Monthly Archives: January 2011

NurtureShock (spoiler alert!)

So when I read that Po Bronson had (co)written a parenting book, I decided to give it a look. I’ve been a fan of Bronson for great books like ‘Bombadiers‘ and ‘The Nudist on the Late Shift‘, so I had high expectations. Happily, I can report that after reading ‘NurtureShock’ basically over the weekend (which is fast for me), my expectations were met, and exceeded.

The best encapsulation of ‘NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children‘ I have seen is Good Morning America (cringe) who describe it as “The Freakonomics of child rearing”. Bronson and co-author Ashley Merryman present a series of chapters, each synthesising the last ten years experimental research into a particular aspect of learning (and hence child rearing). The results are often counter-intuitive, and sometimes disturbing. They are also extremely actionable – both for parents and for teachers.

In short: go buy it and read it, some wonderful stuff in there.


For those who are curious, here’s a quick roll call of some of the insights/advice:

  • Praising traits (‘you’re so smart’) rather than action (‘you did that well’) is detrimental to resilience and self-belief
  • Sleep is vital to kids as there’s all this amazing brain activity going on to solidify learning during sleep
  • Teens actually have different sleep-inducing hormonal behaviour resulting in later sleeping and waking
  • Forming groups of similar kids and ascribing more positive attributes to your own group is a natural behaviour – ie. ‘racism’ can happen even if you don’t teach it
  • Kids don’t pick up on subtle PC approaches to educating on racial equality – we need to take an explicit approach as we do with gender equality
  • Lying is actually a useful, challenging cognitive skill, and one which we often value and encourage
  • Even if you really like IQ as a measure, testing that stuff as kids are entering preschool (or kindergarten) is too soon to pick up gifted students
  • The learned social behaviours of older siblings will set the tone of sibling relations
  • Teen rebellion may seem traumatic to mum and dad, but might seem constructive to teens
  • Fewer rules, justified and enforced, but negotiable
  • The popular kids are often the aggressive ones

Toward the end there is a fantastic chapter that presents a series of quite detailed findings on language acquisition which was probably my favourite. A couple of other interesting observations made throughout are that kids often aren’t the same as adults, and that sometimes people will ignore the evidence if an approach ‘feels’ right.



New Preschool Rules

The Australian government has recently released a set of guidelines (and a National Quality Framework) for early childhood care. Nothing particularly surprising in there, primarily it reads as an attempt to professionalise the sector, and bring a more educational focus to what might previously have been 'baby-sitting' programs. Key outtakes include;

  • for kids 3+yrs, a staff ration of 1:10 (in NSW)
  • an early childhood teacher present (part time is under 25 kids)

Of course, no framework would be complete without a standardised assessment battery. The Department has released a draft ratings tool that shows how services may be assessed to provide a uniform metric that will assist parents in making the right decision about where to send their kids.

I shouldn't be too harsh, their five outcomes for quality service aren't bad at all;

  • Children have a strong sense of identity
  • Children are connected with and contribute to their world
  • Children have a strong sense of wellbeing
  • Children are confident and involved learners
  • Children are effective communicators

I mean heck, some of it even sounds disturbingly like it's recommending emergent curriculum development;

"Critical reflection and evaluation of each child’s learning and development, both as individuals and in groups, is consistently used as a primary source of information for planning and improves the effectiveness of the program and teaching strategies."

"The service actively engages in appropriate community projects and events contributing to children’s learning and wellbeing."

"Innovative use of natural elements and materials, and innovative design or adaptation for multiple uses in outdoor spaces provide an advanced learning and care environment for children."

Look out, they used the 'i' word! One does wonder exactly what "[w]ell developed behaviour guidance strategies preserve and promote the dignity and the rights of each child at all times" could means, but I'm sure people will figure it out.



Summer Reading – Some synthesis of alternative, progressive and emergent approaches

Over the delightful uni hiatus, I’ve had the chance to actually read some of the books that have been piling up precariously around the place. Full disclosure, I haven’t quite reached the end of two of them, I’ll let you guess which.

The Element‘ stands out as the piece not specifically written about schools. Sir Ken stitches together a host of stories about famous and less famous individuals, and how they have unearthed, arrived at, or searched for those things in life about which they are passionate. He talks about the importance of ‘being in your Element’ as a key way of finding meaning (and joy) in life. It is only in the final chapter that he addresses how the education system needs to change to help kids find their Element – and it feels a bit like the book is a Trojan Horse to the world at large… drawing them in with anecdotes about Meg Ryan to get them on side for a (brief) lecture on education reform. If you’ve read or seen any of Sir Ken’s work there’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s a nice read.

One of the schools Sir Ken highlights in The Element is Grange Primary School in the UK. Richard Gerver was the head teacher at Grange during its transformation into a model for innovative education, and ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools, Today‘ is an overview of his pedagogical beliefs (the first half) and how they came to life at Grange (the second half). A self-professed non-academic, Gerver is readable and pragmatic, but firmly grounded in well-researched and considered opinions. Highlights include an overview of ‘Grangeton’, a program where the school creates a simulacrum of society, with everything from a healthy-eating shop (mentored by the local supermarket owner) to a daily radio show. I also like Gerver’s comments about using the ‘evils’ of advertising to ‘sell’ school to kids as the ‘consumer’ – as he puts it, ‘How do we make school as exciting as Disneyland?’.

Both ‘The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education‘ (ed. Edwards, Gandini and Forman) and ‘Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools‘ (ed. Wien) are collections of papers documenting the Reggio approach and looking at how it can (and has) been imported to the US. Wien’s is much more light weight – it reads like a selection of final ‘action research assessments’ for a post-grad course she seems to be running to spread the good word. The papers are written by practitioners gushing with excitement over ‘giving this Reggio stuff a bash’ in their classrooms – with varying levels of insight and success.

The tome by Edwards, Gandini and Forman is something else altogether. Criticised (on Amazon) as not being readable, this is a serious collection of reasonably academic papers, and gives a thorough and considered overview of Reggio pedagogy, and some of the issues in bringing its key ideas to other shores. The book begins with papers outlining the Reggio story (including an interview with Loris Malaguzzi), then some specific articles on different elements of the approach (such as an excellent overview on the role of the Reggio teacher by Carolyn Edwards) before showcasing several American perspectives. The latter does very well to show the different ways and depths with which teachers in the US are adopting and engaging with Reggio ideas.

Compared to this relatively engaging tour of the world of Reggio, ‘Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education‘ (Semel and Sadovnick ed.) can be hard going. Having said that, I think this kind of detailed review of previous attempts at innovative and alternative education is important – and something that perhaps is too often ignored, leading to the danger of ‘reinventing the wheel’. From an in-depth review of the Dalton School to a chronicle of the rise and fall of the ‘open’ Butterfield School, the editors present case studies of eleven different US schools, giving a thorough overview of the progressive education movement in that country.

Reading these different books provided a chance to start identifying common themes that recur throughout, and (to be honest) are of interest to me. While they may not sit neatly within a single philosophy or paradigm, they each strike a chord with my personal vision for better schooling. Some of the key areas I was left considering were;

  • environment… the creation of spaces for children that are beautiful, real, engaging, different, homely… places for children not just to learn, but to live
  • relationship… the connection between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, often becoming something far more real and powerful… echoes of Rogers and perhaps psychotherapy here
  • emergent curriculum… both the power that is harnessed by using the interests of children to drive the agenda, as well as the challenges that this places on teachers… the way planning becomes an ongoing activity rather than ‘set and forget’… and the obvious conflict with standardised testing and curricula
  • community… the engagement of parents and the community at large with the school… from building school buildings, to activities that transgress the ‘boundary’ of the school… all of which makes schools specific and local, and hence limits scalability
  • reality… from projects worth doing, to acts that have a place in the real world, with real impact… moving away from the idea of ‘school work’ to something more meaningful and connected to life
  • transience… the degree to which so many progressive schooling successes relied on a particular historical moment, the alignment of the stars… the difficulty in maintaining ideals as people move on… the impermanence of small, independent organisations in the face of social change and large institutions
  • integration… a complete move beyond disciplinary ‘subjects’ to an integrated curriculum where themes bring students into contact with everything from math to culture to music… and the difficulty in linking that with defined curriculum outcomes
  • social play… the role of everything from multi-age classes to group work in building social skills and personal strengths

…and underneath it all, the move from ‘teaching’ to the facilitation of ‘learning’ – a firm and powerful belief in the child, and the capacity of the child to learn through inquiry and discovery.



On Boys and Games and School…


Ali Carr-Chellman doesn’t have the strongest, tightest narrative or argument in her TED Talk on ‘Gaming to re-engage boys in learning’, but she does make some compelling points. In particular she highlights;

– the gender disparity around behavioural problem diagnoses and reactions

– the impact of a (growing!) absence of males from the primary school environment

– the marginalisation (or even exclusion) of children’s culture (she sees it as boy’s culture, but I think the same can be said of many cross-gender cultural interests… like gaming)

Her recommendations around incorporating ‘children’s culture’ into the classroom is a complete no-brainer, my only comment is that it still privileges the classroom – perhaps it’s time that we take the classroom into children’s culture?!

Again, her call for increased investmemt of focus and resources in gaming to capitalise on it’s educational potential is well founded. The same argument stands for investment in educational entertainment, something we seem to have got right here and there… but there’s still an awful lot of twaddle for kiddies on TV. Exactly how we make real change in the quality and power of education-focussed games is a tough one. Perhaps we will find that evolving tools and business modesl mean that we can get away from the very expensive publisher model that has created such high barriers to entry for game production to date.

An interesting extension of Carr-Chellman’s argument is that if we get gaming right and bring it into schools, perhaps we might spend a little more time thinking what more feminine gaming (educational and otherwise) might look like beyond unicorn raising and cake baking.

Visible Collaborative Thinking

"The drawings help the children look at each other's thinking."
Foreman, G. (1993) Multiple Symbolization in the Long Jump Project, in The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education (eds. C. Edwards, L. Gandini and G. Forman).

This comment struck a chord with me, as it so clearly highlights the role of what superficially looks like 'art' (meaning something to be seen purely as an aesthetic endeavour) within the Reggio approach. Visualisation of thinking can play a critical role in group work as a way for ideas to be externalised, shared, critiqued and evolved.

Children discuss their own work – both as they create it and afterwards. Their work becomes a point of reference for conversations with other children – individually and within a group. Drawing (and other 'artistic' forms) become one of the many ways that teachers can scaffold the kind of reflexive practice which builds into higher order cognition. This idea of externalising thinking also resonates with the 'embedded cognition' work of theorists like Andry Clark. Clark talks about the important role that technology (in the broadest possible sense, which incorporates things like drawing) plays in our 'thinking'.

It would be interesting to look explicitly at how an understanding of embedded cognition may influence the design of the environment and process of early schooling. By acknowledging the role of the body, other people, and environmental objects in thinking, how can we teach better and build richer thinking skills?




The world needs more ‘canny outlaws’ and ‘system changers’

"[Canny outlaws] are people who, being forced to operate in a system that demands rule-following and creates incentives, find away around the rules, find a way to subvert the rules. So there are teachers who have these scripts to follow,and they know that if they follow these scripts, the kids will learn nothing. And so what they do is they follow the scripts, but they follow the scripts at double-time and squirrel away little bits of extra time during which they teach in the way that they actually know is effective. So these are little ordinary, everyday heroes, and they're incredibly admirable, but there's no way that they can sustain this kind of activity in the face of a system that either roots them out or grinds them down.

So canny outlaws are better than nothing, but it's hard to imagine any canny outlaw sustaining that for an indefinite period of time. More hopeful are people we call system-changers. These are people who are looking not to dodge the system's rules and regulations, but to transform the system…"

Barry Schwartz talking about 'practical wisdom' on

“schoolhouses without walls”

Finally getting around to reading 'The Hundred Languages of Children' (on the Reggio Emilia approach). In the foreward, Howard Gardner writes;

…just as we now have "museums without walls," which allow us to observe art from all over the world, so, to, we can now have "schoolhouses without walls" which allow us to observe educational practices as they have developed around the globe. (p.xii)

Very neatly put, Howard. Which raises the question, how would one go about creating a 'school without walls' (in this context, notwithstanding other interpretations of the phrase)?