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Why Johnny Can’t Read
By Shlomo Maital

    

   In 1955, 62 years ago, Rudolph Flesh published his most famous book, Why Johnny Can’t Read.  For those of us who write books,  this is depressing.  Because despite wide readership of his book, wide discussion, debate, and wrangling —  Johnny (in America, especially) STILL can’t read.   Makes me wonder whether writing books, which is what I do these days, is worthwhile.  If Johnny can’t read, who then will read the books that we write?
    Flesch’s point was, we should use phonics (sound it out!) rather than sight reading to enable students to sound-out unfamiliar words.  Turns out – that was not the right direction.
   Today’s New York Times has a good analysis by Daniel Willinghamnov, on “how to get your mind to read”.  His main point:  Reading is an activity, to which the reader brings prior knowledge and in which the writer ASSUMES such prior knowledge.  If kids don’t know anything, they can read the words but they will not understand them.  It’s that simple.  What’s the point of ‘sounding it out’ if you don’t understand what the sounds mean???
     Massachusetts is the top state out of 50 in reading skills. Why?  Because Massachusetts has grade-level ‘content standards’ specifying what kids need to know in each grade.  Some states are following suit.  
      Willinghamnov makes 3 suggestions. 1. Spend less time for kids on literacy (reading) and more time on science and social studies.  (More than half kids’ time in school in third grade is spent on reading).  2.  Fashion standardized reading tests differently,  make them specific to what kids know and learn. 3.  Design knowledge into the curriculum, so that kids will be familiar with the content that they read.
       Reading is about comprehension, not just the words.  If you have a child, help your school focus on the stuff kids read about, not just the technical ability to read the words. 
        Why Johnny Can’t Read?  Because he doesn’t understand what lies behind the words he is reading.  Did it take us 62 years to figure that out?

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“Dis” It – Why Ideas Emerge from DISagreement

By Shlomo Maital

       

   Wharton School Professor Adam Grant writes often and well in the New York Times. In his Op-Ed piece on Nov. 9, “Kids, would you please start fighting?”, he makes an interesting point — Creativity often does not come from agreement. It often comes from disharmony, disagreement, dispute, argument and quarreling.

     Much of our lives is spent trying hard to maintain harmony, serenity, peace and calm. But Grant notes that “groupthink” is a major enemy of creativity, and groupthink emerges from forced consensus, when groups take the easiest direction, the lowest common denominator, to maintain harmony and agreement.

       “For our society to remain free and open, our kids need to learn the value of open disagreement,” he observes.

       Empirically Grant notes that “highly creative adults grow up in families full of tension…real disagreements.”   For instance, the Wright brothers, who flew the first airplane, came from such a family. Their father was a preacher who clashed with everybody, especially his boys’ school authorities. Orville and Wilbur Wright quarreled for weeks over the design of their propeller.

         I confess that a cardinal rule of team-based ideation is “withhold criticism”. Let ideas be born. And grow a bit. This is just temporary. At some stage, you do need to have a vigorous argument about which idea to adopt, or how to merge them. At this stage, disagreement is vital.

         Let’s be clear, there is a right and a wrong way to disagree. The wrong way to disagree is what is happening today in political debate, in the US, Israel and worldwide. This is a dialogue of the deaf. Conservatives watch Fox News. Liberals watch MSNBC. Nobody listens to anyone else, nobody tries to engage in constructive debate. Democrats and Republicans revile each other, and in general refrain from bipartisan constructive dialogue.

       The right way to disagree?   Start by listening.   Really listen to other views. Try hard to understand them. Before you frame your responses, listen to others. Stick to your guns and state your views with passion, but always, always question yourself as you question others. Critical thinking applies to your own thinking as well as to the views of others.

         Grant quotes research by a psychologist, Robert Albert, who finds that among children aged 5-7, creativity flourishes in families that are “tense but secure”. Kids whose parents argued constructively felt more emotionally safe, and showed greater empathy and concern for others. So, conclusion: “Instead of trying to prevent arguments, we should be modelling courteous conflict and teaching kids how to have healthy disagreements.”

   Grant’s four rules:

  • frame it as a debate, rather than a conflict;
  • argue as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong;
  • make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective;
  • acknowledge where you agree with your critiics and what you’ve learned from them.

Lifelong Kindergarten: Reinventing How We Educate Our Kids

By Shlomo Maital

       

   When my wife and I were raising our four children, I recall bringing them to kindergarten some mornings. Secretly, and often, I wished I could stay there with them and play.   Can I join? Can I play too? With blocks, crayons, Lego? I even thought of trying to set up adult kindergartens, where grown-ups could become kids again and relearn how to play.  That happens again, when I pick up our grandchildren from pre-school.

   This is why I loved Mitchel Resnick’s new book, Lifelong Kindergarten; Cultivating Creativity Through Passion, Peers, Projects and Play (MIT Press, 2016).   Resnick, an MIT Media Lab professor, says correctly that “most schools in most countries place a higher priority on teaching students to follow instructions and rules, than on helping students develop their own ideas, goals and strategies.”  

   The reason?   Public education, one of the world’s greatest inventions, was designed to produce workers for the first industrial revolution – for factories. But we are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Robots and artificial intelligence will do the routine work. We need creative people. But we haven’t yet figured that out, and so our schools remain mired in the 19th C.

     The best kindergartens are places where children learn through playing together. The operative word is “learn”. There is enough structure to guide their learning. But not so much as to destroy their initiative and creativity.

       Worldwide, kindergartens are becoming more like schools. Small children are getting homework and work sheets. The opposite should happen. Schools should become more like kindergartens. Resnick proposes four P’s – passion, play, peers and projects.   Ignite kids’ passion. Let them learn through discovery, by working on projects together. This, of course, is how they will work as adults. And while the learning is serious, let it seem like play.

       As a retired but still active professor at an engineering school, Technion, I feel we are centuries behind in understanding how to reinvent education. Somehow, our students survive the rigid structured program and retain at least some of their creativity. Many launch startups.

     But – how much “creativity capital” (the present value of ideas lost because our backward educational system, focused on rules and solving canned problems, extinguishes creative ideas) is destroyed – and ignored, because it is largely hidden and unmeasured?

     Can we as parents and grandparents do anything? Here is one small step. When you buy toys for children – ask not (Resnick says) what the toy can do for the child. Ask, what can the child do with the toy?   Buy toys that stimulate creativity by letting the child decide what to make, what to invent, what to dream.   Understand that there is a reason why kids take a toy out of the box – and then play imagination games with the box.  

Why Do We Disagree?

And How Can we Reglue Society? (Part Two)

By Shlomo Maital

   It is all too easy to attribute the “visceral divisiveness” that now afflicts American society – whites against blacks, Republicans against Dems, blue collar vs. white collar, educated vs. uneducated, immigrants vs. locals — to a nasty tweeting President. But that is too facile.   Trump has used an underlying trend to get elected, but he didn’t create it.

   The trend? David Brooks (NYT, International edition, Nov. 1, op-ed) puts his finger on it, as he often does.

     He quotes a political scientist, Alex Theodoridis: “Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways.”

     When politics is used as a cure for spiritual and social loneliness, it’s harder to win people over with policy or philosophical arguments. I.e., dialogue becomes impossible. We become deaf.

       Long ago, Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, described America’s social and spiritual loneliness, through the metaphor of bowling – Americans used to bowl together, now, they no longer do. (See the diagram above). Nor do they do many other social activities. And the ‘social media’ of the smartphone are really not social at all, because there is no real human contact involved.

       The fix?   Deeper communal bonds have to be repaired.  If we have strong social bonds, our political bonds need not be visceral, but even peripheral, as they used to be.

     But how?   I have absolutely no idea. I do know that personally, my wife and I have moved to a new city, and joined a new synagogue community, and take enormous pleasure and comfort in it. I truly wish this could be a result for everyone. The community we joined has a wide spectrum of political beliefs. What joins us are many other things,   prayer, study, social events, etc.  This does not cure the political divisiveness, which in Israel is if anything more fierce and visceral than in the US.  

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
November 2017
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