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Archives - April, 2009

The New (and Greener) Era of Thrift – April 29, 2009
People are re-evaluating what is important in their lives, according to a newly published study by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project. Researchers have found that, compared to just two years ago, an increasing number of Americans have decided they can live without microwave ovens, television sets (they’re gardening instead), home air conditioning, dishwashers and clothes dryers. This reversal in defining what is essential has to do with saving money, of course. But it can’t help but be good for both our health and that of the environment. Let’s hope that, when the good times roll once again, these energy-efficient lifestyle trends remain in place.

Posted: 2009/04/29 11:07 AM

Why Kids Don’t Like School – April 27, 2009
I was reading an essay last night by a highly educated mother who was unhappy about the chaos in her son’s grade three classroom, and with the fact that he was lethargic at school and not reaching his potential as a “scholar.” She was equating his lack of interest with society’s expectations of black males. No doubt that’s a problem, but as a white woman, I had lots of sympathy with her son after reading her description of the classroom and school, where maintaining “smoothly running classes” seemed to be the main focus. The description was full of descriptions of kids behaving like they weren’t engaged in what was going on or even wanting to be there. One of the assignments in which the boy and his classmates had no interest involved writing a letter to the drama teacher explaining the meaning of a play – a sure-fire way to destroy anybody’s interest in reading, writing, plays and scholarship, all at the same time!

I am always amazed at why people don’t get that forcing people to do things “for their own good” is counterproductive. But today, a news release came across my desk from the University of Virginia that gives me a tiny bit of hope that things could change. “If you ask high school students if they like to learn new things, almost all of them will tell you they like to learn,” says Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist. “But if you ask those same students if they like school, many of them will tell you they don’t.” He addresses these issues in a new book Why Don’t Students like School?, in which he explains how the mind works – and what it means for the classroom and, reportedly, for homeschooling parents. The mind is actually designed to avoid thinking, he says, and forcing students to think makes them turn off. “Thinking is a slow process; it’s effortful and even uncertain. People naturally want to avoid that process, and instead rely on memory, the things we already know how to do and are successful at.” However, he continues, people also are curious and, paradoxically, we enjoy thinking.

He says that to teach somebody effectively – to “create learning experiences that last” – one needs to find that “sweet spot, a level where learning is neither too simplistic to be interesting, nor too difficult to be enjoyable.” I do not believe we can create learning experiences that last for other people. We can, however, create circumstances that allow for real learning to happen. We can, in effect, trust people to find that “sweet spot” for themselves. That is what happens naturally when kids are engaged in a topic that interests them: Their learning is in context, builds upon previous learning and is at exactly the right level to satisfy their urge to explain the world without turning them off because the experience is too difficult or too boring. The best learning experiences – those that create real learning – are those instigated by learners, based on curiosity and interest…and on the trust that they won’t have to regurgitate what they have learned in some meaningless way like writing a letter to someone to explain something they already know.
Posted: 2009/04/27 12:52 PM

How Life Learners Learn to Read – April 16, 2009
Homeschooling researcher and author Alan Thomas, from the London University Institute of Education in the U.K. has just been in touch. Alan authored a wonderfully honest and perceptive article in Life Learning’s March/April 2007 issue about his early research on how unschooled children learn. Along with fellow researcher Harriet Pattison, he is inviting unschooling families to help with some new research on learning to read. Here’s part of what Alan wrote to me just now (I have posted his complete letter) on the Life Learning site:

“It’s probably no exaggeration to say that home educators have done more to advance the scientific understanding of the nature of learning than a century of research based in schools. Home educating families do not have to adhere to the conventions and traditions that have grown to surround learning in schools. Instead, they have the freedom and indeed the compulsion to custom design an education that suits them, their children and their lifestyles. Nowhere is this freedom clearer than when it comes to unschooling where the philosophy of the classroom is abandoned as learning ceases to be a separately definable part of life. The result is a form of education in which the theories which support professional education in school are contradicted and questioned at every turn.

“Where home educators lead, researchers have to follow, trying to unravel how this learning actually happens. Certainly there is currently no satisfactory academic understanding of the kind of informal or natural learning demonstrated by unschooled children at home. Our recent research described in our book How Children Learn at Home seeks to begin the job of filling this theoretical black hole.

“In the next stage of our research we are focusing on th fascinating topic of how unschooled children learn how to read. If you have a child or children who have learned to read at home, either wholly or in part, whether from a structured scheme or in any other way, we would very much like to hear from you and learn about your experiences, good or bad. We have posted a short questionnaire on our website, where you will also find contact details if you would prefer to get in touch directly. Whatever you have to say will be fascinating and valuable to us.”
Posted: 2009/04/16 10:46 AM

No Use For Marks – April 15, 2009
Marks have been in the news quite a lot recently. First there was the University of Ottawa professor who lost his job because he doesn’t believe in marks. (He has other unconventional and invigorating ideas that don’t sit well with the academy, that you can read about in the article…in one instance, he allowed a couple of 10-year-olds to register for one of his coursse with their mother – and supported the filing of a human-rights complaint claiming ageism when the university said they couldn’t stay.) Then there is the apparent “problem” of private tutors/schools granting higher marks to teens that they were getting in public school.

Marks are, after all, sacred in schools  because they serve as the currency that makes the educational economy work. They are, as a consequence – and just like praise and other rewards offered by schools and many parents used as bribes to get young people to behave in way that society wants. They also encourage competition, as the second article illustrates. But they have nothing to do with learning. As Alfie Kohn writes in his 1999 book Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, the use of marks and grades in education is based on Pavlovian and Skinnerian behavioral theories, which are supported by experiments with laboratory animals. Unlike rats, people are motivated by autonomy and choice, as well as curiosity and relevance to their lives. And that is one of unfortunate problems with the use of marks in schools: Self-direction, independent thinking and collaboration are traits highly in demand these days but our educational systems are too fearful of the consequences of those traits to nurture them. So they plod along defending meaningless and debilitatingly old-fashioned practices.
Posted: 2009/04/15 4:29 PM

Misplaced Mommy Wars – April 9, 2009
The Atlantic magazine recently published The Case Against Breastfeeding, written by contributing editor Hanna Rosin. In a nutshell, the author feels that the benefits of breastfeeding are not all that huge and that a commitment to breastfeeding puts other things at risk, such as “modesty, career, independence and sanity.” And she’s getting a lot of media coverage for her attitude.

In a well-time and well-aimed return salvo (accompanied by a press release claiming to “set the record straight”...apparently wars sell magazines), Mothering magazine Publisher Peggy O’Mara eviscerates Rosin’s “cursory review” of the breastfeeding research and points out that this is a case of misplaced anger.

As Peggy notes, breastfeeding is not the problem. The problem, as I also point out in my Natural Life magazine article about feminism and unschooling, is the lack of respect and support for the work of caregiving, which includes breastfeeding, unschooling and other aspects of parenting. Rosin writes, “If a breast-feeding mother is miserable, or stressed out, or alienated by nursing, as many women are, if her marriage is under stress and breast-feeding is making things worse, surely that can have a greater effect on a kid’s future success than a few IQ points.” Perhaps. But the solution to such a sad situation is not formula – in the same way schooling isn’t the solution to our educational and daycare crisis. The solution is to fix the underlying problem. And that requires changing society’s values.

Neither does the solution lie in escalating the war among women, of which, I think, Rosin is guilty. She disdains the culture of motherhood and natural parenting, describing mothers who “obsess about breast-feeding” – “the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses” sizing each other up “using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic.” Revealingly, she admits to breastfeeding her baby son – although not “slavishly.” Perhaps if she and other mothers felt that their role was more valued – and if they had more support from the men in their lives – there wouldn’t be the need for attitude on either side of the debate. Or maybe the debate could end.
Posted: 2009/04/09 10:38 AM

We Don’t Need No Education – April 7, 2009
A wonderful article has just been posted to an academic journal about unschooling (now, there’s an oxymoron for you) that documents the process of self-teaching music and compares it to unschooling. Even more interesting is that it’s written by an education professor who was inspired by a question from one of his “curriculum methods” students. He describes the “war” between taught and self-taught musicians, then goes on to write about his own joyous life-long hands-on approach to music, his unhappy stint studying music at university and his subsequent alternative approach to teaching music at the secondary school level and parallel career as a professional musician. There appears to be hope for academia.

Posted: 2009/04/07 11:53 AM

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