Friday, October 25, 2019

The Importance of Play

This week’s article summary is To Really Learn, Children Need the Power of Play.

Right before the school year began, one of Trinity’s trustees sent this article to me with the comment, “Sounds familiar, right?  Another example of why Trinity is an excellent choice!”

The article focuses on two educators—one American and one Finnish—who moved to each other’s country and experienced vastly different school experiences for their young children.

The Finnish educator was disappointed by the academic focus and expectation of an American preschool he was considering for his son.

The American educator while in Finland observed a much more relax approach, especially in the younger grades: valuing play, recess, and physicality; not rushing a child into academics; and embracing a slower, more natural and organic start to school that (counter intuitively to many) actually better prepares children for future academic success.

American classrooms on the whole are very different from the Finnish philosophy with much more seat work and with heavy emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

While Finnish students vastly outperform American students on the PISA standardized test, what I really like about Finnish schools is their student measures of success focus on areas like “social growth, emotional development, health, well-being, and happiness.”

As the Trinity trustee wrote, “Sounds familiar, right?”


Five years ago, we switched countries. Pasi Sahlberg came to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Harvard University, and William Doyle moved to Finland to study its world-renowned school system. We brought our families with us. And we were stunned by what we experienced.

In Cambridge, Mass., Pasi took his young son to have a look at a potential preschool. The school’s director asked for a detailed assessment of the boy’s vocabulary and numeracy skills. “Why do you need to know this? He is barely 3 years old!” Pasi asked, looking at his son, for whom toilet training and breast-feeding were recent memories. “We need to be sure he is ready for our program,” replied the director. “We need to know if he can keep up with the rest of the group. We need to make sure all children are prepared to make the mark.”

Pasi was flummoxed by the bizarre education concept of “preschool readiness.” Pasi had entered an American school culture that is increasingly rooted in childhood stress and the elimination of the arts, physical activity and play—all to make room for a tidal wave of test prep and standardized testing. This new culture was supposed to reduce achievement gaps, improve learning and raise America’s position in the international education rankings. Nearly two decades later, it isn’t working. Yet this approach  continues, even as the incidence of childhood mental- health disorders such as anxiety and depression is increasing.

Finland focuses on equity, happiness and joy in learning as the foundations of education. Meanwhile, in Finland, William Doyle entered the school system ranked as #1 in the world for childhood education. Rather than pursuing standardized-test data as the Holy Grail of education, Finland focuses on equity, happiness, well- being and joy in learning as the foundations of education.

Finnish parents and teachers widely agree on several mantras rarely heard in U.S. schools: “Let children be children” and “The work of a child is to play.” A Finnish mother told William, “Here, you’re not considered a good parent unless you give your child lots of outdoor play.”

Finnish children learn to take responsibility and manage risks at very young ages, in school and out. Following local customs, William’s 7-year-old son learned to walk to school by himself, across six street crossings and two busy main roads. One day, on a forest path, William came upon a delighted Finnish father applauding his 6-year-old daughter as she scrambled up a tall tree—to a height that would have petrified many parents around the world. “If she falls and breaks her arm, it will be in a good cause. She will have learned something,” the father said nonchalantly.

In Finland, William experienced an education culture that protects and cherishes childhood, one in which students are immersed in a play-rich education that goes all the way to high school. At his son’s school, William saw children rush to the cafeteria in stocking feet, giggling, hugging and practicing dance steps. Students got a 15-minute outdoor recess every single hour of the school day, rain or shine.

“There are many reasons children must play in school,” explained the school’s principal, Heikki Happonen. “When they are moving, their brains work better. Then they concentrate more in class. It’s very important in social ways too.” He added, “School should be a child’s favorite place.”

The cultural shift is profound. Instead of annual, high- stakes standardized tests, Finnish children are assessed all day, every day, by a much more accurate instrument: trusted teachers who are selected, trained and respected as professionals.

Finland has a crucial insight to teach the U.S. and the world—one that can boost grades and learning for all students, as well as their social growth, emotional development, health, well-being and happiness. It can be boiled down to a single phrase: Let children play.

Back in the U.S., that idea has a powerful champion: the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The importance of playful learning for children cannot be overemphasized,” declared the academy’s 2018 clinical report “The Power of Play.” 

According to the doctors, play—including recess, playful teaching and discovery, as well as periods of self-directed intellectual and physical activity by children with minimal direct interference by adults— boosts mental and physical health, develops executive function and offers “the ideal educational and developmental milieu for children.”
A new emphasis on play can be seen cutting across cultures and ideologies. In China, an experiment in outdoor-play-based preschool and kindergarten known as Anji Play is proving so successful in more than 100 schools that it is being expanded—and widely hailed as a national model for early childhood education.
In Singapore, education officials are trying to shift a nation of high achievers away from stress, academic ranking and over-testing toward a new vision of childhood exploration and “purposeful play.” In a 2018 speech, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said, “There is room for parents to step back, give children space to explore and play.”
The lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.

In U.S. school districts in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and New York, children are being given up to 60 minutes of daily outdoor, free-play recess. These experiments are directly inspired by Finland’s schools —and educators are reporting sharp improvements in academic performance, concentration and behavior.

We should take a lesson from Finland, follow doctors’ orders and build our schools, homes and communities on the learning language of children: play.

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Homework Debate

This week’s article summary is The Homework Debate: What It Means for Elementary Schools, and it focuses on how one elementary school moved away from the more traditional approach to homework to one more like what Trinity does.

While homework at Trinity is not the incendiary topic that it is at many other schools, it is nevertheless appropriate for us to remind ourselves and to take any opportunity to educate our parents about what educational research says and what Trinity’s position is regarding homework.

As the article states in elementary school “there is little to no correlation between homework and performance.”

What’s important for elementary school children when they get home?

Reading nightly (independently as well as listening to an adult), physical exercise, a good night’s sleep (10 hours or more), face-to-face family time (meals, game night, etc.), and, vital from my perspective, time to explore interests/curiosities that might develop into future passions.

The end of the article focuses on how schools can help parents understand and see what their child is learning and experiencing at school in the absence of traditional homework—things that Trinity does like robust classroom web pages and use of social media to highlight and chronicle classwork and student progress.

This article is a good reminder of how we can help parents who push for more traditional homework understand what is truly beneficial for their child’s development.


A parent of third grader is in my lower school office. The conversation turns to homework. “I feel like I am chasing him down every night,” she says. “I’ve tried everything, but it always turns into a battle.”

Having spent nearly two decades as a lower school principal, I have heard this lament time and again. Homework is causing conflict and eroding time for other activities such as reading, outdoor play, family dinner, extracurriculars, and sleep.

Does homework prepare students for middle school and beyond? To create a better policy that centers on student needs, our school investigated the value of homework. We reviewed research on the effects of homework, as well as articles addressing both sides of the homework debate. With consultation from researchers Harris Cooper and John Hattie, we crafted an approach that translates research into practice.

The question of homework’s effect on student achievement has been studied for years. Hattie has compiled the largest body of educational research on the subject to date. He has found that homework has a more positive effect on student achievement at the middle and high school levels. In the elementary grades, however, there is little to no correlation between homework and performance. Also, the positive effects of homework are negatively related to the length of time spent on homework. In other words, for all grade levels, shorter is better.

Meanwhile the daily amount a child reads independently is positively linked to higher-order literacy skills and long-term academic success.

And there are activities that promote academic performance and wellness simultaneously: physical exercise (60 minutes per day); proper sleep (10–11 hours a night for young children); shared family meals (three or more per week); and time to explore talents, interests, and passions. 

With research in hand we began our overhaul of traditional homework practices by giving it a new name: “home learning.” This inspires us to think intentionally about promoting student learning in thoughtful, research-based, and developmentally appropriate ways.

Hefty weekly math packets used to be the norm and often eliminated time for healthy, academically beneficial activities. With home learning, our focus is now on nightly reading for 20 minutes. For our youngest students, this means reading with a parent. Occasionally, we recommend extra learning activities such as math games or tying shoes. We ask parents to limit these activities to no more than 10 minutes for kindergarten through second grade and 20 minutes for third through fifth grades.

We had some parents who wanted suggestions for activities to do at home or who wanted the traditional math packet. As much as parents may not like homework, it provides some structure and gives them a peek at what their child is learning. When some parents started to feel out of the loop, we began to share curriculum plans and updates through weekly emails, our learning management system, and apps such as Seesaw, which showcases student portfolios.   

Parents often want to know how children will learn time-management and study skills. We made sure to implement a more structured study-skills curriculum in fifth grade and mandated the use of student planners in third through fifth grade. There are a few deadline-driven projects during the year for the lower school, and teachers work closely with students to stay on track.

Parents were concerned that teachers wouldn’t know how their child was doing without having homework. This gave us the opportunity to explain the many assessments that teachers use (observation, discussion, unit tests, etc.) that provide a wealth of information about each child’s learning. Homework was never a good source of information about student learning because it so often involves parent assistance.

While schools can’t eliminate every stressor in children’s lives, homework is well within our sphere of control. Rethinking homework in all grades, and especially in the lower grades, is critical and timely work. For our school, it has been a powerful means for enhancing the mental, physical, and emotional health and wellness of children as well as the quality of family life.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Debate Over Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

I liked this article because it looks at both sides of current hot topic: to what extent smartphone and social media use by teenagers contributes to the significant  increase in their anxiety and depression.

The author (an NPR reporter) interviewed three people with very different opinions: a strong proponent of the interconnection between social media use and anxiety in teens, one who sees little to no connection, and one who falls in the middle.

Take the time to read the article because it is a great example of the either/or thinking that often dominates education—sort of like the whole language/phonics and debate.

By the end of the article all three interviewees agree on middle-of-the road, practical recommendations, such as limiting teen technology use and trying to provide guidance for teens around its use rather than demonizing technology and hence sending the message to teens that they can’t talk to parents about the challenges they face negotiating their social media presence.

Clearly, anxiety, depression, and suicide have become much more prevalent in today’s teens. It may be simple to place the blame on the ubiquity of technology, yet we need to resist this either/or thinking and delve more deeply into why teens suffer. Last week’s summary posited some other reasons for teens being disaffected today, including the messages we send teens today about excelling in all endeavors all the time.

When I was a kid, TV was the negative influence (I think I turned out fine.). When I began teaching, it was explicit lyrics in music. (My students by and large turned out fine.) When my kids were little, it was video games. (At least to me they turned out fine.) Now it’s social media. (I’m guessing the vast majority of students today will turn out fine too.)



More teens and young adults — particularly girls and young women — are reporting being depressed and anxious, compared with comparable numbers from the mid-2000s. Suicides are up too in that time period, most noticeably among girls ages 10 to 14.

These trends are the basis of a scientific controversy. One hypothesis that has gotten a lot of traction is that with nearly every teen using a smartphone these days, digital media must take some of the blame for worsening mental health.

But some researchers argue that this theory isn't well supported by existing evidence and that it repeats a "moral panic" argument made many times in the past about video games, rap lyrics, television and even radio, back in its early days.

To understand both sides of the debate, I talked in detail to three researchers: one who argues that teens' use of tech is a big problem, one who thinks the danger is exaggerated, and an expert in research methodology who suggests the connection may not be so simple.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, may be the researcher most associated with the idea that smartphones are dangerous to teens. She's the author of the book iGen.

"At first, when I saw these trends in loneliness and unhappiness and depression starting to spike around 2011 or 2012, I really had no idea what could possibly be causing that. It was a real mystery," she tells NPR. Then, she says, she took note of Pew research that showed 2012 was the first year that most cell phone owners had switched to smartphones. Not only do these two trend lines seem to coincide in time, but Twenge also notes that young people who report spending the most time on smartphones — five to seven hours a day — are twice as likely to report being depressed as those who use their phones for one to two hours a day.

Twenge isn't claiming to have proved that smartphones cause depression. “We have to go on the limited data that we have but to me it adds up to a lot of evidence pointing toward technology playing a role in this increase in mental health issues."

Given that all teens use media, I asked Twenge, why would the worsening trend in mental health be more pronounced in girls than in boys? She responded with social media, which girls tend to spend more time on, may be the culprit. "Social media invites comparison," Twenge says. "It invites anxiety over the likes and responses that you're going to get."

Given that adults use media even more than teenagers, why does this trend crop up in teens? Twenge says teenagers haven't had as much time to make social connections in real life as older people have, so they are even more dependent on their phones for social validation. Twenge even thinks that the availability of smartphones could help explain the rise in suicide rates among the youngest girls. "They have more access to information online — potentially harmful information about how to harm yourself."

My final question for Twenge: She, personally, made a very similar argument about young people before smartphones existed. She previously published a book, Generation Me, that looked at similar data sets and labeled the millennial generation as "miserable," "narcissistic" and "anxious." That book came out in 2006; the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Is she putting old wine in new bottles? Twenge says that comparing then with now, mental health trends are even more negative for what she calls iGen and, in retrospect, "more of a mixed bag" for millennials.

Some researchers are skeptical of the hypothesis that smartphones cause problems.

Amy Orben, a psychologist and researcher at Oxford University, says that the actual negative relationship between teens' mental health and technology use is tiny. "A teenagers' technology use can only explain less than 1% of variation in well-being.”

How can this be? Well, smartphone use is almost ubiquitous among teenagers today, while only a small minority report mental health problems. So, knowing that a teenager uses a smartphone, even for many hours a day, won't reliably predict that the teenager will become depressed. It tells you far, far less than factors like genetics or the presence of childhood trauma, for example.

Orben has been researching the history of people making dire claims about young people and new forms of media. For example, she says, "In the 1940s, people were already talking about radio addiction."

She thinks the negative trends in mental health could be explained by a wide range of factors: economic anxiety or political upheaval, to name two. And, she adds, there's a chance that young people today may simply be more open in surveys when asked about mental health challenges. "A lot of teenagers are a lot more OK to say they're not OK." Ironically, this openness may in fact be partly due to social media.

As a sort of referee on this debate, I called up Katherine Keyes, a professor  of Public Health at Columbia University. Her focus is on explaining population-wide trends, particularly in adolescent mental health. She too is a critic of Twenge's work, saying it has a tendency to "skew the data" by zooming in on screen use to the exclusion of other factors in the lives of adolescents. She says there are lots of numbers that don't necessarily fit Twenge's theory. The uptick in suicides started in 1999. The downturn in teen mental health started in 2005. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and wasn't accessible to most teenagers for several years. We're also not seeing the same negative trends in every country, even in those where teens are just as glued to their screens as they are in the United States.

The explanation that Keyes finds most compelling is that there is a "bidirectional" relationship among teens, screens and mental health. In other words, teens who are already struggling may be more drawn to screens and more likely to form unhealthy relationships with media, for example by seeking out information on self-harm or encountering cyberbullies. The time they spend online might in turn make them feel worse.

Although their conclusions are different, no researcher I've spoken with thinks it's a great idea to let teens be on their smartphone for extended periods of time.

Twenge, Orben and Keyes are all supportive of similar common-sense rules, like making sure teens don't have their phones in their bedrooms late at night and trying to ensure that their lives are balanced with outdoor exercise, school and face-to-face time with friends and family.

So why should the average parent worry about this scientific controversy? Because, Keyes says, when parents simply demonize phones, "there's less of a communications channel" about what teens are encountering online. A parent's opportunity to mentor or support positive uses of media is replaced by "confrontation on a day-to-day basis." Well-meaning parents, wrongly believing the phone to be as risky as a cigarette or a beer, may actually be making their children's lives harder by fighting with them about it.