Social-Emotional Ed, Culture & Discipline

In the last week I have read five fascinating articles at the intersection of culture, social-emtional learning and discipline in schools. The first two articles appeared in The Seattle Times in their on-going “Education Lab” series funded by the Gates Foundation. One article reviewed the research and on-going programs in Washington state that are trying to understand and overcome how childhood trauma can affect learning and behavior in schools. The other highlighted schools in the area that are using the Yale RULER social-emotional education program.

The first article, entitled “‘You are more than your mistakes’: Teachers get at roots of bad behavior’”, discussed how researchers and teachers are coming together to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which not only affect the education and behavior of a child in school, but can also affect their adult health. I made many notes about ACEs in my blog post review of Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed.

One of the Seattle area schools mentioned in The Times article is West Seattle Elementary. I worked with their staff and principal, Vicki Sacco, in the lead up to my former Seattle school’s application for a ‘Turnaround Schools’ elementary levy grant from the city in 2013. I was also pleased to once again read about the work of Washington State University Professor Chris Blodgett because I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about ACEs and the social-emotional training he leads at schools like Bemiss Elementary in Spokane, Washington.

Next came an AEON Ideas prompt on their beta forum discussing ‘how educators can help end the schools to prison pipeline’ started by Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies (CCRR) at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. He laments the continued disparities in discipline along racial lines in schools across America and urges schools to begin to do the basics to avoid suspending students.

Discipline Disproportionality

Losen does not directly reference the research about the root causes for discipline issues in schools, such as ACEs, but he instead speaks to the imperative of alternative, inclusive and even restorative methods of addressing undesirable or disruptive school behaviors. He says that “well publicized research by Skiba at Indiana University has demonstrated that after controlling for poverty, school principals that embrace zero tolerance discipline philosophy have higher suspension rates and lower test scores than those that fold school discipline into their overall educational mission and strive to keep students in school.” In other words, strict discipline being exacted on kids acting out because of adverse emotional trauma they’ve experienced at home or elsewhere is truly counterproductive. Therefore, Losen suggests that schools start closing the “discipline gap” by not “suspending youth who are truant or tardy” and by limiting “the use of out of school suspension for minor offenses such as disruption or defiance.” Combined with teacher training on ACEs and an integrated social-emotional education program like the Yale RULER, schools could respond to adverse student behaviors proactively and productively.

You can participate in the AEON Ideas discussion forum on the schools to prison pipeline here.

Yale RULER Tool

The last two ed articles are related to one USC Rossier School of Education longitudinal study on the adolescent brain and how culture affects its social development. The study was designed by USC Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and over it’s five year period it will eventually include over 100 participants from Latino, East-Asian and bi-cultural backgrounds.

Half way through the research period, Immordino-Yang claims there are already two big takeaways about learning; first, Immordino-Yang says, “Traditional educational approaches think about emotion the way Descartes did; emotion is interfering with your ability to do well in school, to think rationally. Neuroscience is showing us that that is absolutely not the case—when you take emotion out of thought you have no basis for thought anymore. So we’re trying to understand how socially constructed emotion shapes learning, academic development and identity.” Second, Immordino-Yang says about the difference of our neurological processing of emotions and our outward manifestations of those emotions that, “There were no differences at all in how much these young adults’ brains were activating when they responded to our emotional stories—and no differences in the strengths of emotions that participants in the different cultural groups reported…But there was a strong cultural difference in how patterns of neural activity corresponded in real-time with participants’ experience—in how people became aware of their emotion.”

In other words, emotions play a big role in how we all learn, regardless of cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and yet those backgrounds do have a differing effect on our awareness and outward expression of those same emotions we all feel.

In one of the study’s tests, participants are asked to run up and down a flight of stairs until they can physically feel their heartbeat. The participants are then hooked up to a heart rate monitor and also simultaneously asked to monitor their heartbeats themselves, marking down every beat they feel. Somewhat astonishingly, the ability to accurately feel your heartbeat can predict the participant’s cultural identity.

“What we find is that among the East-Asian American kids, it’s the kids who are not particularly sensitive to their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Asian values, whereas among the Latino kids, it’s those who have a better ability to feel their heartbeat who are saying they strongly hold Latino cultural values,” says Immordino-Yang. “What that tells us is that kids’ natural awareness of visceral sensations may predispose them toward constructing a particular identity. It’s showing us how a very basic biological tendency, which we know is anatomically based, which is mainly kind of innate, is predisposing kids to adopting a particular kind of psychological self, with implications for how they act, what they believe in and who they strive to become.”

Immordino-Yang spells out the implications those results may have for educators and students. “We need to understand that the way kids feel matters. Their embodied experience in the classroom powerfully influences what children take away and how they grow both academically and personally. What science is teaching us, in short, is the need to understand the holistic emotional experience of a person, and the need to account for subjective experience when we design and evaluate educational environments.”

So think about the implications of this study in the context of a child who is growing up in poverty, who is African-American and who has a few Adverse Childhood Experiences. The holistic emotional experience becomes not just part of the learning equation for this child, it becomes the key. Educators have to try and understand how this individual child will emotionally react to different social experiences and different educational experiences because tapping a well of safe and positive emotions will help the child learn. In addition, their future cultural identity is being informed by their physical and neurological reactions to these experiences in schools. A lot is at stake and ignoring social-emotional learning, cultural backgrounds and the importance of positive discipline policies is inexcusable.

Look for more from me on the Immordino-Yang study in the coming weeks, as I will expand on my impressions of the implications of this study based on my experiences working in elementary schools in Latin America and East Asia. Unshocking spoiler; the study reinforces much of what I already assumed about how culture shapes how we learn. But, I will try not to generalize too much and I will try to give some specific examples of experiences that I have teaching abroad that will hopefully add to the discussion on this research.

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Character Readings for the Classroom

This week, while on vacation, I ran across two small pieces to spur reflection and action in building character strengths for teachers and students.

The first came in my inbox via the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter, which I highly recommend subscribing to and following on Twitter. Maria Popova shared some of the highlights on habit from Mary Oliver’s book Long Life. But she began the piece by quoting William James, who is credited with saying:

 “Habit and character are essentially the same thing.”

Below are the collected sections that Ms. Popova quoted in her post on Mary Oliver and her thoughts on habit. I found them incredibly eloquent and to be a great impetus for reflection among teachers when talking about character, practice, mastery, growth mindset and self-regulation.

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us….

The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures…..

What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.

The other source of character building inspiration I came across this week, was the famous poem by William Ernest Henley entitled InvictusIn my readings and reflections on Stoicism, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and character building, I have again and again found references to this poem. This week I read it over a few times, began to memorize it and stashed it away to use as a class motto in the future. Here it is for your enjoyment:

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

Ed Buzzword: Failure

Seems like everywhere you look these days there is an article, a book, a motivational speaker or educator who is slinging a slogan for the power of failure. From Tavis Smiley’s “Fail Up” to Silicon Valley’s “iteration”, the buzzwords and slogans for the power of failure are myriad these days.

Interestingly, Peter Thiel made a comment going against the grain of the conventional wisdom on the power of failure in an interview with Vox.com recently. He said, “One of the ideas I’m very skeptical of is that people learn from failure. I think, in practice, failure’s really demotivating. Hopefully, you have the character to persevere and keep going, but I think the default is that failure is powerfully demotivating. But success is very motivating.” Mr. Thiel is obviously talking about adults and specifically called out the need for “character to persevere” through failure and “keep going”. Thus, I’m going to assume that Mr. Thiel would agree that it is very important to explicitly and transparently teach character through both failure and success in schools and from a young age.

On that note, I am going to share two more readings on failure!

The first is a wonderful piece written by the eminent educator, Rick Wormeli, entitled, “Failure Preferred, Actually”. In it, Wormeli identifies thirteen ways for teachers to “make failure a valued route to learning” in their classroom. Here are some highlights:

    • “Failure can teach us in ways that consistent success cannot.” In other words, the only way we know how to instill grit and perseverance in a child or adult is through overcoming obstacles. If a child never struggles through something, never experiences failure, there is a world of empathy and coping skills that may remain under developed.
    • “Students should feel safe and invited to experiment and fail in the middle of class or at home as they learn new material…One of the most vivid ways to do this is modeling our own struggles to learn something new.” This is a huge leap for many teachers to take, especially considering the accountability education reform movement. Do most teachers really have the latitude to try and fail, iterate a lesson or unit, or even create a culture of experimentation in their classroom? And Wormeli does acknowledge this by writing, “One of the worst perpetuators of an unhealthy avoidance of failure is the pressure we feel from state or provincial testing.”
  • “Frequently relate the stories of famous figures in history, science, sports, politics, entertainment, and other professions who failed in some way but learned from the experience and grew as a result. Students are consummate story-receivers; they’ll remember the lessons learned.”
  • “Create a ‘Wall of Failure Success’ in which you identify students (with their permission) who failed at something initially, but learned from the experience and eventually became successful with that skill or topic. Be specific in telling their stories.”
  • “…acknowledging that we do not know everything is a good model for students. It builds empathy for what they are feeling as we ask them to take risks.”
  • “Make it possible for students to ask more questions in class than you do. If they’re asking the questions, they’re doing the learning.” I really like this because it is a clear whole group indicator of the learning, the curiosity and the engagement of your students. And this is easy to assess, you can tell when you are leading the students to the water and when they are leading themselves.
  • “The consequence for not doing the learning is the doing the learning, not escape from the learning.” That is a classroom slogan that I will be using soon! As Wormeli says, if we allow a student to skip an assignment or not re-do bad work or we refuse to reassess a student on an improved task, we are signaling to them that specifics of that piece of knowledge or skill is not important, that it’s okay for that student not to learn this thing.

 

Second, the TeachThought website had a great article on a design framework to help students fail successfully.


Framework for Failure

The framework is most concerned with definitions; redefining the meaning of failure based more on the tech world’s notion of iteration and “progress over ‘finishing’”. For example, Terry Heick writes, “If understanding is about making meaning, then failure is always only temporary. Making meaning is a present participle that indicates an ongoing process. It’s indefinite, if for no other reason than we can never fully and completely understand anything.” This is philosophical in nature, while Wormeli’s piece on failure is much more practical. The two compliment each other in ways that are unintended but are extraordinarily inspiring and useful to me as a teacher!

The Mindfulness Triangle

It seems like nearly everything education-related that I read or listen to as of late mentions either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, Stoicism or all three. First, let’s provide some definitions for these ideas and then I will talk about a couple examples.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a structured, short-term, present-oriented psychotherapy for depression, directed toward solving current problems and modifying dysfunctional (inaccurate and/or unhelpful) thinking and behavior.
  2. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment
  3. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.

In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough writes that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in the context of character building and education, is “using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.” For example, many of the KIPP teachers profiled in the book ask students to think about their thinking, identify either negative or positive thoughts, their behavioral triggers, the resultant actions, and then plot a repeatable course that nets better outcomes for the student.

In Invisibilia, the newest podcast from NPR, the first episode entitled, The Secret History of Thoughts, explores the three phases of psychological theory. At first thoughts had meaning and a connection to the material world, ie Freudian psychoanalysis. Then it became common theory and practice to assume that thoughts had limited meaning, automatic negative thoughts should not be simply accepted and internalized, and by challenging or contradicting your thinking you could change it, i.e. Dr. Aaron Beck’s CBT. And the podcast hosts mention that, according to the research, the latter has proven more effective than the former in facilitating mental health.

Finally, the third and newest psychological theory posits that many or most thoughts have no meaning at all, and that through mindfulness therapy a person can learn to ignore those negative, meaningless thoughts altogether, and deny them the power to affect mental health. Under this theory, meditation has become a regular part of therapy. And, in fact, there is a growing movement of educators who are using yoga, meditation and other mindfulness strategies to help their students learn and take care of the whole child. Here is a great review on the Cult of Pedagogy website about a great practical new guide to mindfulness in the classroom, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom.

My frequent encounters with this vein of psychology did not stop there. Lary Wallace has written a great piece in Aeon Magazine online about “why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever”, using the parlance of our times. Wallace argues that Stoicism has been largely ignored in the West because it does not offer the “exotic mystique” of the great Eastern philosophies even though it is more accessible and therefore more practical for the average person. He writes, “Stoicism is, as much as anything, a philosophy of gratitude – a gratitude, moreover, rugged enough to endure anything.”

As a real-life example of just what Stoics can endure, Wallace references the 1993 King’s College London speech of US Navy Admiral James Stockdale. In the speech Admiral Stockdale recounts his five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He used this time as a ‘laboratory of human behavior’ in which he ignored or denied himself any concern outside of his very small ‘sphere of choice’.

Wallace’s emphasis on Stoic gratitude and Stockdale’s reliance on concerning himself only with his own actions in order to endure horrible war-time conditions both have significant ties with the character education being taught at KIPP Academies. Self-regulation, grit, and gratitude are of paramount importance for children of poverty to succeed academically and achieve social-emotional health. And any ‘mind-hack’, as Wallace labels Stoicism, must also require mindfulness to identify thoughts and actions that are within the sphere of choice. Therefore, these three ideas about our thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Stoicism, all have significant overlaps which can be leveraged in the classroom through intentional practice. I am energized by this possibility and will have to follow up in the future with specific teaching practices that integrate these ideas and promote positive student behaviors.

Global Ed Con 2014 Session Review

Escuela Nueva: Quality Education for Peace and Democracy

Vicky Colbert

Founder and Director

Javeriana University, Colombia

  • Local, rural innovation that has grown into a national model that impacts more than 20,000 schools
  • National policy in Vietnam, Zambia, Colombia,
  • What is Escuela Nueva?
    • The process of installing change
    • Guarantees access, quality and relevance of basic education
    • Public-private partnership, civil society to spur innovation, and government to provide and push the scale of change
    • Integrates a systemic and cost effective curriculum, in-service training and follow-up,
    • Administrative and community strategies for school success
  • What does Escuela Nueva promote?
    • Child-centered, active, participatory and cooperative learning
    • Different learning paces, flexible promotion mechanisms, the national curriculum has been made into modules of mastery so students can complete them at their own pace
    • A new role for teachers, facilitator, HOTS inducer, catalyst for thinking
    • Effective, experiential teacher training, that modeled the pedagogy in the classroom with the teachers, hands-on training
    • Collaboration and networking of teaching professionals
    • Strong school, family and community relationships, w/o a ton of meetings!
    • Emphasis on democratic behavior through student governments
    • New generation of self-paced, self-directed, reusable learning guides that incorporate both content and methodology (Flexible and personalized) The textbook, workbook and teacher’s guide all in one.
      • Learning Corners
      • Small group and pair dialoguing
      • Creating community maps to identify the relationship between the school and the child’s home
      • The lessons are relevant to families and their lives and are translated to the families through the children (similar to popular education?)

 

Five Escuela Nueva takeaways:

  1. Yes, it is possible to improve the quality of education and learning in the poorest schools
  2. More of the same is not enough – it requires a paradigm shift in pedagogy
  3. Find a systemic innovative approach
  4. Learning should go beyond just academic achievement, fostering social-competencies, 21st century skills, and peaceful democratic behaviors is equally important
  5. Technology triggers change, but a new pedagogy is indispensable for effective learning

 

  • While everything has changed over the years, the way we learn has not, “most educational reform have been administrative in nature, while pedagogy has not”

 

Similarities and Differences between Latin America Low-income schools

and US Title I schools

Similarities Differences
Rigid calendars and evaluation systems Emphasis on memorization, not comprehension
Weak school-community relationships Teacher-centered methods
Low self-esteem of children Insufficient learning time
Low academic achievement Emphasis on Pre-K-3 education
High drop-out or retention rates
Ineffective or inadequate teacher training, pre-service

The Escuela Nueva Comprehensive, Systemic Approach:

  1. Teachers had to be able to execute the pedagogy, the teaching and learning, even in the jungles of Colombia
  2. It had to be politically viable within a strong teacher union society, so the teachers had to be the actors and leaders for change
  3. The program had to be cost-effective or you could not have a large impact
  4. Rethink the classroom, the way of learning and the education system as a whole

Escuela Nueva model

Escuela Nueva Results:

  1. Comparative Study on Democratic Behavior in Guatemala showed that Escuela Nueva students more frequently took turns talking or participating in an activity, and also more frequently lead processes
  2. Enhances girl’s participation, self-esteem and leadership skills

“None of us alone is as smart as all of us together.” ~Francois Taddei, Descartes University

Vision: By 2018 Escuela Nueva desires to be a “global technical reference for active, cooperative and personalized learning” and they want to lead a “global movement” to improve lives via their educational model.

Urban Escuela Activa: They expanded their model to urban areas in 1988 when there was a rapid urbanization in Colombia

Escuela Nueva Learning Circles: A specialized program for displaced-migrant population in Colombia. In these schools the students need specialized services that are flexible and adaptable to their unique needs.

  • Community youth agents serve as tutors in the schools:

→ They serve groups of 10-15 multi-grade students in the Learning Circles

→ They also ensure sustainability for the teachers in these poor urban schools

that experience extremely high rates of teacher turnover

Discipline in Schools: Is This Working?

This American Life, Episode 538: Is This Working?

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/538/is-this-working

This is a really powerful and honest exploration of discipline in schools; what is the purpose, what are the methods, what is working and what is not working. Some of the stories told are all too commonplace, some of them are very unique and tragic situations. However, all of them represent a dilemma or debate in the education community about how we should think about and implement appropriate and effective student discipline methods in schools, and what that may mean for different communities. The show also reflects on the parallels of school discipline policies and those of the criminal justice system.

It starts by surveying a number of middle school teachers on their response to a behavior scenario which has a student refusing to comply with a no hats school policy. There is a wide range of answers from a full-fledged, middle of class conversation, to simple demerit points smoothly integrated into the uninterrupted class content, and even the throwing of a clog!

Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, is cited in that there are still teacher preparation programs around the nation that do not have a class that covers classroom management and specific behavior management methods. And indeed, there is no best practice that all educators agree upon. In spite of this, yet and still “you kinda have to nail discipline before you do anything else that you want” in the classroom, says Ira Glass.

Here are some of questions and issues they explore:

  • Will the wrong kind of discipline in school screw up children for the rest of their life?
  • Is it appropriate and/or effective to suspend pre-school children?
  • Do the behavior histories of parents in schools repeat with their children?
  • Discipline disproportionality based on race. “Is my black preschooler just another statistic?
  • The-school-to-prison-pipeline
  • Michael Thompson and the Texas student database from 2007-09 that showed that 2 out of 10 black boys in Texas made it through high school without being suspended. Students who were suspended were three times as likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system outside of school.
  • Strict discipline as a management method in high-poverty schools with students who have multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s).
  • The creepy feeling when teachers use hyper-control methods on students and there is little joy and humanity in different school situations.
  • “Do you not get why I am freaking out right now. I am so worried because I see myself and my friends, and some of those people are in prison right now.” -Rousseau Mieze
  • Fear Factor:
  1. Teachers are afraid of losing control
  2. There is a fear students will not develop self-control
  • Restorative Justice: a mediation that tries to restore the harm done by the crime. This comes from the criminal justice system, where they bring offenders and victims together to talk about the crime and attempt to restore justice somehow.
  1. Lyons Community School
  2. Talking circles to resolve conflicts, “talking is how you are successful” ie thorough communication.
  3. A long-term investigation of student actions and words goes along with the long-term project of each student “Being Lyonized”. Talk, exploration, reflection and cognitive behavior therapy.
  4. The Plain-Clothes Cop on the Train story, restorative justice between an angered cop and a group of 9th grade Lyons students, whoa!
  • “What is the point of punishment in school? Is it to teach self-control? To get kids to be quiet so that learning can happen? To prepare children to function as grown-ups in the world? To teach them how to avoid being arrested?”
  • “Removed from the community” is the term they use at the end of the show to refer to the parallels between suspension and prison as our standard social punishments.

For me, the comments of Rousseau Mieze on hyper-control methods rang most true. In my second year as a bilingual instructional assistant in a Title I Seattle public school, I was aware of my calling to the teaching profession and spent some of professional development hours observing the experienced and innovative teachers in my building.

I spent one half-day in the classroom of a teacher who was new to the building and district, having moved from Los Angeles after working for more than 20 years in inner-city schools there. She was nice as pie in the staff lounge, one of my favorite teachers to chat with about students, teaching and life. In the classroom, however, she was not to be trifled with, even as a fellow staff member I felt on-edge about my performance based on her expectations in her classroom.

I distinctly remember the feeling of a community-building activity that she seemed to be ramming down her 5th graders throats that day. The students were in a big standing circle tossing a ball to their peers and practicing giving “put-ups” as opposed to put-downs to their fellow classmates. This activity was viscerally awkward and disingenuous at times, and yet the teacher was strident that all the students complete the activity no matter how fake it felt. I distinctly remember walking away from that half-day observation wondering if I had to be such a strict and demanding task-master in order to teach these diverse students of color and lesser economic means? It didn’t feel good to me. It was not inspiring. But, as I saw throughout the school year, this teacher was highly effective in building relationships with the most recalcitrant students, bringing up the reading levels of her lowest ability-level students, modifying bad behaviors, reinforcing good habits and maintaining high expectations. This woman was a pro and she knew what her students needed and she gave it to them whether it was bad tasting medicine or not.

Like Rousseau Mieze, I find it a bit disconcerting to find yourself in the position of holding young people to such strict discipline standards. As a person who has had their fair share of discipline issues in school, it is not fair that certain young people have a shorter leash and a greater potential for consequences than I did as a white male student. Yet, the fact remains, that Mieze and I both have friends who have gone to prison because of self-control issues in their youth. Discipline is definitely important in all classrooms, but it appears to be eminently critical in certain schools and classrooms. Suspensions and the disproportionality issue have to change, but not at the expense of this uncomfortable bit of current reality.

Paul Tough Stuff

In 2013 I took part in the Seattle Public Schools Strategic Planning Stakeholder Taskforce, which was tasked with reestablishing the mission, vision and a set of policy priorities for coming the coming five years for the district. On that taskforce, I had the opportunity to discuss many of our districts’ most pressing education policy issues with many of the prominent education leaders and active stakeholders in the community. Invariably, many of the discussions revolved around the so-called Achievement Gap between students of poverty and those of middle-class or higher backgrounds, or certain groups of students of color as against white students.

 

The whole idea of the taskforce was to help the school district identify a few priority metrics by which we could judge student academic progress over the next five years, and thus judge the performance of district officials, school administrators and teachers in their use of time and taxpayer resources. At one point at our table a discussion was sparked about how to measure the intangibles, the social-emotional health and the whole child qualities that may not show up on test scores, but everyone knows is vital to a healthy and productive life. As one of my esteemed table-mates put it, “How do we prioritize the ‘Paul Tough Stuff’?”

 

Paul Tough, of course, is an education journalist, perhaps best known for his first book on education, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. If you are not familiar, see the controversial documentary Waiting For Superman or google the Harlem Children’s Zone. I read that book in 2010 while teaching English in a community of violently displaced peoples outside of Barranquilla, Colombia. At the time, the book helped to explain some of the struggles I had in the classroom there, although the parallels were few and far between other than blanket poverty.

 

Last week I began reading Tough’s latest book on education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In this blog post I am going to collect my thoughts about the ‘Paul Tough Stuff’ that I find interesting and noteworthy. Hopefully, I will be able to make some connections to my work as a teacher in Colombia, a bilingual instructional assistant in a Title I school in Seattle and my other encounters with poverty and overcoming it. It just so happens that Coursera, the online MOOC platform, is offering a class on teaching character taught by KIPP Academy co-founder, David Levin. I am planning on auditing this class when it starts in mid-December.

 

Introduction & Chapter I

 

  • Tools of the Mind, is a pre-K teaching method where students are “taught a variety of strategies, tricks, and habits that they can deploy to keep their minds on track.” The three big self-control skills are keeping your focus on the task at hand, managing and regulating emotions and organizing your thoughts. This concept has it roots in the work of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who believed that childhood play is critical in the development of the mental tools that shape a child’s mind. Students make “play plans”, i.e. goal-setting, they use physical ‘mediator’ tools, i.e. visual cues, and they participate in ‘mature dramatic play’, i.e. complex structured play which teaches children how to ‘follow rules and regulate impulses’.
  • The Cognitive Hypothesis – That success primarily depends on cognitive skills.
  • James Heckman – Nobel Economist at the University of Chicago, GED founding board member and researcher. He found that GED recipients ended up with lives that looked a lot like those of high school drop-outs even though they had the cognitive skills to graduate via a GED program or enroll in a university. Heckman concluded that some psychological traits, non-cognitive skills, significantly helped high school graduates in later life. Traits like persisting through a boring & unrewarding task, delayed gratification, follow through on a plan. GED holders are “‘wise guys’ who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks, or to adapt to their environments” Heckman is quoted.
  • The Perry Preschool Project – Detroit area, War on Poverty study on the affects of early childhood interventions on low-income, low-IQ children. Heckman found that nearly two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave to its students was due to non-cognitive factors, “such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity.”
  • The book’s premise: “What can any of us do to steer an individual child–or a whole generation of children–away from failure and toward success?”

 

    • Elizabeth Dozier – Fenger High School Principal, Roseland neighborhood, South-Side of Chicago
    • Nadine Burke Harris – Bayview Child Health Center, in Hunters Point, SF.
    • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – Physical and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, household dysfunction, divorced or separated parents, family members incarcerated, mentally ill family members, addiction problems within the family. All of which affect the long-term mental and physical health of a child.
    • Vincent Felitti & Robert Anda – Authors of “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold Into Lead.” The first ACE health research done by Kaiser Permanente. “When they looked at patients with a high ACE scores (7 or more) who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess, and weren’t overweight, they found that their risk of ischemic heart disease (the single most common cause of death in the US) was still 360 percent higher than those with an ACE score of 0. The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick” despite good habits and behavior as adults.
    • The HPA Axis – Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal” axis, “the way that chemical signals cascade through the brain and body in reaction to intense situations.”
    • The Firehouse Affect – The HPA Axis is good at blanket responses to stress and intense situations, but it is not surgical. In fact, it gives us stress responses that are not at all helpful in many or most intense situations.
    • Executive Functions – Among Burke Harris’ patients with an ACE score of 0, only 3 percent had behavioral problems at school. Those patients with an ACE score of 4 or more, 51 percent of them had behavioral issues.
  • The prefrontal cortex is adversely affected by stress. The prefrontal cortex is “critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive.” Stress and ACE’s make it harder for children to sit still, concentrate, rebound from disappointments, and to follow directions.
  • Executive Function – The ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and information.
  • Stroop Exec Function Test – The word red is written in green letters. What color is the word?
  • Working Memory – The ability to keep a bunch of facts in your head at the same time.

 

Chapter 2

  • David Levin, co-founder of KIPP Academy. Yale grad, TFA grad. Houston area was where the first KIPP school was started, but the South Bronx middle school was their big moment (Michael Feinberg, other co-founder).
  • http://www.kipp.org/mobile/video-60-Minutes.cfm (60 Minutes feature, 2000)
  • 8 of 38 of the first cohort of South Bronx middle school graduates of KIPP went on to complete a four-year college degree. Nearly all of that cohort enrolled in university, but most did not finish.
  • Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman – University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology, argues that optimism is a learnable skill, not an inborn trait.
  1. 3 P’s of negativity explanations: Permanent, Personal and Pervasive
  2. 3 explanations of positivity: Specific, Limited and Short-term
  3. Character Strengths and Virtues: Handbook & Classification, the “mirror image” of the DSM Manual of Mental Disorders (Noble: bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom, integrity, Emotional: love, humor, zest, appreciation of beauty, Human Interactions: social intelligence, kindness, gratitude)
  4. What “I think is great about the character-strength approach is that it is fundamentally devoid of value judgement” – David Levin
  • KIPP slogans: Work Hard, Be Nice, There are no shortcuts, One School. One Mission. Two Skills. Academics and Character.,
  • Riverdale Country School, elite prep school in the Bronx, headmaster is Dominic Randolph,

 

  • Angela Duckworth – Penn Pyschology professor, “To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
  • Walter Mischel, Columbia psychology professor, famous for the 1960’s experiment of the “Marshmallow Test”. Children are posed with a choice, eat the marshmallow immediately and they can only have one. Wait until the test proctor returns in 20 minutes and they can have two marshmallows. Seminal in both its assessment of techniques of will-power by children and the long-term effects of the children’s ability to delay gratification.
  1. The more children were able to distract themselves from the marshmallow at hand or think differently or abstractly about the marshmallow, the longer the children were able to delay eating the marshmallow.
  2. Self-control techniques are most effective when the student or child know what he or she wants, making less immediate, more intangible long-term goals harder in terms of self-discipline, delayed gratification (motivation).
  3. Duckworth divides motivation into two achievement dimensions, both are necessary to achieve long-term goals, neither is sufficient by itself:

1) Motivation – Drive, vision, goal-setting, intrinsic or extrinsic reward

2) Volition – willpower, self-control, grit, determination, persistence

  • The Big Five human personality dimensions:
    1. Agreeableness
    2. Extraversion
    3. Neuroticism
    4. Openness – Creativity, flexibility, linked with a liberal ideology
  • Conscientiousness – Doing your best in all situations without a promise of material reward because of an internal motivation to always do your best.
  1. a) Orderly
  2. b) Hardworking
  3. c) Reliable
  4. d) Respectful of Social Norms
  5. e) High level of Self-Control is the most important ingredient to   

               conscientiousness

  • “People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer…and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.” Along with improved workplace and material outcomes.
  • Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, two Marxist economists, found in their 1976 study of character and schools that students with the highest GPA’s were the ones who scored the lowest on measures of creativity and independence, and highest on the measures of punctuality, delay of gratification, predictability, and dependability. For Bowles and Gintis this indicated corporate America’s desire to create and maintain a docile and dependable workforce, “bland and reliable sheep”, so they created a school system which rewarded conscientiousness.
  • Other personality pyschologists also consider too much conscientiousness to be a negative, an indicator of excessive restraint, difficulty making decisions, unnecessarily delay gratification or deny themselves pleasure, “classic squares: they’re compulsive, anxious and repressed.”
  • Grit: “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.”
  • The KIPP and Riverdale 7 Important Character Strengths:
  1. Grit
  2. Self-control
  3. Zest – Indicator: a student raises her hand to answer every question.
  4. Social Intelligence
  5. Gratitude
  6. Optimism – Indicator: a student believes that effort will improve their future.
  7. Curiosity – Indicator: a student is eager to explore new things.
  • CPA – Character Point Average, grades based on an assessment of student character strengths
  • Moral Character – Ethical values such as fairness, generosity, integrity
  • Performance Character – Effort, diligence and perseverance
  • Madeline Levine, Marin County pyschologist, who says that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school” because affluent parents are more likely to be “emotionally distant from their children while at the same time insisting on high levels of achievement.” Levine is featured in the Race To Nowhere documentary.
  • For Riverdale students, character and the necessity of character building takes on a different meaning. As the Riverdale counselor, Fierst, puts it, “We are letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like” at KIPP, with impoverished students. While Riverdale’s students are not dependent on their teachers for such information and examples. And yet, Fierst also says, “Our kids (at Riverdale) don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

→ On both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, “If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received.

→ Riverdale creates a high floor, not a high ceiling for its students. It a risk-management strategy for the parents so as to make it very hard for their children to “fall out of the upper class”. See this Vox.com interview with Peter Thiel for more on this issue.

  • Randolph says, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure…And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything”…because there is a high floor, so not a large chance of ‘original success’ or failure, i.e. no real stakes at play. See the Peter Thiel interview for more on this also, he says he is not a believer in failure, but instead of building successes.
  1. Is it possible that children of different socioeconomic groups need different character building challenges, maybe affluent students need real stakes and a risk of failure in an endeavor in order to build grit, while students of poverty already have grit, but instead need to build conscientiousness and self-control?

 

  • SLANT – Sit up, Listen, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the speaker
  • Code-switching – The ability to recognize and accurately perform the behaviors appropriate to each different cultural setting. The problem with code-switching is that “the kids who are actually part of the dominant culture don’t necessarily act like it at school.” Anti-conformist behavior at Riverdale is the dominant culture’s behavior, while at KIPP everyone has to conform in order to succeed.

Note: This is controversial ground, where race, culture and socioeconomic power come into full focus in the book, yet Tough seems to avoid the deeper implications of this code-switching issue. Are there problems with a school serving low-income students of color and enforcing the expectations of a dominant white culture of affluence which does not even need to follow its own social norms? Why do these students of color need to adhere to these proscribed cultural expectations in that case? Why do they have to diligently code-switch if society has been set up to see their social norms as less desirable, and thus set-up to make success harder for these students of color? Why do they have to worker harder at this, or at all, if they can compete with the Riverdale students on the same level academically? Or, is there just something fundamental about grit and self-control which make them keys to success across cultures, and so we’ve got to teach them in appropriate ways differentiated for each classroom culture?

 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) – “Using the conscious mind to recognize negative or self-destructive thoughts or interpretations and to talk yourself into a better perspective.”
  1. Metacognition – Thinking about thinking
  2. Thinking about character and about evaluating character are both metacognitive processes
  3. Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) 2-step process –
  1. Mental Contrasting is “Concentrating on a positive outcome and simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way.” This creates “a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future” say Gabrielle Oettingen and Duckworth.
  2. Implementation Intentions are “specific plans in the form of if/then statements that link the obstacles with ways to overcome them, such as ‘If I get distracted by TV after school, then I will wait to watch TV until after I finish my homework.’”
    • MCII is engaging the prefrontal cortex, which again is instrumental in self-regulatory processes, because we are making structured rules for ourselves that can create a willful determination that turns into an automatic response, or habit.
  • William James, American philosopher, “Habit and character are essentially the same thing.”
    • It is a powerful and easily understood thing to tell a child that some people have good habits and others have bad habits. Habits can be hard to change, but certainly not impossible, while character sounds a bit more daunting. Again, see the definition of conscientiousness, it is when people are in the habit of doing the ‘right’ or ‘good’ thing, “meaning the more socially acceptable or long-term-benefit-enhancing option.”
    • KIPP has a strong group identity. See South Korea as a national example of strong group identity with a mostly positive result as well. This group identity can have a strong impact on achievement.
    • Stereotype Threat – The theory that when a group of people are worried about confirming a stereotype about your group, you get anxious, and as a result you create a worse outcome.
  • Carol Dweck – Growth Mindset, “Regardless of the facts on malleability of intelligence, students do much better academically if they believe intelligence is malleable.”
  • Tell students, “Intelligence is not a finite endowment, but rather an expandable capacity that increases with mental work” and the growth-mindset message may improve academic outcomes for your students.
  • So at KIPP, “Levin wanted math teachers to use the character strengths in word problems, he explained that history teachers could use them in classes about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.” And discussions about literary characters and their personality traits in light of growth-mindset, the 7 character strengths, and MCII.
  • “If you don’t have that kind of social safety net (that Riverdale students enjoy) – and children in low-income families almost by definition do not – you need to compensate in another way. To succeed, you need more grit, more social intelligence, more self-control than wealthier kids.”
    • And here Tough gets back to the code-switching reality. I think his above statement is undoubtedly true and undoubtedly unfair to children of poverty and especially children of color. As teachers, we need to recognize this, and work with parents to assess the character strengths and areas of growth in our students no matter their background, but especially in the students Tough is talking about.

 

Chapter 3 –

  • Elizabeth Spiegel, Chess Teacher at IS 318 in Brooklyn, a Title I school and the best Chess public middle school in the country, or just the best.
  • Elo ~ (10 x IQ) + 1000, meaning a chess player’s tournament rating, your IQ score multiplied by ten and add 1000 and you get what your maximum chess player rating could approximately be (~). This proposes that there is an IQ dependent cap on a person’s chess ability.
  • Executive functions of chess at IS 318:
  1. Cognitive flexibility – The ability to see alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations.
  2. Cognitive self-control – The ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and  substitute a more effective, less obvious one.
  • Spiegel says that, “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking.” This should sound familiar, it rhymes with the notion that character and habits are really the same thing. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Teaching chess for Spiegel is like ‘psychotherapy’ for most people, you go over habitual mistakes and try to understand why you make them.
  • Spiegel, “I try to teach my students that losing (or failing) is something you do, not something you are.”
  • Chess-in-the-schools, NYC – http://www.chessintheschools.org/
  • Spiegel, “I definitely have a warm relationship with a lot of the kids. But I think my job as a teacher is to be more like a mirror, to talk about what they did on the chessboard and help them think about it.” No condescension! Take the students seriously, believe in their abilities and challenge them to improve themselves.
  • The Marshall Chess Club, Greenwich Village, NYC
  • Laszlo (psychologist) and Klara Polgar, raised three genius daughters, Judit Polgar is considered the best chess player of all time.
  • Grit and Flow reinforce each other, they are both represent a “dedicated pursuit of a goal” and require strong self-discipline.
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist collaborator with Martin Seligman, created the idea of optimal experiences or FLOW, when a person is totally engaged by a pursuit, in the moment, free of distractions. “Intense concentration”
  • Falsification: the only way to test the validity of a theory is to prove it wrong. This was coined by the Austrian philosopher Sir Karl Popper. People do not look for contradictory evidence, instead they automatically look for data that proves them right, “confirmation bias”. If a chess player becomes adept at being more pessimistic about a certain move or series of moves, they can more easily falsify their move theory and discover the optimal choice for their next move. You still need optimism in order to be confident and decisive and relentless in your pursuit of success on the chessboard.

 

Chapter 4 – College Success

  • The US is 8 out of 34 OECD countries in terms of college enrollment, but ranks second to last in terms of the percentage of college freshmen who go on to graduate.
  • “An American with a BA can now expect to earn 83 percent more than an American with only a high school diploma.”
  • William G Bowen, former president of Princeton University, Michael S McPherson, former president of Macalester College in Minnesota, and their 2009 book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.

Findings:

  1. a) Undermatching was a big problem among teenagers of poverty, meaning they

were disproportionately attending schools below their academic achievement

level. Undermatching did not mean students more easily graduated from college,

quite the opposite effect, actually.

  1. b) The best predictor of college completion was a student’s high school GPA, no matter where the students attended high school, nor the caliber of the university they entered
  2. c) Angela Duckworth used the same data and found that standardized test scores were correlated to pure IQ test scores, while GPA was best predicted by test scores of self-control, ie non-cognitive, pre-frontal, executive function, character stuff!!!!
  • Jeff Nelson, former TFA teacher, CEO of OneGoal
  • Asking students from poverty to spend 16 years delaying gratification for a chance at ‘success’ and stability is like a grand, real-life marshmallow test, except instead of a known reward, it is an unknown and exotic reward that anyone would be hard-pressed to imagine.

Chapter 5 – A Better Path

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” – Dominic Randolph

  1. “First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress;
  2. then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.”
  3. Then, you teach your child how to manage stress by repeatedly providing LG “when their pups were stressed out.”
  4. Last, “some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.” How to manage failure.
    • Ivy League Insurance Policies, see Peter Thiel Vox interview also, before the Great Recession of 2008, three-quarters of all Princeton grads went into one of two finance careers. Ivy League students, according to James Kwak, are motivated by two main decision rules, “close down as few options as possible; and only do things that increase the possibility of future overachievement.”
  • Tough’s education reform and poverty syllogism:
  1. Scores on achievement tests in school correlate strongly with life outcomes, no matter a student’s racial or socioeconomic background
  2. Children in low-income homes did much worse on achievement tests than children in middle-income and high-income homes.
  3. Certain schools, using a very different model than traditional public schools, were able to substantially raise the achievement-test scores of low-income children.
  4. Conclusion: if we replicate and scale to a national level the accomplishments of those schools (KIPP academy, etc.) we could make a huge dent in poverty’s impact on children’s success.

→ Eric Hanushek, Thomas Kane, William Sanders, the economists and statisticians that first made the claim that through ‘value-added models’ we could identify effective teachers and ineffective teachers.

The “original papers, the ones by Hanushek and others that are now cited by reform advocates, concluded that variations in teacher quality probably accounted for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.

 

  • Gates Foundation Measures of Effective Teaching (MET Project)
  • 7 million American children are growing up in a family earning less than $11,000 a year, making more likely the effects of ACE on long-term health, among many other disadvantages
  • While some charters and public schools have found a way to intervene successfully in the lives of “better-off” low-income children, those making $41,000 a year in their family of four, NO ONE HAS FOUND A SUCCESSFUL INTERVENTION METHOD FOR THE “DEEPLY DISADVANTAGE CHILDREN”.
  • Orgs that are trying to find systems of support and intervention for the poorest of the poor in America:
  1. Center for Youth Wellness – Bayview Hunters Point, Nadine Burke Harris
  2. Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC Program)
  3. Tools of the Mind
  4. Turnaround for Children – Character-building and Cognitive behavioral therapy
  5. KIPP Through College

 

The crux of the problem of poverty and education achievement gaps according to Paul Tough:

  • The root causes are:
  1. A home and community that create high levels of stress
  2. The absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver
  3. The learned behavior of managing stress appropriately
  • The barriers to conversation and intervention of poverty:
  1. The science of ACE’s is not well known and is dense
  2. If you are not low-income and not a person of color, it feels very ‘uneasy’ talking about the dysfunction in a certain community’s homes.
  3. It challenges political truths on the left and right. That character matters and it can be cultivated by environment of a child, challenge long held notions in red and blue states.