kids who are growing up with the idea that learning is drudgery, a series of tasks to be completed, years of meeting grade-level standards with no glimmer of what it is all for.

I don't want kids who meet grade-level standards. I want kids who are curious, who get excited about seeing and learning new things, who have learned how to satisfy their curiosity and lead it on to more and more fascinating things. I want kids who are interested in the world and the people around them and have the opportunity to interact in ways that feed their interests.

People who are interested in the world around them are people who accomplish things in that world. People who have only achieved "grade level" in their endeavors are usually just consumers.

(Of course, that's probably the idea behind NCLB—consumers are a lot easier to manage and manipulate than educated and engaged activists.)

Friday, January 09, 2009


There was a nice little piece in today's Washington Post all about Bush's little legacy-building excursion to Philadelphia yesterday, this time to tout the success of the odious No Child Left Behind Act.

It's got a summary of the good that proponents say the act has done (established accountability and standards, narrowed test score gaps with minority students) and the damage critics have noted (unreasonable emphasis on testing to the detriment of actual learning, neglect of subject areas like science, history, and the arts). The kicker, though, is the quote from Mr. Bush at the end of the article:

"How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don't test?"

Spoken like a true non-reader.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Analogies & Parallels

One of the themes I wrote about in Viral Learning was how so many areas I was interested in seemed to converge in a few basic ideas. You name it—politics, education, cognitive psychology—somehow I kept seeing the same processes at work.

It's happening again.

Over the past few years I've been trying to exercise more, partly to avoid the cardiac disease rampant in my family but mostly just to feel good. I joined a gym and tried a bunch of different classes and exercise machines and gradually settled into a routine with free weights and a rowing machine.

Last summer, my kinesiology-major younger daughter wrote an exercise plan for me that included quite a few exercises using a stablility ball (aka yoga ball, Russian ball, Swiss ball, conditioning ball, etc.). The stability ball exercises are a lot of fun—even when they target a specific part of the body, they make you pay attention to your whole body to maintain the proper balance. Unlike all the isolation machines at the gym, they work more than just the one targeted set of muscles, and are far more interesting to do.

My daughter suggests that this is why I finally settled on the rowing machine, too—aside from not stressing my problematic knees as much as stationary bikes or ellipticals do, rowing requires coordinating the motion of your whole body and takes a lot more attention.

So then a couple of months ago, instead of buying a new office chair when my old one was finally falling apart, I opted to replace it with a balance ball. You wouldn't think it would work: no back, no arms, just the one big ball to roll around on, but it does work. All the time I sit at my desk, I keep moving—sometimes I bounce a little, sometimes I rock back and forth, but all the time, part of me is paying attention to keeping my balance. And after a day at my desk, I don't have the achy lower back or the stiff neck or shoulders that I used to get with what I thought was a comfortable desk chair. All just from unconsciously working a few more muscles than I used to.

And the parallel with other areas? Learning, of course. It's similar to how reading about Elizabethan history helped my daughter learn not just history, but vocabulary and composition and geography and critical thinking and other topics she probably still doesn't realize she was learning because she was just doing something she thought was fun and not specifically trying to improve any specific skills.

Whole brain, whole body—they both work pretty well.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Creating a Viewpoint

A dailyKos diary last week got me thinking about books that made an impression on me when I was young.

The writer was a junior high teacher who was dismayed by the lack of awareness among students and asked readers which books had had an impact on us when we were twelve or thirteen. I read a lot as a kid, probably two or three books a week in addition to school assignments, but it took me a while to remember what specifically I was reading when I was in junior high.

Junior high was when I worked my way through the science fiction section at my local library. I read Asimov and Andre Norton and scores of books I don't remember well any longer, except there were a ton of creepy BEM stories (that's Bug-Eyed Monster books, for those who don't recognize the technical term). SF appealed because it was full of exotic "what ifs?"—lots of interesting technology that hadn't yet been invented, alien worlds and species, all sorts of possibilities.

But the book that probably affected me the most was arguably the least science-fictiony of the bunch: Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Bradbury's appreciation of his own midwestern youth turned ordinary, everyday life into the stuff of fantasy and magic and adventure.

From Dandelion Wine I learned to pay attention to the infinite possibilities of everyday life.

Friday, January 02, 2009


Tough times ahead for schools.

It's not like times haven't been tough for pretty much as long as I can remember, what with NCLB and various other "reform" movements, not to mention Prop 13 here in California. Even when I was a kid, schools never had it easy—in my own K-12 experience, there were only three school years I wasn't in a split class, in a school with double sessions, or bused across town due to district financial constraints.

(I keep hearing conservatives whine about how throwing money at schools doesn't solve the problems, but I'm not convinced anyone's actually tried it yet.)

Anyway, times are getting even uglier for schools. Here in California, we're looking at even larger class sizes, shorter school years, fewer science courses, and who knows what else.

It seems a situation tailor-made for growth in the homeschooling movement. After all, if the schools keep getting worse, homeschooling keeps looking better and better. Undoubtedly, we'll see quite a few new homeschoolers (assuming they can manage financially, anyway, with jobs looking just as bad as the schools these days).

But I hope at least a few teachers and administrators see the opportunity in the current crisis to try a few new things, to be creative in using their increasingly limited resources to let some real learning happen. Larger classes? How about more group projects? Real group projects, that is, rather than those dreary "work together in assigned teams to write a paper and give a presentation with a Powerpoint" routines. Why not ask students what they're interested in, let them group themselves—across age-levels—into interest groups and develop their own projects? Sure, it wouldn't test well (complying with NCLB in the long run is pretty much a lost cause, anyway, even if it were a worthwhile goal in the first place), but giving kids the chance to work long-term on something that interests them might demonstrate some of the ways people learn that normally aren't allowed to happen within the schools. It might even help demonstrate how limiting schools are for our kids and push our society into some more useful and effective alternatives.

Amazing things could happen.