Friday, January 14, 2011

Letting Kids be Kids.... All Over The World

There is a discussion hurricane currently swirling around Amy Chua's article, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior from the Wall Street Journal last week. For examples of interesting follow-up and reaction to the piece see Christine Lu's post on Quora and the more recent response from Amy Chua herself in the article Mother, Superior?   I am intrigued by people's extreme perspectives on parenting, although I am not yet at liberty to weigh in on that exact realm, I am of course, more intrigued with people's perspectives as they relate to teaching, growth, development and learning - something I do know a bit about.

I want to share with you, a connection I made this week between what I do and this discussion surrounding cultural differences in parenting. I teach in an IB World School. We follow the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) curriculum framework and instructional design model. The PYY is inquiry-based, student-centered, trans-disciplinary and concept-driven.

I teach Grade 5 and we recently put on a grade level concert, one night of the entire year when the students get our state-of-the-art theatre facility all to themselves to show their parents what they've been learning in their units of inquiry and the performing arts. This year we asked the students to create their own skits/dances/poems/songs about our current unit of inquiry and our amazing performing arts teacher tied it all together with a rockin' soundtrack of songs that connected seamlessly with the ideas we were learning. Our unit was about how humans manage solid waste and it falls within the theme of how we organize ourselves. The students took the information and concepts that had become most pertinent to them in their 5-week unit of inquiry and began to develop their performances. The teachers then allotted approximately 4 weeks for intermittent practices and rehearsal times, followed by 2 solid days of stage rehearsals the day before the show. In those critical two days, the teachers helped by giving advice and feedback as we watched their acts  - 32 in total - which were combinations of small groups and mixed class clusters. The teachers assisted with technical requirements and helped them become familiar with the theater, the equipment, and the time structure, but we never suggested that they change anything about the content or delivery of their performances. For two solid days we all worked collaboratively in the theater, 135 ten-year olds, seven teachers and three theater staff. An amazing thing I noticed, was that their performances did change as they practiced. They took our feedback and mixed it with their own intentions and then applied it to their work to make it better. They were definitely in charge, every step of the way.

What came together on the night of the show absolutely knocked the socks off of the parents and school administrators who sat, happily entertained, in the audience for 90 minutes. It was amazing. The one thing that many people noticed and appreciated was that this was obviously the authentic work of the students. No longer are our annual school concerts the polished performances of robot students who learned to follow a teacher's instructions, monotonously repeating a performance piece that they have zero connection to. No longer is our annual school concert the result of a teacher's hard work, a teacher's expertise and/or a teacher's dedication to education! Why was it ever about that in the first place? Now we boast an annual school concert (in every grade level) that shows 100% of the hard work, expertise and dedication of the star performers themselves - the students! And they know it. They get it. And they love it. So far, from the responses I've heard, so do their parents.

Did I mention that these students (and of course their parents) are mostly Chinese?

Thinking about this school performance and the students' sense of  ownership, collaboration and responsibility has helped me articulate my own responses to the array of perspectives on parenting strategies that have been voiced in response to Amy Chua's article. Here's what I've been digesting.

Ownership A person must have ownership over their own growth and development in order to find authentic value in what they do. People can arrive at a level of ownership by way of numerous pathways, both self-directed and also directed to it by others. There is something to be said, however, for the individual who learns how to direct and navigate their own life journeys independently, to come to an understanding about how the world around them works on their own terms. It is important to have pride and self-worth that is rooted in our own ambitions and desires. Not to say that this can't stem into the joy of fulfilling someone else's ambitions and desires, but the roots must belong to the individual.

Collaboration I feel that this is another important life-lesson and a developmental necessity. Knowing when to be competitive, when to be collaborative, and how to balance the two, is a key to success in the 21st century. Unfortunately, too often we teach our students to be competitive through testing, grading and ranking mechanisms that are embedded deeply into K-12 and post-secondary education. (These may also be influences felt at home, especially if your mother is Amy Chua!). Once these individuals enter the 'real word' - the 21st century world - we expect them to be strong collaborators, effective team players and cooperative contributors. We are not preparing them for this 'real world' if we're insisting that they must always be # 1. Harmony is described as the consistent, orderly and pleasing arrangement of many different parts. A deep understanding of all aspects of human nature - social, physical, intellectual and emotional -  is required to be successful in the world we live in.  When a parent or a teacher removes some of this balance or tips the scales to focus heavily on a certain aspect of development, the resulting inequity begins to dismantle stability. I believe that such a collapse is most often seen as a result of neglecting the social or the emotional. A lack of personal self-efficacy can create a void in an person's metacognition, which is the understanding of their own growth and stages of developmental awareness. Learning about how we learn is most effective in collaborative and safe environments. Children need to be supported holistically in order to begin unpacking their own learning. I wonder if this can ever happen in a household like Amy Chua's.

Responsibility A sense of responsibility for one's own actions, awareness of cause and effect, and experiencing the inherent value of making mistakes, are vital to creating the balance and harmony needed to cope with the world we live in. I believe that we need to focus less on challenging children to learn skills and memorize content (because these develop naturally with each individual's specific interests), and move towards teaching children to understand, and evaluate exactly how they understand, how the world around us works and how to successfully work within it. They need to become responsible for themselves at an early age.

In terms of Amy Chua's written article, I had a hard time respecting what she wrote. I have subsequently had a hard time respecting many of the responses I hear or read because everyone keeps perpetuating the stereotypes described in the article. Here are my thoughts on respect and the perspective Amy Chua chose to share with the world.

Respect I am amazed by commenter support and confirmation of stereotypes that were distastefully scattered throughout Chua's article. Why are we establishing and substantiating these generalizations and blanket summaries of Chinese parents vs American parents? Staging a competition about 'who is better' or 'who is right' based on national or cultural identity is.... blatant discrimination, plain and simple. I am happy to see blogs like The Good Chinese Mother and articles like, In China, Not All Practice Tough Love which explain a fresh look at parenting in the 21st century in China. Presumably it should have been obvious that within any nation and within any culture, variations in perspectives on parenting strategies are as diverse as any other perspectives on issues such as politics, religion, the environment or education. We know that stereotypes can dominate the perception of a country or a race. We've seen it all too often in our lifetime. But I think it's important to note the rate of change that we are living in right now. Those stereotypes we know are evolving so quickly and over time I think it's fair to say that the lines which once defined them are becoming blurred by the global pallet of multiculturalism and the influence of communication technology to connect big cities.

This discussion is fascinating. The world of parenting and teaching is also the most dynamic place to be! Imagine knowing that your influence is going to shape the generations of our collective future. Ultimately, I have an investment in the notion that humans will always do things very differently and from these differences, we will continue to challenge ourselves, explore the unknown and learn about the world around us from each (and every different) other.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My M.Ed Application

Here is a fun Wordle of my statement of purpose and my resume which I recently used to apply to the Learning, Design & Technology Masters of Education program at Stanford University's School of Education. Writing a statement such as this one and hammering out a modern resume was a fabulously challenging experience for me. Getting my statement down from 5 pages to a measly 1000 words, meant that I scrapped a lot of my favorite fun adjectives. Therefore, you will not see such an abundance of eloquently poignant and illustratively descriptive words as you probably would expect to see in my regular writing.
No real surprises here.