Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Teaching Too Much Can Stifle Exploration"

Have you seen the Boston Globe article about how babies learn?

The March 28 article, "A Squeeze, a Squeak, a Glimpse of Learning," provides fascinating insight into how young children learn -- and why, perhaps, our schools aren't as effective as they could be. In one interesting study, researchers handed preschoolers a complex cause-and-effect toy. Researchers showed half the kids how the device worked; the other kids were simply left to figure out the toy on their own. Guess which kids investigated the toy more thoroughly?

From the article:
Those who were explicitly taught how to make the toy squeak played with it for less time and discovered fewer functions than those who did not receive a tutorial. How children learned that the toy squeaked also affected their behavior. When the adult seemed to accidentally trigger the squeak instead of explicitly showing them how to use the toy, children explored more and discovered more aspects of the toy than when they received instructions.

The Globe says that, "teaching can...limit children's impulse to investigate and test their own ideas, and how something is taught to a child can affect his or her exploration." Is it any wonder that children who are force-fed knowledge for state-mandated tests show very little curiosity or true learning? By giving them the answers, we've taken away all the fun!

Children are, by nature, curious learners. From little on, they're constantly investigating the possibilities. They're driven, instinctively, to learn how the world works. So they invent experiments (What will happen if I mix my mashed potatoes into my milk?), observe the results and adjust their knowledge of the world accordingly. What kids need to learn is 1. Time, 2. Space, 3. Access to Materials and 4. Support. They also need Freedom to Explore, because once you've squashed a child's natural inquisitivenss, it's pretty hard to re-capture.

Interestingly, the time-space-access-support-freedom framework for learning is common -- but not exclusive to -- homeschoolers. Sandra Dodd, an unschooler, has frequently said that "strewing," leaving interesting things about, is an important part of her homeschooling. My homeschooling is much more along the lines of going interesting places/reading about interesting things/doing stuff with the boys than stuffing specific knowledge in their skulls. And the best schools seem to understand that allowing children to discover knowledge on their own is much more effective than rote learning. One thing I've been pleased to see at the schools my boys attend part-time: multi-sensory, project-based approaches to learning. My oldest son, for instance, learns language arts while also learning about civil rights. My second son's teacher will give students multiple options (act out a play, write summary, create a character) to demonstrate their learning.

What do you think of the time-space-access-support-freedom framework for learning?

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Feel Pretty

My 13- year-old son is wearing my prom dress, a pink, sparkly thing straight out of the 1990s.

For some reason, my Mom held onto that dress for 20+ years. It hung in her closet, unloved, in limbo, for all those years. I certainly never asked her to hold onto the dress; prom, in my memory, was a disappointing event that only drilled home that fact that I was not pretty or popular enough to snag a boyfriend. Maybe my Mom hoped that someday I'd see the dress with clearer eyes, that someday the dress would remind me of a young, happy time. Perhaps she simply couldn't bear to part with a dress that had cost her so much. (Prom dresses aren't cheap, you know.) Whatever her reasons, my son and I both agree that she didn't expect THIS to be the dress's next stop. In the words of my son: "I bet Grandma never thought I'd be wearing this dress!"

He's right, of course. I have four boys. None of us ever expected that dress to see action again. But he's a theatrical one, my 13-year-old. He's involved in music and dance and gamely agreed to play the part of Mama in a lip sync production of "Welcome to the '60s!" When he came home and told me he needed a pink, sparkly dress, I knew just the dress for him. We headed over to Grandma's, grabbed the dress and within minutes of returning home, my pink prom dress was swathed around my son's body.

It fit him. (Well, mostly.) My pink prom dress, the one I wore at age 16, fit my 13-year-old son. The pink satiny material hugs his sides and I look on with wonder. Was I that small as a teen? The dress, in fact, is a little tight on him and he asks how I managed to breathe. I try to picture myself in the dainty dress, the dress with a small, narrow waist which opens into a full skirt. I don't recall feeling dainty in the dress. I recall feeling ugly and out-of-place.

For 20+ years, I have recoiled at pictures of myself in the dress, have slammed shut the closet door every time I stumbled across the dress at Grandma's, because the dress served only as reminder of my physical unattractiveness. How could I have chosen such an ugly dress, I wondered?

But now that the dress is back in service -- draped over seat of my van, hanging from my kitchen cupboards, hugging the not-at-all fat body of my son -- I see that the dress is not ugly. It's actually quite pretty: a lacy skirt overlaying pink satin; a wide, pink sash at the waist; a bosom decorated with tiny irirdescent beads. And from this perspective, I'm willing to acknowledge that maybe I wasn't ugly then either. If I could fit into that dress at age 16 - and fill it out in ways that my 13-year-old will never be able to -- clearly, I wasn't as large or ugly or ox-y as I once thought. I look at the dress now and shake my head at the sadness of it all. For 20+ years, I thought my 16-year-old self was ugly. It took my 13-year-old son in a dress to show me my errors of perception.

Fellow writer Dara Chadwick, author of You'd Be So Pretty If..., argues that moms of boys need to be just as concerned about girls' body image issues as moms of daughters. "Healthy self-esteem and self-respect are the foundation for healthy relationships," Chadwick wrote on her Psychology Today blog. "When girls don't feel good about who they are or the bodies they live in, they somtimes act out in unhealthy ways...And they're often not alone in this acting out behavior: our sons are with them."

It's taken 20 years -- and my son in a dress -- for me to even realize that I had body image issues as a teen. My goal now, as a mother of boys, is to make sure my boys see the person behind the dress, not just the dress or the pretty figure.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Should You Fight Back?

Bullying has been in the news a lot lately. Despite parents' and teachers' efforts to the contrary, bullying continues to exist, just as it has for, well, millenia. And while almost everyone now agrees that bullying needs to be stopped, I'm not sure sure we've figured out how to do that.

Sure, we tell our kids to treat others with respect. We tell them to intervene, to stand up beside the bullied in a show of solidarity. We tell them to report incidents of bullying to teachers, daycare providers and other authority figures. But is that enough?

Like it or not, our boys live in a culture that requires them to take a stand. According to the Boy Code, status and dominance are prominant, and every boy I know talks about the need to let other boys know that they won't take any guff from anyone. I see it in my house all the time. Even at home, in a family environment of love and acceptance, my 13-year-old feels the need to stand up to the torments of his younger brothers. Why? In the words of my 13- year-old: "because they need to learn they can't get way with treating me like that."

I see where he's coming from. But on a daily basis, I have a hard time reconciling boys' need to stand up for themselves with my desire to teach them peaceful, non-violent ways of conflict resolution. Yet at some level, I wonder if telling boys to speak up, walk away and tell an adult is enough for boys.

In Australia, a school boy was recently suspended after physically standing up to a bully. I know that fighting violence with violence is rarely the way to go. And the video is disturbing. But I'm willing to bet the younger bully leaves this kid alone from now on.

What do you think? Do you ever think it's appropriate (or necessary) for bullied boys to "fight back?" How can we help our boys end bullying while respecting their need to prove their dominance among other boys?