11 February 2011

What should we value?

    “Do you think today's educational system values intelligence over creativity simply because it's measurable? Should we value only what can be measured?”

    I was asked this question the very first week of a class that I was taking in response to a forum discussion I commented on, and I let it go unanswered until the last week of class. Perhaps it was because I felt I could not answer it, perhaps because I did not know the answer.  I have an answer now.

    Yes, I do believe that intelligence is often valued over creativity.  Free play and recess are being removed from the curriculum.  Test scores are more important then an art class.  Those who learn differently are labeled as “hyperactive” or “learning disabled” and pushed into resource classes and given excuses as to why they can't learn like the smarter kids.  Students are being told they can't become musicians or dancers or writers or artists because they won't make any money.  There is far more emphasis placed on raising kids who are smart and conform to society then on raising kids who are creative and different. 

    However, I also feel the tide is turning.  Science is telling us that free play is crucial to learning and social development, that the brain is plastic and modifiable far beyond the years previously thought.  There is a push to teach more actively and have student-centered classrooms that acknowledge that creativity and intelligence are valued equally, and that children are smart in all ways.  Teachers are being empowered to teach creatively and engage students more through Iowa Core.  Hopefully soon, the push will be for more creative thinking as needed for a digital world and less fact memorization and teaching to the standardized testing.

    We should not value what can only be measured, for some of our very values; honesty, courage, loyalty and faith, are things very much revered by humankind yet they are not subjected to the harsh measures that we place upon intelligence.  Why then should we value intelligence over creativity?  Why should creativity and play take a back seat to fact knowledge and academic advancement?

09 February 2011

Are we teaching "learned helplessness"?

    In the article “Secret to Raising Smart Kids”, as posted in Scientific American Mind (November 28, 2007), writer Carol S. Dweck states that children who seem gifted in school at a young age and are constantly praised for that gifted intelligence “hold the implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart.  This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”  In doing so, they develop a “learned helplessness” when the challenges become greater in middle school and beyond because their skill level remains the same while the challenges become greater.  Because their intelligence fails them as the schoolwork becomes harder, they believe they have failed and have become rather unintelligent.  In fact, to these children challenges are to be avoided because challenges lead to having to put forth effort, which in turn leads to mistakes and failure and failures mean that they are dumb.

    However, children who are not constantly praised and see school as something they need to work at no matter what their intelligence may be seem to do well, as they see each challenge as a way to grow and do better.  Even when they make mistakes, they learn from their mistakes, not see them as a failure. They hone their skills and keep trying, even when the challenges become larger.

    The idea  is that kids that are not constantly being told they are naturally intelligent, those that must work harder to get the grade and focus on the effort rather then the end result seem to be happier.  They are able to be more creative because thy must use their creativity to do well.  They don't rely on innate  or “natural” intelligence because they have learned that people are not truly born with such talents, but rather those talents are developed over a lifetime.

    As a leading research psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say, those kids are learning to become one with “flow” or the creative moment when a person is completely in tune with an activity for the sake of doing the activity.  Because they have developed their mindsets to see problems as challenges to better themselves, kids who are creative become focused and gain inner clarity.  They hon their seemingly natural talents and learn new ones as they are suited for whatever challenge lies ahead of them.  They develop a sense of joy for what they are doing, and are motivated not by outside forces but intrinsically.  Because they have learned to apply their imaginations to help them, they gain problem-solving skills and at whatever their skills become. 

    So one may ask himself or herself, what does this mean for teachers?

    We need to stop praising students for how smart they are, and instead praise them for how much effort they put towards working on gaining skills.  We need to be teaching problem solving skills to all children, whether or not we think they need them.  We also need to stop assuming that a child may or may not have a certain amount of intelligence.  Intelligence is not a fixed or tangible thing.  It is ever changing, ever flowing and should be ever growing as well. By constantly praising the intelligence of the child, we aid in the teaching of helplessness, which ends up hindering a student for the rest of their life by teaching them that effort in any shape or form is tantamount to failure.  We also hold that child up as an example of success, which makes it harder for that student to really succeed when the work become harder.

    We as teachers need to tap into the imaginations of our students and use that to help them to become more creative.  As Ken Robinson states chapter three in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is the driving force of creativity and when applied become creativity itself.  We should not look down on children or adults who have their “head in the clouds” as being a little loony, but rather admire and praise them and learn from them.  The Luna Lovegoods of the world may not be in full step with normal society, but they are indeed attuned to the idea of being creative.

    As teachers, we also must get in touch with our own imaginations.  We should not be afraid to daydream and think up the most extraordinary things.  We need to remember what it is like to dream big and connect our big dreams to our students and to those around us.  We need to not be afraid to make mistakes and put forth the effort to do that.  By doing this, we can set the example of our students and peers.

06 February 2011

Mentors are needed if education is to succeed

    Carol Dweck, psychology professor and a top researcher on intelligence, insists that the brain is a malleable instrument that can be strengthened with use and that intelligence is not a fixed number but rather a trait that can grow with the right motivation.  Her research states that “students' self-theories about intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn. Students who hold a "fixed" theory are mainly concerned with how smart they are―they prefer tasks they can already do well and avoid ones on which they may make mistakes and not look smart. In contrast, she said, people who believe in an 'expandable' or 'growth' theory of intelligence want to challenge themselves to increase their abilities, even if they fail at first.” (Lisa Trei, “Study yields instructive results on how mindset affects learning” Stanford Report, February 7, 2007)

    Those who are concerned more with their own image of how smart they look to themselves and others are afraid of failures and will do anything to avoid any failure.  They avoid changing, even if it means languishing in life and not developing any new skills which they may surely need to survive in this ever changing world.  Those who believe that they can control how smart they are and are taught to expand their intelligence through challenges and learning are then able to grow and adapt when the world around them changes.  After all, “research (has shown) how changing a key belief―a student's self-theory about intelligence and motivation―with a relatively simple intervention can make a big difference.” (Trei) Students need to be taught that intelligence is not a fixed trait that only some are naturally gifted.

    What does this mean to educators?  It means that we as teachers must learn to teach and empower students to grow  and change and teach them the skills needed to do that.  We must touch the lives of each and every one of our students to make sure they get the help they need and learn to find their own elements of creativity.  We have to show them that they must have some failure if they are able to succeed.  We need to give them the ability to adapt in the rapidly ever-changing world. Yet we can't do it alone.  The education system needs help in educating our students.

    That is where mentors need to be able to step up to the plate.  Teachers need to learn to utilize people in the community that can and should be able to help students.  Professionals and amateurs alike should be able to reach out to students in the classroom and outside the classroom alike. Mentors can become like teachers, often in settings that are not school-like to reach kids that may not be able to be reached in the school setting.

    Ken Robinson, in chapter eight of his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, points out that most mentors serves most, if not all, of  four roles;  recognizer, encourager, facilitator, and stretcher. Mentors recognize that there is a need and also recognize how to go about filling that need.  They also encourage students that nothing is impossible and expect students to live up to that encouragement.  They facilitate the student through their work and teach students techniques that help the to succeed while being an example of those techniques and their successes or failures.  Mentors also expand possibilities for students by stretching students past their limits and showing them that they can in fact do things.

    Some might argue that teachers should be already doing this in their classrooms.  That is true, teachers need to also be trying to mentor students.  However, teachers have limited resources, especially the resource of time.  Often they have thirty students in a class, and middle and high school teachers can see upwards of two hundred or more students in a day.  The current school system makes it hard for teachers to reach out and individually mentor each of those students on even a weekly basis.    Even the best teachers have students that fall through the cracks, and mentors should be there to gather those kids up, show them that they have the potential to grow and shape the world they live in, and help the education system in creating the future.