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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.