Oskar Eustis begins his 2018 TED Talk with this statement:
Theater matters because democracy matters. Theater is the essential art form of democracy, and we know this because they were born in the same city.
Oskar sees three features that emerge from the interplay of democracy and theater in Greek culture.
1) Conflicting Voices Can Leads Us to Truth
Dialogue, whether on the stage or in the public square, shows us that the “other person has an opinion too, and it’s drama, remember, conflict — they disagree with me.” Oskar suggests that the principle that emerges is that “truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view. It’s not the possession of any one person.”
2) Empathy is a Necessary Tool for Democratic Citizenship
Oskar explains that with theater as with democracy, “I’m not asking you to sit back and listen to me. I’m asking you to lean forward and imagine my point of view — what this looks like and feels like to me as a character. And then I’m asking you to switch your mind and imagine what it feels like to the other person talking.” In short, both democracy and theater are built on our ability to empathize.
3) Community is Central to Our Experience of Theater and Democracy
You may have walked into that theater as an individual consumer, but if the theater does its job, you’ve walked out with a sense of yourself as part of a whole, as part of a community. That’s built into the DNA of my art form.
Oskar leads the team that produces Shakespeare in The Park, which allows New Yorkers to see high quality Shakespeare productions during the summer – for free. A more recent initiative is their Public Works program wherein “Tony Award-winning actors and musicians are side by side with nannies and domestic workers and military veterans and recently incarcerated prisoners, amateurs and professionals, performing together on the same stage.” Oskar notes that “it’s not just a great social program, it’s the best art that we do.” And behind this program is the belief that “artistry is not something that is the possession of a few. Artistry is inherent in being a human being. Some of us just get to spend a lot more of our lives practicing it.”
At the end of his talk, Oskar restates the essential role of theater in democratic life.
Our job is to try to hold up a vision to America that shows not only who all of us are individually, but that welds us back into the commonality that we need to be, the sense of unity, the sense of whole, the sense of who we are as a country. That’s what the theater is supposed to do, and that’s what we need to try to do as well as we can.
Oskar’s insight that theater and the arts build empathy and strengthen our imagination and reasoning skills is supported by the research of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. To dig into that research, check out my review of Bruner’s classic book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. You can also read my series on engaging in arts and culture with your kids.
The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein’s insight is that thinking is dependent on language.
Think about how an infant’s world expands as she learns to communicate, and how the young child’s world expands even more as her vocabulary rapidly expands. (Notice that I just used words to help you imagine a situation that helped clarify a thought.) As another illustration: try to remember a time when you said “I never thought about it like that before” – chances are that it was the words someone else used that helped you to reimagine a situation.
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner
In his book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, the acclaimed social theorist, psychologist, and educator Jerome Bruner explores the power of literature as a pathway to this important ability to imagine new possibilities. Bruner asks us to recognize that the artist, whether the painter or novelist, “creates possible worlds” that we, the viewer or reader, can inhabit.” (49). Bruner says that the purpose of the humanities is to cultivate hypotheses about our world which can lead to new ideas, whether a new scientific theory or new business or even a new political order as seen in the founding of America.
One reason it is so important to read fiction and engage with art is because doing so helps us “sense the alternativeness of human possibility” (53). Bruner points out that we “account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama” (69). Given that story is so engrained to our we make sense of our lives and our world, learning how to be good readers of good stories is central to our ability to unlocking meaningful ways of envisioning ourselves in our world. Bruner reflects on reading Shakespeare’s Othello. He writes that reading the play “joined me to the possible worlds that provide the landscape for thinking about the human condition as it exists in the culture in which I live” (128). In other words, the play is “an invitation to reflection” that allows us to deepen our sense of “the complexities that can occur in narratives of human action” (128).
Toward the end of Bruner’s book he writes: “The language of education is the language of culture creating, not of knowledge consuming or knowledge acquisition alone” (133). If there is one takeaway that Bruner wants us to have from his book, I think it’s this: fiction is an essential aspect of education because it helps us creatively tackle the complex situations of life and gives us the ability to harness language in powerful ways. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once argued, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
To read more about the importance of reading in education, check out my series on parental engagement and reading.
Scott Barry Kaufman grew up with an auditory processing disorder and high anxiety which made him struggle as a student. Kaufman was also a gifted student. Educators are accustomed to using mutually exclusive labels like “struggling learner” and “gifted learner” and mutually exclusive programs like “special education” and “gifted education.”
Kaufman’s story helps us recognize the problems with this kind of thinking. In an article for Scientific American, Kaufman writes of his experiences with a special education teacher who “saw beyond my label to some hidden strengths that were bursting to come out from deep within me.” His teacher encouraged him to sign up for more challenging questions and to participate in extracurricular activities. Kaufman continued to flourish as a student and today he has a Yale PhD in cognitive psychology; his research is designed to broaden our understanding of intelligence and to advocate for other twice-exceptional students.
What Does Twice Exceptional Mean?
Twice exceptional, or 2e, is a relatively new term in the world of education. 2e students are gifted learners who face one or more learning difficulties. Kaufman explains that 2e students “demonstrate exceptional levels of capacity, competence, commitment, or creativity in one or more domains coupled with one or more learning difficulties.” These students can often fly under the radar because the interplay of ability and disability can be complex. Kaufman writes:
Their exceptional potentialities may dominate, hiding their disability; their disability may dominate, hiding their exceptional potentialities; each may mask the other so that neither is recognized or addressed.
New Research About Twice Exceptional Learners
Kaufman’s new book, Twice Exceptional: Supporting and Educating Bright and Creative Students with Learning Difficulties, is designed to help educators identify 2e students and support them in their education. Kaufman writes:
Viewing the 2e student as neither exclusively disabled nor exclusively gifted, but, rather, as a dynamic interaction of both, leading experts offer holistic insight into identification, social-emotional development, advocacy, and support for 2e students.
Kaufman’s research on intelligence highlights the importance of personalized education. He explains that we need to shift from “an educational model that compares children to each other on a single dimension (e.g., IQ, academic performance) to an appreciation of the whole child, which includes a unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses, but also recognizes the importance of ability, engagement, and personal goals working together and changing over time.” In other words, rather than forcing students into preexisting boxes, we need to customize education to meet the needs of the student.
Demme Learning believes in the power of individualized education. That’s why our products are designed to support every kind of student at each stage in their learning. And we’ve heard countless stories of all kinds of students excelling with our math and spelling programs. For example, here’s an in-depth article about how Math-U-See can benefit dyslexic learners.
And here’s the story of William, who used Math-U-See, and credits the curriculum with preparing him to flourish as a math major in college who plans on pursuing his doctorate.
What Are Algorithms?
Algorithms are the invisible track guiding our interactions with technology and social media. These algorithms are often really helpful:
Google Assistant relies on algorithms that can track payment calendars to remind me when my credit card balance is due.
Other times we question the algorithm; when Facebook’s newsfeed starts getting clogged with advertisements rather than updates from friends and family, for example.
Until recently, we haven’t tended to think of the ethical significance of the algorithms we rely on as a society. The Russian bots that spread fake news on our Facebook newsfeeds have brought the issue into clear relief.
Yet there are some less obvious reasons for why we need to think deeply about our algorithms.
In a TED conversation, TED curator Chris Anderson talked about algorithms and social behavior with Netflix CEO Reed Hasting. Hastings explained why Netflix changed the underlying algorithm that personalizes the user experience and provides recommendations:
Everyone would rate Schindler’s List five stars, and then they’d rate Adam Sandler, The Do-Over three stars. But, in fact, when you looked at what they watched, it was almost always Adam Sandler. And so what happens is, when we rate and we’re metacognitive about quality, that’s sort of our aspirational self. And it works out much better to please people to look at the actual choices that they make, their revealed preferences by how much they enjoy simple pleasures.
But isn’t it the case that algorithms tend to point you away from the broccoli and towards the candy, if you’re not careful? We just had a talk about how, on YouTube, somehow algorithms tend to, just by actually being smarter, tend to drive people towards more radical or specific content…
This short exchange raises all sorts of ethical questions.
Is it the responsibility of a for-profit company to attempt to direct us toward “the broccoli?” And who decides what is broccoli and what is candy, and on what basis is that judgment made?
The TED talk on YouTube algorithms that Anderson referenced reveals a more pernicious issue: algorithms on YouTube designed to secure high viewership to generate advertising revenue have led to an environment that is remarkably unsafe for young children.
James Bridle begins his talk by discussing the seemingly innocuous “surprise egg” videos that have garnered millions of views on YouTube and are a hit with young kids. These videos are simple: people open up chocolate eggs to reveal hidden prizes.
Bridle points out that “if you search for ‘surprise eggs’ on YouTube, it’ll tell you there’s 10 million of these videos, and I think that’s an undercount.” It sounds innocent enough, but Bridle explains why it’s concerning: “These videos are like crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours.”
Unfortunately, super addictive but still kid-friendly content is not the only kind of video that YouTube’s algorithm unwittingly puts in front of young children. Bridle shows how just a few clicks can take a kid from an innocent cartoon to bot-created videos that feature those same cartoons in grotesque situations with weird violent or sexual undertones. Bridle warns that “this stuff really, really does affect small children. Parents report their children being traumatized, becoming afraid of the dark, becoming afraid of their favorite cartoon characters.”
As disturbing as the content itself can be, the deeper concern is that we often don’t even know the source of these videos. Bridle asks:
Is this a bot? Is this a person? Is this a troll? What does it mean that we can’t tell the difference between these things anymore? And again, doesn’t that uncertainty feel kind of familiar right now?
Bridle has one key piece of advice for dealing with these algorithms: “If you have small children, keep them the hell away from YouTube.”
That’s good advice as far as children go. But it doesn’t solve the bigger problem:
We built a system that seems to be entirely optimized for the absolute worst aspects of human behavior [. . .] we seem to have done it by accident, without even realizing that we were doing it, because we didn’t really understand the systems that we were building, and we didn’t really understand how to do anything differently with it.
These two TED Talks make it abundantly clear that both corporations and consumers need to think deeply about the ethical questions embedded in our technology. Thankfully, there have been some notable contributions to that work of thinking deeply.
Tristan Harris created the Center for Humane Technology in the hopes of “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” The Center provides practical steps for using technology responsibly.
We have put together a helpful guide about digital citizenship for parents that includes more research and helpful tips for guiding our children as they learn how to navigate the digital world.
Picture the following scene. Your child is practicing a new song on the piano. If you didn’t already know what the song was, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it because your child pauses after every couple of notes. After playing one small section of the song, he goes back, replays those same notes, fixing errors he made the first time he tried it. At times, he’s not even playing: he just sits there staring intently at the sheet music.
If that scene seems unfamiliar, imagine this one. Your child is standing in the driveway: she has marked a line with chalk, several feet from the basketball net, and she stands there, practicing her free throws. Shot after shot: some springing off the rim, flying to the left or right, and others swooshing through the net. If you watch closely, after every shot, your child is slightly adjusting her posture: adding more bend in her knees, pulling in her wrist, extending her forearm to follow-through with her shot.
Lessons on Deep Practice from The Talent Code
“Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown.”
That’s the subtitle of Daniel Coyle’s bestselling book The Talent Code. In his book Coyle, an award-winning journalist, sets out to answer a series of three questions:
‣ How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States?
‣ How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms?
‣ How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?
The short answer to those questions is that these exceptional people learned a particular approach to their practice, an approach also evidenced by the pianist and basketball player in the examples above.
Coyle explains that “they have tapped into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted pattern build skill.” In one sense, this insight is the simple adage that “practice makes perfect” but now we have the science available to show us both why and how this is true.
Coyle highlights myelin, a neural insulator that neurologists recognize as essential to skill-building:
Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse…myelin vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster…[and so when we practice in the right way]…our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed.
The key, of course, is learning how to practice in the right way.
Deep practice is characterized by “slow, fiftful struggle” where people purposely operate “at the edges of their ability” with full recognition that this means failing more often than succeeding. Coyle explains this paradox, noting that “experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it” The key is to “choose a goal just beyond your present abilities” because “thrashingly blindly doesn’t help” but “reaching does.”
3 Rules for Deep Practice
Coyle gives us three rules for deep practice.
1) Break Skills Into Smaller Components
Break skills into smaller and smaller components and build sequentially. For example, rather than trying to play through a whole song at once, practice each stanza, or even just a series of notes, and then slowly build up mastery of the piece.
2) Repeat and Repeat and Repeat Again
As a general rule of thumb, world-class skill requires approximately 10,000 hours of practice. The more time spent in deep practice, and the more skills are repeated, the greater the amount of growth.
3) Learn to Feel It
As you practice, your instincts are being formed. You can start to lean on them. Experienced soccer players, for example, have a strong sense of the field: they are instinctively aware of patterns, and can see various angles on the field that suggest passing lanes through which to move the ball. Those players have learned to feel the game and are able to anticipate movement and respond quickly and strategically.
Lessons on Effective Coaching from The Talent Code
Earlier in this post I explored insights on skill-building through deep practice. I shared about recent neuroscience that highlights the vital role that myelin plays in wrapping nerve fibers which allows our brain circuitry to operate more efficiently, allowing us to build skill and speed. I highlighted the importance of operating at the edge of our ability, breaking larger skills into smaller chunks to tackle, and pinpointing errors and repeating skills until we eliminate those errors. Now I want to explore Coyle’s insights on how to teach and coach in a way that unlocks deep practice for our students.
When most of us imagine a world-class coach, we tend to picture a larger-than-life figure: a ship’s captain or military general. In our mind’s eyes, these coaches give rousing speeches that inspire great action. But the world-class coaches that Daniel Coyle introduces us to in The Talent Code don’t necessarily fit this stereotype.
Instead, Coyle writes that these coaches were “quiet, even reserved” and that they “listened far more than they talked.” Rather than giving inspirational speeches, these coaches “spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments.” These coaches had “an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality.” Daniel Coyle calls these coaches “talent whispers.”
In studying the method of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, Coyle noticed that Wooden gave short, pinpoint advice, tailored to particular players such as “do some dribbling between shots” and “crisp passes, really snap them.” Coyle describes Wooden’s coaching as being “error-centered, well-planned, information-rich.” This approach to teaching might seem cold and overly critical, but it needn’t be.
Coyle describes a piano teacher who operates with a similar model to Wooden’s but ties it to an emotionally-rich and loving style. “Each interaction vibrates with Miss Mary’s interest and emotion. To have better hand position is to earn a thrilling jolt of praise. To play something incorrectly brings a regretful ‘I’m sorry’ and a request to please play it again. (And again. And perhaps again.) To play something properly brings a warm gust of joy.”
Coyle explains why this is so effective: coaches like this are “creating and sustaining motivation; they are teaching love.” Of course, this style of coaching doesn’t lend itself to formulas or one-size-fits-all approaches. Instead, teaching “exists in the space between two people, in the warm, messy game of language, gesture, and expression.”
4 Virtues of Master Coaches
1) A Matrix of Skills
Master coaches have a combination of “technical knowledge, strategy, experience, and practiced instinct” which they bring to bear on their instruction. Coaches aren’t built with this knowledge-matrix: they grow it through practice in both what they are teaching and in the teaching process itself.
The best coaches are attentive to their students. Coyle found that “on the micro level, they constantly monitored the student’s reaction to their coaching, checking whether their message was being absorbed.”
3) GPS Reflex
Coyle writes that coaches have a GPS reflex that produces “a linked series of vivid, just-in-time directives that zap the student’s skill circuit, guiding it in the right direction.” A recurring phrase that Coyle noticed from these coaches was: “Good. Okay, now do __.” As soon as a student mastered one thing, it was on to the next, slightly more difficult, skill.
4) Theatrical Honesty
Rhetorical devices and theatrical expressions can be a useful tool for helping students learn and providing them with a fun experience while learning. One of my employees shared an experience he had with a college professor whose signature phrase is “let me misunderstand,” a phrase that let the professor pretend he didn’t get it while forcing the students to identify the error in thought and correct it.
The Atlantic magazine has called Tristan Harris “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” for his work as the former Design Ethicist at Google. Harris is animated by the question of how 21st century technology is affecting us, and he created the Center for Humane Technology in the hopes of “reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”
4 Key Ways Technology is Harming Us
Harris identifies four key areas where our tech is harming us:
1) Our Mental Health
“The race to keep us on screen 24/7 makes it harder to disconnect, increasing stress, anxiety, and reducing sleep.”
2) Our Children
“The race to keep children’s attention trains them to replace their self-worth with likes, encourages comparison with others, and creates the constant illusion of missing out.”
3) Our Social Relationships
“The race for attention forces social media to prefer virtual interactions and rewards (likes, shares) on screens over face-to-face community.”
4) Our Democracy
“Social media rewards outrage, false facts, and filter bubbles – which are better at capturing attention – and divides us so we can no longer agree on truth.”
How Social Media Negatively Affects Us
Harris is also specific about how various social media platforms negatively affect us:
‣ “Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.”
‣ “Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.”
‣ “Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.”
‣ “YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.”
Take Control of Your Technology Habits
In response to these serious concerns, the Center’s website has a page devoted to taking control of our own technology habits.
The Center shares practical tips such as only allowing notifications on your phone from actual people:
(“Settings > Notifications and turn off all notifications, banners, and badges, except from apps where real people want your attention; e.g. messaging apps like WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Signal, Telegram, WeChat etc.”)
This page also recommends free tools such as Flux which automatically changes the computer screen brightness and color after sunset to minimize the blue light that keeps us awake. Watch Tristan Harris’ TED Talk on technology below:
We have put together a helpful guide about digital citizenship for parents that includes more research and helpful tips for guiding our children as they learn how to navigate the digital world.
You know that guilty feeling you get when you start reading a novel…that feeling that says there are a million non-fiction books you should be reading now. Well, that feeling is wrong; you can enjoy that novel without guilt! We need — yes, need — to read fiction. We live in a culture that continually divorces the spiritual from the physical and in the case of fiction, we have stripped away the spiritual significance of fiction and reduced it to the bare bones of entertainment value. But a more historical understanding of fiction reveals that fiction, like all art, has a sacred role in our lives.
In Catholic tradition, the term “the moral imagination” is popular. The moral imagination is our spirit’s capacity to understand, respond to, and appreciate Beauty. Art affirms our humanity and separates us from the animal kingdom. Art renders our spirits sensitive to the heart of God. Great fiction, like great paintings and great music, ministers to the soul and increases our capacity to be human in the fullest sense of the word. We were born with imaginations. We were also born fallen and sinful. Thus, great fiction purifies the moral imagination and renders us more receptive to God.
I like how G.K. Chesterton said it:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey [evil, monsters, etc.]. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
One thing that must be understood if we are to delight in works of fiction properly is the difference between imagery and allegory. You see, there is no room for Aslan in Middle-earth. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia was meant to be understood as allegory; Aslan represents Christ, the stone table represents the Cross, Aslan’s resurrection represents Christ’s resurrection, and so on. Allegory is using imagery (symbols) to illustrate and communicate a worldview: a philosophy or theology that is most often either religious or political in nature. But Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is not meant to be an allegory. In fact, Tolkien was adamant that it shouldn’t be read as such. Nevertheless, there is plenty of imagery to be found all throughout Tolkien’s masterpiece. Imagery is most at home in the world of poetry; roses are red…and the rose is an image that calls to mind emotions and thoughts of love and romance.
With that in mind, I want to highlight just two of many benefits to reading fiction in light of our “moral imagination”. The first is vicarious learning. We can learn from the life choices of others and through observation as well as through our own experience. Because we relate and thus connect with the protagonists in great literature, we can learn vicariously through their experiences. The second benefit is cathartic healing. Again, given the connection we have to the protagonist, we are able to experience emotional release through the stories we read — and this often leads to the healing of the soul.
It is helpful to point out the distinction between escapist fiction and interpretive fiction. According to Laurence Perrine:
Escape literature is that written purely for entertainment–to help us pass the time agreeably. Interpretive literature is written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life. Escape literature takes us away from the real world: it enables us temporarily to forget our troubles. Interpretive literature takes us, through the imagination, deeper into the real world: it enables us to understand our troubles…
Escapist fiction is like cotton candy: it is sweet, enjoyable, and full of fluff but it is best not to make it a staple of your diet. Interpretive fiction is protein for the soul!
Not all of the classics are worth reading, but given their long life, and given the many generations that continue to delight in such books as Oliver Twist or Les Miserables, it’s safe to say that reading many of the better classics might be a great place to begin as you seek to cultivate your moral imagination and the moral imagination of your children.
In her keynote at the National Summit 2014, Amanda Ripley shares a story about receiving an automated call from the school principal:
“Wednesday is Chipotle night. Go to Chipotle and if you buy a burrito, ten percent will go to the school.”
Amanda gets the call and says, “Oh alright. I’ll put it in my calendar because education is important so I got to do this.” So Amanda goes to Chipotle and there’s a line of 500 people stretching around the corner which means a 45 minute wait in the sweltering humidity. And when she gets home, Amanda collapses on the couch.
“Do you think I read to my kid that night?” Amanda asks.
Amanda goes on to report on a 2008 study of thirteen countries that found that the more time parents spent on PTA meetings and extra-curricular activities, the worse the kids did on a test of critical thinking and reading even after controlling for socio-economic differences.
That same study found that the more time parents spent reading to their kids and asking them questions about their day, talking to them about movies, books, TV, the better the kids did on a test of critical thinking and reading, even after controlling for socio-economic differences.
Read to Your Children
Research such as the study presented by Ripley clearly demonstrates that reading to children leads to high academic achievement. Parents, when you read to your kids, ask them questions like, “Why do you think Little Boy Blue is sad?” and “What do you think will happen next?” This guided conversation about what you are reading helps children learn to think through what is being read.
Parental involvement in education need not (and should not) end at the onset of adolescence.
In her book The Smartest Kids In The World, Ripley shares how talking with adolescents about current events, the movies they are watching, the books they are listening, etc., also leads to great gains in the areas of critical thinking and reading.
American parents often function as cheerleaders, chanting “you can do it” and “great job” and “you’re a winner.” While encouragement is important, the research shared here suggests that parents should operate more as coaches, praising hard work and achievement, facilitating growth, and providing stimulating challenges to encourage development.
3 Types of Parenting Styles
Ultimately though, the message to be proclaimed here is that parents need to be hands-on. There are three generally recognized parenting styles:
1) Permissive Parenting
Permissive parenting is hands-off, everything goes. Parenting experts say that this style does not provide children with needed structure.
2) Authoritarian Parenting
The second parenting style is authoritarian: completely hands-on, controlling, rigid and harsh. Experts say this style can be detrimental to a child’s social and academic development.
3) Authoritative Parenting
The third style, authoritative parenting, is the sweet-spot: hands-on, but leaving room for autonomy; structured but flexible rather than rigid; involved but not controlling.
When it comes to child development, authoritative parenting can serve as the catalyst for dramatic, positive growth. Amanda Ripley’s encouragement to parents is that you don’t have to be a genius to have a tremendously positive influence on your child’s development. Reading aloud to young children and having open and thought-provoking conversations with your teens are a form of involvement that is attainable and immensely beneficial. Remember, that attachment bond between you and your child will serve as the scaffolding that lets your child successfully develop through the stages of life and achieve their full potential.
In the year 2000, Poland had one of the worst education systems in the world. By the year 2012, Poland was near the top of the list. Today, Poland is considered to be an education powerhouse and its 12 year transformation provides us with hope that the United States can also transform its education system.
In her New York Times bestseller The Smartest Kids In The World, journalist Amanda Ripley explores the four key changes that Poland implemented that led to such dramatic improvements. These four changes were: a new (rigorous) curriculum, three standardized tests, more teacher autonomy, and delayed tracking of students.
1. A New Curriculum
A new curriculum was built to inject rigor into the system, something the previous curriculum had lacked. The new program included fundamental goals – intensive enough that the government required 25% of teachers to go back to school to improve their own education. While these goals were clearly defined, the details regarding how to meet those goals were left to the schools.
2. Three Standardized Tests
To ensure that these goals would be met and to provide accountability to schools and teachers, Poland instituted three standardized tests: one at the end of elementary, junior high, and high school. While Poland tested its students less often than America, the stakes were higher for older Poland students whose results determined which universities they could attend. Significantly, Poland also decided that these exams would not be graded by local teachers so as to ensure honesty.
3. Teacher Autonomy
Poland gave teachers great autonomy, allowing them to choose their own textbooks and their own specific curriculum from a list of over one hundred approved options. In addition, principals were given full control over hiring teachers and local authorities had full control over budgeting. In her book, Amanda Ripley points out that this system of great accountability and great autonomy is also found in high-performing organizations like Apple Inc.
4. Delayed Tracking
Tracking refers to the practice of placing students in different courses based on the perceived ability of that student. In the United States, we track students early and aggressively. Amanda Ripley talks about the contrast between an AP honors English class, a normal English class, and then a “English in the Workplace” class (offered at one point by a school in Gettysburg, PA) For Tom, a student profiled in Amanda Ripley’s book, tracking began in third grade when, after performing well on a standardized test, he was placed in an accelerated track. By age 15, all of Tom’s core classes were “advanced” and he only saw the other students at “nonessential” classes like gym and art.
Poland raised the expectations for what kids could accomplish by delaying tracking of students till age 16. This delay resulted in dramatic academic gains in students who otherwise would have been shuffled off to vocational training. As it turns out, that delay provided motivation for students to apply themselves in ways that a different track may not have required them to.
Poland faced a lot of opposition in the early days of their ambitious reform efforts. Nevertheless, Poland’s leaders, unified with a common vision, worked together to implement these reforms and as a result of their thick skin and diligence, Poland now has one of the best education systems in the world.
America has been trying for years to fix our broken education system. Poland’s example provides us with some practical solutions and gives us hope that we can indeed fix what must be fixed so that our students receive the education they need and deserve.
In May 2012, journalist Amanda Ripley and researcher Marie Lawrence worked together with AFS Intercultural Programs to conduct a survey of exchange students. 202 students completed the survey. It should be noted (as a limitation of the study), that of the respondents, “a significant number (19%) had studied in Italy. Of international respondents, a large group (37%) had come to the United States from Germany. These ratios mirrored the distribution of AFS students generally.” Of the participating countries in the survey, the high-achieving nations included Denmark, Finland, and Hong Kong.
This survey was designed to ask the experts – students – about their experiences with education in their home country versus abroad. The goal was to shed light on why America underperforms in education compared with many other countries in the world.
There are five topics highlighted in this survey: technology, difficulty (of subject matter), parental freedom, importance of sports, and praise. Here are some key highlights within each of these topics.
“International and U.S. students agreed that there was more technology in U.S. schools in U.S. schools: 70% of international students and 73% of U.S. students. This is significant because the U.S. also spends more more per student than most other countries. Evidently, increasing the amount of technology in our schools won’t solve the education crisis in our country.
“International and U.S. students agreed that school in the United States was easier than school abroad.” In all, 92% of international students and 70% of U.S. students agreed on this point. When compared to education powerhouses like Finland, Poland, and South Korea, the United States lacks rigor in our education system.
International and U.S. students agreed that U.S. parents gave their children less freedom than parents abroad: 63% of international students and 68% of U.S. students agreed on this point.
Importance of Sports
“91% of international students and 62% percent of U.S. students said U.S. students placed more importance on doing well in sports than did students abroad.”
“Roughly half of international and U.S. students said their U.S. math teachers were more likely to praise student work” than teachers abroad.
While this survey was limited in size and scope, it helps to collaborate insights regarding why America’s education system is so broken. Imagine, for example, what academic gains could be achieved if this country saw a systematic shift in focus from sports to academics in high school. More controversially, what if our country spent less on technological bells and whistles and instead paid teachers more?
The results of this survey provide us with a great starting place for discussing the problems with our education system. Asking students about their experiences in school helps reveal patterns and suggest counter-intuitive paths of inquiry leading to practical solutions to the problems we face.