Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s why.


A student takes notes in an Advanced Placement class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in 2014. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
June 18, 2018

In an era when the quality and nature of American secondary school education are subjects of vigorous debate, it is time to rethink our curricula. Together, we lead eight Washington-area independent schools, and we have been meeting regularly over the past several years to discuss research and compare experiences.

While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.

When introduced in the early 1950s, the rationale for the AP program was to offer particularly ambitious students an opportunity to pursue and receive credit for college-level work, allowing them to graduate from college early. Yet today, few college students graduate in less than four years. At the same time, almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.

As a result, AP courses on high school transcripts are of diminished significance to college admissions officers. Further, we’ve conducted our own survey of almost 150 college and university admissions officers and have been assured that the absence of the AP designation will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is whether an applicant has taken a high school’s most demanding courses; the AP designation itself is irrelevant.

Naturally, colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students. Therefore, in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses. Because these tests loom so large for students, faculty often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiries to cover all of the material likely to be included on the test.

But the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.

Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes. Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary — with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.

Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented more in these directions will not only better prepare our students for their futures but also will result in programs that are more engaging both for students and faculty. Moreover, this approach will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning.

This change does not signify any effort to diminish the academic rigor for which our schools are known. To the contrary, we believe that by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources, students will be offered more stimulating courses that explore subjects in greater depth, enhancing the strength of our programs.

We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation. Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement. What is unusual about our decision is that we came to this conclusion together and are announcing it jointly. We hope that by adding our collective voice to the conversation, we will make it easier for other schools considering a similar change to follow the same path.

As schools devoted to nurturing students’ potential, fostering their talents and preparing them to lead productive lives, we believe the flexibility we will gain from developing our own courses will better prepare our students for college and their professional futures. In this time of unprecedented challenges, we owe our students and the world they will enter nothing less.

Russell Shaw, head of Georgetown Day School

Susanna Jones, head of Holton-Arms School

Jim Neill, headmaster of Landon School

Marjo Talbott, head of Maret School

Kathleen Jamieson, head of National Cathedral School

John Kowalik, head of Potomac School

Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans School

Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends School

Advertisements

Calculus Is the Peak of High School Math. Maybe It’s Time to Change That

EdWeek

May 22, 2018
Article Tools
For more than 30 years, calculus has been seen as the pinnacle of high school math—essential for careers in the hard sciences, and an explicit or unspoken prerequisite for top-tier colleges.

But now, math and science professionals are beginning to question how helpful current high school calculus courses really are for advanced science fields. The ubiquitous use of data in everything from physics and finance to politics and education is helping to build momentum for a new path in high school math—one emphasizing statistics and data literacy over calculus.

“We increasingly understand the world around us through data: gene expression, identifying new planets in distant solar systems, and everything in between,” said Randy Kochevar, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, an international nonprofit that works with education officials. Statistics and data analysis, he said, “is fundamental to many of the things we do routinely, not just as scientists but as professionals.”

He and other experts are still debating the best way to integrate a new approach in an already crowded high school curriculum. One of the most difficult philosophical challenges: how to prevent a statistics path from replicating the severe tracking and equity problems that have long existed in classical mathematics.

“There’s a sense that calculus is up here and statistics is a step below,” said Dan Chase, a secondary mathematics teacher at Carolina Day School in North Carolina, adding that he often struggles to suggest to students that, “if you are interested in engineering, that might be a good reason to go to calculus, but if you are interested in business or the humanities or social sciences, there are different paths you might go, even if you are a top-achieving math student.”

On face value, new expectations for students already seem to be moving toward statistics. Both the Common Core State Standards, on which many states’ math requirements are based, and the Next Generation Science Standards call for teaching data analysis and statistics, both on their own and in the process of learning other concepts.

But Kochevar warned: “There’s a huge disconnect; if you look closely at the science standards, they are expecting students to have tremendous faculty with using data by middle school, but if you look at the courses, it’s really not clear where those skills are supposed to be filled.”

Both sets of standards need more integration of data and statistics, he and others argue, because they were developed in the early years of the big data boom. Studies tracking data worldwide through the years have found people produced 1.5 exabytes of new data in 1999—or roughly 250 megabytes of data for every person alive—but by 2011, when states were adopting and implementing the math standards, people produced more than 14 exabytes a year. Today, people worldwide produce 2.5 exabytes of data every day, and the total data have doubled every two years.

Ironically, the rapid expansion of big data and statistics use in the broader society and economy comes at the same time American students seem to be struggling with those concepts. From 2007 to 2017, 4th and 8th students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics fell significantly on problems related to data analysis, statistics, and probability—a decline that helped drive overall dips on the math test in 2017.

In part, experts say, that’s because statistics and data analysis have traditionally taken a back seat to calculus in high school math, and most students already have difficulty completing the classical path.

“The idea that statistics is hard is grounded in that fact that if you took statistics 10 years ago, you had to take calculus first, and the statistics used formal probability … with theorems that built on calculus,” said Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor and the executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s been working with K-12 and university systems to develop a statistics pathway as an alternative to classical calculus.

It’s an idea that others have pushed back on, by situating a high school statistics pathway as either advanced material only suitable for students who have already passed calculus—or a less-rigorous path for students who can’t hack it in classical math.

“Any time you have multiple pathways, the advantaged will capitalize on one and that will become the ‘real’ one,” Treisman said. “If we are going to create data science pathways, they had better be anchored in things that lead to upward social mobility and have a rigor to them. We have to make sure new pathways have at least equal status as the traditional one—and ensure everyone has access to them. If we allow [statistics and data] to be the easy or weaker path, we relinquish the commitment to equity we started with.”

Mixed Signals in Calculus

For a picture of how severe that inequity can get, one only has to look at calculus.

Until about 1980, calculus was seen as a higher education course, primarily for those interested in mathematics, physics, or other hard sciences, and only about 30,000 high school students took the course. That began to change when school reformers glommed onto calculus as an early example of a rigorous, college-preparatory course, said David Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College and a former president of the Mathematical Association of America, who has examined the evolution of calculus studies.

“The more schools did this, the greater the expectation that they would do it” from parents, and district leaders—and in particular from colleges and universities, Bressoud said. “It’s not just math majors or engineering majors; this has become an accepted requirement for admission to top universities. You are not going to get into Duke if you haven’t taken calculus, even if you plan to major in French literature.”

Today, some 800,000 students nationwide take calculus in high school, about 15 percent of all high schoolers, and nearly 150,000 take the course before 11th grade. Calculus classes have been and remain disproportionately white and Asian, with other student groups less likely to attend schools that offer calculus or the early prerequisites (like middle school algebra) needed to gain access to the course.

For example, in 2015-16, black students were 9 percentage points less likely than their white peers to attend a high school that offered calculus and half as likely to take the class if they attended a school that offered it. And if black students did get into a class, their teachers were also less likely to be certified to teach calculus than those of white students, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data.

And despite the rapid growth of calculus as a gold standard, university calculus experts argue it is a much weaker sign that a student is actually prepared for postsecondary math in the science fields than it appears.

In fact, a new report by the Mathematics Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found many students who took Advanced Placement Calculus AB still ended up retaking calculus in college—and 250,000 students end up needing to take even lower-level courses, like precalculus or algebra.

In the end, the report found taking calculus in high school was associated with only a 5 percentage point increase on average in calculus scores in college—from 75 percent to 80 percent. Rather, the best predictor of earning a B or better in college calculus was a student earning no less than As in high school Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry.

So if high school calculus isn’t the best indicator of a student prepared for college-level math, what does it signify in college admissions? In a word: Money.

More than half of students who take calculus in high school come from families with a household income above $100,000 a year, according to a study this month in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. By contrast, only 15 percent of middle-income students and 7 percent of those in the poorest 25 percent of families take the course.

“Math is even more important to upward mobility now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because … it’s seen as related to your general ability to solve problems quickly,” Treisman said, adding that as a result, “there’s general anxiety and panic about equity issues for anything new, even though the current [calculus] pathway is a burial ground for students of color.”

Forging a New Path

Statistics and data literacy advocates hope diversifying the field of interesting and rigorous math courses could broaden students’ path to STEM and other careers. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimations showed that jobs that require data literacy and statistics are among the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the country.

“We have two paths forward,” said William Finzer, a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium, which works with school districts to improve their math curricula. “The easier one—like the path computer science took—is to develop a course or a subject area and get schools to give it time. … The problem of that is, it doesn’t spread the opportunity very widely. It becomes concentrated in the small group of kids who elect to take the course—and it’s just one more subject to take.”

Progression for Statistics and Data

EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. Randy Kochevar, who directs the institute, said they are based on the acronym CLIP, meaning students learn how to use:

Complex, multi-variable data (“We’re not just looking at hours of sunlight and heights of bean plants,” he said);

Larger data sets than students need to answer any one question, so they are forced to sort and understand relevance;

Interactively accessed data, rather than sample graphs just written out on paper; and

Professionally collected data that forces students to think about how and why it was collected—and what biases may exist in the samples.

Finzer instead envisions a more holistic approach in which at least one class a year—be it math, biology, or even civics or history—asks students to grapple with making sense of large data sets. Such an approach, he said, “would make a huge difference, because it would mean when you came out of high school, data would not be foreign to you.”

EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. The progression would include concepts in statistics and data literacy, but also computer science—to be able to use common programming and tools used by data professionals—and more philosophical concepts, such as the ethical use of statistics and privacy protections.

How to Fix the Most Soul-Crushing Meetings

Meetings are notoriously one of organizational life’s most insufferable realities. U.S. companies spend more than $37 billion dollars a year on them. Employees in American companies spend more than one-third of their time in them. And 71% of senior managers view them as unproductive. In one global consumer products company that I work with, my firm’s organizational assessment revealed an unusually intense degree of frustration over how much time was consumed by meetings, leaving “only evenings to do our day jobs,” according to one interviewee. In a meticulous inventory, we calculated the hours spent in meetings by directors and above across the enterprise (a population of about 500). They collectively spent more than 57,000 hours per year in recurring meetings. That’s the equivalent of six and a half years!

Better meeting techniques, like distributing agendas, holding stand-up meetings, or enforcing a no-device policy, are all well-intentioned practices. But none of them will salvage a meeting that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

Meetings are productive and meaningful when the people in them have a clear reason to be there, have a definitive contribution to make, and advance strategic priorities together. Any standing meeting, whether it’s of a departmental leadership team, a cross-functional group owning a process like innovation or talent management, or a task force managing a six-month transition to a new technology, should be designed and linked to a broader governance plan. Together, standing meetings should synchronize the entire organization in a meeting cadence that executes strategy and delivers results. But too often, meetings are disconnected from the intentional distribution of decision rights, resources, and priorities across the organization, making them unnecessary.

Meetings that aren’t part of effective governance design take on two destructive pathologies: they become meetings as source of power or meetings as bottleneck.

When meetings become a source of power, being in charge or included affords you disproportionate degrees of influence and status. They justify their existence with lengthy presentations that most attendees find boring and irrelevant while nodding eagerly in a feigned sense of importance. In the consumer products company I mentioned above, one interviewee told us, “People would get to meetings 30 minutes early to make sure they sat near the executive they wanted to be seen with.” This kind of politicization leaves most leaders in meetings disempowered, employees disengaged, and meetings dysfunctional. Meetings should serve to distribute power, not concentrate it at the top. When they do, leaders are more inclined to use power responsibly.

YOU AND YOUR TEAM SERIES

Meetings

When a meeting becomes a bottleneck, decisions or resources are passing through people who likely have little or nothing to contribute, usually because “they’ve always been involved.” Standing meetings like these are often like layers of old wallpaper pasted over one another; they’ve far outlived their usefulness. At the consumer products company, many of the standing meetings were of groups that had been formed years prior and had never been dissolved as the organization evolved and shifted strategies. In fact, there were six different groups managing two different processes governing product development. Many of those groups had been formed decades earlier, each one gripping tightly to their claim over determining which projects in the pipeline moved forward with what investments. The wars between departments doubled the time required to bring a new product to market because teams were often given conflicting directions.

These are just symptoms, however. The underlying problem is bad governance. To fix these issues in your organization, establish the following three elements.

1. A clearly articulated mandate with defined decision rights. Regardless of the type of meeting, the scope must be clearly defined, and narrowed to a few key areas. In another multinational company I work with, the executive team, the business unit teams, the regional teams, and the country teams were painfully duplicating work — everything from P&L management to key hiring decisions to customer relationship management. Meetings became war zones, as each group complained about how one of the other groups was undermining what they believed was theirs to do. In a holistic redesign, we created charters for each level so that they were focused on the work they could uniquely execute. Strategy and priorities were set at the executive team level. The business unit teams focused on talent, customer segmentation, and marketing. The regional and country level teams were responsible for P&Ls, customer relationship management, and geography-specific priorities. With these responsibilities set, they could create meeting agendas focused on what they needed to be doing (and publish them weeks in advance), and all of the requisite decision rights and resources were allocated accordingly.

2. A synchronized cadence. It may seem obvious, but a meeting’s frequency and allotted time must be commensurate with its charter and decision rights. Teams and task forces governing near-term priorities will need to meet more frequently for shorter durations of time, while those focused on longer-term priorities should meet less often for longer durations of time. In the multinational example above, the cadence of meetings was choreographed to keep each level appropriately linked and informed. Each group met monthly for two hours: the executive team on the first Monday of the month, the business units on the second Monday, the regions on the third Monday, and the countries on the fourth. Any inputs or outputs from one to the other were immediately sent on to the next group. This also allowed each team to keep their respective organizations up to speed on progress, shifts in priorities, and their counterparts’ work.

3. The right composition and metrics. Too often leaders let hierarchy define who comes to a meeting; if you are a direct report to the leader calling the meeting, you attend. Which makes everyone feel compelled to bring something to say. This is how meetings devolve into useless status updates. Worse, under the guise of making people feel “included,” meetings balloon into U.N.-like summits with dozens sitting in a room wondering why they are there. The composition of a meeting should be defined by its charter, and only those who have something specific to contribute — expertise, authority over resources, responsibility to execute — should be included. Anyone else who has a stake in the meeting outcome should be informed. For example, if a meeting charter has significant implications for finance, one person from finance can attend and keep their colleagues informed.

There should also be metrics assessing how well a meeting is executing its charter. For example, if a customer success team composed of sales, customer support, on-site technical assistance, and engineering is tasked with effectively implementing new technology for customers, then customer complaints, speed of adoption, open ticket time, and overall product satisfaction should be tracked so that the team — and its stakeholders — know if it’s contributing as intended.

In my experience, meetings being ineffective is often an indicator that they shouldn’t be occurring. To test this, I ask groups, “If you stopped meeting, who besides you would care?” If they struggle to respond, I have my answer. If you want to give your organization a great gift, immediately shut down recurring meetings that don’t meet these criteria. The cheers will be deafening.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.


Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.

What parents and teachers can do to not make the 7th grade the worst ever

ABC News

PHOTO: Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged boys stand in a hallway in an undated stock photo.

In sixth grade, Carrie Rountrey’s son Owen couldn’t wait to get to school.

“He used to get up, make his lunch, do everything for school,” she said.

What a difference a year makes because now Owen is in seventh grade and his attitude towards school has changed, according to his mom.

“He doesn’t like school,” Rountrey said. “He loves his math and science classes, and he hates everything else. It’s been pretty frustrating.”

PHOTO: Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen. Morefamousjack Photography
Carrie Rountrey, J.R. Gentle and their son Owen.

A professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rountrey also can’t understand how her only child can be so disorganized.

“He forgets his keys on a regular basis,” she said. “He turns a lot of things in late.”

Fortunately, schoolwork comes pretty easily for him. Other seventh grade students aren’t so lucky.

Few kids, no matter how smart, manage to get through seventh grade without some hiccups. And, for many, seventh grade turns out to be the worst of their school years.

“Seventh grade sucked for me,” said Annie Fox, an award-winning author and educator, who has traveled all over the globe talking to teens and tweens.

A trusted online adviser for parents and teens since 1997, Fox said the reason kids — their parents and teachers as well — struggle so much when they are ages 12 and 13 is because there’s a lot happening to them developmentally.

PHOTO: Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens. courtesy Annie Fox
Annie Fox, an educator and author, is an expert on teens and tweens.

Not only are they dealing with the onset of puberty, with all of its raging hormones, but the pre-frontal lobe of their brain, which manages impulse control, predicting consequences and planning ahead, is not fully wired.

“They are not playing with a full deck,” Fox said.

“Put 500 kids with that kind of insecurity in a group that spends six hours a day together and they are not going to be kind to each other,” Fox said.

Yet, this is exactly the time that their parents and teachers expect more from them.

“In sixth grade, they coddle them. In eighth grade, they are getting ready to go to high school so they are really elevated,” said Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. “In seventh grade, no one really cares. You’re thrown to the wolves. They really are in such an in-between age.”

PHOTO: Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens. courtesy Jennifer Powell-Lunder
Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist writes about teens and tweens.

Parents of seventh-graders likely expect their kids to step up, too, and they are usually surprised when they don’t — or don’t even seem to care.

“It’s the age of snarky,” Powell-Lunder said. “They tend to be more irritable, kind of touchy. They don’t believe they are a reflection of their parents, but that their parents are a reflection of them.”

That means the potential for their parents to embarrass them in front of their almighty peers is at an all-time high. It’s because kids at this developmental stage put more weight into what their peers think and where they fit in.

“Their emotional real estate is so fixated on where do I fit into my peer group,” Fox said.

For boys, that can mean how they match up against their more physically developed peers. For girls, it’s negotiating often tricky relationships, aka “mean girls.”

One mom of three, who asked not to be identified, knows this all too well. She says both her girls began cutting themselves in the seventh grade.

The younger one used to complain that she felt sad and empty, she said.

“Nobody likes me. I don’t want to talk to anybody. They are looking at me weird,” she said of what her daughter would tell her.

It got to be so bad, her daughter had to be held overnight in a hospital.

Fox hears many stories such as that one. In a survey she gave to 1,200 tweens and teens, kids said the number one stressor in their lives was their peers, with school and parents following behind in second and third place.

“Every middle-schooler feels different than their peers, whether gay, straight or transgender,” Fox said. “As human beings what we are trying to do is fit in. On a species level this is the most awkward time.”

Given everything kids are experiencing at this age — socially, developmentally and academically — Fox encourages parents to exercise more compassion.

“I want parents to be a safe place to talk about anything,” she said. “They need to talk less and listen more.”

Keep reading for more helpful tips from Fox and Powell-Lunder on to how not make the seventh grade worst year for everyone.

PHOTO: Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
Middle-school aged students sit on a school stairwell in an undated stock photo.

Control your own stress

Parents stress themselves out over what their kids are doing or not doing at this age.

However, parents need to let go of the idea that they have total control over their kids, Fox said.

“You have a remote control for your TV, but you don’t have one to control another person,” she said. “You can’t get them to do anything they do not choose to do. Most of the time, we parents are stressing because we are trying to point a non-functional remote control at our kids.”

Fox learned this when her own son entered the seventh grade, and it was like a bomb went off in his room, she said. After feeling like their relationship had been taken over by her nagging, she said she stopped trying to get him to clean up his room and their relationship improved.

“You cannot control someone else’s choices,” she said. “You can only modify your own behavior.”

Give them autonomy, not independence

At the same time, teens and tweens still crave structure and boundaries, Powell-Lunder said.

They may be looking for more autonomy from their parents, but they are not yet ready to be fully independent. Setting limits, especially when it comes to technology, is important, she said.

“A lot of time parents want to be the ‘nice’ parent, but kids need rules,” Powell-Lunder said.

Boundary-setting starts with knowing your child and what their individual needs are, as well as acknowledging that those needs change as they get older, Fox said.

“Mom and dad have to take a closer look at the children sitting in front of them,” she said. “They are changing so rapidly. If you don’t keep up, you won’t know how to communicate or listen to them.”

Don’t try to fix everything

With rules, come consequences. Both Fox and Powell-Lunder said parents have to let their middle-schoolers fail sometimes.

“Let them take responsibility for being a full-time student,” Fox said. “That’s a contract between student and teacher — unless you’re planning to go to college with them.”

“Be supportive but don’t try to fix everything,” Powell-Lunder said.

“Over-functioning parents will raise under-functioning kids,” Fox added.

Practice what you preach

Kids at this age are also learning a lot by observing the adults around them.

Be careful what you’re modeling to your kids, whether it’s screaming and yelling or being tethered to your smartphone.

“Show you have more self-control than your son or daughter,” Fox said.

Powell-Lunder tells teachers: “Teach by example.”

Organization helps

At a time when kids seem the most disorganized, being organized seems to count the most.

Powell-Lunder, who is a big believer in the “K-8” model because it “smooths out the rough edges,” said educators in middle schools need to be more understanding of seventh-graders and teach them the organizational skills they lack. Posting homework in one place certainly helps, she said.

Fox frowns on too much homework because she said it turns some middle school students off from education. This age group still needs time to pursue passions, she said, be with family and just daydream.

Talk less, listen more

Both Powell-Lunder and Fox encourage parents to show more empathy for what their children are going through.

“Ultimately, you want less stress and tension between parent and child, and more compassion and conversation and understanding,” Fox said. “They are not getting it from their peers or their own internal monologues where they are putting themselves down. We are just adding to the chorus if all we’re doing is finding fault.”

Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?

Photo

Emma González, center, is among the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students leading the movement against gun violence. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?

A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.

There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.

Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.

“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.”

“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”

“They are so direct in their messaging. They are so clear. They seem unflappable.”

Dr. Damour, who has spent her career talking and listening to teenagers, said she believes the Parkland teens are showing the world the potential of their peer group. “Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said.

There is still much to learn about the postmillennial cohort — social scientists haven’t even agreed on when this generation begins, although there seems to be a consensus forming that the year 2000, give or take a few years, is a good place to start. But data collected from various health surveys already show that today’s teens are different from previous generations in many ways.

Many risky behaviors have dropped sharply among today’s teens. Cigarette smoking among teens is at a historic low since peaking in the mid 1990s. Alcohol use has also declined significantly — the number of teens who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is down by half since the 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates have hit historic lows, and teens over all are waiting longer to have sex than their parent’s generation. Teen driving fatalities are down about 64 percent since 1975. Some of that is attributed to safer cars, but teen crashes have declined between 10 and 30 percent in states with tiered licensing systems, and teen drunken driving has dropped while teen seatbelt use has increased.

While most health researchers celebrate these changes in teen health, some scientists think the trends suggest a lower level of maturity among today’s teens. Perhaps teens are safer simply because their reliance on social media and smartphone use means they are getting out less. In September, the journal Child Development published a study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, noting that there is a decline in a number of “adult” activities among today’s teens. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of eight million American adolescents from 1976 to 2016, fewer adolescents in recent years are having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, driving, working for pay and going out without their parents.

“The big picture is that they are taking longer to grow up,” said Dr. Twenge, whose latest book is “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

In an article in The Atlantic last fall titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Twenge argued that teens are more comfortable in their bedrooms or on smartphones or social media than at a party. While they are physically safer than past generations as a result, rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she wrote. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

But a number of social scientists and adolescent health researchers disagree with that conclusion. While teen depression and suicide rates are worrisome, there is no causal link to show those trends are the result of smartphones and social media. In fact, a literature review by Unicef researchers in December found that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use is associated with a “small negative impact.” The larger issues that affect a child’s well-being are family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, the report concluded.

Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” said he believes today’s teenagers are better communicators than any previous generation. “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” he said. “They grew up being interactors and communicators. In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap — they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”

The clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel interviewed groups of middle school and high school students around the country in 2015 and 2016 for her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.” Dr. Mogel spoke with diverse kids from various regions and walks of life, but found herself consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, how much they liked their parents, and how much they cared about the world around them.

“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” Dr. Mogel said. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”

Neil Howe, a historian whose books include “Millennials Rising,” said that unlike earlier generations, today’s teens have accepted the structures of society and have learned to work within those boundaries. “They’re very good at using rules to make their point, and they’re absolutely excellent at negotiating with their parents, and negotiating in a reasonable way about how to bend these rules in a way that will make them more effective and give them more space,” he said. “This is not a ‘throw the brick through the window and burn stuff down’ group of kids at all. They’re working very constructively, arm-in-arm with older people they trust, to make big institutions work better and make them stronger and more effective.”

Ms. Lythcott-Haims notes that the current crop of teenagers is the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills since kindergarten. “I think what we might have here is a generation that really defines itself by the markers of their childhoods,” she said. “In addition to being marked by these gun violence tragedies, they came to consciousness with a black man in the White House and smartphones in their hands.”

What does all this mean for the future of today’s teens? All of the researchers agreed there is still much more to learn about this cohort, but what we know so far is promising.

“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims. “We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

Can Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

EdWeek

Editor’s Note: Karen Martin, elementary teacher and instructional coach for Denali Borough School District in Alaska, traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee. She visited over 50 different classrooms and observed almost 70 different teachers and teacher trainees. Her biggest takeaway: that Finnish teachers think and teach in a way that encourages inquiry. Here’s how she brought this lesson back home.

By guest blogger Karen Martin

It is difficult to observe, let alone internationally benchmark, thinking, but one of the most profound lessons we can learn from Finland is how to nurture the development of a “thinking profession” of teachers. If we want to create an intellectual, thinking culture for our students, it is imperative that it also becomes the norm for teachers.

Through many conversations and interviews with Finnish teachers, I began to realize that they fundamentally approach their work differently than American teachers. These teachers are the product of an intentionally designed education philosophy called research-based teacher education, which has as its central goal to educate inquiry-oriented teachers. The outcomes of this type of training are competencies that empower teachers to utilize scientific skills and thinking to critically examine their own practice and to make reflective changes in the moment as they teach. The integration and development of a scientific understanding of educational research and the research process supports a mindset of reflection and evidence-based inquiry that infuses throughout their pedagogical knowing and practice.

How Do You Help Teachers Develop a Research Mindset and Skills? 

The question I carried with me throughout my adventure in Finland was how could I transfer my learning to my own context to benefit the professional lives of my colleagues? When I returned to my school district, I worked with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create a continuing education course titled, “Engaging Teachers in Action Research.”

karen_martin.pngThrough this course, my teaching colleagues and I developed the basic technical competencies to design participatory action research projects. Through the course, my colleagues could begin to understand how research thinking can be used to more objectively tackle recurring problems of practice and use new types of evidence to critically inform our decision-making, reflections, and our impact.

In the first year of our action research work, eight teachers collaboratively designed investigations to better understand and affect student engagement. Our collaboration forged relationships of authentic trust as we exposed ourselves to the vulnerability of opening up our classrooms to each other, sharing our fears and struggles in teaching, and working collectively to find answers to difficult problems that have persisted throughout our teaching careers.

How Do You Change Teacher Thinking?

One of the most powerful lenses and sources of evidence that my colleagues and I continue to utilize in our action research is a method of analyzing our own thinking in moments of teaching. This is accomplished through a method called “guided reflection” that uses video analysis. In our action research projects, we use video recordings to capture our classroom teaching for analysis of evidence. We then watch the videos of our teaching with a colleague within days of recording a video.

In the videos, we choose critical incidents that help us understand our pedagogical decisions related to our research questions. We analyze these critical incidents by asking what happened, why did it happen, what were we thinking when it happened, and why were we thinking that?

Through this intentional method of developing reflective thinking, we gather evidence directly related to our own impact within our classrooms and have increased our strength and capacity to inquire into our teaching practice at a deeper level. The use of video study has made us more mindful and changed our interactions and metacognition while we are present with students.

Can Experienced Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

During the second year of our action research, our cohort decided to investigate the concept of learned helplessness to better understand how we as teachers influence the ability of our students to persevere and develop positive beliefs about learning. Collectively, we asked:

  • How do we influence these behaviors in our students?
  • How can we influence our students’ beliefs about learning?

Fundamentally, these questions are at the very core of our most important and transferable work with students—their ability to become self-regulated learners and their productive beliefs about learning.

The year-long investigation included seven different classrooms in our K-12 school and helped us to better understand what our students believe about learning. We engaged students in conversations about making mistakes, we structured student reflections around making thinking visible, we explicitly taught content about how the brain learns, and we made discussions about what learning feels like part of classroom culture.

Most importantly, our work involved video study analysis of the specific language we used with students and how we interact with students in the moments of teaching. These video reflections helped us realize how we needed to change our teaching behaviors to allow students to do the rigorous work of learning. It is only through video study that we observed how often we rushed in to help our students and how the specific language we used rescued our students from productive struggles and learning.

Through action research, including the use of video reflection, we have witnessed a powerful shift in the embedded beliefs of experienced teachers (some with over 20 years of experience), who had never stopped to question their own thinking and actions. We are experiencing some of the principles and outcomes of Finnish research-based teacher education.

By investigating our own practice and learning to reflect deeply on our pedagogical thinking and decision-making, we have initiated a powerful shift in our classroom cultures that has more firmly placed learning in the hands of our students. The impact of this work on our students and teachers is tangible. Teacher action research and the use of video study for guided reflection can change teacher thinking in a way that positively impacts the culture of learning for students.

Connect with Karen and Heather on Twitter.
 Image created on Pablo

References:

Husu, J., Toom, A., & Patrikainen, S. (2008). Guided reflection as a means to demonstrate and develop student teachers’ reflective competencies. Reflective Practice 9(1), 37 – 51.

Kansanen, P. (1991).  Pedagogical thinking: the basic problem of teacher education.  European Journal of Education, 26 (3), 251 – 260.

In Praise of ADHD

Photo

CreditSarah Mazzetti

Ten years ago, when my son Nicolai was 11, his doctor wanted to put him on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It would make him less wild,” I explained to my mother, who was then 85. “It would slow him down a bit.”

My mother grumbled. “Look around you,” she said in Yiddish. “Look how fast the world is changing. He doesn’t need to slow down. You need to speed up.”

It was a surprising recommendation from someone who had never learned to use a microwave. But recent research suggests she had a point: Some people with A.D.H.D. may be naturally suited to our turbocharged world.

Today the word “hyperactive” doesn’t just describe certain individuals; it also is a quality of our society. We are bombarded each day by four times the number of words we encountered daily when my mother was raising me. Even vacations are complicated — people today use, on average, 26 websites to plan one. Attitudes and habits are changing so fast that you can identify “generational” differences in people just a few years apart: Simply by analyzing daily cellphone communication patterns, researchers have been able to guess the age of someone under 60 to within about five years either way with 80 percent accuracy.

To thrive in this frenetic world, certain cognitive tendencies are useful: to embrace novelty, to absorb a wide variety of information, to generate new ideas. The possibility that such characteristics might be associated with A.D.H.D. was first examined in the 1990s. The educational psychologist Bonnie Cramond, for example, tested a group of children in Louisiana who had been determined to have A.D.H.D. and found that an astonishingly high number — 32 percent — did well enough to qualify for an elite creative scholars program in the Louisiana schools.

It is now possible to explain Professor Cramond’s results at the neural level. While there is no single brain structure or system responsible for A.D.H.D. (and some believe the term encompasses more than a single syndrome), one cause seems to be a disruption of the brain’s dopamine system. One consequence of that disruption is a lessening of what is called “cognitive inhibition.” The human brain has a system of filters to sort through all the possible associations, notions and urges that the brain generates, allowing only the most promising ones to pass into conscious awareness. That’s why if you are planning a trip to Europe, you think about flying there, but not swimming.

But odd and unlikely associations can be valuable. When such associations survive filtering, they can result in constructive ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been thought of. For example, when researchers apply a technique known as transcranial stimulation to interfere with key structures in the filtering system, people become more imaginative and inventive, and more insightful as problem solvers.

Individuals with A.D.H.D. naturally have less stringent filters. This can make them more distractible but also more creative. Such individuals may also adapt well to frequent change and thus make for good explorers. Jews whose ancestors migrated north to Rome and Germany from what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories show a higher proportion of the A.D.H.D. gene variant than those Jews whose ancestors migrated a shorter distance south to Ethiopia and Yemen. In fact, scientists have found that the farther a group’s ancestors migrated, the higher the prevalence of the gene variant in that population.

Or consider the case of the Ariaal, a Kenyan tribe whose members through most of its history were wild-animal herders. A few decades ago, some of its members split off from the main group and became farmers.

Being a wild-animal herder is a good job if you are naturally restless; subsistence farming is a far tamer occupation. Recently, the anthropologist Dan Eisenberg and collaborators studied whether people with A.D.H.D. might thrive in the former lifestyle but suffer in the latter. They found that among the herders, those who possessed a gene that predisposed them to A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Among the farming Ariaal, the opposite was true: Those who lacked the genetic predisposition for A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Restlessness seemed to better suit a restless existence.

A.D.H.D. is termed a disorder, and in severe forms it can certainly disrupt a person’s life. But you might view a more moderate degree of A.D.H.D. as an asset in today’s turbulent and fast-changing world. My mother, now 95, long ago realized that speed is the essence of our era. Her intuition about Nicolai proved correct, and she has lived to watch her grandson thrive without taking the A.D.H.D. medication she was dead set against.