Silver, who first gained notoriety for forecasting the performance of Major League Baseball players and for correctly predicted the winner of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 election, can save the tattered reputation of math subjects.
For students across the country, there’s clearly an engagement deficit in the subject. Paul Lockhart, a math teacher in New York, writes in A Mathematician’s Lament [PDF] that if he had to design a system for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, he couldn’t possible do a better job than is currently being done. He explains that he simply wouldn’t have the “imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
Across the land, kids hate math. You can hear it in their constant groans and see it in their deranged faces. They ask their teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in life?” On most occasions, they never will. Even President Obama agrees. He recently said on the Tonight Show, “The math stuff I was fine with until seventh grade. Malia is now a freshmen in high school and I’m pretty lost. It’s tough.” And no wonder — the system is suffering from a tragic case of nostalgia. The origins of the current curriculum draw back to 1892 when the Committee of Ten hashed out a standard curriculum, which would eventually be adopted almost unanimously by schools.
Photo courtesy of Ian Hill/Thinkstock/Penguin
One of Adam Lanza’s high school friends said he was “probably a genius.” Another student recalled him as “a very bright kid.” And he was said to have corrected students’ Latin homework when he was 14 years old.
Concurrently, Mr. Lanza was a fish out of water, a misfit, an oddball. He had tremendous difficulty relating to his classmates, was labelled as stiff, shy and dysfunctional.
As investigators scramble to piece together a profile of the man who mowed down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the sleepy town of Newtown, Conn., and uncover the reasoning that led him to do it, many are wondering what could have been done to prevent him.
While most of American is jostling over issues like gun control, improving mental health care, and reducing violence in media, we’re missing an indispensable element – why schools need to create human beings and citizens who are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to identify and understand the feelings and conditions of another person. Or as Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, puts it, “Empathy is the social glue that allows increasingly individualized and diverse populations to forge bonds of solidarity across broader domains so that society can cohere as a whole. To empathize is to civilize.”
In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that empathy has three layers. The first is emotional contagion, where people are hit by a flood of emotions during a climactic event. The second layer is feeling for others. We do this through “body-mapping” – trying to “recreate what we have seen others do.” And the third layer is “targeted helping” – where people attempt to ease their emotions through altruism.
Today, there is a dearth of empathy in young people. After analyzing data among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years, a University of Michigan study two years ago concluded that college students are 40 per cent less empathetic than their counterparts in 1979. Indeed, the most significant drop has been in the past decade. What’s more, cases of bullying and suicides are climbing at an alarming pace. That means empathy education is needed more than ever before. There is a growing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and educators that bullying and other kinds of violence can be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age.
Primarily, children need to learn how to control and understand their feelings and emotions. We need to place children in capacities to practice and model empathy for themselves. Learning how to step into someone else’s shoes is hard, but without the personal immersion in the process, the experience will be a complete waste.
One program that is devoting itself to this is Roots of Empathy, started by Canadian educator Mary Gordon that has now reached more than 325,000 children in 10 countries in their 16-year legacy. A baby and its mother or father visit a school classroom 27 times during the course of the year. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit, and post-family visit). Students are asked to carefully observe the interactions that occur between the child and parent as well as their mood, and over time slowly become attached to them. In the process, they are learning emotional literacy, a term Ms. Gordon defines as “the ability to find our humanity in one another.” Later, the students express what they have learned in other subjects.
It’s remarkable to see how babies remake these kids. In a wonderful piece for the New York Times, after observing Roots of Empathy classrooms, David Bornstein writes, “Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up.” After conducting controlled studies specifically pinpointing “proactive aggressive students” – your playground bullies – Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, found that 88 per cent of these children decreased this form of behaviour over the school year compared with the control group where only 9 per cent did.
Roots of Empathy is typically for schoolchildren from kindergarten to eighth grade. I can’t see a reason why this program can’t be implemented in high schools around the world. Even the most bruised and battered students will succumb to the power of a baby.
Ms. Gordon often says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”
Could a program like Roots of Empathy have ultimately prevented Adam Lanza from mowing down innocent children and adults on a December morning? We will never know. But what we do know is that if we spawn an empathetic society, if we lend our hearts and souls to those who are hurting inside, and if we bring lonely and ignored people into our circles of friendship, then the number of families who lose a loved one from an act of violence or bullying will be largely extinguished.
Today, I was quoted heavily in a USA TODAY column: More students thinking twice about the value of college degrees. It also features the work of Michael Ellsberg and Dale Stephens.
It outlines my thoughts on college and the underlying problem in public education fairly well:
Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student, speaker and author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, argues that while doctors, lawyers and engineers should go to college, those with a desire to major in the liberal arts should think twice about attending. Seminars, online communities and classes, forums and freelancing could replace it.
“I don’t believe there’s anything in a liberal arts course that you can’t find in the library or on the Internet, except for the discussion aspect,” Goyal said. “However, there are seminars and online groups, very cheap and accessible, by which you can fill that discussion facet.”
If students have the opportunity to go to Ivy League schools, however, they should still attend for the opportunities that being associated with that brand name will reap, Goyal argues.
“If you have an opportunity to go to those universities, you should,” he said. “While the likelihood that you will have real-world experiences and engage in meaningful work is slim, having that degree and that stamp of approval can make a significant difference later in life.”
“What I’ve noticed when I’ve spoken with employers is that their perceptions toward prestigious degrees and just college degrees in general are really declining in the sense that they are taking people who have real-world experience, who have apprenticeships and internships under their belt, who can actually solve problems and do real work versus somebody who just has a 4.0 GPA, who went to Harvard and got a degree,” Goyal said.
Goyal said the public education system has been indoctrinated with the idea that the purpose of school is to create obedient and submissive people, an idea brought to the United States with the birth of public education.
“We can’t treat children like factory workers and people who are just going to memorize and regurgitate information,” he said. “We have to shift that mindset to understanding that learning is messy, learning does not necessarily happen in an academic and formal setting.”
Historian Vincent Harding quoted a West African poet and said, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” He went on to assert that this is a country that we still must create—a country “that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the earth needs as well as what individual people need.”
Harding hit the nail on the head.
Creating a country starts in our schools.
Our current learning culture is stale and reeking of industrialism. We educate children like they are blank slates and passive vessels. We pry out their talents and gifts until there are none left. And we cage them up like livestock for at least twelve years of their lives. And then we throw them into the scary and uncomfortable world of the unknown.
As a society, we aren’t realizing the true purpose of school—becoming lifelong learners and active, engaged citizens in democracy. Conformity and sticking in your shell is no longer the shortcut to success. What separates the best from the average in the world is grit, uniqueness, drive, and resilience.
Is it an accident that learning environments are contrary to the natural process of learning? Absolutely not.
One of the purposes for building a public school system a century ago was to ensure that millions of children weren’t roaming the streets and causing mayhem. School was there to civilize them into meek members of the population. It has worked perfectly, even to this date.
What’s more, the very dogmas that guide our schools go awry when stood up against the principles of basic cognition. Human beings learn best by doing and experience, not by ingesting and swallowing facts and figures. Look at young children: They laugh, they cry, they sing, they dance.
Suddenly, at age five, it’s as if they get arrested and thrown into an Alcatraz-like system called formal schooling. Most unstructured play vanishes. Days of freewheeling laughter, exploring, and creating get replaced by bubble filling content. What industrial-age institutions are engaging in is a crime, one that continues to cheat generations.
For all the chit-chat on education reform, very few are asking the question: What is the purpose of school? Ask yourself that. And then define what is “good” education. I suspect that far too many people will say that the end result should be high grades and test scores and prestigious college acceptance letters. That would confirm that in school, curiosity, happiness, and creativity are second-string and that America has lost its way. We need to recognize the fruits of American ingenuity.
That’s why we are desperately craving for a learning renaissance where the old order of education is shattered and institutions adapt and reinvent or go extinct. Public education may be the only institution that has largely remained the same as it was a century ago.
Imagine if we transformed schools into French salons of the 17th century, social engines, and public spaces for tinkering, hacking, and disrupting. Imagine if everyone in the community engaged with one another and the barriers that divide us came crashing down. Imagine if kids love going to school each and every day. A transformation on this scale entails setting people free to “unlock the code of their souls.”
Is this even possible? It is if we’re committed to shifting our industrial gears into a disruptive mindset and diverting trillions of dollars that we frivolously spend on standardized testing and “Race to the Top” circuses into making these radical changes a reality.
As Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown write in their book, A New Culture of Learning, “The goal is for each of us to take the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out, we can re-create it.”
It takes a village to raise a lifelong learner. If we follow the lead of schools which treat children like artists, creators, and empathizers, then we are on the stepping stones to creating a truly United States of America.
Nikhil Goyal is the author of “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.” Goyal, 17, is also a student at Syosset High School in New York.
Who is Osama bin Laden? Is he famous? Is he in a band as well? And why should I care? These were all questions that teenagers tweeted in May 2011 on the night President Obama announced that U.S. special operations forces killed Osama Bin Laden. Data released by Yahoo! concluded that two thirds of the people who searched “Who is Osama bin Laden?” that night were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years old.
I’ll give these kids a break—many of them were very young during the September 11th attacks. Still, you would think that at some point in their many years of schooling that somebody would have mentioned and discussed the most wanted man in the world, his background, and why thousands of American servicemen and women are stationed in Afghanistan. With such a heavy focus on what’s tested—math and English—our public schools simply aren’t teaching civics and current events.
As a result, a 2007 Harvard University study determined that a majority of teens are ignorant about current affairs and do not read the newspaper. Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey found that people age 18 to 34-years-old are consistently less knowledgeable about current events than their elders. On a current events quiz, young adults averaged 5.9 correct answers out of 12 questions, fewer than the averages for Americans ages 35 to 49 and above age 50. Many of these teenagers are or will be voters in a short time. I don’t think there’s anything more frightening than this.
Fortunately, a former New York Times editor is trying to upend the astonishing rise of ignorant Americans with her new startup, Kicker. Intended for people who are “turned off by traditional news media and want to “make a difference” and “get in the know easily,” founder Holly Ojalvo, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, hopes to disrupt the way teenagers engage with the fourth estate.
“A lot of news products aimed at high school and college students are designed as curriculum supplement,” says Ojalvo. “Some are alright, but it shouldn’t be the only way to engage young people for current events.” For teenagers, Ojalvo explains that news is overwhelming, confusing, irrelevant, and hopeless. “We want kids to feel smart, not stupid,” she says.
What Kicker does is make the news accessible, engaging, and actionable. There are only few news stories a day, expressing the highlights of major stories and writers use info graphics, tweets, maps, and quotes—”whatever tells the story best,” says Ojalvo. Perhaps, the most significant in the trio of elements of Kicker is that each story has a way for the reader to take action.
For instance, a recent piece on global warming suggested that young people can get involved by signing the Climate Reality Pledge, joining a virtual march, or a local 350.org group. As Ojalvo puts it, “When someone’s telling you a story, the kicker is the gist, the takeaway, the zinger. The kicker to any story we tell you is that you can start taking action. Right now. And we’ll point you in the right direction.”
For the future of Kicker, Ojalvo plans on experimenting with a few new features and will be collaborating with a Columbia University class on a digital strategy for the company and Brooklyn Law School, who is providing legal assistance.
To hammer away at the civics crisis in America where three quarters of high school seniors are unable to identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution among other embarrassments, we should be turning to sites like Kicker.
It isn’t just teens who need more civics and current affairs education, either. Do you recall the recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking “undecided voters?” Undecided voters were invited to ask questions about the election. Questions included, “When is the election? What were the names of the two people running? Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?” While the skit was undoubtedly exaggerated, it’s based in reality: Ojalvo says that adults in their 40s and 50s are secretly emailing her that they need Kicker to understand what’s going on, too.
So to every American who fails to identify the President of the United States, unable to pass the citizenship test, or just wants to comprehend the cluttered national conversation, it would do you very well to spend a minutes a day on Kicker. Let’s mark the words of Adlai Stevenson: “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”
Teen raising hand photo via Shutterstock
In today’s Sunday New York Times Fashion and Style vertical, there was a piece entitled “Saying No to College” by Alex Williams.
I was cited in a short snippet:
Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, published “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” contending that some students are better served by ditching lecture halls and treating the world as their classroom.
I highly suggest you read the piece, which highlights the work of Michael Ellsberg, Natalie Warne, Dale Stephens, James Altucher, Peter Thiel, Jean Fan, Benjamin Goering, and Mick Hagen.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to speak at the Curtis School #PSP2012: Teaching and Learning at Home and at School event in Los Angeles alongside Richard Gerver, Yong Zhao, Carol Dweck, Steven Jones, Wendy Mogel, and Ken Kay (Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn offered videos). It was probably the best event I’ve ever spoken at.
#PSP2012: Teaching and Learning at Home and at School was a free event for all who registered to attend, owing to the generous financial support of 13 independent schools and the inspiration and support of the education leaders who helped to shape the design of the program. Each shares a commitment to erasing boundaries between private and public school communities, and between teachers and parents, and to facilitate collective dialogue and action amongst all stakeholders. The event was also livestreamed to a simultaneous gathering of educators and parents in Northern California, at the Jackson Theater at Sonoma Country Day School.
More information about the event, please visit: cfee.me/PSP2012.