Category Archives: raising children

The Growth Mindset Problem (Carl Hendrick)

 

This appeared in Aeon, March 11, 2019

“Dr Carl Hendrick is the co-author of What Does This Look Like In The Classroom: Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice (2017). He holds a PhD in education from King’s College and lives in Berkshire, England where he teaches at Wellington College. He is currently writing a book with Professor Paul Kirschner on foundational works in education research.”

 

Over the past century, a powerful idea has taken root in the educational landscape. The notion of intelligence as something innate and fixed has been supplanted by the idea that intelligence is instead something malleable; that we are not prisoners of immutable characteristics and that, with the right training, we can be the authors of our own cognitive capabilities.

Nineteenth-century scientists including Francis Galton and Alfred Binet devoted their own considerable intelligence to a quest to classify and understand human cognitive ability. If we could codify the anatomy of intelligence, they believed, we could place individuals into their correct niche in society. Binet would go on to develop the first IQ tests, laying the foundations for a method of ranking the intelligence of job applicants, army recruits or schoolchildren that continues today.

In the early 20th century, progressive thinkers revolted against this idea that inherent ability is destiny. Instead, educators such as John Dewey argued that every child’s intelligence could be developed, given the right environment. The self, according to Dewey, is not something ‘ready made’ but rather ‘in continuous formation through choice of action’. In the 1960s and ’70s, psychologists such as Albert Bandura bridged some of the gap between the innate and the learned models of intelligence with his idea of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy and motivation. One can recognise that there are individual differences in ability, Bandura argued, but still emphasise the potential for growth for each individual, wherever one’s starting point.

Growth mindset theory is a relatively new – and wildly popular – iteration of this belief in the malleability of intelligence, but with a twist. In many schools today you will see hallways festooned with motivational posters, and hear speeches on the mindset of great sporting heroes who simply believed their way to the top. These are all attempts to put growth mindset theory into practice through motivation. However a growth mindset is not really about motivation, but rather about the way in which individuals understand their own intelligence.

According to the theory, if students believe that their ability is fixed, they will not want to do anything to reveal that, so a major focus of the growth mindset in schools is shifting students away from seeing failure as an indication of their ability, to seeing failure as a chance to improve that ability. As Jeff Howard noted almost 30 years ago: ‘Smart is not something that you just are, smart is something that you can get.’

Despite extraordinary claims for the efficacy of a growth mindset, however, it’s increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. And the story of the growth mindset is a cautionary tale about what happens when psychological theories are translated into the reality of the classroom, no matter how well-intentioned.

The idea of the growth mindset is based on the work of the psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University in California. Dweck’s findings suggest that beliefs about ourselves can have a profound effect on academic achievement and beyond. Her seminal work stems from a paper 20 years ago that reported on a research project with schoolchildren that probed the relationship between their understanding of their own abilities and their actual performance.

In the experiment, a group of 10- to 12-year-olds were divided into two groups. All were told that they had achieved a high score on a test but members of the first group were praised for their intelligence in achieving this, while the others were praised for their effort. The second group were subsequently far more likely to put effort into future tasks while the former took on only those tasks that would not risk their initial sense of worth. Praising ability actually made the students perform worse, while praising effort emphasised that change was possible.

Dweck’s work suggests that when people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Imagine two children who are faced with taking a test on a tricky maths problem. The first child completes the first few steps but then hits a wall, and instantly feels demotivated. For this child, the small failure is incontrovertible evidence of simply not being good at maths. By contrast, for the second child, this small failure is merely a barrier to eventual success, and confers an opportunity to improve overall maths ability. The second child relishes the challenge, and works to improve – that child is displaying a growth mindset. According to the theory, the key to encouraging this disposition is to praise the effort and not the ability. By telling children that they are smart or intelligent, you are merely confirming the idea of innate ability, fostering a fixed mindset, and actually undermining their development. Dweck’s claims are supported by a lot of evidence, indeed she and her associates have spent more than 30 years exploring this phenomenon, including taking the time to respond to criticism in an open and transparent way.

Growth mindset theory has had a profound impact on the ground. It is difficult to think of a school today that is not in thrall to the idea that beliefs about one’s ability affect subsequent performance, and that it’s crucial to teach students that failure is merely a stepping stone to success. Implementing these ideas has been much harder, however, and attempts to replicate the original findings have not been smooth, to say the least. A recent national survey in the United States showed that 98 per cent of teachers feel that growth mindset approaches should be adopted in schools, but only 50 per cent said that they knew of strategies to effectively change a pupil’s mindset.

The truth is we simply haven’t been able to translate the research on the benefits of a growth mindset into any sort of effective, consistent practice that makes an appreciable difference in student academic attainment. In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.

One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.

Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’

An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage. For the US psychiatrist Scott Alexander, if a fixed mindset accounts for underachievement, then ‘poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way’. He sees growth mindset as a ‘noble lie’, and notes that saying to kids that a growth mindset accounts for success is not exactly denying reality so much as ‘selectively emphasising certain parts of’ it.

Much of this criticism is not lost on Dweck, and she deserves great credit for responding to it and adapting her work accordingly. In a recent blog, she noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, she argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

For Dweck, it’s not just about more effort, but rather purposeful and meaningful effort. And it’s not just in the classroom where she feels that the growth mindset is being misunderstood, it seems to be happening in the home too: ‘We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful,’ she said in an interview in 2015. ‘If they show anxiety or overconcern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.’

Dweck might be right that the theory is not always well understood or put into practice. There is always the danger of disappointment in the translation from educational laboratory to classroom, and this is partly due to the Chinese whispers effect, whereby research becomes diluted and distorted as it goes through its journey. But there is another factor at work here. The failure to translate the growth mindset into the classroom might reflect a profound misunderstanding of the elusive nature of teaching and learning itself.

Effective teaching, at its best, defies prescription. The same resources and the same approaches that are successful in one classroom can be completely ineffective in another. In his book Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi defined ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification, and that can be gleaned only through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As Polanyi put it so beautifully in his book The Tacit Dimension (1966), ‘we can know more than we can tell’. As a contrarian colleague once said to me about his frustration with the increasing codification of the classroom: ‘Perhaps we should be brave enough to allow it to remain a mystery.’

Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions should not be seen as ‘magic’ and should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.

How students learn well can be very counterintuitive. You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. If you try to ‘motivate’ students into public speaking, they might feel motivated but can lack the specific knowledge needed to translate that into action. However, through careful instruction and encouragement, students can learn how to craft an argument, shape their ideas and develop them into solid form.

A lot of what drives students is their innate beliefs and how they perceive themselves. There is a strong correlation between self-perception and achievement, but there is some evidence to suggest that the actual effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the other way round. To stand up in a classroom and successfully deliver a good speech is a genuine achievement, and that is likely to be more powerfully motivating than woolly notions of ‘motivation’ itself.

One reason for this might be the over-generalised picture of the growth mindset: it tends to be talked about as a global or general skill as opposed to a domain-specific one. Many interventions focus on kids having a kind of global attitude to their own intelligence that can then be transferred to any learning situation but this is rarely the case. For example, some students can have a positive mindset in maths but a negative mindset in history due to a highly variable range of factors. The idea that a workshop on the plasticity of the brain and some videos of famous sportsmen who have failed in the past can translate into a domain-general growth disposition is simply unrealistic.

Students are most engaged when they are being supported through specific tasks to stretch their understanding beyond its current base, but ‘engagement’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning anything. As the New Zealand education researcher Graham Nuthall showed in The Hidden Life of Learners (2007), ‘students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50 per cent of what the teacher is teaching.’ Nuthall’s work demonstrates that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do, as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. The psychologists Elizabeth Ligon Bjork and Robert Bjork at the University of California, Los Angeles, describe such activities as ‘desirable difficulties’, which refers to the kinds of things that are difficult in the short term, but that lead to greater gains in the long term. These point to a range of strategies that are more prosaic and less attractive than growth mindset interventions – familiar strategies such as testing, self-quizzing and spacing out learning.

Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere along the way between the laboratory and the classroom. The US education scholars Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle outline a fundamental problem with the education system. Teachers, they say in their book Inside/Outside (1992), are subject to top-down models of school improvement, and are often passive objects of study in the educational research that underpins those models:

The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomena that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is ‘outside-in’; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university-based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practices of schooling.

In a very real sense, teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, and solutions to problems that never existed. It is not surprising that they feel subject to fads and theories about students that do not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the problem of how to plan lesson content to match the individual ‘learning style’ of students has now been proven to have been a waste of time, and a sad indictment of how much time and energy has been expended on theoretical interventions with little to no evidence to support them.

Recent evidence would suggest that growth mindset interventions are not the elixir of student learning that many of its proponents claim it to be. The growth mindset appears to be a viable construct in the lab, which, when administered in the classroom via targeted interventions, doesn’t seem to work at scale. It is hard to dispute that having a self-belief in their own capacity for change is a positive attribute for students. Paradoxically, however, that aspiration is not well served by direct interventions that try to instil it. Yet creating a culture in which students can believe in the possibility of improving their intelligence through their own purposeful effort is something few would disagree with. Perhaps growth mindset works best as a philosophy and not an intervention.

All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. In their book Effective Teaching (2011), the UK education scholars Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds note: ‘At the end of the day, the research reviewed has shown that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.’

Many interventions in education have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time, and might well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains. The best way to achieve a growth mindset might just be not to mention the growth mindset at all.

 

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Strict and Nurturing Parents: Cycles in Child Rearing and Schooling

In 2011, Amy Chua laughed all the way to the bank at the fuss she kicked up about her tough-love parenting of daughters–no sleepovers–in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.”  Time magazine reported that her Wall Street Journal op-ed garnered over a million readers, 5000 comments, and an animation made in Taiwan. (video of Chua describing book is here).

For educated, financially comfortable non-Tiger Moms, however, the thought of giving up “Baby Mozarts,” chants of “well done” to build self- esteem, and, yes, even sleepovers–is too much.  In response to Tiger Moms, Ayelet Waldman said, developing empathy in children, nurturing them, and giving them room to decide things for themselves, while still achieving high grades and gathering awards, are traits that she and other non-Tiger Moms want to develop.

Competing ways of rearing children, of course is nothing new. Since the 17th century, ministers, mothers, and, later, physicians, and psychologists have written manuals to guide parents in raising children. My wife and I read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care –the prevailing advice of the day–as each of our daughters were infants, toddlers, and when they began preschool and kindergarten. “Read,” of course, does not mean we followed the friendly and “use common sense” approach Spock advocated but it surely informed our parenting.

Historians have analyzed these advice manuals (see here). What they have found are basically two child rearing models that are similar to Tiger Moms and Guilty, Nurturing Moms.

I label them Strict Parent vs. Nurturing Parent. Of course, these models span a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Many parents use hybrids of the two in their families. And just as obvious is that all parents presented in advice manuals are not white, middle and upper-middle class Moms and Dads. Race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and geography shape the views parents have as they enact Strict, Nurturing, and hybrids of each in parenting.

Strict parent model teaches children right from wrong by setting clear rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishments, typically mild to moderate but sufficiently painful to get attention. When rules are followed and children cooperate, parents show love and appreciation. Children are not coddled since a spoiled child seldom learns  proper behavior. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant by following the rules and listening to parents.

Nurturing parent model teaches children right from wrong through respect, empathy, and a positive relationship with parents. Children obey because they love their parents, not out of fear of punishment. Parents explain their decisions to children and encourage questioning and contributing ideas to family decisions. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being nurtured and caring for others.

No surprise that these competing models of child rearing have been replicated in schools. Parents want their schools to be extensions of what is taught at home. Nor is it a surprise that the ideological and practical conflicts in schools today are anchored in these rival approaches to child-rearing.

In the early 19th century, for example, taxpayers, parents, and public officials saw public schools as proper places for the tenets of Protestant Christianity, steeped in Biblical views of parental authority, where teachers would teach that disobedience was a sin. Thus, raising children to respect authority, be self-disciplined, and know right from wrong–the Strict Parent model– was expected in one-room schoolhouses and, later, age-graded elementary schools. This dominant Strict Parent model of raising and schooling children was viewed as natural and, best for children and society before and after the Civil War.

In the late 19th century, another view  (history of progressivism schools PDF)  emerged challenging the religious-based popular model of child-rearing. The onslaught of industrialization, rapid urban growth, an emerging middle-class, and massive immigration spurred reformers to advocate a more “progressive” view of how best to raise and school children. Confined initially to manuals for middle-class parents, readers were urged to cultivate the innate goodness of children rather than dwell on their potential sinfulness. Parental love and example, not punishment, would produce respect for authority, self-discipline, and moral rigor in children.

For post-Civil War urban reformers who saw hard-working immigrant parents living in slums, traditional schools were inadequate. They got schools to expand their usual duties and take on nurturing roles that families had once discharged. Schools offered medical care, meals, lessons to build moral character including respect for authority and job preparation. Teachers were expected to develop children’s intellectual, emotional, and social capacities to produce mature adults who acted responsibly. This rival ideology became the progressive model of schooling.

By World War I, then, these competing progressive and traditional ideologies constituted different faiths in the best way of raising and schooling children. These beliefs had become embedded in educators’ language and school programs thus creating a platform for subsequent struggles over what “good” schools were and should be. The “culture wars” since the 1960s over teaching reading, math, science, and other content in schools are variations of this century-long see-saw struggle of ideas over what ways are best to raise and school children.

And today, the struggle continues. Parents worry over what is the best way to rear their children and youth (see here and here) as they seek out schools that mirror their strict, nurturing, and hybrid views of what they say are “good” schools. From Montessori schools to Core Knowledge to KIPP parents choose schools that mirror their beliefs and values about child rearing. Child rearing and type of schooling are joined at the hip.

 

 

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The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre (Joe Pinsker)

Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. This article appeared December 26, 2018.

The practice of paying children an allowance kicked off in earnest about 100 years ago. “The motivation was twofold,” says Steven Mintz, a historian of childhood at the University of Texas at Austin. “First, to provide kids with the money that they needed to participate in the emerging commercial culture—allowing them to buy candy, cheap toys, and other inexpensive products—and second, to teach them the value of money.”

These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.

Parents’ preference for this setup has spawned an array of apps that let them dole out allowance money once chores are completed, and even pay for an individual chore. Homey, an app that’s effectively a digital chore chart, allows parents to issue payouts upon visual confirmation of finished chores and is used by 100,000 families. A similar app called BusyKid, which launched earlier this year and is used by 25,000 families, also lets children invest in the stock market with their allowance money. (These apps are just two of many new digital tools, including RoosterMoney, Current, and goHenry, for managing children’s money and teaching them about personal finance.)

Recently in The Washington Post, a writer distilled the argument for per-chore compensation in an article headlined “I Pay My Kids to Get Dressed, Do Homework and More. It’s the Best Decision I Ever Made.” A mother of two children with ADHD, she found it tremendously effective to induce her kids to stay on task with small payments of a dime or a quarter; she suggested other parents might find it effective to do the same. “In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement,” she wrote. “And it works.”

Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide point to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.

Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies families, is skeptical of the idea of paying kids on a per-chore basis. “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks up his clothes off the floor?” she says. “What are you saying—that you’re owed something for taking care of your stuff?”

Luthar is not opposed to giving allowances, but she thinks it’s important to establish that certain core chores are done not because they’ll lead to payment, but because they keep the household running. “It’s part of what you do as a family,” Luthar says. “In a family, no one’s going to pay you to tie your own shoes or to put your clothes away.” Whatever the approach, she adds, it’s important to acknowledge that parenting is confusing and exhausting work, and it can be difficult to broker household labor agreements without ever resorting to bribery of some sort.

Luthar’s suggested approach to allowance is compatible with the regimen that the New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber outlines in his book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart

About Money. He advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

This argument has its critics. Many parents may scoff at a system that tells kids the world will spit money out at them on a regular basis in exchange for nothing at all; in households that aren’t upper-middle-class or wealthier, such an arrangement might offend. (Lieber does account for this in his book, suggesting that parents who object to his methods might consider paying kids only for chores that solve problems they themselves identify in the household, or for periodic one-off tasks like washing a car or painting a room.)

Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies families and wealth inequality, aligns more with the Lieber school of chore compensation (or lack thereof). “When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” as opposed to a message that they’re part of a household team and should contribute accordingly.Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”Johnson’s children—14-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—do not get an allowance. But they do get spending money from their mother as needed, as well as regular conversations about the work it takes to run a house. “Maybe my kids are just really strange,” she says, “but I really don’t have to say it more than once—I say, ‘Empty the trash,’ and they do it.”

But considering the way chores are undertaken around the world, it might be the allowance-earners who are the strange ones. David Lancy, a former professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has studied how families around the world handle chores, and he has observed a development of responsibilities in less well-off societies that looks little like the American way.

After about 18 months on the Earth, Lancy explained to me, children almost universally become eager to help their parents, and in many cultures, they’re brought in to the processes of doing housework. They may be incompetent little things, but they can learn quickly by watching. “Praise is rare,” Lancy says, “as the principal reward is to be welcomed and included in the flow of family activity.” Gradually, their responsibilities get ratcheted up according to their abilities and strength; they may start by carrying messages or small objects, and work their way up to food preparation or caring for siblings. “In effect, they ‘own’ a suite of chores which they carry out routinely without being told,” Lancy says. And they don’t assume they’ll be paid an allowance.

In an email, he made clear how this contrasts with American norms: “In our society—and I’d extend this to most modern, post-industrial nations—we actually deny our children’s bids to help. We distract them with other activities, we do our chores (meal prep) when they’re napping, we convey that their ‘helping’ is burdensome and, not surprisingly, the helping instinct is extinguished. Hence, at 6 or 7 when we think they’re ready to start doing chores or at least taking care of themselves and their ‘stuff,’ they’ve lost all desire to help out.”

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“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”

David Kirp wrote the following review in the Washington Post of a recently published book by Milbrey McLaughlin–“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” Full disclosure: McLaughlin has been an admired colleague and friend of mine for decades. She  is Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University. 

David Kirp is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

A dozen years ago, while taking a walk with a friend on the miles-long beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, I learned a valuable lesson — two lessons, actually — about how research ought to be conducted.

“There’s this amazing study about the effects of preschool,” my friend told me, but I was dismissive. “The effects fade out quickly,” I responded, recalling the devastating 1969 Westinghouse study of Head Start.

My friend was having none of it. “These kids have been followed into their 20s, and the impact has persisted — significantly more kids graduating from high school, going to college, staying out of jail and off welfare, earning more.”

As you’ve probably figured out, my friend was talking about the iconic Perry Preschool study. A few months later, a follow-up analysis found that these gains persisted into middle age, and when economists converted those life results into dollars-and-cents terms, they found a benefit-cost ratio that would turn Warren Buffett’s head. (In fact, it did turn the heads of Buffett’s children, who, when tasked by their father to identify a social investment comparable to his private-sector investments, zeroed in on early education.)

Lesson one — take a broad view of impact. Research on the effects of an education initiative typically looks only at later educational outcomes, but these investigators examined the impact of preschool on the totality of these children’s lives. What they found has transformed our understanding of why early education matters.

Lesson two — take the long view. Most education research adopts a short time horizon, rarely looking at the impact of a program beyond two or three years. But the Perry study lasted decades, and that made all the difference. Had the researchers ended the study after third grade, as so many studies of preschool do these days, they would have concluded that the Westinghouse report was right and that preschool’s effects dissipate. Only later — sometimes decades later — did the full significance of the program emerge.

It’s a long way from down-and-out Ypsilanti, Mich., in the mid-1960s to a violence-ridden Chicago neighborhood in the early 1980s. It’s also a long way from an iconic preschool program to a model out-of-school venture. But the big lesson to be gleaned from “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” Stanford emeritus professor Milbrey W. McLaughlin’s important new book about a K-12 program called CYCLE, which operated in Chicago from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is much the same.

The book describes how a program that places a heavy emphasis on academics, if designed carefully and carried out thoughtfully, as CYCLE was, carries the prospect of rewriting the script of children’s lives, not just improving their grades or test scores. What’s more, the ripple effects from this experience persist for a lifetime, as accomplishments lead to more accomplishments, altering not only the lives of the participants but affecting their children’s fortunes as well.

CYCLE pitched its tent in the Cabrini-Green housing project. This was one of those high-rise war zones, plagued by gangs, that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about so memorably in “There Are No Children Here.” Jobs were scarce in this almost entirely black community. So were men; it was the women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who assumed responsibility for raising the children.

The public schools operated as dropout factories, graduating fewer than 30 percent of their students. Educators had bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for their charges, blaming the neighborhood for these dismal outcomes. Students who later transferred to better schools were jolted by the realization that they were years behind their classmates. When William Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, pronounced Chicago’s public schools to be the worst in the nation, these schools were the worst of the worst.

Out-of-school ventures have a decidedly mixed track record, especially those in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage like Cabrini-Green. How could it be otherwise? How could a program that filled a couple of hours of a child’s daily life make any difference in such an inhospitable world? But CYCLE bucked the odds.

Here’s why attention should be paid: About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in its scholarship programs and mentoring activities graduated from high school, and about a third went to college. That’s astonishing, but what’s more astonishing still are the long-term reverberations.

The CYCLE alumni are now middle-aged, and the impact of the program continues to be felt. Among the alumni are two medical doctors, 11 with doctorates and a host of master’s degree holders. Most of the alums, McLaughlin noted, “live middle-class lives; they are teachers, social workers, small business owners, administrators, coaches.”

“The impressive accomplishments … show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green … are not inevitable,” she wrote. “They result not from a so-called ‘culture of poverty’ but from a poverty of opportunities.”

Why did CYCLE succeed when so many programs with similar aspirations fail? And what are the broader implications of the CYCLE story for policy and practice?

Ask any professional who works with kids what has probably the most memorable impact on their lives and you invariably hear the same answer — what’s needed most is a caring, stable adult. When researching “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Changing Children’s Lives and America’s Future,” I visited youth-oriented organizations with a solid track record such as YouthBuild and Diplomas Now. The refrain from the teens with whom I talked was the same: “They have our back.”

The core of the CYCLE program was its after-school tutoring program, and the volunteer tutors definitely “had their back.” There was no cookbook for them to follow, no set curriculum for them to inflict. Rather than trying to “fix” the students’ deficiencies, as so many social-service programs see their mission, the tutors took young people where they were and encouraged them to aim high. They became mentors as well as tutors, developing close ties to the students they spent time with, figuring out what would be most helpful, not to the group generally but to each individual.

Those relationships reached far beyond the realm of academic improvement. The tutors took the youngsters into their lives, introducing them to worlds they hadn’t imagined, making connections for them, building up what sociologists call social capital, giving them a dose of what middle-class parents provide for their own offspring. As one youth said, they became “our experienced friends.” When the kids’ lives took a wrong turn, CYCLE stood by them. “Never give up on a kid” was the program’s mantra.

“Dead or in prison by 21” is the fatalistic way many inner-city youths describe their future. But when adolescents are shown alternative pathways — summer jobs, college scholarships and the like — and given a solid chance to follow those pathways, they can seize the day. The corollary to “you can’t be what you can’t see” is that growing up in a place such as Cabrini Green need not be a life sentence.

Some of the CYCLE kids were part of an “I Have a Dream”-type program that guaranteed that, if they graduated from high school, they wouldn’t have to pay college tuition. This pledge mattered, of course, for it brought higher education within financial reach, but it was the encouragement from all sides, the constancy of adult support, that made the possibility of going to college seem real.

After spending a few years in the program, many of the CYCLE youngsters became junior staff, role models to the younger participants — “our gang of excellence,” a staffer called them. The kids they spent time with benefited from this attention, and the newly minted mentors benefited at least as much. They took their responsibilities seriously, collaborating on activities that would pique the kids’ interest and building a tight network of support. Three decades later, friendships among those staffers continue.

These relationships are what altered people’s lives. They are the “secret sauce.” But evaluators who are interested only in statistics — what percent of students graduated from high school or what percent enrolled in college? — miss this “soft” data.

As McLaughlin pointed out, “Without this long-term perspective, it is impossible to decide whether a life course has been transformed or only temporarily modified.” That vantage shows how graduating from college isn’t the only outcome that matters. Many of the program’s alumni who didn’t earn a college degree have built strong families and economically productive lives. Conversely, one college graduate, on paper a success story, became the consigliere to a Chicago gang.

CYCLE isn’t a model in the “replicate the model” sense. Rather, it’s a strategy. The core values are essential, but the specifics must vary with the needs of the community — what works in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily go over in Little Rock.

Community schools, which serve up an array of activities such as art and sports before and after school and during the summer, represent the next generation of out-of-school-time programs. Their number has increased rapidly in recent years, and the National Center for Community Schools estimates that there are 5,000 such schools nationwide.

Studies of community schools show that this strategy, when well executed, improves how students fare in school. To gauge the full effects of this strategy we need a long view, following the students in a program such as the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s community schools well beyond their school years.

Like CYCLE, these programs may well be changing the trajectory of children’s lives.

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Our Staggering Class Divide Starts With Childrearing (Joan Williams)

 

This article appeared November 30, 2017.

“Joan Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. William’s work includes What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. “

Children learn class at their mothers’ knee. Childrearing, like so many other aspects of daily life, is demarcated by class. Working-class and low-income families follow what Annette Lareau, in her important book Unequal Childhoods, called the “accomplishment of natural growth.” They view “children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they [are] provided with comfort, food, shelter” and other basics. Providing these represents a challenge and is held to be a considerable achievement.

Clear boundaries exist between parents and children, with prompt obedience expected: crucial training for working- class jobs. Class migrants often note with shock the disrespectful way professional elite children talk of and to their parents. Noted bell hooks, whose father worked for 30 years as a janitor, “we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care.”

The ideology of natural growth prevalent among the poor and the working class contrasts with the “concerted cultivation” of the professional elite. “[T]he older children’s schedules set the pace of life for all family members,” notes Lareau, and that pace was intense. Elite children do far more organized activities (4.6 for white children, 5.2 for black children) than do nonelite kids (2.3 and 2.8, respectively). Elite kids’ taylorized leisure time helps them develop the skills required for white-collar jobs: how to “set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team,” “work smoothly with acquaintances,” and handle both victory and defeat “in a gracious way.” Everything is scheduled by adults, and the schedule is intense: “Tomorrow is really nuts. We have a soccer game, then a baseball game, then another soccer game,” said one dad. Unlike in nonelite families, children of the elite are taught not to prioritize family: Lareau describes a child who decides to skip an important family gathering because soccer is “more of a priority.”

Concerted cultivation is the rehearsal for a life of work devotion: the time pressure, the intense competition, the exhaustion with it all, the ethic of putting work before family. The pressure-cooker environment in elite homes often strikes the working class as off. “I just kept thinking these kids don’t know how to play,” said a class migrant from a self-described “hillbilly” family. “I think he doesn’t enjoy doing what he’s doing half the time [light laughter],” one woman told sociologist Annette Lareau. Others acknowledged that the busy schedules might pay off “job-wise” but expressed serious reservations: “I think he is a sad kid;” “He must be dead-dog tired.”

Elite college admissions officers agree. A group convened at Harvard asked admissions officers to allow space on applications for no more than four extracurricular activities, and “Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities.” Pretty weak sauce, but evidence that performance pressure on elite kids has gotten out of hand.

The all-consuming nature of elite parenting—typically synonymous with “elite mothering”—comes back to bite women of the professional class, and not just in the form of exhaustion. A study of elite law firms found that elite men are vastly more preferred for jobs than nonelite men. The same study found that the reverse is true for women. While the female job applicants in their study didn’t get nearly as many callbacks as the elite men, the nonelite women got more callbacks than the elite women. Class privilege helps men at work; it seems to hold women back. Why? Because elite women are seen as a “flight risk,” people who will opt out of work to engage in the all-or-nothing elite battle to get their kids into a top college, to start the cycle of competition and achievement over again.

Concerted cultivation is a strikingly recent phenomenon. Both my mother (b. 1918) and my mother-in-law (b. 1923)—one affluent, one working class—thought my generation was truly crazy. My childhood is captured by the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books published in the late 1940s and 1950s. These charming books tell the story of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, an expert at curing children’s misbehavior. Mothers focus their attention on adult things while kids engage in unstructured play. No mother is ever depicted playing with her children. Nor do children expect to be entertained; they do an endless stream of errands and chores for adults and are sent outside to entertain themselves. Only one, a spoiled rich kid, has any organized activities: a piano lesson.

That’s how I was raised, and how nonelite kids are raised today. In contrast, Lareau found that in the elite families she interviewed, kids expected adults to schedule their time and spent “a significant amount of time simply waiting for the next event.” Lareau concludes that Tyrec, a nonelite child she featured in her study “needs no adult assistance to pursue the great majority of his plans.” Because his group of neighborhood friends “functions without adult monitoring, he learns how to construct and sustain friendships on his own,” something elite kids rarely do. The informal play allowed nonelite kids “to develop skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing.”

As a result of his greater independence, “Tyrec learned important life skills not available to [elite] Garrett. He and his friends found numerous ways of entertaining themselves, showing creativity and independence.” Even sibling relationships differed. The intense focus on competition in elite families fueled intense sibling rivalry of a type rarely found in nonelite ones.

Too often, in comparisons of elites to nonelites, the assumption is that nonelites should get with it and emulate their betters. That’s not always true, and parenting is a case in point. Concerted cultivation and work devotion, perhaps the two central institutions of life in the professional elite, each deserves a closer look. What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting—that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?

 

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Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*

 

They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads

 

I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00

 

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Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.

 

 

 

toddler-with-iPad-300x150.jpg

You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).

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