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Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Bunch of C-Words

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Ahem. Competitive, Cooperative. College, Career.

Being competitive is a positive trait for business in America these days. Businesses must get to the top, and they only want the very best people to get them there! We even have entire “reality” TV shows about getting to the top (including Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, Creature Shop Challenge, American Ninja Warrior, Project Runway and, of course, The Apprentice). Success, especially very-public success, is clearly rewarded. What’s wrong with success? Why shouldn’t my kid do the best and be the best? Some college applications still ask about class rank, and kids still vote for “Most Likely to Succeed”, right?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with success. After all, who doesn’t want to be successful? But maybe there’s a problem with defining “success” (or even “competitive”) as “being-top-dog-all-the-time”. Even for schools without explicit class rankings, students make their own comparisons and know their place in the line. There’s a world of difference between being a leader or top of the class and being domineering and/or a poor winner. Someone posted a link to this op-ed on America’s obsession with getting kids competitive, as well as this one, advocating not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It reminds me of this NYTimes bit on Worriers and Warriors and the genetic component with how kids (and adults) handle stress.

As a non-competitive person, I think that all of that stress and pressure to be Number 1 has to be draining. Parents start their kids in pee-wee soccer at age three (okay, some start soccer for sheer exercise, but some have actual goals in mind for their kids), they have to get their kid into the highest-ranked pre-schools and private schools, they make their kids sign up for lists of AP courses and music lessons and tutoring (although UNC researchers recently found that more AP courses predict better college GPAs, but only up to five courses before a plateau), and there’s tons of leadership camps and courses in- and outside of school. Moreover, if a kid must be on top of every list (i.e., aggressive domination), that’s at the expense of every other kid.

Many of today’s teaching methods include cooperative skills and training (Think, Pair, Share; group work; global pen pals; lab partners; etc.). These techniques increase information processing (over passively listening to lectures in class) and boost student learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of student-leaders, but possibly a reduced emphasis on the domineering aspects that can come with domination of some students over others. I’m not saying that a school-room’s goal should be to have across-the-board even achievement with no rankings (that’s silly and unrealistic). Leaders don’t necessarily have to be cut-throat and aggressive; instead, they can help others to find their best traits. Again, students always compare themselves to others, and everyone knows who the smart kid is in the room.

What do competition and collaboration in K-12 education have to do with the President’s goals for students to be “college– and career-ready”? Lots, but there’s also a gap. Arguably, kids need both some sort of drive (competitive nature) and social skills (collaborative skills) to survive much of further school (college) and employment (career). So how do we know students actually have the skills they’ll need in college? Standardized tests cover course-content in (English) language arts, and math (and sometimes science). But neither competition (except athletic) nor collaborative skills are tested in public schools. Common Core curricula advocate for flexibility in thinking and understanding, rather than for merely finding correct answers (confirmed by this amazing article from the NY Times talking about why Americans stink at math).

What’s not been mentioned? Creativity. Culture. Cross-disciplinary. Compassion. These traits are, similarly, hard to measure or even define. But most people, certainly colleges, view them as important.

So is bridging the gap a K-12 teacher problem? Kinda. There are lots of teachers who are changing or have already changed their methods for the better. But there are many more who need to: some refuse to do so, and some don’t know how to. Is this also a post-secondary problem? Kinda. There’s a big difference between getting numbers about kids and getting the kids. Is this a parent problem? Kinda. Expectations and support for kids will, of course, vary for each family.

There seems to be a big communication gap between what all the parties want in their kids for each stage of their education, and what they get out of them later. So perhaps a more pertinent questions is, what do you want for your kids, and why do you want it?

Even better: give your kids some say. What do your kids want, and why?

Gates Foundation Vaccines Social

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Last week at the Gates Foundation Vaccine Social (#GatesSocial) was a whirlwind of crazy-smart and interesting people. This will be a kind of more-filled-in version of my Tweet-fest, at least, after a week’s worth of not doing this write-up. Please correct and forgive anything out of sorts!

9am: Breakfast and introductions. Between the doctors, researchers, refugee-helpers, and newly-college-graduated, this (mostly) humble high school teacher felt kinda out of place in a small conference on vaccines. Fortunately, I’m a professional. It was kinda neat to be the only teacher in the room, so I could be an expert in something, along with a room-full of people actually involved somehow with vaccines. Also fun to meet the Midwesterners (go #MNnatives!)

10:15: Bill Nye! Okay, I may have let out a fangirl squeal of delight, which delighted the other people at my table. At least I can be comic relief. Mr. Nye spoke a bit about the struggle of science versus what-other-people-know-as-fact, citing his “debate” in Kentucky, and promoting his forthcoming book on evolution. “Shiny Object Man” (as his friends call him) jumped from topic to topic, which was fine but not very coherent. People asking questions actually gave his Q&A a structure. I did get to ask him, as a teacher, what should my role be in terms of vaccines, when my students, who are minors, have little-to-no say in their lives. He told me to be inspirational, get my kids enthusiastic and involved, so that when they can vote and have to make decisions, they can. Makes sense.

11am: Gates Foundation’s Director of Vaccine Delivery Orin Levine and CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann. I couldn’t get a good picture of them, but both Dr. Levine and Dr. Desmond-Hellmann are truly dedicated to delivering vaccines to the world, expanding the research in not only vaccines, but delivery and the whole process. I asked Dr. Levine whether they look at pulling-a-Microsoft, and just outright purchasing companies with good ideas, like some TED talks and others, but he got distracted and didn’t answer me.

12:30: Panel on social media and vaccines: Wendy Sue Swanson (a.k.a., SeattleMamaDoc), Sheridan Marfil from the UN’s Shot@Life, Gates Foundation Digital Director, Jen Hauseman. High-powered women here! All had pretty cool experiences with how digital-ness, especially Twitter, helped them reach out for various work-related tasks and networking. Ms. Marfil talked about a prospective “Follow the Vaccine” game or app, so a particular vial could be watched through its manufacture, shipping, and eventual delivery, which I think would be cool to make vaccine challenges more tangible for many people.

1:45pm: Tour of the Foundation Visitor Center. Neat building, lots of things to play with, interactive inputs and tactile displays.

3pm: Tour of PATH. While PATH isn’t expressly connected to the Gates Foundation, the GF does contribute to the vaccine program there. It’s a pretty cool facility, made just for researching all aspects of human health promotion, from vaccines to devices to delivery/shipping of the materials to on-location manufacture of some materials and improvements. The guys in the machine shop said that the combination of traditional tools and a 3D printer meant they could construct nearly any object they thought of. The people demonstrating new methods for clean needles and needle-less delivery were enthusiastic in their new devices. It turns out that inoculating a foam-plastic peach is pretty easy.

4:15: Reception with various vaccine researchers in the Gates Foundation. Neat and random conversations.

I went to see about the Gates Foundation’s work on vaccines. As a teacher, I don’t think I would have attended a social on education. Teachers I know do not support the GF’s U.S. work on K-12 education. I acknowledge their educational policies come from good intentions, but their interference in K-12 education without sound knowledge of teachers’ autonomy and professionalism, any issues related to poverty, not to mention ignoring the Foundation’s own studies on what works, strikes me as pretty foolish. I could say a lot more here, but it would detract from this day’s events.

So here’s my wrap-up and thoughts from the day:

  • Super interesting and fun to meet with all of these people. Brycie Jones, the organizer for this event, said that this was the third social-media event in a hopefully-continuing series of #GatesSocials. She mentioned that NASA also has these socials. I thought it was a fun day.
  • I liked that people were drawn from all over. All over background-wise, research-wise, and place-in-life-wise. We were pretty united opinion-wise in terms of vaccines.
  • The people who came in didn’t know who we, as a group, were. They assumed we were all researchers, and unless prompted, didn’t explain things to the few laymen in the room. They didn’t know their audience, and their speeches, while well-prepared were meant for other audiences. They need to know what we find interesting (and will therefore Tweet about), which leads to….
  • I’m still fuzzy on what this social was for, other than free advertising for the Foundation. The organizers got a bunch of like-minded people to come and see their amazing facilities and resources, and we Twitter-bombed our (probably like-minded) followers for a day. What else does the GF want from its audience? Corollary: if the GF really wants a cohesive set of Tweets for the day (that they could then Storify), they should make a single hashtag for the event, rather than letting people decide between @GatesFoundation, #GatesSocial, #vaccineswork, and others. Plus, they eat too many characters.
  • Will I use any of this with my students? Having a 3-year-old, I’m already somewhat familiar with some of the challenges facing vaccines in this country, as well as some of the delivery challenges for other countries. Last year, one of my students wrote a research paper on vaccines and people’s objections to them. Among other things, he found History of Vaccines and an article on smallpox, which stirred a lot of conversation. For school, it’s almost better to not have the solutions so that kids can think of them on their own.
  • Would I recommend this event to others? Sure! It was really neat to meet a bunch of excited people interested in a common goal. As always, it’s very different to see and experience things in person than merely reading about them, and I thank the Gates Foundation for the opportunity to spend a day with them.