Friday, October 14, 2011

How Time Flies!

            A few days ago a post appeared on the Fast Company blog that made me think, “Wow! I want one of those gadgets. In fact, I want one for every classroom. I want one in my house. I think every family needs one."
No, it’s not some super-cool tablet that will replace the iPad. It’s not a robot that will do routine chores. It’s a clock. A clock that takes a full year to complete its cycle: “This Seasonal Clock Will Keep You thinking About the Present.”
            In many ways time is a form of currency. How we spend it sends signals about our priorities, and we never seem to have enough of it. We often say that we didn’t get something done because we ran out of time; what we’ve really done is choose to use that time doing something else. We all have 24 hours in a day, although our ultimate amount of mortal time obviously varies. And when we do toss off that mortal coil, how do we want the epitaph to read—“He simply ran out of time” or “He made the most of it, and it mattered”?
            That’s pretty big picture. As the article points out, “our obsession with small increments of time often keeps us from focusing on the bigger picture.” This manifests itself in some obvious ways in education. Curricula is organized into discrete units, usually with a defined time frame and marked by a test at the end. Add enough of those and it’s suddenly time for a “final” exam. Seat time becomes a key measurement of assumed progress. Grade levels and divisional organizations become major transitions, like flipping months on a calendar and then buying a new one (a metaphor becoming rapidly obsolete, but that’s another post). Teachers fret about having to make sure students are ready for the next level. A student having to apply to another school in 4th or 8th or 12th grade imposes another deadline.
            The problem with all this? Too often we feel that we have to finish kids. And we often want it to happen on our timetable, not theirs. Plus it should come with a certain payoff.
            Such an approach is not a healthy one for children, particularly when it comes to their long-term development. It fosters a product-focused orientation, one in which a certain result takes on too great an importance and becomes a measure of self-worth.  That can obscure what led to the result, which is what really needs to be examined for growth to occur. Similarly, struggles become “catastrophic” and provoke finger-pointing rather than reflection and lessons in determination and resilience. It undermines natural inclinations to love learning for its own sake. (Read more about this in an earlier post on Carole Dweck’s Mindset.)
            What are the not-so-long-term effects of this? Recently National Association of Independent Schools president Pat Bassett was part of a panel with the president of Georgetown, the president of Stanford, the dean of the faculty of Arts & Science at Harvard, and the Director of the Initiative for Innovation in Engineering Education at Olin College. Afterwards, Bassett wrote on his blog:
The university leaders also confirmed with what a professor at Harvard told me last year, that 30–40 percent of the undergrads are on anti-depressants, and 10 percent of girls suffered from eating disorders. While the university leaders were quick to point out that their universities were mirroring national data, it is particularly interesting to me that the students at these colleges had already “won the lottery” by matriculating at places that were nearly impossible to get into for mere mortals, and yet so many were still stressed beyond belief and needing medication (prescribed or, probably in much larger numbers, self-medicating — see the next bullet point).

Footnote to “success-driven parents and college counselors”: beware of what you wish for: What we actually do well is place students in the “best match” college, where they will be successful and can pursue interests that will keep them engaged and balanced.(
In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, educational psychologist William Damon cites a meta-analytic study of college students which points out that 45% of them show serious signs of depression. Per that same study, only 20% could be called “truly purposeful.” The rest possess a “foggy self-identity” and can see only the short term rather than have long-term aspirations. I can’t help but believe that this is caused in part by children feeling rushed and thus pressured at younger and younger ages.
            Helping young people remain life-long learners has longer term benefits. Particularly in this day and age, when so much changes in a constant swirl, people have to be able to react and adapt and evolve, and quickly. It’s also a matter of long-term health and quality of life.  In A User’s Guide to the Brain, Dr. John Ratey talks about the nuns of Mankato. Many live into their nineties and even past one hundred; on average they live much longer than the general public. They also show far fewer cases of all mental and neurological diseases. Why? It’s not just living in a convent and perhaps escaping many of life’s stressors. The nuns vigorously play intellectual games, engage in debates, and earn advanced degrees. Many of the nuns donated their brains to science, and examination revealed unusually great dendritic growth. The brains of those nuns who were more intellectually engaged showed more growth than others. The implication, as Ratey explains:

Like the nuns of Mankato, if you constantly challenge your brain to learn new things, you may develop more neural connections that help you delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, recover from a stroke, and live a longer life. And your life will be more interesting. It’s never too late to start: studies show that the adult cortex retains its basic plasticity. You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. (364)

That depends largely on how we nurture our pups and make sure they get what they need when young. As a former colleague of mine is fond of saying, “It’s easier to build children than to repair adults.”
            It’s a tremendous challenge to keep the long view in mind. We want the best for our children, and in this hyper-competitive world we fear their falling behind in the race to whatever goal. Life comes with certain realities, including deadlines. Sometimes I watch both the children here and my own kids and feel as if I’m holding a stopwatch, ready to click the buttons as milestones are passed. I can grow impatient; I think, “Shouldn’t you be able to do this by now?!?” I have to take a deep breath. I remind myself of what really matters. And I realize that I need to trade the stopwatch for one of these new clocks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One word - homeschool.