Tag Archives: cognitive development

When Everybody’s/Nobody’s Special: The Problem of Self-Esteem

“Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” — George S. Patton, in speech to US Third Army prior to the Normandy invasion (1944)

The history of America is a series of struggles—struggles that had winners and losers.

Colonial expansion, and the subsequent expansion of the West, did happen at the expense of Native Americans.  The Civil War, while fought valiantly on both sides, had a winner.  The North still won today: take a look at the population of the “New South”, if you don’t believe me.  Urban “renewal”, or the idealistic recomposition of American cities in the postwar years, came at the expense of the very poor, mostly African-American and Hispanic minorities, which were pawned into housing developments that became urban war zones.

Yet there are those that still insist on children not suffering through loss or failure—because it “makes them feel bad.”

Little league without scores.  Jumping rope without ropes.  Classes without grades or ranks.  A world where everything is wrapped in squishy Nerf ball material and no one’s feelings are hurt. 

A perfect society—perfectly mediocre.

Self-esteem has been the buzzword du jour in child development for decades.  Maintaining a child’s self-esteem, it is believed, will give that child the confidence to succeed in all their endeavors.  This is, for the most part, true: much of human capacity is based on our emotional center.  If we identify ourselves as successful, chances are good that it will be so. 

Some, like Donald Trump, even overcompensate in this area in order to achieve a modicum of success.  It generates results, even though the protagonist is downright insufferable.

Yet many educators have taken this to mean self-esteem AT ALL COSTS.  Today’s overprotective society requires children to dress in hockey pads and a mask in order to play outside.  Playing with other children requires pre-appointed “play dates” with pre-selected children deemed most suitable to the child’s temperament. 

Most insidious of all, no one is allowed to win.  If there are no winners, then there are no losers, no second place, and especially no failures.   We all feel special, we all feel valued…hooray, hand me the mango square and soy milk box, Mommy.

Yet there is too much of a good thing.  Emotions, like commodities, operate on supply and demand.  If everyone feels special, it’s not that important to be special.

George Will noticed this in a recent Washington Post column.  He cites the recent book NutureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which upends longstanding myths about self-esteem.  He states that:

“…the theory that praise, self-esteem and accomplishment increase in tandem is false. Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents who are really praising themselves) often underrate the importance of effort. Children who open their lunchboxes and find mothers’ handwritten notes telling them how amazingly bright they are tend to falter when they encounter academic difficulties.”

Bronson and Merryman state that overpraised children are more often prone to cheating since they haven’t dealt with failure in a constructive way.  “We put our children in high-pressure environments,” they write, “seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments.”  To keep that status and reputation, many children seek the easiest and most painless path to maintain their status quo, avoiding challenging, yet rewarding, opportunities.

We see this all too often in real life, such as the kid who “coasts” through the standardized tests knowing that this is the only arbiter for graduation.  There’s also the teenage genius who figures to take the easiest classes in order to maintain an artificially high grade point average.  Or the timid weenie who insists on using pennies at poker night instead of dumping a yuppie food stamp in the kitty.

If this weren’t reason enough to give up the coodle crutch, then think of the species.  If my Darwin is correct—and it may be rusty from hanging out with cuckoo creationists—then human beings are the only animals where the “less fit” are not only allowed to survive, but thrive. 

How is mankind going to fend off aliens, future superanimals, or an attack of killer dolphins if we’re all beating around the tetherball with kneepads and safety helmets, making sure no one skins their knee?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some freak eugenicist.  There’s no need to breed a superhuman with a 200+ IQ, the strength of Hercules, a mean fast break and the ability to win a land war in Asia (something today’s homo sapiens can’t seem to figure out). 

I’m simply suggesting that praise, while an important part of a child’s emotional development, can be destructive if overdone.  We can learn a lot from praise and encouragement, but it is meaningless if done without effort, sacrifice, and especially the occasional failure.

Teachers, moms, dads, principals: let the kids fall down once in a while.  Better yet, let them pick themselves up once they’ve fallen.  The more a kid picks himself up, the more determination he’ll develop to keep going until victory is achieved.  If anything, praise effort—especially effort after a failure.  This way, the struggling student can push themselves, rather than the artificial and often ingenuine efforts of adults to encourage through constant praise.

 Life doesn’t care about people’s feelings.  What it does have is plenty of winning and losing—and probably more of the latter.  The sooner a kid gets used to the realities of life, the better adjusted and more mature they will become.

Next time your kid is in the no-score kickball game, have him aim straight for the crotch of the pansy-ass who thought of this waste of time.  Believe me, there’s a definite winner there.

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This Day in History 12/21: The Birth of the Crossword Puzzle

If you’ve ever thrown down a pencil at frustration at the New York Times, today’s post is right up your alley.

Today we celebrate the birthday of the crossword puzzle, that criss-cross table of craziness and insanity that has distracted commuters and early risers at Sunday breakfast for decades.  There are two stories to the birth of this puzzle: the first involves an Italian magazine in 1890.  The Italian puzzle had a grid with no diagram i.e. no black squares, so it’s a puzzle, but not really a crossword.

The modern puzzle began on December 21, 1913. when Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, Scotland, created a puzzle for the New York World called a “word-cross”.  The names were reversed and a legend was born.

Yet the crossword was not without its critics.  It exploded in the 1920s, and many conservative pundits viewed it as a sign of the loose morals of the period–a passing fad.   According to a 1924 New York Times article, a clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”  Some thought the craze would end with the decade. 

Even the New York Times itself, which would become famous for its crossword, was a critic.    In 1924, the Times complained of the “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Funny how the Times would start a crossword itself by 1942, and would be the most well-known of puzzles in America and the world, along with the Times of London’s puzzle.

Almost every daily newspaper, including web editions, has some form of the crossword puzzle.  Many, like Will Shortz’ acclaimed Times puzzles, become progressively harder each day of the week, so that by Saturday you just look at it and whimper like a small child about to get paddled.  Crosswords are also a great way for students to stimulate vocabulary–by using common definitions or clues for complex words, students can build their word power and make new connections in their brain, allowing them greater cognitive function.

Here are some websites to some more crosswords fun at home or in the classroom:

Puzzles from USA Today, including Crosswords – okay, so its USA Today; we’re not dealing with the varsity.  Still it’s good practice.

Washington Post Crosswords – these kept me going in college, and are pretty good.  They hold up well to the NYT standard.

Yahoo! Daily Crossword – great to pass the time.

Crossword Puzzles – This one is a great clearinghouse for US and UK crosswords.

New York Times Crossword – The one by which all are measured.  It’s a pay site, so getting the print edition may be cheaper (maybe not).  The ultimate in crossword practice.

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Where the Environment Matters: the legacy of the Milton Hershey School

100_Yrs

Courtesy of Milton Hershey School

Sometimes those ideals that have been ignored for years can still work—in spite of efforts to undermine them.

I was privileged to attend a screening of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Cynthia Wade’s newest film, a documentary about the Milton Hershey School.  The film, at least partially, proved two things for me: (a) there are people in corporate America who actually care; and (b) the old-fashioned way can still work in education.

 MHS is a PreK-12 school for underprivileged children in Hershey, Pennsylvania, just across the street from Hershey Park.  Milton Hershey, the founder of the Hershey chocolate empire, and his wife founded the school in 1909.  Since they were unable to have children, the Hersheys founded a school where children in desperate economic or family situations can learn and grow in a safe nurturing environment.

The school is comprised of over 1800 students sprawled across buildings throughout the town.  The school is funded by the Hershey Trust Company, which owns the controlling shares of stock in the Hershey Company.  This is particularly helpful when similar ventures are struggling due to lack of funds: it’s nice when a school has a blue-chip company for a piggy bank.

Regardless of these resources, MHS does not pride itself on its riches, but rather its people.  The core of their philosophy is the house parenting system.  Students who enroll in MHS live in single-gender family houses run by house parents.  These parents act as the authority figures these children often lack: chores are done strictly, discipline is assertive and effective, and studies are monitored rigorously.  Furthermore, these parents are the students’ principle cheerleaders and advocates: they form a liaison with the school and their biological/legal guardians, to ensure the best interests of the children are met.

As I was watching the film, the emphasis was almost exclusively on the house parents and the student house system.  As interesting as it was, I was a little skeptical.  This is an academic institution, after all.  I didn’t see a whole lot of teaching.  Yet when the scenes in the classroom did appear, I was astonished.

Students were not in guided reading groups, but in rows. 

Old fashioned tests and essays. 

No mandated time for this or that, as far as I could see. 

The school seems almost entirely devoid of the theoretical nonsense that has clouded public education for the last two decades.  Calkins, Fountas, Pinnell, Wiggins, Marzano—the heavy hitters of educational theory for the last twenty years seemingly ignored.

Milton Hershey School teaches a valuable lesson.  Theories don’t work unless children feel safe and secure in their home environment.  MHS doesn’t need Teachers College or Bank Street to tell them what to do.  As long as the home environment is monitored and nurtured, it doesn’t matter what pedagogy or curriculum design you use.

To say Milton Hershey School is a success story is a severe understatement.  According to MHS, 90% of their graduates go on to some form of higher education.  MHS graduates have gone on to become CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, even high ranking officers in our armed forces.  I also had the pleasure of meeting some MHS students at the screening.  If these kids came from troubled homes, it sure didn’t show.  The alumni assembled look like a gathering of Ivy League swells: there’s not even a hint that these successful people were once in desperate situations.

The biggest concern is that the fruits of the MHS experiment seem lost on the grand poobahs of education.  To them, the opposite is true: the teacher makes the student, regardless of their background.  Simply train the teacher better in the newest theories—not necessarily the best ones—and that teacher can work miracles.  This is the thinking behind a lot of the methods coming out of the large schools of education.

What’s more frightening is that the wrong people, the people in power, take these theories seriously.

Public school teachers must deal with children as they come, with whatever baggage they take from their home life.  As such, teachers have to adjust their practice in order to connect to children that see the school as the only real form of structure in their life.  This is where the theories come in: it places the onus on the teacher almost exclusively since it is assumed nothing is provided at home.  The public school does not have the luxury of altering the environment of children as MHS does. 

Yet if the MHS experiment shows the value of a stable home life, regardless of the academic theories or methods used in the classroom, shouldn’t there be some effort on the part of school districts to help smooth out the rough edges of these kids’ lives?

The MHS experience shows how environment matters.  Districts across America should use this example and reach out more to families and homes–and work with teachers as a partner, not as miracle workers.  Many community programs exist that help parents to become successful along with their children.  These programs provide a huge help in changing what in many public schools is another intangible obstacle. 

Milton Hershey School is a place that’s going in the right direction.  More administrators in this country should take its example–and less from the academics who seem to go in every direction.

For more information about the school, visit http://www.mhs-pa.org

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Read what you want? NY Times article about the Reading Workshop

Today’s post will be short and sweet, as I just came to the realization that school starts next week and I haven’t a clue what to do.

Today’s NY Times Education section had an interesting article about the “Reading Workshop”, something many teachers are already familiar with.  In a nutshell, this concept allows students to shape their own reading lists, while teachers facilitate dicussion, instruct on elements of grammar, syntax, writing skills and the like. 

It’s a slacker’s dream.  No more Silas Marner, or Great Expectations, or Great Gatsby.  Let’s open up comic books, trashy romance novels and children’s ditties in order to learn the wonders of the English language.

There are many variations on this, from a small selection of books to a whole-hog gutting of the classic liberal curriculum.  Basically, I’m against the whole-hog approach, which is covered in the article, for two reasons.  First, to understand English is to understand the exemplars by which the English language is based.  Many of these authors–not all, but many–offer students valuable lessons in language structure, usage, plot development and overall good writing.  Just don’t use James Joyce for sentence structure or e.e. cummings for punctuation.

Second, and the one that really counts, is that if your students are upwardly mobile, this curriculum will place them at a severe disadvantage.  The kids in wealthier school districts who are heading to Ivy League schools and their equivalent are reading the boring stuff–they don’t bother with new-fangled theories on reading development.  The kid who worked his/her way out of a working class or poor district may get to Harvard on their pluck and determination, but they will need the base knowledge of those boring books for at least the first year. 

To get the keys to the kingdom, you need to read the books by dead white males.  It sucks, but that’s life.  Deal with it. 

As always, comments are welcome.

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The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Why Hypocrisy is the greatest danger in Education.

We’ve all heard the line before: “Do as I say, not as I do.” In education, this comes up more often than we realize.

How often do we see this scenario: A teacher is covering a lesson with the class when a student curses at another. The teacher admonishes the student about the use of bad language. Once in the teacher’s lounge, however, that same teacher will swear like a sailor–often with children in earshot of his/her salty tongue.

This is among the more mundane examples, but it can quickly spiral into other matters more substantive. I cannot stand how education programs stress to new teachers the need for complete impartiality in all instruction. This is impossible. Let a robot teach the class, and maybe it will be impartial–yet someone had to write the material for the robot.

So we’re reduced to saying one thing in class and believing something else. With my students, it was always more beneficial to express my opinions out in the open, as long as I make clear they are just my opinions. Kids respect honesty, even if they are often dishonest with themselves or other adults.  If you start lying to them now, they will either (a) mindlessly listen to every word you say, or (b) not trust anyone for anything.  This doesn’t make for an informed citizenry. 

Hypocrisy is the main focus today, as I reflect on one of my favorite artists.  One of the most influential singer/songwriters of the 1960s was Phil Ochs.  Unlike so many of the 1960s political-esque artists who wouldn’t attend an antiwar rally unless from inside their Ferrari, Ochs was a true believer.  Even though I disagree with many of his political views, I respect and admire someone who makes their opinions clear without the “base alloy of hypocrisy”, as Abraham Lincoln stated.

Below is an updated version of his classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, along with a video. It was re-written by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and psychobilly pioneer Mojo Nixon to reflect the late 1990’s-early 2000’s.  Even if you don’t agree with these guys–and I don’t, not always–appreciate that they, like so many educators, strive to cut through the hypocrisy to be as honest as possible. 

We should all be mindful of how our words and actions are conveyed to children.  REGARDLESS of our own political viewpoint.

“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” – Original lyrics by Phil Ochs, adapted by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon

I cried when they shot John Lennon
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when I saw “JFK”
As though I’d lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X and Ice-T had it coming
They got what they asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I go to pro-choice rallies
Recycle my cans and jars
I’ll honk if you love the Dead
Hope those funny grunge bands become stars

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I cheered when Clinton was chosen
My faith in the system reborn
I’ll do anything to save our schools
If my taxes ain’t too much more

And I love blacks and gays and Latinos
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Rush Limbaugh and the L.A.P.D.
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand where they’re at
Arsenio should set them straight

But if Neigborhood Watch doesn’t know you
I hope the cops take your name
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Yeh, I read the New Republic(an)
Rolling Stone and Mother Jones too
If I vote it’s a Democrat
With a sensible economy view

But when it comes to terrorist Arabs
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Once I was young and had an attitude
Stickers covered the car I drove in
Even went on some direct actions
When there weren’t rent-a-cops to be seen

Ah, but now I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

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Thanks to the Neighborhood! Re: 5/07

I’d like to extend a big thanks to those of you who responded to my post about my little cousin “once-removed” – thanks Blighter for clearing up that linguistic quandary, although I’m too close to the little guy to ever call him “removed” from anything.

My sis, PhDini, who’s been a rock when it comes to these matters of the cranium, came through again.  I’d like to thank her friend Claire, my buddy Matt and his cousin Sara for providing useful information we can definitely use.  I’ll definitely pass your insights along.  Any and all articles or info that can be found on speech deficiency is certainly helpful.

Finally, Blighter reminded me of a great man of science that also had early problems in speech–Albert Einstein.  Like Einstein, my little cousin is no dummy, so it’s good to see that he’s not alone in this.  Much thanks to you, sir.

I’m still open to other suggestions, thoughts, ideas about this situation, so this will still be an open request.  Just wanted to thank everybody for pitching in for my little guy.  Thanks.

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