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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Eastern Parenting Wisdom: What Asian Moms Know

It's interesting to me how Western-centric all education and parenting literature is. On the rare occasions when Eastern moms do feature in Western parenting literature, they  are largely stereotyped as high strung, demanding "Tiger Moms" who care more about grades than real, deep learning.

Unfortunately, Eastern mothers  don't formally research and publish their views on parenting and education though they spend hours discussing these subjects with each other. Yet, after living in Singapore for three years and spending many, many hours with Asian moms and Asian students, I feel strongly that the East has some real parenting and education wisdom that they should share with the world.

Singapore and its East Asian neighbors (China, Japan, and Korea) rank at the very top of international tests for Math and Science. In the US, Asian kids shine academically; I recently read that close to 70% of students at Stuyvesant, the prestigious and competitive magnet school in NYC, are Asian, even though Asians represent only 12% of the student population in NYC. I can hear the response to these statistics though: "Asians are good at taking tests, so what? That doesn't mean they can think critically, creatively, and independently."

Well, how about these statistics then? In the Intel Science and Math competition held in the US every year to identify innovative young scientists, over half of the finalists are Asian, mostly of Indian or Chinese descent. Indian entrepreneurs have started a stunning number of companies in Silicon Valley, and many PHD programs in STEM areas are populated by Asians and Asian-Americans. Most importantly, Asia itself is advancing rapidly, and more high quality, original research is coming directly out of Asia. So clearly, many Asians are moving beyond just test-taking and beginning to think creatively and critically, particularly in STEM fields. In my own experience here in Singapore, I routinely encounter Asian kids (South Asian and East Asian) who impress me tremendously with their original and insightful minds.

I think that some of the Western criticisms of Asian education and parenting are possibly valid. It is true that over the last four centuries, much of the innovation in the world, particularly in Science and technology, has come out of the West, so clearly Westerners have figured out a way to encourage creativity and innovation while Easterners are still struggling to get to that point, despite the huge leaps that they've made in the last thirty years. Eastern moms know this, and most of the mothers I speak to think deeply about ways in which they can learn from their Western counterparts. They know that to really prepare their kids for the 21st century, they need to blend age old Eastern traditions that work with new ideas and openness from the West. But, that's often hard to do because Eastern and Western values tend to clash, not mesh. Yet, the mothers I speak with are working very, very hard to find that right East-West balance.

Here are EIGHT techniques and beliefs that Asian moms use to raise successful kids; additionally, here are some of the challenges that Asian moms face as they try to raise kids who have that perfect blend of Asian values and Western creativity.

1. They teach kids how to focus and concentrate: Every Asian mom (Indian and Chinese) that I know makes her children sit at a desk and do some amount of academic work on a regular basis. Their rationale for this is simple and straightforward: their kids need to learn how to focus their minds on a specific task and work through it in a disciplined and logical manner. In an age of technological distractions, the Asian focus on concentration and discipline is key to why Asian kids succeed academically. Quite simply, their parents have taught them how to concentrate their attention in a world that does everything it can to prevent kids from paying attention.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Parents need to make sure that they balance structured academic work with outdoor time, play time, and time for self-initiated exploration, since all these open-ended, unstructured tasks allow kids to think creatively and independently.

2. They believe in building strong foundations, particularly in Math: The Indian and Chinese moms that I've talked to speak passionately about making sure that their kids attain mastery over basic concepts, particularly in Math. If left up to schools, particularly schools that use Western curricula such as 'Everyday Math' or 'Investigations Math', kids may or may not master foundational concepts. If parents are not actively involved in making sure that kids know their basics, their kids are at high risk of developing "swiss cheese foundations" (a term coined by Salman Khan, founder of the Khan academy) or foundations full of holes and gaps. Asian parents understand that mathematical learning is cumulative, and kids must know all their basics well to be able to succeed in high school and beyond, so they take full responsibility for making sure that their kids master basic concepts.

3. They work hard to create a mathematical environment in their homes, and they try their best to immerse their kids in activities that develop spatial skills, problem solving skills, and number skills: chess, board games, building sets, robotics, counting games, puzzles, tangrams, origami activities etc. (Interestingly, Chess originated in India, Tangrams in China, and Origami in Japan.) While all the mothers I spoke with encourage reading, they seem most concerned with making sure that their kids are immersed in math and science on a daily basis. I find this very interesting because in Western parenting and education literature, the focus is largely on reading to kids and creating "language rich homes" as opposed to "Math rich homes." If you're interested in more detailed ideas on how to build a "math rich home," check out my earlier blog post:   http://www.mayathiagarajan.com/2012/06/creating-math-rich-home-learning-from.html

Challenges for the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Building homes that are equally rich in language and math, and encouraging reading as much as they encourage mathematical activities. Reading, self-expression, and oral communication are all extremely important in the 21st  century, and Asian moms need to work on these areas as much as they do on Math.
4. They try to make learning "challenging" and "meaningful" but they don't  worry about making it fun.
I was recently talking to a Chinese teacher at the school where I work, and I asked her what she though the biggest difference was between her Western and Eastern students. Her answer was interesting: Western teachers and kids are really focused on having "fun." They believe that everything must be fun and enjoyable. Easterners have far lower expectations for "fun."

I think that most Asian moms do NOT focus on making learning fun. Indian and Chinese moms routinely describe the work they give their kids as "challenging," "rigorous," and "demanding." Interestingly, intellectual work that is challenging and demanding can be very, very satisfying. Maybe it's not "fun" the way that a game or a party is, but it is satisfying in an altogether different way. I think that most kids figure this out along the way.

In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, education professor Jin Li describes the way East Asians believe that learning is a very serious (and even sacred) endeavor. She describes how the Chinese view learning as a "weighty personal matter" because they view it as a "personal moral obligation and commitment."  This is quite clearly very different from expecting learning to be "fun."

5. They believe in the ancient Asian ideals of family loyalty and filial piety: When I speak to Indian and Chinese moms, I think that they struggle with this aspect of parenting. They desperately want their kids to be "independent thinkers" and "creative thinkers," but they also believe strongly that kids should respect their parents and listen to their parents. Many of the Indian moms, particularly, described a tension between these two contrasting beliefs. How much discipline and structure is good? How much freedom is good? The Asian moms that I have spoken to seem to feel strongly that unfettered freedom and individualism are not healthy for kids, but they also believe that many Asian parents are too restrictive.

Living in Singapore, I'm constantly struck by the similarities between all Asian cultures when it comes to the values of filial piety and family loyalty. Much like India (where I'm originally from), Singapore is also an "auntie-uncle culture." In other words, kids call all adults "aunty" or "uncle" in an effort to show respect. This way of addressing adults also serves as a reminder to the adults of the responsibility they have to all children: in "aunty-uncle cultures," all adults are caregivers of the younger generation. Together, this symbiotic relationship between respectful children and responsible adults works well to create community. I strongly believe that Asian communities provide kids with a sense of security and belonging.

Since all Asian cultures stress  filial piety (respect for one's parents) and family loyalty, kids in these cultures have a strong sense of their role in the family. In The Analects, Confucious describes the tremendous importance of filial piety, and similarly, in the ancient Indian epics, the heroes are repeatedly revered for their unquestioning obedience towards their parents. Across Asia, the value of "li" (Chinese) or "dharma"(Indian) emphasizes the roles that each member in a family must play based on their relationships with others in the family and the community. These values help to maintain traditional social systems: intact families and close-knit communities being the most important of the lot.

 I think that the sense of direction, security, and belonging that Asian kids feel because they grow up in close knit families and communities helps them alot. Asian kids know what their roles are; they derive a deep sense of security from this knowledge. Similarly, Asian parents have a strong sense of their role as parents; no one expects them to be their kid's best friend. As a result of this, Asian parents find it easy to discipline their kids, and they tend to feel much less guilt and anxiety about their parenting techniques than their Western counterparts. Similarly, Asian kids feel less rebellious and angst-driven than their Western counterparts. Everybody has a well-defined role, and these roles create security and safety for everyone.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:
  • Giving children the opportunities to question authority and express their own opinions while also preserving the discipline, hierarchies, and structures needed to maintain close families and communities.
  • Balancing an Eastern  reverence for authority and knowledge with  Western  skepticism that encourages questioning authority and challenging knowledge/conventional wisdom.

6. They tend to believe that hard work is good, and that pressure = motivation. Many Western teachers and parents that I speak with seem to believe that making kids work hard will somehow make kids hate learning.  On the contrary, Asian parents believe the exact opposite. They believe strongly that hard work can be motivating and satisfying, and that eventually hard work will help kids feel competent and confident. (This is in contrast to the Western idea that fun=motivation.) They also believe that any kid can become competent with enough practice, so they don't worry as much about damaging their children's self-esteem.

There is a danger here, however. Asian parents and Asian societies have to know when to draw the line so that their children are not overly stressed and anxious. Furthermore, too much pressure can perhaps prevent children from taking intellectual risks and thinking outside the box, and a narrow focus on effort and results may prevent students from developing a deep-seated love of learning.

7. They tend to emphasize competition. Now, I'm not sure whether this is good or bad. I personally would rather have my students and children feel motivated by a deep and intrinsic love of learning instead of a desire to be at the top of the class. However, most of the Asian moms I know stress competition as they urge their kids to work harder and do better than their peers. In some ways, this makes sense to me. The world is a competitive place, and the competition for Asian kids in particular is fierce and intense because there are so many Asians. SO stressing competition is preparing kids for the real world in a very real way. The danger of course is that kids who focus too narrowly on grades may never develop a deep and abiding love of learning. At the end of the day, we want our kids to love learning and to engage with learning for its own sake, not just for mere grades.

Challenges facing the 21st century Asian mom:

  • Balancing competition with collaboration; encouraging our kids to work together so that in the future, they can strengthen and build a stronger society.
  • Emphasizing  satisfaction behind the learning process instead of focusing completely on results, achievement, and grades.

8. Asian parents literally revere and worship learning: In India, once a year, all kids celebrate "Saraswati Puja," where they worship Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and the arts, and they ask her to bless their books and musical instruments. All Indian children are told to "respect books" and they are reprimanded if their feet ever touch a book. Books are literally revered and worshipped.

Similarly, Confucianism in China imbues learning with a sacred purpose. In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, Jin Li writes that the Chinese believe that the ultimate purpose of learning is a moral one; through the arduous process of learning and through a deep dedication to learning and knowledge, the Chinese believe that they will become better people. The effects of this belief are obvious in Asia. I was not at all suprised to find out that  during Chinese New Year, adults give children red packets of "Hong Bao" along with blessings for the quest for knowledge and academic success.

The key here is to make sure that all this reverence is directed at the pure and ideal joy of learning and not at merely getting good grades (although obviously, good grades are important.)

I think that Asian kids whose parents hold tightly to Asian traditions and beliefs while also drawing on the best of the Western intellectual tradition will thrive in the 21st century. These kids will have the best of the East: discipline, concentration, a strong sense of belonging to the family, strong roots in their cultures/communities, a deep belief in the value of learning, a reverence for knowledge, and strong foundations in math and science. They will also have the best of the West: the Western belief that inquiry, investigation, and exploration are valuable ways to learn as well as the Western emphasis on language and self-expression. Equipped with both the best of the East and the West, these global Asian kids will be truly well prepared to succeed in the 21st century.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

MINDSET: How to praise kids effectively

We all want our children to feel successful and confident, and we all want to see them succeed. Given these desires, our intuition as parents often urges us to  protect our children from failure and mistakes, and to lavish praise on our children whenever we can. Is this the right approach? Contemporary research says NO.

Too much praise, it seems, can be damaging, especially if kids are praised in the wrong way, and failure can be a good experience for children if it is framed as a learning experience.

In her book Mindset,  Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasts students with "growth mindsets" to those with "fixed mindsets," and very effectively describes not only why a growth mindset is superior to a fixed one but also how to help your child develop a growth mindset.

GROWTH MINDSET: The child is ready to take intellectual risks and learn. He is not afraid of failing, but sees failure as part of the learning process. He believes that effort, hard-work, and persistence will eventually pay off, and failure is a learning experience that will help him on the road to success.

FIXED MINDSET: The child sees himself as having certain talents or abilities that are fixed. He does everything possible to maintain this image, and as a result, he sees failure as a direct reflection of his own abilities. The child is afraid to take intellectual risks because failure could potentially damage how he sees himself and/or how others see him. Children with a fixed mindset are afraid of taking intellectual risks or any kind of risk because they are so afraid of failing.

It's not hard to see that a growth mindset will take one further in life than a fixed mindset, which could be very limiting. So how does a parent or educator help a child develop a growth mindset?
Here are some suggestions from Carol Dweck:

1. Praise effort not ability. For example, don't tell your child that he's a fantastic writer. Instead, praise the time and energy he put into the writing process and praise specific techniques that the child used. Say, "You worked really hard on this piece of writing, and your hard work paid off. You did a great job with your description of the dragon; I particularly loved the description of his tail."
Similarly, don't tell your child that he's a "gifted mathematician." Instead, say, "I like how you solved this difficult problem in such an efficient and elegant manner. You really thought hard about it, didn't you?"

2. Don't tell your kids that they are smart. Tell them that if they work hard enough at anything, they'll do well. Always send your child the message that hard-work, effort, and persistence are key to success.

3. Think carefully about how you frame failure for your child. Failure is not a bad thing. In fact, it's good for kids to fail sometimes because it teaches them that failure is not the end of the world and helps them develop resilience. Don't protect your kids from failure; instead, when they do fail, help them re-frame their failures as learning experiences. Tell your kids that mistakes are learning experiences, and that everyone encounters failure at some time. Strong and successful people don't fall apart or get down on themselves for failing, they LEARN from their failures.
When your child comes home with a low grade on a test, discuss how the child can do better next time. Ask questions such as: What strategies can you use? How can you work harder? What can you learn from this experience so that next time round you do better?

4. Encourage intellectual risks. Encourage your child to tackle the harder topic or take the harder course. Tell your child that you value a risk-taking ability and the desire to try MORE than you value their final grade. What matters most is that the child is willing to take a risk and try something hard. If they fail at first, that's fine. If they keep trying, they will eventually overcome their failures and do fine.
Praise initiative and risk-taking along with effort. These are crucial qualities for a growth mindset.

5. Emphasize how learning is not easy, but it is satisfying and pleasurable. Learning is fun and fulfilling for its own sake, not just for the sake of a grade. And overcoming challenges through hard work makes learning more fun and rewarding.

The ultimate goal of education should be to inspire a child with a genuine love of learning. If a child begins to understand the joy and satisfaction that a cerebral life can provide, then he will seek knowledge of his own accord. As parents and educators, our goal is not to convince a child that he/she is smart; it is to show our children that learning is exciting and satisfying. Light the fire, and the child will do the rest.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Search versus Memory: The price we pay

I just finished reading 'The Shallows,' by Nick Carr. In his book, Carr explores how human societies and individual human brains are shaped and changed by the tools we invent. Through a detailed examination of tools ranging from clocks and maps to the printing press and the internet, Carr discusses how these tools change how we think.

 While I enjoyed the entire book,  I was particularly fascinated by Carr's questions about the costs of outsourcing our human memories to machines.  Carr draws sharp distinctions between the way human memory functions and the way computer/technological memories function. He describes the organic way that our human memories grow and change, claiming that the act of memorizing and remembering is in fact an act of learning and understanding. He looks at memory formation at the neuronal level, examining how the creation of  "long-term memories" causes extensive synaptic connections to be forged, thereby consolidating our understandings of the information that we "memorized."

 Our memories are also linked to each other and highly contextualized. Sometimes a particular phrase or song or fragrance can cause a host of old memories to come flooding back to us. In contrast to the organic, changeable, and web-like structure of our human memories, the memories of machines are fixed and unchanging. When a machine remembers, it doesn't process or link or associate memories. A machine's memories don't change with time.

Carr poses a number of questions about the costs of outsourcing our memories to machines. When we stop learning, processing, and remembering information and rely on Google instead, what are we giving up? Our intellect? Our cultures? Our identities?

When I first started blogging, I explored the role of memorization in contemporary education in a post titled Does Memory Matter? I examined the long history of memorization as the centerpiece in education, and then ended by wondering whether memorization had become an obsolete tool of the past. Today, educators routinely devalue the role of memory in education. Why should students memorize anything when they have Google? Our kids have unlimited access to information, so remembering information seems unecessary. In a world of hyperlinked text, we can just click on a link for background information, vocabulary definitions, and any other information we may need. We don't have to remember any of it, so why bother? As a teacher myself, I rarely makes students memorize anything, and at various times in my career I have asserted that memorizing is not the same thing as learning.

However, I now wonder whether my attitude towards memorization is somehow mistaken.  Nick Carr's book has made me wonder whether memorization of some sort should stay in our curriculum, despite the presence of Google and the internet. Perhaps we need to make sure that we keep our memories sharp because it is through the process of transferring short-term memories into our long-term memories that we actually begin to understand and appreciate  information of any sort. We need to know information to really process and understand it, and knowing perhaps requires some level of memorization.

 Perhaps students should memorize the definitions of words instead of relying on hyperlinks in e-books or the spotlight function on their MacBooks. Perhaps students should memorize beautiful poetry so that they truly understand and appreciate the rhythm, rhyme, structure, and meaning of the lines. Perhaps students should actively learn and remember historical "facts" so that they can not only understand and process the information but also analyze and critique it. Without a basic storehouse of knowledge in our own brains, true intellectual understanding and appreciation may not occur.

And furthermore, without engaging in the act of memorization, students may lose out on the cognitive benefits associated with "studying" and "remembering." If we stop transferring memories from our short-term working memories to our long-term memories, our brains may not forge the new neural circuits and synaptic pathways that accompany the creation of long-term memories.

Nick Carr does not advocate meaningless rote memorization, and neither do I. However, some degree of "repeated learning" of content and skills may, in fact, be beneficial to students. Conversely, a complacent attitude towards the current trend of outsourcing our own memories to the Internet may be coutner-productive and even harmful. An interesting perspective to mull over as I plan my lessons!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Raising a Musical Child

I’ve been thinking a lot about young children and music. At what age should a child begin to learn a musical instrument? And what are the goals of these lessons? And how can a child develop a meaningful relationship with music?

Most of the research I’ve read suggests that there is a critical window of opportunity (birth to age 7 or at the latest age 9) for children to internalize an understanding of music and pitch. In fact, according to Diamond’s book “Magic Trees of the Mind,” almost all musicians who have perfect pitch began to play an instrument before the age of 7. Additionally, research suggests that learning to play an instrument has many cognitive benefits. It helps children develop spatial and temporal sense, and it helps them identify and understand patterns. Since identifying and understanding patterns is the basis of math, researchers believe that mathematical and musical abilities may be linked.  And of course, there is no doubt that an appreciation of music enriches people’s lives. Like poetry and art, music too is a unique human gift that sustains and soothes the soul.

While it makes sense to enrol your child in music lessons from about age 6 or so, these lessons only become meaningful if the child also gains an appreciation of music and develops a meaningful relationship with music. Just as teaching a child to decode words is only one small part of raising a reader, so too is teaching a child to play an instrument only one small part of raising a musician. For the instrument to be meaningful, the child has to understand and love the magic of music, just as for reading to be meaningful, the child has to understand and love the magic of stories and books. But how does a parent create a musical home?

Here are some suggestions for parents:

-          Play music a lot, and make sure that your home is a musical place. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you play. In fact, it’s good to expose your child to a wide range of music.

-          Discuss music with your child. Just as dialogic reading (discussing books) is far more effective than simply reading a book aloud to a child, so too is dialogic music more effective than mere background music. Getting your child to listen carefully to the music and asking your child questions about what they hear and how it makes them feel is important. (Don’t overdo this though. Ultimately, the goal is enjoyment of the music. Listening to music should always be enjoyable for a child.)

-          Take kids to music and dance performances, especially ones designed for kids.

-          Dance to music together!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Home Culture

Have you ever wondered about the culture you create in your home? I'm not talking about culture in terms of race, ethnicity, heritage or religion. And, I'm not talking about how loving or dysfunctional the family is (although this is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect of any family).

I'm talking about the kind of values and interests a home embodies. What does your home say about who you are and what you value? What kinds of objects are on display in your house? What do you have up on your walls? What kind of activities does your family do for fun? What do people talk about at the dinner table? As a child, I was always fascinated by how different many of my friends' homes were from my own, and now, as a parent myself, I often consider how the culture of a home shapes the children who grow up in it.

One of my mother's close friends was a Bharathnatyam dancer. She and her husband together ran a school for dance, and they performed around India. When I visited their home as a child, I was astounded by the way it was steeped in music and dance. Their sons grew up living and breathing music and dance. There were always people dancing in their house; informal performances and rehearsals happened on their verandahs. Music resounded in every room, and all their conversations centered around music, dance, stories, and art.

One of my closest childhood friends lived in a home permeated by technology. His dad ran a software company, and his mom was also extremely computer savvy. They always had the latest technology and the best computers, and as a family, they preferred movies to books. My friend himself was always playing around on his computer -- not on mindless games, but on really sophisticated stuff. He started programming really young, and unsurprisingly, he went on to become a very successful software engineer. In his home, dinner table discussions would often revolve around computers, new technologies, and cars.

Some of my other friends grew up in homes that seemed to value the material world above all else. These friends had fancy designer homes, and their dinner table conversations revolved around clothes, shoes, gadgets, parties, and appearances.

I can think of a host of other "home cultures," each created by a different kind of family : money and business families, musical families, science families, artsy families, sporty-outdoorsy families, literary families.

My own childhood home was full of literature, poetry, and art. Big, dusty bookcases crowded with books about temples and religion, art and architecture, museums and travel. Other bookcases overflowed with works of fiction -- great literature from India and the West. We were a reading family, and we were an artsy family.  Neither of my parents cared much about technology. They just weren't into machines. We had a small TV that was never switched on. Our house was also a quiet house. I don't remember much music or noise. Everyone in the family seemed to enjoy silence and solitude.

I often consider the kind of home that I'm creating for my children. What kind of culture are they living and breathing everyday. What does our home say about what we, as a family, cherish and love? What do I want it to say?


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Facts: Are they worth teaching?

Fact: A Noun

something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel  is now a fact.
a truth known by actual experience or observation;something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.
something said to be true or supposed to have happened:The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.
Law Often, facts. an actual or alleged event orcircumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect orconsequence. Compare question of factquestion of law.
Source: dictionary.reference.com/browse/fact

Today, during a discussion at work, one of my colleagues said that he didn't really care about facts. My other colleagues agreed that facts are, in fact, trivial, and not really worth teaching. There was unanimous agreement that facts are pretty much a waste of time. They are just "background stuff." It's great that kids can quickly access "facts" on the internet, so that we teachers can focus instead on higher order thinking skills. There is no benefit to wondering about facts. I think that this is a fairly common idea among twenty-first century educators: facts rank very low on their list of what is worth teaching.

I'm not sure I agree with this new trend in education. Is content really so unimportant to teach in the 21st century? Should we rely entirely on the internet for our knowledge base? I think not. To begin with, I think that kids should have a rich fund of knowledge to draw on because without a strong knowledge base, they won't be able to understand and analyze anything they read or see. They have to be able to fit new knowledge into some kind of pre-existing framework for the knowledge to make sense. So from a cognitive standpoint, facts are important, and a content-rich curriculum is vital. We may have google, but that doesn't mean that kids should "know" nothing at all and rely entirely on an "electronic memory."

 But even beyond the need to continue to teach content, are facts interesting? Are they worth wondering about? In my experience, contemporary educators feet strongly that facts are so easily accessible in today's world that they are NOT worth wondering about, and in fact, not worth teaching or discussing.
Now, I think they may be right for certain kinds of information. In what year did India formally gain independence from British rule? In what year did World War 2 officially end? Who is the current president of America? These are facts that probably don't warrant much wondering and teaching. They are important to know, but not necessarily cognitively challenging. Kids can, in fact, google these questions, find (and hopefully memorize) the answers, and then move on to more interesting discussions.  

But what about other kinds of facts? How about why rainbows exist? According to the definition of a fact, the scientific explanation for why a rainbow exists is a fact. It is a scientific truth that has been proven repeatedly, and no scientist disputes it. Yet, I think it is a far more intellectually interesting and aesthetically pleasing "fact" than a historical date. It is, I think, a question that excites the imagination and the intellect in many ways. When, as a young child, I first wondered about why rainbows exist, I began with imaginative fairy-tale explanations: "The sun smiles after the rain, and the smile is a rainbow." Then I figured out it had something to do with sunlight meeting water, and finally, I figured out how water vapor in the air can act like a prism and split light up into its component parts. I find this fact beautiful and fascinating, partly because it reminds me that our human perception is so incredibly limited. It is only in that brief moment when a drop of water illuminates the true nature of light that we humans are able to see a wider range of light's actual colors and fully appreciate its beauty and complexity. Except for those fleeting moments, we are blind to the mystery of light that exists around us all the time. Yes, this is all fairly factual, but is it worth wondering about? Is it worth teaching? I believe so.

Finally, when it comes to facts, I'm not even really sure what the word means. The dictionary definitions listed above are broad and wide. If one were to ask me what the causes of the cultural revolution in China or the civil war in America were, I assume we could come up with certain facts, according to the definitions of facts. Yet, I think that we may end up discussing "whose facts" these really are. Is there anything in history that really qualifies as a straight up fact, or is everything a mere matter of perception and perspective? I'm not sure.

Can two opposing facts co-exist at the same time? According to many scientists, they can. In her book The Universe and the Tea Cup, physicist K.C.Cole gives many  interesting scientific examples of how frame of reference alters what we see as fact, and how many facts that seem to contradict each other can simultaneously co-exist.

Historians, I'm sure, would agree with this idea as well. A fact is often a matter of perspective and view point. As a child in India, I learnt a particular set of facts about Indian history and the creation of Pakistan. I was surprised when I got to university and met a Pakistani who had, in fact, learned an entirely different set of facts about the creation of his country. Whose facts? Could they all be true? Could they all be distorted?

Anyways, the point of this post is that I find "factual content" quite interesting. I think that many facts are, in fact, worthy of wonder and discussion, and definitely worth teaching.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Intellectual Lives of Teachers

Over the course of my career, I have worked at 5 different schools. The best one by far was The Winsor School, a highly selective and academically rigorous independent school in Boston. There were many reasons for Winsor's success as a school, but one of them was its genuine belief that a teacher's intellectual life was not just important but absolutely crucial for good teaching and learning to occur in the classroom.

The school supported the intellectual lives of its teachers in a number of different ways. To begin with, the administration created spaces where teachers could congregate and talk informally. We had comfortable couches in our department, we ate lunch together, and we often chatted in the faculty lounge. Secondly, and very importantly, they gave us time to talk, read, and pursue our own intellectual passions. Full-time teachers taught a maximum of three or four courses, and the workload was significantly less than that of  any of the other schools I've worked at. We were rarely bogged down with nonsensical administrative work (unlike the situation that teachers face in most other schools.) Thirdly, they paid for our intellectual pursuits. We actually had a budget that we could use to buy books (for our reading pleasure), tickets to the theatre, and admission to local museums. The budget wasn't huge, but it made a strong statement.  And finally, they let us design our own courses and teach what we were most passionate about. I taught an elective on Indian and Middle Eastern literature. No other school I've taught at would even consider offering such an elective, but at Winsor, my course was greeted with enthusiasm both by my colleagues and by students. In short, this school really cared about the intellectual lives of its teachers. The administration at the school understood the huge connection between a teacher's intellectual life and his/her ability to teach well.

Why does a teacher need to pursue her own intellectual passions in order to truly be effective in the classroom? I know from my own experiences that I am most enthusiastic as a teacher when I'm most intellectually alive. If I'm reading a lot, thinking a lot, engaging in stimulating conversations with my colleagues and students, and generally learning a lot, I find myself designing far more engaging lessons.  Often the studying and reading that I do independently is not directly connected to what I teach, yet invariably, what I read spills into my teaching in some way or another. If nothing else, my own passion for learning serves as a powerful role model to my students (I hope), and this alone could/should inspire them to engage actively with the learning process. Teachers have to think of themselves as scholars and learners, and schools have to support the intellectual lives of teachers in very explicit ways if the school is truly committed to creating a community of learners. This, I think, is one of the distinguishing traits of truly great schools.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Summer Freedom

Today was the last day of this academic year. As the summer stretches out ahead of me, I feel tremendous excitement and relief.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my job, and I’m a big proponent of hard work, schoolwork, homework, and all kinds of work. But by the end of the academic year, I’m totally and completely worn out. Schools are possibly the most structured and disciplined places on our planet. During the school year, faculty and students alike are governed by schedules, timetables, and syllabi. We think in terms of hour-long blocks that end with a loud bell. Our thoughts are always, necessarily, fragmented. Just as we’re working through a particularly difficult piece of poetry, the bell rings. All of a sudden, students have to march to a Chemistry class and wrestle with the periodic table, while I have to run to another class and teach a totally different text. And then, all year long, students and faculty alike march from one set of assignments to another, from one set of assessments to another, from one reporting period to another. Much as I love school, I do find the degree of structure overwhelming.

So, summer is a welcome break. As I contemplate two months of freedom, I realize how important unstructured time is for all of us: faculty and students alike. While structured learning is very important, a whole different kind of learning takes place in the summer. We can spend a morning immersed in a book, with no bell to interrupt the experience. We can immerse ourselves in a particular project or learning experience without the constraints and demands of school.  We can play! Play with ideas, play with words, play in the sand and play at the beach. We can engage in an activity for the pure pleasure of it, without worrying about external assessments and judgments. We can do what we love, what we want, instead of being forced to do what everyone else (administrators, exam boards, parents, teachers) tell us to do. Oh, the joy of summer!

Unstructured time is, I think, critical for deep thinking and creativity. All people, teachers and students alike, need long stretches of unstructured time to imagine, dream, and think. It is this mental space and time that allows us to be reflective and creative. Additionally, we all need downtime to recharge our batteries. And, very importantly, we all need time outdoors, time to connect with nature and our physical environment. The beauty of the academic year is that we have this time built into every year. Every academic year begins anew in August, with renewed vigor and intensity. And then every academic year winds down in June, giving way to the luxury and freedom of summer.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Case For Homework or 'After-schooling'

A lot of Western research suggests that homework is detrimental in the early years. Kids should play and relax when they come home, and parents should not be “burdened” with the responsibility of homework supervision. Now, as a parent and a teacher, I don’t think this is true at all. I think that homework, whether it is mandated and prescribed by the school or simply created and planned independently by the parent is very important even in the early years, perhaps especially in the early years.

Why? Despite what Alfie Kohn and the other anti-homework guys say, I think that young kids (ages 5 to 10) benefit from twenty minutes to one hour a day of structured academic work at home (reading, writing, math).  The amount of time will obviously vary based on the kid's age. My reasons for this belief are listed below:

·     In school, kids learn in a group setting. Whether the teacher engages in whole group instruction or breaks the class up into smaller groups and gives each group an activity to do, each student is rarely spending significant amounts of time working through a particular skill on his/her own. As a teacher myself, I know that I can introduce a concept or skill in class and I can get kids to think critically about a piece of text in a discussion. However, the actual mastery of the skill can only be achieved if the student spends a significant amount of time working with the material independently at a pace that works for him/her.  Now, the fact of the matter is that I don’t have enough class time to let kids wrestle independently with material as much as they should and practice skills as much as they should. They have to do this part on their own at home. 

Furthermore, this skill reinforcement works best at home because kids are less distracted and pressured by their peers. There are definite limitations to the kind of learning and the depth of learning that occurs in a large group setting (classroom setting).  Large groups are great for presentations, discussions, and activities. However, they don’t work as well for skill reinforcement and mastery of content and skills.

·      In the early years, kids absolutely have to master a range of foundational skills. If they fail to master these skills, middle and high school are going to be nightmares for them. Between the ages of five and ten, kids have to become fluent readers, develop a substantial vocabulary, and master grammar and spelling conventions. In Math, they have to master basic numerical work and problem solving techniques (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, time, money, percentages, basic geometry, word problems).  These foundational skills are necessary to survive in our complex modern world, and they are crucial for future academic success.  What I find as a high school English teacher is that many students lack these basic elementary skills. For example, I often have kids who don’t end sentences with periods (full stops).  Some of my high school students (and I teach at an elite private school!) still don’t understand when to use an apostrophe. Some of my students have very weak vocabularies. I believe strongly that all young kids have to spend time at home mastering these foundational English and Math skills, and while teachers should introduce these skills/concepts and provide activities and avenues for practice, ultimately, parents have to ensure that their kids master these skills. I use the word “master (mastery)” very intentionally. These skills have to be mastered and completely internalized; it is insufficient to merely expose kids to these foundational concepts/skills and hope that they “get it”.

·      Homework is also important because it teaches basic study skills. I have students in high school who cannot get their act together and get down to work. One of my students, for example, told me that she doesn’t know how to organize herself and get her homework done. She literally falls apart when she is asked to read a book, write a paper, or study for a test.  Kids need to learn these skills early on so that high school doesn’t feel like a mad assault for which the kid is totally unprepared. The best way to teach kids how to work independently is to make sure that they sit down in a quiet space every evening after school and do forty minutes to an hour of structured academic work. They have to learn to focus their minds, practice their skills, and sit still.  And they have to learn that they can in fact control their time and get their work done.

While they do this, they will also begin to realize the high correlation between effort and achievement, and they will begin to understand the satisfaction involved in intellectual work. While advocates of a fun and playful childhood might lambast homework as a spoiler of fun times, I believe that learning can be extremely satisfying. I think that working through a math problem can be very interesting and fulfilling, as can reading a chapter of a book, or crafting a thoughtful response to a story. I also think that drill style learning in limited doses can be fun. When a student has to work through a list of math problems, they may seem dry and boring, but the child will enjoy his own sense of achievement as he figures out the answers. And he’ll be able to see that practice does, in fact, make perfect. There is something innately satisfying about learning, and contrary to the popular notion that all learning has to be a song and dance routine to be fun, I fully believe that many kids find real, challenging academic work satisfying, if not “fun.”

Even if a child does not enjoy homework, it teaches important study skills, and it makes a child realize that sometimes we have to get work done whether we like it or not. This is a real-world lesson that kids should learn early on.  I’m a teacher, and while I love being in the classroom, I find marking papers torturous. I absolutely hate marking. Yet, I mark every single piece of paper that my students turn in because it’s part of my job. Kids need to learn that they have to do all parts of their job, and some parts will be fun while others won’t. That’s life.

·      A final benefit of homework: it allows parents to make sure that their kids get the education they need. I have worked in a number of schools, and I know that schools are not perfect. If a parent relies entirely on the school to ensure that her child is well-educated, she could be in for a rude shock. Parents have to be involved, and they have to supplement what the school does. If your child’s school is experimental and progressive, and if it espouses the ideas of experiential education and holistic education, then it is probably doing a great job of getting your child to think creatively and building your child’s self-esteem and confidence. These are very worthy and important skills and qualities, and the school should be congratulated and supported in what it does. However, the down side is that the school can’t do it all, and what gets shafted in the process is mastery of foundational skills and the development of hard-core discipline and work-ethic. In contrast, in a more traditional school (I’m thinking about Asian schools particularly), the school may focus so much on foundational skills that they neglect the more fun and creative projects and discussions that are so necessary to promote creative and critical thinking. Parents in this case might have to supplement in the other direction (more open-ended projects instead of drill).

The fact of the matter is that schools and teachers absolutely cannot reach every single child to the degree that they need to. What parents don’t realize is that their child is one of many at a school. Even the best, most expensive schools in the world have teachers that teach many children as opposed to a one-on-one tutoring system; at all the schools I’ve been in, a full-time teacher’s load is fairly overwhelming. An elementary school teacher, for example, teaches, on average, 20 kids in a class (and I’m talking about developed countries. In Indian schools, for example, classes can have over 40 kids.). There is no way that one teacher can give each student much one-on-one time.  Furthermore, she’s busy trying to make sure that the naughty kids stay in line and that the class is not overly chaotic. And she’s bogged down by report writing, lesson planning, and a whole host of nonsensical administrative tasks.

As a high school teacher, I often teach up to 100 students (four or five classes) each semester. And I am inundated with marking, report writing, and admin work. And when I’m in a classroom of 20 kids, I can’t possibly give each kid much one-on-one feedback. The number of kids, the constraints of time, and the demands of classroom management all preclude working individually with kids. If I assign an activity to the group and then spend time working individually with students, you can be totally sure that at least two kids are wasting their time updating their status on facebook or surfing the web (I teach in a one-to-one laptop school that chooses not to block facebook), and another three kids are chatting  (either out loud in the old fashioned way, or on their computers). So, the opportunity cost of one-on-one instruction in a classroom is relatively high. This one-on-one work has to happen outside of class, either at home or in a library.

So, in conclusion, I’m a fan of homework. It’s absolutely necessary, and all children should do it every day whether their school prescribes it or not. If the school doesn’t assign homework, then parents should.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Creating a Math Rich Home: Learning from Asian Moms

I’m an English teacher, so creating a language rich home for my young children came easily and naturally to me. And since most parenting literature emphasizes language (read to your kids, talk to them etc.) over all else, I always felt as though I was doing a great job on the cognitive development front with my kids.  Then I moved to Asia.

Asian moms care deeply about Math, and their goal seems to be creating a math-rich home for their young children, as opposed to just a language rich home.  Surprisingly, there’s very little literature/research on this particular topic. I’ve read tons of parenting books, and they all pretty much ignore the development of early math skills. Yet, in Asia, parents are very focused on cultivating mathematical minds from the get go. (Unfortunately though, they don’t formally research and publish their ideas.)

After a lot of searching, I found a few good academic resources on this subject. Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got To Do With It, and the Sidwell Friends School Math website for lower schoolers, provide lots of good tips for parents. Neuroscientist Lise Eliot makes an interesting case for the early and deliberate development of visual-spatial skills in her book "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" and Stanislas Dehaene explores the way our brains process and understand numbers in his book Number Sense.

So, how should a parent go about creating a math-rich home? Here are a few suggestions, culled together from books, websites, and lots of informal discussions with Asian moms.

   Stage 1 – Ages 1 to 4
   Don’t just think books. Think blocks. Lots of blocks and building sets. Since a strong spatial ability is tightly linked to higher level Math proficiency, most researchers believe that block play will help kids in Math. In fact, there are studies that show a correlation between the sophistication of early block play and later Math achievement.
      Also get your kids to do puzzles since they develop both problem solving strategies and spatial skills.
 Play-doh, art, sand play, and general outdoor play are obviously really important at this stage as well. From the research that I've done, general manipulation of objects/play with objects helps children create a strong foundation for Math. Similarly, activities that involve sorting, classifying, and stacking/nesting of objects are great as well.

Count with kids A LOT.
If you live in a big city with lots of skyscrapers, get them into elevator math. Going up and down on an elevator is kind of like riding a number-line. Kids get to press a button and then see the elevator move up each floor. Talk to kids about the numbers on the elevator. Read the numbers. Calculate how many more floors you need to travel to get to the desired one.
Count when you grocery shop (I need five apples) and when you clean up (Let’s put five blocks back in the bin). Get them to help you cook (we need five eggs).  Count whenever you can.

Use Math talk when you can; for example, can you find me two blue blocks. Great, now find two green ones. How many blocks do you have altogether? Let’s count. See two plus two equals four. Use words such as add, subtract, half, one third, taller, shorter etc.

Don’t just think numbers. Think shapes and patterns. Get kids to draw and color shapes. Get them to identify shapes around them. Get them to look at and identify patterns with shapes.

And finally, let them measure stuff. For some reason, my kids love playing with measuring tapes. So get them to measure all the furniture.

Stage 2- Ages 4 to 6
This is when Asian moms start getting very serious about Math. They figure that kids are now old enough to start learning the real thing. So they introduce concepts, and then they do what Asians love to do: they practice A LOT.

Most Asian kids I know start a Math enrichment program like Kumon, Abacus, or Math Monkeys around age 4 or 5. The idea here is to get kids really familiar with numbers and mental math. I researched these programs and found that they are very, very drill based. Now, I’m all for some daily drilling, but to me Kumon seems mind-numbingly boring. As a result, I chose not to enroll my son in Kumon. However, I know several moms who swear by it, and it definitely makes kids very, very familiar with numbers and basic computations (add, subtract etc.) If, like me, you’re not willing to go the Kumon route, you can still buy the Kumon books and use them a few times a week so that kids get some amount of drilling/practice.

Other great ways to get kids to become very familiar with Math include board games. Play lots of Snakes and ladders and any other game that involves adding and subtracting. Play card games. Make up games with dice and cards. Games like Yahtzee and Ludo work well too. Play mental math games when you're in a car or bus.

Use lots of blocks, legos, jigsaw puzzles, and games that involve numbers and strategies (Connect Four, for example). All of these will help kids develop spatial skills, which are tightly linked to higher level Math proficiency.

Introduce the Tangram game – great for getting kids to disembed shapes, and thus develop spatial skills.

Stage 3: Formal School (Grade 1/Primary 1 onwards)
Now, when I think about Math in grade 1 and beyond, I think about it on three levels: Math facts, Problem Solving, and Spatial Skills. Kids need to work on all three levels throughout the year so that by the end of the year they have not only developed a mastery of math facts but also developed their problem solving and spatial skills. For most kids, Math Facts are the easy part; it's the more analytic problem solving and the more creative spatial skills that are harder.

Level 1 – Mastery of Math Facts - Procedural Knowledge.
Kids have to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly and efficiently. This is stuff they will use all their lives, and even if a calculator can do it for them, it is essential that they learn how to do it themselves. This is really basic foundational stuff. And the only way that kids get really, really familiar with numbers is through daily practice. So, whether you go the Kumon route or not, you’ve got to give your first grader lots of daily drills on this material. In Singapore, kids in primary 1 are adding and subtracting multi-digit numbers with frightening speed. And by the end of the year, they all know all their times tables. You’ve got to admire the dedication that Asian moms have towards making sure their kids know their Math facts. The sheer reverence for Math is something else.

While many Asian programs (Kumon, for example) allow kids to use standard algorithms (stack and carry to add with regrouping, for example), many Western programs and many Asian mental math programs advocate solving complex computations by breaking numbers apart. For example: If you have to subtract 83 – 15, you could think of 15 as 10 and 5. First subtract 83 – 10 to get 73 (very easy) and then subtract 73 – 5 to get 68. You could even think of 5 as 3 and 2, so 73 – 3 = 70, and 70 -2 = 68. Kids need to work on decomposing and recomposing numbers quickly. They’ve got to be flexible with numbers. Jo Boaler’s book claims that this is a distinguishing trait of high achieving Math students in schools. I think that kids need to be taught both the standard algorithms as well as the "mental math" techniques so that they can use whatever works best given the situation.

Level 2 – Problem Solving - Conceptual Knowledge
Singapore Math workbooks are great for this level. They introduce kids to interesting and complex word problems that require good verbal comprehension and significant logical and analytic thought. These books are not for the faint-hearted. They are about two or three years ahead of your average American text book, but then Americans don’t seem to care about Math the way Asians do.
Jo Boaler advocates making problem solving more creative by offering kids “Math Settings” or a range of materials (for example, blocks or dice) so that the kids can create their own problems. They shouldn’t just be able to respond to a question, they should be able to ask their own questions too. Some of the Singapore Math books provide equations (14 + 8 = 22, for example) and then ask the kids to provide a word problem for the equation. Writing word problems is a great way to make sure that a kid really understands a mathematical concept.

Level 3 – Spatial Skill Development  - Creativity
So this is where I’m not so sure that Asian programs really work. They seem to be very workbook oriented and they need a more hands-on element. I’m terrible at spatial thinking, so I get worried that my kids may inherit my deficiency in this department. However, research suggests that spatial skills can be taught and improved with practice.
Activities to improve spatial skills include building models using directions or pictures (Blik Blok,  Lego kits, modeling clay, Origami) and understanding how to put shapes together or disembed shapes (Tangrams, measurement activities, building activities).
Additionally, video games (Tetris, action games) supposedly help in this department. However, video games seem to come with a whole slew of problems of their own, so I’d be careful about overdoing gaming.
According to Conrad Wolfram, director of Wolfram Research and author of an article on connecting Math to the modern world, "programming is the way you write down Math in the modern world." It makes sense to begin programming activities (lego-programming/elementary robotics, Scratch, Logo etc.) with kids in elementary/middle school. 
Kids need more opportunities to do hands-on stuff like taking apart a simple machine and putting it back together. Or simple carpentry projects.
Another great activity, which is very popular amongst Indian kids, is chess. I’m not a chess player, but it supposedly teaches spatial skills and problem solving skills simultaneously. This is an area that I find particularly challenging as a parent. It is definitely incredibly important in the 21st century, where visual-spatial skills are absolutely necessary to understand and navigate the digital world and the real world.

 I think that creating a Math rich home and investing significant time and energy in Math from the get-go is a good idea. Just as early reading and talking help prime kids for success in school, I’m fairly convinced that early exposure to Math games and Math concepts help prime kids for success in Math. One more thing: in Asian families, succeeding in Math is not an optional thing. Just as kids have to learn to read fluently, they have to do well in Math, and that’s that.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Neuroscience and Education

Over the last three years, I’ve read a wide range of books on neuroscience, the plasticity of the brain, and the implications of all this research for educators and parents. Written by scientists, educators, and cognitive psychologists, these books span a wide range of topics and are sometimes more technical/scientific and sometimes less so. I’ve read tons of these kinds of books; the most notable ones are listed below:

Inside the Brain: By Ronald Kotulak
Magic Trees of the Mind: By Mariam Diamond
Reading in the Brain: By Stanislas Dehaene
Number Sense: By Stanislas Dehaene
Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of Reading: By Marianne Wolf
Pink Brain, Blue Brain : By Lise Eliot
The Sexual Paradox : By Susan Pinker
The Tell-Tale Brain : By V.S. Ramachandran

I’ve also read some really interesting books by Jane Healy, an educator and psychologist, who writes about child development and the effects of the media. I found ‘Endangered Minds’ very interesting and provocative and ahead of its time (it was written in the 1990’s), and I also enjoyed ‘Your Child’s Developing Mind.’ However, I wonder about the scientific merit of these books, particularly Endangered Minds.

As a parent and an educator, I find these books absolutely fascinating, and I think that they have influenced both how I parent and how I teach significantly. Perhaps they have influenced my parenting more than my teaching, but either way, they have altered how I think about the brain and the process of learning.

So what are the big, enduring ideas that I have learnt from these books? I've listed some of the ideas I find most compelling below. The list is somewhat disjointed and far from complete, but it's a start.
The idea of neuro-plasticity:
Genes matter. Heredity matters. We do come hard-wired with our own strengths and talents. Much of the research I’ve read points to the power of genes and heredity. However, what I find fascinating is that we can literally train our brains/minds to develop and strengthen certain neural circuits by spending a lot more time on activities that engage these circuits. If you want to be a good reader, spend a lot of time reading. If you want to be a good builder, spend a lot of time building. This is a fairly intuitive idea, and on some level, we already know this. However, the science behind this idea confirms that how children spend their time will, in many ways, determine what neural circuits they eventually develop.  This is not to say that we don’t come hard-wired with our own strengths and talents. We do. Yet, we can choose to grow our talents and minimize our weaknesses by spending our time wisely. A corollary to this is that students must actively engage in an activity to really strengthen a neural circuit. Merely sitting in a classroom won’t actually help a student learn; he/she has to use his brain to get those synapses firing.
Spatial skills can be taught: This is a particularly provocative idea for me because I have atrocious spatial skills. I have never understood why spatial skills are almost completely ignored in formal educational settings. I was a stellar student in school precisely because I never had to engage in any kind of spatial work. Given that visual-spatial skills are the foundation of all higher-level math and science, I just don’t understand how or why they are ignored in formal educational settings. If spatial skills had been taught in school, I might have been diagnosed with a severe “spatial disability” and been given intensive remediation in this field. While it would have made school much less fun and somewhat humiliating, it might have helped me learn to drive properly, read a map, experiment more with technology, and put together IKEA furniture. I’m hopeless at all of the above. As a parent, I am determined to make sure that my kids get explicit instruction in this area.

There are biological differences between the ways in which female brains and male brains are hardwired, most likely a function of prenatal testosterone surges in males and differing brain sizes in males and females. However, when measured in young children, these differences are small for most cognitive areas; yet they become exacerbated by how children spend their time, and thus, by adulthood, they are very wide.  Again, the research suggests that how a boy or girl spends his time is very important. Video games (in moderation) are good for developing spatial sense. Reading is great for developing not just verbal-linguistic skills but also greater emotional intelligence (empathy, compassion). All boys and girls need exposure to a broad range of fields.

·      Aggression: The biological and hormonal basis of aggression is particularly interesting. I think that my understanding of men and boys has increased considerably as a result of this research. When I think back to the incredibly high levels of aggression that characterized my students, particularly the males, in inner-city Baltimore, I feel as though I understand where all that aggression came from. Living in a high-stress and violent environment can literally re-wire a vulnerable brain to become chronically ready to “fight – or –fly,” or in even more frightening cases, can lower levels of serotonin to the point where children lose their ability to feel any remorse or sympathy for others. This interaction between a hostile environment and a vulnerable brain can cause dangerously high or low levels of key neurotransmitters, resulting in either increased rage, which can trigger violence, or a lack of empathy, which can cause more cold-blooded killing.

·      When one begins to see human behaviors in light of neuro-development and biology, it becomes easier to be patient and compassionate. Instead of merely feeling frustrated with students who struggle, I try hard to consider how their brains are working. What are the specific ways in which this child is struggling? How can I break the task down to help him/her understand it? Similarly, with my own young children, it is much easier for me to deal with a tantrum when I consider that a three year old’s frontal lobe/pre-frontal cortex is insufficiently developed. Expecting her to be rational is somewhat unrealistic given the stage of biological development she’s in. 

·      Reading literally changes/re-wires the brain. The brains of literate individuals are significantly different from those of illiterate individuals. My favorite books were Maryanne Wolf’s “The Story and Secret of the Reading Brain” and Dehaene’s “Reading in the Brain” because they beautifully lay out the ways in which the brain learns to read despite not being hardwired to do so. Both books are a real tribute to the invention of writing and the supreme achievements of the reading brain, and as a reader and an English teacher, I found these books exhilarating and exciting. The process of reading, initially phonetic and eventually lexical, is absolutely astounding. And the power of words – how we remember them, understand them, use them, and change them is tremendous. Both books, however, made me realize just how challenging reading can be for a dyslexic student, and they helped me understand the need to revise my negative assumptions about struggling readers.

The research all shows that the brain is a “use-it-or-lose-it” muscle. I know from my own experience that there have been times in my life when I’ve used my brain intensely and felt very intellectually alive. In graduate school, for example, I spent all my time engaged in intense intellectual activity, and I felt as though my brain was in phenomenal shape. In contrast, when I’ve felt stressed and overwhelmed by personal/emotional matters, I’ve used my brain a lot less, and in the process, have actually felt significantly less intelligent. When I lived in NYC, I was overwhelmed by my father’s illness and death, and by the chronic stress associated with working when one has a very young child at home. My son was severely asthmatic as an infant and toddler, which didn’t make things any easier. As a result, I read much less, and I found that my concentration was severely impaired, my thinking became muddled and imprecise, and I sometimes found it hard to write even a simple paragraph. The depletive and dangerous effects of stress on the brain are very real, as is the effect of less use of the brain. It makes perfect sense: you use your brain and you build it up; you stop using it and those synaptic connections begin to die.

If there’s one thing I want to do for my children and my students, it is to inspire them to love learning and to use their brains as actively and enthusiastically as possible. I want them to have rich inner-intellectual lives.