Sunday, 29 November 2015

A childhood development expert on how 'twisted' early education has become

'The most important competencies in young children can’t be tested—we all know this. Naming letters and numbers is superficial and almost irrelevant in relation to the capacities we want to help children develop'

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is an early childhood development expert who has been at the forefront of the debate on how best to educate — and not educate — the youngest students. She is a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusett., where she taught teachers for more than 30 years and was a founder of the university’s Center for Peaceable Schools. She is also a founding member of a nonprofit called Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early childhood education and advocates for sane policies for young children.

Carlsson-Paige is author of “Taking Back Childhood.” The mother of two artist sons, Matt and Kyle Damon, she is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps for work over several decades on behalf of children and families. She was just given the Deborah Meier award by the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

In her speech accepting the award (named after the renowned educator Deborah Meier), Carlsson-Paige describes what has happened in the world of early childhood education in the current era of high-stakes testing, saying, “Never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen the situation we find ourselves in today.” Here’s the speech, which I am publishing with permission:

"Thank you FairTest for this Deborah Meier Hero in Education Award. FairTest does such great advocacy and education around fair and just testing practices. This award carries the name of one of my heroes in education, Deborah Meier—she’s a force for justice and democracy in education. I hope that every time this award is given, it will allow us to once again pay tribute to Deb. Also, I feel privileged to be accepting this honor alongside Lani Guinier.

When I was invited to be here tonight, I thought about the many people who work for justice and equity in education who could also be standing here. So I am thinking of all of them now and I accept this award on their behalf — all the educators dedicated to children and what’s fair and best for them.

It’s wonderful to see all of you here — so many family and friends, comrades in this struggle to reclaim excellent public education for all – not just some – of our children.

The schools where they never say ‘sit still’

An education initiative in South Carolina relies on exercise and movement to make students better learners.

David Spurlock is 63, a former baseball and football coach with a bum shoulder and bad back and right now he’s busy planning a jailbreak. He has spent a lifetime walking the hallways, classrooms and athletic fields all across Charleston, South Carolina, his home town. Those classic images of school-aged children sitting still in desks organised into neat rows? Spurlock calls it “educational incarceration”.

“We put kids in a two by two cell and dare them to move: ‘Keep your feet on the floor and hands up where I can see them,’” says Spurlock, the coordinator of health, wellness and physical education for the Charleston County school district. “That sounds like being incarcerated to me.”

The educational model is broken, Spurlock says, and the key to fixing it is applying some of the most basic principles of sport and exercise. Students in some Charleston area schools sit on desks that double as exercise equipment, they enrol in “advanced PE”, receive regular yoga instruction and visit specially equipped learning labs each week where the line between education and physical education disappears entirely.

“If you went to anybody who’s in education, you say PE versus instruction, they say instruction every time,” he says. “But what we’re trying to show is that more movement equals better grades, better behaviour, better bodies.”

One recent morning at Charles Pinckney elementary, 28 children, all aged nine and 10, rolled through the door in a single file, bouncing and giggling as they plopped on to the tiled floor.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play

An American teacher in Helsinki questioned the national practice of giving 15 minute breaks each hour—until he saw the difference it made in his classroom.

Like a zombie, Sami—one of my fifth graders—lumbered over to me and hissed, “I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule.” And I believed him. An angry red rash was starting to form on his forehead.

Yikes, I thought. What a way to begin my first year of teaching in Finland. It was only the third day of school and I was already pushing a student to the breaking point. When I took him aside, I quickly discovered why he was so upset.

Throughout this first week of school, I had gotten creative with my fifth grade timetable. Normally, students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.

I didn’t see the point of these frequent pit stops. As a teacher in the United States, I’d spent several consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. And I was trying to replicate this model in Finland. The Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time. So I decided to hold my students back from their regularly scheduled break and teach two 45-minute lessons in a row, followed by a double break of 30 minutes. Now I knew why the red dots had appeared on Sami’s forehead.

Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if the American approach had ever worked very well. My students in the States had always seemed to drag their feet after about 45 minutes in the classroom. But they’d never thought of revolting like this shrimpy Finnish fifth grader, who was digging in his heels on the third day of school. At that moment, I decided to embrace the Finnish model of taking breaks.

Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my Finnish students would—without fail—enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Amazing Ads That Promote Science

Science World has mastered the art of creative billboards that promote science by teaming up with Rethink Canada for their “We Can Explain” and “Now You Know” Campaigns. Science World is located at the TELUS World of Science in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the signs not only promote their cause, but also communicate a scientific fact in a fun and original fashion.

Check out some of their clever ads below.

How teachers are taught to discipline a classroom might not be the best way

The national review of teacher education, released last week, emphasised that teaching graduates need to enter the classroom with practical skills for handling a classroom, and not just knowledge of the subject they’re teaching. One of the most important aspects of educating future teachers is teaching them how to manage a classroom.

Research clearly shows that students learn best in engaging environments that are orderly. However, all children are different; they respond to discipline in different ways. So how do we teach our teachers to manage all types of behaviour?

What sort of unproductive behaviour generally occurs in the classroom?

Recently, my colleagues and I used the Behaviour at School Study teacher survey to investigate the views of teachers about student behaviour in South Australian schools. The unproductive student behaviours they identified were grouped into the following types:

  • Low-level disruptive behaviours
  • Disengaged behaviours
  • Aggressive and anti-social behaviours.

The results showed that low-level disruptive and disengaged student behaviours occur frequently, and teachers find them difficult to manage. Aggressive and anti-social behaviours occur infrequently.

How are teachers taught to deal with student behaviour?

For many years, teachers have relied on intervention strategies to curb unproductive behaviour, such as rewards – which are used to promote compliant behaviour – and sanctions, which are used to deter students from disrupting the learning environment.

Not so long ago, schools across Australia readily used corporal punishment as a way of responding to inappropriate behaviour. Following the banning of corporal punishment from most schools, schools introduced stepped systems.

Stepped systems are a standard set of “consequences” that increase in severity and are used for all types of unproductive behaviour. These stepped approaches usually begin with a warning, in-class timeout, out-of-class timeout, being sent to school leader, then suspension and exclusion. They involve isolating students from their peers and removing them from their learning.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

How outdoor play inspires independent learning for early years

Forget lesson plans, Annie Woods lets nature and spontaneity be her pupils' inspiration during lessons in the forest.

I'm ready and prepared with all my teaching resources recycled from last year's mini-beast topic. But does being ready automatically mean that I must have all my plans in place before we start the lesson, right down to the last detail?

How about this as an alternative? Dressed, excited and about to venture out to the local woods. When we get there we'll see what happens and what interests the children.

Freddie has found a ladybird. As the youngster realises he has my attention, he looks up saying: "He wants to come home with me." And then pretending to be the ladybird says: "I can't fly as I have no wings. I can only be his pet."

He turns back to me, asking: "Why can ladybirds swap legs when they walk? He can climb up my zip. He's never gonna fly off me. He can climb up the tree."

The thing that struck me is the level and time the children take to talk, narrating their current activity or interest in great and fascinated detail.

The outdoors seems to afford them greater time and space, along with an attentive adult or peer, to range far and wide. Descriptive language was very evident that day, with insects being a particular focus of attention.

It turned out to be much more engaging than introducing a topic on mini-beasts and sticking to 'the plan'.

As a result of Freddie's interest I took a pair of secateurs to the woodland on our next visit just in case he pursued his learning and interest in where the ladybirds make their homes. He did, and we discussed the materials available; a selection was made of thin hazel twigs which were too long for Freddie's purposes. I modelled how to use the secateurs safely and he concentrated for an hour cutting the twigs into lengths; through estimating and careful cutting they were all, pretty much, equal length.

Friday, 6 November 2015

In 19 states, it’s okay to hit kids with a wooden board

Terry sat in his middle school principal’s office knowing that in a few short minutes, he would be feeling the pain and humiliation of being paddled.

No parent, administrator or teacher should find this scenario acceptable. Yet, every school day, an estimated 838 students like Terry receive corporal punishment in American schools. Nineteen states still allow corporal punishment, despite research that clearly indicates such public humiliation is ineffective for changing student behavior and can, in fact, have long-term negative effects.

For a decade I have studied approaches that are effective for promoting appropriate student behavior. And as a teacher for a dozen years, I experienced personal reward as well as pride in my students, as they learned and used appropriate behaviors. I have not come across a single valid study that showed any positive effect of corporal punishment.

A form of child abuse

Corporal punishment is a method of responding to student misbehavior wherein an adult uses a wooden board to strike a child on the buttocks in order to inflict pain.

The harm done by corporal punishment is well-recognized by many school administrations across the US. Professional organizations across disciplines including the American Psychological Association, National Education Association, American Bar Association and National Association of School Nurses have called for ending corporal punishment.

In fact, the American Bar Association condemns the practice in the following words:

Institutional corporal punishment of children should be considered a form of child abuse that is contrary to current knowledge of human behavior and sound educational practices.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Kids whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals

Children who spend more time in less structured activitiesfrom playing outside to reading books to visiting the zooare better able to set their own goals and take actions to meet those goals without prodding from adults, according to a new study by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study, published online in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, also found that children who participate in more structured activitiesincluding soccer practice, piano lessons and homeworkhad poorer “self-directed executive function,” a measure of the ability to set and reach goals independently. 

“Executive function is extremely important for children,” said CU-Boulder psychology and neuroscience Professor Yuko Munakata, senior author of the new study. “It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification. Executive function during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later.”

The study is one of the first to try to scientifically grapple with the question of how an increase in scheduled, formal activities may affect the way children’s brains develop.

Munakata said a debate about parenting philosophy—with extremely rigid “tiger moms” on one side and more elastic “free-range” parents on the other—has played out in the media and on parenting blogs in recent years. But there is little scientific evidence to support claims on either side of the discussion.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Seen but not heard: the introverts in our classrooms

The extrovert ideal is perpetuated throughout education, how can teachers harness the positive features of the introvert personality at school?

Author Susan Cain has made a loud splash with her new book Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Introverts the world over have breathed a collective sigh of relief at Cain's reassurance that it is okay to choose a night at home with a good book over a dinner party invite, and that letting your phone go to voicemail doesn't necessarily make you a friendless misanthrope.

Quiet celebrates the positive features of the introvert personality, while examining the way in which our society is geared up to celebrate and encourage extrovert personality traits. As a result of this, introverts are placed in opposition to the extrovert ideal and risk being undervalued and overlooked. Cain argues that our celebration of the extrovert type begins in the classroom, where, from the start, young pupils are grouped facing each other in pods, and are praised by teachers for giving quick (rather than thoughtful or original) answers.

This extrovert ideal is perpetuated throughout education. As far as I know, almost every teacher in my local authority has attended an intensive three day course on co operative learning.

The course is led by a charismatic Canadian, who, within minutes, has participants designing group logos, creating group lessons (to be team taught, naturally) and generally rejoicing in the power of togetherness. Every teacher I know has left the training session with renewed enthusiasm and a determination to put their new tool kit of co operative learning ideas into immediate effect.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Choir singing improves health, happiness – and is the perfect icebreaker

A decade ago, any mention of a choir would probably have brought Sunday morning hymns to mind. But there’s been a revolution in attitudes towards joining the local choir. Adding well-known, mainstream music to the repertoire, the small screen appeal of television choirmaster Gareth Malone, and the increased visibility of choirs such as Rock Choir and Popchoir, have attracted a new crowd to the idea of the communal singalong. It is estimated that an incredible 2.8m Britons are now members of a choir.

Which is good news – for singing in a choir is beneficial in a number of different ways. We’ve just published some research that reveals that group singing not only helps forge social bonds, it also does so particularly quickly, acting as an excellent icebreaker. We’ve also shown that community singing is effective for bonding large groups, making it an ideal behaviour to improve our broader social networks. This is particularly valuable in today’s often alienating world, where many of our social interactions are conducted remotely via Facebook and Twitter.

But why are so many people flocking to choirs? There’s almost certainly an X Factor effect at play, with people, inspired by TV talent shows, becoming increasingly willing to stand up and perform. It also has long been believed that music-making can create a strong sense of well-being, but since it’s very hard to find a suitable “control” activity, this area is particularly hard to research scientifically.

Although this remains a problem, a number of recent developments have helped us to understand how group singing can improve physical and mental health, as well as promote social bonding.

Body and mind

The physiological benefits of singing, and music more generally, have long been explored. Music making exercises the brain as well as the body, but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture and muscle tension. Listening to and participating in music has been shown to be effective in pain relief, too, probably due to the release of neurochemicals such as β-endorphin (a natural painkiller responsible for the “high” experienced after intense exercise).