Sunday 25 May 2008

Over Protected and Under Educated?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how kids grow up today, and how it impacts on their education, which should not be surprising since teaching is what I do. I’m sure there has never been a generation that didn’t ask that same old question, “What’s the matter with kids today?” Several articles and a couple of TED broadcasts seemed to resonate with what I’ve been thinking lately.

Robert Siegler, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has done some research that suggests that children’s early concept of a number line is more logarithmic than linear, and that’s bad for math achievement. As they grow older, they usually develop a linear conceptualization of the number line but it happens in bits, and how long it takes to happens seems to be closely related to how well they do later in mathematics. The ones who seem to develop later spend more time with video entertainment while the ones who develop earlier, and therefore have a better chance of being successful in math, are the ones who play card games and board games. There are exceptions to every rule, but most mathematicians tend to have a game aspect to their mathematical learning.

Sir Ken Robinson, is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation. In one of his TED talks, he suggests that creativity is as important in literacy, and we should treat it so. I think he is right, but I think the problem, or at least a part of the problem, is the lifestyle of young children today. Don’t take my word for it, watch the TED video below by Gever Tulley creator of the "Tinkering Schools".
Tulley thinks that our children are over protected, and suggest five dangerous things we should give our children (he admits he has none of his own). I’m going to give my two cents worth about some of these, so if you want to, just skip down and run the video first…

Tulley suggests that you let your children play with fire. He makes some suggestions about what they might pickup, but relapses back to a faith based mantra… You don’t know what they are going to learn, but they are going to learn.
His second dangerous recommendation for children is a pocket knife … OF course they will cut themselves... and while you are wondering if you were a terrible parent to give them something so dangerous, they are proudly peeling back the bandages to show their cut to their friends on top of the garage as they take turns jumping off the roof and onto the limb of the tree a few feet away...(you won't find out until they fall, and incredibly, many of us never do).

I still remember the wisdom of my father-in-law telling me the story of his experience as a child at a carnival near Perry, Michigan… after paying a dime at the tent that said “Life Saving Advice Inside”... they entered a string of other curious visitors. The line passed by an old guy with a pocket knife and a stick that was quickly turning into wood he repeated... "Whittle from you, never cut you”| and through the next tent flap which led... outside... I’m not sure how many times he told me that story in the forty years I’ve known him, but it was more than once for each of those years. Ten cents when you are a child for a story you could still be telling at in your 90's... a bargain...

The third dangerous thing he recommends is a spear. I’m not sure I see the benefit of a spear, but our brains do seem to be wired for throwing things, and when you let one part of the brain go soft, other parts seem to follow. So throw a spear or a baseball, girls and boys NEED to play baseball, even if they don’t compete in organized sports, a game of catch can build both body and mind....Throwing and catching are incredible analytic teaching methods visual acuity, 3 d analysis, and attention and concentration skills.

Number four was to give them your broken appliances to take apart. The land fill can wait a couple of days. Seeing what things look like and trying to figure out what they do is BIG.. and the curiosity is BIGGER..I suspect it develops a belief that they can KNOW difficult things.. and an awareness that it may not come all at once. I worry that kids today don’t seem to persevere at difficult tasks. I suspect that a kid who takes apart a toaster or spin dryer (with parental supervision even) will look at all the “black boxes” he encounters differently. They will always be wondering what might be “in there” and how it could work…. Did I mention that curiosity is GOOD!

And finally, about ten or twelve, let them drive the car. Find a good safe place out in a vacant lot, sit them in your lap if you have to, and let them control the steering wheel and any other parts they can reach while you roar across the lot at 15 mph. Being in charge of this huge piece of moving steel can give them a sense of control… Kids need to feel they have some control over their world… If you really believe that children are the future, you better help them feel they can be in control.

Here are a couple of extras that I think are important for life and math skills… Teach them to play games... NOT video games,, they'll do that on their own.. Teach them to play card games, board games... Monopoly, Parcheesi, Snakes and Ladders are GREAT childhood games, even for kids UNDER 8 years old.. Teach them to juggle, to ride a unicycle, to do card tricks, to play a musical instrument, to speak a foreign language. All those things take discipline and focus, both of which are essential for success in education and life. When my youngest son was learning to play soccer in elementary school, we would go out in the front yard in the evening and take turns seeing who could juggle the ball with our feet for more touches. It only took a month or so and he had gone past the best I would ever do. When a parent watches their kid go past them in anything, it’s a great feeling.. that’s the natural order of the universe, each generation gets a little better and smarter.. I worry if we are doing that lately.

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