Thursday, October 30, 2014

4 reasons to rethink competition in children's sport

"The race to win turns us all into losers."
-Alfie Kohn

There is an enormous gap between what we know and what we do. Too often what we admire and aspire to does not align with our actions. Sometimes this is true in school -- sometimes it's true in sport. 

Here are 4 reasons why we need to seriously rethink how keeping score and winning can distract good intentioned adults from being better coaches, better parents and better people.

1. Adults should not be fans while children play sports because fans are not expected to do the right thing. Consider this: A "fan" is short for a "fanatic" which literally means a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion, politics or sports. The origin of the word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus which means "mad, furious, zealous, frantic, and characterized by excessive enthusiasm".

Too often "fans" are unable to control their passion and emotions for winning and defeating others. Too often fans don't understand that excellence and winning are products of positive participation and learning, and that an intense focus on winning comes at the expense of learning and having fun.

If you only cheer, encourage or support your own child or your own team, or actively cheer against other people's children, you are not only a bad parent -- you are a bad person. "It takes a village to raise a child" applies to sport just as much as it applies to school and community. If it would be wrong for teachers in schools or parents at home to be fanatics in favour of a select few children, what makes it right in children's sport?

Adults should be less like fans and more like coaches or teachers for every child, regardless of whether they are your child or if they are on your team. Coaches and teachers, unlike fans, are associated with an entirely different set of characteristics -- they have integrity and are unconditionally supportive and encouraging while making decisions that are in every child's best interest.

2. The problem with keeping score for young children is that adults get distracted by winning at the cost of player development and learning. Winning can have the same affect gambling and alcohol have on addicts. Just like the gambler who forgets about their loved one's while sitting at the blackjack table, coaches, parents and athletes tend to forget about having fun and learning the game when winning becomes the point of sport.

The point of school and sport is to learn and have fun -- regardless of the score or the situation. We place children in classes like language arts and sports like baseball not because they are already good at reading and running, but because we believe reading and running are important for all children to learn to love, regardless of their ability. If we coach differently when the game "counts", we teach children that winning counts more than learning and having fun.

You do not teach children to win by keeping score -- you teach children to win by coaching them to love to learn the game.

Competition is for the strong -- sport and school should be for all children. See the problem?

3. Too often all of the statistics, standings and awards cheapen the games we love. Out of one side of our mouths we say that there is no "I" in team, and yet too many sports relish the opportunity to rank and sort teams and athletes. Too many teams keep statistics and records. Too many teams have Most Valuable Player awards, and too many tournaments have A Finals. All of this counting and quantifying leads us to compare and rank children in ways that we shouldn't be doing at all.

Competition is a zero-sum game which by definition means that one person or team can succeed only if others fail. Sports can be naturally competitive enough without adults adding more emphasis on winning arbitrary and artificial awards. If we want children to play sports for the right reasons, we need to stop awarding them and just let them play.

4. The purpose of sport is more sport. Whether you are 7, 37 or 77 -- whether you believe you can win or not, we want children and adult's alike to maintain a sustainable healthy, active and pro-social life-style. 

When we convince children that the purpose of sport is winning artificially scarce awards, we encourage too many children to play for the wrong reasons and others to quit. As an athlete, teacher, coach and parent, it is my experience that the children who play sports through out their childhood believe they have a chance at winning and the children who quit believe they will lose. And yet ironically, the children who play sports into their adulthood, while balancing family and work, are those who figure out that winning has little or nothing to do with why they play.

So what do we do when we want to raise a noncompetitive child in a competitive world? 

I did not become a teacher, a coach or a father so that I could merely prepare children to live in a cruel and cut-throat world. I became a teacher so that I could help children grow up and make the world a better place. Yes, the real world is full of competition that makes winners and losers out of everyone, but we don't need to immerse children in competition to learn this. When we teach children about racism, we don't immerse them in racism. I refuse to subscribe to the notion that because children will one day grow up and have bad things done to them that means we need to do bad things to them in school to get them ready for it.

Alfie Kohn makes a solid case against competition and offers 4 ways to minimize the damage:
  • Avoid comparing a child's performance to that of a sibling, a classmate, or yourself as a child.
  • Don't use contests ("Who can dry the dishes fastest?") around the house. Watch your use of language ("Who's the best little girl in the whole wide world?") that reinforces competitive attitudes.
  • Never make your love or acceptance conditional on a child's performance. It's not enough to say, "As long as you did your best, honey" if the child learns that Mommy's attitude about her is quite different when she has triumphed over her peers.
  • Be aware of your power as a model. If you need to beat others, your child will learn that from you regardless of what you say. The lesson will be even stronger if you use your child to provide you with vicarious victories. 
Raising healthy, happy, productive children goes hand in hand with creating a better society. The first step to achieving both is recognizing that our belief in the value of competition is built on myths. There are better ways for our children -- and for us -- to work and play and live.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Education students ponder the profession

This was written by Lauryn, Lauren, Jeni, Jonell, Callie, JoAnne, Erica, Jimmy, Brandon, Katie and Alexis who are education students in Wisconsin. As I read their post, I get a very real kind of deja vu as I reconnected with how I felt when I was first learning to become a teacher. Education students embody a very peculiar mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty. 

Great teachers are not born -- they are created and educated. Education students have a daunting challenge -- they need to remember how school was for them, not so they can replicate it, but so they can make it better for their future students. This requires a boatload of patience and reflection that too few people possess.

by Lauryn, Lauren, Jeni, Jonell, Callie, JoAnne, Erica, Jimmy, Brandon, Katie and Alexis

“Relationships can improve the classroom experience and reduce the stress that students experience on a daily basis.” 
- Jimmy B. 
We are Lauryn, Lauren, Jeni, Jonell, Callie, JoAnne, Erica, Jimmy, Brandon, Katie, Alexis. We are students in the Introduction to Education class in Wisconsin. Thank you to Joe Bower for letting us contribute to his blog.

“Treat a child as though he already is the person he’s capable of becoming,” said Haim Ginott. This mindset shows that every child can grow and prosper if you give them the tools to do so. As teachers, those tools could be used to offer not just an academic relationship with a student, but also a personal one as well. This personal level indicates that the teacher does indeed care for the student, therefore inviting the student to be more engaged. When students feel connections with teachers, the students academic achievement will increase.

Although relationships are essential, statistics show that teachers tend to build them with only ideal students, such as those with good work habits and initiative. The kids that need it the most, such as ones with behavioral issues and decreased motivation to achieve, are often overlooked. As a teacher, you need to not succumb to favoritism, regardless of how perfect that student may be. Treat every child with the same respect and interest or else you risk leaving one child behind. After all, you are not just a teacher, you are also a friend and sometimes a parent or even just a shoulder to cry on. The true challenge is to successfully fill those roles.

Classroom Management

Effective classroom management is possibly the most important thing in education. The classroom can either have a very positive atmosphere or a negative one. How the teacher handles the disruptions, problems, and emergencies reflects on the students' attitude during class. Many students have difficult home lives and support systems which could make school the only safe place for them. However, if the teacher has poor classroom management, students will have a poor experience and a negative attitude towards the school and/or teacher. This is why classroom management is so important.

Rewarding students can have a positive and negative effect on them. It can provoke students into thinking too highly of themselves but also help kids who don’t do well in school learn the ways of appropriate behavior. Giving students a proper reward can give them the motivation to do their best in school. However, schools who use certain reward systems like gold stars or point systems may give the students the impression that the school is degrading them. Sometimes all students need is to instill good behavior in themselves, and that can be encouraged by treating them like the individuals they are.

Classroom Discipline Without Embarrassment

Have you ever been so flat-out embarrassed by someone that you just wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out? What about being embarrassed by someone who had the responsibility of educating you? There have been countless reports of teachers embarrassing their students all across the country. Some parents have been so angry that legal matters have been brought into play. There was one particular story that stuck out to us about a seventh grader who had a lot of difficulty controlling his stuttering condition. During school one particular day, the class was reading from a computer magazine and the new teacher decided to pick this student to read a passage. He began to speak, instantly jumbling his words. The teacher then interrupted him and says, “Shaun, what’s wrong? Can you not read? Why the heck do you stutter so much? D-d-d-d- you ha-ha-have a p-p-prob-problem reading?” The teacher then proceeded to pick a new student to read. After the student who took Shaun’s place finishes reading, the teacher looked at Shaun and said, “See Shaun? That’s what READING looks like.”

We found this particular story to be absolutely appalling, offensive and cruel. Not only is this not an okay attitude for a teacher to exhibit, but it’s not okay for ANYONE to do this. An experience like the one Shaun had will live with him the rest of his life. As kids, we remember the most minute details and tend to take everything to heart.

Rather than advising a student when surrounded by another group of peers, one should take the approach of going to the student and asking quietly, “What are you doing?” (Wait for a response.) “What are you supposed to be doing?” (Wait for a response.) “When will you start?” Using this approach puts the student at ease. It avoids feeling of embarrassment the student would feel if you were to address it in front of the whole class.

Embarrassing your students is by far the worst choice you could make. Most students who are quiet in the classrooms are this way because they are nervous that their peers will make fun of them, but it would make them feel even worse if it was the teacher who did it. Embarrassing your students will just cause them to not want to come to school anymore in fear of it happening again and again. If your students are doing something embarrassing you can simply pull them away from the crowd and try and help them with the situation, rather than announce it in front of everyone.

The Importance of Boundaries in the Classroom

The personalities of students are a diverse range. In each class you teach, you will experience, from students, both love and hate. Often, after being with the same group of students for a full school year, you will develop close connections with some of your pupils. It is these connections that cause you to run the risk of blurring the lines between student and friend. A student-teacher relationship must be maintained in order to stimulate the most productive learning environment for all students.

There are many factors that may cause a student to latch on to a teacher and overstep their boundaries. One that I have experienced is the age of a teacher. Last year, a new teacher was hired at our school, fresh out of college. She has made it a priority to be close with her students. She invites kids to hang out in her room and spend time with her during school hours and to talk to her about things that are going on in their lives. Many students have taken a strong liking to her and she has developed a close, friend-like relationship with many of her students, which would seem like a positive thing. However, once class begins, the effects of these relationships have made it difficult for students to understand their boundaries with the teacher.

For some students who need a stable relationship with an adult, this relationship can help with their esteem and provide them with a healthy role model, thus influencing the student's behavior. Also, this relationship can take away the pressures of being in a classroom with people you may not necessarily want to be around.

Some students may not be able to properly differentiate between friends and teachers. Students have the tendency to cling to teachers who provide them with consolation and help in their times of struggle. This makes for awkward moments in the classroom and the chance of upsetting other students who are hurt by your lack of a relationship with them. Also, this may affect the amount of respect that the students have in the classroom. Friends are often not afraid to act rowdy and disrespectfully around their other friends and when a student believes that the teacher is their close friend, that respect won’t disappear, but change. Your class will become disruptive and unruly.

Boundaries are vital in your classroom management style. You must be sure to be kind to your students without inviting them to cling to you and disrupt the learning of the other students in the class.

For those of us considering the education field, these are some of the topics that are close to our hearts. When we enter the classroom, we will strive to build the healthy relationships in comfortable learning environments that benefited us in our learning. The problem is, we are only 11 students. We cannot change your classrooms. That’s up to you. Reach out to your students in an appropriate, healthy way. Provide your students with someone to turn to in their times of personal need. Be the role model that many of your students need.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

3 reasons to stop rewarding and punishing children

Teachers and schools make thousands of decisions, big and small, everyday. Just as we would hope that our doctors and hospitals are making decisions based on evidence and research, so should teachers and schools.

Should schools use rewards and punishments on their students?

Here are 3 reasons why schools and teachers need to stop using rewards and punishments:

1. We want children to do the right things for the right reasons. Too often rewards distract children from doing the right thing for the right reason. Instead of being virtuous and doing the right thing regardless of whether anyone is watching or waiting to catch them, too many children (and adults) will do good only when they stand to personally gain -- then we lament about why some children (and adults) become grade grubberspraise junkies and bribe bait. We can't teach children to do the right thing with carrots and sticks. We want children to share and adults to slow down in playground zones not because they might get caught -- and yet when we reward and punish children to do the right thing, we teach them to look over their shoulder before they do good or bad.

2. There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic & extrinsic. The problem here is that we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’. Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them (or threatening them), you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Rewards can only ever gain short-term compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement.

3. To a child, an adult's praise and presents are cheap -- it's our presence that they value the most. There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing children -- problems occur, however, when our recognition is manipulative and controlling. Too often the children we deem the most undeserving of our recognition and attention are those who need us the most -- too often rewards and punishments rupture our relationships with children. My teaching and parenting mantra is borrowed directly from Jerome Bruner who once said that, "Children should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information". This mindset lays the foundation for shifting away from doing things to children and moving towards working with them.

Further reading:

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Why we do What we do? by Edward Deci

Drive by Daniel Pink

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Teacher reflects on Alberta's new Student Learner Assessments

This was written by Catherine Dohn who is a grade 3 teacher in Edmonton, Alberta. Catherine tweets here and blogs here. This post was originally found here.

by Catherine Dohn

For those of you not in Alberta, you might not have heard about the new government Student Learning Assessments otherwise known as SLA’s. This is the pilot year where they rolled them out for all grade 3 students in Alberta and being that I moved to grade three this year, I was able to experience them firsthand.

Now Alberta Education went into these SLA’s with some pretty lofty goals. They were going to replace the dreaded Provincial Achievement Exams of old with something new and better. They would…..”better enabling parents and teachers to be aware of a child’s strengths or areas needing improvement. The SLAs are essentially “readiness” assessments that can be used to determine the programming needs for students for the school year, and support more personalized learning.” (Alberta Education Information Bulletin)

However, after being immersed in them for these last 2 weeks, I am now going to share what I have learned.

1. Awareness of Child’s Strengths/Areas of Improvement: well, being that I spend 5 days a week and almost 8 hours a day with my gang, I already had a pretty good idea of where they were at, both with their strengths and weaknesses. Funny enough, the first few days, I had a few tell me point blank “I am not really that good at reading, Mrs. D.” or “I don’t really like writing, it’s hard for me.” So those that were already walking in the door with challenges, both they and I knew this. The thing is that they and I spent quite a bit of time those first few weeks building up their confidence in these areas – finding strategies to help them tackle the areas they found hard. I worked hard helping them realize that while it might not be something they were not that great at, I constantly reinforced the idea that they might not be good “yet.” If they and I worked together, maybe we might find ways to help them get better so they could change that statement of “I am not good at reading” to “I am starting to find strategies to be a better reader.”

So then these SLA’s came with 4 different pieces of assessment that involved a lot of reading and a lot of writing and I saw those students who had started to see themselves in a different light, start to shut down. The multitude of questions, with these expectations of higher level thinking was something my struggling students found challenging and I could not help them. I had to say things like “try your best” and “it’s okay, I know you are trying hard” So now I am back to square one with some of them and I will have to try to again build up their confidence in themselves after feeling like failures. Some of my shy, quiet students who would get quite anxious about things actually wrote things like “SLA’s I am done with you.” “If I have to write this again, I will freak out.” And yes, this would be even though I did not make a big deal out of all this, I kept saying it was just an experiment to see how we would all do and not to worry.

The other sad thing was that my more bright students, the ones I knew had a lot to offer, even they did not get the point of doing a task multiple times and then evaluating themselves on it again and again. I heard a lot of “didn’t we do this already with the last question?” and “why do I have to do this?” So yet again, these students did not really show what they are truly capable of because even they thought “what’s the point of all this?” and did what they could to just get done.

2. An Information, Reflective Piece: so the point of all these different literacy and numeracy pieces was this going to inform and reflect my students to better guide my instruction. As well, I would be able to take these out and use them as something to talk to parents about. I really look forward to these conversations in that if I show parents some of the numeracy questions with the self reflective pieces, I am sure I will spend more time explaining what the questions were actually asking and validating the point of this type of questioning. With so many parents already questioning the “new math” they don’t understand, this is probably not going to help me much.

The reflection I might have, if I was a new teacher to grade 3, is that I better prepare my students better for this type of assessment. So instead of spending time those first few important weeks building a relationship with my student, I start practicing with 7 and 8 year olds how to self assess, how to reflect because gosh knows those skills come built in at the beginning of a school year in grade three. (yes that was a bit of sarcasm, my apologies)

3. My Frustration – my biggest frustration was not the hours of extra work for myself – inputting students onto the system so they could actually do the test, figuring out the pieces and parts to administering these the best way possible, marking and going over each assessment piece. It was not how I put the rest of the school out at times – SLA’s meant no one could use the internet because doing the digital pieces that took every bit of wifi bandwidth our school had. No one could use laptops or computer labs because they were all booked up for us. Don’t get me started on the amount of trees I killed photocopying everything needed. My biggest frustration was seeing one of my students lay his head down on his desk and cry because he just couldn’t get what the question was asking, it was seeing one of my girls go “Mrs. D. I just don’t get what to do” It was seeing some of my students take close to 2 hours to get done on the computer because of glitches, freezing, having to shut down and hope it would not make them start from the beginning.

So to the powers that be, I have the following to say about what I learned… I honestly think this could have been done so much better. I am not sure why you couldn’t trust that I am a professional, that I am able to find and use assessment pieces that will truly reflect my students’ abilities. But I guess, like my students, I have areas of improvement too….

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Parent-Teacher Interviews without a gradebook

Why does school create the conditions necessary
to make this cartoon both funny and true?
I had parent-teacher interviews yesterday and today.

I went through the entire two days without a gradebook -- we talked about children and learning.

Without the gradebook, we were liberated from talking about rows and columns filled with numbers and letters. Assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation. Parent-teacher interviews should reflect this.

Without a gradebook, we were not distracted by reducing children's learning to numbers.

Without a gradebook, I had to actually know my students names and know something about them as a person.

Without a gradebook, I didn't get into needless arguments about whether their child and my student is an A, a 78%, or a meeting expectations. Instead of concealing student learning by reducing the child to a number or letter, we were able to talk about their child as a whole-person.

Without a gradebook, we didn't sit and stare at a laptop screen or spreadsheet. Instead, we were able to make eye-contact and talk face-to-face about (and with) their child.

I told parents not to bother wasting time looking at their child's marks on Pearson's PowerSchool. I told parents that if they wanted to know what their children are learning, what they are reading, what they are thinking, or how they are doing, then they should visit their child's blog.

Here are 3 reasons why the parent's response to all this was overwhelmingly positive.
1. Too many parents have a hard time getting their child to tell them about what they are learning at school, so they were excited to know that they could visit their child's blog anytime, anywhere and anyplace. They were excited to look at the blog through out the year and use it to initiate better conversations with their child. 
2. The best evidence parents can receive about their children's learning is to see their children learning. Parents were excited to know that their child's learning wouldn't be hidden in a binder in the bottom of their locker or on the teacher's desk. They were excited that their child's learning would be so visible.
3. Because my class sizes are ridiculously large (30+ students in every class), I told parents that I have a real hard time getting to each student, every class. They were happy to hear that they could help their child by showing an interest in their blog, and if they like, they could help their child improve their writing and thinking skills. 
If you are interested in replacing grading with more authentic ways of making learning visible to parents, you can check out my chapter Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning or here are all of my blog posts on abolishing grading.

Feel free to e-mail me. I enjoy working with teachers and parents to abolish grading to make learning more visible.
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