September 15, 2014

Our (Pre)school Philosopy

It’s that time of year again. With September comes in inevitable back to school posts of smiling elementary students. What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of Moms with kid’s Nicki’s age signing up for preschool, which got me thinking – should I be doing the same?

Domingo and I plan on buying into the best school district we can come house hunting time next year, as I’m sure most parents do when they house hunt. I don’t want to rely on getting into a good school, though.

The school system I went to is consistently ranked in the top 10 of my fairly large home state. Overall the school did very well by me, they noticed the early signs of my learning disability, got me tested, and provided the accommodations I needed to succeed. Yet before the dyslexia diagnosis my first grade teacher told my parents I was a “non academic” child, and math would never be my strong suit. I think I’ve proven her wrong, thank you very much. It just goes to show that even great schools can have not so great teachers. Thus we don’t want to rely solely on a getting into a good school district.

Which then has us wondering: How? How do we ensure the drive is there to want to learn, and that our children get a quality education, independent of school system?

On Praise

The biggest eye opener was on the glowing research of how to praise. Specifically, telling kids that they are smart is counter productive. They become less risk adverse, choosing easier tasks so they don’t jeopardize the “smart” label. Praising process and effort encourages kids to try harder and take on hard tasks. That was a hard pill to swallow, especially for someone who get’s irritated at today’s “A for effort” most grade schools seem to dole out in spades. I think the catch is reward meaningful effort, and not for token effort. So a few months back Domingo and I started working on praising the effort. It was a hard change, and I still occasionally slip up. Saying “you’re so smart” still feels more natural to me.

On Learning

By far the biggest thing that I’m not happy with in our local school system is the emphasis on rote pattern matching, rather than actual learning. When I first started looking at daycares one of the centers told me with great pride that every one of their four year olds can count to 100. That sounded like an incredibly boring waste of everyone’s time to me. If it takes 3 minutes for each kid to count, and there are 20 kids in the class, an hour without any actually learning just went by.

Turns out counting to 100 is actually a kindergarden state requirement. Near as I can tell this requirement was started after a discovery that kindergartners did not have good number literacy. Back when I was in kindergarten, I only had to count to 13. At some point they raised the bar to 30, and now to 100. I get counting to 30 or so. The teens are sort of like the irregular verbs of the number world (13 is “thir-teen”, not “teen-thir”, while it’s “twenty-three”, “thirty-three”, etc.) After 30 the challenge is gone. I doubt there are many kids who can count to 30 who can’t count to 100, or even 10,000 for that matter. Knowing the pattern, and understanding numbers are not the same thing.

Anyone into machine learning will tell you: memorizing is not learning. Learning occurs when you can apply a concept to a new situation. That’s why Domingo and I would much rather focus on new experiences and new challenges, especially now while the brain is under such rapid development.

On Failure and Success

I love the Khan Academy motto: You can learn anything. There have been numerous studies that argue that intelligence is not fixed, that we learn best in failure than we do in success, which is why it is important not to ignore the failures. I think this is why Khan Academy resonates with me so much. The general premise is learning at your own rate and not moving on until the subject matter is 100% mastered. That’s because new subjects tend to rely on skill mastered in past subject. If one only ‘mostly‘ understand a subject like calculus, one may struggle with physics, or Bayesian theory, for example.

Obviously this approach doesn’t work as well in the classroom, but it is something Domingo and I can do with the girls. It also fits in nicely with the notion of praising process and effort. Failure is okay as long as you don’t give up and learning something in the process.

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