Friday, October 30, 2015

Importance of Free, Unstructured Play

This week’s article summary is The Play Deficit

While anyone over 35 is often guilty of remembering his/her childhood in an idealistic version of what really happened, this article captures today’s educational and family reality—namely, kids have less and less free, unstructured play time and consequently miss out on opportunities to learn the important skills that enable us to appropriately interact socially.

The author is an evolutionary psychologist (in my next life, this will be my job!), and he gives the natural selection explanation of why play is so important for animals and humans. As he points out, however, animals mostly play to hone their instincts; while human need to develop instincts too, we also need to learn and practice the mores/norms unique to each culture.

Earlier this week, Maryellen, Carli, and I had a UED parent meeting/discussion of the dos and don’ts of empowering children at home and in the classroom. I wish I had read this article before the meeting because it captures what’s so needed at school and at home:  more free time for kids to be kids and to work through and develop the ‘emotional intelligence’ inter- and intra- personal skills we talked about last week.

I definitely remember as a kid having much more freedom and latitude than I gave to my kids—and yes, as the article below attests, there were some dangerous situations my buddies and I had to worm our way out of. One time, we snuck into an abandoned military base looking for remnants of weapons, ammo, etc. and we got caught by a security guard. (I still haven’t told parents about this ‘arrest’.) Other times we had to figure out how to play a baseball game with only 6 players total (no hitting to right field, batting team provides the catcher except when there’s a play at the plate when the pitcher covers). Early every winter we had to  determine if a nearby small pond was frozen enough for us to skate on (for some odd reason we had the smallest kid in our groups inch his way across the pond—with a hockey stick as his life preserver: if he got across, we were good to go!).

While we probably can’t go back to giving kids that much latitude, as the article recommends, play—at all ages—it essential to learning!



When I was a child, my friends and I had two educations.

We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education.

We played in mixed-age neighborhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learned in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learned in school.

For more than 50 years now, we have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play. The first half of the 20th century was the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. But, beginning around 1960, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. The effect has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.

Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

Learning versus playing is a false dichotomy we have fallen prey to: when in fact playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.

The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing, when they could just rest, tucked away safely in a burrow somewhere?  Play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practice the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.

Humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, natural selection in humans favored a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play.

For more than two decades now, education leaders in the US have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than US children, and they score higher on standardized international tests. What we don’t realize, however, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning. 

Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardized curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Scores have been declining since the mid-80s.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun.
To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. Most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learned a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.

Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise.
The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practice that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important.

So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape.

Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure.

Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practice adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimization, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Importance of Emotional Intelligence

This week’s article summary is What You Learned in Preschool is Crucial at Work.

The article builds on what we discussed at Wednesday’s meeting: the importance of emotional intelligence in personal and professional success, in particular cooperation, empathy, flexibility, dependability, and perseverance.

Clearly the article’s intended audience is school’s that focus exclusively on cognitive achievement. 
It’s not surprising that schools that are measured on their students’ standardized test scores devote the lion share of their school day to activities that prepare students for those tests. 

Fortunately, Trinity has always been committed to the development of the whole child—yes, cognitive development but also social-emotional, physical, aesthetic, character, etc. 

This article points out that while technology is replacing a lot of manual skills, it most likely will never be able to replace skills like nuanced decision making, and, as such, emotional intelligence today is more crucial in the workplace than ever before—and is something more schools need to give more time to.



 For all the jobs that machines can now do — whether performing surgery, driving cars or serving food — they still lack one distinctly human trait. They have no social skills.

Skills like cooperation, empathy, and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work. Occupations that require strong social skills have grown much more than others since 1980. And the only occupations that have shown consistent wage growth since 2000 require both cognitive and social skills.

To prepare students for the change in the way we work, the skills that schools teach may need to change. Social skills are rarely emphasized in traditional education.

Machines are automating a whole bunch of these things, so having the softer skills, knowing the human touch and how to complement technology, is critical, and our education system is not set up for that.

Preschool classrooms look a lot like the modern work world. Children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups, and their most important skills are sharing and negotiating with others. But that soon ends, replaced by lecture-style teaching of hard skills, with less peer interaction.

James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, did groundbreaking work concluding that non-cognitive skills like character, dependability and perseverance are just as—if not more--important as cognitive achievement. They can be taught, he said, yet American schools don’t necessarily do so.
These conclusions have been put into practice outside academia. Google researchers, for example, studied the company’s employees to determine what made the best manager. They assumed it would be technical expertise. Instead, it was people who made time for one-on-one meetings, helped employees work through problems and took an interest in their lives.

These conclusions do not mean traditional education has become unnecessary. In fact, traditional school subjects are probably more necessary than ever to compete in the labor market. But some schools are experimenting with how to add social skills to the curriculum.

At many business and medical schools, students are assigned to small groups to complete their work. 

So-called flipped classrooms assign video lectures before class and reserve class for discussion or group work. The idea is that traditional lectures involve too little interaction and can be done just as well online.

Another way to teach these skills is through group activities like sports, band or drama. Students learn important workplace skills: trusting one another, bringing out one another’s strengths and being coachable.

Maybe high schools and colleges should evaluate students the way preschools do — whether they “play well with others.”

Friday, October 16, 2015

Task, Purpose, Criteria of Teaching

This week's article summary is The Unwritten Rules of College (no hyperlink available). While the article's primary audience is college professors, the advice is pertinent for elementary, middle and high school teachers as well.

The main point of the article is that in order to optimize student learning teachers need to provide clear and succinct instructions and explanations about the what, how, and why of what is to be studied. This extends to how students will be asked to demonstrate their understanding (how they will be assessed).

Through about 10th grade, I was basically lost and adrift about how to take notes, highlight in textbooks, and study and prepare for tests, papers, quizzes, etc. Assessments were a scary mystery to me. I viewed tests and papers from a negative, deficit vantage point--they were ways for the teachers to find out what I didn't know. 

Then, when I was seventeen or so a cognitive lightbulb went on in my brain.  I began to think of assessments as opportunities to show what I knew, not as traps for what I didn't know. I began to see that while knowledge content was an important part of life, my education was more about me developing my own opinions and ideas. As part of this cognitive ‘a-ha’ I began asking at the beginning of a unit how we students were going to be assessed: if we were going to write paper, I took notes differently compared to if we we going to have a test, especially if the questions were going to be true/false, multiple choice, etc. Simply from this change in perspective, I became a much more confident and self-aware (and successful) student.

Clearly part of this change was maturational as I moved a la Piaget from being concrete cognitively to being more analytical. When I became a teacher I committed to providing my students the scaffolding to help them avoid the doubt and confusion I had in school until my junior year of high school. I always gave them an overview of the upcoming unit, its duration and purpose, and the assessment(s) I would use--or as the article below states the 'task, purpose, and criteria'. This was typically be followed by a class discussion of the different ways students could learn and how to best remember and then use the material. These intro discussions gave students not only a better sense of what we were going to study but also a greater sense of ownership and academic self-confidence and empowerment. 

The point of the article below is that no matter how long we have taught, we need to remember what it’s like to be a student and to help provide the appropriate support and guidance to maximize their learning, confidence, and independence.



Some college students--and elementary, middle, and high school students as well—can run into trouble because academic expectations are not clear. It can seem to them that there are unwritten rules they aren’t privy to.

Transparency with assignments is an important key to students feeling they belong in the classroom, gaining confidence, and thriving academically.

Researchers have zeroed in on three components that the most-effective instructors orchestrate and communicate to students:

The task: What exactly are students being asked to do?

The purpose: Why should they do it? What important learning will flow from it?

The criteria: How will student work be evaluated?

As minor and perhaps self-evident as the underlying questions may seem, it’s surprising how often they go unexamined or unexpressed.

Clarity of task, purpose, and criteria help students meet higher expectations of rigor and ensure equity of educational quality.

Attending to these factors also pushes teachers to think through their material at a deeper level and to give assignments that benefit all students.

Why don’t some instructors use these simple steps?

Because they often take for granted the logic and the rhythm of their assignments and expectations.

Some have forgotten how much they know and care about the material relative to their students.

Some also believe that being so explicit about assignments is hand-holding; students should be able to figure out assignments by themselves.

When instructors explain material clearly, use good examples to explore difficult points, are well prepared, and have a solid command of their subject, students notice and appreciate it – and are more successful academically.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Introverts in Schools

This week’s article summary is When Schools Overlook Introverts 

As the article points out that the percentage of introverts is somewhere from 33% to 50%.

I confess to begin an introvert. 

Like many other introverts who live and work in a world that rewards extroversion, I often feel that except in my house (where I can truly be my quiet self) I must play the role of a social, outgoing, gregarious colleague, teacher, neighbor, etc. 

I’m not complaining—after all, introverts to be successful must adapt to the expectations of the larger world. But I need my quiet, alone, private time too so  I can re-energize and perform (other introverts will appreciate my verb choice here) for others.

The article below is a reminder to teachers that not every activity has to be collaborative or require deep, heartfelt sharing and debriefing among students. (I still dread the end of education workshops and conferences when we have to go around the circle and share what we’ve learned, what we’ve felt, and how we’ve changed from the experience.)

I was one of those rare students who preferred and learned better from textbooks and lectures rather than group activities. While I learned content better when alone or listening, I certainly needed this to be complemented by group work where I learned how to work with others.

We need to be mindful of our introvert students in our classes who push well beyond their comfort zones every time they are asked to share their ‘feelings’ with others. Yes, introverts need to learn how to work with others, but we also need time at school to be by ourselves without someone assuming something’s wrong or we are unhappy.

Enjoy the long weekend!



When Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking nearly four years ago, it was immediately met with acclaim. The book criticizes schools and other key institutions for primarily accommodating extroverts and such individuals’ “need for lots of stimulation.” It also sought to raise awareness about the personality type, particularly among those who’ve struggled to understand it.

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts.

In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever.

These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

Proponents of “active learning classrooms” write about “breaking students and faculty out of their comfort zones” like it’s a good thing, and teachers can conflate introversion into an inability to self-advocate.

American pedagogy has sought to overhaul the model of education and challenges students to forego passivity in favor of contribution and participation by having students overcome isolation in order to learn to write.

This growing emphasis in classroom on group projects and interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they’re working independently and in more subdues environments. 

Comprising anywhere from 33% to 50% the population, introverts sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when that’s not always the case.

As Susan Cain put it in her famous TED Talk, introverts simply “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”

Group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts. Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction. And overall, this trend is a good thing.

Several recent studies offer the latest evidence that students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures.

But cooperative learning doesn’t have to entail excessively social or over-stimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation.

The ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation.

But I’m reminded of Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” when I see that Georgia College’s webpage dedicated to collaborative learning, which includes the topic sentence: “Together is how we do everything here at Georgia College. Learn. Work. Play. Live. Together.” Everything, that is, except quiet introspection, free of cost and distraction.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Helicopter Parenting

This week’s article summary is an infographic entitled Helicopter Parenting and Its Long-lasting Effect, which is an appropriate follow-up to last week’s article on the dangers of ‘overparenting’.

Most of us have heard the term ‘helicopter parent’. 

What’s sobering about the statistics below is how deleterious parental hovering can be in the overall development of a young adult—which really begins to surface when teens enter college incapable of and anxious about taking charge of their lives as students and as people. 

Clearly Hollywood recognizes the absurdity of overprotective parents creating neer-do-well, aimless guys. Think of any Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen movie—funny and tragic at the same time.

Yes, it is tougher to be a parent today. As David Walsh states, we live in a Yes Culture—where everything is ‘more, easier, faster’; rarely are kids told today ‘no, you can’t or yes you must’. Consequently many parents today feel that in order for their children to keep pace with other kids, they cram their children’s schedule with ‘enrichment activities’, most of which are adult led and directed, leaving kids no time to practice and develop important skills and habits like personal responsible decision-making, time management, etc.

The result can often be that college students have had a plethora of experiences but very little practice with voice, choice, and decision-making—or, as the infograph states, little ‘executive function skills’. (If you haven’t read the book Excellent Sheep, pick it up.)

Earlier this week I met with a number of fathers in a Dialogue with Dads meeting and had them in small groups look at the signs below of helicopter parenting and assess how well they avoided them. While all could see the danger of being a helicopter parent, most were honest that it was difficult for parents today to avoid every one of these signs.

While it’s it tougher to be a parent today, we all must remember what we ultimately want for our kids: autonomy, self-sufficiency, self-regulation, resilience, persistence. And just as academic skills need much practice, these habits and skills above need practice too—and overparenting does not help a child develop into a fully-rounded and self-assured adult.


What is a helicopter parent?
  • A helicopter parent has been described as any parent who ‘hovers’ closely over their children
  • This may mean being within arm’s reach, even if it’s against their children’s own wishes, both literally and metaphorically
  • The term ‘helicopter parent’ was coined in 1968 when it appeared in Between Parent and Teenage by Haim Ginott, who notes a teen using the phrase to describe his mother
  • The phrase became popular in the early 2000s as baby boomers and Generation X parents began sending their children to college.
  • College administrators noticed behaviors starting to develop such as calling to wake their children up, or complaining to professors about their children’s grades.

Helicopter parenting follows three principal patterns:
  • When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves.
  • When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves.
  • When our parenting behaviors is motivated by our own egos.

Impact of helicopter parenting on job searches
  • 30% of recruiters had a parent submit a resume for their child
  • 25% have been contacted by a parent who feels their child should receive a job
  • 15% had a parent call to schedule an interview for their child.
  • 10% have had a parent negotiate their child’s salary and benefits
  • 4% have seen parent show up to interviews with their child
  • 70% of young job seekers say they need to speak to their parents before accepting a job offer

How helicopter parenting affects kids
  • In 2013, 95% of college counseling centers reported that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on their campus
  • A study of college students found that:
  • 84% felt overwhelmed by responsibilities
  • 60% felt very sad
  • ]57% felt very lonely
  • 51% felt overwhelming anxiety

Lasting issues
  • Helicopter parenting has been associated with ‘problematic development in emerging adulthood…by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.’
  • College students with helicopter parents self-reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life
  • A 2014 study found a correlation between highly structured childhoods and a lack of executive function capabilities
  • Helicopter parenting is associated with low self-worth and an increased tendency to engage in risky behaviors, such as smoking and binge drinking

Signs of helicopter parenting
  • Inability to let go: a helicopter parent feels considerable emotional pain when they are out of their child’s presence. They may be unable to focus on others activities while a child is at school or elsewhere
  • Spoiling children: Wanting the best for your child may sometimes take the form of simply giving it to them, leading to a cycle of spoiling which may affect the child for years to come.
  • Lobbying: Rather than letting children make and learn from mistakes, helicopter parents may step in to defend their child regardless of the situation.
  • Being a security guard: Not allowing children to engage in certain forms of play, not allowing them to work their own way out of a situation with other children, or helping your child to avoid conflicts altogether
  • Helping too much with homework: Occasional homework help is necessary as a parent, but too much help or doing it altogether is a sign
  • Germaphobia: A less common sign is a tendency to avoid germs and bacteria more than normal.
  • Watchdogging: Keeping tabs on kids at all times, whether in person or electronically, while never allowing them to be somewhere you are not is a sign
  • Too many extracurricular activities: Helicopter parents will often over schedule their children’s lives in an effort to ensure that they will have the fullest possible experiences of childhood. Often this is for their transcripts to be appealing to colleges.
  • Too much praise: Many helicopter parents believe that their children should never have to experience the feeling of failure and will pile on too much praise. This can potentially breed poor performance and narcissism later in life.