To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf

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Mountain View, Calif. — THE humanities are kaput. Sorry, liberal arts cap-and-gowners. You blew it. In a software-run world, what’s wanted are more engineers.

At least, so goes the argument in a rising number of states, which have embraced a funding model for higher education that uses tuition “bonuses” to favor hard-skilled degrees like computer science over the humanities. The trend is backed by countless think pieces. “Macbeth does not make my priority list,” wrote Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and the author of a widely shared blog post titled “Is Majoring in Liberal Arts a Mistake for Students?” (Subtitle: “Critical Thinking and the Scientific Process First — Humanities Later”).

The technologist’s argument begins with a suspicion that the liberal arts are of dubious academic rigor, suited mostly to dreamers. From there it proceeds to a reminder: Software powers the world, ergo, the only rational education is one built on STEM. Finally, lest he be accused of making a pyre of the canon, the technologist grants that yes, after students have finished their engineering degrees and found jobs, they should pick up a book — history, poetry, whatever.

As a liberal-arts major who went on to a career in software, I can only scratch my head.

Fresh out of college in 1993, I signed on with a large technology consultancy. The firm’s idea was that by hiring a certain lunatic fringe of humanities majors, it might cut down on engineering groupthink. After a six-week programming boot camp, we were pitched headfirst into the deep end of software development.

My first project could hardly have been worse. We (mostly engineers, with a spritzing of humanities majors) were attached to an enormous cellular carrier. Our assignment was to rewrite its rating and billing system — a thing that rivaled maritime law in its complexity.

I was assigned to a team charged with one of the hairier programs in the system, which concerned the movement of individual mobile subscribers from one “parent” account plan to another. Each one of these moves caused an avalanche of plan activations and terminations, carry-overs or forfeitures of accumulated talk minutes, and umpteen other causal conditionals that would affect the subscriber’s bill.

This program, thousands of lines of code long and growing by the hour, was passed around our team like an exquisite corpse. The subscribers and their parent accounts were rendered on our screens as a series of S’s and A’s. After we stared at these figures for weeks, they began to infect our dreams. (One I still remember. I was a baby in a vast crib. Just overhead, turning slowly and radiating malice, was an enormous iron mobile whose arms strained under the weight of certain capital letters.)

Our first big break came from a music major. A pianist, I think, who joined our team several months into the project. Within a matter of weeks, she had hit upon a method to make the S’s hold on to the correct attributes even when their parent A was changed.

We had been paralyzed. The minute we tweaked one bit of logic, we realized we’d fouled up another. But our music major moved freely. Instead of freezing up over the logical permutations behind each A and S, she found that these symbols put her in the mind of musical notes. As notes, they could be made to work in concert. They could be orchestrated.

On a subsequent project, our problem was pointers. In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named “thing” being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.

I’ve worked in software for years and, time and again, I’ve seen someone apply the arts to solve a problem of systems. The reason for this is simple. As a practice, software development is far more creative than algorithmic.

The developer stands before her source code editor in the same way the author confronts the blank page. There’s an idea for what is to be created, and the (daunting) knowledge that there are a billion possible ways to go about it. To proceed, each relies on one part training to three parts creative intuition. They may also share a healthy impatience for the ways things “have always been done” and a generative desire to break conventions. When the module is finished or the pages complete, their quality is judged against many of the same standards: elegance, concision, cohesion; the discovery of symmetries where none were seen to exist. Yes, even beauty.

To be sure, each craft also requires a command of the language and its rules of syntax. But these are only starting points. To say that more good developers will be produced by swapping the arts for engineering is like saying that to produce great writers, we should double down on sentence diagraming.

Here the technologists may cry foul, say I’m misrepresenting the argument, that they’re not calling to avoid the humanities altogether, but only to replace them in undergraduate study. “Let college be for science and engineering, with the humanities later.” In tech speak, this is an argument for the humanities as plug-in.

But if anything can be treated as a plug-in, it’s learning how to code. It took me 18 months to become proficient as a developer. This isn’t to pretend software development is easy — those were long months, and I never touched the heights of my truly gifted peers. But in my experience, programming lends itself to concentrated self-study in a way that, say, “To the Lighthouse” or “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” do not. To learn how to write code, you need a few good books. To enter the mind of an artist, you need a human guide.

For folks like Mr. Khosla, such an approach is dangerous: “If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies.” (Where some of these kill-the-humanities pieces are concerned, the strongest case for the liberal arts is made just in trying to read them.)

How much better is the view of another Silicon Valley figure, who argued that “technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

His name? Steve Jobs.

Moms’ Middle School Blues

The Wall Street Journal
Mothers feel most stressed about parenting when their children are in middle school, new research shows
All mothers have their ups and downs, but their children’s middle-school years are when they feel most empty and unfulfilled, a large new study shows. WSJ columnist Sue Shellenbarger joins Tanya Rivero to discuss.

By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Updated May 17, 2016

Mothers feel more anxious, dissatisfied and doubtful about their own parenting skills when their children are in middle school than at any other stage, new research shows.
The turbulence that hits sixth- through eighth-graders often begins with the onset of puberty, bringing physical changes and mood swings. Also, many students transfer from close-knit elementary schools to larger middle schools. Childhood friends may be separated, classes are often tracked by ability and teachers are more demanding.

Mothers often lose touch with other elementary-school parents who became friends. School officials often press them to back off and give students a longer leash. As a result, some parents may withdraw from others and bottle up the stress and sadness they feel if their children rebel at home or hit a rough patch at school.

The finding that moms of middle-schoolers have greater distress and lower well-being comes from the most ambitious and carefully targeted look yet at mothers’ well-being from childbirth until their children’s adulthood. The study of more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers was published in January. Those with infants and grown children are happiest, says the study, led by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mothers were recruited for an online survey by word-of-mouth, fliers, media reports and lectures. Researchers asked them to respond to validated scales measuring anxiety, depression, stress, emptiness, loneliness, parental guilt, overload and perceptions of their children’s behavior. Researchers took pains to compare only mothers whose oldest and youngest children were in the same age group. This avoided any distortion that might result if there was also a happy baby or successful young adult in the household to mitigate the depressing impact of a rebellious teen.
Researchers expected to find that mothers of infants were almost as stressed as mothers of middle-schoolers, and were surprised by the result, Dr. Luthar says. “Infancy is of course trying, with the physical exhaustion and the nights up, but it’s also very rewarding to hold that baby. It’s magical and sweet,” she says. Fewer offsetting rewards come in middle school.

Mothers’ and fathers’ confidence in their ability to be good parents, including disciplining, influencing and communicating with their child, falls precipitously in middle school, says another study, a three-year look at 398 parents of children ages 11 to 15, published last year by researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Jeff and Jennifer Grosman of Washington, D.C., with their children Max, now 11, and Hannah, now 14. Dr. Grosman felt isolated at first after Hannah began pushing for more independence last year. PHOTO: LISA RAYMAN GOLDFARB
Researchers knew from previous studies that parents of teens have less confidence in their parenting ability than parents of younger children. To explore when and why those declines occurred, they recruited parents of 11- and 12-year-olds from two middle schools and had them complete interviews and written questionnaires at three one-year intervals. Among triggers for parents’ loss of confidence, the study says, were puberty-related physical changes in the children, a decline in the quality of parent-child communication and a parental belief in negative stereotypes about teenagers.

“Middle school is a gray zone—that difficult time when you don’t feel like you have the skills to handle the challenge” of parenting, says Patti Cancellier, education director for the Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md.,-based parent-training nonprofit.

Jennifer Grosman felt isolated after her daughter Hannah, now 14, began pushing for more independence last year. In middle school, “parents aren’t hanging out and bonding at the kids’ birthday parties anymore, so there isn’t an informal opportunity for conversations about parenting,” says Dr. Grosman, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. It is easy to assume your child is the only one struggling, she says. “And when people say, ‘How’s your kid doing?’ you feel like you have to say, ‘Uh, fine.’ ”
She and her husband Jeff took a 10-week class on parenting teens at the Parent Encouragement Program. They learned that other parents were having similar struggles and that much of what their daughter was going through was normal.

Dr. Grosman and two other parents also started an informal discussion group for parents of sixth-grade classmates of her younger child, Max, who is 11, to give parents a chance to build trusting friendships early in middle school. About 10 to 15 participants have met monthly since last fall to discuss topics suggested by group members, Dr. Grosman says. The group has gone so well that she plans to start a similar one for parents in her daughter’s ninth-grade class.

While worry and guilt about a child’s behavior are factors in the middle-school blues, personal needs for close friends and acceptance and comfort from others are often a more powerful predictor of mothers’ distress, Dr. Luthar says.

Having close friends you see often is a potent antidote, Dr. Luthar says, but many parents lack time for friendship “because their kids are in 10,000 activities and they’re busy ferrying them across town, worrying about college admissions” and other stressors, she says.

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Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. ENLARGE
Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. PHOTO: STEVEN DYMOWSKI

Dr. Luthar is testing a workplace program for employed mothers that encourages them to build close friendships. Participants must find at least two people who will agree to be their “go-to committee,” meeting with them weekly to listen and provide mutual support, she says. “The premise is basically that the same love we give to our kids, we all need for ourselves. That’s what the women are encouraged to do for each other.”

Kimberly Hicks began feeling isolated, sad and ineffective as a parent last year after her daughter withdrew from the family emotionally during middle school, arguing and criticizing family members and spending more time in her room alone, says Ms. Hicks, of Burtonsville, Md. She enrolled in a parenting class and learned that stepping back and letting her daughter make more decisions for herself might ease her rebellion.

Ms. Hicks, who is trained as a counselor, battled the urge to bottle up the stress. When she told a friend that “deep down, I’m afraid I’m not doing everything I’m supposed to do as a parent,” Ms. Hicks says, she took comfort in the friend’s empathetic reassurance that she’d felt the same way with her own children.

Ms. Hicks also fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. She attends a weekly women’s group at her church. She also gets together every week or two with a friend, another middle-school parent who has similar views on child-rearing. As they work for two or three hours together on household projects, such as cleaning the garage, “we’re talking the whole time,” she says.

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Al Watts, a dad in South Elgin, Ill., has found his kids’ middle-school years harder than he expected. He doesn’t talk about the challenges with other dads as often as he suspects a mother would, he says, but he calls other dads or joins message boards to share problems. Left to right, Anna, 13; Ben, 9; Macy, 11; Rachel, 7; Shirley and Al Watts. PHOTO: KATHY ELKEY
Men share parenting problems, but they tend to be “much more direct and to the point,” says Al Watts, an author in South Elgin, Ill., who stays home to care for his four children, ages 7 to 13.

Mr. Watts says he worries about keeping communication open with his two oldest children—Anna, 13, and Macy, 11. “I thought middle school would be easier, and I was totally wrong,” he says. “The problems are much more complicated.”

When a boy asked Macy out on a date, Mr. Watts called his brother, who has a son in sixth grade, for advice. His brother’s response: “I’m glad I don’t have that problem.” Still, Mr. Watts says, talking it over helped him stay calm.

He enrolls in parenting classes offered by his school district. He also logs onto a Facebook group run by the National At-Home Dad Network, a fathers’ group, frequently, to read others’ posts and comments.

Mr. Watts has trouble finding time to see friends. When a close friend from Nebraska recently came through town, however, he made a point of meeting. “Dads need that connection too,” he says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Digital Portfolios

The Power of the Process

By George Couros on May 11, 2016 05:41 pm

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I spent the day working with educators who are developing their own learning portfolios, before we embark on a journey of students going through the same process.  I truly believe that why digital portfolios have failed in so many places is that we are encouraging educators to teach them without learning how to do them first.  This, to me, is the equivalent of someone teaching math who has never learned math.  Though this process might be slower and not have students going through the process as quickly, it is the idea of going slow to move fast.  The depth of this project can be much deeper if educators think of the process from the point of the view of a learner, not the teacher.  Not only do these “blog-portfolios” help with educators understand the process through the viewpoint of a learner, it also helps in the following ways:

  1. Consistent focus on their own teaching and learning practices.
  2. Understanding how to develop their own digital footprint.
  3. Possibly creating future opportunities for teachers to write and present.
  4. Shared practices that help elevate teaching as a whole.

As we talked about this process, we discussed the idea of both “learning” and “showcase” portfolios. A “showcase” focuses on your “best stuff”, where learning shows growth over time.  I often find the notion of a learning portfolio is one that people struggle with because the growth in a year might be harder to see, so I showed them, what in my opinion, is part of the potential of a learning portfolio.  This link, “Artist Shows His Progression From 2 Years Old To 28“, displays the power of what you can see when you capture learning over time.  Check out the samples of work overtime:

Age 2Age 2

 

Age 5Age 5

Age 10Age 10

Age 28Age 28

(Check out the entire article to show the growth over time.)

Now the picture at 28 is quite amazing, but when you see it compared to where the same artist was earlier, it becomes much more powerful.  Yet this powerful learning journey has often been stored in our head, or been shown mostly in the form of numbers.

Showing growth over time helps us appreciate not only where learners are at, but where they have come from, which is something that we need to put more of an emphasis on in education.

After the People of Color Conference, 10 Guideposts on the Path Toward Equity and Inclusion

NAIS

 

Tampa, Florida — People naturally walk in circles when they’re lost. That’s the finding of researchers who conducted several experiments: One group trekked through the middle of a forest, another group hiked across the Sahara Desert, and others were instructed to walk blindfolded for 60 feet. No matter the scenario, the results were strikingly similar, Gyasi Ross, father, essayist, speaker, activist, and lawyer, outlined to more than 2,000 rapt attendees in his session at the 28th NAIS People of Color Conference, December 3–5. The evidence shows that continual visual cues are crucial to point the way forward.

Today, we appear to be spinning in circles as pernicious cycles of discrimination, injustice, and violence ravage communities across the globe. Yet in the midst of despair, there are moments of hope. Each year, PoCC is such a moment.
This year at PoCC, we all saw a bright visual cue when three NAIS leaders, Board Chair Katherine Dinh, Interim President Donna Orem, and Vice President for Equity and Justice Caroline Blackwell, shared the stage with more than 20 heads of color at NAIS member schools — and honored the heads’ achievement and service. The panoramic snapshot sparked huge buzz on social media.
Cues, or guideposts, can take many forms. Here I share 10 additional guideposts — for individuals, schools, and communities — that I spotted at PoCC.

Guideposts for Individuals

An awareness of our hidden biases. We all have unconscious attitudes that we bring to situations, particularly when we face crucial decisions like hiring and voting. We must uncover our biases and then take practical steps to counter them, explained Mahzarin Banaji, coauthor of the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Consider her example of a man who found a creative way to handle his unconscious attitudes during freewheeling conversations in meetings. He sketches a picture of the group and writes each person’s name at his or her place around the table. During the meeting, he jots down a few notes next to the name of the person speaking.
Now, instead of automatically attributing ideas he likes to individuals he likes, “he is able to give credit where credit is due,” Banaji said. Humans have an innate desire to learn and improve, she told attendees. Banaji offers a tool for all of us to understand our biases at implicit.harvard.edu.
An acknowledgment of the deep hurt of discrimination, racism, and injustice. People of color report that racial microaggressions and discrimination take a toll on their physical and mental well-being, said Howard Stevenson, author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences that Make a Difference. “We tend to avoid or overreact to face-to-face racial conflicts,” Stevenson said, adding that the legal dismantling of racism won’t heal people’s trauma. Moving forward requires racial literacy, which begins when individuals share their personal stories about race. In his session, he asked us to “tell the person next to you what you heard about race in your childhood.”
A desire to draw out the unique gifts that lie within each one of us. Teachers and mentors can be valuable guides, but students and mentees must have the will to contribute their talents. Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet, told us about such an experience while she was teaching. A boy diagnosed with autism was isolating himself in the corner of the classroom, not speaking to classmates or to her. After she took an interest in him and taught him her craft, he asked to deliver a poem he wrote to the class — and received a standing ovation from everyone.

Guideposts for Schools

An intentional, nurturing approach when recruiting and retaining young faculty of color. When recruiting, it’s vital to “target and build relationships with local colleges, be honest with candidates, and don’t assume that people of color want to do diversity work.” These recommendations come from Brandon Jacobs of The Hill School (Pennsylvania) and Ashley Bradley of The Baldwin School (Pennsylvania), who conducted interviews with several young faculty of color.
When it comes to retention, Jacobs and Bradley recommended that “a school prove its dedication to diversity through committees, professional development, its strategic plan, curriculum, and student groups; establish and support faculty of color groups; and support professional and personal development” for faculty of color. All their interview participants cited the importance of mentoring.
A new institutional paradigm that results from asking critical questions. Marin Horizon School (California) developed a unique “framework for institutions.” It’s designed to push beyond an “exclusive community” and “symbolic change” toward “analytic change” of critical thinking and “structural change” of executing, according to the school’s presenters Stevie Lee, Angela Evans, and Beth Anderson. Having a diversity director in name only and a diversity committee without a clear mission or funding are examples of change that is merely symbolic, they noted.
At Marin Horizon School, critical thinking on inclusion and equity began by everyone asking investigative questions, including the following:
  • “What pictures are on the walls of your public spaces?”
  • “How do you refer to families?”
  • “What lesson plans do you describe or feature in open houses?”
  • “What holidays do you honor or ignore?”
  • “What do your calendar priorities speak to?”
  • “Who is on what committee?”
  • “What experiences/traditions/events cause students to be reminded that they are different?”
Presenters also pointed to several actions Marin Horizon School has taken, including “empowering the diversity director; retooling events such as class parties, parent presentations, and school-wide brochures; and conducting a curriculum analysis and innovating.” The new paradigm is helping the school on its “path to authentic and productive inclusion and equity.”
 
An immersion model to attain cultural proficiency. Unlike typical one-day workshops, immersion programs require being steeped in diversity and cultural proficiency work for a sustained period of time, said Lewis Bryant and Ross Clark of Buckingham Browne & Nichols School (Massachusetts). They cited Peggy McIntosh’s SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) as an example.
BB&N has developed a multifaceted immersion model. For example, some faculty have formed a monthly book club; after reading part of a diversity book, participants come with a question and highlight something new they’ve learned. In addition, faculty can take part in summer institutes and the White Privilege Conference. They can design a freshman seminar focusing on cultural proficiency. Also, they can join the school’s cultural proficiency think tank.
Student immersion activities include holding four community-building assemblies and sharing personal stories. Some students can work with a local Boston group to learn how to facilitate discussions on diversity issues. All of BB&N’s immersion initiatives were borne out of survey data collected from the school’s stakeholders.

Guideposts for Schools and Communities

A push for girls and students of color to pursue careers in STEM. “We’re operating with one-third of the potential in the workforce,” said Mae Jamison, the world’s first woman of color to go into space. This needs to change, she added, because professionals in the STEM fields determine the topics we cover, the data sets we use and discard, the national and global problems we solve, and the order in which we solve them. In a warning sign, research shows that females report feeling the most discouraged from choosing STEM careers by their college professors, Jamison said.
A comprehensive understanding of history. We have to embrace all of history, the good and the bad, Ross said. This means exposing “the skeletons,” including the injustice toward Native Americans, and it means having meaningful discussions about history. “You can choose to acknowledge its importance, or you can wait until it shows up at your doorstep,” Ross said as he alluded to recent events at the University of Missouri. “How do we make history a tool of liberation in our schools?” he asked us to consider.
A design-thinking template to engage in difficult conversations about race. As discussed in one session, design thinking is outlined in four steps: explore, identify, generate, and learn. We explore by empathizing with others’ stories. Then we identify key issues and reframe with “How might we…?” Next we brainstorm answers to the question and suspend judgment. Then we learn and iterate toward improvement.
Presenters Paul Kim and Tom Thorpe from Colorado Academy (Colorado) shared an example of a key question: “How might schools and educators bring more voices into conversations about racism, privilege, and oppression?” Colorado Academy decided the answer was to screen the documentary “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” about how the next generation is going to confront racism. In these discussions, the group observed community norms adapted from NAIS. They include:
  • Be fully present.
  • Lean into discomfort.
  • Assume positive intent from all speakers.
  • Use the “I” perspective.
  • Take risks, be raggedy, make some mistakes – then let go.
As the facilitator in the documentary put it after a teenager got emotional and ran out of the room, “It’s OK to leave the room, but you must come back in.”
The presenters said that since Colorado Academy has engaged in these conversations, the school feels like “a radically different place … in terms of race and racism.”

Guidepost for Individuals, Schools, and Communities

Ongoing conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The importance of continual conversations among individuals and within schools and communities echoed throughout the conference. To that end, I invite you to share your reflections from PoCC and what your school is doing to address inequity.

Conclusion

We must be persistent warriors to keep walking on the path toward equity and inclusion in our schools and communities. Educators, onward!

The Mindful Child

The New York Times

Photo

CreditSam Kalda
It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.

These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.

Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.

This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.

clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.

Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maurer of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter, Daisy, through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maurer said.

Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

To learn some meditation techniques you can teach your child, readThree Ways for Children to Try Meditation at Home.

To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions

The New York Times

Photo

CreditGetty Images

Before she became a neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang was a seventh-grade science teacher at a school outside Boston. One year, during a period of significant racial and ethnic tension at the school, she struggled to engage her students in a unit on human evolution. After days of apathy and outright resistance to Ms. Immordino-Yang’s teaching, a student finally asked the question that altered her teaching — and her career path — forever: “Why are early hominids always shown with dark skin?”

With that question, one that connected the abstract concepts of human evolution and the very concrete, personal experiences of racial tension in the school, her students’ resistance gave way to interest. As she explained the connection between the effects of equatorial sunlight, melanin and skin color and went on to explain how evolutionary change and geography result in various human characteristics, interest blossomed into engagement, and something magical happened: Her students began to learn.

Dr. Immordino-Yang’s eyes light up as she recounts this story in her office at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Now an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience, she understands the reason behind her students’ shift from apathy to engagement and, finally, to deep, meaningful learning.

Her students learned because they became emotionally engaged in material that had personal relevance to them.

Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said.

This rule holds true even across subjects and disciplines, Dr. Immordino-Yang writes in her book, “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain.” “Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.”

As a teacher, I know what an emotionally engaged student looks like on the outside, but Dr. Immordino-Yang showed me what that student looks like on the inside using a functional M.R.I., a scanner that reveals brain function in real time.

“When students are emotionally engaged,” she said, “we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

As she went on to explain why emotion is vital to high-quality learning, Ms. Immordino-Yang’s cheeks flushed pink, her eyes brightened, and her hands became animated and expressive. While she’d provided me with pages of quotes, studies and images meant to illustrate all she wanted to teach me during those two hours in her office, her enthusiasm for the topic served as the most powerful exhibit.

Great teachers understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child’s life, and when the students form an emotional bond with either the subject at hand or the teacher in front of them. Meaningful learning happens when teachers are able to create an emotional connection to what might otherwise remain abstract concepts, ideas or skills.

Creating this emotional connection might sound like a daunting task, but research has shown that the investment reaps huge dividends in the form of increased learning and better grades. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals, learning improves.

I experienced this a few years ago, with a parent who asked me how to get her daughter interested in school. The girl dreamed of becoming a dairy farmer like her father and grandfather, and felt that her classes were irrelevant.

And yet, given a few moments to think and some creativity, we both realized that dairy farming is a perfect laboratory for everything from biology to math, chemistry to geometry, history to government; all of these subjects are relevant and important in the life of a dairy farmer. When the catalog for I.V.F.-ready bull semen arrives in the mail, she’ll need to know about dominant and recessive genetic traits. She’ll need to understand soil chemistry, microbiology, botany, the geometry of herd rotation as it relates to land use, and the political and financial realities of keeping dairy farming viable as an industry.

The emotional connection that can result when teachers make learning personally relevant to students is what differentiates superficial, rote, topical assimilation of material from a superlative education marked by deep mastery and durable learning. While there are no silver bullets in education, emotional engagement and personal relevance is the tool that has the potential to improve the educational experience of every child, in every school in America.


Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

Amid Internet Addiction Fears, ‘Balanced’ Tech Diet for Teens Recommended

EdWeek

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Although researchers have yet to reach a consensus on whether ‘Internet addiction’ is real, parents are increasingly—and justifiably—concerned about their children’s technology and media usage, according to a new report released today by Common Sense Media.

The tonic, the report suggests, is a “balanced” technology diet for children that includes tech-free times and zones.  Common Sense also recommended that parents and caregivers put down their own phones while driving, at the dinner table, and during family time.

“However the research community eventually comes to a consensus on whether and how to diagnose Internet addiction, it is clear that there has been a massive change in how we access and engage with technology,” according to the report, titled “Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance.”

The report consists of a literature review of more than 180 journal articles, press accounts, interviews, books, and industry papers on the topic, as well as a new, nationally representative phone survey of 620 mobile-phone-using parents and 620 of their mobile-phone-using children between the ages of 12-18.

Among the findings:

  • 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, but just 27 percent of teens agree. Researchers disagree on whether “Internet addiction” is a clinical condition, and it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition—the American Psychiatric Association’s official classification and diagnostic tool. Regardless, Common Sense argues, research clearly shows that “problematic media use” that includes “dysfunctional ways of engaging with media” that are “characterized as compulsive, obsessive, or unhealthy” is a real concern. More research is needed on such behaviors among children and teens, the report argues.
  • 78 percent of teens check their devices at least hourly, compared to 69 percent of their parents. Teens were also far more likely than their parents to report feeling compelled to respond to text messages, social-media notifications, and the like. The prevalence of “media multitasking” is of particular concern, Common Sense suggested. One study included in the report’s literature review found that students from middle school through university studied for fewer than six minutes at a stretch before switching to another tech distraction. Another found that “heavy media multitaskers have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information.”
  • Device usage is a source of regular family conflict. Roughly one-third of both parents and teens said they argued about device use daily, and more than three-fourths of parents reported feeling that their teens are distracted by devices and don’t pay attention to family members at least a few times per week. And teens aren’t the only ones to blame; one study cited in the literature review found that “caregivers eating with young children in fast food restaurants who were highly absorbed in their devices tended to be more harsh when dealing with their children’s misbehavior.”

Given previous research from Common Sense that American tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (13-18) spend between six and nine hours per day outside of school and homework using media (including TV, video games, social media, the Internet, and digital music), such concerns are probably no surprise.

The new report also points out, however, that researchers have not established any formal link between social media usage and decreasing empathy among teens. And research on the impact of extensive Internet and mobile device usage on tweens’ and teens’ social, emotional, and cognitive development is surprisingly limited, Common Sense maintains.

Common Sense also notes that teens still report preferring face-to-face conversation to other forms of communication. Researchers such as Danah Boyd of Data Society have suggested that in a society in which opportunities for such interactions are increasingly limited, teens are turning to technology to express typical developmental needs around social connections with peers.

For parents and caregivers, just limiting access to technology and digital media is unlikely to be the solution, Common Sense suggests.

Some research has found that “children of technology limiters…are most likely to engage in problematic behaviors such as posting hostile comments or impersonating others online, whereas children of media mentors are much less likely to engage in problematic online behaviors,” according to the report.

Most important— and challenging, for the 27 percent of parents in the Common Sense survey who reported feeling addicted to their own mobile devices— is serving as a good “media mentor,” the group concludes.

“Parent role-modeling shows kids the behavior and values you want in your home,” the report says. “Kids will be more open and willing participants when the house rules apply to you, too.”