Saturday, August 27, 2011

Childhood's End

     Even as a childraising expert (read: childless person), I can see that we are heading down a terribly misdirected path with regard to what we're doing to kids as a whole.

     If I were to try to sum it up in as few words as possible, it would be this: 

     We lost our economic mojo starting around 1970, when the long post-war expansion that seemed so effortless became impossible to maintain (because the basis of our fantastic and unprecedented expansion, limitless cheap energy, particularly oil, stopped being cheap or limitless).

    By 1980, Roger Ailes and the other con men atop the Republic wing of the Corporate Party got rid of a decent, intelligent president who had committed the unforgivable sin of talking about limits to growth; they replaced him with a kindred con man whose biggest acting feat was in persuading people that he didn't have any guile in him.  But despite his warm smile and avuncular manner, Ronald Wilson Reagan, floating above policy and enjoying the role of a lifetime, was a mean bastard who had himself bought into the myth of America (which is that, if you work hard and keep your nose clean, you will get ahead --- which is then taken to mean that anyone who hasn't gotten ahead hasn't worked hard or kept his or her nose clear, which is then taken all the way back to our founding days when we knew whom God favored because God's favor was evident in their wealth).

   Since 1980, America has been almost completely reorganized along the lines of a third-world country, with ever-rising inequality, and a meaner, more selfish nature, and a constant media drumbeat of "individualism."  Only we don't take individualism to mean toleration of people who think differently anymore, or who question dogma, or who insist things can be better.  No, what we mean now is simply "You're On Your Own" or YOYO.

   Many books can and have been written about this third-worlding process, where the rich are essentially seceding in place, supporting cuts to social and human services that they think they will never need, supporting cuts to public education and public services that they think they don't require.

   What people don't seem to get is how much of what is wrong with public education today is the result of letting these corporate ideas dominate our schools.  As America gets meaner and more officially and unofficially YOYO, the stress that adults feel is being passed straight through to kids.  Parents are well aware that they are having to work harder and harder just to stay in place -- and, without meaning to, they are buying into the idea that there is something that schools and teachers can do to equip their kids to do OK in this meaner YOYO country we're building.  So even parents who should know better start buying into the absurd ideas that we should be testing the crap out of little kids "to help them."

   The paradigmatic quote of the US disaster in Vietnam was the Lieutenant who said that "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."  That's what we're doing to kids in schools:  testing them and regimenting them "so they'll be able to compete in a global economy."  Only what we're doing is destroying their chances to prosper in the times to come, which are going to require a lot of very different, lateral thinking, the kind that you learn through imaginative play and being able to make connections between wildly different "subjects" (which are arbitrary distinctions imposed to make life easier for sorting and testing, and are damaging to learning and intelligence).

  In a nutshell, instead of equipping kids to actually practice creative intelligence and individualism, we're training them to be standardized testing drones, all for the benefit of the corporations who have sold us down the river on the virtues of testing and the "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" approach to all things.

  Some discouraging signs seen around:

But researchers say they are finding exactly that. In a 2010 study of about 300,000 creativity tests going back to the 1970s, Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, found creativity has decreased among American children in recent years. Since 1990, children have become less able to produce unique and unusual ideas. They are also less humorous, less imaginative and less able to elaborate on ideas, Kim said.
Has modern society really extinguished the creative spark among our youth?
Experts say creativity is innate, so it can't really be lost. But it needs to be nurtured.
"It's not that creativity can necessarily disappear," said Ron Beghetto, an education psychologist at the University of Oregon. "But it can be suppressed in particular contexts."
The current focus on testing in schools, and the idea that there is only one right answer to a question, may be hampering development of creativity among kids, Beghetto said. "There's not much room for unexpected, novel, divergent thought," he said.
But the situation is not hopeless, Beghetto said. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that, worldwide, youngsters are very creative, particularly with their use of digital media, Beghetto said. And a recent study found that, at least in their playtime, kids are becoming more imaginative.
Experts agree changes can be made in the classroom to cultivate creativity.
No child gets ahead
In her study, Kim analyzed results from the Torrance test, an exam that measures an aspect of creativity called divergent thinking. In this test, kids might be shown two circles and asked to draw something out of these shapes.
Interestingly, scores on the Torrance test have been decreasing while SAT scores are increasing. However, better test scores do not necessarly translate to improved creativity, Kim said. You can do well on a test by studying a lot, but it won't encourage original thinking.
Kim said No Child Left Behind, an act of Congress passed in 2001 that requires schools to administer annual standardized tests as a way to assess whether they are meeting state education standards, may be partly responsible for the drop in creativity scores.
"I believe No Child Left Behind … really hurt creativity," Kim said. "If we just focus on just No Child Left Behind — testing, testing, testing — then how can creative students survive?" Kim said. Other culprits may be the rise in TV watching, a passive activity that doesn't require interactions with others, Kim said.
Kim's work has also shown creativity declines in adulthood as we become more aware of the notions of right and wrong answers, she said.

And this

Up to 40 percent of U.S. schools cutting back on recess

Researchers say that cuts in play time affect children's health and development process.

 Children participate in playground games HAVING FUN: Children participate in playground games under the supervision of a coach from Playworks, a non-profit that teaches kids classic games and conflict-resolution strategies. (Photo: Carrie Richards)
When Deborah Gilboa's second-oldest son Nadav started coming home from first grade with discipline warnings from his teacher, Gilboa and her husband were perplexed. Nadav, who had just turned 6, had the same teacher in kindergarten and had rarely gotten into trouble.
So Gilboa, a family medicine doctor in Pittsburgh who consults at, and her husband sat down to ask their son what was going on. He had the answer right away.
"He said, 'In kindergarten we had recess twice a day and we went to gym twice a week,'" Gilboa told LiveScience.  Now, as a first-grader, Nadav's class only went to gym once every six days. They had one recess period a day, split with lunch, so that Nadav had only about 15 minutes a day to run around.
"He said, 'I get this feeling in my legs when they want to run and that feeling moves up to my belly and when that feeling moves up to my head I can't remember what the rules are,'" Gilboa said. "So he had really noticed a big change in his own behavior and self-control."
For kids like Nadav, the transition from summer freedom to the grindstone of the classroom may be tough. With schools under pressure to meet standardized testing goals, recess has been cut back and even eliminated in some school districts. The irony, experts say, is that schools may be shooting themselves in the foot by taking away playtime that's crucial to a child's growth. [The Top 5 Benefits of Play]
An overall decrease in playtime in even young children is resulting in kids who don't have a "culture of play," said Jill Vialet, the founder of Playworks, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the climate of play in schools, teaching kids the kinds of games they would have once learned from older peers.
And Nadav isn't the only kid who finds that a school day without playtime makes sitting still tough: Kids who don't play much also tend to struggle with self-control and learning, experts say, which can haunt them throughout their lives.
"Play is really a developmentally significant experience," Vialet told LiveScience. "It helps kids become high-functioning citizens and grown-ups."
Goodbye, playtime
Children's free playtime has dropped over the years, replaced by structured activities and screen time, including television and computer use, studies suggest. A 2003 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that a quarter of kids under age 6 watched TV for at least two hours a day; these same kids spent 30 minutes less per day playing outside than kids who didn't spend so much time in front of a screen.
At the same time, unstructured childhood time is vanishing. A pair of University of Maryland studies of children's time use found that in 1981, kids ages 6 to 12 had about 57 hours of free time per week. By 2003, kids had only 48 hours in which to choose their own activities. Time spent outdoors was especially hard-hit.
Early schooling often exacerbates play's demise. A 2009 report by the Alliance for Childhood surveyed kindergartens in New York City and Los Angeles and found that children had less than 30 minutes a day, on average, of "choice" time, in which kids could do whatever they wanted. Kids in L.A. had only about 19 minutes of free time each day. The rest of the kindergarten day was filled with academics and standardized test preparation, the study found.
According to the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, as many as 40 percent of school districts in the United States have reduced recess in the aftermath of the No Child Left Behind act, which emphasizes testing scores.
These reductions tend to hit lower-income kids harder, experts say. In her practice, Gilboa sees children who get very little physical playtime during the day because of long school days and after-school programs that find it easier to keep an eye on kids who are watching movies rather than running around.
"Sixty minutes of vigorous physical activity a day prevents obesity in kids, and it used to be that between recess and gym you were getting that," Gilboa said. "This generation's kids would take that, but they're just not getting the opportunity."
Reclaiming recess
The result, experts say, is children who come into school without good play skills. Used to regimented activities, these kids may struggle with the give-and-take of playground games, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University. That's not a natural state, she told LiveScience.
"If kids were left to have some time on their own, they would in fact develop play," Hirsh-Pasek said. "Now what we do is, we endanger the species by taking play opportunities away from them."
Despite the increasing amount of academics schools are trying to cram into their day (a 2008 study published in The Elementary School Journal reported that up to a quarter of elementary schools don't even schedule recess regularly for all grade levels), some advocates are jumping in to improve kids' playground experiences. [Read: For Health, Recess as Good as Gym Class]
  Thank goodness there is still a resistance to the Testing Stormtroopers:

Dear Parents,
Your kids are our kids.
Your kids — our kids — are not “stakeholders,” “clients,” or “customers.”  They are our kids, our charges, our collaborators.

They are not “raw material” or “human capital.”

Our kids are not barcodes. They are not cogs. They are not slides on a PowerPoint or points on a graph. They have names. They have hopes and fears and dreams.

They have crushes and heartaches and disappointments and jubilations.

Sometimes they have all of these in a single class period.

They have stories. They came from somewhere, and they are going somewhere. We want our classrooms to be an important part of that story, not just an obstacle or a detour.

They are people. They are young people, people who, in certain moments and in the right light, are at their very best.  They are people who make mistakes because they are still learning, and because we all do.

And they are watching. They see our mouths, “You must think about the world around you, question what you see on TV, and always seek new solutions.”

They see that ultimately, all their learning boils down to this test, this data point. They understand hypocrisy more than you know. They deserve better.  They deserve to have a reason to feel good about coming to school. They deserve to know that there are adults who believe in them and want the best for them.

They deserve an education that treats them not as outcomes to be produced, but as producers and discoverers themselves. The United States is known for its inventors and discoverers, yet we discourage critical thinking when we tell kids they deserve nothing better than a bubble.  Our kids deserve better than NCLB, AYP, and RttT.

We want our kids to have the ability to design a new way of doing things. We want them to explain why language is important, to read a ballot proposition, and to locate Afghanistan on a map.

We want them to be funny. We want them to laugh. We want them to examine philosophy, discuss the economy without parroting sound bites, and recognize the reality of credit card rates.

We want them to come up with the answer on their own —  maybe an answer we haven’t thought of — rather than select the “right” answer from a list. We respect them more than that.

We want our kids to think for themselves. We want them to enjoy discussing a book whether or not it will appear on an end-of-course test.  We want them to see the classroom not as a place to pass time but as a place to begin to figure out who they are.

We want them to learn the strength of their own voices, that one person can make a difference and that several people can cause a revolution.  When they leave our classrooms, we hope our kids can – and will want to — articulate their ideas: to know their ideas count.

Fear not. They will be counted. They will be measured. They will be tested; all of us, in one way or another, will be tested. PowerPoints will be made, and graphs will be presented. According to some formulations, value will be added.

But we want our kids to know they already have value, they already count, and the most important tests are the ones we all face every day:

Think it through. Play fair. Question always. Do your best. This is what we want for our kids, your kids. We won’t surrender our expectations, our integrity, or our belief in every child’s access to the finest free and public education in the world.

We won’t give up on them.  Our kids are who we fight for every single day.  We won’t give up, parents. Neither should you.