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Posted by on in What If?

1950s schoolchildren sitting at desks 777x388

One of my least favorite sentences in the entire universe is some version of “It’s always been done this way.” Just by typing it I can feel my blood pressure rise!

Why, I wonder, would anyone find that to be a suitable response to any question? In my opinion, it’s not a reasonable explanation for the continuation of any practice. And I find it particularly maddening when it’s used as an excuse – whether spoken aloud or not – for continuing to make children sit still to learn!

I imagine that when school was first conceived, the easiest thing to do was simply to have the children seated in rows, with the teacher at the head of the classroom. Mind you, I don’t consider “easy” to be a good-enough reason for much, either. But back then they didn’t have any research upon which to base their decisions. The same cannot be said for today’s decision makers.

Today, we know that sitting for more than 10 minutes at a time makes us tired and reduces concentration. We also know – thanks to the work of impassioned educators like Eric Jensen – that honest-to-goodness attention can only be maintained for about 10 minutes or less. So, how could anybody consider sitting for long stretches at a time to be ideal for learning?

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Posted by on in What If?

My first “official” day on the job was July 5, and before I could get started, I needed a work space.  I had taken a few tours of the facilities before, and I saw that my new office was on the third floor–the top corner office with a great view.  It was more like a penthouse.

And then I checked out the whole building and told the movers to put all of my belongings in the basement. You read correctly.  The basement!  My staff began to panic and wanted to know if I was okay.

I picked an office that is the size of a utility closet at best. No windows. No bathroom. No opulence resembling the typical superintendent ‘s office. Just enough room to hang a few pictures and my academic credentials.

Why would I do something like this? A few reasons…

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Posted by on in What If?

child and computer 1450x725

I’m not a fan of fear tactics. In fact, I often can be heard railing against them, as I believe the media’s obsession with them has made parents paranoid and forced children into a childhood that doesn’t look remotely like childhood should.

Take, for example, the belief that earlier is better. Whether we’re discussing athletics or academics, parents have come to accept as true that if they don’t get their children involved in as much as possible, as early as possible, their little ones will fall behind and never live up to their full potential. Because of this belief, far too many children are being asked to do that for which they’re not developmentally ready. The result, far too often, is frustration and failure for kids, and even an intense dislike for whatever it is they’ve been asked to master – like reading and physical activity!

Another myth under which today’s parents are laboring is that it is a dangerous, dangerous world and they must be ever-vigilant to prevent their children from being snatched, or worse. And why wouldn’t they believe such a thing, when the evidence seems to be irrefutable? Whether it’s via traditional or social media, we’re receiving constant messages about child abduction and stranger danger. But the fact remains that stranger danger is yet another falsehood and children today are no less safe than they were when I was a kid (which was a very long time ago). But how are parents to know that? How are they to believe statistics when our society has become so adept at instilling fear?

One of the consequences of this particular myth is that children aren’t being allowed to take the risks that were once a natural part of childhood – and growth. Autonomy and the ability to problem solve are among the characteristics being sacrificed at the altar of overprotection.

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Posted by on in What If?

Recently I had the unique experience of being interviewed by a middle school student. Jacob had found me on the Internet because he was researching recess and wanted to ask some questions for his project.

Of course, recess is one of my favorite topics so I agreed to give him some time. What I didn’t know until we were on the phone was the reason behind his project.

It seems he and a friend (a student with special needs) had had a small incident on the playground during the 10 minutes or so they get to hang out after lunch. As a result, not only have he and his friend been denied recess, but the whole school is having it withheld!

I was momentarily rendered speechless (a rare occurrence indeed) – and I’m still beyond stunned. I mean, what the hell? How could any administrator/decision maker believe that that’s an appropriate reaction? That this is a logical consequence?

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Posted by on in What If?

teacher and children

Those of us with children have all been there: standing in a queue as long as the river Nile at the supermarket with a slowly unraveling toddler in the cart. You could hand her your iPhone with a colorful app that bings and boings to forestall that tantrum. Or, you could talk to her – where are those apples in the cart? Can she find the picture of the little girl on the cereal box, or find the letter “G” that her name starts with on the big sign over head?

In fact, researcher Julia Ma and her colleagues suggest that you just might want to have that conversation. At a recent Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, they reported their findings from a study of over 1000 children under the age of 2. They had asked parents to report how often their children used handheld digital devices in an average day. These same parents then responded to a questionnaire about their children’s language abilities. What did they find? Children with more screen time were more likely to be delayed in their language expression! Moreover, these researchers were careful and took many other factors into account when they did their analyses: maternal education, family income, infant temperament, and parent - child overall screen time on other than handheld devices. These precautions suggest that their finding was really about children’s handheld screen time.

Handheld devices are pervasive – found in every crevice of our lives. We check them before we go to bed and they are the first point of contact with the world when we awaken in the morning. Recent data shows high uptake by even the youngest children. Reports suggest that the 2-4 crowd goes digital for almost 2 hours a day. But the widespread use of these devices is a relatively new phenomenon. We just sang "Happy Birthday" to the 10-year-old iPhone and the tablet is just 7 years of age. Not surprisingly, research has lagged behind the rapidly changing technology. But that means that we are putting devices into the hands of our toddlers when we know very little about their possible effects.

But we do know what helps our children learn language. Decades of research tell us that language learning depends on human interaction and on what researchers call ‘contingency’ – responding to our children soon after they speak and building on what they say. Digital devices can interrupt the conversation that is so vital to language success. Research from our labs shows that children will not learn new words when their conversation with a parent is interrupted by a cell phone call.

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