How Much Does the School Environment Prepare Learners for “Real” Life?

January hasn’t been much of a snow-producer by us, but I have had to endure the frequent, tortured laments, such as ” Why did we only get a 2 hour delay?” or “I need a snow day!” or “please, please let there be ice so I don’t have to go to school tomorrow!” this is much the same as what I endured in the summer, when only a few weeks before school began, the complaints began. Comments such as “OMG! We only have 19 more days off!” and “Do not even talk to me About school supplies–it makes me sick” clog my Facebook page.

But these comments aren’t from reluctant students, who by the way have had to complete packets and packets of summer work, but rather TEACHERS! As a former middle school teacher (who always worked a second and third job and never took a summer off), I began to think about traditional education practices and how little they prepare an individual for life in “the real world.”

Besides the typical lament that school should be year-round, it is important to realize that the American educational system is based on philosophy, rather than science and what we know about the developing brain. For instance, it is now commonly-known that teenagers’ brains go through a blossoming phase and that they typically go to sleep later and wake up later. So why do classes start so early for them? Sometimes I see kids waiting at the bus stop at 6:10 a.m., and in the winter darkness, I know they won’t be awake and Alert for at least 2-3 more hours. Why not simply flip the elementary school times with the middle/high school times?

Ok, so now the student arrives in school, where he or she is is expected to sit at a desk pretty much all day without talking to other kids. And during a quiz or test, we do not allow collaberation or use of resources. How is that normal in today’s world? When was the last time you had to solve a problem and weren’t allowed to ask someone else in the office, use the internet, consult a reference book, or check your notes. So what we’re really testing in school is memory, huh?

Do you play music while you work or move around when you feel restless? If you do in the classroom, the nurse will often send you a behavior checklist to fill out for your pediatrician (that’s a whole different topic…)

And as far as creativity, we are creating a whole generation of passive learners who have learned to answer somebody else’s questions but don’t really know how to generate their own questions to explore.

So what can we do to improve the situation and help students and teachers get excited by learning, growing, and having fun learning?

Stay tuned for some ideas…

New Year’s Resolution, Take 2

Since 60% of us have already trashed our New Year’s resolutions for 2013, today seems like a good time to talk about goal-setting. Ugh. Yuck. Groan. Reject inertia, and let’s get started!

First, let’s discuss why most people fail to reach their goals. Failure, or what I call “delayed success”, occurs when people make a dream, which they confuse as a goal. Allow me to explain. Anyone can state what they want. “I want to lose weight”, “I’d really like to go to Alaska”, “I wish I could go back to school”, “I hope I can get a new car”. With those words and no plan, these are just dreams, not goals.

Over the years, I’ve heard every excuse in the world why someone can’t—or won’t—do something. Sometimes individuals have conflicted goals. By that I mean that the person’s stated goal conflicts with his or her behavior. For example, I once worked with families 7 days a week, never taking a day off. Although I love what I do, I knew I would burn out if it kept going, and I would lament that “I’d really like to have one day off to relax and recharge.” My husband looked at me and in his matter-of-fact engineer voice told me that “my behavior undermined my goal.” At first I defended my workaholic behavior, wearing it as a badge of honor, retorting, “I want to help these families! They need me.” Then I thought about it. I had to practice what I preach by setting goals and boundaries for my time. Within three months, I had all of my families scheduled within the 6 day timeframe.

There are patterns for successfully achieving your goals, and they include the following 7 action items, in no particular order:

1. Eliminate Self-Limiting Self-Talk
Listen to the voices in your head. Most of the time we are telling ourselves horrible things that defeat us, sometimes before we even begin. We often talk to ourselves in negative terms, which our brains cannot process as easily as affirmative terms. For example, if I tell you to “sit down”, you will plop yourself in your chair. Yet if I tell you “don’t stand up”, you have to think about it, even if just for a nanosecond. Telling yourself, “I will eat fruit”, is much more effective than telling yourself “Don’t eat sugar.”

Your brain laser-focuses on goals that are clearly stated. Get rid of these terms when setting goals:
• I’ll try
• I want
• I hope
• I wish
• I’d like (to)
These are all excuses for future failure. Think about the last time you told yourself “I’ll try not to eat that ice cream.” I know you ate it. Why? Because the brain cannot effectively use wishy-washy commands like these. How do you measure “trying”? You can’t. Sorry fellow teachers.

Replace the above commands to yourself with the following:
• I will
• I will not

“Do or do not. There is no try” -Yoda.

2. Create measurable objectives with subgoals and target dates.

Here are three examples, taken from my life.
• I will read 15,600 pages by December 31, 2013.
I will read for 30 or more minutes 5 or more times each week.
• I will lose 7 pounds by May 1, 2013.
I will work out at gym at least 5 times per week.
I will meditate for 15 minutes at least 4 times per week.
I will eliminate processed or genetically-modified foods from my diet.
I will plan my meals in advance.
• I will finish Level 3 of Rosetta Stone by June 30, 2013.
I will complete at least 3 lessons per week.
I will close my office door and post a “do not disturb sign” on the doorknob.

Notice how these are measurable and have termination/assessment dates.

3. Write it all down. Put them in a journal. Post them on sticky-notes throughout the house, on your laptop, on your iPad. Use a virtual sticky note on your phone. Post it to Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, etc.

4. Create a mantra. A mantra is a simple set of words that positively reinforce your belief in yourself, even on days when you really don’t believe in yourself. Say it out loud at least 3 times every morning and evening. I post mine on a sticky note on the mirror in my bathroom. “I am a patient and loving person.”

Here are some sample mantras that some of my clients have used:
• “I am loving and deserve love.”
• “I am an honor roll student.”
• “I am a happy, open-minded individual.”
• “I am successful and deserve to be happy.”
• “I am joy.”

5. Stick with your goals for at least 9 weeks before changing or giving up. 9 consistent weeks. If you skip a week, the clock starts over. Keep a calendar, indicating the start date.

6. Share your goals with at least one supportive person. There will be days when you don’t feel like working on your goals, and we all need a little boost from time to time. That said, shield your goals from negative-minded people in your life. These people have their own baggage and usually use excuses for their own failures to set up roadblocks for you.

7. Replace a negative activity with a positive activity. In order to achieve a goal, we replace a negative behavior with a positive behavior. For example, instead of watching NCIS for the 103rd time, I use that time to read my book. Instead of sleeping in and feeling groggy all morning, I schedule early morning workout classes at the gym. Instead of spending money on spontaneous lunches and dinners every day, I plan my lunches and dinners for the next few days.

So, as you revisit your goals, establish new goals, and develop your plan, remember to honor your commitment to yourself. Make it a successful year!

The Case for Taking “Safe” Risks

“That teacher hates me, so I’ll never get a good grade!”
“Why are you looking at me like that? You always make that face whenever I try to tell you something!”
“Stop judging me! You never think anything I do is good enough!”

Ah, the teenage brain. High emotions. Absolute words. Hormonal changes. Neurotransmitters gone wacky. Yes, your teenager is nuts! Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s all a natural stage of growing into the adult brain. Blame the amygdala, the tiny almond-shape part of the limbic system, that the brain automatically defaults to when the Executive Functions in the prefrontal cortex haven’t fully developed.

Think about the last time somebody said or did something completely horrible to you. Maybe it was someone who cut you off on the Beltway or someone who neglected to hold the elevator door open for you. How did you react? You may have wanted to give the offender “the finger”, cursed, or even become physically aggressive. But did you? Probably—and hopefully—not.

Why? As healthy adults, our prefrontal cortexes have developed to the point where we can override those thoughts, thereby putting the “brakes” on the situation. Perhaps we even think through the outcomes of our negative reaction: an argument, a public scene/social misstep, violence, judgment, etc. We also want to avoid being a bad role model for the younger people who mimic our actions and words. This all occurs within a fraction of a second (literally!) in our brain.

Now let’s replay that scenario in the teenage brain. Since the prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished growing, the teenager will often lash out or respond way out of proportion to the input because he or she doesn’t have the ability to self-regulate. Not an excuse for poor behavior, just a reminder that responses must be conditioned and occasionally modeled while the learner grows into his or her brain. Many researchers believe that it takes a full quarter-second for an impulse to travel from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex.

So what does this have to do with learning? The limbic system is our emotional center. It’s primarily the place where “fight” or “flight” decisions occur. We are wired to defend ourselves or leave a threatening situation. Way back when, there wasn’t time to ponder if the saber toothed tiger had plaque on its teeth, why it was there, if it should just be passing through, etc. We either attacked the animal or got away quickly. Those who stood around and tried to apply reason to the tiger’s existence were eaten by the tiger, by the way.

Most of us no longer have to battle animals in the wild in order to survive, but our brains don’t know that. So when there is a highly emotionally-charged situation, especially in the teenage brain, thoughts and reactions defaults to the amygdala. In order modern day learning environment, if the emotion tied to learning is negative, such as fear, anger, hostility, ridicule, etc. no higher learning can occur because the amygdala kicks into gear. If on the other hand, the emotion tied to learning is joy, fun, laughter, no fear, etc. learning takes place efficiently because it’s a “safe place”. No surprise that your child’s favorite teacher will most likely be the teacher he or she thinks is “nice” or “fun.”

Part of the challenge is allowing our children to take safe risks. What the heck is a safe risk? It’s simply an opportunity that allows learning to occur even if the outcome isn’t what we desire. Safe risks could include writing an opinion essay that goes against the popular opinion, giving an explanation of a math problem without remembering all the steps, or arguing his or her point of view with you (sorry!).

We have become a society used to automatically saying “no” instead of “yes”. For the next few weeks, I challenge you to track how many times you say “no” to yourself, to your child, to your spouse, or to anyone else you encounter. You will begin to notice how frequently you, and those around you, do this. In order to help those prefrontal cortexes develop, how about if instead of automatically responding “no,” we ask first ourselves “why not”?

Puzzles: The Game of Life

One of my family’s holiday traditions is to complete a puzzle (minimum of 2000 pieces) by January 6. After we had opened this year’s puzzle box and dumped out the pieces, it dawned on me that this is probably one of the best brain exercises we could do. Think of all the areas of the brain we engage when we complete a puzzle: goal-directed persistence, spatial manipulation, foreplanning, visual discernment, fine motor skills, critical analysis, paradigm shifting, etc.

We have to organize the pieces, create a plan of attack. At first, the pieces look like shredded comics from the newspaper (remember them?). The hues of blue just look “blue” until we are left with only blue pieces. Then we notice the thin grey squiggle, the grains of green, the tiny white dot, or the fleck of orange.

Our family always forms the border first, but this is the only sequencing that nobody debates. My husband looks at the picture on the box, which I consider cheating because it’s akin to looking at the answer key.
Nothing comes easily; the pieces rarely fit together on the first try. You cannot finish a 2000 piece puzzle in one sitting. If you can, please email me so that I can interview you. If you get frustrated with your area, your brain may toggle onto a new set of shapes, patterns, or colors. Sometimes you need to flip your pieces upside-down to see how they fit into “the big picture”. Sometimes, we correctly predict what piece will go into the surrounding pieces; much of the time we are wrong.

With time and effort, what initially seems impossible eventually becomes solvable. Although we work alone on our own little part, we come together as a unit to put the whole thing together. And voila, we have a beautiful, complete picture. And we finished on December 31.