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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Exposure versus Mastery

1. You take your kids to the Science Center and show them an exhibit on the human body. They get to travel through a huge simulated digestive tract, and they see a wide range of colorful posters about the human body. They then watch a cool I-Max video about how the body works. They come out of the Science Center full of questions about the human body and brimming with excitement.

2. A child sits at a desk, deliberately and systematically studying how different systems in the body work. She fills out worksheets on the human body, studies diagrams, names parts, and memorizes a wide range of facts. The next day, she is tested at school on the information, and then again at the end of term, she restudies all the information for an exam.

A proponent of progressive education would instantly say that the first scenario is an example of good teaching/learning but the second is not. In the first scenario, kids are experiencing hands-on learning and they're getting excited about the topic. What they're getting is broad exposure to the topic.

However, a proponent of Asian-style traditional education would say that the second scenario is also a good example of teaching/learning because it is forcing a child to actually learn information with a goal towards mastery. In this case, kids will actually remember the information; it's not necessarily as fun, but it is as essential as the learning that occurs in the first scenario.

I would say that kids need both: they need broad, hands-on exposure to get them excited about learning, but they also need deliberate mastery-oriented study to ensure that the information they learn registers in their long-term memory.  The first scenario involves incidental learning resulting from exposure -- kids will pick up lots  of information, make connections to other things they know, and develop a desire to learn more about the topic. The second scenario involves deliberate studying with the goal of mastery -- kids will consolidate learning, they will learn key bits of information in a structured sequence, and they will remember it because of repeated study. The more I compare and contrast Eastern and Western approaches to education, the more I see that they differ because of their desire to either provide exciting exposure or offer mastery-oriented studying opportunities. The best option, I think, is to give kids both.

Content mastery versus Skills?

Last week on a trip to India, I was visiting a close friend's house. Her son, who is in the sixth grade at a local Indian school, was in the middle of his end-of-term exams. While I was sitting in the living room, I happened to see her son's Chemistry text book lying on the table, so I picked it up and flipped through it. It was packed with information -- and fairly sophisticated information at that. It had chapters on valency, the periodic table, elements and compounds and mixtures.

Honestly, the book scared me on a number of levels. To begin with, my mind automatically began comparing the volume and complexity of the information in the book to that of the PYP (Primary Years Program for the IB), which is the curriculum that my own kids use and that many international schools use. The PYP has interdisciplinary units that focus less on voluminous or complex content but more on skills and interdisciplinary connections.

As I was looking at the text book, dense with complex information, I wondered aloud whether it made sense for young kids to learn so much content. "When else will they have the time to learn all this stuff?" my friend responded. "When they're older and they specialize, they just won't have the time to gain a broad base of content. And, because they're tested on this stuff so frequently, they will actually remember it," she added.

In schools across Asia, including local schools in Singapore, kids engage in a content-rich curriculum where they memorize vast quantities of information. In contrast, more progressive Western schools devalue content in favor of "skills" such as research, presentation, speaking, group work, reading, writing and technology. Which approach works better? What's actually better for kids? And is there a perfect balance, a perfect middle ground that could combine the two?

My friend defended the content-rich approach in Indian schools saying that it gave kids the foundation and framework that they need to make sense of new information that they encounter. If a kid has a strong and wide knowledge base, he will be able to understand and appreciate new knowledge because he has a context for it. In contrast, kids who get very little content don't have this contextual framework. And, as she insisted, now's the time...when else will kids have the luxury of learning about everything from ancient Egypt to the way plants breathe to the properties of different elements?

Are interdisciplinary units that focus on project based learning, often with limited or superficial content, always the better way to go? Could students in IB schools benefit from more complex content and more traditional assessments? Is there a better way to combine a skills-focused interdisciplinary curriculum with a content-rich curriculum so that kids get both skills and content? I left my friend's house wondering about it.

Monday, 19 October 2015

And more book recommendations, particularly for reluctant readers

Here are some great books for reluctant readers, ages 9 to 12.  With male protagonists, these stories may be particularly appealing to boys. If your kids have already read the usual suspects -- the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series -- then these are good books to keep them reading.

Wonder, by R.J.Pallacio

Transall Saga, by Gary Paulson

Shadow, by  Michael Morpugo

Land of Stories (series), by Chris Colfer

Frindle, by Andrew Clements

Axxis and the Golden Medallion, by Tim Murari

Detectives in Togas, by Henry Winterfeld

The City of Ember, by Jeanne Du Prau

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Easier Reads:
And here are some easier reads for reluctant readers. These are great for kids ages 7 to 9, but also work well for older readers who need some easier reading material.

The Sherlock Sam series, by A.J. Loh

All About Sam, series by Lois Lowry

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

The Chocolate Touch, by Patrick Catling

George and the Big Bang (series), by S. Hawking

I would also encourage kids to read non-fiction. If your child is not wild about fiction, find him/her some books about a subject that he/she is very interested in -- this could be anything from a book about great white sharks to Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography. The ideas is just to get your kids reading, one way or another!

Books with strong female protagonists, perfect for ages 7 to 12

Here are some of my favorite books for fluent/independent readers. These are all books that I read aloud to my two kids, and they work very well as read alouds.
I think they are fairly challenging reads for kids ages 7 to 9, but they should be quite manageable as independent reads for kids ages 10 and over.

If you're looking for a book with a strong female protagonist, all five of these books have one. They are great books for both boys and girls.

Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

This is a wonderful classic that introduces young children to many deep and thought provoking ideas: the power of friendship, the cycles of life and death, the connection between humans and animals, and the idea of growing up. The narrative structure, vocabulary, and themes make it a rich reading experience for young kids.

Where The Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

I read this book aloud to my children last year, and they both adored it. The book uses Chinese myths and folktales to weave a highly imaginative story about a young girl's quest to help her poor family. Over the course of her travels, she realizes that true treasures have little to do with money and more to do with love, family, and friendship. The book is a work of art on so many levels: it's beautifully written with vivid metaphors and rich language; it has some stunning illustrations; and it is moving and thoughtful.

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

This is a good introduction to World War 2 for young kids. Lois Lowry presents a compelling story about a young Danish girl whose family helps protect a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Gentle, thought provoking, and well-written, the book will engage and educate young readers.

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate Di Camillo

A hilarious book about a superhero squirrel and a young, somewhat eccentric girl. The book had all of us in splits. In addition to the humor, the book examined a wide range of human emotions from fitting in to feeling abandoned.

Esperanza Rising, by Paula Munoz Ryan

A beautiful book about a wealthy, young Mexican girl who is forced to leave behind her wealth and escape to America, where she has to live as a migrant laborer. The book is great for teaching children about empathy, courage, and our common humanity. A beautifully crafted book, it will stretch young readers and help them develop their vocabulary.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Can Empathy Be Taught

Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Modern civilization places great importance on filling the human brain with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human heart with compassion.Compassion is not religious, it is human. It is not a luxury, it is essential for our emotional and mental stability and for human peace and survival.

- Dalai Lama

Up until the last few years, I've always categorized "empathy, compassion, positive thinking, confidence, grit, and self-control" as personality traits. Personality traits are, by definition, habitual patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. When we think  of personality traits, we think of something innate, something that is hardwired in our genes.

However, in the last few years, I've started to think of these kinds of traits as "skills" that can be taught, learned, and practiced, in much the same way as academic skills. Given all the research on neuroplasticity, on cognitive behavioral therapy, and on value education, I think that parents and educators have a significant role to play in explicitly and deliberately teaching our young children these skills and helping them develop them as much as possible.

Now I'm not completely naive: I do know that our genes matter; in fact, they matter a lot. And I do know that our kids are born more or less predisposed to certain traits or skills. But that's true with math and reading, with spatial skills and artistic talent, and that has never stopped us from formally and deliberately educating our children in those realms. While a child who is born with a naturally volatile and impatient personality may find it harder to learn and master self-control, he can certainly be taught to improve in this realm, just as a child who is dyslexic can be taught to read.

So, if empathy, compassion, positivity, confidence, grit, and self-control can be deliberately taught, the natural question that arises is how? How do we teach these qualities in schools and at homes? Here are some interesting articles on experiments with value education: here's one from the NY Times, here's another from the NY Times with specific tips for parents, and here's an interesting one on the link between literary fiction and empathy.

And here are some recommendations culled from the research:

1. Make empathy and other character education a priority and think carefully about how to teach these skills as deliberately as possible. This, I think, is the key. It's about the mindset of parents and educators. When we start to value character education in the same way that we value academic education, then we'll devote time and energy to it.

2. Have conversations where you talk about these skills and what they entail. Explicit conversations and discussions are important.

3. Use stories -- oral stories, picture books, chapter books and adult literature are wonderful ways to get children to take on other perspectives, to consider someone else's feelings, to think about the importance of certain skills like confidence or positive thinking or empathy. Books like Wonder and To Kill A Mockingbird are perfect for teaching empathy.

4. Give children tools to help them monitor and control their own emotions: breathing exercises, simple self-soothing techniques like walk away for a moment or visualize something more positive, and help them understand what it means to be mindful. Research from positive psychology suggests that kids should focus on being grateful for what they have each day -- either by keeping a gratitude journal or even by just acknowledging all that they have to be grateful for at some point in the day.

4. Discuss the ideas of neuro-plasticity and a growth mindset with kids, so that they know that any skills -- whether we're talking about reading skills or empathy skills -- can be learnt and practiced. This will help kids deliberately practice these skills.

5. Seize those teaching moments when a child asks you a question or behaves in a certain way to teach the child these skills.

6. And most important, and perhaps most difficult, we adults need to model these skills for our children as much as we can. Perhaps we need to work on mastering them just as much as our children do.

While some schools in the US are experimenting with specific classes designed to teach skills such as empathy or positive thinking, I think that this approach might feel contrived to kids. I prefer these skills being integrated into all subjects at school and becoming part of the culture of the school and the home. Kids can learn empathy by reading and discussing literature in English class,  they can learn persistence and grit by struggling through a Math problem in math class, they can build empathy and confidence by competing (and perhaps losing) on the playing field, and they can build their sense of self by taking a healthy risk such as trying out for a play or a team.  I think the goal is not to separate these skills from the work that kids engage in everyday at school and at home but to make these important skills a part of this work as seamlessly as possible.