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Sunday, 18 August 2013

Childhood: training ground or fleeting magic?

Adam and Eve were children in the Garden of Eden, their blissful paradise that required them to be completely innocent and ignorant. Once they tasted the "forbidden fruit" and gained knowledge, they had to leave behind their childhood and venture forth into the harsh desert of adult life. For centuries, Western writers and poets have used the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for childhood, for innocence and blissful ignorance.

What are our contemporary metaphors for childhood? As I look around me and talk to parents, I see two very different sets of metaphors dominating how parents and educators think of childhood and its purpose. These metaphors are important because they tend to dictate the decisions we make for our children. These metaphors dictate what we prioritize in our children's lives.

The overwhelming metaphor in Singapore seems to be that childhood is a sort of training ground for the fierce battle and hardship of adult life. In this vein, childhood is also a race: the fastest runners get admitted to top colleges, which then lead them to secure jobs, money, and prestige.

 Childhood is a rehearsal for the "play" of adult life, which begins when kids grow up. Everything about childhood is geared towards some future pay-off in the adult world.

In contemporary Western education rhetoric, the "training ground" metaphor prevails as well. We have to teach our kids 21st century skills to make them employable in an increasingly complex and competitive globalized world. The whole goal of childhood is to prepare children for the stress and competition of the adult world. The goal of education is to make children employable. In fact, I often read articles and blogs about what Google, Apple, and Microsoft are looking for in future employees, and the needs of these companies drive education policy around the world. Childhood becomes nothing more than preparation for a highly competitive, mercenary, individualistic and capitalist world.

In contrast, through history, many writers and poets have historically viewed childhood in a fundamentally different way. It is a fleeting, magical time of imagination and dreams, a time to be revered, romanticized, and cherished.

Childhood is freedom; as the child grows up, he becomes imprisoned by the chains and shackles of the adult world. But in childhood, only in childhood, he is uninhibited, un-self-conscious, and free. Childhood is the Baby Krishna stealing butter and hiding from his mother, childhood is children skipping and splashing in puddles, childhood is laughter and mischief, rainbows and phoenixes. These are the magic years.

As parents, we are acutely aware of how stressful our own lives are. We work all the time, our expenses are high, our world is changing rapidly -- often too fast for us to adapt and change along with it -- and we're always afraid of being left behind in an increasingly stressful race. It is no wonder then that the 21st century metaphors for childhood place such emphasis on the training of the child. It would be impractical, perhaps even cruel and negligent, to not prepare our kids for the world they will need to navigate as adults.

On the flip side, however, what do we lose and what do our children lose when we forget those alternative metaphors that capture the transient joy, magic, and wonder of childhood? These metaphors may indeed be romanticized, idealistic, and entirely impractical, but they are also beautiful.

We all need poetry and beauty in our lives. Perhaps childhood is the beauty and poetry of human existence.

Here are some competing metaphors for childhood: where do you stand? And how do your metaphors dictate the choices you make for your kids on a daily basis?

Childhood is an organized, regimented march towards adulthood VS childhood is a leisurely stroll through the woods?

Childhood is a running race VS childhood is a playground or a dream?

Childhood is a plant in a well-manicured garden: we sow the seeds, we carefully nurture the plant, and we do everything we can to make it yield the most beautiful flower, the tastiest fruit. OR Is childhood a wildflower that grows as it pleases?

Childhood is a sanctuary, a shelter from the wind and the rain. OR is childhood a form of boot camp, where kids are disciplined and toughened up so that they can actually survive the battlegrounds of adult life?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Parenting with a sense of possibility

It's easy to become an anxious parent.

 Especially in test-frenzied, hyper-competitive Asia.

It's easy to become mildly obsessed with your child's performance in Math, and it's easy to become worried about whether or not your child is enrolled in enough extra-curricular activities. After all, when you look around at your child's friends, it's hard to overlook the fact that seven year old Ali has already mastered fractions and decimals, six year old Mei-Jia has already passed the grade 3 piano exam, and five year old Suraj is reading chapter books.

What I've been wondering about recently, however, is the opportunity cost of all this anxiety. When our parenting decisions are fuelled by anxiety, what do we give up?

 I think the biggest casualty is a sense of possibility.

It's easy to see why South-Asian and East-Asian parents are an anxious bunch. There are well over 2 billion Asians, and many Asian nations are still plagued by all kinds of problems: poverty, a lack of infra-structure, a lack of opportunities, over-crowded urban environments, corrupt governments. It's only in the last thirty years that Asia has started to make substantial economic progress.

 It's no wonder that we Asian parents worry. It's no surprise that Asia is full of  kiasu moms who want their kids to become doctors and engineers. We Asians tend to view financial and emotional security as the end goal: get married, become a doctor, save your money, buy an apartment, and look after your family. We see resources as scarce and finite, and we parent with a scarcity mind-set.

But what if we weren't plagued by anxiety? What would parenting look like then?

What if we were motivated by a sense of possibility instead of anxiety?

While I think that daily academic work, strong foundational skills, and a good shot of discipline are very important for young people, I also think that kids need lots of unstructured play time.

 If we're always telling kids what to do, how will they learn to think for themselves and come up with their own wonderful ideas?

 If we give kids instructions all the time, then how will they learn to take initiative, to experiment and invent?

And if we try too hard to make sure that our kids always get the right answer to a pre-set question, how will they learn to see a range of possibilities?

Or even more importantly, how will they learn to  ask their own questions?
 Sometimes, it's not getting the right answer that's important but being able to ask the right questions.

If we want our children to look at their lives and imagine a wide range of possibilities, then we need to parent with less anxiety. We need to get our kids out in nature more and let them explore and daydream. We need to encourage them to come up with their own games instead of telling them what to do. We need to nurture their sense that anything is possible.

Angela Lee Duckworth, the Chinese-American educator who has become famous for her research on "grit" and perseverance,  says that an educator's job is to provide children with the setting where they can have their own wonderful ideas. That's something worth thinking about. We've got to make sure that our kids have the space and time to have their own wonderful ideas.

So, while the Asian focus on discipline and foundational skills is very important, we need to balance this focus out by making sure that our kids are given the freedom they need to see the world as full of possibilities -- to question, invent, play, and dream.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Kids I Love

On some days, I wonder why I became a teacher in the first place.

There's no money.
Papers keep coming in, and the marking never ends.
Where's your thesis? Work on your transitions. Why are there still comma splices in your writing?
At three o'clock, I'm utterly and totally exhausted.

What is it about this profession that keeps me coming back to the classroom, year after year?

When I first started teaching, I taught because I wanted to create a more just and equitable world.
Over the years, I taught because I loved literature, poetry and language, and I wanted to share my passion for words with others.

Most recently, however, I've realized that I teach because of the kids. One of the biggest lessons that I've learned about effective teaching is that you have to teach because you care about kids. The kids have to matter more than the texts, more than any outside goals or ideologies, more than just about anything.

 Ultimately, teaching is about forging a strong relationship with kids, meeting them where they are in the learning process, and then, to borrow Kahlil Gibran's words,  "leading them to the thresholds of their own minds."

I think good teaching is also largely about being yourself. When I think back to the teachers and professors who moved me, I remember teachers who told stories, who gave advice, who made me smile. Professor Bertolini, for example, related Shakespearean plays to his own life; when we read texts about life and death, he told us how he felt when his parents died and he was forced to confront his own mortality. The best teachers and professors were not afraid to be totally and completely human.

Teaching is a uniquely human profession, and to be a good teacher, most of all, you have to be a living, breathing, honest human with passion and feeling and energy and idealism. You have to share your experiences and questions, your ideas and even your failings. You have to be compassionate and kind. You have to be real.

And this, perhaps, is what I love most about teaching: the relationship between teacher and student. And I'm extraordinarily fortunate. Over the last few years, I have taught some of the coolest kids in the world.

 Kids who work very hard, who demand so much of themselves.
Kids who smile and laugh and say thank-you at the end of class.
Kids who see me during lunch because they want to do better on their papers.
 Kids who take a stand and argue their position with spirit and conviction.

 Kids who respond emotionally to literature -- the student who genuinely admires Atticus Finch and says he wants to be like him, the student who cried when Tom Robinson was unjustly convicted, the student who was never fully  convinced that Romeo really loved Juliet, the student who read The Kite Runner and exclaimed that he had finally found a book he loved.

 Kids who get totally engrossed in the heat and energy of a good discussion.
 Kids who stand up and share a poem with their peers, despite the knocking knees and trembling hands.
Kids who listen quietly.

So why do I teach now? I think it's because of the kids I love.


Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Student-Teacher Relationship

Think back to your favorite teachers. Why did you like them so much? Chances are that they made you feel valued. You believed that they cared about you, and that they understood you. You probably don't remember their actual lessons as much as you remember the relationship you shared with them.

Over my years of teaching, I have come to the realization that effective teaching is largely about relationships. At the very heart of good teaching is the ability to show your students that you genuinely value them and care about them.

However, like all relationships, the student-teacher relationship is a two-way street. A teacher can try very hard to forge warm, caring relationships with students, but if the student is indifferent and disrespectful, chances are the relationship will fall apart.

On most days, I feel incredibly lucky to have the students that I have. They are fabulous kids: compassionate and kind, bright and interesting, hardworking and motivated. I hope they know how much I value them. I certainly feel as though, for the most part, they value me and what I do for them.

On some days, however, I feel discouraged. When a student is rude and disrespectful, unappreciative and overly-critical, disengaged and indifferent to class discussions and activities, I begin to feel discouraged. How do I get the student involved? Is it my fault? Am I not engaging enough? Have I not made enough of an effort to cultivate a strong relationship with the student?

In today's world, we hear a lot about what teachers should do for students. Teachers are expected to be somewhat saint-like. We need to care about our students, empathize with them, and connect with them. We need to engage, encourage, and inspire them. We need to be calm, patient, and caring all the time. We need to spend time giving each individual student extensive feedback via conferences, extra-help sessions, and email. (Keep in mind that the average high school teacher has roughly 100 students each year.) When they behave badly in class, we need to reflect on our practice: how and why are we failing to engage them?  Parents, administrators and students themselves are always ready to critique and blame the teacher for failing to be a perfect saint.

But what about the students? What responsibility do they have to their teachers? Why is it okay for students to be rude, disrespectful, or disengaged in class? Why does everyone assume that the onus for a healthy teacher-student relationship rests completely on the shoulders of the teacher? On the few occasions where I have students who just don't seem to care about my class or their relationship with me, no matter how hard I try, I sometimes find myself getting angry and upset. I know that I am the adult; the student is the child. I know that, much like a parent, I need to be the bigger person. Yet, it is hard not to take these situations personally. It is hard not to become disengaged myself; not to become distant and cynical.

Fortunately, the vast majority of my students are fantastic kids. However, I do have some advice for all students:
- remember that teachers are human too.
- remember that you and the teacher SHARE the responsibility to create a strong relationship that will support your learning.
- remember that your teacher wants to have a good relationship with you, but she/he can't make this happen without some cooperation from you.
- disruptive and rude behavior is not just an annoyance to your teacher; it's a strong message that you don't care about the class or your teacher.
- It doesn't take much to forge a good relationship with your teacher: come to class on time, engage in the learning process, show interest and enthusiasm for class discussions and activities, be polite and respectful, and show gratitude when your teacher goes out of his/her way for you and your classmates.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Key to Success = Sustained effort over time

Yesterday,  when I handed back essays to my grade 7 students, I happened to overhear the following conversation between two kids.
Student 1: Oh no. I worked so hard on this paper, and I still got a lousy grade.
Student 2: Really? I barely worked on this paper, but I did very well.

My first reaction was to feel really bad. It seemed very unfair to me that a student who worked very hard did less well than a student who had not worked very hard. It made me feel as though the grades that these students received validated their innate ability as opposed to the effort they put into their paper.

On second thought though, I realized that these students were comparing the effort that they had put into this one individual assignment; they were viewing their performance on this assignment in isolation. In English, and I would say in any endeavor, no assignment can be viewed completely in isolation. Student 1 may have worked hard on this particular paper, but she barely reads, and her work ethic all year has been spotty and inconsistent. In contrast, student 2 may have dashed off this paper at the last minute, but she is a voracious reader, and she has worked hard all year.

If student 1 did badly despite effort on this assignment, it is less a function of her lack of ability than her lack of sustained effort all year. Had she immersed herself in books and language all year, she would have gained the vocabulary and skills necessary to write a better paper. In contrast, because student 2 worked hard all year, she had honed her skills to the point where she could dash off a solid paper at the last minute.

My point here is that often what students and teachers attribute to innate ability is actually more a function of sustained effort over time. A kid who has been reading voraciously since she was very young has honed and refined her abilities to the point where things now come easily to her. In contrast, a kid who has barely read anything in elementary and middle school is going to struggle with assignments in later years, and often he will feel as though his efforts are futile. What students need to know is that their performance on any one individual assignment is the result of their work ethic and effort over time.

On a related note, I recently read an article on the importance of third grade precisely because it is the point in a student's academic career when the Mathew effect begins to kick in. In other words, from third grade on, kids who work hard get better and better, and kids who don't begin a downward spiral where they fall further and further behind. The discrepancy between strong and weak students gets wider and wider as a result. Because of the Mathew effect, a student who has worked hard for years may very well end up getting a better grade with far less effort than one who has only now started to work hard; what we think of as ability is actually the product of sustained work over time.  Why Third Grade is so important is interesting because it documents a very real phenomenon that continues through school.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Aunties, Uncles, and Allo-parenting

When I first arrived in Singapore, I was surprised by how quickly I felt at home here. I had never visited Singapore before, and I knew so little about the city-state. Yet, feeling tropical sun on my back and seeing bright flashes of pink bougainvillea made me feel at home. In so many ways, Singapore reminded me of Chennai, my childhood-home.

While the tropical landscape comforted me, what made me feel most at home was the "auntie-uncle culture." Much like in Chennai, every adult here is an auntie or an uncle to every child. Now this may seem kind of ridiculous. If every single adult is an auntie or an uncle, then what do those words even mean? Does the overuse of those words render them meaningless? I think not.

I believe that the way a child addresses an elder is very important. To start with, the terms auntie and uncle imply a familial relationship, suggesting that  adults must treat all children as if they are part of the same family. In other words, all adults need to work together to raise children, and simultaneously, children need to respect and obey all the adults they encounter, as they would their own family members.

These terms originate from a community-orientation. Historically, most Asians were raised in strong communities; in Singapore, kids grew up in communal kampongs; in India and China, they grew up in large joint-families with three generations living together under one roof.  While Asia has industrialized rapidly over the last fifty years, it is still attached, at least in theory, to the ideals of community, extended family networks, and communal child-rearing.

In traditional societies, all the adults in a community or tribe are responsible for the well-being and socialization of the younger generation. In his book The World Until Yesterday: What the modern world can learn from traditional societies, Jared Diamond describes the benefits of "allo-parenting," or communal parenting. When a kid is jointly raised, disciplined, and loved by multiple adults, he/she grows up with a strong sense of belonging to a larger community. This practice not only diminishes the pressure placed on parents, but it also helps children feel secure. Each child has many adult role-models, many adults that he can turn to when he needs advice, support, or help. The popular saying "It takes a village to raise a child"  is another way of thinking about the benefits of "allo-parenting" and traditional wisdom.

As allo-parenting is becoming increasingly endangered in the modern, developed world with its impersonal apartment buildings and fast-paced lifestyles, I think that the "auntie-uncle" cultures of the East should try to preserve these practices as much as possible. In Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers,  the American psychiatrist Gordon Neufeld documents the price that families pay when they are no longer part of a cohesive community. When parents don't have a community to help them raise their kids, they become stressed and exhausted. Simultaneously, when kids don't have a strong network of supportive adults to draw on, kids often turn to peers to fill the vacuum and the results are dangerous and frightening.

On a related note, over the weekend, I watched a Bollywood movie with my husband, and I began to think about the ubiquitous presence of grandparents and extended family members in the movie.  In contrast, your average Hollywood movie doesn't even feature parents, let alone grandparents or aunts/uncles. The young twenty-something heroes and heroines of Hollywood are forced to rely entirely on themselves and their peers for guidance; they get nothing from the older generation. In contrast, the young protagonists of Bollywood have a whole cast of older family members to turn to for comfort, support, guidance, and help. While neither Hollywood nor Bollywood reflects reality, they do reveal something about what their respective societies seem to value or idealize. Clearly, allo-parenting and extended family networks are still idealized in the East, though with 21st century lifestyles, they may become endangered.

Suggestions for parents (adapted from Neufeld's book):

- Socialize as a family with other families; multi-generational socializing is healthy for kids and adults alike. Your kids should know your friends. They should have lots of aunties and uncles that they feel close to. This is important even when (particularly when) your children are teenagers.

- Make sure you know your kids' friends, and ideally, their friends' parents as well. Again, this is fairly easy when your kids are young, but it gets harder as they get older. Yet, Neufeld argues that it is particularly important with teens because they are most vulnerable to toxic "peer effects."

- Spend a lot of time with your kids and make sure that you and the other adults in their lives (grandparents, aunts etc.) are their go-to people for questions and crises. Their peers should never replace the older generation. Again, this is particularly important for adolescents, who could get very skewed advice from friends.

- Make time for family dinners, family outings, and family days.

- Involve grandparents, aunts, and uncles in your lives as much as possible, and talk about "family stories" with your kids. Make sure the kids know their extended family well. Weekend Skype sessions are important if the grandparents live far away. If you're not close to your family, then create a similar network with friends.

And here are some other Singapore-specific suggestions:

-  If you have a domestic helper, encourage your children to think of her as part of your family. She is a crucial part of your "allo-parenting network," and both she and the kids will benefit from a close familial relationship.

- Encourage your child to read Asian literature and mythology -- most Asian stories seem to glorify and idealize familial relationships and community structures. Watching Bollywood movies helps too. These stories will implicitly teach kids that family matters a lot, and they could provide some sort of balance to the other messages that kids get about the need to be independent, rebellious, and "peer-oriented".

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Shadow Education: Helpful or Harmful?

A couple years ago, one of my seventh grade students complained that I was giving the class too much homework. "We don't have time to do all this work," he argued vehemently.
"Why not?" I asked, wondering what these kids were doing after school.
"We have too much other stuff to do after school," he replied.

Curious, I polled my class. What do you do after school each day?
The results were about as stereotypical as results could get.
Most of my East Asian kids went on to hagwon (Korean school) or juku (Japanese school) or tuition classes of some sort for two hours every evening. There, they studied Math, English, and their native language.
Most of my South Asian kids spent a lot of time at "tutions," but they also engaged in some extracurricular activities.
And most of my European/Australian kids spent a lot of time on after-school sports. One of my students swam for two hours every evening. Another was at basketball practice for hours, and she travelled all over the region for tournaments.

In the Indian community in Singapore, moms often talk about Divesh Shah, the math guru who guarantees high scores in high school Math. Every Indian kid I meet here goes to Divesh Shah, and these moms swear by him. He's tough though -- the kids stay at his tuition center for hours, and he piles extra homework on them as well. But he does guarantee results.

I've been thinking a lot about the Asian practice of "shadow education." Sometimes, shadow education happens at home: moms "sitting with their kids" on a daily basis to supplement school education with extra math worksheets. Sometimes it includes private tutors. Often it involves large, established "enrichment centers" or "after-school schools" including Kumon, Abacus, Korean school (hagwons), Japanese schools (jukus), Divesh Shah centers, Mindlab, and a host of other tuition centers. Much of the academic success that Asian kids experience is a result of long hours in a shadow-school of some sort.

The proliferation and success of shadow-schools makes me wonder about a lot of things:

What is the role of a school? Should schools be sufficient in and of themselves? Is shadow education a sign that regular schools are failing? Does it mean that schools don't give students sufficient opportunities for practice during school hours?

Or is it an alternative model of education: schools tell kids what they should be able to do, provide creative opportunities to begin to explore these topics, and assess how well they can do these things. To supplement schools, shadow schools teach kids how to do these tasks well and give them opportunities for drill and practice. Society sort of acknowledges the limitations of group settings/school settings, and accepts the need for the shadow school to make sure that students get more individualized attention and practice.

Would kids be better off if we acknowledged and formalized the role of shadow schools by cutting the school day down so that kids go home for lunch? Then kids can go to shadow school earlier, finish up earlier, and have a little more time for fun stuff?

Do shadow schools cause too much pressure and competition amongst students? How much school is sufficient for students?

Many of my Western colleagues are very against the practice of shadow-schooling because they believe that it destroys creativity. Do shadow schools squelch and destroy creativity by making students focus entirely on analytical skills, test-taking strategies, and drill and practice exercises? Would these kids be better off taking a walk in the park and day-dreaming? Or painting a picture or reading a book? What is the opportunity cost of these shadow-schools?

The Singapore School system's new learner-centered motto is "Teach Less, Learn More." As one Singaporean parent said to me, what they really mean is that the schools will teach less so that the students can go to even more tuition classes to learn more. Is that really what's going on in Singaporean schools and international schools?

I'm curious about what moms think of shadow schools: a blessing? a necessary evil? a terrible source of pressure and competition?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Pressure Cooker Asia

Ten ways you know you live in Asia:

  1. Mothers of preschoolers are worried about their kids' academic performances.
  2. There are pools everywhere, but the local kids aren't swimming in them -- they're at tuition.
  3.  Kids who score well on high-stakes exams make it to the front page of the newspapers.
  4.  At Starbucks, there are signs telling students not to study in the cafe.
  5. The public libraries are full of kids reading and studying.
  6.  Kids finish regular school and then go on to their second shift: school part 2 goes by many names - juku, hagwon, tuition, whatever.
  7.  If kids aren't able to do mental math, their parents wring their hands and freak out.
  8.  The kid in the apartment next door to you practices his violin for a full hour every evening.
  9. When you're on the train, you look around and see perfectly behaved three year olds sitting quietly next to their moms.
  10. Moms quit their jobs to help their kids pass exams. The stakes are just too high.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Are our kids having too much fun?

This is a problem faced by kids who have too much. It's a rich-kid in the developed-world syndrome.  I saw it when I lived in Manhattan, and I see it even more clearly here in Singapore. In Singapore, it's "an expat-with-kids-at-international-schools" syndrome.

 Everyone around these kids is bending over backwards to make sure that they're "happy," that they're having "fun," and that they're stimulated in every possible way.

 At school, teachers  are trying their best to make school entertaining and enjoyable, and the bar for this keeps getting higher: fancy trips around the world, parties and field trips, special assemblies and events, kayaking expeditions and camping trips. Kids are supposed to be having fun all the time, and if they're not, then the teachers feel downright bad and guilty.

 At home, parents are trying their best to keep these kids "happy" and "entertained" with lavish birthday parties, fun expeditions to amusement parks, and mountains of toys. Parents spend an inordinate amount of time and money planning parties, playdates, and special events for their precious kids.

At school and at home, kids are now surrounded by screens and electronic entertainment. And to top it all off, they have diets that are increasingly full of sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and a host of preservatives.

Put all this together, and what do you have? A world of hyper-stimulation, and kids who are overindulged and entitled. For these kids, nothing is special any more because they have way too much of everything.

With all the special activities,trips, and events at schools, all the lavish toys and parties at home, all the sugar and junk they consume, and  all the screen-time -- our children are completely and totally hyper-stimulated all the time. And as accomplices and enablers of this lifestyle, teachers and parents are totally hyper-stimulated too.

I have started to savor those rare weeks that are quiet and uneventful, and I find myself often longing for a world that is quiet and low-maintenance.  A world with no special activities and events at school, just good, old-fashioned learning. No sugar and junk either at school or at home, just healthy and home-cooked meals. No fast and flashy screens, just old-fashioned books. No lavish birthday parties and fancy toys, just simple family-time and imaginative play. No fancy expeditions and trips, just time playing at home or in the park. No out-sized expectations for "fun", just old-fashioned gratitude for all that we already have.

Sometimes less really is more.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The power of family stories: why family narratives matter

My son has always been fascinated by stories about his first few years of life. He loves hearing how his grandmother and great-grandmother took turns holding him when he first arrived in this world. He finds it funny when I tell him how nervous I was when I brought him home from the hospital; I had no idea what to do with a squalling newborn. And he is particularly delighted by stories about the naughty things he did when he was a toddler.  His fascination with family stories doesn't end with himself though. He asks endless questions about my childhood and that of my husband. Were we like him? Did we get into trouble?

While I've always humored my son and told him these family stories, I never realized how valuable these narratives are. Recently, I read an article titled The Stories That Bind Us in the New York Times about the importance of family narratives. In this article, Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, asserts that children who grow up with a strong sense of their own family history are happier and more successful in life.

Feiler describes a study done by Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush in 2001. The researchers asked four dozen children a series of questions about their own families. They then "compared the children's results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem and the more successfuly they believed their families functioned." Feiler concludes that a child's knowledge of his own family's history is a massive predictor of the child's pyschological and emotional health and happiness.

Feiler believes that family narratives give children a sense of belonging to a larger entity. They are part of a team, and their team has a long history. This sense of belonging gives a child the security he/she needs to make his way in a difficult world; the sense of security that comes from a strong knowledge of one's family history helps build resilience. The best narratives, according to Feiler, are those that teach a child that a family has ups and downs, but through it all the family sticks together.

As someone who is fascinated by the power of stories, I'm drawn to this idea that family narratives, like all the other stories we hear when we're young, shape our lives. Like foundational stories (myths, fairy tales, children's stories), these family stories too give us scripts for our lives. They teach us about who we are, where we come from, what we value, and where we belong.

These days, I don't wait for my son to badger me for family stories. I volunteer stories about my childhood and my parents' lives  because I know that they are important.



Saturday, 13 April 2013

Learning: Fun or Sacred?

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."

Western parenting and education books repeatedly exhort parents to make sure that "learning is fun." Young kids are only expected to do what is fun and enjoyable, and Western parents are told to "stop" activities when their child's enjoyment begins to waver or diminish. Western teachers and parents go to great lengths to create activities that make learning fun.

Interestingly, this idea that all learning must be fun and that teachers must also double up as entertainers is foreign to the East. Teachers and parents in the East don't feel this need to make everything fun. 

In her book The Cultural Foundations of Learning, Dr. Jin Li, a professor at Brown University, 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." Moreover, Jin Li describes the value placed on "struggle" in East Asian homes. Learning is supposed to be challenging, and children are admired for facing these challenges, overcoming the obstacles in the way of learning, and mastering material.

In India too, books and learning are literally revered and worshipped. Kids are reprimanded if their feet ever touch books, and children are repeatedly told to "respect books."  Once a year, Hindu kids perform "Saraswati Pooja," a prayer where they pray to their books and to the Goddess of Learning.

Across Asia, this idea that learning and knowledge are serious and sacred endeavors  prevails. The benefit of this attitude is that  it  allows Asian students to focus, concentrate, and study hard, regardless of whether or not they find the material interesting and entertaining. The downside, if there is one, is that it could prevent students from questioning what they are being taught: they need both reverence for knowledge as well as skepticism about it.

Nevertheless, the idea that learning is a serious endeavor is worthwhile. I believe strongly that all kids -- Asian and non-Asian -- can find real, concentrated learning interesting and satisfying, and that they should be taught that the process of learning is one that is worthy of deep respect.  I personally find reading, learning, and studying very enjoyable, and I think it is important to ensure that students find the learning process enjoyable. However,  I think that the word "fun" trivializes what a cerebral journey is all about.

 I also think that the pressure to be entertaining as a teacher can lead teachers to design superficial activities -- fluff, if you will -- just to keep kids engaged. Worse, it has led many schools and teachers to abandon teaching things that really do matter -- grammar, writing skills, mathematical algorithms etc. In many Western/International schools, teachers are so  worried about making sure that  students have a good time in class that they stop teaching things that kids don't enjoy.

 In contemporary Western education, the following educational practices are often looked upon with condemnation:  memorization, practice , lecture, direct-instruction, tests, exams, worksheets, and even textbooks.  Any activity that requires practice is deemed a "drill and kill activity"; in other words, you drill the child and kill their imagination/love of learning. For the record, many of my Western colleagues also feel as though the pendulum has swung too far in this regard, so framing this argument entirely as an East-West issue would be inaccurate.

 A good classroom is one where everyone, teacher and students alike, understands the value of learning for its own sake. In this classroom, the teacher tries to engage students by facilitating lively discussions and debates and by designing provocative and meaningful activities. However, the teacher and students also know that sometimes direct instruction and practice are necessary, and these activities too are a part of the classroom. The ultimate goal is not for students to be entertained but for students to develop a deep love of and respect for learning and for students to master important skills.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Creating A Math-Rich Home

How come there is SO much research on reading and language in early childhood, but such a terrible dearth of research on math in early childhood? Every book I read on education, parenting, and child development says that the single most important thing a parent can do for a young child is to read to the child on a daily basis and immerse the child in a language-rich environment.

But what about Math? Interestingly, when I hang out and chat with Indian and Chinese moms in Singapore, they spend a lot more time thinking about Math than reading. "What do you do for Math" is a question I encounter all the time because I live in Asia and hang out with South-Asian and East-Asian mothers. And these mathematically oriented moms spend a lot of time making sure that their kids build strong math foundations, and not surprisingly, their children excel in math and science.

So what should a mom do about Math in the early years?  Here are some ideas on how to create a mathematical home. These ideas are drawn both from conversations with "mathematical moms" and from two specific books: What's Math Got To Do With It, by Jo Boaler, a Stanford University professor, and Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who examines the relationship between visual-spatial skills and math/science achievement.

Engage your child in activities and games that will develop number sense, visual-spatial abilities, and problem solving abilities. Research shows that all these three strands are tightly correlated with math success in school and beyond. While most people already know how directly correlated number sense and problem solving abilities are with math achievement, they may not know that most students who excel in higher level math and science also need good visual-spatial abilities, or the ability to understand shapes and to manipulate objects in their minds. These skills are (quite obviously) necessary to succeed in more abstract math and physics.


For Number Sense:

Board games such as Snakes 'n' Ladders, Yahtzee, and Monopoly
Dice (invent and play games with dice)
Cards (all kinds of card games; even just "add the cards")
An Abacus (must have manipulative)
A Measuring Tape (measure your furniture; measure the kids -- how tall are they?)
Create a huge number line and put it on the wall of your kids' room.
When you're in the car, play number games (can you guess the number? how quickly can you add these numbers up? Let's do Mental math!)

Integrate Math conversations into all your daily activities with children --
 "grocery store math" (Find me five tomatoes; now add two more tomatoes, how many do we have?)
"cooking math"(Can you add 3 eggs;  Let's measure one cup of milk)
"elevator math" (riding an elevator is like riding a number line -- get kids to add and subtract in the elevator, get them to recognize numbers, point out that you're riding up and down the number line.)

For Problem Solving:
Games such as Connect Four
CHESS (excellent game for strategizing)
Give kids interesting word problems and math puzzles to solve (Singapore Math is a great resource for this.)
Jigsaw puzzles
Identify and extend patterns of all kinds (numbers, shapes, words etc.)

For Visual-Spatial Skills:
Blocks, Legos, K'Nex and any other building activity that involves manipulating objects.
Tangrams (disembedding shapes and problem solving)
Tetris (great online game for understanding how shapes fit together)
Blik Blok
Jigsaw puzzles
Measurement Activities
Geometry Activities (drawing shapes, extending patterns, understanding shapes)
Noticing patterns in the world around you -- in nature, in architecture, in art etc.
Programming for children: Scratch, Logo, Lego-programming/robotics

Just as creating a language-rich environment primes kids for success in school by developing verbal skills and thinking skills, creating a mathematically-rich environment in the home also primes kids for educational success by developing their ability to solve problems and their understanding of numbers and shapes. Integrating mathematical conversations, activities, and puzzles into everyday family life can help kids begin to understand the importance and beauty of Math.

For a more detailed discussion of math, see one of my older posts: Math-rich homes.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Teachers: Do we need them?

If kids have google, online courses, social media, and peer-learning communities, do they need teachers? Is teaching going to become an outdated profession in the 21st century?

In Sugata Mitra’s TED talk, Mitra wonders aloud whether we really need teachers and then enthusiastically exclaims that “any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.” 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Tracking Trends in Education

As someone who not only teaches in a cutting-edge school but also reads alot of education-related books and blogs, I have noticed major ways in which the education field is changing. Here is a list of changes that I have noticed over the last decade -- both in my own experiences at a range of schools and in my encounters with books, blogs, and other education materials. The list applies mostly to Western schools/International Schools, although Asian school systems (particularly Singapore's) seem increasingly influenced by these trends as well.  Some of these trends, I think, make sense; others upset me and make me worry that we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


What's Out:
- Handwriting; Cursive is no longer taught in many American and International schools
- Formal instruction in grammar and punctuation (taught on an "as you need it" basis, if it's taught at all.)
- Shared texts that are studied and analyzed by an entire class, followed by papers and assessments.

What's In:
- Lots of creative "self-expression" and autobiographical writing
- Word processing, digital literacy, and blogs
-Writer's workshops where kids peer-edit each others work
- Independent reading and "reader's workshops"; more time for kids to read in class, and less reading assigned for homework.
- Kids read at their own level and their own pace (as opposed to all kids reading the same text).
- "Visual literacy" - analyzing you-tube videos, movie clips, and photographs


What's Out:
- Standard Algorithms
- Individual practice of foundational math concepts until mastery is attained.
- Paper and pen math (worksheets and workbooks)

What's In:
- Kids should invent their own methods to solve problems
- Kids should find multiple ways of solving the same problem
- Kids should work in groups
- Exposure to concepts but no expectation of mastery
-Computer games as a teaching tool
- Increased use of technology: calculators, computers, i-pads etc.


What's Out:
- Memorization of core content knowledge that will be assessed on a test
- Textbooks

What's In:
- Discussions and projects that use primary sources
- Personal and creative responses/journals and reflections.


What's Out:
- Discipline and Focus
- Time in Nature
- Humility
- Depth of knowledge  on a subject/teaching to mastery
- Teacher centered classroom (The teacher is no longer the revered "expert" or the "sage on the stage.")
- Any kind of lecture-based direct instruction (unless it happens in a video that kids can watch).

What's In:
- Flipping the classroom (kids watch video-lectures at home independently and then engage in projects/discussions at school a  la Salman Khan and the Khan Academy. I just finished Kahn's book -- very interesting.)
- Peer-editing, peer-teaching, peer-everything: Kids teach themselves and each other with the aid of technology (who needs teachers these days?)
- Multitasking
- Lots of screen time
- Technological proficiency
- Abundant confidence (arrogance?) and entitlement  amongst kids; schools do everything they can to empower kids 
- Greater breadth of knowledge, but far less depth (Kids today get more "exposure" but less depth; the goal is to give kids a taste of lots of things without pushing them to "master" anything.)
- Learner centered classroom (The kids do most of the work, and the teacher plays the role of a "guide on the side" or a "facilitator.")