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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Failing Schools, Failing Teachers?

What to do when a school is by many standards failing?  Fire the teachers and start anew, so goes the story in a Rhode Island school (click HERE to read more).  The details of any similar story are difficult to get, since most reporting is slim at best.  I have heard from teachers that a school has its own history, its own reputation.  Some schools are known to be less academically successful and the culture of this knowledge is repeated again and again.  I have also read reports where students are put into two groups, one where they are told that they are gifted and another where they are told they are inferior.  In which group do you think they were more successful (no matter what their socioeconomic background)?

Factors that can alter a students chances of success, among several, are:
1. A teacher's subject content knowledge.  This knowledge must include a depth of knowledge that can allow for creative ways to connect subject content to other areas of interest.  They must know enough to be able to ask questions that lead to students piecing together knowledge into an overall understanding of reality.
2. A teacher's pedagogical content knowledge.  Knowing when and how to weave a tapestry of content and processes together for students is key to reaching all students of various interests and skill levels.
3. A teacher's expectations. Having high expectations for all students and the patience and leadership to empower students to have high expectations for themselves.

I am not claiming that the move to fire the teachers was right or wrong, there are too many questions I need answered to settle my mind.  The utmost importance of education, as supported by all in the community (teachers, parents, administrators, businesses, etc.), is given as a platitude more often than a sincere statement.  Politicians include it as a campaign slogan (always reinforcing the idea that schools are in need of drastic repair regardless of their status).  The general populace wants a good education for all, but the current system of funding typically tilts the support towards affluent communities.  There is even the idea that more funding for schools would be useless, since the system is claimed to be beyond repair and taxes in the US never make people spring into a joyful dance.  Of course, taxes for more jails might be considered and even wanted so as to be tough on crime.

No matter what the decisions we make to 'correct' a failing school, I'd hope that our individual and collective actions would align with the following sentiments...

"The education and training of children is among the most meritorious acts of humankind and draweth down the grace and favour of the All-Merciful, for education is the indispensable foundation of all human excellence and alloweth man to work his way to the heights of abiding glory. If a child be trained from his infancy, he will, through the loving care of the Holy Gardener, drink in the crystal waters of the spirit and of knowledge, like a young tree amid the rilling brooks. And certainly he will gather to himself the bright rays of the Sun of Truth, and through its light and heat will grow ever fresh and fair in the garden of life."

"Every child is potentially the light of the world--and at the same time its darkness; wherefore must the question of education be accounted as of primary importance. From his infancy, the child must be nursed at the breast of God's love, and nurtured in the embrace of His knowledge, that he may radiate light, grow in spirituality, be filled with wisdom and learning, and take on the characteristics of the angelic host."

We are not training children for employment.  We are not training them to be merely law-abiding citizens.  We are unleashing a potential for progressive change unmatched by all the generations before us.  At this momentous time, we choose to lower our expectations for education at a great price OR we choose to higher them for unimaginable glory.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Classroom Subject Matter

Take a look at your local school system or the closest school.  What subjects do they offer?  They most likely include a language class or two, arts (if you are lucky), history (most likely not recent and by far not recent world history), mathematics, and various sciences.  Where is the part of the curriculum that is not about subject matter, but about becoming a better human being?

It may be found in slogans or phrases in school literature, on walls, or in school district/school mission or vision statements.  Some are clear and concise, while others are not.  Here are four examples...(with the school names removed to protect the innocent)...

"We are committed to creating a culture of success by building the knowledge and skills to ensure college, career, and life readiness for every student."

"We Believe...
•     in public education.
•     everyone can learn and achieve.
•     each individual has intrinsic worth.
•     respect, honesty, self-discipline, and a sense
       of fair play are essential to the development
       of personal integrity.
•     in personal responsibility and accountability.
•     in striving to do one's best.
•     in the value of a supportive, nurturing family.
•     in the power of positive thinking.
•     in valuing and utilizing diversity, we can
       achieve common goals.
•     effective communication is essential.
•     a sense of humor contributes to a healthy, balanced way of life.
•     it is the responsibility of every individual
       to contribute to the betterment of a
       global society.
•     in the benefit of individual pursuits and the
       value of collaborative contributions.
•     successful change requires vision, personal
       action and a willingness to take risks.
•     no failure is fatal . . . no success is final. 
•     learning is an essential life-long process."

"It is our vision that all students can learn from a student-centered instructional program which provides a quality educational environment and promotes academic excellence, social responsibility, and emotional well being."

"The school's four strategic goals are to:
  1. Improve academic achievement of all students, particularly in math and science.
  2. Prepare students to pursue advanced degrees in math and science.
  3. Promote good personal health and healthy life styles.
  4. Increase awareness of careers in health and medical sciences."
These are common examples and I am not presenting them as either good or bad ones.  They have in them the hopes and dreams of individuals and groups whose fondest wish, I am sure, is a better education.  

I propose, however, that the fundamental basis of our individual, and collective, development is either missing or obscured by such statements. Our fundamental basis of development is virtues - "
`What is the purpose of our lives?' `Abdu'l-Bahá.--`To acquire virtues"

Do the students in your school or school district find that this is something important in school?  If not, then where is this a priority?  Some contend that the development of virtues is something to be done at home with family or with one's group of worship.  By doing so, we create two worlds - one where virtues are given high status and another where they are not.  A contradictory message, no?  

Do I propose that religion be taught in public schools? No. Virtues are the core of all religions and even non-religious ethics and morals.  We are attracted to them much like gravity pulls us to the ground.  Look at this list of 52 from The Virtues Project and consider which of these are worthy to develop.  Then imagine a classroom (no matter what the subject) where the teacher and students used these words in conversation, especially when they would recognize the virtue being put into action by someone in the classroom.  The effect would be to meet and exceed many of the school vision statements concerning how these children will have a positive impact on the world.

I leave you with this to contemplate...
"The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue."
How many students of science consider the practice of it to be a virtue?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Outliers and A Boy Named Alex

Has anyone read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"?  He is the author of two other well-known books, "Blink" and "The Tipping Point".  I find his writing style simple and clear and always leaving me wanting to know more (in a good way).  In this posting, I want to share one part of it, a personal experience possibly related to it, and ask for your thoughts.

In a chapter titled, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2" Gladwell introduces the reader to a sociologist named Annette Lareau. She did a study of a group of third graders in which she followed 12 families ("both black and whites and children from both wealthy homes and poor homes"). After following the families at least 20 times, she concluded their were two parenting styles - 'concerted cultivation' by the middle-class parents and 'accomplishment of natural growth' by the poor parents.

'Concerted cultivation' "is an attempt to actively 'foster and assess a child's talents, opinions, and skills.' (Poor parents) see as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own. Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other.  The poorer children were, to her mind, often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence. But in practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences.  She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to." 

Gladwell then shares a story of a nine year old boy, Alex, who goes to the doctor's office and engages in a conversation with the doctor.  The boy does this based on his mother's encouragement and can "assert himself with people in positions of authority." 

"In doing so, he successfully shifts the balance of power away from the adults and toward himself....Alex is being treated with respect. He is seen as special and as a person worthy of adult attention and interest....Alex is not showing off during his checkup. He is behaving much as he does with his parents - he reasons, negotiates, and jokes with equal ease."

In my mind, Alex is demonstrating the virtue of assertiveness.  In fact, the earlier part of the chapter provides another story of someone who is intellectually gifted, but, at crucial times in his life, did not assert himself.  Gladwell could have titled this chapter 'Assertiveness and Its Consequences'.

This reminded me of my experience while visiting an elementary school in the US.  The school served a population that was generally poor and I was astounded by the rigidity of the rules, especially hallway rules.  For example, when leaving a classroom, students had to line up, single-file and, depending on which direction they were going, walk single-file along one side or the other of the hallway.  I recalled my own experience as a student between classes in the hallway as being controlled chaos.  Were the students in this elementary school learning about authority?  Were they learning about their relationship with authority?  I also asked myself, what were they learning about their own ability to self-discipline?

So, I leave you with this...did your parents use either of the two parenting styles mentioned above?  Lastly, how was your school environment structured - what did it teach you about authority and assertiveness?


Dear Long Lost Reader,
I am back. After one year and ten days, consider this my second go round at blogging.  I took a leave of absence, unbeknownst to all of you, during my year long work at UCSD.  I have since come back to my senses and established my focus back on developing my company Mining Gems and to go deeper in meditating on what is transformative and what isn't.  In my hopes to make regular postings, I am taking a lesson from my physical workout routine - start small and develop a pattern over time that engages me and fulfills long-term goals without being overwhelming.  So, it is with that sentiment that I begin anew.