Sad State of American Kindergarten

When supposedly rational, trained professionals do things which are increasingly bizarre and showing ample evidence that they are actually harming children in the longer term, you have to wonder what’s driving the whole process.

Edweek – Kindergarten Today, Less Play, More Academics

This article shares, very visually and starkly how much has changed in the US approach to Kindergarten between 1998 and 2010. The two big issues are, firstly, the inclination of KG teachers to expect that children should already have mastered many academic skills before starting school and secondly, how much more time they allocate to academics once those children are in school.

And, let’s not forget, this is a 12 year period during which the US has shown little progress on international comparative standardised assessments like PISA – indicating that it hasn’t even worked to raise academic standards and performance compared to other countries.

However, in my opinion, the damage of this strategy will show through in many ways other than failure to progress in PISA. I fear a generation of children who avoid learning except when it’s ‘done to them’. I also fear that this will be a generation of children within which the winners and losers in life will be determined by the chance factor of whether they happened to be a lucky or an unlucky one in terms of whether their brains’ neural networks were ready for this early onslaught of academics. Further, if evidence from research is right I fear this will be a generation that experiences higher levels of criminality, drug and alcohol addictions, marital discord and rates of failure in the softer aspects of living a successful life.

Overall, unacceptable prices for these children to pay for skewed logic and foolish treatment.

Chasing Bits of Paper

Teaching Times – English GCSEs Could Be Harder For Pupils

In a logical and rational world children, parents and educators would want that examinations are a fair test, skillfully put together in such a way that all students get to demonstrate their capabilities and what they’ve learned to the greatest extent. Those who have embraced the learning best would be able to demonstrate that.

Instead, what we’ve increasingly finished up with is dumbed down simplified tests that enable vast numbers to score the top marks, to the point where they no longer act as a good and effective test of who are the best students. One of the results is that Universities increasingly struggle to find any value in them to determine who would be the best students to permit to pursue further studies. Sadly, all parties conspire, consciously or unconsciously to dumb the system down and render it worthless.

If we could hav an education system in which everyone really embraced a love for learning, what would the assessments look like? How would we reward and recognise those teachers who embrace the work of enabling every pupil to learn to their best and how would we hold those who cynically tech to the tests to account?

The Reward Economy

It’s not just parents, but also many classroom teachers, who have sought to apply basic behaviourism to control and direct children’s behaviour in the direction they want. These days there are even Apps like Class Dojo that exist specifically for this purpose.

In the past I’ve written about New York educator, Alfie Kohn and his arguments against this approach, particularly those set out in his book ‘Punished By Rewards’. Here’s a good article that sets out the problems and why use of rewards can so often backfire in quite simple terms;

The Atlantic – The Dangers Of Using a Sticker Chart To Teach Kids Good Behaviour

The article draws quite extensively on the writings and work of Dan Ariely, professor at Duke University. When social norms and economic norms come together, the economic norms tend to win out thereby diminishing the likelihood of behaviour that is done for the right reasons socially.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that in an ever more cluttered life, parents and teachers are looking for the quick and easy routes to the outcomes they want. Sticker charts and other behaviour management tools have appeared to offer that as they get results and they get them in quite short time. However, as the article highlights, this can be at a heavy price in the longer term. If it results in children who have less empathy, less inclination to do anything for others without looking for an extrinsic reward, then we do a massive disservice to society.

I believe empathy grows most out of reflection and consideration of the kinds of reciprocity that all can value in their environment. For children to reflect on such things far more effective tools are open discussion through such things as ‘circle time’. When you take the longer, harder route, will children make mistakes? Will they forget or have lapses when they act in ways that are inappropriate?

Yes, of course? However, this is exactly the kind of struggle and falure that i highlighted in yesterday’s article. We need to accept that failure is necessary and a valuable constituent part of learning. Right first time and every time when manipulated through behavioural manipulation will rarely lead to the development of positive social skills that translate across environments and situations.

The Value of Struggle

I had taken the back off my transistor rado any times. But, this time I was feeling that bit more daring and, armed with a small screwdriver I started to undo the screws inside the back that would separate the inside parts from the case. There were various bits and pieces that I really wasn’t sure about – not sure what part they played or their significance.

My aim. The sound had become a bit rattly in recent days, like something wasn’t connecting 100%. I was feeling very curious and pretty confident that I could get in to the connections between all the various bits, find something loose, make it tight and proudly gt to listen to all my faourite songs on the radio knowing that i had made the sound better.

An hour and a half later, I sat on the floor feeling a cold sweat creeping across my skin. This really hadn’t gone how I wanted it to. I had various ‘bits’ of the radio laid out on the flor in front of me, a little pile of screws to one side and the case lay forlornly at a distance. This was now the second time I’d taken it all apart and my actions were starting to get a little panicked. The first time I was calm, confident and assured – I now realised, too much so. When I’d reassembled, put the screws back in, slotted in the batteries and turned it on I felt a sickening in my stomach as there was no reaction, pin drop silence. The radio was completely dead.

I heard the call to go to dinner. I ate, but didn’t really taste the food as I was so aware of my guilty secret tucked under the edge of the bedspread so as to be out of sight. The jumble of electrical pieces that i no longer felt confident or sure how they were going to go back together. As soon as I could reasonably get away, I headed back to my room where I simply made things worse and became more anxious for another hour. This was a mess. I was filled with a sense of guilt. The reminder of hat a radio cost and how i would be held to account for a lot if this one was ruined for ever.

Bedtime came and still no progress. I didn’t sleep very well that night. Another hour of tinkering in the morning was enough to make me realise the unpleasant truth – I was going to have to fess up. I had no choice to ask for help.

The long and the short, it didn’t go half as bad as my fear had built it up. Yes, there was the usual dose of parental anger, but that soon subsided. A week later I was taken through the process of how the radio went together and hey presto, it worked again (and the insignificant rattle of the loose speaker was sorted as well). It had been an unpleasant experience, but, as i reflect on it today it contained so much valuable learning – learning that I’m just not sure children get today. I think as a result of this and other experiences I grew up more able to undersand that uncomfortable feeling inside when things are not going the way they’re meant to. I learned not to go at a task like a bull in a china shop, especially if it was going to stretch me at the limits of my knowledge and experience. I learned that there are times to rely on your own independent skills and times when you should tap in to the superior skills of others. I also learned that when you head in to something it’s a good idea to lay down a string so that you can backtrack out of it when you need to.

Today’s children are growing up in a very different world and, I fear, are losing out on a lot, including the ownership of one’s own learning. I was reminded of my experiences with the radio when i read this sensitively written article from a teacher (and parent) about the ways in which modern parenting and educating are removing children’s love for learning and making them passive recipients of learning – the most successful of whom get the biggest wins and successes in the academic game.

The Atlantic – The Gift of failure – A Fear of Risk Taking Has Destroyed Kids’ Love of Learning

I believe we can address these issues. I also believe that we we it to our children to be talking about these issues and the potential alternatives. There are solutions and, if practiced consistently enough, we can help our children to grow up curious, innovative learners.

Taking Sleep Seriously

The weight of evidence is so strong that we really have to kill off all the macho, heroic myths around sleep deprivation. I remember that, years ago, there was much talk about how Margaret Thatcher only needed four hours of sleep each night when she was Prime Minister of Great Britain. I’ve also seen similar claims related to Tony Blair.

In my student days, it was almost seen as a badge of honour when you put yourself in the situation to ‘pull an all-nighter’ to get n assignment completed and handed in with minutes to spare the next morning.

Now I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser, i can see that it was a basic equation between prioritising time for what was necessary/ important or what was fun, immediate and wanted. I don’t think I can really remember a single occasion when a night spent working and getting no sleep wasn’t the result of bad judgement and lack of self-control/ regulation rather than genuine volume of responsibilities and necessity.

I’ve been writing for some time about how sleep deprivation is exacting a toll on students and limiting their learning potential. here’s a very well written and presented article from McKinsey & Co that looks at another perspective – the organisational costs of insufficient sleep, especially when leaders are making decisions without getting enough shut-eye;

McKinsey – The organisational Cost of Insufficient Sleep

The article sets out a very strong case that the implications are so great that this must really matter to organisations. Rather than perpetuating cultures where people are recognised and rewarded for appearing to make personal sacrifices by going without sleep, organisations need to see that they potentially pay a heavy price when people are operating in less than effective states. In other words, they have to educate their workforce and help them to develop positive and healthy habits. Two days ago, i wrote about the Netflix culture. Interestingly, that was very clear that there should be n rewards or recognition for people according to how long they spend on the job or how much time they put in to work. Recognition should link purely to outcomes and the link to time should be de-emphasised.

I think it’s often quite hard to change such habits in adulthood. As a result, the right habits need to be established from an early age. This means;

a) Developing good routines and patterns around sleep and bed time for very young children,
b) Not treating staying up late as a special treat (too many do it with junk food as well).
c) We should teach our children about the basics of the science related to sleep, so that they understand why it’s important (not just tell them to do what we say),
d) We need to set good examples to our children about getting a healthy amount of sleep, including things like switching off devices an hour before bed. When we are at a less than optimal level of effectiveness due to lack of sleep, we should acknowledge this to our children.

In the past, we really didn’t know just how harmful these sleep issues could be. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, so we must change our ways.

Teachers Matter

The Global Teacher Prize attracts attention, not least because of its eye-popping $1 million dollar prize. However, we saw last year that the shortlist brought to wider attention some educators doing phenomenal work (not least my wonderful friend, Kiran Bir Sethi from Ahmedabad, India).

Ultimately, while the money grabs the headlines, I believe this initiative of the Varkey Foundation is providing lots of examples, inspiration and talking points for educators about what we want our profession to be known for and the kinds of approaches, passion and dedication that exist and can be replicated to make a profound difference on a global scale.

This year’s 10 shortlisted educators are profiled on this page, along with details of the earlier ‘long list’ of the last 40:

Global Teacher Prize – 2016 Finalists

Here’s a press article with more background on the Indian who has made the final 10 this year, Robin Chaurasiya;

Livemint – The Teacher With a Million Dollar Plan

Nurturing Educator Talent in Schools


Some years ago I coined a phrase that went something like this – “We don’t have the right to ask great teachers to work alongside mediocre colleagues.”

There are times when we have to ask ourselves some deep and challenging questions about some of the incongruity in education and especially in the way schools are run – the gaps between what we say we want, and our actions. For example. most educators today say that they want their schools to be places of differentiated learning where each child gets to fulfill their potential guided by the most motivated, professional, skilled and talented educators. But then, we see rushed and uncoordinated recruitment processes and even new teachers rushed in as compromises because teacher work load (numbers of lessons to be taught) is treated as more important than finding the best teacher to enhance the team.

The result of such practices is that teachers (and even sometimes pupils) see a mismatch between what’s said and what’s done – in which case, they’ll ignore what’s said. Is it naive of me to believe that teachers who want to be part of a high performing team would rather cover for a vacancy in the team for some time, rather than see a compromise candidate hastily rushed in? I have to say, my experience suggests such views are very rare. Then, let’s not even get started on how new teachers are integrated in to teams, mentored, brought in to the fold to really understand the culture of the school they’ve joined and what it expects of them (sending the message that managing the processes is way more important than the culture).

I believe that when looking at issues of leadership in schools and how our schools run today, whilst there’s a fair amount of talk about school culture as it relates to the students, there’s not nearly enough talk about school culture when it comes to the employees. This is not fully compatible with the suggestion that we aspire to meritocratic, high-performing workplaces. Culture matters in organisations – it matters a lot. We need to be paying far more attention to how we lead and how we create cultures of high performance.

I believe there are interesting lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, although often in education suggestions like this can also be treated as a form of heresy. In my experience, schools have more than their fair share of ‘NIH’ – Not Invented Here. This is a syndrome that comes with phrases like, “well that might work there, but it wouldn’t work here.”

When we think of high performance meritocracies most people would figure that Silicon Valley technology companies fit the bill pretty well. For some years I’ve been intrigued to get my head around whether there are lessons we can learn from the culture of technology, high growth companies, even if they might still require some adaptation. In my research in this area, I was fascinated to come across the stories of a famous document that was produced by Patty McCord (who was, at the time, Chief talent Officer at Netflix). When the document was publicly shared it acquired ‘cult’ status. It’s easily possible to find and download copies online today (Just Google ‘Netflix Culture Deck’) It’s basically a 126-slide Powerpoint deck that sets out a manifesto for a high performance culture. However, it’s been described by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg as “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the valley.”

I’ve now read the slide deck 4-5 times and I find it stimulating my thoughts in different ways every time. The starting key principles are that common sense is a far better tool for leading organisations than rules and that the best performing organisations should look to employ ‘fully formed adults.’ There’s a high emphasis on valuing the organisation’s values and management’s responsibility to manage context, not control and to offer ‘top end remuneration.’

Here are two articles, well worth reading. The first is a Huffington Post article describing the key atrtibutes of the Netflix Culture. At the bottom of the page you’ll find the 126 slide deck:
Huffington Post – One Reason For Netflix’s Success – It Treats Employees Like Adults

The second article, from Harvard Business Review is authored by Patyy McCord herself and sets the Culture document in context and provides some interesting insights in to the thinking:
Harvard Business Review – How Netflix Reinvented HR

I loved the references to Enron’s espoused values (and we all know how important they were in practice). I have always believed that in our schools we have to be deadly serious about our values. They’re not just a few fancy words on a website or a poster – they have to encapsulate the culture and the DNA of the school. The idea is that in most circumstances, responsible, professional mature adults can figure out exactly how they should be responding to a set of circumstances by reference to the values and common sense. it doesn’t need sets of rule book and regulations, and it certainly doesn’t require the cynical game-playing of management making rules and staff working to interpret them to their personal advantage (and often the disadvantage of the culture).

The Netflix document doesn’t advocate a ruleless wild west. Rather, it places the emphasis on rules existing where they need to. Plainly, in schools, in all areas that relate to child safety, hygiene and those aspects that can’t be compromised there is a need for rules that are well understood and implemented by all.

There have been times when I’ve been saddened to see a form of collegiality in schools that amounts to complacency about mediocrity and careless or even shoddy, uncaring work. Teachers can, at times, have a propensity to believe that the only way to be is to act on the basis that we’ll all say nice things all the time, look the other way regarding others’ shortcomings (and they will do the same for us) and the most important thing is that everyone should ‘get on.’ In the meantime, quality of teaching and learning are compromised and everyone knows it. I once saw a situation in a school where supervisors conducted performance appraisals of newly joined teachers. The new teachers had been given ratings of 4 or 5 out of 5 across the board. However, when confronted face to face the supervisors admitted that some of these teachers were a long way short of acceptable in standards of performance. In one case, they even wanted the teacher to be asked to resign, but had not been willing to give real, actual honest feedback about shortcomings. There are few things in the workplace that generate more cynicism than performance appraisals, and with good reason.

If, as educators, we are going to choose to bring in and adapt practices from the world of commerce and business, with the intention of raising the standards and quality of our schools, then we need to be ready to look to sources that are innovative, bold and daring (and effective), rather than replicating the humdrum and those things which have already so often proved themselves to do more harm than good to organisational culture.

So, if we were to open our minds to the kinds of ideas contained n the Netflix Culture document, what kind of schools might we have? I hazard that for one, leaders would get to spend far more time focused on the development of children and less on tinkering with the rule books!

Controlled By The Internet

Yesterday, I wrote about the scientific understanding behind teenagers’ propensity for impulsiveness, their higher risks for addiction and inappropriate and higher risk behaviour. One of the aspects that was touched upon was addiction to online and internet activity, whether to gaming, social networking or pornography – all things that can potentially have devastating effects on a young life.

Frequently, over the last 5-6 years I’ve had conversations with parents who were trying to grapple with these issues. One question sometimes asked is how to tell whether there child just has a strong habit or an addiction. Also, people can understand at a fundamental level the way that a person can become addicted to a substance like nicotine or alcohol, but find it harder to see internet use as a form of addiction. However, all the evidence is that it ‘hits’ the same pleasure centres in the brain and this is why it can have such a powerful impact.

So, I was keen to share this research from University of North Carolina;

Quartz – New Study Says Half of US Students Could Be Internet Addicts

The findings are really quite stark and startling. This is something that has crept up on society at such pace and in such a startling manner that few are fully and adequately engaging with all the implications. Rational, educated, intelligent parents have had this happen in their homes, right under their noses – the same people who would have launched in to massive action if they saw even a hint of their child getting involved with tobacco or alcohol. If the numbers are really even close to what this research suggests, then the reality is that enormous numbers of students and their parents are really still in denial.

The article also contains some cautionary warnings for adults about the examples that have been/ are being set. However, there are times when I think this needs to be set in context. A parent who reads ebooks, literature or material for their professional or personal development on a device rather than in a book, or listens to professional podcasts, can hardly be compared with the student who spends 6+ hours a day exchanging meaningless social networking messages or playing a computer game. When the parents read books in the past, were the children all following their example then?

These are very real issues that have massive implications for society. And, it’s not going to get better. This year, the market will be hit by large volumes of virtual reality material – hardware and software. The fact that this will be potentially even more immersive, stimulating and exciting will bring more danger to more young people.

Families need to be engaging in open discussion on these issues and educators also need to be engaging young people in sensible, open conversaion so that they can be helped to make better choices for themselves.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Reading List

All regular readers of this blog know what a bookworm I am.

So, a big ‘Thank You’ to Mark Zuckerberg for adding some great books to my ‘to be read’ list.

Here’s his list of 23 books;

Business Insider – Mark Zuckerberg’s Favourite Books

The Impulsive Teenage Brain

Teenagers really will go out of their way to convince us that, “I’m all growed up. I’m capable of making decisions for myself and don’t need to be parented.”

However, science tells us something very different. Research has lead us to fascinating findings that, I believe, we should be teaching all teenagers about. Whilst I’ve come across these findings elsewhere in more detail, they are simply summarised in this recent article;

KQED Mindshift – Why Teens Are Impulsive, Addiction-Prone and Should Protect Their Brains

In my view, far too many parents and educators working with teenagers seek to use control, the carrot and the stick and coercion to manage their behaviour. I believe it is far more effective to share the scientific evidence with them and to help them to figure out the implications. This is much less likely to develop in to confrontational situations, rank defiance and deviousness to find ways around the rules being imposed. In fact, it’s far more likely that teens who understand the science will want to set up safe mechanisms when they can call upon their carers to protect them from themselves.

As one interesting aside – I believe the science here has all the evidence for why we need to be careful in thinking about things like the age limits for driving, but also for voting! In a number of countries there has been pressure to lower the cut-off age for voting, the argument being that young people want a voice and want to use it. Older adults are not very engaged with the political process and voter turnout is often low. The argument is that youngsters would be more politically engaged. However, I believe this scientific evidence shows that they are still vulnerable, too easily exploited and that, quite frankly, their higher tolerance for risk due to lower levels of myelin shouldn’t put us all at risk from bad electoral decisions!

Keeping in mind the mismatch between teenagers’ own beliefs about how responsible and ‘in control’ they are, and the scientific reality, the article has some useful warnings and advice about teens and screens/ digital stimuli, addiction risks and even the brain damage risks of single incidents of heavy drinking. I don’t believe we can wrap them in cotton wool or that, “do what we say, or else” is the way forward, but mature reasoned discussion armed with the simple scientific facts. Such conversations need to happen at non-critical times – not waiting until something goes wrong. All you’ll get then is an ego clash.

In shot, we can do more to protect our teens by arming them and ourselves with correct information.

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