Humanity Rant or Why #PeopleAreWorthIt

The Washington Post headline says this:

If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten
The opening sentences establish the following:

Kindergartners who share, cooperate and are helpful are more likely to have a college degree and a job 20 years later than children who lack those social skills, according to a new study.

Kids who get along well with others also are less likely to have substance-abuse problems and run-ins with the law.

The research, which involved tracking nearly 800 students for two decades, suggests that specific social-emotional skills among young children can be powerful predictors for success later in life.

The research was set up as follows:

“The study is based on data collected beginning in 1991 at schools in Nashville, Seattle, rural Pennsylvania and Durham, N.C. Teachers of 753 kindergartners were asked to rate each student’s skill level in eight areas: …

Each teacher was asked to assess how well each statement described the child on a 5-point scale: “Not at all (0),” “A little (1),” “Moderately well (2),” “Well (3)” and “Very well (4).”

Researchers then tracked those students for two decades, using police records, reports from parents and self-reports from the children.”

And all of these findings of course support the conclusion that quality pre-school really matters and that if we invest there, we can further improve student outcomes: “It does offer the promise that if we can help kids get to this place by 5, that it will be sustaining,” he [a director at a nationally recognized university research institute for  Early Education] said. “You don’t have to worry that it is going to unravel.”

I am so tired of these studies and the reporting of these studies which would love to have us believe that there is a magic solution; a key strategy we’ve overlooked but urgently need to reassert. That more funding and resources should flow in this direction instead of that one. I am so tired of experts commenting in ways which inflate the reported research with false significance. The wherewithal to comment about how correlation is not causation fails me. Enough of the false assumptions that ‘if we would finally focus on X, we could really improve Y’ in isolation from the systems in which all these things work!  I am so done with this approach of trying to explain the world.  I do not plan to read the study and find the holes in the fly-by, sensationalist reporting but I do want to pause and say that I have had my fill.

In a different post, Diane Ravitch lends space to the arguments of NYT columnist, Joe Noccera and his discovery of research by an MIT professor, Zeynep Ton.

“Joe Nocera heard a radically sensible idea from a professor at MIT named Zeynep Ton. She said that instead of cutting costs to the bone, employers should “provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work.” This strategy “can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.”

To read on is to learn that Ton’s research performed in the retail sector supports the idea that companies can benefit (i.e. boost their profit margin) by actually taking good care of their employees rather than treating them like disposables. And Ravitch suggests that Ed reformers could take some cues from these findings.

Why do we still require so much instruction on these points?  That is my main question. What failure of understanding prevents us from creating communities and organizations that serve the interests of many rather than of the very few? What fears keep us from meeting the social-emotional needs of our students without reams of data which demonstrate the benefits for achievement outcomes? When did it become so damn counter-cultural for us to educate our children with kindness and warmth? At what stage did we begin to view employee well-being and satisfaction as a wasteful and unnecessary expense?

Can we assume that these company CEOs and their supporting management in Ton’s research failed to learn to share in Kindergarten? Of course not! They are the ones with lucrative jobs and high levels of academic attainment. They learned well how to get along with others and most likely enjoyed a host of privileges throughout their school and work careers. The operating systems smile upon these sons and daughters of positive social adjustment. (And their likely well adjusted economic and social backgrounds.)

I get so weary when we employ academia to tell us what our moral and human responsibilities should be: to respect each others’ humanity, to connect our self-interest with the positive welfare of the commons. And to understand that we are all, yes all, better for it when we share more rather than less, provide support rather than strip it away.

One of my twitter colleagues and friends supports the hashtag #peopleareworthit. His name is Kris Giere and he consistently invokes this phrase. I see now why it needs to show up every day, several times a day. We need these reminders. We desperately need to be reminded of our capacity to do good in the world, to make someone’s day easier, nicer, more worthwhile in simple and complex ways. We have this capacity and more of this needs to show in the world. Wherever you can make a positive contribution be it a smile, a tweet, a show of gratitude, a donation – do that. Show your humanity, model kindness, stand up for fairness, lend a hand where it is needed.

We shouldn’t require research to tell us how and why these actions are good and that #peopleareworthit.  We also need to do more than play nice. We need to apply our intelligence in moving past the rhetoric into concrete action, no matter how seemingly small and local. Start somewhere, start now, start because caring shouldn’t need to take a number and wait to be called on. Thankfully, I have found so many positive models both online and off, locally and globally. And I see that I have much more work to do – on myself, in my communities of belonging and beyond. This is one more start.


Sales, Not Education

Recently an innocent tweet went down the wrong way. It provided a link to an article without further commentary. What I found was a post extolling the virtues of technology to “transform education” based on the freshly released NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition. So often have I heard such lofty and outsized claims which I fear miss the point. I retweeted the link with this comment:

Now having reread the article on Campus Technology more carefully, I realize that it is simply a tech friendly channel highlighting the big points from the researchers’ report at NMC. Nevertheless, my reaction also has its place. Although this article and the report at hand are addressing trends for higher education, the sweeping claims made are those most likely to show up in K-12 ed-tech discourse as well.
Two things are at issue for me:

  • The idea that technology will transform education needs to go. Rather it is and will continue to be people (students, parents, educators, community members) who will transform education. People have many tools at their disposal and certainly technology will play a role, but we need to stop abdicating our responsibility and power to devices, software and corporations to create just and equitable access to education for all students.
  • Too easily we in education seem to take such reports and their underlying assumptions as gospel, conveniently forgetting that technology is an industry with profit motives like other industries. Education is a vast and diverse market with multiple entry points to exploit. (Audrey Watters writes expertly about the corporate interest sides of ed-tech like here and here. Read these and be enlightened.)

I often worry that we (teachers, parents, policy makers) are absolutely complicit in selling the education of our kids to the teams with the best marketing strategies. We love new and shiny and all promises of time and effort saving – while at the same time we expect our kids to develop grit and become critical thinkers. We want to believe that we are equipping our children and students for a future which we can’t fathom and yet we fail to question our most basic assumptions about what school is good for and how it should function. (See this awesome post by @BlueCerealEduc about inquiry for grown folks.)

We also like to give people who claim to care deeply about education more of the benefit of the doubt than they perhaps deserve (i.e., politicians, education “reformers,” billionaire philanthropists). I urge you to keep up with the likes of @edushyster (Jennifer Berkshire) who has her eyes peeled for all of the nonsense, misinformation and outright lies which are perpetuated via the media and other channels to cloud our understanding of what’s actually at stake when we hand over public schools wholesale to charter organizations or create programs of school choice without actually creating viable options for the weakest recipients of such initiatives.  A recent post of hers unpacks an  unbelievable document full of highly refined PR talking points for reformers to use in addressing a number of major parental concerns with testing and other feature of ed reform. The document is both remarkable and sickening in its baldfaced illustration of how manipulation is a science that can and will be used against you unless you combat it directly.  (No, really, the document and the post are each extraordinary in their own right. Go read both carefully.)

Critical and higher order thinking, collaboration, cooperation, digital literacy – these are skills we claim we want our children to master, that we insist are critical to their success in the future.  And I ask, How skilled are we?  How well are we collaborating and cooperating to inform ourselves and bolster our critical thinking skills? In my own experience I am finding out how naive I have been in several areas. I am only now beginning to fully appreciate the extremely well informed minds in my personal learning network. I need their tireless investigations into the false claims and snake oil peddlers in order to better understand how I can contribute to conversations in a meaningful way.  For now my attempt is to curate, read, share and synthesize the great work that others are doing to keep us awake at the wheel of our own and our kids’ futures.