How Children Succeed

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the second in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Helping children and teens develop dispositions is one of the essential aspects of preparing future-ready students for schooling and life. In my research on this topic, I was happy to find Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (I have not yet read his more recent book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.)

Tough frames his perspective as a possible new school of thought that calls the “cognitive hypothesis” into question. The “cognitive hypothesis” of child rearing/development suggests that learning is based on “inputs” and “outputs.”

These are some of the “cognitive hypothesis” examples Tough gives that may speak to BACC blog readers:
1. The fewer words a child hears and speaks before entering school the more likely she is to struggle in schooling.
2. Fewer books in the home puts a child at risk in reading proficiency.
3. More math homework means higher math scores.

These examples (two near and dear to my heart) suggests a linear view of cognitive development.

Tough’s “character hypothesis” adds a different perspective. “What matters most in a child’s development is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character” (xv). In the world of school librarianship, we refer to these noncognitive skills, personality traits, or character traits as “dispositions.”

While I disagree with Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” here, I read on and found myself developing a hybrid view of these two apparently opposing hypotheses.

The “character hypothesis” explains a number of children I have met. In over twenty-five years of teaching, I have met and admired those “outlier” kids who seemed to have missed out on literacy enriched upbringings yet have excelled in every school-based measure of achievement. I have also met and wondered about very privileged children who seemed to have had every advantage yet were unable to persevere at tasks (even of their own choosing) and lacked grit. (Tough uses Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit: “self-discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal.”)

I agree with Tough that there are many other ways to develop “executive functions” besides growing up with the advantages afforded (most? some?) privileged children. These higher-order mental abilities, such as the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations, can be learned in many ways and at many points during a person’s life. “Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood” (48).

I totally agree with Tough that: “Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing bonds with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment” (28). And in my experience (and in the views of other researchers) when parents and other caregivers talk to and dialogue with their young children and enfold them in their arms while reading to them, children are indeed building the bonds that help children develop resilience. (Hence my objection Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” in relationship to talking to and reading with young children.)

Tough cites research that was new to me. Mary Ainsworth conducted studies in the 1960s/early 1970s. She found that: “Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first few months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid babies than babies whose parents had ignored their cries” (cited in Tough 33). This may seem counterintuitive but having been that kind of parent with my own infant daughter, my experience has borne out that finding. She became a VERY intrepid toddler and grew into a VERY independent woman (now in her mid-30s).

My question here is if babies are born into struggling families, does the parent who is working two jobs have the energy to respond “readily and fully” to a baby’s middle of the night cries?

Tough also writes about cognitive-behavior therapy and cites the work of Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, which I haven’t yet read. According to Seligman, the best time to transform pessimistic children into optimistic ones is “before puberty, but late enough in childhood so they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking)” (91).

For me, this emphasizes the importance of the middle school years. I believe middle school educators benefit from specialized training in adolescent development and empathetic skills in order to effectively support young teens social, emotional, and cognitive development. (I worked with some very “gifted” classroom teachers at Emily Gray Junior High who had what it takes during my one year of middle school librarianship.)

My experience supports the importance of optimism and other positive emotional states when it comes to learning. As researcher David Sousa noted positive emotions affect learning by helping students process information, engage in difficult tasks, develop a deeper understanding of learning experiences, and recall and apply what is taught later on (2016).

Tough analyzes the character education program at  KIPP Schools. In order to prepare KIPP students for college, students are given a college persistence rating in four categories: academic preparedness, financial stability, socio-emotional wellness, and non-cognitive preparedness. This score is monitored regularly and educators/counselors provide support and interventions to keep students on track. The success rate for less-privileged students who attend KIPP schools and go on to succeed in post-secondary education suggests “character” counts.

Tough concludes: “Character can function as a substitute for the social safety net that students at Riverdale (a high school serving privileged students) enjoy – the support from their families and schools and culture that protects them from the consequences of occasional detours and mistakes and bad decisions” (103).

In summary, Tough writes: “Character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up” (196). Agreed. Agreed. Agreed.

I learned a great deal from reading Tough’s book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in child-adolescent development and education.

Writing this review has helped me further reflect on the complexity of creating an environment in which future-ready children and teens can development the knowledge, competencies, and dispositions they need to succeed. In my hybrid view, the combination of family economic security, the “cognitive hypothesis,” and the “character hypothesis” could all be applied to create a supportive and effective birth through adolescence environment for children to succeed.

Why not imagine and create the best of all possible worlds for our children?

Works Cited
Sousa, David A. 2016. How the Brain Learns. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tough, Paul. 2013. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.

Teach Like Finland, Part 2

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the second in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Timothy D. Walker, author of Teach Like Finland, identified six strategies Finnish educators use to approach their work: seek flow, have a thicker skin, collaborate over coffee, welcome the experts, vacate on vacation, and don’t forget the joy. I wrote about the first three last week.

Welcome the Experts
Walker was not comfortable at first with welcoming colleagues or other experts into his classroom. After he visited other classrooms where he saw this modeled, he became a convert. Walker writes: “I found that the more I welcomed experts into my classroom, the more I began to view myself as a resource manager who could design great learning experiences for my class by tapping into talents outside my own” (183).

School librarians have a long tradition of inviting guests into the library. We regularly invite authors, illustrators, scientists, politicians, and local experts of all kinds to share via the library program. (And it’s important to remember that all educators may not be as comfortable with this practice.) The very best of these presentations are directly aligned with classroom curricula and are coplanned and cofacilitated with classroom teachers and specialists.

Two of the most successful expert presentations during my time at Sabino High School were visits by Arizona Daily Star editorial cartoonist David Fitzsimmons and our then Arizona State Representative Marian McClure. In both cases, I worked with the social studies classroom teachers to prepare students for their visits and to follow up afterward. Editorial cartoons became the topic for “questioning” reading comprehension strategy lessons. (See lesson 5-2 in Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact.) In addition to civics information, the connection with Representative McClure provided advocacy for school librarianship at the state legislature.

While school librarians are adept at bringing in outside experts, they may not be as experienced with using the human resources in the library and on campus. School staff and faculty have abundant expertise and talents to share. As school librarians build relationships in the school community, it is incumbent upon them to uncover the lights that are hiding under barrels in their own buildings—lights that could make a difference for students’ enthusiasm for curriculum-based learning as well as their pursuit of independent learning.

In a recent Knowledge Quest blog post titled “Library as Incubator,” Mark Dzula wrote about how he supported the school library paraprofessional aide in sharing her language and culture expertise with students during a weekly lunchtime drop-in Arabic program. Mark wrote: “She was motivated to share her love of the language to help expand students’ worldview and to overcome any social stigma that the students may have encountered in association with Arabic.” A dozen students attended and were very inspired in various ways to pursue more information about Arabic language and culture. With support from the World Language Department, one student is taking an independent study in Arabic with the library assistant next year.

Vacate on Vacation
According to Walker, Finnish teachers “literally” vacating during the summer. Shocking! This practice is in sharp contrast with the summer practices of most U.S. educators. In the summer, most teach summer school, work another job outside of education, or prepare for the next school year. (Some even time their pregnancies so they can give birth in the summer in order to return to the classroom in the fall.) Walker, who feels the “vacate on vacation” strategy is too extreme, says he prefers a hybrid approach. In the summer, he dedicates a “healthy chunk of time for disconnecting and a healthy chunk of time for professional development” (186).

The pace of life for most U.S. educators is intense during the academic year. Relaxing during the summer (and regularly throughout the school year) seems to be the healthiest choice. Making time in the summer for extended periods of reflection can be an excellent use of one’s “free” time. Interspersing professional books with other types of reading (adult novels, YA literature, and school curriculum-oriented reading) is one strategy some school librarians use to find balance. Extending conference attendance to include touring new parts of the country or visiting with friends and relatives is another way to combine professional learning with personal interests.

Some would suggest that regular technology holidays could also improve one’s ability to relax. In his book, Walker offers a summary of a study conducted by the Harvard Business School. The study involved two groups of consulting firm workers. One group worked 50+ hours per week. didn’t take vacation time and was always connected via their electronic devices. The other worked 40 hours per week, took vacations, and coordinated unconnected time with their coworkers so they could be disconnected without worry or guilt. The team that took time off reported higher job satisfaction, better work-life balance, increased learning, improved communication with their team, and were more efficient and productive in their work (187).

By “vacating” the always “on” culture for selected days, weekends, or even months might also prioritize engaging in enriching face-to-face interactions with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. One thought-provoking book to consider on this subject is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. She proclaims: “It’s time to put technology in its place and reclaim conversation. That journey begins with a better understanding of what conversation accomplishes and how technology can get in the way” (25).

Don’t Forget the Joy
This adage could be the overarching theme for Teach Like Finland. According to Walker, in 2016, Finnish comprehensive schools implemented the newest core curriculum, “where joy is being practiced as a learning concept” (189). When I read this, my U.S. educator mind sadly went directly to these questions: Is joy measurable? How will it be tested? (Ugh!)

There is a palpable feeling of excitement in a joyful learning environment. I once served as the school librarian in a truly “joyful” preK-5 school. Our school was led by a joyful principal whose most often heard phrase was “what a wonder!” With a positive school climate and a commitment to a culture of collaboration, faculty, staff, and families made our school a joyful place to be—every day of the academic year (and in summer programs, too).

Joy begins inside of each individual and from there can spread out to all members of our learning communities. Walker notes that prioritizing joy may not be easy for many U.S. educators but regardless of where he teaches, Timothy Walker commits to remembering and prioritizing joy. The last line in his book: “How about you?”

Note: This photograph of our seven-month-old puppy Pearl playing with her friend Vicka captures (for me) the pure spirit of joy. (Pearl is the poodle.) Every morning when we awake, she reminds us there is a truly joyful way to greet each day.

Works Cited

Dzula, Mark. “Library as Incubator.” Knowledge Quest Blog. 18 May 2017. http://knowledgequest.aasl.org/library-as-incubator/ Accessed 26 May 2017.

Moreillon, Judi. Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. New York: Penguin, 2015.

Walker, Timothy D. Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.

Teach Like Finland, Part 1

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the first in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Since 2001, many educators in the U. S., including yours truly, and around the world have wondered why Finnish students continually rank as top scorers on the international PISA exam. I recently read Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. This is some of what I learned.

Before I even opened the book, I reflected on the use of the word “joyful” in the subtitle. In my work as a school librarian which included thirteen years at all three instructional levels between 1992 – 2009, I cotaught with classroom teachers in their classrooms as well as in the library, computer labs, and out in the field. I had the pleasure of working in many “joyful” classrooms, libraries, and even one very joyful school!

I agree with Teach Like Finland author Timothy Walker that joy is one of the too-oft missing ingredients in schooling today. Walker organizes his book into the four elements of happiness — belonging, autonomy, master, and mind-set — identified by Rag Raghunathan author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? To these Walker adds “well-being.”

There were many other aspects of the Finnish education culture that “spoke to me.” Children start formal schooling at age seven. Elementary schools, in particularly, strive for a holistic, child-focused curriculum that addresses all subjects evenly. All subjects including art and music as well as what U. S. schools consider “core” subjects get equal time. Finnish schools apply the research that has shown art contributes to innovative thinking and music knowledge can help learners grasp mathematical patterns. The holistic model gives children opportunities to cultivate multiple aspects of their personalities and talents.

The average time that Finnish educators spend in actual instruction is also shorter than U. S. teachers per week (18 hours versus 26.5 hours). Finnish students and teachers have 15-minute breaks after every 45-minutes of instructional time. Collaborating with colleagues is one way that educators use that “free” time every day. (See below.)

Walker identified six strategies Finnish educators use to approach their work: seek flow, have a thicker skin, collaborate over coffee, welcome the experts, vacate on vacation, and don’t forget the joy. All of these are well worth considering.

Seek Flow
As a writer and educator, I know and strive for that feeling of flow when my mind and body are totally focused and I do my best work. Walker writes: “Being teachers who seek flow, not superiority, is something that’s not just good for us; it’s also good for our students. Our students are watching us, and if they see that we’re seeking to do our best work, free of comparing ourselves to others, I’m confident that this kind of example will foster a noncompetitive culture in our classrooms… This positive change we want to see—as is so often the case in teaching—starts with us” (Walker 173).

Have a Thicker Skin
Having a “thicker skin” that allows us to give, receive, and respond to constructive criticism is another important strategy. Principal leader and author of The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity George Couros just last week posted “It’s Okay to Be the ‘Boss’” to his blog. The thicker skin strategy totally aligns with Couros’s idea about providing adults with feedback.

Couros writes: “As long as people know that you are both on the same page (that you want them to be successful), they will accept the feedback. For some, it is harder than others, but when they know it is because you want them to be better, it is a much easier pill to swallow.”

Walker goes on to write about how he uses journaling to work through anxieties and challenges in teaching. He also writes about how noting “gratitudes” can boost happiness and giving thanks can strengthen relationships.

Collaborate Over Coffee
Of course, the aspect of daily life in Finnish schools that jumped off the page at me was educator collaboration. Walker interviewed several Finnish teachers and asked: “What brings you joy as a teacher, and what brings your students joy?”

One of the most popular answers was collaboration! He noted that nearly 50% of the lessons he taught during his time in Finland were cotaught.

“Teachers in my school were not just collaborating in the traditional sense, by planning and teaching lessons together—they were truly laboring together, sharing the burdens of teaching with each other. They were helping each other track down the resources they’d need for an upcoming lesson. They were discussing better ways to support needy students. They were analyzing curriculum together. They were talking about how to improve recess for the kids. They were grading tests together. They were offering tech support to each other. To my surprise, this work often happened in between sips of coffee, during those fifteen-minute breaks throughout the day” (Walker 178-179).

His comment made me think about what I mean when I write about collaborating in the “traditional sense.” I believe coteaching involves all of the aspects that Walker describes, but maybe others, who have not experienced classroom-library coteaching between equal partners, do not perceive the same depth of partnership that I have experienced.

In the course of coplanning and coteaching, classroom teachers and school librarians are analyzing curriculum together. They are sharing resources and providing technology support to one another. They are strategizing how to differentiate to meet the needs of all students. And in the most effective partnerships, they are assessing students’ work together and using assessment to adjust their instruction.

Walker writes: “More than anything, I think collaboration is all about mind-set. If you truly believe that you are a better teacher when you are working in concert with others, then I think you will naturally find small, simple ways of collaborating… Their work together seemed like a by-product of their teaching mind-set” (181).

Bravo! And yes! To a mind-set that believes collaboration is the key to better teaching.

I will reflect on the other three strategies next week: welcome the experts, vacate on vacation, and don’t forget the joy.

Works Cited

Couros, George. “It’s Okay to Be the ‘Boss.’” The Principal of Change blog. 18 May 2017, http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7360 Accessed 20 May 2017.

Raghunathan, Rag. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? New York: Penguin, 2016.

Walker, Timothy D. Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.