John Konstantaras/Chicago News Cooperative
We hear a lot about how American students lag behind their international peers academically, especially in subjects like math. In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, students in the United States ranked 26th out of 34 countries in mathematics. On the surface, it would seem that we’re a nation of math dullards; simply no good at the subject. But a spate of new research suggests that we may be underestimating our students, especially the youngest ones, in terms of their ability to think about numbers.
A study published in the April issue of the American Educational Research Journal, for example, finds that kindergarten students learn more when they are exposed to challenging content such as advanced number concepts and even addition and subtraction. In turn, elementary school students who were taught more sophisticated math as kindergarteners made bigger gains in mathematics, reported the study’s lead author, Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago.
Another study, published last year by Dr. Claessens with co-authors Mimi Engel and Maida Finch, concluded that as things stand, many children in kindergarten are being taught information they already know. The “vast majority” of kindergarteners have already mastered counting numbers and recognizing shapes before they set foot in the classroom, Dr. Claessens and her co-authors noted, yet kindergarten teachers report spending much of their math teaching time on these skills.
The students don’t gain anything from going over familiar ground: In the article published this month, Dr. Claessens and her colleagues report that pupils do not benefit from basic content coverage, but that all the kindergarteners in the study, regardless of economic background or initial skill level, did benefit from exposure to more advanced content.
Discussions about how to improve learning for young children usually focus on the length of the whole school day or the number of students in classes, but rarely on what is taught during the hours school is in session. Increasing the time kindergarten teachers spend on more advanced math concepts may be a simpler and more cost-effective way to boost learning.
What about the play and the social interaction that is so important for young kids? The researchers note that time for such activities could easily be preserved by replacing instruction on basic math concepts with the teaching of more sophisticated ones — especially in light of the finding that students aren’t benefiting from such basic coverage anyway. Kindergarteners could be tackling more challenging math ideas while still spending plenty of time in the blocks corner and the dress-up closet.
Young students are ready to learn more advanced math concepts, as long as they are presented in an engaging, developmentally appropriate way. The next time we lament the performance of older American students, we could think instead about how to improve the math instruction given to their younger brothers and sisters.
Girls Do Better Than Boys in School at All Ages and Subjects, Study Finds
It may come as no surprise to teachers, but girls do better than boys in school, a new study finds.
What may be a surprise is that this holds true at all ages, in all subjects including math and science and around the world, the American Psychological Association analysis found.
And contrary to common wisdom that girls start to “dumb down” in middle school, their advantage in math and science actually starts to really show up at that age, Daniel Voyer and Susan Voyer of the University of New Brunswick in Canada found.
They did what’s called a meta-analysis, combining data from many different published studies. They ended up with details on more than a million boys and girls in more than 300 studies done across the world, including the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The pattern has held true since 1914 — girls get better grades than boys in all subjects. They excluded one-time tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
From elementary school through graduate school, females have a distinct advantage in grades, they found. The differences are the biggest in language and the smallest in math, but even in math girls and young women get better grades on average, the analysis found.
“This contrast in findings makes it clear that the generalized nature of the female advantage in school marks contradicts the popular stereotypes that females excel in language whereas males excel in math and science,” the researchers wrote.
It’s not clear why. It could be that girls are more likely to try to truly master the material, while boys focus on the big score of doing well on final exams or aptitude tests, the researchers said. It’s also possible that parents expect girls to do poorly and encourage them more. There’s also the popular theory that girls find it easier than boys to sit still and concentrate in class, or at least to behave in a way that pleases teachers.
"The fact that females generally perform better than their male counterparts throughout what is essentially mandatory schooling in most countries seems to be a well-kept secret, considering how little attention it has received as a global phenomenon," Susan Voyer concluded.
Turning a Tablet Into a Child’s Interactive TV
MY son has been having conversations with imaginary characters. I know, because I can listen to some of them, and even see pictures.
The children’s entertainment publisher ToyTalk created an interactive program, the Winston Show, and as my son talks back to the characters in that show, I get emails with subject lines like, “Your kid said something awesome.”
I can sign into my account and find multiple sound files and screenshots of him having a conversation with an imaginary character from a show he’s been watching on his iPad. It’s adorable, and it’s the interactive future of tablet-based television.
Tablets and phones are an increasingly common way for children to consume television. And that is changing the way content developers and even advertisers try to reach children in new locations.
The Winston Show is an example of the innovative new content types that are possible when a TV is also a hand-held computer. It’s an iPad-only production, available as a free app, that is now in its second four-episode “season.”
The company, based in San Francisco, was founded by two Pixar veterans, Oren Jacob and Martin Reddy, with the goal of providing interactive children’s programming. As youngsters watch the show, the characters ask them questions; when they respond, the app uses speech recognition to interpret their answers, which then help drive the story line of each episode. The shows even use the front-facing camera to engage children in, say, trying on a character-appropriate hat.
The Winston Show has no ads, and ToyTalk said it hoped eventually to make money by licensing its technology to generate multiple story lines and recognize children’s speech.
ToyTalk was developed for the iPad, Mr. Jacob said, because it was a device that combines the way children want to watch television with the tools necessary for the Winston Show experience: a camera, a microphone and a touch screen (to activate the mike).
“I think that children want to be in control of what they watch and what they interact with,” Mr. Jacob said. “That happens by giving them a device they’re in control of. That puts the choice of what they do in their own hands.”
Hard data on children’s viewing habits is hard to come by, because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires parental consent for data collection.
But anecdotally, most parents would say their children watch increasing amounts of television on tablets, and a look around any airplane, restaurant or living room says tablet viewing is a big deal. The research firm Forrester found that of children ages 12 to 17 who regularly use a tablet, 42 percent are streaming video or TV from sites like Netflix or YouTube, and 39 percent are watching TV programming stored on the device.
The Winston Show is the only one of its kind, but traditional publishers are also looking for new ways to reach children when they’re not in front of TVs.
The Cartoon Network of Turner Broadcasting just announced a new mobile phone app it is calling a “micro-network,” aimed at bringing original content to four-inch screens, as a way to be wherever youngsters are. Publishers like Nickelodeon and PBS offer clips, games and episodes with apps, and DreamWorks Animation is working to develop a branded tablet, the DreamTab, that would deliver DreamWorks content in a child-friendly design.
These models have advantages for parents. Mobile devices are easy to apply parental controls to. They’re portable, and they can deliver educational apps and books in addition to TV.
But they also raise questions about data collection, privacy, in-app purchasing and how exactly content publishers will make money in a world without commercials.
No doubt, my son’s experience with TV, movies and games meant for children is already far different from my own. And he’s not unique.
“Right now, the two biggest streaming devices for kids in the Netflix ecosystem are tablets and smart TVs, and they are neck and neck,” said Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation.
Children’s content is so important at Netflix, Mr. Yellin said, that the company just hired a product development boss specifically focused on it. The lack of commercials is a point of pride, especially in children’s programming, Mr. Yellin said.
“It’s one thing if you’re a grown-up and you know that’s a commercial, but kids merge the commercials with the entertainment content,” he said. “To be able to tell the difference isn’t as easy as we think.”
It may become even more difficult, some experts say, as companies try to innovate to find children across their various devices. Cross-promotional, embedded digital ads and product placement advertising is becoming more typical, according to Common Sense Media.
In a recent study, the group said it was difficult to measure the impact of digital ad trends on children. Exposure to online ads, and advertising in video games and through branded sites that cross-promote shows with toys is probably very high, the report said, and more study is needed.
For original programming publishers like Cartoon Network, the shift in viewing behavior means combining traditional television programming with figuring out how to engage viewers on completely new platforms — a challenge facing all publishers, children’s or otherwise.
“We’re not just figuring out what to program onto these devices,” said Chris Waldron, vice president of Cartoon Network Digital. “We’re figuring out the interface, how it should be constructed, and it’s basically as if we’re going back in time and inventing the television set, and inventing the cable network.”
Back at ToyTalk, inventing a new kind of interactive content is a technical challenge on a couple of levels. First, writing episodes with multiple potential story lines per character is a remarkable creative feat. The show’s writers script “thousands” of possible responses, ToyTalk’s Mr. Jacob said.
Second, he said, the company is building “speech recognition for kids, which no one’s built before.” The better the speech recognition, the more realistic the character interaction.
One note for parents: To improve the speech recognition, ToyTalk collects recordings of your child as he or she interacts with the characters. That’s also how you get the recorded snippets, which come complete with little screenshots of your child in action.
I admit, this made me uncomfortable at first, although it’s clearly disclosed in the activation email you receive when you sign up for a ToyTalk account. It’s still disconcerting to know an app is recording everything your child says, along with photos — and that ToyTalk employees are listening to transcripts to improve their product.
But the end result is a good show. My son, age 7, loved interacting with the Winston Show, and can’t wait for new episodes. And I liked getting his little recordings in email, too. Sometimes oversharing has its purpose.
Also, if you’re a parent who chooses to allow screen time for your child, it’s somehow more comforting to watch a child truly interacting and imagining along with a show, instead of passively staring at the screen.
If children are the testing ground for new models of content, advertising and device-specific behavior, it’s because this generation is fluent in a panoply of devices.
“There’s a fluidity going back from the television to the tablet to the phone,” Mr. Waldron of Cartoon Network said. “As long as they’re comfortable moving back and forth, that’s good for us, too. Our job is to entertain them on whatever device they happen to enjoy our content on.”
Margaret Wise Brown’s ‘Goodnight Songs,’ and More
By ROGER SUTTON
I don’t know about yours, but my bedtime reading does not generally — ever, actually — include books about falling asleep. This should seem strange only to young children, for whom the provision of books about sleeping and not sleeping has captured a large slice of the picture book market. Dr. Robert Needlman, who revised and updated Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” once told me that the purpose of bedtime stories is to give the imagination a kind of way station between wakefulness and sleep that facilitates an easier slip into unconsciousness. (We were talking about young children, but I think this goes for all of us.) So books for bedtime, sure. But why about? Four new books, swaddled in practically identical shades of sleepy-time blue, attempt to make a case for the genre. Some do a better job than others.
“Goodnight Songs” is a collection of verses, most previously unpublished, by Margaret Wise Brown — herself of course the author of the bedtime classic “Goodnight Moon,” itself the progenitor of countless imitators eager to become the next baby shower staple. This collection won’t be it — where “Goodnight Moon” is all concentrated strangeness and mystery, the poems in “Goodnight Songs” are individually repetitive and carelessly developed sprouts of whimsy. With each of the 12 selections illustrated by a different children’s book artist — including Sophie Blackall, Dan Yaccarino, Eric Puybaret and Melissa Sweet — the book lurches more than progresses from spread to spread. According to an editor’s note, Brown had conceived these poems as song lyrics, and a compact disc of pallid but grating renditions is duly included in the kind of package that suggests you’re getting more for your money than you actually are.
From the Italian team of the writer Giovanna Zoboli and the illustrator Simona Mulazzani, and translated by Antony Shugaar, “The Big Book of Slumber” is a humbler and more consistent effort, cataloging in rhyme and picture the sleeping arrangements of an entirely peaceable kingdom. Fancifully so, what with the camels in bunk beds and doves on the chaise longue. The juxtapositions are funny but unfrantic, gentled by the sweet couplets (“Dormouse and badger in beds side by side. / ‘I like your pajamas,’ friend badger confides”) and piquant but restful paintings. The matter-of-factness with which a fox sleeps under a star-strewn baby-blue duvet beneath the purple sky offers both strangeness and comfort. The book lacks shape — you could put the pages in any order and not notice the difference — but does not want for mood.
Lilli Carré's “Tippy and the Night Parade” is of a size and style more intended for independent reading than sharing. Toon Books is a grandchild of Raw magazine, the underground comics venue founded in 1980 by the cartoonist Art Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly, now the art editor of The New Yorker and Toon’s publisher and editorial director. While respectably hardcover and didactically appended with suggestions for reading guidance, “Tippy” uses the paneled art and speech balloons of comics and displays its downtown roots through an offbeat color palette (cantaloupe, chocolate and gunmetal blue), blithe generalization of form and a bed-headed heroine who looks as much the hipster gamin as she does a little girl. The narrative, though, is completely old-school children’s book: An uncomprehending Tippy is chastised by her mother for the messy state of her bedroom, filled as it is with a peacock, bunny, turtle and various detritus from the natural world. Who will not see that these are but souvenirs of Tippy’s somnambulistic wanderlust? She makes another trip the very same night, this time counting among her haul a goat, crab and bear. While the details of Tippy’s nighttime walk are mildly funny — and maybe mildly is as funny as you want at bedtime? — there’s not really enough going on here to make a child want to go through the story more than once. Maybe the rules are different for comic books (although we certainly reread them with avidity), but any bedtime book worthy of the name needs to work its magic over and over again, like bedtime prayers.
The little girl of “Hannah’s Night” is also a night wanderer, but her territory is the secure confines of her home, and she’s wide awake. As with her previous books, “Emily’s Balloon” and “The Snow Day,” the Japanese author-illustrator Komako Sakai finds picture-book drama by letting a young child’s perceptions — of a new balloon, unexpected weather — play out unfiltered by adult perspective. Hannah finds herself surprised to wake while it’s still dark, and at a bit of a loss for what to do, goes off to have a pee (with cat Shiro companionably doing his own business in the litter box next to the toilet). She then raids the fridge (milk for Shiro, cherries for her), looks out at the moon and daringly borrows her big sister’s doll right from under her sleeping nose, securing the sister’s music box and some art supplies while she’s at it. It’s a big night. Rather than throwing about some nocturnal nonsense to give Hannah something to do, the book allows the girl’s own resourcefulness to provide the story, demonstrating a respect for toddlers and their world matched by the pictures, serious blues and purples warmed by comfortably scratchy lines and anchored by protectively rounded borders. Exciting but safe, Hannah’s world is one that would-be dreamers will welcome as a first step into sleep.
Whatever it takes. But there’s no reason to think kids need to read or hear about bedtime at bedtime any more than you do. If we recognized that children read for the same reasons as adults — the walk into dreamland being among them — the books we intend for their pleasure might look a whole lot different.
By Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrated. 32 pp. Sterling. $17.95. (Picture book; ages 2 and up)
THE BIG BOOK OF SLUMBER
By Giovanna Zoboli
Illustrated by Simona Mulazzani
Translated by Antony Shugaar
28 pp. Eerdmans. $16. (Picture book; ages 2 and up)
TIPPY AND THE NIGHT PARADE
Written and illustrated by Lilli Carré
32 pp. Toon Books/Candlewick Press. $12.95. (Picture book; ages 2 and up)
Written and illustrated by Komako Sakai
32 pp. Gecko Press. $17.95. (Picture book; ages 2 and up)
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Lately, Coding
By MATT RICHTEL
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.
“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School.
The event was part of a national educational movement in computer coding instruction that is growing at Internet speeds. Since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too. And policy makers in nine states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for basic math and science courses, rather than treating them as electives.
There are after-school events, too, like the one in Mill Valley, where 70 parents and 90 children, from kindergartners to fifth graders, huddled over computers solving animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic.
It is a stark change for computer science, which for decades was treated like a stepchild, equated with trade classes like wood shop. But smartphones and apps are ubiquitous now, and engineering careers are hot. To many parents — particularly ones here in the heart of the technology corridor — coding looks less like an extracurricular activity and more like a basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.
The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.
But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.
Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.
The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.
Across the country, districts are signing up piecemeal. Chicago’s public school system hopes to have computer science as a graduation requirement at all of its 187 high schools in five years, and to have the instruction in 25 percent of other schools. New York City public schools are training 60 teachers for classes this fall in 40 high schools, in part to prepare students for college.
“There’s a big demand for these skills in both the tech sector and across all sectors,” said Britt Neuhaus, the director of special projects at the office of innovation for New York City schools. The city plans to expand the training for 2015 and is considering moving it into middle schools.
The movement comes with no shortage of “we’re changing the world” marketing fervor from Silicon Valley. “This is strategically significant for the economy of the United States,” said John Pearce, a technology entrepreneur. He and another entrepreneur, Jeff Leane, have started a nonprofit, MV Gate, to bring youth and family coding courses developed by Code.org to Mill Valley, an affluent suburb across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Parents love the idea of giving children something to do with computers that they see as productive, Mr. Pearce said. “We have any number of parents who say, ‘I can’t take my kid playing one more hour of video games,’ ” he said. But if the children are exploring coding, the parents tell him, “ ‘I can live with that all night long.’ ”
The concept has caught on with James Meezan, a second grader. He attended one of the first “Hour of Code” events sponsored by MV Gate in December with his mother, Karen Meezan, the local PTA president and a former tech-industry executive who now runs a real estate company. She is among the enthusiastic supporters of the coding courses, along with several local principals.
Her son, she said, does well in school but had not quite found his special interest and was “not the fastest runner on the playground.” But he loves programming and spends at least an hour a week at CodeKids, after-school programs organized by MV Gate and held at three of Mill Valley’s five elementary schools.
James, 8, explained that programming is “getting the computer to do something by itself.” It is fun, he said, and, besides, if he gets good, he might be able to do stuff like get a computer to turn on when it has suddenly died. His mother said he had found his niche; when it comes to programming, “he is the fastest runner.”
Other youngsters seemed more bewildered, at least at first. “The Google guys might’ve been coders, and the Facebook guys — I don’t know,” said Sammy Smith, a vibrant 10-year-old girl, when she arrived at the coding event at Strawberry Point.
But well into the session, she and her fifth-grade friends were digging in, moving basic command blocks to get the Angry Bird to its prey, and then playing with slightly more complex commands like “repeat” and learning about “if-then” statements, an elemental coding concept. The crowd had plenty of high-tech parents, including Scott Wong, director of engineering at Twitter. His 7-year-old son, Taeden, seemed alternately transfixed and confused by the puzzles on the laptop, while his 5-year-old brother, Sai, sat next to him, fidgeting.
The use of these word-command blocks to simplify coding logic stems largely from the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which introduced a visual programming language called Scratch in 2007. It claims a following of millions of users, but mostly outside the schools.
Then, in 2013, came Code.org, which borrowed basic Scratch ideas and aimed to spread the concept among schools and policy makers. Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. He called it as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”
Among the 20,000 teachers who Code.org says have signed on is Alana Aaron, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She heard about the idea late last year at a professional development meeting and, with her principal’s permission, swapped a two-month earth sciences lesson she was going to teach on land masses for the Code.org curriculum.
“Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” she said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.”
Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?
By ALFIE KOHN
THE conventional wisdom these days is that kids come by everything too easily — stickers, praise, A’s, trophies. It’s outrageous, we’re told, that all kids on the field may get a thanks-for-playing token, in contrast to the good old days, when recognition was reserved for the conquering heroes.
Children are said to be indulged and overcelebrated, spared from having to confront the full impact of their inadequacy. There are ringing declarations about the benefits of frustration and the need for grit.
These themes are sounded with numbing regularity, yet those who sound them often adopt a self-congratulatory tone, as if it took extraordinary gumption to say pretty much what everyone else is saying. Indeed, this fundamentally conservative stance on children and parenting has become common even for people who are liberal on other issues.
But seriously, has any child who received a trinket after losing a contest walked away believing that he (or his team) won — or that achievement doesn’t matter? Giving trophies to all the kids is a well-meaning and mostly innocuous attempt to appreciate everyone’s effort.
Even so, I’m not really making a case for doing so, since it distracts us from rethinking competition itself and the belief that people can succeed only if others fail.
Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).
Most of all, it’s assumed that the best way to get children ready for the miserable “real world” that awaits them is to make sure they have plenty of miserable experiences while they’re young. Conversely, if they’re spared any unhappiness, they’ll be ill-prepared.
This is precisely the logic employed not so long ago to frame bullying as a rite of passage that kids were expected to deal with on their own, without assistance from “overprotective” adults.
In any case, no one ever explains the mechanism by which the silence of a long drive home without a trophy is supposed to teach resilience. Nor are we told whether there’s any support for this theory of inoculation by immersion. Have social scientists shown that those who are spared, say, the rigors of dodge ball (which turns children into human targets) or class rank (which pits students against one another) will wind up unprepared for adulthood?
Not that I can find. In fact, studies of those who attended the sort of nontraditional schools that afford an unusual amount of autonomy and nurturing suggest that the great majority seemed capable of navigating the transition to traditional colleges and workplaces.
But when you point out the absence of logic or evidence, it soon becomes clear that trophy rage is less about prediction — what will happen to kids later — than ideology: — how they ought to be treated now. Fury over the possibility that kids will get off too easy or feel too good about themselves seems to rest on three underlying values.
The first is deprivation: Kids shouldn’t be spared struggle and sacrifice, regardless of the effects. The second value is scarcity: the belief that excellence, by definition, is something that not everyone can attain. No matter how well a group of students performs, only a few should get A’s. Otherwise we’re sanctioning “grade inflation” and mediocrity. To have high standards, there must always be losers.
But it’s the third conviction that really ties everything together: an endorsement of conditionality. Children ought never to receive something desirable — a sum of money, a trophy, a commendation — unless they’ve done enough to merit it. They shouldn’t even be allowed to feel good about themselves without being able to point to tangible accomplishments. In this view, we have a moral obligation to reward the deserving and, equally important, make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded. Hence the anger over participation trophies. The losers mustn’t receive something that even looks like a reward.
A commitment to conditionality lives at the intersection of economics and theology. It’s where lectures about the law of the marketplace meet sermons about what we must do to earn our way into heaven. Here, almost every human interaction, even among family members, is regarded as a kind of transaction.
Interestingly, no research that I know of has ever shown that unconditionality is harmful in terms of future achievement, psychological health or anything else. In fact, studies generally show exactly the opposite. One of the most destructive ways to raise a child is with “conditional regard.”
Over the last decade or so, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, and their colleagues in the United States and Belgium, have conducted a series of experiments whose consistent finding is that when children feel their parents’ affection varies depending on the extent to which they are well behaved, self-controlled or impressive at school or sports, this promotes “the development of a fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self.”
Other researchers, meanwhile, have shown that high self-esteem is beneficial, but that even more desirable is unconditional self-esteem: a solid core of belief in yourself, an abiding sense that you’re competent and worthwhile — even when you screw up or fall short. In other words, the very unconditionality that seems to fuel attacks on participation trophies and the whole “self-esteem movement” turns out to be a defining feature of psychological health. It’s precisely what we should be helping our children to acquire.
The author of “The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting,” from which this article was adapted.
The Trouble With Homework
By ANNIE MURPHY PAUL
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of “Origins" and is at work on a new book about the science of learning.
Jessica Walsh, silhouette by Petite Prints
Divergent though they are, these characterizations share a common emphasis: homework. The studying that middle school and high school students do after the dismissal bell rings is either an unreasonable burden or a crucial activity that needs beefing up. Which is it? Do American students have too much homework or too little? Neither, I’d say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning?
The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade. Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December.
In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.
Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators do just that. In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.
Educators have begun to implement these methods in classrooms around the country and have enjoyed measured success. A collaboration between psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and teachers at nearby Columbia Middle School, for example, lifted seventh- and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 percent.
But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.
“Spaced repetition” is one example of the kind of evidence-based techniques that researchers have found have a positive impact on learning. Here’s how it works: instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do — reading about, say, the Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next — learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time. With this approach, students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.
It sounds unassuming, but spaced repetition produces impressive results. Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007. The reason the method works so well goes back to the brain: when we first acquire memories, they are volatile, subject to change or likely to disappear. Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks.
High-Tech Push Has Board Games Rolling Again
MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — Dan Shapiro sold a company to Google and worked at Microsoft. His name is on nearly a dozen technology-related patents.
But when it came time for his latest venture, Mr. Shapiro turned to technology to produce something decidedly low-tech: a board game for children.
Technology, by all rights, should have killed old-fashioned games, which can never equal the eye-popping graphics, visceral action and immense online communities of today’s video games. Yet the opposite has occurred. Largely because of new technologies, there has been a creative outpouring of games by independent designers like Mr. Shapiro.
“It has unlocked a whole generation of innovative gameplay experimentation that just wasn’t feasible before,” he said.
New tools now power the creation of tabletop games — many in the strategy or fantasy genres — from idea to delivery. Crowdfunding sites provide the seed money and offer an early gauge of demand. Machines like 3-D printers can rapidly create figurines, dice and other prototype game pieces. And Amazon, the online retail giant, can handle shipping and distribution, cutting out the need for middlemen.
Sales have followed. While the video game business long ago eclipsed its low-tech cousin, sales of tabletop games have continued to grow. Sales at hobby stores in the United States rose 15 to 20 percent in each of the last three years, according to ICv2, a trade publication that tracks the business. Amazon says board game sales increased by a double-digit percentage from 2012 to 2013.
On Kickstarter, the crowdfunding service, in which users can pledge money to finance projects, the amount raised last year for tabletop games exceeded the amount for video games, $52.1 million to $45.3 million.
“It has been this amazing boon for the average game designer to come in, put up an idea, get it funded and get to press,” said Peter Adkison, founder and former chief executive of Wizards of the Coast, a tabletop game publisher he sold to Hasbro in 2001.
Mr. Shapiro’s experience with his creation Robot Turtles, a game meant to stealthily teach children basic computer programming concepts, illustrates how the new model works.
He raised $631,000 on Kickstarter in under a month, far exceeding his $25,000 goal. Robot Turtles has more backers than any other tabletop game in Kickstarter’s history, with 13,765 people pitching in money for the project, and Mr. Shapiro had more than 20,000 presales on the site.
He then found a manufacturer in Michigan by doing a Google search, and paid it to make 25,000 copies of the game from over 36 tons of cardboard and paper, shipping most of them in three semi trucks directly to a warehouse for Amazon. Amazon then delivered them to customers.
“It felt like technological advancement had anticipated my needs almost perfectly,” said Mr. Shapiro, who sold all 25,000 copies.
Some of the new games from independent makers have even started to outsell games by major toy companies. Three years ago, a group of eight men in their 20s — middle school friends from Highland Park, Ill. — came up with an idea for a game that resembles a profane version of Apples to Apples, the game that involves creating humorous combinations by pairing noun and adjective cards.
The result was Cards Against Humanity, billed as a “party game for horrible people.” During each round, one player draws a card with a question or sentence with a missing word while the other players compete to come up with the funniest, most outrageous answer from their own selection of cards.
A typical question: “What are my parents hiding from me?”
“The placenta,” reads one of the tamer answers.
Cards Against Humanity and four expansion card packs for the game are currently the top five best-selling items in Amazon’s toys and games category. While the game’s co-creators continue to work at other jobs or attend graduate school, Max Temkin, 27, one of Cards Against Humanity’s creators, said none of them needed to work since they all had “pretty substantial savings” from sales of the game.
Mr. Temkin said that without the help of crowdfunding, he doubted the game would have been made. “Nobody in their right mind would think it would be a commercially viable project,” he said. “It was too nerdy and weird and taboo.”
Enthusiasts trace the vibrancy of tabletop games to the mid-1990s, when Settlers of Catan, a German game in which players establish colonies on a fictional island, helped kick off a renaissance in board game design. The wave of “Euro games,” which tend to emphasize strategy and competition for scarce resources rather than combat, that followed added a dash of creativity to a category, populated with familiar names like Monopoly and Clue, that many people considered tired.
But in recent years, the momentum has accelerated. Gen Con, a four-day tabletop game conference being held in Indianapolis this August, took 15 years to grow to 30,000 attendees from 20,000. In the last three years, it has grown to 49,000 from 30,000, according to Mr. Adkison, who owns the convention. Hasbro, which publishes Monopoly, Battleship and Trivial Pursuit, has seen sales in its games category grow in recent years, including 10 percent last year from the year before.
Events like Gen Con and the visibility of board gaming is part of a growing celebration of so-called geek culture that is often associated with hard-core fans.
“We’re definitely in this moment of the fetishization of geek,” said Yancey Strickler, Kickstarter’s chief executive. “And everyone is running out to talk about their geek cred.”
Somewhat ironically, perhaps, video game players are often among the biggest devotees of tabletop games. Some in the business believe that is no accident, theorizing that the abundance of opportunities to connect electronically with people through games and social media has also created a hunger — sated by tabletop games — for face-to-face contact.
“It turns out that being together is very addictive,” said Jerry Holkins, a creator of Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, a series of video game conferences that dedicate about a third of their exhibition space to tabletop gaming.
Still, the gaming community often finds its way back online, too. Wil Wheaton, an actor and blogger, hosts Tabletop, a popular show on YouTube and other online channels, in which celebrities and others play board games against one another.
“I want to put more gamers in the world,” Mr. Wheaton said.
At his home in Mercer Island, a Seattle suburb, Mr. Shapiro recently played a spirited round of Robot Turtles with his twins, a boy and a girl. The children, who are 5, had to navigate a maze created by Mr. Shapiro on a grid to reach gemstone cards.
With determined expressions on their faces, they selected cards to move their pieces around the board, pushing or destroying obstacles in their way. Those pieces, Mr. Shapiro said, are intended to represent the commands of a computer program.
Mr. Shapiro, who has signed a deal with a publisher, ThinkFun, to continue making the game, said he was still shocked by its success. But he said he created the game for a simple reason: so his family had a way to play together.
“This came from, ‘I want to do something fun with my kids,’ ” he said.
Flights of Fancy
‘The Day I Lost My Superpowers’ and ‘Flight School’
By SARAH HARRISON SMITH
Mired in reality as adults are, they can find it hard to remember that children’s outsize desires are often best fulfilled imaginatively. Two entertaining new books make this point with a light touch. “The day I discovered I could fly, I knew that I was special,” begins Michaël Escoffier in “The Day I Lost My Superpowers,” illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. The speaker is a preschooler (seemingly a girl, though boy readers will find there’s nothing to prevent them imagining themselves in her place) who is convinced — in a way quite rightly — of her own superpowers. These include the ability to launch herself off the playground slide into the sandbox, to make cupcakes disappear by sheer force of concentration, and to direct plants and inanimate objects to do her will by staying in one place.
Escoffier and Di Giacomo are an experienced comic team who previously worked together on the picture books “Brief Thief” and “Me First!” Di Giacomo’s drawings, in pencil, or possibly Conté crayon, are sketchy and full of movement. As the supergirl swings, jumps, laughs, belly flops and at one point, bawls, Di Giacomo captures something refreshing and authentically childlike about her unselfconscious emotions.
Escoffier keeps faith with his fearless protagonist, never wavering from telling the story from her perspective. He relies on Di Giacomo’s visual narration to explain what’s really going on. (In the case of the disappearing cupcakes, traces of frosting on a certain person’s chubby cheeks give a clue to their ultimate destination; a boast about breathing underwater is accompanied by a picture of that same someone bottom-side-up in the bathtub, breathing through a snorkel.) Escoffier rounds up the story with a warmhearted, love-affirming twist that could make “The Day I Lost My Superpowers” a contender for best book for Mother’s Day; it turns out that superpowers run in the family.
Lita Judge’s “Flight School” tells an equally funny — and emotionally credible — story about the power of the imagination. A very determined little penguin announces he has “the soul of an eagle” and “was hatched to fly.” He enlists the help of some bigger birds in taking to the skies. Tricked out in goofy red aviator glasses, he tries and tries again and, of course, fails. Judge (of “Red Sled” and “Red Hat”) has a delicate touch with expressions, and her disappointed flight instructors look like music teachers whose favorite pupil abandons orchestra for ice hockey. But all is not lost: They think up a plan to help the penguin realize his dream. In the end, the flight he takes is a triumph of the imagination over experience. It makes him happy all the same.
THE DAY I LOST MY SUPERPOWERS
By Michaël Escoffier
Illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo
32 pp. Enchanted Lion Books. $16.95. (Picture book; ages 3 to 8)
Written and illustrated by Lita Judge
40 pp. Atheneum. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 3 to 8)
How do we help students achieve academically and socially? As a teacher, I have lofty answers. But challenges — and questions — arise when I try to translate my ideas (and ideals) into concrete lessons, delivered in 90-minute increments to a very particular set of sixth graders, each as individual and evanescent as a snowflake.
To help teachers succeed, schools offer “professional development,” universally known as P.D. Like a lot of teachers, I’ve come to regard such training with a mix of optimism and disappointment. Over the last 20 years, I’ve attended more education “workshops” than I care to remember. Such courses typically lasted no more than an hour or a day, and nearly always contained valid, even vital ideas, but were too superficial, too removed from the realities of my classroom to alter my teaching very much, even when I yearned for change.
Then I started work at a school that takes P.D. seriously. This summer, my school sent me to a weeklong, intensive course for middle school teachers called Developmental Designs, which derives from a teaching approach known as Responsive Classroom.
Among its guiding principles is a belief that students who develop social skills like cooperation, assertiveness and empathy can achieve more academically. The idea is similar to the “character education” Paul Tough advocates in his new book “How Children Succeed.”
I’d already watched colleagues attain enviable classroom management through this technique. Still, given my previous P.D. experience, I initially harbored skepticism. I imagined catching up on e-mail during the course’s slow moments. But, it turned out, I didn’t send e-mail all week. The program was a model of effective P.D. and what it can achieve.
The Responsive Classroom approach centers on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day’s agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin.
If this sounds obvious or intuitive, it is, but so is being loving and kind. That doesn’t make it easier to achieve. Part of what makes the approach effective is that each routine is highly structured, and so replicable, but allows for student input and choice.
The fun and games have an ulterior purpose. My instructor emphasized how, at the end of each activity, we should bring the exercise back to concrete classroom skills. Tossing a ball, for example, is like the exchange of ideas, requiring students to follow a discussion’s trajectory with their eyes.
Another tenet is that teachers should avoid indiscriminate praise in favor of neutral language that encourages specific behaviors so children can precisely identify and so replicate their triumphs. (The research of Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has separately come to similar conclusions.) Finding the best words, however, can be surprisingly difficult after years of crowing, “Great job!” So the course had us devise and rehearse the verbal and nonverbal cues we wanted to use.
In my classroom, the shared routines have already led to a greater sense of calm and purpose, which has led to more productive lessons. I’m not alone in enjoying concrete results from the Responsive Classroom method. In one study, presented in September, researchers looked at 24 schools randomly assigned to training in the Responsive Classroom or to a control group, which did not receive the same teacher training or support. When faithfully implemented, the approach correlated with a substantial rise — a roughly 20-point gain on average — on state standardized test scores in reading and math.
Why does Responsive Classroom work where other approaches do not? Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, theorizes it’s because teachers not only received intensive training but also had follow-up coaching once they returned to their classrooms, which increased the chances that new practices would take hold. Teachers also praised the program’s pacing: coaches encouraged teachers to adopt steps slowly over a sustained period, instead of trying to transform their classrooms overnight.
“The take-home message,” Dr. Rimm-Kaufman says, “is that interventions that take a long time to learn and that require more resources also produce more change.” The required financial investment isn’t enormous, and the findings suggest that schools and districts would do better to devote limited resources to a few sustained programs, rather than providing scattershot offerings in teacher training.
Schoolwide buy-in also appeared critical to the approach’s success. Where principals and administrators supported the use of the Responsive Classroom method, gains on test scores were greatest. But, if the program was just one of many randomly tossed at teachers, then test scores remained flat or even declined.
In other words, teachers can’t go it alone. They need sustained training and support using empirically tested methods in concert and collaboration with one another. This is how schools succeed.
Why you shouldn't help your kids with their homework
A. Pawlowski TODAY contributor
April 28, 2014 at 9:54 AM ET
“We need to do away with the assumption that anything parents do will help. That assumes that parents have all the answers, and parents do not have all the answers,” Angel L. Harris, one of the scholars, told TODAY Moms.
“Some of the things that they do may actually lead to declines in achievement – inadvertently, of course.”
Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, and Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, are the authors of the book “The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education.”
“We found that when parents from various racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups regularly helped their child with homework, in most cases, it made no difference for the child’s improvement in their test scores in reading, math, and their grades,” Robinson said.
“Regular help with homework… even compromised achievement in grades for white, black and non-Mexican Hispanic children.”
Could the findings simply reflect the fact that kids struggling with school ask for more homework help, thus making it look as though children who get more help do worse? No, Harris said, because the researchers measured the change in achievement among all kids, including those who performed well in school. The effect of parental homework involvement was the same across the board.
Since the surveys only provided information about how often parents helped with homework, not how they helped, Harris and Robinson can only speculate about the “why” part of the results. The basic message to parents is that being involved will not always result in better grades, Robinson said.
“Parents tend to take the reins of how they’re going to help with homework without consulting the child,” Robinson noted. “So maybe parents could ask kids, ‘Is what I’m doing helping you?’”
"It makes you rethink the assumption that helpers know what they’re doing, that they know how to help," Harris added.
Vicki Davis, a high school teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Ga., said families who are over-involved in their children’s homework can enable helplessness. She’s seen her share of parents doing the assignments for their kids, especially writing papers, or taking charge of high-stakes, big projects.
Courtesy Vicki Davis
“I don’t think most parents meant to do it. They just kind of start taking over.”
Davis expects elementary school students to get help from parents because they’re still learning study skills, and she doesn’t mind if older students talk “big picture” with their families about a project.
But in general, parents should limit their involvement to making sure kids are completing their homework, she advised.
She finds the students who do best in school have parents who hold them accountable and regularly look at their grades. The goal is to create independent, lifelong learners, she said.
Kerry Lyons, a mother of five in Irvington, N.Y., said the research findings are a “huge relief.” Lyons works full time, so when she gets home, her kids – three kindergartners, one second-grader and one fourth-grader – are usually done with homework.
She estimates she helps twice a week, and then sits down with each child during the weekend to discuss what they worked on.
“I beat myself up sometimes because I’m surrounded by parents who are so focused on their kids and so focused on helping them with their school work and helping them succeed, and I simply don’t have the hours in the day to do that,” Lyons, 42, said.
“You worry about setting them up for the best possible start… (but) they’re going to be OK and they might even be better off.”
If helping with homework isn’t a good way for parents to be involved, Harris and Robinson found three ways that do help kids do better in school: Requesting a particular teacher for your child; expecting him or her to go to college, and discussing school activities with your child.