Executive Skills – The Missing Link

Here’s an incredibly powerful article i would urge all parents and teachers to read.

Educational Leadership Article

As a teacher or a parent have you ever thrown your hands in the air and labeled a child ‘lazy’, ‘forgetful’, ‘careless’? My guess is that I won’t be the only reader for whom this brings back bad memories of our own childhood, our own education.

The skills listed under the ‘executive skills’ umbrella are so important in our adult lives. lacking them, or believing that being weak in them is ‘just how we are’ because of our childhood experiences can seriously impair adults’ abilities to fulfil their true potential in life. In worst case scenarios the years of school and college, formative years, can be turned in to a living hell for some unlucky children.

The article suggests that in all people these skills have the potential to keep building for at least the first two decades of life. However, there is an inevitability that in some children the mental facility to acquire these skills will come in to place at varying rates.

I was thinking as I read this article that certain aspects of our schools and homes can increase the risks for a child on this issue;
a) If our educators are completely focused on the ‘what’ to be learned – the syllabus etc., we fail to give adequate time to all students to help them develop these skills,
b) Then, educators need the acuity and focus to identify those students for whom further intervention and assistance is needed,
c) This is one area where parents and teachers need to make their working together really effective, and most certainly not indulge in secretiveness from each other or blame games,
d) Making school and/ or home too ‘loose’ and free in terms of rules, expectations of the child, routines and processes does not serve the child well. They need to know that getting it right on ‘Executive skills’ matters, but that while they’re learning there is as much help available to them as they need.

Fail to pay attention to these things and, I believe, we have to find ourselves culpable if we have a generation of young people who are disorganised, cannot meet deadlines, turn in shoddy work because of last-minutism and cannot be relied upon.

Ultimately, these ‘executive skills’ are skills of character. Few will survive without them and we do children a great disservice if we expect them to figure the skills out for themselves without overtly directing their learning. Like it or not, these skills might just matter more in the long term than algebra or how to write a haiku.

Teens Drinking

It’s the moment so many parents of teens dread, the day they think they can smell alcohol on their child’s breath. They’re not sure which would be worse – for the child to admit it and justify themselves or to deny but leave the doubting parent whether the misbehaviour has now been increased by dishonesty and deception.

In the past and even now, the majority of Indian parents have believed these were the nightmares of ‘western’ parents. However, the evidence from this recent survey is that large numbers of urban parents have a harsh reality to come to terms with, happening right now. Not only does this survey show that large numbers of youngsters are involved, but they’re pushing the drinking to the extremes to ‘get high’, indulging in what has come to be known as ‘binge’ drinking – high risk activity.

45% of class XII students booze 5-6 times a month

The reality that people in the west came to understand over the last 30 years or so is that it is impossible to identify which are the children/ youngsters who will be able to start down this route and keep a control on it, and which will be the ones where suddenly all aspects of life will start ‘coming apart’ and their life slipping out of control. Who can stop the drinking when they want to? Who can limit the risk taking to drinking alone, without getting tempted in to other high risk behaviours; unprotected sexual activities, driving while drunk or indulging in narcotics and hard drugs?

There is no way to know, no way to tell. It’s like a big game of Russian roulette with high stakes. The celeb idiots trotting in and out of rehab every 5 minutes set all the wrong signals – it’s not that easy and they are really stupid people!!

I am a firm believer that you can’t tackle issues like this in isolation. The safest young person will be one who has strong self-identity, clarity about what it is they want to achieve in life, ability to discern between short term hedonistic ‘thrill’ against long term life aims, conviction around their core values and an excitement level attached to their right and ability to be/ do remarkable in their lifetime.

As parents and educators, these must be our aims for our children.

Refreshing Introspection

As this American blogging teacher admits, as educators these days we’re quick enough to suggest that students should be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them – that real learning isn’t about staying safe within what we already know or are proficient at. However, for teachers it’s recognised that they feel a high degree of vulnerability if they openly admit to fallibility. Somehow, teachers feel the need to at least give the impression that they are completely in control, supremely confident on everything and on top of their game in every respect, all the time.

That’s what makes this blog post so refreshing. It’s a teacher, honestly looking back on the things she didn’t get right in the first year of her time in the profession. What she’s clearly realised is that this kind of reflection and introspection offers the best route to becoming better. What she’s also done is offered a gift to her peers, her fellow professionals who can feel a little easier about admitting their own learning journey:

New Teacher’s Blog

Assessing Teacher Performance – A Hornets’ Nest

The issue of assessing teachers’ performance is controversial enough. However, when you then take the leap on from that and use those assessments to determine bonuses and extra payments for some (and showing the door to others), then you really get in to one of the most disputed and controversial areas in education.

Of course, there are those in many other professional fields who would suggest that there is no logical reason why such methods, prevalent elsewhere for determining accountability and reward, shouldn’t also apply to teachers. However, there are no shortage of teachers who will tell you that the nature of their profession makes it impossible to reduce it down to so many measurable metrics in this way.

Here’s an interesting article from Texas, America that shows the current state of this debate in the US. Panicked about an education system that seems to be failing to maintain the country’s competitiveness in the world, Americans are clearly thrashing around for answers. So, in some places teachers are being assessed on actual performance of the children in their classes, in some places on the basis of ‘value-added’ data measurements (taking in to account starting and ‘finishing’ points), whilst some are advocating for the more subjective analysis through classroom observations.

Dallas News Article

Whilst I’ve got my own thoughts on these different approaches and on the overall issue, I am really very interested to gain a sense of other people’s feelings, especially on the potential applicability of any of these methods in India. It even brings up the question of the extent to which the school or the education system is responsible for the quality of a teacher’s work, balanced against their own individual accountability.

Are there lessons that we can learn from the American debate, that could ultimately enable us to produce a better quality education system that delivers high standards consistently?

Screen Time – More Evidence

Here’s some new research that goes as far as to suggest that excessive time spent in front of screens (TV, computer, PS3 etc.) can actually be psychologically harmful to the child.

The article advocates something that i have long argued for, and practiced with my own son – a daily screen limit and some scope for the child to negotiate, plan and make some choices about how to operate within that overall limit.

Reuters Article on Screen Time

Believe me, it’s worth the discipline and the effort to put such a scheme in place. Also, the more parents who do it, the easier it will become as there’s less likelihood of your children believing they’re being subjected to something ‘unfair’.

Good Quote

“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.”
–Leo Stein,
American art collector and critic

Can Neurofeedback Clinically Prove Itself?

Here’s an article that sets out the current balance of views on the validity of Neurofeedback as a valid treatment for autism, ADHD and other conditions. Plainly, before anyone can really be sure of the veracity there’s going to need to be considerably more research, including studies over time to determine whether the purported improvements last:

New York Times article on Neurofeedback

Much of the doubt seems to stem from the speed with which some of those marketing Neurofeedback have been ready to make extravagant claims for it before they have real proof. Nevertheless, it’s going to be fascinating to follow this over coming months.

In the meantime, I found myself thinking whilst reading this piece that if these people are right and the wiring of the brain can essentially be rearranged through an electronic feedback mechanism, then doesn’t that increase the likelihood that it can also be achieved through continuous, determined self-talk or self-feedback. Maybe, after all these years we’ll get some proof that the ‘positive thinking’ gurus were right all the time – that we really can choose how we feel, and as a result increase our likelihood of success. The great news if that proves to be true – it’s all FREE!!

Bullying – Useful Resources

Here’s the link to a whole lot of articles and materials on countering bullying in schools from the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ site:

Whole Child Blog – Bullying Resources

Quote on Character

Sound character provides the power with which a person may ride the emergencies of life instead of being overwhelmed by them. Failure is ..the highway to success.”
–Og Mandino

Tutors – Saints or Sinners?

In a healthy education climate, should students need to supplement the time they spend learning in school with additional time (and cost) of tutors and tuitions?

This report from the New York Times gives a variety of American perspectives on the issue, the majority of which indicate weaknesses in the existing system that are causing the felt need to supplement with tuitions.

New York Times – Room for Debate

The articles suggest that the biggest culprits are high stakes testing causing pupils and parents to believe that they must do whatever it takes to get an advantage over others. Maths is one subject where students are seen as particularly vulnerable and needing further inputs.

My biggest fears are that the thirst for tuitions is driven from an out-of-date paradigm in which teachers are the deliverers of knowledge, where learning is seen as an accumulation of knowledge which is ‘put in’ to the pupil by the teacher and where outcome is completely linked to volume of input.

I am also concerned that, later down the line, we’re going to conclude that all these tuitions did long term damage to the person’s potential to be a self-driven lifelong learner. This is because, unconsciously, the learner begins to believe that learning is something done TO them, rather than BY them, that it only takes place when in the presence of a teacher who is the centre of focus.

I believe that a part of the trouble is that we tend to employ two different groups of people in primary and secondary education (three different groups if we also include the tertiary sector as well) and nobody ever really looks at the totality of the learner over the long term. Each group sets itself goals that relate to students’ levels of knowledge (and sometimes skills) at the time when they leave that sector, rather than seeing the bigger, long term picture. Somewhere, some advanced thinking is needed that focuses on the entire learner throughout their life. I believe one aspect of such an approach would see a greater emphasis on acquisition of independent learning skills and habits at an earlier age – primary education that worries more about whether children are inquisitive, curious and creative than whether they’ve completed the syllabus and scored a certain percentage by the end of each class.

Education is not a Taylor-ian production line, with a set of processes to be completed at each work station along the route. A child’s ability to score 95% in an exam in Class IV is not proof of progress along the journey to being an effective lifelong learner, citizen and person capable of fulfilling his/ her potential. It just says they ‘got’ whatever we said they should get in that particular year of their life.

To make such changes we’re going to need to do some new things; train teachers to work with the whole child and see there work in a long term context, trust them to deliver professionally without lots of cookie cutter tests to check if they put the right ‘stuff’ in to class III-B etc.

The answers don’t lie in just doing more of the same and hoping for some magically different outcomes. There’s a long and potentially exciting journey ahead.

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