Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Readiness to Learn Problem

Don Siegel

As a teacher, coach, and co-director of a youth development program, I have become increasingly aware of the gap that exists between educational initiatives, the curricula they produce, and the youth that such policies and curricula are designed to serve. That is to say that those who craft policy are rightfully concerned about such things as educational inequality, educational under achievement, and developing a workforce that can compete globally, but they do not seem well versed in understanding how to connect with and engage the youth to which policy initiatives are targeted. My guess is that developing policy is a lot easier than figuring out how to attract and retain the attention of youth over the long haul. This is something that youth development workers know about, since participation in such programs is normally voluntary, and youth can simply walk away if a program fails to inspire them. 

As a case in point, No Child Left Behind had the noble intention of requiring all children to be proficient in literacy and numeracy by a specified date; but it failed to produce these outcomes because it provided no guidance for how to include children in getting there. Simply, setting up a variety of rewards and punishments for schools and states that did or did not make progress towards its goals made little difference to the kids who were the recipients of the policy. In fact, No Child Left Behind led to inordinate amounts of “drilling and grilling”, with associated testing that probably took a lot of fun out of going to school, and wanting to do well. Of course, children had to go along with what adults were requiring them to do because they could not simply walk away. School is required, but, their hearts were not into the concomitants of this ill-conceived policy initiative.

 Similarly, I think that there are both arguments to be made for and against charter schools, vouchers, Race to the Top, and Common Core. All of these policy initiatives and constructs have a logic to them that makes sense, and if operationalized with children’s’ needs considered as a priority, they would produce the sorts of outcomes that their creators envision. Yet, despite the intellectual firepower that has gone into all of these ideas, we still seem to be making only marginal progress in helping kids develop the academic and developmental capabilities that will make them happier, healthier, and better able to thrive in a highly competitive globalized world. Why is this the case?

While I can’t provide a definitive answer to this question, my experience working with and observing kids over the years leads me to one possibility.  Simply put, the programs that adults have crafted, while logical, fail to get a youth’s “fires lit.” By this I mean, there is a disconnect between program design and its operationalization into something that invokes a kid’s willingness and interest in engaging in it. Educational psychologist, Edward Thorndike recognized the importance of receptivity to learn in his famous Law of Readiness, which proposed that for learning to take place a child needed to be ready to learn. For youth not so prepared, learning would be less than optimal, if it occurred at all. Given that readiness is a critical prerequisite to learning, it seems remarkable that so little attention has focused on how best to get a child ready and eager to learn. Virtually, all initiatives in education and youth development have been about ways to organize and run schools and programs, develop curricula, and/or by what means to assess students and staff. How to get the recipients of all of this, children, ready and engaged has been a largely missing piece, or at least a piece that I believe has not received enough attention.

With the readiness/engagement question in mind, ethnographer Herb Childress tackled this problem, and reported on what he found in an essay entitled Seventeen Reasons Why Football is Better than High School. Having spent a year visiting high schools and observing students not listening to teachers, conversing with one another rather than doing their work, putting their heads down on their desks in response to boredom, and generally tuning out, he wondered why the same students appeared to be fully engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities.  In contrast to school, he saw the same kids coming alive and giving their best efforts.  Ironically, Childress stated that he selected football as a case in point, not because he personally loves the sport, but because he hates it. His contention being that “even football is better than school”. Why was this so?

Some of the elements that Childress identifies include that in football:
·      … teenagers are considered important contributors rather than passive recipients. Here youth understand that they have unique contributions to make to a team’s success, and that they have a valued role to play. In contrast, much of what goes on in school does not recognize their unique talents. Instead, they are viewed more as passive vessels to be filled by others, than as valued contributors to a noble enterprise.
·      … youth receive honors, status, and recognition from the wider community. Typically, this does not happen in a class, in which grades are more of a personal thing that has meaning in a very limited sense between a student and her teacher, and, perhaps, a parent.
·      … the unexpected often happens, which makes things more exciting. In contrast, classes typically are choreographed with carefully crafted lesson plans which make them very predicable, routine, and monotonous.
·       … emotions and human contact are expected as part of being successful in the activity. In contrast, the norm in classrooms is for students to work independently, with minimal communication and interaction with peers.
·      … there is a lot of individual instruction and encouragement from adults who work with smaller groups of players. In classrooms, teachers typically provide large group instruction, and because of class sizes of 25 or more, are unable to provide much attention to each student. As well, the interest and enthusiasm of coaches for being at practices and working with players clearly exceeds that of teachers in classrooms, who often appear more subdued and less excited to be there.
·      … there is a great deal of peer learning in which more experienced players teach and inspire less experienced ones. This is reinforcing to players on both sides of the experience equation. In classrooms, adult teachers normally provide all of the instruction, as more able and less able students may be assigned to different groups.
·      … a public performance is expected, and provides an incentive to practice hard in order to acquire the necessary skills to compete effectively, while being observed by family and friends. In contrast, a youth’s schoolwork is typically performed and evaluated in private, and a student’s success or failure has little impact on others.
While, Childress does not mention any of the educational policy initiatives previously identified, I believe that his observations are closely aligned with Thorndike’s Law of Readiness. His main contention is that the same adolescents who may be cynical, alienated, and disaffected in one context can be inspired, engaged, and exhilarated in another. As a result, they become active, eager, and effective learners. The take away from his observations is that, as educational philosopher John Dewey asserted, children are not simply empty vessels to be filled with intellectual content, but are naturally curious, social, and creative. In essence, Childress’ observations corroborate Dewey’s assertion, and challenges educators to recast their classrooms to better connect with what adolescents need and want.

Clearly, this is not a trivial undertaking. Yet, with all the energy and attention, over the years, going to curriculum development and associated standards to be met, we have sometimes forgotten that whatever we come up with will have little impact if we are unable to get kids engaged, and willing to expend energy acquiring the knowledge and skills that we wish them to have. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Kids know little or care much about such policies as No Child Left Behind or Common Core. As we see in Childress’ observations, they want to be part of something that is exciting, that everyone cares about, that is subject to public acclaim or condemnation, that is social, that requires them to play a valued role, and that makes them accountable for executing that role effectively. When so engaged, they become eager to learn.

 In Project Coach, I believe that we recognize this, and strive each day to craft ways to appeal to the natural proclivities of youth. Teaching and coaching entails lighting fires in learners/players.  As we have found over the years, this is probably our greatest challenge, but to paraphrase, Dr. Seuss, once kids become fully engaged there is no limit to the places that they can go! Our responsibility is to light their fires, and to make certain that our activities are filled with lessons that not only make them successful coaches, but have transfer value to other important contexts in their lives.

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