Wednesday 31 October 2012

Character matters... the classroom
By Sara Mosle, Published The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2012

HOW do we help students achieve academically and socially?

As a teacher, I have lofty answers. But challenges - and questions - arise when I try to translate my ideas (and ideals) into concrete lessons, delivered in 90-minute increments to a very particular set of sixth graders, each as individual and evanescent as a snowflake.

To help teachers succeed, schools offer "professional development", universally known as PD. Like a lot of teachers, I've come to regard such training with a mix of optimism and disappointment. Over the last 20 years, I've attended more education "workshops" than I care to remember. Such courses typically lasted no more than an hour or a day, and nearly always contained valid, even vital ideas, but were too superficial, too removed from the realities of my classroom to alter my teaching very much, even when I yearned for change.

Then I started work at a school that takes PD seriously. This summer, my school sent me to a weeklong, intensive course for middle school teachers called Developmental Designs, which derives from a teaching approach known as Responsive Classroom.

Among its guiding principles is a belief that students who develop social skills like cooperation, assertiveness and empathy can achieve more academically. The idea is similar to the "character education" Mr Paul Tough advocates in his new book How Children Succeed.

I'd already watched colleagues attain enviable classroom management through this technique. Still, given my previous PD experience, I initially harboured scepticism. I imagined catching up on e-mail during the course's slow moments. But, it turned out, I didn't send e-mail all week. The programme was a model of effective PD and what it can achieve.

The Responsive Classroom approach centres on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day's agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin.

If this sounds obvious or intuitive, it is, but so is being loving and kind. That doesn't make it easier to achieve.

Part of what makes the approach effective is that each routine is highly structured, and so replicable, but allows for student input and choice.

The fun and games have an ulterior purpose. My instructor emphasised how, at the end of each activity, we should bring the exercise back to concrete classroom skills. Tossing a ball, for example, is like the exchange of ideas, requiring students to follow a discussion's trajectory with their eyes.

Another tenet is that teachers should avoid indiscriminate praise in favour of neutral language that encourages specific behaviours so children can precisely identify and so replicate their triumphs. (The research of Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has separately come to similar conclusions.)

Finding the best words, however, can be surprisingly difficult after years of crowing, "Great job!" So the course had us devise and rehearse the verbal and non-verbal cues we wanted to use.

In my classroom, the shared routines have already led to a greater sense of calm and purpose, which has led to more productive lessons. I'm not alone in enjoying concrete results from the Responsive Classroom method. In one study, presented in September, researchers looked at 24 schools randomly assigned to training in the Responsive Classroom or to a control group, which did not receive the same teacher training or support. When faithfully implemented, the approach correlated with a substantial rise - a roughly 20-point gain on average - on state standardised test scores in reading and mathematics.

Why does Responsive Classroom work where other approaches do not? The study's lead author Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, theorises it's because teachers not only received intensive training but also had follow-up coaching once they returned to their classrooms, which increased the chances that new practices would take hold. Teachers also praised the programme's pacing: Coaches encouraged teachers to adopt steps slowly over a sustained period, instead of trying to transform their classrooms overnight.

"The take-home message," Professor Rimm-Kaufman says, "is that interventions that take a long time to learn and that require more resources also produce more change." The required financial investment isn't enormous, and the findings suggest that schools and districts would do better to devote limited resources to a few sustained programmes, rather than providing scattershot offerings in teacher training.

Schoolwide buy-in also appeared critical to the approach's success. Where principals and administrators supported the use of the Responsive Classroom method, gains on test scores were greatest. But, if the programme was just one of many randomly tossed at teachers, then test scores remained flat or even declined.

In other words, teachers can't go it alone. They need sustained training and support using empirically tested methods in concert and collaboration with one another. This is how schools succeed.

The writer is a sixth-grade English teacher, a journalist and the author of a forthcoming book about a 1937 school explosion in New London, Texas.


...and at home
By Nicholas D. Kristof, Published The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2012

AS THE presidential candidates debate how to strengthen America, maybe they can learn from rats.

A McGill University neurologist, Professor Michael Meaney, noticed that some of the mother rats he worked with spent a great deal of time licking and grooming their babies. Other rat mums were much less cuddly.

This natural variation had long-term consequences. Prof Meaney's team found that when the rats grew up, those that had been licked and groomed did better at finding their way through mazes. They were more social and curious. They even lived longer.

Prof Meaney's team dissected adult rats and found that licking led to differences in brain anatomy, so that rats that had been licked more were better able to control stress responses.

So, could the human version of licking and grooming - hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them - fortify human offspring and even society as well?

One University of Minnesota study that began in the 1970s followed 267 children of first-time, low-income mothers for nearly four decades. It found that whether a child received supportive parenting in the first few years of life was at least as good a predictor as IQ of whether he or she would graduate from high school.

This may illuminate one way that poverty replicates itself from generation to generation.

Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the workforce.

Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty is not necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building.

Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programmes.

Scholars like Professor James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dr Jack Shonkoff of Harvard have pioneered this field, and decades of fascinating research is now wonderfully assembled in Mr Paul Tough's important new book How Children Succeed.

As Mr Tough suggests, the evidence is mounting that conservatives are right about some fundamental issues relating to poverty. For starters, it is not just about welfare or tax policy but also culture and character.

"There is no anti-poverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable," Mr Tough writes, than grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.

He writes: "It says that the 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 moulded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which kids grow up. That means the rest of us - society as a whole - can do an enormous amount to influence their development."

Here is an example: the Nurse-Family Partnership, one of my favourite groups fighting poverty in America. It sends nurses on regular visits to at-risk first-time mums, from pregnancy until the child turns two.

The nurses warn about alcohol or drug abuse and encourage habits of attentive parenting, like reading to the child. The results are stunning: At age 15, these children are less than half as likely to have been arrested as children from similar circumstances who were not enrolled.

Mr Tough cites evidence that while toxic stress or unsupportive parenting damages the prefrontal cortex in infancy, this damage can often be undone at least up to adolescence.

He tells the story of Kewauna Lerma, a girl from Chicago who started high school with a C- average and an arrest.

Then a group called OneGoal, which has emerged out of this wave of research, began to work with Kewauna and nurtured her ambitions and talents.

Her story underscores that strengthening America means investing not only in warships but also in America's children.

On a practice ACT standardised test, Kewauna scored in the bottom one percentile. Yet she began to focus on schoolwork, and her grades and test results soared. In her senior year of high school, she did not have a grade lower than an A-.

She made it to college, where her toughest class was biology and the professor used words that Kewauna did not understand. So she sat in the front row and after class asked the professor what each word meant.

She was short on money, and once when she ran out of cash, she did not eat for two days. But in biology, she earned an A+.


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