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Reading is Fundamental

Yesterday’s release of a major report on teacher pay dwarfed much else in the education news. I may write on that soon, if I feel I have anything to add to the conversation. But today I wanted to talk about my favorite book, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It has been my favorite book since the 5th grade. I haven’t read it in years, in part because I am afraid of what would happen if I read it again and thought, “Well, it’s okay.” But up through college I read it multiple times each year. I read it so many times that the cover of my first copy fell off when I was in high school, and my parents bought me a replacement copy.

I’m not exactly sure why this book touched me so. Likely because I got the book as a very young adolescent, about to go through many of the things that Francie went through in the book. She was relatable.

This isn’t the only book to have touched me over the years. But it was the first. And it helped cement the love of reading, and of books themselves (I'm not sure I'll ever get a Kindle), that I have today.

I thought of this book after seeing Sarah D. Sparks’ EdWeek blog yesterday. She posted about a meta-analysis of book-distribution programs. The study, commissioned by the book distribution group Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), found that students from low-income homes who had access to print materials through book ownership or lending programs like theirs had improved reading performance. Such programs were correlated with children better knowing the ...

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson claimed that school reform efforts have disappointed for two reasons. One, no one has discovered transformative changes that are scalable. And two, shrunken student motivation.

Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Samuelson may be on to something here. Student motivation is rarely mentioned in education reform discussions--except, of course, as part of carrot and stick conversations about how incentives can help students do better (an idea that research both within education and in other sectors has shed doubt on). Perhaps if reform discussions focused more on getting students invested in their learning, they would be more fruitful.

But then he takes it a bit far for me:

The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with ...

Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan made news when it beat out thousands of other schools for the honor of hosting President Obama as its commencement speaker. The President will speak before the school's 2010 graduates today.

His audience will include scores of students whose lives have been transformed by a stunning promise: free tuition at any public university in the state. At a time when many towns in Michigan are losing people, the "Kalamazoo Promise" has drawn a flood of new families into the city and the school system.

We recently spoke with Von Washington, the principal of the high school, about the President's visit and what it means for the school. Buoyed by the Promise, students have been streaming into AP classes and graduating in higher numbers.

Their passion, academic focus and hope for the future come through loud and clear in a video they created to make their case to the President. It clearly hit home.

Public School Insights: Kalamazoo Central High School recently received a big honor. You won the Race to the Commencement. As a result, President Obama is going to give your commencement address. What do you think set Kalamazoo Central apart from all of the other schools that tried to get the same honor?

Washington: It is really tough to tell. We are not entirely sure. But there are a couple of things that are distinct about us. One is that in the video presentation we really believe the students, through their words and their passion, gave a good idea to those viewing the video of what it means to go to school at Kalamazoo Central High School and what it means to be serious about your education.

Second, we are not a school that, by any means, has arrived. But we are a school, and a school district, definitely on an incline. We are reaching towards the sky, and we are moving towards our goals. And because it can appear that education is kind of in the doldrums financially and/or in achievement, I think that people recognize that if you are ...

Can the mere presence of books in a child's home make that child a better reader? If we're to believe recent research, that might just be the case. If so, a small investment in books for poor children might pay off.

That idea still meets with a great deal of resistance, even (or perhaps especially) among those who prize reading. Maybe we believe we cheapen books if we objectify them in that way.

But a trio of recent studies offers food for thought. First, there was the study Roland Fryer released a few months ago. He found that young children improved their reading ability when they were paid for every book they read. The children in his study even maintained their reading habits after the payments stopped. I'll admit that I recoiled a bit at this finding, because I hate to see reading become such a mercantile enterprise.

A more recent study out of the University of Nevada suggested that the number of books in a child's home has a greater bearing on that child's academic prospects than does the parents' education level. The study's author speculates that ...

[First published April 22, 2008]

LastChildinWoods.jpg In a few days, a new and expanded edition of Richard Louv’sLast Child in the Woods, will hit bookstores around the country. Louv’s book has fueled an international movement to combat what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” children’s growing alienation from the natural world. (Louv’s term for the disorder is quickly catching on, turning up in major newspapers, on television, and even in a February cartoon by Bloom County creator Berke Breathed.)

A quotation from our recent telephone interview with Louv elegantly captures the thrust of his argument: “[T]he message we’re sending kids is that nature is in the past and probably doesn’t count anymore, the future’s in electronics, the boogeyman lives in the woods, and playing outdoors is probably illicit and possibly illegal.”

Development is choking off access to nature, kids are succumbing to the attractions of televisionRichardLouv.jpg and computers, and—yes—time for school recess has dwindled dramatically in the past decade. To make matters worse, Louv argues, parents, educators, and even environmentalists have been complicit in erecting barriers to the natural world. We keep our children indoors to protect them from real or (very often) imagined dangers, we regulate and confine their play, and we tell them to not to disturb delicate flowers, quiet streams or pristine undergrowth.

Louv does find encouraging signs of change in the rapid growth of “Leave No Child Indoors” movements around the country. (Many movement leaders credit Louv’s book for greatly accelerating that growth.) Nature is far too elemental a human need, he argues, for Nature Deficit Disorder to grow unchecked. For an overview of "No Child Left Inside" initiatives around the country, see the Children and Nature Network.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview (5 minutes):

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Or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Last Child in the Woods?

LOUV: The central argument is that you have an increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature. And that this has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of ...

Incentives are all the rage. If we can just find the right carrots, we can move people to do marvelous things. We see this thinking in teacher merit pay proposals, of course, but it's also a regular feature in discussions of student motivation.

Unfortunately it's becoming harder and harder to find the right incentives for our students. Here's why:

We're swimming against strong cultural currents. The worst sides of youth culture aren't doing us any favors. For example, reality TV serves up a grotesque parody of a lesson we all want to teach our children: Work hard, and you'll reap rewards. What are they learning from reality TV? Distinguish yourself through vanity, venality, selfishness, boastfulness and intrigue, and you'll win the prize. Fame, however ill-gotten, is its own reward.

Perverse notions of self esteem weaken the drive to work hard. Recent polls suggest that American students on the whole think very highly of themselves. Jean Twenge, who has studied these polls, worries that “self-esteem without basis ...

David Kelley is a legend in technology and design circles. Decades ago, he founded a design firm that dreamed up the  computer mouse as we know it today. That firm has since evolved into IDEO, a global design company that has left its unique stamp on everything from consumer goods to social innovation. IDEO's work has probably touched your life in ways you don't even know.

For years, Kelley has brought his passion for design into the classroom as a professor at Stanford's famed Institute of Design (or D.School, for those in the know). More recently, Kelley has set his sights on the K-12 classroom. He and his Stanford graduate students are working with schools to help teachers and students master "design thinking." He recently told us what that means.

Public School Insights: Let's start with a big question. What is "design thinking?"

Kelley: To me, design thinking is basically a methodology that allows people to have confidence in their creative ability. Normally many people don't think of themselves as creative, or they think that creativity comes from somewhere that they don't know—like an angel appears and tells them the answer or gives them a new idea.

So design thinking is hopefully a framework that people can hang their creative confidence on. We give people a step-by-step method on how to more routinely be creative or more routinely innovate.

Public School Insights: So you are not talking about something that only artists or engineers would use.

Kelley: No. I struggled with what to call it when we first started out. The reason that we put the word design in it is that this really is the way that designers naturally think. It's not necessarily the way that doctors, lawyers or teachers think, ...

The blogs are buzzing with thoughts on student motivation. That's not all bad, given that policy wonks by nature spend most of their time talking about compulsion. But we should be wary of motivation's evil twin: pandering.

Author Dan Pink makes a strong case for "motivation 3.0" in schools. That is, he believes carrots and sticks alone won't make people behave the way we want them to. Instead, we need to rouse people's inner drive to do meaningful work. I couldn't agree more.

But I do worry about what happens when we confuse true motivation with a kind of wish fulfillment: students doing what they want to do when they want to do it. Without a doubt, students should do hands-on work. They should use technology that makes learning vivid and exciting. They should see the relevance of their studies to their own lives and aspirations.

What happens, though, if we condition our students to believe that every moment in school or life should be sublime, or at least entertaining? The truth is that just about any work worth its salt includes peaks and valleys. You'll have to slog ...

Dan Pink has written several bestselling books on the future of work. His most recent book, Drive, is already lighting up the blogosphere a scant week after its release. Drive explores what motivates us to do our best work. These days, carrots and sticks will do more harm than good, Pink argues. The time has come to tap "the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world."

Pink has earned his chops as a business writer. He has become a regular in the pages of magazines like Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and Wired. But his work is at least as relevant to schools as it is to business.

Pink recently spoke with us about his book and its implications for school reform.

Public School Insights: Given that this is the age of Twitter, can you summarize your book in 140 characters or less?

Pink: I can summarize the book in 140 characters, although it is kind of hard to measure characters in audio….

The 140 character summary of this book Drive goes like this: Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st-century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Public School Insights: Thank you, that does the trick. Let's dig into that and create a few more characters. [Along with] this notion of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you give a bit of a history. We have moved from motivation 1.0 to motivation 2.0, and then to motivation 3.0. What are these stages and why are they important?

Pink: Part of this book has a metaphor at the center of it. It is the metaphor of the computer operating system. All of us use computers. We use a whole variety of ...

The language of economics is quickly replacing the language of schooling, and that might not bode well for our children in the long term.

Two recent studies suggest that all the recent educonomic talk might thwart children's performance in the long run. (I learned about both studies from Newsweek's Nurture Shock blog).

The first found that students who focus more on test scores than on the inherent value of learning don't retain much of what they get by heart for a test. No big surprise there. 

The second found that students do worse on tests when they believe they are competing with many people. By contrast, they "work harder, and do better, when they are up against just a few people." The study's authors speculate that students are more motivated to succeed when the competition is personal, when there are "fewer people in the race."

So the common language of school reform might actually take some wind out of students' sails. All that focus on test scores, especially those test-prep classes and rallies, might actually smother the urge to learn. And all that time we spend warning students that they're up against millions of Chinese and Indian geniuses? It may be counterproductive.

Reformers will no doubt heave exasperated sighs if they read this. High-flown ...

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