Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Please, no more "drill, baby, drill"

  Aesop's fables were all the rage when I was in elementary school.  I don't really know if students read these any more, but I loved them.  The stories were short and the meaning was clear--and apparently memorable.  Throughout my life I have remembered one which particularly resonated with me: "The Wind and the Sun."  

  In an argument to determine who is stronger, the wind and sun agree to try and get a traveler to remove his coat.  The wind goes first and blows with all his might, which, of course, causes the traveler to pull his coat more tightly around him.  In the version I remember reading, the sun pities the traveler and comes out from behind the cloud to warm him.  The traveler becomes warm enough to remove his coat.

  Even as a kid the story made sense to me--and I loved the paradox.  The expedient, most obvious answer--get your way through force--doesn't always work as expected.  The moral in Aesop's words: "Kindness effects more than severity."

  For the past decade the children of America have been subjected to the harsh blowing of the North Wind.  All those hallmarks of childhood--play, recess, holiday breaks, long stretches of boredom--have been replaced with lots of really HARD work.  Call it rigor.  Call it the harsh realities of the "real" world.  Call it what you will, but it hasn't worked.  Everyone has declared the recent experiment a failure.

  Counterintuitive to the priggish Puritans who are still trying to run things for everybody else (though they hardly follow their own harsh rules) what kids these days need is more and more work. THAT will make them smarter.

  But it isn't true.

  There are many examples of how avoiding the obvious task (more wind! more wind!) actually helps kids get better where they struggle.  Here are a few:

           Schools that put recess back in the schedule saw students improve.

           Schools that added reading for pleasure saw math and other  non-reading scores improve.

           Businesses that allow downtime see productivity improve.

           Countries that give little homework and start school at a later age out perform the US.

  There are many examples of where taking your eye off the ball actually helps.  Writers know that percolating (letting the subconscious work through a writing problem while involved in other activities) is a very helpful part of the process. I personally know of many instances when my best ideas came when I was doing something else (running, stripping wallpaper, driving, painting...).

  Google encourages its employees to "play" by offering areas at work to blow off steam and provides them with the much heralded "genius hour" to pursue individual projects.

  But that is still not what is happening in schools.  

  The practice currently is to provide some remedial time during the day.  If you are passing you get enrichment (fun, social activities).  If not, you get more of the dreaded subject: drill, baby, drill. Imagine hating Algebra and being rewarded with MORE of it.  Yeah.  (And exactly why do we all have to have Algebra?)

  As I write this we are all confined to home for the major blizzard on the East coast.  Just yesterday a radio pundit excitedly remarked that kids home from school could still go to school online!  No more breaks for bad weather!  School all the time!

  My heart sank.  Ugh.  There is still a lot to be learned from a weather break. And we need to get out of people's homes. 

  Yesterday, I watched a whole group of unsupervised (OMG!) kids slide down a hill in the park over and over again.  Lots of experiential learning going on there which will transfer into connections for math classes.  Without this experience understanding slopes, distance, time--whatever--will have nowhere to connect.  Lots of language acquisition too. Describing experience needs words. Experience demands words.  Also problem-solving, organizing, (all those childhood fights have their place, you know), effects of temperature on water, building coordination, fitness. Earth Science makes more sense too if you've, you know, gotten to experience some Earthy things-like weather and - uh- earth.

  And boredom!  Days off require learning how to manage your own time.  Maybe pick up a book on your own?  Try knitting or cooking? My granddaughter, her father, and I played a spirited game of Monopoly.  She counted, added, subtracted (and won!).  No pain there but oodles of hands on self-motivated learning with some joy, trash talk, and strategizing thrown in.

  Please don't make me punish students on a weather break.  They need to experience the North Wind for real.  And some of that distracted--look over here instead of at that grindstone--needs to be put back in a school building.  It'll make us all smarter.

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