Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Malevolence Chip

Deep within the inner recesses of the computer is a chip about which most of us know nothing. It isn’t mentioned in your computer’s specifications. You won’t find any information about it in the user manual or online. But trust me, it is there and it is called the Malevolence Chip. I have been dealing with it over the past week.

I first encountered it while I was writing my latest blog post and preparing a presentation for a coming conference. The Malevolence Chip understood that I was working to a deadline and so it kicked into action. It closed down both my open browsers and then refused to allow any browsers to launch.

Most of the time the MC hums along in the background. It watches every key stroke, noting every program you open, every web site you visit. It comes to understand how long you can work without a break. It comes to understand YOU!

When the MC feels it has enough information about you to strike in the most infuriating manner, at the most inopportune moment, it swings into action. What I didn’t realize until last week was that the MC also knows the exact moment when you are about to hurl the computer to the ground and take to it with a hammer. Just before that snapping point is reached, everything is put back neatly back together again. It’s as if your commuter is smiling sweetly up at you and innocently asking, “What? Is something wrong?”

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Pollyanna, Move Over!

It’s all about optimism. Not the ‘walking about with a mindless grin on your face’ sort of optimism. Not the Pollyanna version either. It is the kind of optimism that underlies the belief that I can probably solve this problem, and even if I don’t, I will have learned a lot along the way.

When my daughter was six she went through a tough time at school. It was no different from the kinds of problems most children face as they learn how to get along with people. Every day we would ask her about the problems she was having. And things kept getting worse.

As a circuit breaker we decided that from now on we would not greet her with questions like “Did Christy give you a hard time today?” Instead we would ask her to tell us some of the good things that had happened. Only when we had a couple of those on the table would we give her the opportunity to explore any of the problems. It worked. Gradually she began to enjoy school again and the morning grizzles disappeared.

I started thinking more about this a few years back. I was attending a couple of lectures as a wifely duty.  You know the sort of thing – it’s important to him so I must fly the spousal flag. Sitting in the lecture theatre it occurred to me that I had a choice. I could maintain my ‘bored but supportive’ stance, or I could look for something interesting. I could make a choice, and I did. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but within that unfamiliar territory I discovered several fascinating way points. And it got me wondering.

Why do we bother? What is it that makes some people bound through life while others lurk in the shadows? Why do some kids stride forward bravely at every challenge and others stand at the back, scuffing their feet and looking at the ground? Maybe it is because they have lost their optimism, the belief that they will succeed and even if they don’t they will have enjoyed trying and will have learned some new things along the way.

As adults we can help our kids preserve their optimism. They certainly come with it into the world. No baby ever doubted he would talk, or walk, or run. Watch the determination of the toddler to climb up on the couch and you see optimism in action. Our five year olds enter school filled with optimism and eagerness to learn. When I taught a combined grade one and two I used to think I could walk into the room with large sheets of newspapers, tell them we were going to spend the next half hour tearing them up into tiny bits and they would all cheer. They were enthusiastic about everything in life, so optimistic. It’s around grade three that we start hearing them say “I can’t do that”. What goes wrong?

I think one of the things that goes wrong is that we start to focus too much on the end products of kids’ efforts, rather than on the processes. We do the same thing with adults. By doing this we create too many failures. Too much failure makes us into pessimists.

I am trying hard to be an artist. Not all my paintings work. Sometimes the best thing I can do with a finished work is to paint over it with white paint and start a new one. What was that painting? A failure? If that’s the case then I ought to put away my brushes because I have a lot of ‘failures’. But I learned so much about composition, about mixing colors and about what not to do next time. So the end product may not have been a success but the process certainly was. I learned stuff and kept my optimism intact.

A class of seven year olds has just had a spelling lesson that focuses on the spelling pattern ‘ph’. They have made lists of ‘ph’ words, and looked for ‘ph’ words in their reading. At the end of the week there is a spelling test and one little girl spells the word like this: ellephant. The teacher marks it incorrect and the tally of failures for the week goes up by one for that child. If mention had been made of the correct initial letter, the correct number of syllables, the correct terminal letter and the correct use of the ‘ph’ she would have had a 4:1 ratio of successes over failures and come out way ahead. Optimism preserved!

If we want our kids to become skilled thinkers, to exercise the Habits of Mind that characterize successful people,  we need to ensure they remain optimistic thinkers who believe that they will gain as much from the acts of thinking and trying as they will from the end product.

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking

Please don’t praise me for breathing

My cooperative, bright, curly headed five year old daughter one day looked me in the face when I had insisted that she do something she really didn’t want to do. She announced “I am the boss of me!”

I was taken aback for a moment, but only a moment. I calmly told her “Actually darling, that’s not quite true just yet” and sent her off to put the Lego away before she could watch her favorite TV program. The struggle had begun.

We had negotiated the storms of passage that had got us to this point, the odd tantrum, the rebellions and battles of will. I had worked hard on my ’pickup and put’ routine when polite requests no longer worked. But this was something new. My little girl was growing a powerful sense of self.

Every parent and every teacher faces this. How do we nurture a child’s sense of self-worth and efficacy without creating unacceptable beliefs of self-importance? How was I to make sure that my daughter’s growing self-esteem didn’t ever come at the cost of someone else’s? And just as importantly, how was I going to make sure that she valued the things about herself that truly merited value?

I looked up the meaning of ‘self-esteem’ in Webster’s dictionary and found the following: ‘confidence and satisfaction in oneself’.

So let’s visit a primary school classroom where the kids are getting ready to do some mathematics. They are packing away their previous materials and getting out mathematics books, pencils, rulers, some manipulatives and they are moving into new groups. As the teacher supervises we can hear her saying ‘great job, fantastic, way to go’ to children who have so far done nothing that required any effort. The room is awash with positive affirmations. She believes that she is building self-esteem but what she is in danger of doing is devaluing praise.

I need confidence when I am facing a difficulty, something that taxes my abilities and stretches me, something that just might prove to be beyond me. I can feel self-satisfaction when I know I have met that difficulty head on, used whatever resources I can muster to overcome it and either succeeded or certainly given my very best shot. I don’t need confidence when I walk across the room to pick up a pen and self-satisfaction is not really appropriate if I manage to sit on a chair without falling off.

We need to have high expectations about the behaviors we accept in a classroom, but praise needs to be reserved for those times when it has been earned. When praise is given for real effort, not just for existing, children are more likely to come to appreciate the efforts of others as well as themselves. In doing so they will come to value the contributions of others. Valuing others is the key to demonstrating empathy, to thinking interdependently and to looking around for new sources of information and data.

We need to be careful that we do not encourage a generation of children who think that whatever they say or do is worth a round of applause.

I remember hearing a lecturer in behavior management once say that we need to make sure we say something positive about every child each day. He went on to comment that sometimes the best you say to some kids is “Wow John. You really breathed well today.” But that’s a cop out. If John managed every day to get through without a single struggle, without facing a single difficulty, then maybe it will be hard to provide any genuine praise. But that is unlikely. John’s struggles may be different from any else’s and the effective teacher understands that and makes sure that John gets a pat on the back when he struggles and overcomes, when he pushes beyond the easy and the soft option. Then John understands what real confidence can mean. He can be legitimately satisfied with himself for something more than simply breathing.

Every child is valuable simply because they exist. Good parents reinforce this with their unconditional love of their children. From that foundation we do well to build a sense of worthy self-esteem in our children. When they understand that praise is given for effort they are more likely to hold in esteem the efforts of others. When praise washes over us continually it begins to feel like a warm bath and we stop even noticing it.

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Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

If You Love Me, Let Me Fail

We need to make sure our children are not denied the right to fail. They need to experience the privilege of coming second, fourth or, sometimes even last.

Why is it a privilege?

Because it will teach them something of enormous value.

I grind my teeth when I see a younger brother or sister being given a gift when it is the other child’s birthday. “It’s just so he won’t feel left out” is the justification. Well, it’s OK to feel left out sometimes. In fact being left out sometimes may be the only way to develop empathy, to understand how it feels to have to put your own wants on hold in favor of someone else’s. Listening and responding to the world with empathy and understanding grows out of having experienced some of the world’s woes.

I worry for the children who invariably get A’s or 10/10 in tests. They are heaped with praise and the expectation in their own minds, as well as those of their parents and teachers, that they will always shine, always come top of the class. They can answer every question correctly and faster than their classmates. They are learning that they invariably know best. But these students often hit the earth with a thud in their fragile adolescent years. That is when the work begins to really challenge them and they find they have never developed resilience, persistence, flexibility and the organizational skills that are needed to deal with really hard work. They haven’t learned how to learn from others. These gifted students find themselves overtaken by the less innately able ‘battlers’ who discovered how to solve problems cooperatively, to learn from failure, to get back up again and try a different approach.

An understanding of the value of the ‘other’ is what makes us seek out the ideas and insights of other  people. The child who never has to give something up for someone else, who never puts his needs second, will continue to see himself as the centre of all things. Thinking interdependently, and listening and responding with empathy and understanding require a degree of selflessness and the capacity to accept that someone else’s ideas and experiences might actually be more valuable than our own.

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The Flour Mill In My Head

I love analogies. So much so that I sometimes get into trouble for using them too frequently. Perhaps this is because I am also a painter, drawn to strong images that tell a story bigger than just themselves.

There is an ongoing debate in the world of education about the relative merits of the teaching of facts over the teaching of the skills involved in the manipulation of those facts. The growth of testing is a partial cause of this argument. One of the dangers of multiple choice standardized tests is that they can become very information heavy, requiring students to remember large swathes of factual knowledge or to perform automatic skill routines. To do well in these tests students need to know the parts of a flower, significant dates or the names of presidents and prime ministers, or they need to be able to load the required numbers into the multiplication or division machines in their heads and crank the handle, spitting out the right answers. We need tests that can be readily and cheaply graded and analyzed by computers . I think it is possible to design multiple choice tests that require creative, divergent thinking, but it isn’t easy and we don’t see too many of them.

As tests become more and more important to teachers and schools, we find curriculum gradually morphing to resemble the tests more and more closely. Teachers become more agitated as they find themselves required to focus on making sure their students remember the facts and the routines. Curriculum begins to serve the tests rather than the tests serving curriculum.

What’s wrong with this picture? Here’s where I want to resort to an analogy. A flour mill takes in grain, feeds it through grinding processes and produces flour. The process of milling cannot take place without the grain. Teaching our children how to think is analogous to the grinding process, making them able to mill the facts effectively and efficiently, to produce quality end products, namely worthwhile, well judged, reasonable, creative thoughts. But you can’t grind flour without grain and you can’t think without information to think about. The facts we teach our children are all the grist to the mill. They should never be seen as an end in themselves. Just as some grains make certain kinds of flours for specific different purposes, so too do we need to select the facts we teach to suit the purposes of our educational system. But grain without milling will produce nothing, and neither will the teaching of facts if we fail to teach children how to think effectively about those facts.

So let’s change our perspective and see the teaching of facts for what it really is – the provision of the essential raw materials for the teaching of thinking rather than an end in itself.

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