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What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if we talked to children the same way we talk to adults?

Parents often ask me for advice around their kids not wanting to do something the parents deem necessary. Examples include: getting dressed in the morning, eating healthy food, all routines. Parents often end up frustrated and come to me for ways to smooth out their communication. 

My advice is this: In these situations, don’t think of your child as a child. Imagine you are having this same conversation with an adult. 

With an adult you would talk to them at a calm time (not in a moment of conflict) and: 

1. Gently state the problem. (“I noticed that whenever we talk about Bobby we fight.”)

AND/OR

2. Validate their feelings (“I can see you’re having a really hard time.”)

3. Ask, “Why do you think that is?”

4. Ask, “What can I do to help?” 

 

Example Scenario- Morning Routines

Every morning is a hassle. Your child doesn’t want to get out bed, brush her teeth, get dressed, etc. You find yourself yelling and rushing and doing things for your child in order to get the whole family out of the house to school and work. 

Problem-Solving Communication: 

Parent: "I noticed that the mornings are hard for us. Why do you think that is?" (Then listen! Then validate your child’s emotions. “That feels tough.”

Parent: What can I do to help with your morning routine? (Then listen! Maybe try a suggestion the next day! Some ideas include: choosing clothes the night before, child having their own alarm clock, a list/pictures of the morning tasks that the child can refer to/check off to feel independent). 

 

The benefits of this kind of communication are endless, but here are a few of the most important ones: 

- You are teaching your child how to effectively solve problems

- You are showing your child how to communicate in a way where both parties share and value each other’s thoughts 

- You are validating your child’s emotions

- You are setting the stage for your child to gain independence and not feel dependent on you 

- You are building your child’s self-regulation skills so they can monitor themselves and reflect on their decisions

 

Communication is something that we as a society have forgotten how to do. We spend so much time writing emails, thinking of how to say something in as few characters as possible, that the art of listening and valuing another’s ideas has become almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. 

We need to compartmentalize different kinds of communication for different arenas of our lives. With people we are close to and any kind of face-to-face communication we need to remind ourselves to listen and value what others say and practice this until it becomes automatic again. 

The most effective teachers and parents I know are effective because the children feel valued, which causes them to trust the adult and know that when they are not given a choice or asked for their opinion/suggestion, that it’s OK, and they will trust and do what the adult says. Isn’t that how successful adult relationships work too?

What if "homework" was about living life and learning yourself?

Instead of boring worksheets and more sitting(!!!), what if homework looked something like this:

1. Go Outside
2. Get Bored
3. Spend Time Alone
4. Read
5. Make Something
6. Write
7. Clear the Table (Contribute to your home/family)
8. Rest 

What if children explored some dangerous activities and instead of stopping them we joined them?

From the authors:

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) is the first book from the people who created Tinkering School. With projects, activities, experiences, and skills ranging from “Superglue Your Fingers Together” to “Play with Fire,” along with 48 other great ideas, the book is a manifesto for kids and parents alike to reclaim childhood. Easy to follow instructions, fun facts, and challenging undertakings that will engage and inspire whole households.

Why Fifty Dangerous Things? First off, Five Dangerous Things just weren’t enough (although the audience at TED thought it was a good starting point). More importantly, there are many “dangerous” things that are interesting, eye-opening, enlightening or just plain fun! And while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger. Most of us learn how to walk without toppling over at a very young age, so that walking is no longer dangerous. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope? These are just a few of the Fifty Dangerous Things that we invite you to try.

What if we let children use knives and other sharp tools?

Reasons to give your child a kitchen knife (and teach them how to use it), which I agree with for the same reasons, from the following article:

1. Independence
2. Invested in food
3. It's what we used to do as a civilization! (We already know it can be done safely, you don't hear about accidental kitchen accidents among children from the 1800s).
4. Trust
5. Taking risks and learning consequences
6. Pride 

What if, instead of disciplining children, we helped them find the root of the problem?

I've been a big fan of Dr. Ross Greene for years. He teaches parents and teachers to talk with children about their feelings and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, eventually leading to self-regulation. This is instead of punishment and consequence that we see in many schools and homes, which address behavior but don't get to the root of the problem, and often make children feel bad about not being in control of their behavior. Instead, as Dr. Greene says, let's teach children to recognize their emotions and control their behavior. Habit begets habit, you know? What if adults could also do this? Wouldn't that be something? I know too many adults who have difficulty controlling their emotions and consequently act poorly.

What if we all had emotional self-intelligence? 


This article explains the effectiveness of Dr. Greene's approach with regard to teacher training, prison recidivism rates, and behaviorally-struggling children. The following are the highlights:

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students' behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. 

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children's motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

You'd talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

If Greene's approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn't yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

The CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he's being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem.

The teachers and the student would come up with a plan to slowly get him more involved.

From Greene's perspective, that's the big win—not just to fix kids' behavior problems, but to set them up for success on their own. Too many educators, he believes, fixate on a child's problems outside of school walls—a turbulent home, a violent neighborhood—rather than focus on the difference the school can make. "Whatever he's going home to, you can do the kid a heck of a lot of good six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year," Greene says. "We tie our hands behind our backs when we focus primarily on things about which we can do nothing."

Dr. Ross Greene's website: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/
Great books by Dr. Greene: The Explosive Child, Lost at School 

What if we could explain 'racism and what to do about it' to children in a way that won't scare them but will create informed leaders?

Aya de Leon is a mom who wants to teach her daughter about racism, about our history, about our present. She created a story, with pictures, that explains what happened to African Americans through slavery and the Civil War in a way that is developmentally appropriate to a child's mind. Her story states the facts in simple language and shows how to overcome, how to join together, how to speak up when people are mistreated, and how to be a leader.

https://ayadeleon.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/confederate-flag-2-how-to-talk-to-small-children-about-racism-celebrating-bree-newsome-for-the-fourth/

What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and created an adventurous family lifestyle?

A young family takes their 4 year-old on hikes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, instead of school. Together the family learns about nature, to take care of each other, to persevere through tough circumstances. Over time they are closer, more at ease with each other. What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and, instead of taking a leisurely holiday with minimal family interaction, created an adventurous family lifestyle? What's really important, making money to sit on the beach at a resort, or making just enough money for food and emergencies and a life of exploring? 

http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/

What if children were trusted to make decisions about their own learning?


Unschooling is a type of parenting more than a type of education. It involves a family or community all supporting a child’s interests and respecting and trusting the child to make decisions about his or her own learning. My dream is that this could one day be the model for typical western schooling.

In typical western schooling we expect to drop our children off and have someone else help them learn and grow. in this setting often one teacher has 25 students and cannot possibly know the children well enough to let them all delve their own passions. In addition, in our measurement-obsessed culture of one-size fits all, pre-set, often scripted curriculums and standardized testing, we think we are able to teach all children the same, and easily measure children’s success. But we are excluding most of the ways that children thrive: the arts. 

In unschooling there’s no easy way to measure a child’s “success”. However, through photo documentation, drawings and writings by children, videos make of and by children about their experiences and learnings, we can construct a portfolio that shows a child’s journey, which in reality cannot be measured. Each human’s journey is their own. If learning is the goal (as opposed to set adult-decided content) it is not difficult to ascertain. 

When we take away these individual, institution-based measurements and look at children over years who’ve been exposed to unschooling we find children who are motivated, dedicated, and driven to study topics that excite them. They’ve developed research and leadership skills, and have, through this process learned how to learn- how to dive into a subject, explore it from all angles, share it with others, and sometimes use it to make social change.

Of course, this only works in a family and/or community who is conscious of exposing it’s children to all different kinds of culture, geography, literature, science, and more. In this way, children’s interests are sparked and the adults can observe patterns in the children’s interests and continue to suggest and expose them to other activities and organizations that the child might be interested in.

Unschooling is so beneficial for children. First of all it shows them that their ideas matter- it gives their ideas validation. Second it show them that the adults in their life support and trust them. Third it give children the freedom to become the kind of learner that they are. In typical western schools, material is presented as listening or reading, but not everyone learns best these ways. Some children need to do. Some need to watch others do on a youtube video before feeling ready to try it themselves. By allowing children the freedom to become their own learner, we imply that there are many right ways to learn. Fourth, and as a teacher in the US for 10 years, I think one of the most important aspects of unschooling is that it doesn’t rank subjects or attach ages to them. If a child wants to learn to read at 12, that’s ok. If they want to study dance from ages 6-10 that’s ok. If they want to work at a skateboard shop and learn about skateboard design from 10-12, that’s ok. And so all of these ways of interacting with the world and being a productive member of society are valued. In typical western schools it’s feels like it’s only the reading, writing, math, science and social studies that count. We forget about integrated disciplines and the arts. We try to boil it all down and give children, what we think, is a well-rounded education but it misses so much, often including the arts.

But how can we, adults, decide, what is a well-rounded education for a child? Children come from different backgrounds and have different interests, so it only makes sense that they have a say in what they learn. There is no “right” set of skills a human needs. Humans seek and develop skills based on their interests. Unschooling creates an environment where education is not just child-led, but child-created. And what we choose to learn is what’s right for each of us. There are tons of things I learned in my typical western education that served me no good. However, there are also things I learned that excited me but were just a beginning. So outside of school I dove deeper. It was the choices I made, outside of school, that were my real education. And there were only a handful of things from school that sparked me outside of school. But imagine how much would spark you if you got to choose and if the adults around you made suggestions based on your choices! It’s so powerful.

Imagine what it would be like to have the world as your classroom? To have experiences and topics of study suggested to you by adults who are learning your interests and want to encourage them. It reminds me of adult networks: people in different circles of your life who know you and know your interests and keep that on their radar. It feels special when someone suggests just the thing that sparks you. Unschooling is a way to create this from birth.

What if parents spent more time, not money, on their children?

What if there was a way for parents to spend more time with their children? What if more parents worked from home? What if more parents got time off from work to volunteer in their child's school or chaperone field trips? What if being a parent was socially viewed as a priority over your job? What if your job recognized, appreciated, and allowed for this too?