Learning Conversations

Come sit with me. Well talk, well ask big questions

Category: Empowering Kids

Mixed Messages

I sat with my 12yo daughter tonight, encouraging her to get her homework done.

She was working on her monthly reading assignment she gets to pick the book, she has a whole list of options for what to do for the assignment and I’m pretty sure her teacher would allow them to suggest alternatives, if they want. The options include written assignments, comic strips, Power Point presentations, videos, etc. The kids are allowed to use any method and any medium they like.

My daughter loves art, so shes drawing a comic strip. She has said before that she doesn’t like when the teacher picks the novel, so shes allowed to make her own choice. I thought shed like this assignment.

And yet she resists.

Is it just because its homework and therefore its automatically onerous?
Is it because she gets anxious about getting things done, or because perfectionism makes her want it to be so fantastic that the task is daunting?
Would she just, plain, rather be playing?

These things are probably part of it. But this is a kid who makes up long, complex stories with her brothers, spends hours drawing on Google Sketchup, researches dog breeds to incredible depth and regularly blows me away with her questions and ideas.

As she whined and complained about having to do the work, I asked her But you like drawing, you got to to choose the book. How come you dont like doing this assignment? It seemed to me that her teacher had done the stuff we always talk about empowering learners, providing choice, allowing personalization.

Because I don’t like being forced to do it. she responded.

So we talked about the times when we have to do things, even when that’s not our choice, but that it has a larger purpose in our lives. I don’t like paying bills, but I love my family and want us to have a place to live and keep it heated and have electricity for lights, etc And that perspective can help me grind through the stuff I don’t necessarily enjoy with a lighter heart.

She looked at me, agreeing in principle. But nothing resonated with her here. She can relate to having to clean her room so that she can have her friends over or so that she find her things when she wants them. She can understand having to scrub the bathroom so that we all have a home that is healthy. But she cant understand how drawing a comic strip about her favorite scene in this novel helps her achieve her dreams or that it will somehow help her function in life. She grudgingly went back to her homework seeing it simply as the hoop she has to jump through in this game we call school.

In that moment, I realized something. She had no idea why reading and comprehension are important for her life. This assignment isn’t meaningful for her, at all! There is no relevance. And I also realized that I’m not sure how the assignment relates to real world skills either?

Its assumed that reading is important and that kids need to be able to show their comprehension somehow with some sort of output. We all agree that its a necessary skill. But why? What is the end goal of reading? Of a book report? Of a monthly reading assignment?

I struggle a little to understand her disinterest because, to me, reading is almost as necessary as breathing. I love it. I love the art of it, just for the experience of it. I love rolling the words around on my tongue, tasting them, imagining the scenes being painted, letting the ideas stretch and dance in my mind. At her age, reading was my escape.

But as I think about it, my daughter would prefer to make up her own stories. She is a creator more than a consumer. She loves reading for facts absorbing and retaining information as quickly as she can find it. But has never loved reading fiction.

In fact, isn’t that true of the culture of this generation? These kids are creating all sorts of content! YouTube. Blogs. Facebook. Photos. Creating their own characters on all sorts of game sites. They create their own avatars on our Wii. They engage with the world, expecting to be part of creating their own experiences. They are less willing to sit back and receive. To consume. To accept what they’re given.

I sit here wondering what this all means?

If my daughter never does connect with a love of reading, is that a problem? She has other ways of experiencing her love of art and stretching her imagination. She engages with storytelling constantly with her brothers, with her friends, in her own head. In fact, she enjoys reading when it has a social component for her she loves snuggling up to me in bed, both of us lost in our own books but sharing a moment together. And she has certainly shown her ability to read and consume information, as well as assess and communicate her findings. Shes got the basics down.

Beyond that, what are the necessary skills for navigating this world? For being a contributing citizen? For connecting with others? For supporting herself and her family? How do we show kids the relevance of what they’re being taught when were not really clear on that ourselves?

I grew up in a world of have to and should be and seeking to please those in authority. I excelled in school partly because I just plain love learning, partly because I was really good at knowing what people expected of me and delivering that. I found it easy to succeed in the existing system in school and upon entering the workforce.

But is that the world that our children are coming into? Is that what we want to prepare them for? To obey? And jump through hoops?

Because I think were giving them some really mixed messages right now. On the one hand, were encouraging them to care to stand up against bullies, to make changes that will save our environment and feed the hungry. We are empowering them to stand up and make a difference. Were telling them we want them to care and to be passionate about what matters to them.

And yet we expect them to do their homework, even when they don’t understand why they’re doing it. Because these are the rules and that’s what they need to do in order to get the marks and move on to the next level. In fact, this is the work world that we know as well one of rule following and doing as were told, even when it doesn’t make sense. Where the world of Dilbert is just a little too close to the truth in our organizations

I sit here, wondering which way this will all go? Which messages will our children absorb? Is this part of our path, our journey of change? Is this how societal change happens? No wonder our kids are struggling at times were struggling too! Yes indeed, times of change are difficult because this churning, this indecision and mixed messages, this uncertainty its a necessary part of revolution and its uncomfortable. Were trying to figure out how to do all these things were talking about and its hard work, darn it!

And I wonder about my little girl who is growing up so quickly, who is so bright and so determined. Will she change the world? Or will the world change her?

Learning Through Play

My youngest one is starting Kindergarten this Fall and on Friday, we attended a PALS (Parents As Learning Supporters) session at his new school. I love that the school is bringing in parents/guardians to see what kids will be doing in their classrooms and talking about the approach to learning that we shouldn’t expect a highly academic focus, that children this age learn best by learning through play!

There will be four session in the PALS series this first one was focused around the alphabet. We used stamps to make name tags, then stamp whatever words the children wanted. We made letters out of playdough. We played a matching game of upper case to lower case letters. And then we used fishing rods (with magnets at the end) to pick up fish (letters/pictures with paper clips on them). My son loved it all!

Then the children were ushered off to the community kitchen while the adults got a short lesson on preparing children for Kindergarten and the importance of reading. The speaker told us about making a point of talking about the parts of a book, of pointing out the title page, and of showing that we read left to right, starting on the left page. We heard about the importance of letting kids see us reading and having books in the house, so that they know that its a valued activity in our lives. And that, no matter what the language at home, just keep reading aloud to our children so that they are exposed to the rhythms, vocabulary and ideas that come from a variety of books. All wonderful stuff!

And then the speaker started talking about the importance of limiting screen time for our children that good old fashioned books are critical for children.

I bit my tongue didn’t want to be that parent on the first day, I guess!

But as I reflected on the mornings experience, I put together some feedback via email to the Principal of the school (who I know quite well). I thought about learning through play and the role of technology in a primary classroom.

I completely agree with the importance of reading and also believe there needs to be a balance of appropriate screen time. But a recent post from Will Richardson (http://weblogg-ed.com/2010/no-actually-youre-out-of-balance/) got me thinking about what balance really means particularly that balance isn’t about excluding technology.

It made me thing about the fact that, to this generation, play includes technology and it should, because it is an important part of being a literate citizen. My children are not literate if they do not know how to read, write, communicate AND search for/assess the validity of information. That means that comfort with technology is just as important as comfort with writing instruments or any number of other tools that we equip our kids to use.

My point, to make a long story short, is that I believe its important to start shifting our attitudes to include technology as a part of play and learning, right from the beginning. Penny Lindballe tells the story of lingering societal prejudices against technology well in this post (http://web20parents.blogspot.com/2009/11/real-digital-divide.html) its worth a read too!

There’s a reason we don’t wait until middle school to introduce a pencil, isn’t there? Time to treat technology the same way.

For the best decisions collaborate!

Having been a project manager for many years, Ive long believed in and experienced the power of diverse-group decision making.

Inevitably, teams of people, each bringing their unique perspectives to the table, come up with better, more complete, more creative and more successful solutions.

In the educational realm, I think everyone has been off trying to come up with solutions by themselves educators, administrators, District management, Government Ministries.

Why is it that we don’t talk to each other as much as we could? From the outside, I get the sense that there’s a bit of that leave it to the professionals attitude.

Is it too much effort to try to coordinate schedules? Are we worried that it takes too much effort to include people uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of our schools? And then they cant add value anyways? After all, what do parents know about what it takes to run a school? Or a District? And what do students know about what they really need from education?

And its hard to have completely open conversations and doors because that might expose your weaknesses, or open things up for criticism. We are, often by nature, defensive we want to put our best foot forward, not parade our challenges and weaknesses out for all to see! Do we really want the world to know that we don’t know how to solve a problem? Doesn’t everyone expect the experts to have all the answers? And really, doesn’t everyone have enough to do without opening another can of worms by asking people their opinion??

But are we sure that external partners don’t add value? Why would we think that kids are incapable of contributing to solutions about their own education? Another quote from Starbucks is that the person who sweeps the floor should pick the broom!

How much effort is it worth to come up with solutions that work? What if we had increased odds of finding successful ideas that everyone is invested in and working together on?

What if it resulted in kids engaged in their own learning? What if they were excited to come to school to learn and create and work together?

What if parents felt involved and knowledgeable about what was going on in classrooms? What if they were passionate about supporting their children’s teachers? What if they could support and reinforce at home what their kids are learning in school?

What if teachers felt trusted and safe to make mistakes in their own learning and change efforts? What if they felt supported and valued by the parents instead of judged and attacked? What if they already had relationships with all the parents in their class and could easily call one up to discuss their child’s learning without it feeling like cold calling someone you don’t even know (and who doesn’t want to hear from you!)?

What if Principals had time to build the team and the learning community relationships instead of being overwhelmed by the myriad of administrative tasks that swamp their days? What if they could do the same thing that they used to do with their classrooms (encourage, support each child’s learning, coach, bring out the best in everyone)?

How much more powerful would that make our education system?

And, as a result, how would that change education (having something taught TO you) into learning (participating in the learning process and learning WITH you)?

The way I see it, we can keep complaining about how the Government just doesn’t get the whole picture.

We can complain about how they just don’t understand that you cant measure successful education using standardized tests.

We can gripe about how the teachers not helping MY child and nobody cares.

We can shake our heads at all the parents who never even come to parent-teacher interviews.

We can work all hours just trying to get all the forms filled out, the lockers assigned, the reports completed, the is dotted and the ts crossed.


It takes more effort, but isn’t it worth it?
For them?