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Erika Christakis Sees Opportunity to Use Remote Learning to Rethink Early Childhood Education. My Reaction? Why Not Rethink ALL Schooling?

January 10, 2021 Leave a comment

Atlantic education writer Erika Christakis’ recent article, “Remote Learning Isn’t the Only Problem With School“, is subtitled “Yes, remote schooling has been a misery—but it’s offering a rare chance to rethink early education entirely.” Her subtitle falls short of the mark because I believe remote schooling is offering us a change to rethink ALL schooling.

Ms. Christakis opens her article likening the results of remote schooling to the results of a tsunami:

…a tsunami that pulls away from the coast, leaving an exposed stretch of land, the pandemic has revealed long-standing inattention to children’s developmental needs—needs as basic as exercise, outdoor time, conversation, play, even sleep. All of the challenges of educating young children that we have minimized for years have suddenly appeared like flotsam on a beach at low tide, reeking and impossible to ignore. Parents are not only seeing how flawed and glitch-riddled remote teaching is—they’re discovering that many of the problems of remote schooling are merely exacerbations of problems with in-person schooling.

She then itemizes the existing problems with early childhood education, which readers of this blog are familiar with:

  • “A model that hasn’t evolved to reflect advances in cognitive science and our understanding of human development”
  • The “same configuration of desks, cubbies, and rigidly grade-specific accoutrements” as they had for generations
  • An agrarian calendar and a factory schedule model
  • Homework, “…despite the growing wealth of evidence suggesting that homework for elementary-school children (aside from nightly reading) offers minimal or no benefits.”
  • An emphasis on “…relatively superficial learning that’s too focused on achieving mastery of shallow (but test-friendly) skills unmoored from real content knowledge or critical thinking.”
  • “School hours… marked by disruptions and noise as students shift, mostly en masse and in age-stratified groups, from one strictly demarcated topic or task to another.

I emphasized “age stratified groupsbecause Ms. Christakis is one of the few education writers who sees the link between this practice and the toxic atmosphere that predominates classrooms at all levels of schooling and calls out the arbitrariness of such grouping:

traditionally age-stratified classrooms, which most people take for granted, represent an unnatural and potentially unhealthy way of organizing children’s lives, experts now believe. Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the author of Grit, hypothesizes that the age segregation of schools can contribute to competition and stress. In a mixed-age group, she told me, “the 10-year-old takes the hand of the 5-year-old and looks both ways crossing the street. The 5-year-old looks up to the 10-year-old with admiration and trust, and does as they are told. In contrast, when you throw hundreds of kids of exactly the same age together, attention goes, unhelpfully, to comparisons within the group: Who is smartest? Who is fastest? Who is prettiest?” This steers children’s values away from kindness, trust, and community and toward status competition, which can generate stress and bullying. This effect may be more potent than it used to be, because children spend more time away from their home and neighborhood than in previous generations.

The comparing mind, which has the tendency to make one feel diminished, is amplified when students are grouped by age and forced to compete against each other. But such competition has little to do with learning ability and capacity and more to do with learning rates. Just as some students experience physical growth at varying and different rates, they also experience intellectual growth at varying and different rates. Anyone who has more than one child knows this from experience and most adults, given the opportunity to think about it for more than a minute, intuitively understand this. Yet because of administrative convenience, a model put in place in the 1920s that placed a higher value on efficiency than effectiveness, and everyone’s shred experience with the current paradigm, we persist in grouping children in age cohorts.

Ms. Christakis also sees the link between this grouping and the “accountability tests” that drive instruction and drove “special” classes and recesses out of the curriculum in many elementary schools…. and notes that these changes drove teachers to the front and center of classrooms and diminished opportunities for more adult-to-child communications— a diminishment that Zoom classes exacerbate even more.

Ms. Christakis closes her essay with this:

Finally… the pandemic has highlighted is the abiding tension between schools’ custodial function(warehousing children for the day, feeding them and keeping them safe, so their parents can work) and their educational function(actually teaching children). Too often, when we talk about “school” we really mean “child care”—and also nutrition, medical care, mental-health services, and social-skills support. Some teachers routinely purchase and wash clothes for their neediest students. Some even become foster parents to them. Modern family life is complex, and it’s tempting to keep asking schools to assume more and more responsibilities. But the more we ask schools to expand beyond their core mission, the harder it becomes to discern which aspects of schooling are educationally effective.Schools can and should help mitigate harm to disadvantaged kids, but they cannot be a panacea for children in dangerous or neglectful home environments. Issues like livable wages and the absence of affordable child care are distinct from questions about learning, and we can’t keep commingling them.

If the parental frustrations kindled by pandemic schooling can be converted into political energy, that could ultimately yield much-needed reforms in both schools and their surrounding communities, the health of which is essential to children’s growth. As we muddle through the COVID-19 era yearning for a return to something close to normal, we shouldn’t squander this occasion to imagine how much better “normal” could be.

Sometimes it takes a seismic shock to the system– a heart attack or a bout with cancer– to wake individuals up… to change their perspectives. Hopefully COVID will be viewed in that fashion and we can change the life-style of our schools the same way heart patients change their lifestyles.

An Insightful NYC Student Sees Schooling’s Deep Flaws and Appreciates the Outsized Role of Good Luck

January 3, 2021 Leave a comment

My daughter reads NYC blogs that cover public education and shares especially insightful posts with me. Earlier this week she emailed a link to this post by a NYC high school senior titled “NYC Teen Says: Those Who Benefit Most from the School System are Those Who are Lucky Enough Not To Need It”.  The premise of the article is that a close examination of the way NYC schools operate indicates that young men and women like him, who are fortunate enough to be born into affluent and well educated families receive disproportionate benefits to those less fortunate… and during the pandemic those benefits were magnified. This paragraph from the article describes this phenomenon:

One factor that makes advanced classes so much more effective for my and other students’ learning is that schools preemptively filter out any students judged “unprepared”. Many have been purged from my path by forces beyond my – and their – control (admissions officers, scheduling algorithms, The Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council), not only clearing the highway for me, but paving a personal exit, as well. Those who have been pushed out of my way are those who weren’t taught to navigate this highway as well I was. They are doomed to drive on. They missed the exit that I used, but it’s not their fault; I was given a more accurate map. I was given options which prevented me from being reliant on continued standard schooling.

It is a remarkably thought provoking article on the way the sorting and selection algorithms (i.e. The Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council) favor the affluent and provide them with the tools to learn independently while shunting others to the side. A good read for the new year!

The Internet Never Forgets… a Lesson Impulsive Pre-Teens Need to Learn Along with Right Speech

December 28, 2020 Comments off

The NYTimes featured an article this morning by Dan Levin that describes the consequences a Mimi Groves, a white female student in Northern Virginia, faced for an impulsive 3 second posting of a racial slur on social media when she was a Freshman in high school. To make a very long story short, Ms. Groves posted a snapchat video in 2016 after passing her driver’s test. Here’s a description:

Ms. Groves… said, “I can drive,” followed by the slur, to a friend on Snapchat in 2016, when she was a freshman and had just gotten her learner’s permit. It later circulated among some students at Heritage High School, which she and (her black classmate Jimmy) Galligan attended.

The post did not cause much a stir at the time… and Mr. Galligan never saw it at the time. But when he DID see it four years later as both he and Ms. Groves were graduating from high school, he felt it was a good example of the kind of racism he had to endure during his four years at Heritage High.

Throughout her high school years Ms. Groves pursued her passions a cheerleader and won a full paid scholarship to the University of Tennessee, whose college cheerleading program is one of the best in the nation. When Ms. Groves weighed in on the killing of George Floyd with a public Instagram post that urged people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ms. Groves was stunned to read post later that afternoon from a total stranger questioning her sincerity given her use of “the N-word” in the past. It quickly became clear how the stranger learned of this:

Mr. Galligan, who had waited until Ms. Groves had chosen a college, had publicly posted the video that afternoon. Within hours, it had been shared to Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, where furious calls mounted for the University of Tennessee to revoke its admission offer.

Ultimately, as Mr. Levin matter-of-factly reports, the University of Tennessee DID revoke its admission offer and instead of attending UT on a full paid scholarship Ms. Groves was attending a nearby community college. And Mr. Galligan?

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

In the end, the story has no clear winners but does have a clear message for adolescents: the internet never forgets and words you post cannot be undone by actions you take or apologies you make years later.

As one who worked in the public spotlight for decades, I can recall times when I made statements that “went viral” in pre-internet days and can recall instances where words I said or wrote were taken out of context in an effort to indicate I was either a hypocrite or inconsistent in the way I treated students. Over the course of my career and as a result of hundreds of blog posts I’ve written over nine years, there is an extensive written record of my thoughts and ideas, some of which have changed over time. But I am VERY fortunate that there is no written record of comments I made impulsively to friends, crude and vulgar jokes I laughed at and may have repeated, or the comments I made behind someone’s back. I daresay that anyone who has lived as long as I have would concur with that statement and, like me, is happy there was no way those things could be captured in writing and repeated.

There is a concept in Buddhism called “Right Speech” that urges those practicing the discipline of the Noble Eightfold Path that Wikipedia synthesizes as follows:

Right Speech: no lying, no rude speech, no telling one person what another says about him to cause discord or harm their relationship.

As a former high school disciplinarian in the pre-internet Dark Ages (1974-1980), I can recall many disputes that occurred between students, between students and teachers, between teachers and administrators, between parents and school staff that resulted from the failure to adhere to this principle. In addition to making students aware that the internet never forgets, it would be equally important to make them aware of the concept of Right Speech and call it to their attention whenever they engage in lies, half-truths, rude speech, or any intentional or unintentional instances where their speech creates discord. In a perfect world, disciplinary action would not be necessary… the awareness that their actions resulted in harm would be sufficient punishment in itself and the growth that comes from self-awareness would be a sufficient reward.