When children turn evil No single root cause, but lack of boundaries a clear factor
Sunday, September 02, 2007
There are no facile explanations for why a 14-year-old St. Lazare, Man., boy stands charged in the shooting deaths of his mother and four-year-old sister last week.
It is too easy to point fingers at a single bugbear -- violent video games, the Internet, lack of family supports and community cohesiveness, an absence of discipline, affluence, idleness or the disintegration of societal, religious and cultural mores.
It is none of these things, and it is all of them. There is not one single force that can propel a child to commit or abet the ultimate evil deed -- doing away with the people who gave him life.
Rather, it is a roiling muck of all these factors, coupled with the asinine assertion, ubiquitous today, that children are more sophisticated than children of past generations, and therefore can assimilate their world better.
They can't -- and the evidence is all around. The notion that filling a child's mind with garbage increases his sophistication and ability to cope is illogical. Children pass through developmental stages whose biological trajectory is not speeded up by logging on, out of sight of parents, to websites on bestiality or bomb-making.
By nature, children are not sophisticated enough to filter the information coming at them via the click of a mouse. Their relationship with the Internet is a classic example of the garbage in/garbage out paradigm.
The Australian magazine, Tech News Review, reported in August on a survey by Symantec which found that kids are online twice as often as their parents believe them to be, that a fourth of them are "getting away with forbidden online activities," that 23 per cent have chatted with strangers online, seven per cent went on to meet these online strangers in real life, 21 per cent had viewed "inappropriate material," and 19 per cent participated in cyber-bullying.
As Symantec's Marian Merritt said, "kids are the IT director of the household." It is so easy to be the director -- text-messaging is an instant vanishing act and websites can be clicked away in a second at a parental footstep in the hall.
If there are no boundaries online, there are also none when the kids log off. The boundaries of old are gone and with them has evanesced the sense of being part of a neighbourhood, a community and a society that hold certain established values dear.
A fierce individualism fuelled by a sense of entitlement dictates the mores of the day and it is seen in the unravelling of discipline and dearth of respect for authority -- the common thread of complaint woven through the Alberta Teachers Association's 2002 report to the provincial Learning Commission. A recent COMPAS poll in Ontario revealed that 84 per cent of teachers responding had been targeted by their students for cyber-harassment, including malicious gossip and overt threats of physical harm -- this "right" to disrespect authority being defended by the students as free speech.
The absence of boundaries means kids are free to set their own. So they simply indulge in whatever they please -- unchecked by parents who have fallen for the "sophistication" myth, as well as by other adults such as teachers and neighbours who fear retribution from out-of-control kids high on their warped sense of entitlement.
It is really that myth of sophistication which coalesces this murky cauldron of ingredients, for it perpetuates the notion that kids can set their own boundaries and figure out moral values on their own. It's the kid-in-the-candy-store scenario, only now the candy jar is full of poison and the kids are gobbling indiscriminately.
"Something terrible has happened to good people," said Father Michel Nault, of St. Lazare.
Something terrible is indeed happening. It started when people bought into the lie that children are just miniature adults and can set their own boundaries, and it has snowballed from there.
Youth interfaith council is tackling social issues
Founder seeks to nurture 'religious pluralists'
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Afroza Nanji thinks an interfaith council of young Calgarians dedicated to sharing their spirituality and serving their city in practical ways is an idea whose time has come.
The city dentist sold her practice in March to pour her heart and soul into founding the IDEA (Interfaith Dialogue, Education and Action) Youth Initiative.
While the project is still in its early stages, Nanji hopes IDEA will eventually take root in cities across Canada.
She says the Calgary project draws from a successful model that's been operating in Chicago for a decade.
"We have a number of avenues for interfaith dialogue between adults in Calgary, but I sensed there was a gap that needed to be addressed for those at the high school and university-age level," says Nanji, a Muslim.
Twelve young people -- two each from Calgary's Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Sikh and Hindu communities -- have been meeting every two weeks since mid-September to share the traditions of their faith, get to know each other and plan social action projects.
Team member Amanda Achtman, who is in Grade 11 at a Calgary Catholic high school, says the respect and tolerance IDEA is promoting "could go a long way to resolving differences, both locally and internationally.
"To learn about other faith traditions face-to-face instead of from a textbook or on the computer is a lot more effective," says Achtman.
Nanji stresses IDEA is determined to put collective faith into action and not become a purely academic exercise. Key areas of social justice interest expressed by the group's 12 "pioneers" include youth-at-risk, native outreach, poverty eradication and health issues.
IDEA members will be serving a meal at the Drop-In Centre on Nov. 18, then sitting down to talk with clients one-on-one. A major social action project is in the planning stage for the new year.
"It's important to see how our assumptions about problems like homelessness and the reality on the street come together," says Nanji.
Sukhjeet Sidhu, a Sikh student in her third year at the University of Calgary, said IDEA's hands-on component was a big draw for her.
"It's striking to discover the many similarities in the basic beliefs of our faiths -- how there are different paths to travel to the one God," said Sidhu.
Pooja Thakore, a Hindu student in her final year at the U of C, adds,
"The bottom line is that we all want to work together for the betterment of Calgary."
Nanji says the spiritually infused format of the IDEA project will continue from year to year, but the lineup of religions represented may change.
She wants to reach out to other local faith communities such as Buddhists, First Nations and humanists.
"Calgary is becoming more culturally diverse every day," says Nanji.
"We want to help develop a generation of religious pluralists who are confident in their own faith, but who realize and appreciate there are other ways to approach the divine."
Stubborn Love How do you deal with a difficult teen? Best-selling author Sue Monk Kidd learns the power of love that never quits.
By Sue Monk Kidd
As I walked to the mailbox that Monday, the clouds were the color of nickel, round and silver and rumbling just a little, like the rattle of a piggy bank. I glanced at the sky as two or three drops of rain splashed on me. I was not surprised. It seemed like it had been raining on me since I got out of bed.
The storm had started when my thirteen-year-old son, Bob, and I had argued earlier that morning. He’d wanted to wear an old, faded sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves to school, and I insisted on the nice, new shirt his grandmother had given him for Christmas, the kind with the button-down collar and blue monogram on the pocket. I’d pointed to the letters. “It’s not everybody that has his initials on his shirt,” I said reasonably.
He had rolled his eyes to the kitchen ceiling. “Nobody wears initials on their shirts, Mama. Nobody!”
Soon we were shouting. He said awful things. I said awful things. Finally he’d yanked on the grandmother-shirt. As he picked up his books, I’d reached over to give him a hug, but he stiffened and drew back.
The truth was, I wasn’t sure how to deal with Bob since he’d entered the world of adolescence. He’d scarcely arrived in it, and already we were skidding into little puddles of rebellion that left me feeling exasperated. He was a fine boy, a good son, but there were days he questioned everything I said. Days he seemed to test me deliberately. There’d been so much conflict and quarreling between us lately I was ready to throw up my hands and quit.
Shaking away the morning’s events, I sighed and walked on toward the mailbox, which looked as defeated as I felt. Ever since a car had plowed into the side of it, the pole had been bent and the door hung ajar.
Reaching inside, my hand brushed against a stack of envelopes—then something peculiar, like broom bristles. I peered inside. The day’s mail sat on top of a small collection of weeds and pine straw. Somebody’s idea of a prank, I decided.
As I raked it out, a drop of rain splatted on my face. I shuffled toward the house, not bothering to hurry.
That afternoon Bob breezed in from school and disappeared into his room. “How was your day?” I said, tagging behind him, trying to ignore the rift between us.
“Okay,” he said, pulling off his shirt. He tossed the monogrammed thing on the floor at my feet. I glared at it, like he’d thrown down a gauntlet. He rummaged through his drawer for the inevitable cutoff sweatshirt. I wheeled around to leave, then turned back. “Did you put pine straw in the mailbox?” I asked.
He gave me a confused look. “What?”
“Never mind,” I said.
The next day when I went to the mailbox, it was there again. A smattering of pine straw, some twigs, two dead dandelions.
Each day I found a bouquet of weeds in the mailbox. And each day I whisked it out. I didn’t bring up the subject with Bob again. As a matter of fact, I quit discussing anything with Bob. Every time a conflict arose, I simply flexed my authority, then left the room or changed the subject. It was just easier that way.
On Saturday Bob wandered into the den where I was reading the newspaper. “Mama, can I go to the movies?” he asked. I flipped the newspaper to the theater section. The movie he was asking about was rated PG-13. The number thirteen indicated an extra note of caution to parents. I looked at my thirteen-year-old son. The irony was not lost on me.
“Nope, not this movie,” I answered.
“Can’t we even talk about it?” he pleaded.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I said. “We would only end up shouting again.”
“Mama, you don’t understand,” he cried. “You don’t even try!”
When mail time came again, I walked out as usual and there was the same maddening bundle of debris. Reaching in to pull it out, I caught a flash of something small, round, and blue in the twigs and straw. It was a bird’s egg.
Chirping burst from a nearby tree. Scanning the limbs, I spotted the mother bird with a piece of pine straw dangling from her beak. I pushed the ragged nest back inside, impressed by her tenacity. Every day she had started a nest inside our broken mailbox and when she returned to find her efforts whisked away, she had tried again.
“You don’t even try!” Bob had said to me.
He sat beside his desk absently turning his globe around. “Hi,” I said. He looked up at me and stared, and for an instant I glimpsed the vulnerable little boy he’d once been, as well as the young man he was becoming. “Wanna talk?” I asked. “I promise to listen.”
My sitting there, listening to him pour out his anger and resentment and needs seemed to soak up the pain between us and give us a new beginning.
Later we printed a sign: “Dear Mailman, A bird has built her nest inside the mailbox. Would you deliver our mail to the front door until her eggs hatch and the birds fly away?”
Three baby birds appeared in our mailbox. Every day the mother perched on top of it and sang. It was the song that would get me through the teenage years—the sweet, stubborn sound of love that never quits.
"The book of Nature, my dear Henry, is full of holy lessons, ever new and varied; and to learn these lessons should be the work of good education." (Mary Martha Sherwood, 1775-1851).
In the present climate of distancing from nature, fear of even the slightest physical risk, and declining powers of observation of the real three-dimensional world (as opposed to the increasing dominance of screens and monitors mediating and impoverishing our experience), we must nourish by every possible means the connection of our young people to the beauty of the natural world and the rich multi-sensory world of experience it opens to them.
A BBC Radio 4 programme aired on 2 December 2001 described a project developed by a farmer to give children a taste of country life by actively involving them in work experience on his farm. At that time he had given over a thousand children this opportunity. He said that children love the contact with the land and the animals, and above all they thrive in an environment in which they feel useful and where there is communal effort in which everyone's contribution is valued. He said he was saddened by how "spiritually impoverished" was the life of so many young people in Britain today, and he equated this spiritual impoverishment with their alienation from the natural world.
The importance of such projects cannot be over-emphasised. They are truly motivating to young people, who are hungry to be involved in real-world activities and have an innate love of animals. At a time when mass entertainment dazzles and mesmerises us with computer animations of predatory prehistoric monsters and a sensationalized view of natural phenomena which paints a distorted picture of nature as threatening and dangerous, it is vital that children capture a balanced, healing and beneficent vision of the natural world.
This must be an integral part of the best Islamic education, since faith itself is verified and strengthened by our observation of the displayed book of nature, with all its signs of beauty and majesty.
3. Memory and Memorisation
We live in an age where loud-mouthed and vacuous opinions based on no real knowledge are increasingly shouting down the meaningful thoughts of people who actually know something and have something of substance to say. One of the reasons for this is that memory is no longer valued in our secular culture, so people are not taught to substantiate their opinions by reference to the knowledge they might have stored in memory. Instead, people have electronic access to oceans of data which they rarely know how to turn even into useful information through selection of what is relevant, let alone turn it into knowledge or wisdom.
Real education must foster a level of debate and discussion which draws on knowledge and experience, which encourages students to substantiate what they are saying, and which challenges merely vacuous opinions. If one has something stored in memory then there is something there for the mind to process, a framework for new knowledge. Memorisation makes complex material accessible to the brain for subsequent processing and lifelong reflection and therefore provides a potent "database" for cognitive development.
Muslim schools have traditionally kept alive the faculty of human memory, especially through memorisation of sacred text. But we need to be clear about the differences between memory and memorisation. Research shows clearly that the most effective memory is memory for meaning. What is understood most deeply leaves the most prominent and resilient memory traces. Deep comprehension of text, for example, is based on an understanding of the deep structure of the text (its underlying semantic propositions and pragmatic intentions, and the inferences we derive from them), not simply from the surface arrangement of the words. Verbatim memorisation of the text cannot help us to understand it, but processing the text in some other form can (e.g. taking notes, discussing it, making a diagram out of it).
Schools need to reclaim memorisation in those areas where it enhances learning. I have seen shy pupils and pupils with learning difficulties transformed by reciting poetry by heart or singing songs learnt by heart in chorus in musical productions - activities which not only foster expressive skills but also enhance the self-esteem and self-confidence with comes from a tangible achievement attained through effort and practice. In fact, all children, from those with learning difficulties to the bright and gifted, benefit from learning songs and research shows there is a transferable benefit to better mathematics and language learning.
As an amateur musician, I know that the memorisation of music for performance has distinct transferable cognitive benefits in many areas. This personal experience confirms the well-attested research which has found that learning to play a musical instrument can dramatically enhance human intelligence, probably because of the patterning activity stimulated in the brain. The mental mechanisms which process music are deeply entwined with brain functions such as spatial relations, memory and language. Spatial intelligence is crucial for engineering, computational abilities and technical design. Learning poetry also has transferable benefits, because all kinds of verbatim memorisation of complex material are using a variety of patterns and cues - not just the word order, but also the prosodic, metrical and rhyming patterns, and various poetic devices. Some of these, after all, are what facilitate the learning of the Qur'an.
There is an excellent section on the value of memorisation in Jean Houston's Jump Time, which shows clearly how the genius of Shakespeare was grounded in the memorisation culture of Elizabethan England. Imitation, too, was another formative practice in that era. "One studies a great piece of writing by one of the acknowledged giants of the past, enters into a process of internalisation - an alchemising through one's own life and experience - and then creates a poem of other work that is unique to the writer yet has similarities to the original. This practice enriches one's ways of thinking, depends one's ability to allude to other forms, thickens the soup of one's mind…." The best schools will use imitation of great models this way, and not only in literature, but also in art and music. It is important to realise that this is not unthinking imitation, mere reproduction or mechanical copying. It is using a model to catalyse a creative process which draws on a variety of sources, both external and internal.
We need to ensure that memorisation, imitation, dictation, and factual "right-answer" recall in answer to closed questions, are not over-extended as learning strategies to areas where they cannot promote comprehension. Many people now have an image of madrasa education in Pakistan as a process of sheer rote-learning, repetition and memorisation divorced from understanding. Muslim schools, like all schools, need to show that they have developed a methodology of teaching and learning in all subject areas (including religious education) which sees education as an active learning process which promotes deep comprehension through critical and creative thinking skills, discussion, collaborative learning, dialectic, research, questioning, recourse to personal experience, reflection, and contemplation.
4. Seeking Knowledge, Thinking and Active Learning
"Lord, increase me in knowledge." (Qur'an 20:114).
"It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray all night." (The Prophet Muhammad).
"All men by nature desire knowledge." (Aristotle)
A blunt new report by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the United Nations warns that Arab societies are being crippled not only by lack of political freedom and the repression of women but also by intellectual stagnation and the stifling of creativity arising from isolation from the world of ideas. The survey, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, was released on 2 July 2002 in Cairo. A telling statistic, according to the report, is that "the whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates". In the 1,000 years since the reign of the Caliph Mamoun, it concludes, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year.
A vision of a truly Islamic education sees the best schools as "thinking schools" and "active learning environments" which uphold the sacred trust to seek and acquire knowledge, and that through the quality of their education they dispense with the false idea that "faith" is somehow in opposition to "reason", and that the knowledge attained through divine revelation is somehow in opposition to acquired human knowledge.
The Prophet said: "God has not created anything better than Reason, or anything more perfect, or more beautiful than Reason; the benefits which God gives are on its account; and understanding is by it, and God's wrath is caused by disregard of it".
It is also related that a group of people once commended a certain man in the presence of the Prophet, praising him excessively. Thereupon the Prophet said: "What kind of intellect does he have?" But they replied, saying: "We tell you about his diligence in prayer and about the various good works he does, and you ask about his intellect? The Prophet answered and said: "The fool does more harm through his ignorance than do the wicked through their wickedness."
Of course, we must not restrict the pedagogy of thinking and learning only to the skills of logic and reasoning. These skills are, of course, fundamental and especially important in educational environments which have over-extended the pedagogy of imitation, repetition and verbatim memorisation, but we need to extend them beyond the conventional, 'convergent' thinking skills which have been over-emphasized in our Western machine-age education model. Einstein said that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" and, according to J. K. Galbraith, "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking". Ultimately, we must extend thinking to encompass the more comprehensive view of the human intellect embodied in the Islamic concept of 'aql, which has a moral and spiritual dimension as well as a narrowly cognitive one.
'Aql is a faculty which is hard to translate into English. Its Arabic root has the sense of 'binding' and 'withholding', i.e. the faculty of judgment, discrimination and clarification and the intellectual power of speech (nutq) which enables man, the "language animal", to articulate words in meaningful patterns. To Adam was imparted the Names (Qur'an 2:31), and in one sense this knowledge confers on man the faculty of logical definition and the making of distinctions which underlies abstract, conceptual thought. But 'aql implies more than a strictly logical ability. It is a combination of reason and intellect, and in its highest sense, as Titus Burckhardt explains, it is "the universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind". It is therefore closely related to the Heart (qalb), the organ of spiritual cognition.
There is some convergence here with the notion of nous (intellect) in Orthodox Christianity (Hesychasm), which defines intellect as the highest faculty in man, through which, if purified, he knows God or the inner essence or principles (logoi) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Again, this system equates the higher Intellect with the Heart, a faculty which dwells in the depth of the soul and constitutes the innermost aspect of the Heart, the organ of contemplation, even described in very Islamic terms as the "eye of the heart" in the Makarian Homilies. As such, nous is distinguished from dianoia, the faculty of mere discursive reason, whereas both intellect and reason are combined in the organic unity of 'aql.
Our conception of thinking and learning must embrace not only conventional logical and analytical skills but also skills such as those utilized by:
Active and skilled readers who employ a range of reading strategies according to purpose and genre, including close reading, scanning and skimming, and who make inferences and predictions based on context and background knowledge so as to go beyond the information given;
Clear thinkers, able to select what is relevant and accessible and avoid unnecessary complexity and repetition in transmitting ideas to others;
Independent, critical thinkers and decision-makers;
Curious, questing, adventurous thinkers (the Prophet said: "Seek knowledge, even unto China"; "Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is on the path of God until they return.");
Questioning thinkers, always seeking new evidence and able to resist premature closure and fixed conclusions. "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality" (Albert Einstein). The Prophet said: "Asking good questions is half of learning".
Discriminating and discerning thinkers, able to use valid criteria (including the criterion, or furqan, of the Qur'an itself) to sift the false from the true, identify weak assumptions and presuppositions, expose false premises, distinguish fact from unsubstantiated opinion, and make sound judgments. A well-attested characteristic of bright and gifted students is that they ask awkward questions, undermining shallow presuppositions and even questioning the hidden premises behind other people's questions. Good teachers are never threatened by such students.
Focused thinkers, able to formulate clear and specific definitions and categories and resist "woolly" thinking;
Reflective thinkers, able to ponder deeply and resist hasty and impulsive conclusions;
Unitive and synthetic thinkers, able to employ dialectical thinking to resist one-sided, polarised, paradigmatic thinking and reconcile and unify dichotomies and oppositions; able to affirm and incorporate logical polarities rather than seek to avoid contradiction and paradox through one-sided adherence to a single perspective. In the field of developmental psychology, Klaus Riegel identifies the ability to accept contradictions, constructive confrontations and asynchronies as the highest stage of cognitive development, and James Fowler associates dialectical thinking with the development of faith. It goes without saying that the dialectical process is not one either of compromise or loose relativism, but one of creative tension which ultimately transforms contradictions into complementarities, releasing the open-minded thinker from ingrained habits and conditioned patterns of thought, established affiliations, fear of change and instability, and reluctance to approach anything which may be threatening to one's sense of "self".
Thinkers who employ strategies for memory and verbatim memorisation including the identification of organisational and cohesive features (propositional structure; rhyme, rhythm, other poetic devices), finding connections with existing knowledge, paraphrasing and summarising, visualisation, mnemonics, etc.;
Flexible thinkers able to use a range of thinking skills and strategies appropriate to various tasks, and able to transfer knowledge in innovative and creative ways;
Multi-sensory learners, able to use all their senses to acquire knowledge;
Nuanced and multi-layered thinkers, able to encompass subtle distinctions of meaning, appreciate different levels of description, and evaluate which level is appropriate in a particular context;
Creative thinkers and problem solvers, able to explore and initiate alternative, divergent and lateral approaches to the solution of problems;
Non-literal thinkers, comfortable with symbol, metaphor, allegory and analogy;
Fair-minded and open-minded thinkers, able to resist prejudice and bias, and able to counterbalance culturally motivated distortions of fact;
Cutting-edge thinkers, able to pioneer new departures and developments;
Visionary thinkers, those who see to far horizons, reach to the heart of the matter and penetrate to the key issues and underlying trends;
Metacognitive thinkers, able to analyse their own thought processes;
Self-motivated learners, who are not over-reliant on extrinsic motivation (motivated by external factors, such as financial reward or accountability to managers) but can call on intrinsic motivation (e.g. love of learning for its own sake);
Lifelong learners, who persevere in their studies and have developed effective study habits, including organisation of time and resources, research skills, active reading, note-taking and note-making, listening, self-evaluation.
Learners who are able to transmit, use and apply knowledge for the benefit of others: There are many sayings of the Prophet on the "negligent scholar": "A pious, unlettered man is like one who travels on foot, whilst a negligent scholar is like a sleeping rider". The Prophet also refers to the "scholar without practice" as a "tree without fruit" and a "bee without honey".
Learners who embody, realise and actualise knowledge - deep learning (i.e. true education) goes beyond theoretical knowledge or knowledge which is merely "academic" in its pejorative sense; it must involve confirmation and realisation (tahqiq, derived from haqq, truth, reality) of knowledge in one's own self, which also inspires action (`amal). In Islam, knowledge and action are inextricably intertwined, and there is no worthwhile knowledge which is not accompanied by action, nor worthwhile action which is not guided by knowledge.
Above all we should aim to cultivate 'thinkers' who use 'aql in its sense of "mind-heart", and tafakkur, in its sense of a cognitive-spiritual activity in which the rational mind, emotion and spirit are combined. These faculties, in their higher sense, are, of course, more than 'thinking' in the sense that the Western mind often understands thinking as an exclusively mental activity distinct from the workings of the heart. Essentially, this is the contemplative state of Islamic worship, in which the truth of revelation is verified through the organ of spiritual cognition (ma`rifah). "Soon we will show them Our signs in the utmost horizons of the universe and within their own souls until it becomes manifest to them that this revelation is indeed the truth" (Qur'an 41:53). The Prophet said: "An hour's contemplation is better than a year's (mechanical) worship".
The awakening and development of these higher contemplative faculties must be considered within the context of a natural developmental process which governs the gradual maturation and unfolding of human capacities. This process starts with concrete sensory experience and observation, progresses to the use of the mind as a tool for abstract thought, logical reasoning and analysis, and culminates in the awakening of the Heart and the attainment of spiritual insight.
At present, the pinnacle of cognitive development in Western secular education is the attainment of formal reasoning (Piaget's "formal operations"), hypothetico-deductive thinking and theory construction. It is significant, however, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest constructers of scientific theory warned against the over-valuation of the rational mind: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
The development of the rational mind has had obvious consequences in terms of scientific and technological progress, but it has also inhibited man from progressing further to the attainment of spiritual insight, and even undermined those capacities which he naturally possessed at earlier stages of development, such as the capacity for awe and wonder in the face of mysteries which are inaccessible to the mind.
The senior curriculum therefore needs to make students critically aware of the limitations of formal reasoning, and the blindness of dogmatic scientism and reductionism which teach that observable reality is the only reality and that there is only one level of description applicable to all phenomena. Students should also be informed of the spiritual beliefs of famous Western scientists, such as Newton, Faraday and Einstein.
The Qur'an is a "book for those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond the reach of human perception" (Q. 2:3). Muhammad Asad comments on this verse: "Al-ghayb, commonly, and erroneously, translated as "the Unseen" is used in the Qur'an to denote all those sectors or phases of reality which lie beyond the reach of human perception and cannot, therefore, be proved or disproved by scientific observation or even adequately comprised within the accepted categories of speculative thought: as, for instance, the existence of God and of a definite purpose underlying the universe, life after death, the real nature of time, the existence of spiritual forces and their inter-action, and so forth. Only a person who is convinced that the ultimate reality comprises far more than our observable environment can attain to belief in God and, thus, to a belief that life has meaning and purpose."
True as this is, it is important to add that we need not become disillusioned with science because of the myopic vision of scientism. As al-Ghazali warns, laborious study of the sciences dealing with fact and demonstration is indispensable if the soul is to avoid imaginative delusions masquerading as spiritual enlightenment. It is also the case that some of the best cutting-edge modern science is also providing us with persuasive and compelling evidence, from a strictly scientific perspective, of the existence of a divine principle of meaning, purpose and order at work behind all aspects of existence , which is testimony to the Qur'anic statement that "Everything have We created in due measure and proportion". (54:49) This kind of empirical verification, with its power to demonstrate the unity of science and religion, is far more convincing and impressive to modern students than contrived attempts to find a convergence between Qur'anic ayat and the specific findings, for example, of physical or chemical research. The Qur'an should not be limited to the status of a scientific text book.
Just as we need to bring to light the difference between scientism and true science, we need to ensure that the process of education teaches students not to equate other limiting ideologies with potentially constructive tools and concepts. For example, fine thinking demands that we distinguish between nihilistic relativism and the valid attempt to find relationship or use context to inform meaning. In the same way, we need to distinguish between absolutism as an unbending frame of mind and the absolute and the immutable truths given to us through divine revelation.
Such distinctions can be carried further to encompass the difference between individualism and individuality, between communalism and community, between modernism and modernity, between fundamentalism and a commitment to fundamentals, between libertinism and liberty, and between syncretism and synthesis. Most importantly, there is a pressing need for education in the difference between secularism as a godless ideology and the intelligent appreciation that we live in the "present time" (Latin saeculum) and therefore need to attune ourselves to its particular needs, conditions and ways of thinking if we are ever going to be able communicate effectively with the contemporary psyche.
The Islamic perspective, always seeking unity, proportion, harmony and balance, is able to encompass many levels of description and apply each one in its appropriate domain. It does not conceive, for example, of analysis and synthesis as conflicting styles, the former to be superseded by the latter in the revolutionary school of tomorrow, but as complementary capacities, each with its appropriate domain. If the left side of the brain is overused, as it may well be in much Western education, the corrective is not to go overboard for "right-brained" thinking and consign "left-brained" thinking to the garbage bin but to seek a balance between the two sides. It is not a question of one mode of thinking being "better" than another, or one mode of thinking becoming obsolete, but of having the intelligence to realise that all modes have their place.
Riding in on three wheels and a prayer
Calgarians take message of peace to nation
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Writers of lesser faith might have taken it as an ominious sign.
Midway through a cross-Canada promotional tour last month, Calgary husband-and-wife authors Bill Phipps and Carolyn Pogue had a rear wheel fly off their venerable Volkswagen van on a northern Ontario highway.
The wheel is still missing in the dense forest, but Phipps and Pogue are safely home in Calgary and talking about their new books, both of which have strong spiritual themes.
Pogue, an accomplished author, wrote A World of Faith -- Introducing Spiritual Traditions to Teens, as "a peace tool for young people.
"It's my way to support the amazing work many teens and young people are already doing to bring the world together," says Pogue.
A number of the young people Pogue interviewed about their faith traditions and their hopes for world peace hail from Calgary.
A World of Faith is designed to inform teens of the basic tenets of the world's great religions, their worship traditions, history and what they have to say about timeless issues like the environment and peacemaking.
"You rarely hear about what positive young people are doing in the media because of its preoccupation with what's going wrong with society," says Pogue.
"But look at the Students 4 Change group in Airdrie or Craig Kielburger and his child rights advocacy. These kids just 'get it.' As Craig always tells his audiences, you can't rely on the adults," Pogue adds.
Phipps, who served a controversial term as moderator of the United Church of Canada from 1997 to 2000, retired from the pulpit at Scarboro United in June to take on new challenges.
His book, Cause for Hope -- Humanity at the Crossroads, is a passionate call for a new approach to today's pivotal debates in politics, economics and the environment. As Phipps sees it, under all those categorical disguises, they are profoundly spiritual issues at the core.
Phipps says Cause for Hope has been percolating away in his mind for years.
"I didn't want this to become a memoir looking backward on my career, but to offer some new ideas for people to think about going forward," says Phipps.
"And I wanted to speak to the 'non-church' world who are looking for some hope and encouragement."
Phipps contends mankind is at a crucial turning point in its evolution. He says it's time to abandon the old way of viewing the planet and turn to a new, much more holistic approach.
"The old story is all about violence and greed, of economic winners and losers, of our insatiable appetite for the earth's resources," says Phipps.
"Following this old path is leading us to ruin," he warns over morning coffee in the couple's northwest Calgary home.
"We have this philosophy that what the earth provides is solely for our consumption and wealth, and to hell with the other creatures who also depend on the earth for life."
For example, the Fort McMurray-area oilsands are lauded for fuelling Canada's economic boom. But Phipps contends the impact of such a massive disruption of the northern Alberta landscape and lifestyle involves issues of water use, the surrounding forest and its lifeforms, civil liberties, health care, stress on social services and indirect support for the American military complex, thirsty consumers of Canadian petroleum products.
"We have in our possession the technological means to destroy the planet," Phipps notes simply.
"It's one thing for a fishing boat to head out and catch some fish. It's entirely another for these factory trawlers to scrape the bottom of the ocean and destroy everything in their wake for the sake of one particular catch."
Phipps is convinced the spiritual community has something to contribute to this overdue changing of the global guard. And the more diverse that swelling, faith-based voice becomes, the more political movers and shakers are apt to sit up and pay attention.
"At this time in our history, we all have to start asking -- what are human beings here for? What is our relationship with creation?" Phipps says.
Phipps says part of the task ahead is to turn around the popular, media-fuelled perception, "that the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway, so I'm just going to take care of myself.
"You rarely hear about it, but there are millions of people around the world who are living the 'new story' already," says Phipps.
"In their hearts, a lot of people know that something is wrong. The political and corporate leaders are still catching up and people don't see a lot of bold leadership today."
Phipps says the 'new story' he advocates in Cause for Hope doesn't have to come through violent revolution.
"You need the candles and the banners in the streets," he says, alluding to peaceful movements that have brought about profound societal change in modern times.
During the months of October and November, many public high school across Calgary are honouring their students for last year's accomplishments. It is right that many students are rewarded for their academic accomplishments. Yet, in many of the awards ceremonies many of the students are rewarded for accomplishments beyond academics.
Students are rewarded for the service they give to the school, plus exemplary students receive citizenship awards for the good works they do around the school and the community at large. A number of young people are recognized for excellence in optional and elective classes.
Awards are given to top welders, beauticians, musicians, athletes and actors.
Students are even recognized for perfect attendance, and for a high school student, perfect attendance is quite a feat.
What all of these award ceremonies highlight is that in good schools students are learning and having incredible successes in all areas of their lives. A good school is one that awards a student for getting 100 per cent in high school math, and also awards a student for his or her talents in creating beautiful cabinetry.
Yet, in Alberta there seems to be a belief that the best schools are the ones where students perform well on standardized tests. In fact, what good schools do is meet the needs of -- not so much the parents -- but of the students.
If a student wants to excel in sports that chance should be for them at school; if a student wishes to design a house that chance should be for them at school too; and if a student desires to study hard and get the grades to attend post-secondary school that door should also be open to them.
There is no greater mythological belief that a good school narrows the opportunity for a young person to pursue an academic education. It is true that a school with a narrow academic focus is easier to administer, but it can only serve a small and
select segment of children. Good education is about opening wider, not narrowing.
However, across North America and even in an educationally progressive province like Alberta, there is a strong movement that advocates for narrowing kids' experience in schools. Euphemistically, this narrowing is called choice.
What the believers of school choice argue is that
because I pay taxes I should have the right to have my child educated in a school that aligns with my specific beliefs in religion or the kind of program run at the school.
What school choice proponents are mistakenly advocating for is a less democratic country. It is a mistake for a parent to limit a young person's experience; yet, the parent's motives are understandable.
They tend to think their children will be better off the more they are removed and sheltered from society at large. It is true that parents need to keep kids from danger, but it is a dangerous practice to approach life with a colony mentality.
Countries with strong democratic roots have their young people participating in all facets of the society and not just select parts. There is no faster path to an undemocratic society than to keep a nation's citizenry divided and separated by language, income, and religion.
It is perhaps most ironic that Preston Manning, the former leader of the Opposition in the Canadian Parliament and who worked so hard to be prime minister, is now a strong advocate for school choice.
Manning, who regularly stood under the Peace Tower, the symbolic centre of Canadian democracy, is now perpetuating the myth that school choice is good for Canadian education and for Canada in general.
Of course, he is making his argument for school choice based on standardized test results. Sadly, standardized tests give such little information about learning, yet people value them so much.
Sometimes the judgments people make about our education system are head-shakingly sad. People need to be involved more in the education system and not make judgments about it from afar.
Therefore, it is truly hopeful and refreshing to see young people who are Muslim and Christian, who come from rich and poor backgrounds, and who want to become philosophers and welders receiving awards in Calgary public high schools. It is a true honour to the diversity and strength of democracy in our city, province and country.
Dale Wallace is a Calgary high school teacher taking leave this year to travel and write.
The university tradition is to not only embrace change, but lead the way in establishing a new world order. Oddly enough, some professors are having a tough time adapting to wireless technology.
A Montreal professor is the latest -- but not the only one -- to ban laptops from his classroom in what's fast becoming a popular move at campuses across North America. Fair enough, laptops can potentially be a distraction, allowing the student in this case to buy and sell stocks in day-trading during class time.
No denying there are plenty of online distractions to tempt the poorly focused, from e-mail to social chat groups and networks like Facebook to online trading.
But distracted students is a problem teachers have had to deal with for as long as there have been classrooms. The only difference is note passing has been replaced with more sophisticated means.
If students aren't paying attention at university, it's their choice to fritter away the thousands of dollars they (or their parents) are spending on tuition.
The big loser here is the student, who will have lost more than the thousands of dollars traded on bad investments.
About all professors can do is provide the opportunity and environment to learn.
If the online students are distracting others from learning, then the professor is obligated to remove them from the classroom.
But don't remove the laptops or other electronic gadgets.
This generation, like those before it, will learn in its own way. Students, however, must be part of the process. And any process that ignores the technology that's so popular with its tech-savvy audience is doomed to fail.
December 9, 2007
All Brains Are the Same Color
By RICHARD E. NISBETT
Ann Arbor, Mich.
JAMES WATSON, the 1962 Nobel laureate, recently asserted that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” and its citizens because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.”
Dr. Watson’s remarks created a huge stir because they implied that blacks were genetically inferior to whites, and the controversy resulted in his resignation as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. But was he right? Is there a genetic difference between blacks and whites that condemns blacks in perpetuity to be less intelligent?
The first notable public airing of the scientific question came in a 1969 article in The Harvard Educational Review by Arthur Jensen, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Jensen maintained that a 15-point difference in I.Q. between blacks and whites was mostly due to a genetic difference between the races that could never be erased. But his argument gave a misleading account of the evidence. And others who later made the same argument — Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in “The Bell Curve,” in 1994, for example, and just recently, William Saletan in a series of articles on Slate — have made the same mistake.
In fact, the evidence heavily favors the view that race differences in I.Q. are environmental in origin, not genetic.
The hereditarians begin with the assertion that 60 percent to 80 percent of variation in I.Q. is genetically determined. However, most estimates of heritability have been based almost exclusively on studies of middle-class groups. For the poor, a group that includes a substantial proportion of minorities, heritability of I.Q. is very low, in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent, according to recent research by Eric Turkheimer at the University of Virginia. This means that for the poor, improvements in environment have great potential to bring about increases in I.Q.
In any case, the degree of heritability of a characteristic tells us nothing about how much the environment can affect it. Even when a trait is highly heritable (think of the height of corn plants), modifiability can also be great (think of the difference growing conditions can make).
Nearly all the evidence suggesting a genetic basis for the I.Q. differential is indirect. There is, for example, the evidence that brain size is correlated with intelligence, and that blacks have smaller brains than whites. But the brain size difference between men and women is substantially greater than that between blacks and whites, yet men and women score the same, on average, on I.Q. tests. Likewise, a group of people in a community in Ecuador have a genetic anomaly that produces extremely small head sizes — and hence brain sizes. Yet their intelligence is as high as that of their unaffected relatives.
Why rely on such misleading and indirect findings when we have much more direct evidence about the basis for the I.Q. gap? About 25 percent of the genes in the American black population are European, meaning that the genes of any individual can range from 100 percent African to mostly European. If European intelligence genes are superior, then blacks who have relatively more European genes ought to have higher I.Q.’s than those who have more African genes. But it turns out that skin color and “negroidness” of features — both measures of the degree of a black person’s European ancestry — are only weakly associated with I.Q. (even though we might well expect a moderately high association due to the social advantages of such features).
During World War II, both black and white American soldiers fathered children with German women. Thus some of these children had 100 percent European heritage and some had substantial African heritage. Tested in later childhood, the German children of the white fathers were found to have an average I.Q. of 97, and those of the black fathers had an average of 96.5, a trivial difference.
If European genes conferred an advantage, we would expect that the smartest blacks would have substantial European heritage. But when a group of investigators sought out the very brightest black children in the Chicago school system and asked them about the race of their parents and grandparents, these children were found to have no greater degree of European ancestry than blacks in the population at large.
Most tellingly, blood-typing tests have been used to assess the degree to which black individuals have European genes. The blood group assays show no association between degree of European heritage and I.Q. Similarly, the blood groups most closely associated with high intellectual performance among blacks are no more European in origin than other blood groups.
The closest thing to direct evidence that the hereditarians have is a study from the 1970s showing that black children who had been adopted by white parents had lower I.Q.’s than those of mixed-race children adopted by white parents. But, as the researchers acknowledged, the study had many flaws; for instance, the black children had been adopted at a substantially later age than the mixed-race children, and later age at adoption is associated with lower I.Q.
A superior adoption study — and one not discussed by the hereditarians — was carried out at Arizona State University by the psychologist Elsie Moore, who looked at black and mixed-race children adopted by middle-class families, either black or white, and found no difference in I.Q. between the black and mixed-race children. Most telling is Dr. Moore’s finding that children adopted by white families had I.Q.’s 13 points higher than those of children adopted by black families. The environments that even middle-class black children grow up in are not as favorable for the development of I.Q. as those of middle-class whites.
Important recent psychological research helps to pinpoint just what factors shape differences in I.Q. scores. Joseph Fagan of Case Western Reserve University and Cynthia Holland of Cuyahoga Community College tested blacks and whites on their knowledge of, and their ability to learn and reason with, words and concepts. The whites had substantially more knowledge of the various words and concepts, but when participants were tested on their ability to learn new words, either from dictionary definitions or by learning their meaning in context, the blacks did just as well as the whites.
Whites showed better comprehension of sayings, better ability to recognize similarities and better facility with analogies — when solutions required knowledge of words and concepts that were more likely to be known to whites than to blacks. But when these kinds of reasoning were tested with words and concepts known equally well to blacks and whites, there were no differences. Within each race, prior knowledge predicted learning and reasoning, but between the races it was prior knowledge only that differed.
What do we know about the effects of environment?
That environment can markedly influence I.Q. is demonstrated by the so-called Flynn Effect. James Flynn, a philosopher and I.Q. researcher in New Zealand, has established that in the Western world as a whole, I.Q. increased markedly from 1947 to 2002. In the United States alone, it went up by 18 points. Our genes could not have changed enough over such a brief period to account for the shift; it must have been the result of powerful social factors. And if such factors could produce changes over time for the population as a whole, they could also produce big differences between subpopulations at any given time.
In fact, we know that the I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped to 9.5 points from 15 points in the last 30 years — a period that was more favorable for blacks in many ways than the preceding era. Black progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows equivalent gains. Reading and math improvement has been modest for whites but substantial for blacks.
Most important, we know that interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement, sometimes by substantial amounts in surprisingly little time. This mutability is further evidence that the I.Q. difference has environmental, not genetic, causes. And it should encourage us, as a society, to see that all children receive ample opportunity to develop their minds.
Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is the author of “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why.”
Bill Gates: The skills you need to succeed
By Bill Gates
One of the most important changes of the last 30 years is that digital technology has transformed almost everyone into an information worker.
A lot of people assume that creating software is purely a solitary activity. This isn't true at all.
In almost every job now, people use software and work with information to enable their organisation to operate more effectively.
That's true for everyone from the retail store worker who uses a handheld scanner to track inventory to the chief executive who uses business intelligence software to analyse critical market trends.
So if you look at how progress is made and where competitive advantage is created, there's no doubt that the ability to use software tools effectively is critical to succeeding in today's global knowledge economy.
A solid working knowledge of productivity software and other IT tools has become a basic foundation for success in virtually any career.
Beyond that, however, I don't think you can overemphasise the importance of having a good background in maths and science.
If you look at the most interesting things that have emerged in the last decade - whether it is cool things like portable music devices and video games or more practical things like smart phones and medical technology - they all come from the realm of science and engineering.
The power of software
Today and in the future, many of the jobs with the greatest impact will be related to software, whether it is developing software working for a company like Microsoft or helping other organisations use information technology tools to be successful.
Lifelong learning is vital
Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too.
A lot of people assume that creating software is purely a solitary activity where you sit in an office with the door closed all day and write lots of code.
This isn't true at all.
Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.
I also place a high value on having a passion for ongoing learning. When I was pretty young, I picked up the habit of reading lots of books.
It's great to read widely about a broad range of subjects. Of course today, it's far easier to go online and find information about any topic that interests you.
Having that kind of curiosity about the world helps anyone succeed, no matter what kind of work they decide to pursue.
Bill Gates is chairman, chief software architect and one of the founders of Microsoft, the world's largest software company. From July 2008 he will end his day-to-day involvement in the company and focus on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its global health and education work.
January 27, 2008
The Age of Ambition
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
With the American presidential campaign in full swing, the obvious way to change the world might seem to be through politics.
But growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the job themselves. These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to the student protesters of the 1960s, and they are some of the most interesting people here at the World Economic Forum (not only because they’re half the age of everyone else).
Andrew Klaber, a 26-year-old playing hooky from Harvard Business School to come here (don’t tell his professors!), is an example of the social entrepreneur. He spent the summer after his sophomore year in college in Thailand and was aghast to see teenage girls being forced into prostitution after their parents had died of AIDS.
So he started Orphans Against AIDS (www.orphansagainstaids.org), which pays school-related expenses for hundreds of children who have been orphaned or otherwise affected by AIDS in poor countries. He and his friends volunteer their time and pay administrative costs out of their own pockets so that every penny goes to the children.
Mr. Klaber was able to expand the nonprofit organization in Africa through introductions made by Jennifer Staple, who was a year ahead of him when they were in college. When she was a sophomore, Ms. Staple founded an organization in her dorm room to collect old reading glasses in the United States and ship them to poor countries. That group, Unite for Sight, has ballooned, and last year it provided eye care to 200,000 people (www.uniteforsight.org).
In the ’60s, perhaps the most remarkable Americans were the civil rights workers and antiwar protesters who started movements that transformed the country. In the 1980s, the most fascinating people were entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who started companies and ended up revolutionizing the way we use technology.
Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs, those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways. Bill Drayton, the chief executive of an organization called Ashoka that supports social entrepreneurs, likes to say that such people neither hand out fish nor teach people to fish; their aim is to revolutionize the fishing industry. If that sounds insanely ambitious, it is. John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan title their new book on social entrepreneurs “The Power of Unreasonable People.”
Universities are now offering classes in social entrepreneurship, and there are a growing number of role models. Wendy Kopp turned her thesis at Princeton into Teach for America and has had far more impact on schools than the average secretary of education.
One of the social entrepreneurs here is Soraya Salti, a 37-year-old Jordanian woman who is trying to transform the Arab world by teaching entrepreneurship in schools. Her organization, Injaz, is now training 100,000 Arab students each year to find a market niche, construct a business plan and then launch and nurture a business.
The program (www.injaz.org.jo) has spread to 12 Arab countries and is aiming to teach one million students a year. Ms. Salti argues that entrepreneurs can stimulate the economy, give young people a purpose and revitalize the Arab world. Girls in particular have flourished in the program, which has had excellent reviews and is getting support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. My hunch is that Ms. Salti will contribute more to stability and peace in the Middle East than any number of tanks in Iraq, U.N. resolutions or summit meetings.
“If you can capture the youth and change the way they think, then you can change the future,” she said.
Another young person on a mission is Ariel Zylbersztejn, a 27-year-old Mexican who founded and runs a company called Cinepop, which projects movies onto inflatable screens and shows them free in public parks. Mr. Zylbersztejn realized that 90 percent of Mexicans can’t afford to go to movies, so he started his own business model: He sells sponsorships to companies to advertise to the thousands of viewers who come to watch the free entertainment.
Mr. Zylbersztejn works with microcredit agencies and social welfare groups to engage the families that come to his movies and help them start businesses or try other strategies to overcome poverty. Cinepop is only three years old, but already 250,000 people a year watch movies on his screens — and his goal is to take the model to Brazil, India, China and other countries.
So as we follow the presidential campaign, let’s not forget that the winner isn’t the only one who will shape the world. Only one person can become president of the United States, but there’s no limit to the number of social entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.
'Second digital decade' will benefit world: Gates
'Sexy products' create 'fun jobs,' students told
Canwest News Service
Friday, February 22, 2008
People who choose careers in information technology have the opportunity to work on "sexy products," Microsoft founder Bill Gates said Thursday at the University of Waterloo, where he gave a speech about how technology and innovation will benefit the world in the "second digital decade."
Gates, who plans to step down this summer from day-to-day operations at the software giant to focus on his charitable foundation, said while enrolment rates in math and sciences are facing "scary trends," the jobs that stem from those fields are some of the most exciting to work in.
"These are fun jobs," Gates said at his second-last stop on a five-campus tour of North American universities.
"They are not jobs where you are just in a cubbyhole throughout your whole life. They are about changing the world."
Gates said Microsoft has looked to other countries such as China to help fill "a pretty significant shortage" of IT workers and has set up development centres, including one in Vancouver, to source new talent.
Though Microsoft's headquarters is less than two hours away in Redmond, Wash., Gates said it was much easier to bring "smart people" to Canada because of visa restrictions south of the border.
During his 45-minute talk, Gates focused on what the next decades will bring in technological innovation, painting a world where computers, phones and televisions are seamlessly integrated.
But he also encouraged students, whatever their field, to spend some of their time focusing on how to help the world's poor, noting their problems are often "more important" to solve.
April 12, 2008
Fewer Options Open to Pay for Costs of College
By JONATHAN D. GLATER
Parents will have to navigate unfamiliar and difficult terrain when it comes time to pay for college this year, with student loan companies in turmoil and banks tightening their standards and raising rates on other types of borrowing.
Lawmakers and the administration are trying to head off any crisis by making sure that “lenders of last resort” stand ready to take the place of companies that have left the federal loan program. And a growing number of colleges have applied to participate in the federal direct loan program, in which students borrow from the government.
But families often use a combination of resources to pay for college, drawing on savings, federal loans, bank loans and home loans to plug the gap between college costs and financial aid.
Even if the government wards off problems in the credit markets and federal student loans are easily accessible, other sources of financing will become less accessible as consumers find themselves stretched thin and lenders get more choosy.
Turbulence in lending has complicated the efforts of people like Dawn R. Beaton of Mill Valley, Calif., to pay for her daughters’ education. A single mother earning less than $50,000 a year, she already has run into difficulty taking out a federal parent loan for her oldest daughter, Nicole, to attend a nearby community college. Her original lender pulled out of the market, and she is still waiting, months later, to hear from a replacement lender on that $5,000 request. She anticipates having to borrow about $10,000 to send her middle daughter to a private college in Ohio later this year.
“When I go to bed at night, I worry about it,” said Ms. Beaton, who is a financial manager for a vineyard.
“If you don’t have the money, there you are, in a serious, ulcer state. You feel inadequate.”
According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 70 percent of parents surveyed were “very concerned” about how they would pay for college; only 6 percent were not concerned.
To ensure continued availability of federal loans, the secretary of the federal Education Department met on Friday with representatives of the state agencies and nonprofit companies that guarantee federal loans on behalf of the government. The goal was to work out how the guarantors would serve as lenders, if necessary. This emergency safety net has never been pressed into widespread use.
Though there is no major problem now, the lending industry is warning of a credit squeeze without action. “I would say there is widespread belief,” said Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, “that we will have a real problem, that the lender of last resort or some other solution will have to be used this year.”
Last year, students and their parents borrowed nearly $60 billion in federally guaranteed loans, a figure that has grown more than 6 percent annually over the last five years after taking into account inflation. In recent years, the growth rate has declined but may pick up as the economy slows and as other borrowing options fade.
“I want to make sure we are going to do our part, and that students will be able to go to college this fall,” Ms. Spelling said.
Lawmakers in Washington have proposed increasing the amounts that students can borrow through federal programs and authorizing the Education Department to purchase federal loans, thereby providing banks with cash to make more loans. The House Education Committee approved legislation this week that would allow dependent students to borrow a total of $31,000 through federal programs to pay for their undergraduate education, up from $23,000 now.
Still, it is difficult to gauge whether a financing problem will emerge later this year for students and, if so, how serious it might be. The disruption in the federal lending program so far has mostly been from borrowers shifting to another lender. Ms. Beaton, for example, expects her $5,000 loan request to eventually be granted. “By the time I get the money, school will probably be over,” she said.
Financial aid administrators say few students had been shut out. “I haven’t heard anything about any sort of unusual trends so far, not to say that it isn’t going to intensify,” said Daniel C. Walls, associate vice provost for enrollment management at Emory University in Atlanta. “I suspect there’s going to be more negotiating around financial aid this year than any other year that we’ve experienced.”
Admitted students are just now receiving financial aid awards from colleges, and the test will come when tuition payments for the fall term are due, aid administrators say.
“By mid- to late June, certainly July, will be the months that we really begin to understand the relative financial situations of families,” said Jean McDonald-Rash, director of financial aid at Rutgers in New Jersey.
Students attending several expensive and wealthy colleges will enjoy expanded financial aid, as those institutions move to replace need-based loans with grants. Harvard and Yale recently announced expansions of aid to families making as much as $150,000, displaying a degree of generosity that few institutions can match.
Some student advocates say lenders are exaggerating the obstacles they face in search of a bailout from Washington.
“Student lenders are trying to hype the current credit crunch to scare Congress into providing them additional subsidies and to discredit last years’ hard won higher education reform,” said Luke Swarthout of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, referring to cuts lawmakers made last year to the subsidy payments to lenders of federal loans.
Kevin Bruns, executive director of America’s Student Loan Providers, dismissed such criticism as baseless. “Lenders’ only goal is to get the administration to use its existing authority to provide liquidity to the capital markets that fund federal student loans,” he said. “Lenders don’t need to overstate anything — the facts speak for themselves.”
There are clear signs of potential problems in the fall. It remains difficult for lenders to sell securities backed by student loans, in turn making it harder to raise capital. One guarantor of private loans, a nonprofit company called the Education Resources Institute, filed for bankruptcy protection this week.
“Everything that’s happened in the capital markets with this credit crunch has caused the fixed-income investor base to shrink, so there are fewer potential buyers of securities backed by the loans,” said Andrea L. Murad, senior director at Fitch Ratings in New York.
The House legislation seeks to address this situation by allowing the Education Department to buy student loans itself. At least 25 loan companies — including big lenders like the College Loan Corporation; the Student Loan Xpress unit of CIT; and NorthStar Education Finance — have stopped making federal loans, according to the Education Department. Some estimates put the number at nearly twice that.
Colleges generally say that more than 2,000 companies make student loans, and there are plenty of lenders to step into the breach.
No doubt to sidestep any related problems, more than 100 colleges and universities have applied to participate in the direct loan program since the end of February, according to the department. Ms. Spellings, the department secretary, has said the direct loan program could double the amount of new loans it makes to students, if necessary.
Some commercial education companies have already taken steps to ensure that their students can find lenders, in some instances by preparing to make loans themselves.
Problems are more likely for those seeking private loans, which do not have any government backing. The terms of private loans, like other consumer loans, vary depending on the credit histories of individual applicants and in some cases can top 20 percent.
In the last several months, rates on those loans have risen by nearly one percentage point, according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the financial aid Web site FinAid.org. Lenders have also tightened their standards, making it costlier for those with weak credit histories to obtain loans.
Private loans have grown sharply in popularity over the last 10 years, as families have looked for ways to pay the difference between tuition, on the one hand, and their savings and federal loan options, on the other. Last year, according to the College Board, students took out more than $17 billion in private loans, up from just $1.6 billion a decade earlier.
“If the financial aid system had kept pace with inflation, there wouldn’t be any need for private loans,” said Paul Wrubel, co-founder of TuitionCoach.com and a consultant for families trying to figure out how to pay for college.
Families also have closed the gap between college costs and federal loans by borrowing against their homes — and that is another option vanishing as house prices fall and lenders clamp down. Millions of homeowners now owe more than their houses are worth, leaving no equity to borrow against.
There is no data on how many parents may have used home equity loans to pay for higher education, researchers and aid administrators said, but there is no doubt many did, to take advantage of tax breaks and lower rates.
Tapping into home equity was always part of the college finance plan for Connie and Dave Orient of Canonsburg, Pa. She is a paralegal at a law firm in Pittsburgh and he is in the family construction business. Their older son, Christopher, is a sophomore at California University of Pennsylvania, a public institution relatively inexpensive for in-state residents. The younger son, Luke, a high school junior, wants to go to Virginia Tech, which she said would cost three times as much.
“I believe that I am in an area that is not depressed or anything,” Ms. Orient said. She added that she hoped still to be able to borrow against the house she and her husband built 25 years ago, but was unsure how much equity she really has in it and how much a lender would be willing to extend. “Nothing’s selling anywhere right now.”
April 22, 2008
Clueless in America
By BOB HERBERT
We don’t hear a great deal about education in the presidential campaign. It’s much too serious a topic to compete with such fun stuff as Hillary tossing back a shot of whiskey, or Barack rolling a gutter ball.
The nation’s future may depend on how well we educate the current and future generations, but (like the renovation of the nation’s infrastructure, or a serious search for better sources of energy) that can wait. At the moment, no one seems to have the will to engage any of the most serious challenges facing the U.S.
An American kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That’s more than a million every year, a sign of big trouble for these largely clueless youngsters in an era in which a college education is crucial to maintaining a middle-class quality of life — and for the country as a whole in a world that is becoming more hotly competitive every day.
Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread. A recent survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.
“We have one of the highest dropout rates in the industrialized world,” said Allan Golston, the president of U.S. programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a discussion over lunch recently he described the situation as “actually pretty scary, alarming.”
Roughly a third of all American high school students drop out. Another third graduate but are not prepared for the next stage of life — either productive work or some form of post-secondary education.
When two-thirds of all teenagers old enough to graduate from high school are incapable of mastering college-level work, the nation is doing something awfully wrong.
Mr. Golston noted that the performance of American students, when compared with their peers in other countries, tends to grow increasingly dismal as they move through the higher grades:
“In math and science, for example, our fourth graders are among the top students globally. By roughly eighth grade, they’re in the middle of the pack. And by the 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring generally near the bottom of all industrialized countries.”
Many students get a first-rate education in the public schools, but they represent too small a fraction of the whole.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, offered a brutal critique of the nation’s high schools a few years ago, describing them as “obsolete” and saying, “When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.”
Said Mr. Gates: “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they are broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools — even when they’re working as designed — cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”
The Educational Testing Service, in a report titled “America’s Perfect Storm,” cited three powerful forces that are affecting the quality of life for millions of Americans and already shaping the nation’s future. They are:
• The wide disparity in the literacy and math skills of both the school-age and adult populations. These skills, which play such a tremendous role in the lives of individuals and families, vary widely across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
• The “seismic changes” in the U.S. economy that have resulted from globalization, technological advances, shifts in the relationship of labor and capital, and other developments.
• Sweeping demographic changes. By 2030, the U.S. population is expected to reach 360 million. That population will be older and substantially more diverse, with immigration having a big impact on both the population as a whole and the work force.
These and so many other issues of crucial national importance require an educated populace if they are to be dealt with effectively. At the moment we are not even coming close to equipping the population with the intellectual tools that are needed.
While we’re effectively standing in place, other nations are catching up and passing us when it comes to educational achievement. You have to be pretty dopey not to see the implications of that.
But, then, some of us are pretty dopey. In the Common Core survey, nearly 20 percent of respondents did not know who the U.S. fought in World War II. Eleven percent thought that Dwight Eisenhower was the president forced from office by the Watergate scandal. Another 11 percent thought it was Harry Truman.
When out-of-control youngsters cause property damage or worse to third parties, the popular consensus is often that the parents of those youngsters should be held financially responsible.
While not wanting to hand neglectful parents a free pass, we concede it's not so easy these days to control your kids.
For one thing, between drugs and what's lurking on the Internet to deceive one's children, there's never been more to say "no" to.
Worse, Parliament and the courts are busy undermining what useful leverage over their children remains to parents.
Take, for instance, the Senate anti-spanking bill about to be introduced to the House of Commons by a Liberal MP. It is intended to remove Section 43 from the Canadian Criminal Code. That's the one affirmed as constitutional as recently as 2004 by the Supreme Court of Canada, and permits a parent to use force on a child "by way of correction" that is "reasonable under the circumstances."
Knowing "reasonable" means different things to different people, the Court amplified that the punishment should do no harm. To be precise, the parental defence against an assault charge would hold if the use of force "is part of a genuine effort to educate the child, poses no reasonable risk of harm that is more than transitory and trifling, and is reasonable under the circumstances."
We do not advocate the vicious beating of children. But, along with two-thirds of Canadians polled when the ruling came down -- and two-thirds of the Supreme Court bench that made it -- we believe this recognizes the suitability of mild corporal punishment to deal with dangerous or wilful behaviour.
Yet, the anti-spanking lobby continues its efforts to remove this useful tool for dealing with two-year-old tyrants. (Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette's bill S-207 is at least the 10th attempt since 1980.)
So, if children are not to be disciplined by corporal punishment, what about grounding or removing of privileges?
Well, that may be an infringement of their rights, too.
In an admittedly murky case complicated by a custody
battle, the Quebec Superior Court sided with a 12-year-old girl whose father -- who had custody -- had barred her from participating in an end-of-year school trip as a punishment. The mother, with whom she now lives, was in favour of her going.
Obviously, there's a lot going on here that can't be reported, and it looks like one of those difficult cases that notoriously make bad law. Pity. Long after the specifics have been forgotten, the precedent will remain -- kids suing parents for what they perceive as their rights may be upheld.
The latter case happened to be reported the same day a mother revealed to the National Post how her daughter's school called in an Ontario children's aid society after a psychic told the child's teaching assistant that powers beyond the veil had disclosed the autistic girl was being abused. Happily, the file was closed as quickly as it was opened when the provenance of the information was revealed.
Nevertheless, incidents such as this and the Quebec ruling, taken together with Bill S-207, are but the most recent examples of how parents attempting to lead children from the self-centredness of infancy to the behaviour society desires at maturity do so against a strong tide.
Canada joined itself to a fundamentally anti-parent philosophy in 1991, when Ottawa signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is now routinely referenced by Canadian courts and grants many rights to children. If liberally interpreted, this document could complicate the task of parenting even further.
Thus, a child's right to freedom of expression and to receive information (Article 13), is unconstrained by restrictions based on family standards of decency. Article 14 guarantees children freedom of "thought, conscience and religion." (The parental role is only "to provide direction.") Article 15 prohibits restrictions on a child's freedom of association, except as necessary for national security, and a few other exemptions, none of which include an explicit parent's right to oppose undesirable friendships. Article 16 prohibits arbitrary interference with a child's privacy, home or correspondence. And, so it goes on.
In a world of rights, few talk about responsibilities. Canadians who would like to restart that conversation have a long walk back. They should start now, while there remains a sufficient force of public opinion behind them that their advocacy is not lost before it is begun.
September 18, 2008
The King Is Dead
By ROGER COHEN
They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
The leverage party’s over for the masters of the universe. Shed a tear. When you trade pieces of paper for other pieces of paper instead of trading them for real things, one day someone wakes up and realizes the paper’s worth nothing. And Lehman Brothers, after 158 years, has gone poof in the night.
We’re witnessing the passing of more than a venerable firm. We’re seeing the death of a culture.
For years, accountants, rating agencies and Wall Street executives decided to shoot craps and collect fees. Regulators, taking their cue from a distracted President Bush, took a nap. The two M’s — Money and Me — became the lodestones of the zeitgeist, and damn those distant wars.
The biggest single-day market drop since 9/11 reminded me that when trading reopened on Sept. 17, 2001, and the Dow plunged 684.81 points, some executives backdated their options to reprice them at this postattack low to increase their potential gains.
So that’s what “financial killing” really means. No better illustration exists of a culture where private gain has eclipsed the public good, public service, even public decency, and where the cult of the individual has caused the commonwealth to wither.
That’s the culture we’ve lived with. It’s over now. Some new American beginning is needed.
When I taught a journalism course at Princeton a couple of years ago, I was captivated by the bright, curious minds in my class. But when I asked students what they wanted to do, the overwhelming answer was: “Oh, I guess I’ll end up in i-banking.”
It was not that they loved investment banking, or thought their purring brains would be best deployed on Wall Street poring over a balance sheet, it was the money and the fact everyone else was doing it.
I called one of my former students, Bianca Bosker, who graduated this summer and has taken a job with The Monitor Group, a management consultancy firm (she’s also writing a book). I asked her about the mood among her peers.
“Well, I have several friends who took summer internships at Lehman that they expected to lead to full-time job, so this is a huge issue,” she said. “You can’t believe how intensely companies like Merrill would recruit at Ivy League schools. I mean, when I was a sophomore, if you could spell your name, you were guaranteed a job.”
But why do freshmen bursting to change the world morph into investment bankers?
“I guess the bottom line is the money. You could be going to grad school and paying for it, or earning six figures. And knowing nothing about money, you get to move hundreds of millions around! No wonder we’re in this mess: turns out the best and the brightest make the biggest and the worst.”
According to the Harvard Crimson, 39 percent of work-force-bound Harvard seniors this year are heading for consulting firms and financial sector companies (or were in June). That’s down from 47 percent — almost half the job-bound class — in 2007.
These numbers mirror a skewed culture. The best and the brightest should think again. Barack Obama put the issue this way at Wesleyan University in May: beware of the “poverty of ambition” in a culture of “the big house and the nice suits.”
College seniors might start by reading “A New Bank to Save Our Infrastructure” in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, an impassioned plea from Felix Rohatyn (who knows something of financial rescues) and Everett Ehrlich for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, or N.I.B.
Its aim, at a time when the Chinese are investing $200 billion in railways and building 97 new airports, would be to use public and private capital to give coherence to a vast program of public works. “This can improve productivity, fight unemployment and raise our standard of living,” Rohatyn told me.
It’s absurd that earmarks — the self-interested budgetary foibles of senators and representatives — should dictate the progressive dilapidation of America. How can the commonwealth thrive when its bridges sag, its levees cede, its public transport creaks?
So, young minds, sign up for the N.I.B.! Before doing so, read Nick Taylor’s stirring “American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A.: When F.D.R. Put the Nation to Work.” It shows how the Works Progress Administration, a linchpin of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed to work on dams, airports and the like. It’s a book about how imaginative political leadership can rally a nation in crisis.
They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:
Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!
Yes, the death of the old is also the birth of the new. In my end is my beginning. It’s time for the best and the brightest to step forth and rediscover the public sphere.
October 2, 2008
A Broader Definition of Merit: The Trouble With College Entry Exams
By BRENT STAPLES
Imagine yourself an admissions director of a status-seeking college that wants desperately to move up in the rankings. With next year’s freshman class nearly filled, you are choosing between two applicants. The first has very high SAT scores, but little else to recommend him. The second is an aspiring doctor who tests poorly but graduated near the top of his high school class while volunteering as an emergency medical technician in his rural county.
This applicant has the kind of background that higher education has always claimed to covet. But the pressures that are driving colleges — and the country as a whole — to give college entry exams more weight than they were ever intended to have would clearly work against him. Those same pressures are distorting the admissions process, corrupting education generally and slanting the field toward students whose families can afford test preparation classes.
Consider the admissions director at our hypothetical college. He knows that college ranking systems take SAT’s and ACT’s into account. He knows that bond-rating companies look at the same scores when judging a college’s credit worthiness. And in lean times like these, he would be especially eager for a share of the so-called merit scholarship money that state legislators give students who test well.
These and related problems are the subject of an eye-opening report from a commission convened by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The commission, led by William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, offers a timely reminder that tests like the SAT and ACT were never meant to be viewed in isolation but considered as one in a range of factors that include grades, essays and so on.
But the report goes further, urging schools to move away from traditional admissions tests in favor of exams that would be more closely related to high school achievement and that are at least currently exempt from the hype and hysteria that surround the SAT. Mr. Fitzsimmons said that Harvard would always use tests. But he raised eyebrows when he said the school might one day join the growing number of colleges that have made the SAT and the ACT optional.
The commission deals bluntly with the parties it blamed for inflating the importance of college entry exam scores. It calls on college guides and bond-rating agencies to stop using test scores as proxies for academic quality or financial health. And it wants an end to the increasingly common practice of using minimum admissions test scores to determine eligibility for merit aid. The commission insists that the tests have not been validated for that purpose and often rule out applicants based on a single missed item.
The National Merit Scholarship Program, which uses a test to screen thousands of applicants every year, comes in for a drubbing. The commission believes that the program has played a destructive role by helping to narrow the public’s view of merit, giving it an exclusively test-related meaning. This commission draws on the work of Patrick Hayashi, a former associate president at The University of California, who has been fiercely critical of the National Merit program — and has even described it as “bogus.”
He first questioned the scholarship program during the 1990s out of disappointment with highly sought-after national merit scholarship students who had enrolled at Berkeley. He later wrote that those students had been outshone by students from the university’s more broadly defined merit program and had done “nothing to distinguish themselves academically or otherwise.”
The commission has also called on the states to stop the practice of using college entry exams in the public school accountability system. By inserting exams that weren’t designed for this purpose, the states have unintentionally encouraged students to believe that course work matters less than gaming the test that gets them into college.
Critics will inevitably view the report as an attempt to undermine objective admissions and awards systems. But the commission is arguing for a richer and more expansive view of merit that could include test scores but does not end with them. And the commission’s central contention — that the obsession with admissions tests is damaging education — is indisputably true.
Americans may like to make fun of girls who are good at math, but this attitude is robbing the country of some of its best talent, researchers reported Friday.
They found that while girls can be just as talented as boys at mathematics, some are driven from the field because they are teased, ostracized or simply neglected.
"The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys," Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who led the study said in a statement.
"The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here."
Writing in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Mertz and colleagues described their analysis of data from international math competitions going back to 1974.
They also looked at surveys of U.S. students.
"It is deemed uncool within the social context of U.S.A. middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers," they wrote.
They also challenged the widespread belief that females lack exceptional math aptitude.
October 13, 2008
Digging Out Roots of Cheating in High School
By MAURA J. CASEY
Surveys show that cheating in school — plagiarism, forbidden collaboration on assignments, copying homework and cheating on exams — has soared since researchers first measured the phenomenon on a broad scale at 99 colleges in the mid-1960s.
The percentage of students who copied from another student during tests grew from 26 percent in 1963 to 52 percent in 1993, and the use of crib notes during exams went from 6 percent to 27 percent, according to a study conducted by Dr. Donald McCabe of Rutgers. By the mid-1990s, only a small minority said they had never cheated, meaning that cheating had become part of the acceptable status quo.
Dr. McCabe’s later national survey of 25,000 high school students from 2001 to 2008 yielded equally depressing results: more than 90 percent said they had cheated in one way or another.
Dr. Jason Stephens of the University of Connecticut has now embarked on a three-year pilot program to reduce cheating. His premise is that honesty and integrity are not only values but habits — habits that can be encouraged in school settings, with positive benefits later in life.
The program seeks to enlist students and teachers in six high schools in promoting a culture of honesty. Schools will be asked to consider honor codes, and, since peer pressure is vitally important, students will be invited to help shape policies and strategies to discourage cheating. Two schools are suburban and wealthy, two are middle class, two are urban and poor. One school from each pair will work to end the cheating epidemic, and the other will serve as the control group.
The challenge is daunting. Students of both genders and every demographic group cheat even though they know it is wrong, a mind-set Dr. Stephens describes as “a corrosive force” — especially when it is acquired in the early years of moral development.
The fact that so many students cheat doesn’t make them intrinsically bad, he says: “It’s not a case of the bad seed. It’s more like bad soil.”
The biggest determinant is not the values that students are exposed to at home, but peer norms at school. Students are under pressure to achieve high grade-point averages, which helps them rationalize their behavior. And the schools themselves are complicit, because they reward high grades more than the process of learning — while too often turning a blind eye to the cheating.
But there’s hope. The 1993 study suggested that cheating dropped in schools that encouraged a culture of integrity — either by formally instituting an honor code or by stressing at every turn the importance of honesty and integrity.
A follow-up study showed that dishonest business behavior was lowest among employees who had attended schools with an honor code and whose workplaces encouraged ethical behavior.
If the effort shows results, Dr. Stephens plans to enlist more schools in the hope that eventually a standardized program will be adopted throughout the state. If that happens, both students and society as a whole will profit.
Teens today need our help to traverse the tough tightrope
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Back when I was a kid, I would often walk along a fence made up of short brown fence posts with a rather thick, taut metal wire running between them. It was for me, and many of my friends, our very own circus tightrope. One day I suffered a spectacular fall in which I bruised my chin, bit my tongue and gained a better understanding of why this fence was called "the crotch killer."
That memory came to me as I took part last weekend in a seminar called: Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World. Dr. Chap Clark, a professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, explained that today, the tightrope we call adolescence is getting longer and that means our young people must try to maintain their balance during those dangerous years for longer as well.
The seminar, held at First Alliance Church in Calgary's southeast, ran for several hours on the Friday night and for four hours Saturday.
Now, if I were to do what most adolescents do nowadays following most events -- that is text their cluster of friends -- my response to the Friday night session would have been, "OMG!" Minus the texting, my response wasn't much different -- "Oh dear God," I prayed, "help our kids, protect them and help me to be a better parent and mentor to other kids."
Obviously, I can't come anywhere close to explaining in 800 words what took Dr. Clark some seven hours to discuss -- not to mention 15 books to write. But I'm going to try.
"When a child hits adolescence," explained Clark, "they go across the tightrope where they learn how to be independent and discover who they are as a unique person." Essentially adolescents must come to terms with three questions: Who am I?, What power do I really have? and Where do I fit?
"The greatest challenge of growing up today," writes Dr. Clark in his book by the same name as the seminar, "is to have been born into a society that has encouraged and even promoted delayed adolescence -- all without offering anywhere near the support one needs to survive the rigour of this lengthy and isolating journey." In the 1980s, adolescence ran from 13 to 18; today the tightrope spans from age 12 to the mid-20s.
Dr. Clark says the Bible makes it clear that we were never meant to parent alone. In biblical times the entire community -- neighbours, aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents -- cherished young people and helped raise them. Today, teens are shunned and many come from broken homes with family trees that look like a tangled web, with little adult input other than through hired help. Parents now spend 40 per cent less time with their kids than they did 30 years ago.
Dr. Clark's research attributes the increasing length of adolescence to systemic abandonment and he backs that up in spades, though there is no space to provide that evidence here. Suffice to say by the end of his talk on Friday, when he said: "This is the most stressed generation in history," few of us doubted him.
One in four young women between the ages of 14 and 19 is infected with at least one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. Where just a few decades ago one in more than 270 kids would cut or "self harm" themselves, today, it's around one in six. Suicide is epidemic.
Now, many adults will say, compared to living through the war or the Depression these kids know nothing of stress. But in many ways, those events forged deep relationships and gave people a sense of common understanding, purpose and belonging. That doesn't exist today. Conforming to society's expectation of "success" is getting harder and education is taking longer. So, what can parents do?
n We can be more understanding: Let our kids see us try to understand their world.
n Demonstrate compassion, which in Latin means to suffer with someone. We need to become students of our kids.
n We need to provide boundaries, but it must be done as a "dance of negotiation" and with respectful dialogue.
n Chart and guide a course for our kids -- don't dictate a course -- based on their talents, not our agendas.
n Create a (faith) parenting community: For those who don't belong to a faith community, this will be tougher, but Dr. Clark urges us to ensure that we have at least five caring adults, who share our values and who are "crazy about" our kids and will invest their time and love on them.
Mostly, don't just love your kids, like them. Dr. Clark says, many people believe to be a good parent you can't be your child's friend. But that is wrong. "The healthiest kids have friendships with their parents," he says. "If Jesus, the God of the universe, can call His disciples 'friend', we can call our kids our friend."
Ultimately, we must remember that our children are a gift, not a burden, and that when they're teens and young adults their world -- so rife with so many dangerous choices -- is a tightrope we can help them traverse faster and safer.
Since that seminar I have been less dictatorial, for lack of a better word, and more of a negotiator with my 11-year-old boys. It's funny how when we respectfully discuss privileges, like a later bed time, they will decide an earlier time than I might have dictated. By remembering how tough adolescence is, I also now find myself grinning, almost foolishly, at every youth I come across. When they serve me well, I tell them so, if they appear sullen, I try to make them laugh. In short, I am just more aware of their pressures and how tough adolescence is.
So reach out and lend a hand to those walking the tightrope. It's what we're all called to do.
The turbulent economy appears to be affecting young adults, too, according to a study of 18- to 24-year-olds which found they crave security more than anything.
The study -- which surveyed 12,600 young adults across 26 countries, including Canada -- concluded that sticking close to family and the family home and forging a practical career rank highly with this generation.
"It is not surprising that this group is demonstrating the need for security," said Rob Myers, managing director of Synovate Canada. "They are growing up in very complex times with daily messages about terrorism, global warming, jobs being cut, recession on the horizon, and the reality that the boomer generation could cost them significantly in health and retirement."
The study found 40 per cent of young adult Canadians live at home with their parents, compared with 49 per cent globally.
A full 67 per cent of Canadians in this age bracket said family is "very important;" 76 per cent globally said the same.
Interestingly, friends were rated as "very important" by only 61 per cent of young adults, in Canada and globally.
Glamorous jobs in media, film and music are now viewed as too risky and the majority of young adults polled in Canada would instead opt for careers as teachers, engineers or accountants.
The survey was conducted during the first half of 2008.
November 8, 2008
Tough Times Strain Colleges Rich and Poor
By TAMAR LEWIN
Arizona State University, anticipating at least $25 million in budget cuts this fiscal year — on top of the $30 million already cut — is ending its contracts with as many as 200 adjunct instructors.
Boston University, Cornell and Brown have announced selective hiring freezes.
And Tufts University, which for the last two years has, proudly, been one of the few colleges in the nation that could afford to be need-blind — that is, to admit the best-qualified applicants and meet their full financial need — may not be able to maintain that generosity for next year’s incoming class. This fall, Tufts suspended new capital projects and budgeted more for financial aid. But with the market downturn, and the likelihood that more applicants will need bigger aid packages, need-blind admissions may go by the wayside.
“The target of being need-blind is our highest priority,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts. “But with what’s happening in the larger economy, we expect that the incoming class is going to be needier. That’s the real uncertainty.”
Tough economic times have come to public and private universities alike, and rich or poor, they are figuring out how to respond. Many are announcing hiring freezes, postponing construction projects or putting off planned capital campaigns.
With endowment values and charitable gifts likely to decline, the process of setting next year’s tuition low enough to keep students coming, but high enough to support operations, is trickier than ever.
Dozens of college presidents, especially at wealthy institutions, have sent letters and e-mail to students and their families describing their financial situation and belt-tightening plans.
January 10, 2009
Immigrants in Charter Schools Seek Best of Two Worlds
By SARA RIMER
MINNEAPOLIS — Fartun Warsame, a Somali immigrant, thought she was being a good mother when she transferred her five boys to a top elementary school in an affluent Minneapolis suburb. Besides its academic advantages, the school was close to her job as an ultrasound technician, so if the teachers called, she could get there right away.
“Immediately they changed,” Ms. Warsame said of her sons. “They wanted to wear shorts. They’d say, ‘Buy me this.’ I said, ‘Where did you guys get this idea you can control me?’ ”
Her sons informed her that this was the way things were in America. But not in this Somali mother’s house. She soon moved them back to the city, to the International Elementary School, a charter school of about 560 pupils in downtown Minneapolis founded by leaders of the city’s large East African community. The extra commuting time was worth the return to the old order: five well-behaved sons, and one all-powerful mother.
Charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run, were conceived as a way to improve academic performance. But for immigrant families, they have also become havens where their children are shielded from the American youth culture that pervades large district schools.
The curriculum at the Twin Cities International Elementary School, and at its partner middle school and high school, is similar to that of other public schools with high academic goals. But at Twin Cities International the girls say they can freely wear head scarves without being teased, the lunchroom serves food that meets the dietary requirements of Muslims, and in every classroom there are East African teaching assistants who understand the needs of students who may have spent years in refugee camps. Twin Cities International students are from Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, with a small population from the Middle East.
Amid the wave of immigration that has been reshaping Minnesota for more than three decades, the International schools are among 30 of the state’s 138 charter schools that are focused mostly on students from specific immigrant or ethnic groups. To visit a half-dozen of these schools, to listen to teachers, administrators and parents — Somali immigrants who are relatively new to Minnesota, as well as the Hmong and Latinos who have been in the state for decades — is to understand that Ms. Warsame’s high educational aspirations for her children, and her fears, are universal.
“The good news is that immigrant kids are learning English better and faster than ever before in U.S. history,” said Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, the co-director of immigration studies at New York University and co-author of “Learning a New Land — Immigrant Students in American Society” (Harvard Press, 2008). “But they’re assimilating to a society that parents see as very threatening and frightening. It’s anti-authority, anti-studying. It’s materialistic.”
Some critics argue that these kinds of charter schools are contributing to a growing re-segregation of public education, and that they run counter to the long-held idea of public schools as the primary institution of the so-called “melting pot,” the engine that forges a common American identity among immigrants from many countries.
“One of the primary reasons that American society supports public schools is to give everyone a solid civic education,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, “the sort of education that comes from learning together with others from different backgrounds.”
But Dr. Suárez-Orozco says the reality is that most new immigrants become isolated in public schools, and that large numbers of them become alienated over time and fail to graduate.
A place like Minnesota, with its strong charter-school movement, offers immigrant parents, who have long been conflicted about their children becoming Americanized, a strong voice in their children’s education, Dr. Suárez-Orozco said, and shows their eagerness to participate in democracy.
“What the parents are saying,” he said, “is, We want our children to assimilate, we want them to acculturate, but we want to be proactively engaged in shaping that process.”
Ali Somo, a 70-year-old father of three children at the International Schools, put it this way: “We bring our children here because we want them close to us so they don’t get lost.”
It was a weekday morning, but Mr. Somo and Ms. Warsame and a group of other parents, some holding down double shifts as cabdrivers, hotel housekeepers, and parking lot attendants, were squeezing in a meeting in the school library, with its shelves lined with “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” “Little House on the Prairie” and other American classics.
Getting lost in America, Mr. Somo explained, means losing your culture, your language, your identity. It means acting like the teenagers the parents see on the street — wearing baggy jeans, smoking, using drugs, disrespecting elders.
“I have been in America, and I have observed,” Mr. Somo testified. “I have seen children with their pants falling off. I have seen them doing drugs.”
The parents around him nodded. Another father, Jelil Abdella, talked about how it saddened him that his two grown children, who had attended large district schools, did not know how to speak Somali. “They’re neither American, nor Somali,” Mr. Abdella said.
As a newcomer, he said, he was too busy going to school and earning a living — driving a taxi, cleaning floors, working in a factory, picking blueberries — to supervise their educations closely.
“I don’t want to make the same mistake with my younger children,” he said. “I want them to keep the good things we used to have back home — respecting their parents, helping each other, respecting their elders.”
Another father, Mahamaud Wardere, said: “It is important that they all know they’re American. It is equally important that they know they’re Somali.”
It is this dual identity that the International Schools work to encourage. There are lessons in snowshoeing and baseball, and field trips to the Mall of America, where instead of shopping, the students participate in another American ritual, the charity fund-raising walk. There are also teen-agers complaining that their parents worry too much.
“I can at least account for more than 200 lectures I’ve had from my mom and dad about American culture here,” said Omar Ahmed, a 14-year-old eighth grader. “My dad always says, ‘Back in Somalia, when I was 14, I could see myself running my own business, having my own children. You’re 14, you can’t get your studies done.’ ”
“Every time my mom sees something bad about teens in the news,” Omar said, “there’s another lecture on that subject.”
Perhaps nothing more vividly demonstrated the students’ enthusiasm for American democracy than a debate this fall in Elizabeth Veldman’s eighth-grade social studies class about the presidential race. The two teams of students had spent days preparing.
“Look at our history — look at what happened with the Vietnam War,” said Yaqub Ali, 13, a fervent supporter of Senator John McCain who arrived four years ago from a Somalian refugee camp in Kenya, knowing no English. “Do you want to lose a war?”
“Sit down, Yaqub!” commanded Ridwa Yakob, who describes herself as “a girl who loves to talk.” She argued that Senator Barack Obama would fix everything from education to the economy.
Yaqub, wearing a dark suit for the occasion, rose again. “John McCain is old,” he said. “It is better to be old.”
At the International school, where elders are revered, even Ridwa was silenced.
At their meeting, the parents talked of the importance of speaking English at school — and Somali or Oromo at home. At other charter schools, Hmong refugee and Latino parents expressed the same wish, the difference being that they want their children to speak Hmong, or Spanish, at home, the other difference being that many of their children are already so Americanized that they are learning their parents’ languages in school.
“The other day a spider fell from the roof and my son picked it up,” Mr. Somo said, referring to his 13-year-old, Hussein. “What do you call it in English, I asked him. He told me. How to say it in Oromo — I told him myself. How to say it in Arabic and Somali — he learned it himself. He was able to say the word for “spider” in four languages.”
With that kind of linguistic talent, Mr. Somo said of his son, “he can work for America anywhere in the world.”
Dr. Suárez-Orozco said: “What these parents are doing, in taking ownership of their children’s schools, is as American as apple pie. They’re doing what soccer moms and dads in Lexington, Mass., and Concord and Cambridge do day in and day out. They’re modeling for kids the story of acculturation and how it works.”
For years, I took care of a very rude child. When he was 3, I called him rambunctious — and I talked to his mother about “setting limits.” At 4, I called him “demanding.” At 5, he was still screaming at his mother if she didn’t do what he wanted, he still swatted me whenever I tried to examine him, and his mother asked me worriedly if I thought he was ready for kindergarten.
I could go on (he didn’t have an easy time in school), but it would sound like a Victorian tale: The Rude Boy. I never used the word “rude” or even “manners” when I spoke to his mother. I don’t describe my patients as rude or polite in the medical record. But I do pass judgment, and so does every pediatrician I know.
It’s always popular — and easy — to bewail the deterioration of manners; there is an often quoted (and often disputed) story about Socrates’ complaining that the young Athenians have “bad manners, contempt for authority.” Sure, certain social rubrics have broken down or blurred, and sure, electronic communication seems to have given adults as well as children new ways to be rude. But the age-old parental job remains.
And that job is to start with a being who has no thought for the feelings of others, no code of behavior beyond its own needs and comforts — and, guided by love and duty, to do your best to transform that being into what your grandmother (or Socrates) might call a mensch. To use a term that has fallen out of favor, your assignment is to “civilize” the object of your affections.
My favorite child-rearing book is “Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children,” by Judith Martin, who takes the view that manners are at the heart of the whole parental enterprise. I called her to ask why.
“Every infant is born adorable but selfish and the center of the universe,” she replied. It’s a parent’s job to teach that “there are other people, and other people have feelings.”
The conversations that every pediatrician has, over and over, about “limit setting” and “consistently praising good behavior” are conversations about manners. And when you are in the exam room with a child who seems to have none, you begin to wonder what is going on at home and at school, and questions of family dysfunction or neurodevelopmental problems begin to cross your mind.
Dr. Barbara Howard, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and an expert on behavior and development, told me that a child’s manners were a perfectly appropriate topic to raise at a pediatric visit.
“It has a huge impact on people’s lives — why wouldn’t you bring it up?” she said. “Do they look you in the eye? If you stick your hand out do they shake it? How do they interact with the parents; do they interrupt, do they ask for things, do they open Mommy’s purse and take things out?”
Dr. Howard suggested that the whole “manners” concept might seem a little out of date — until you recast it as “social skills,” a very hot term these days. Social skills are necessary for school success, she pointed out; they affect how you do on the playground, in the classroom, in the workplace.
We also think of social skills as a profound set of challenges that complicate the lives of children — and adults — on what is now called the autism spectrum. Children with autism, whether mild or severe, have great difficulty learning social codes, deciphering subtle body language or tone of voice, and catching on to the rules of the game.
Therapy for these children can include systematic training in social skills, sometimes using scripts for common human interactions. And one lesson, Dr. Howard said, “is that you can teach this stuff, and we maybe aren’t teaching it as well as we should be to children who are developing normally.”
And of course, one of the long-term consequences of being a rude child is being a rude adult — even a rude doctor. There are bullies on the playground and bullies in the workplace; it can be quite disconcerting to encounter a mature adult with 20 or so years of education under his belt who still sees the world only in terms of his own wants, needs and emotions: I want that so give it to me; I am angry so I need to hit; I am wounded so I must howl.
I like Miss Manners’ approach because it lets a parent respect a child’s intellectual and emotional privacy: I’m not telling you to like your teacher; I’m telling you to treat her with courtesy. I’m not telling you that you can’t hate Tommy; I’m telling you that you can’t hit Tommy. Your feelings are your own private business; your behavior is public.
But that first big counterintuitive lesson — that there are other people out there whose feelings must be considered — affects a child’s most basic moral development. For a child, as for an adult, manners represent a strategy for getting along in life, but also a successful intellectual engagement with the business of being human.
I did not enjoy visits with my rude patient. Despite his generally good health and his normal developmental milestones, I couldn’t help feeling that the adult world had failed to guide and protect him. He was loud and demanding and insistent, but one of his basic needs had not been met: no one had taught him manners.
As a pediatrician, I worry about the trajectories of children’s growth and development: measuring a baby’s head size, weighing a toddler, asking about the language skills of a preschooler. Manners are another side of the journey every child makes from helplessness to autonomy. And a child who learns to manage a little courtesy, even under the pressure of a visit to the doctor, is a child who is operating well in the world, a child with a positive prognosis.
February 8, 2009
Education Is All in Your Mind
By RICHARD E. NISBETT
Ann Arbor, Mich.
AS Department of Education officials consider how best to spend billions from the economic stimulus plan, they would be wise to pay attention to which programs actually help children’s achievement — and keep in mind that sometimes very small influences in children’s lives can have very big effects.
Consider, for example, what the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson have described as “stereotype threat,” which hampers the performance of African-American students. Simply reminding blacks of their race before they take an exam leads them to perform worse, their research shows.
Fortunately, stereotype threat for blacks and other minorities can be reduced in many ways. Just telling students that their intelligence is under their own control improves their effort on school work and performance. In two separate studies, Mr. Aronson and others taught black and Hispanic junior high school students how the brain works, explaining that the students possessed the ability, if they worked hard, to make themselves smarter. This erased up to half of the difference between minority and white achievement levels.
Black students also perform better on an exam when it is presented as a puzzle rather than as a test of academic achievement or ability, another study has shown. These are small interventions that have big effects.
Here’s another example: Daphna Oyserman, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, asked inner-city junior-high children in Detroit what kind of future they would like to have, what difficulties they anticipated along the way, how they might deal with them and which of their friends would be most helpful in coping. After only a few such exercises in life planning, the children improved their performance on standardized academic tests, and the number who were required to repeat a grade dropped by more than half.
Geoffrey Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, found still another way to improve black students’ test performance. He asked teachers at a suburban middle school, at the beginning of a school year, to give their seventh graders a series of assignments to write about their most important values. Afterward, the black students did well enough in all their courses to obliterate 30 percent of the difference that had existed between black and white students’ grades in previous years.
Small interventions can make a big difference even as late as the college years. Dr. Cohen and another psychologist, Gregory Walton, who is now at Stanford, hypothesized that worries about social acceptance — which are common among all college students — would be especially great among black students on majority-white campuses.
So the researchers gave a group of students at a Northeastern university a detailed report of a survey showing that most upperclassmen had once worried about feeling accepted but had ultimately come to feel at home on campus. Black students who were given this information reported that they worked harder on their schoolwork than others did, and contacted their professors more. The payoff in grade-point average erased most of the usual difference between blacks and whites at the university.
These experiments may help explain the “Obama effect” on the test performance of African-Americans. Adult subjects in a study (still unpublished) answered comprehension questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Examinations before and just after the presidential election. The black participants who were tested before the vote performed worse than whites; those tested immediately afterward scored almost as well as whites.
If simple interventions can have big effects, one might assume that bigger interventions would always be even better. But the truth is that some big interventions in education have had only minimal effects. Head Start, which places 3- and 4-year-olds in supposedly enriched classroom settings, and Early Head Start, which works with 1- to 3-year-olds, for example, have been found to have only modest effects on the children’s academic achievement, and these often fade by early elementary school. Likewise, “whole-school interventions,” in which teams of education engineers descend on a school and change its curriculum, introduce new textbooks and train teachers — often at great expense — typically produce little in the way of educational gain.
Some bigger programs have worked well, however. The Perry Preschool, which was set up in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s, is a good example. In this school, highly trained and motivated teachers worked with groups of only six black preschoolers in educationally intensive sessions intended to help the severely disadvantaged children develop both cognitively and socially, and the teachers visited the children’s families for 90 minutes every week.
By the time these students reached high school, almost half of them scored above the 10th percentile on the California Achievement Test, compared with only 14 percent of students in a control group. Almost two-thirds of the students who had been in the program graduated from high school, compared with only 43 percent of control students. And by age 27, one-third of the Perry children owned their own home; only 11 percent of the control students did.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has estimated that for every dollar spent on a prekindergarten like Perry, $8 has been gained in higher incomes for participants and in savings on the costs of extra schooling, crime and welfare.
Similarly, a program called KIPP (for Knowledge Is Power Program) is having remarkable success with poor minority children in middle schools. KIPP students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., their term is three weeks longer than normal, and every other Saturday they have classes for half a day. The curriculum includes sports, visits to museums and instruction in dance, art, music, theater and photography. During one academic year, the percentage of fifth-graders at KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay Area who scored at or above the national average on the reading portion of the Stanford Achievement Test rose to 44 percent from 25 percent. And while only 37 percent started the year at or above the national average in math, 65 percent reached that level by spring.
Such creative programs must be tested to ensure that they work as they are meant to. The United States Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, which was established by the Bush administration, has the job of making public all significant evaluations of educational interventions. The Obama administration should heed the Clearinghouse’s reports. Stimulus money should be spent only on programs that work well — and on creating new programs, which in turn should be properly tested for effectiveness.
President Obama is in a position to not only inspire black youngsters by his example, but also make an enormous difference in their schooling — as long as he supports successful educational interventions, from the smallest to the most ambitious.
Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is the author of “Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.”
For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.
But many economists and businesspeople disagree, and their views often prevail in the educational marketplace. Reward programs that pay students are under way in many cities. In some places, students can bring home hundreds of dollars for, say, taking an Advanced Placement course and scoring well on the exam.
Whether such efforts work or backfire “continues to be a raging debate,” said Barbara A. Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, who opposes using prizes as incentives. Among parents, the issue often stirs intense discussion. And in public education, a new focus on school reform has led researchers on both sides of the debate to intensify efforts to gather data that may provide insights on when and if rewards work.
“We have to get beyond our biases,” said Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University who is designing and testing several reward programs. “Fortunately, the scientific method allows us to get to most of those biases and let the data do the talking.”
What is clear is that reward programs are proliferating, especially in high-poverty areas. In New York City and Dallas, high school students are paid for doing well on Advanced Placement tests. In New York, the payouts come from an education reform group called Rewarding Achievement (Reach for short), financed by the Pershing Square Foundation, a charity founded by the hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. The Dallas program is run by Advanced Placement Strategies, a Texas nonprofit group whose chairman is the philanthropist Peter O’Donnell.
Another experiment was started last fall in 14 public schools in Washington that are distributing checks for good grades, attendance and behavior. That program, Capital Gains, is being financed by a partnership with SunTrust Bank, Borders and Ed Labs at Harvard, which is run by Dr. Fryer. Another program by Ed Labs is getting started in Chicago.
Other systems are about stuff more than money, and most are not evaluated scientifically. At 80 tutoring centers in eight states run by Score! Educational Centers, a national for-profit company run by Kaplan Inc., students are encouraged to rack up points for good work and redeem them for prizes like jump-ropes.
An increasing number of online educational games entice children to keep playing by giving them online currency to buy, say, virtual pets. And around the country, elementary school children get tokens to redeem at gift shops in schools when they behave well.
In the cash programs being studied, economists compare the academic performance of groups of students who are paid and students who are not. Results from the first year of the A.P. program in New York showed that test scores were flat but that more students were taking the tests, said Edward Rodriguez, the program’s executive director.
In Dallas, where teachers are also paid for students’ high A.P. scores, students who are rewarded score higher on the SAT and enroll in college at a higher rate than those who are not, according to Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell who has written about the program for the journal Education Next.
Still, many psychologists warn that early data can be deceiving. Research suggests that rewards may work in the short term but have damaging effects in the long term.
One of the first such studies was published in 1971 by Edward L. Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, who reported that once the incentives stopped coming, students showed less interest in the task at hand than those who received no reward.
This kind of psychological research was popularized by the writer Alfie Kohn, whose 1993 book “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes” is still often cited by educators and parents. Mr. Kohn says he sees “social amnesia” in the renewed interest in incentive programs.
“If we’re using gimmicks like rewards to try to improve achievement without regard to how they affect kids’ desire to learn,” he said, “we kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Dr. Marinak, of Penn State, and Linda B. Gambrell, a professor of education at Clemson University, published a study last year in the journal Literacy Research and Instruction showing that rewarding third graders with so-called tokens, like toys and candy, diminished the time they spent reading.
“A number of the kids who received tokens didn’t even return to reading at all,” Dr. Marinak said.
Why does motivation seem to fall away? Some researchers theorize that even at an early age, children can sense that someone is trying to control their behavior. Their reaction is to resist. “One of the central questions is to consider how children think about this,” said Mark R. Lepper, a psychologist at Stanford whose 1973 study of 50 preschool-age children came to a conclusion similar to Dr. Deci’s. “Are they saying, ‘Oh, I see, they are just bribing me’?”
More than 100 academic studies have explored how and when rewards work on people of all ages, and researchers have offered competing analyses of what the studies, taken together, really mean.
Judith Cameron, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, found positive traits in some types of reward systems. But in keeping with the work of other psychologists, her studies show that some students, once reward systems are over, will choose not to do the activity if the system provides subpar performers with a smaller prize than the reward for achievers.
Many cash-based programs being tested today, however, are designed to do just that. Dr. Deci asks educators to consider the effect of monetary rewards on students with learning disabilities. When they go home with a smaller payout while seeing other students receive checks for $500, Dr. Deci said, they may feel unfairly punished and even less excited to go to school.
“There are suggestions of students making in the thousands of dollars,” he said. “The stress of that, for kids from homes with no money, I frankly think it’s unconscionable.”
Economists, on the other hand, argue that with students who are failing, everything should be tried, including rewards. While students may be simply attracted by financial incentives at first, couldn’t that evolve into a love of learning?
“They may work a little harder and may find that they aren’t so bad at it,” said Dr. Jackson, of Cornell. “And they may learn study methods that last over time.”
In examining rewards, the trick is untangling the impact of the monetary prizes from the impact of other factors, like the strength of teaching or the growing recognition among educators of the importance of A.P. tests. Dr. Jackson said his latest analyses, not yet published, would seek to answer the questions.
He also pointed out that with children in elementary school, who typically show more motivation to learn than teenagers do, the outcomes may be different.
Questions about how rewards are administered, to whom and at what age are likely to drive future research. Can incentives — praise, grades, pizza parties, cash — be added up to show that the more, the better? Or will some of them detract from the whole?
Dr. Deci says school systems are trying to lump incentives together as if they had a simple additive effect. He emphasizes that there is a difference between being motivated by something tangible and being motivated by something that is felt or sensed. “We’ve taken motivation and put it in categories,” Dr. Deci said of his fellow psychologists. “Economics is 40 years behind with respect to that.”
Some researchers suggest tweaking reward systems to cause less harm. Dr. Lepper says that the more arbitrary the reward — like giving bubble gum for passing a test — the more likely it is to backfire. Dr. Gambrell, of Clemson, posits a “proximity hypothesis,” holding that rewards related to the activity — like getting to read more books if one book is read successfully — are less harmful. And Dr. Deci and Richard M. Ryan report that praise — which some consider a verbal reward — does not have a negative effect.
In fact, praise itself has categories. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, has found problems with praise that labels a child as having a particular quality (“You’re so smart”), while praise for actions (“You’re working hard”) is more motivating.
Psychologists have also found that it helps to isolate differences in how children perceive tasks. Are they highly interested in what they are doing? Or does it feel like drudgery? “The same reward system might have a different effect on those two types of students,” Dr. Lepper said. The higher the interest, he said, the more harmful the reward.
Meanwhile, Dr. Fryer of Ed Labs urges patience in awaiting the economists’ take on reward systems. He wants to look at what happens over many years by tracking subjects after incentives end and trying to discern whether the incentives have an impact on high school graduation rates.
With the money being used to pay for the incentive programs and research, “every dollar has value,” he said. “We either get social science or social change, and we need both.”
March 15, 2009
Where Education and Assimilation Collide
By GINGER THOMPSON
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Walking the halls of Cecil D. Hylton High School outside Washington, it is hard to detect any trace of the divisions that once seemed fixtures in American society.
Two girls, a Muslim in a headscarf and a strawberry blonde in tight jeans, stroll arm in arm. A Hispanic boy wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt gives a high-five to a black student with glasses and an Afro. The lanky homecoming queen, part Filipino and part Honduran, runs past on her way to band practice. The student body president, a son of Laotian refugees, hangs fliers about a bake sale.
But as old divisions vanish, waves of immigration have fueled new ones between those who speak English and those who are learning how.
Walk with immigrant students, and the rest of Hylton feels a world apart. By design, they attend classes almost exclusively with one another. They take separate field trips. And they organize separate clubs.
“I am thankful to my teachers because the little bit of English I am able to speak, I speak because of them,” Amalia Raymundo, from Guatemala, said during a break between classes. But, she added, “I feel they hold me back by isolating me.”
Her best friend, Jhosselin Guevara, also from Guatemala, joined in. “Maybe the teachers are trying to protect us,” she said. “There are people who do not want us here at all.”
In the last decade, record numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have fueled the greatest growth in public schools since the baby boom. The influx has strained many districts’ budgets and resources and put classrooms on the front lines of America’s battles over whether and how to assimilate the newcomers and their children.
Inside schools, which are required to enroll students regardless of their immigration status and are prohibited from even asking about it, the debate has turned to how best to educate them.
Hylton High, where a reporter for The New York Times spent much of the past year, is a vivid laboratory. Like thousands of other schools across the country, it has responded to the surge of immigrants by channeling them into a school within a school. It is, in effect, a contemporary form of segregation that provides students learning English intensive support to meet rising academic standards — and it also helps keep the peace.
Want to get across to Asia's youth? Do it through media or music, with a survey revealing that most spend on average 10 hours a day watching tv, on the internet, reading magazines or listening to the radio. in findings bound to cheer advertisers, the annual Synovate Young Asians survey, which polled some 13,000 people aged between eight and 24, also showed many of these youth have a say over a variety of purchases ranging from their own snacks and clothes to the family holiday and even the family car.
"It's vital that smart marketers continue to engage with these young audiences to build a loyal consumer base," Miranda Cheung, managing director of market research firm Synovate in Singapore, said in a statement. Nearly a third of young Asians said they plan their day around their favourite TV programs, hoping to catch every episode, the survey revealed.
Up to a quarter said they could not live without the internet, and two-thirds said they must listen to music daily.
By Maria Kubacki, Canwest News ServiceApril 11, 2009
When times get tough, the tough go to the movies -- when they're not posting music online, downloading videos or snapping up the latest instalment in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, that is.
Amid all the economic doom and gloom, the culture sector is thriving.
During the last major recession in the early 1980s, vinyl, cassettes, movie theatres and TV ruled.
Zoom ahead a quarter century and escape is just a mouse click away: it's never been easier to access or promote culture. No matter how mainstream or quirky your interests, chances are you can find what you're looking for online--and watch it on your iPhone or share it with your fellow Twitterers and a few hundred Facebook friends.
Teens and 20-somethings who have grown up with the Internet rely on it as their primary source for arts and culture.
"They're listening to music online, they're watching TV programs online," says Michael Mulvey, a University of Ottawa cultural trends expert. "They're pirating movies online. That's their world."
So-called Web 2.0 technology-- interactive and social media applications --has not only made it easy to find and share existing content; it's also spurring the development of new, collaborative forms, such as music and video mash-ups.
Even if you don't participate in creating anonymous, collaborative content, the wired world is all about community, says Mulvey. "Whether your passion is Bob Dylan or whether it's cross-border shopping or whether it's making fun of politicians and sacred cows, there's a community for everybody."
That's true for content creators, as well. Ottawa writer John Kupferschmidt, whose In the Garden of Men won last year's 3-Day Novel Contest, points to the web-driven initiatives such as National Novel Writing Month. "It's just one of those examples of how people are using the Net to plug into communities of writing and getting feedback."
For all its positives, there's no denying there's a downside to the Internet, recently described by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber as a hotbed of "unregulated theft and piracy" that threatens to destroy creative industries.
Pirated movies and illegal music downloading are widespread. Yet live music and big-screen movie theatres are thriving. The virtual world and the real world are not mutually exclusive, after all.
The Internet generation does spend a lot of time in front of their computers, says Mulvey, just as past generations once spent too much time in front of the TV. "But sometimes," he points out, "you don't know what the world has to offer until you've watched that show or gone to that website."
April 16, 2009
How to Raise Our I.Q.
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics.
After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.
If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong. Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has just demolished this view in a superb new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It,” which also offers terrific advice for addressing poverty and inequality in America.
Professor Nisbett provides suggestions for transforming your own urchins into geniuses — praise effort more than achievement, teach delayed gratification, limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity — but focuses on how to raise America’s collective I.Q. That’s important, because while I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life.
Intelligence does seem to be highly inherited in middle-class households, and that’s the reason for the findings of the twins studies: very few impoverished kids were included in those studies. But Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia has conducted further research demonstrating that in poor and chaotic households, I.Q. is minimally the result of genetics — because everybody is held back.
“Bad environments suppress children’s I.Q.’s,” Professor Turkheimer said.
One gauge of that is that when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study. For example, a French study showed that children from poor households adopted into upper-middle-class homes averaged an I.Q. of 107 by one test and 111 by another. Their siblings who were not adopted averaged 95 on both tests.
Another indication of malleability is that I.Q. has risen sharply over time. Indeed, the average I.Q. of a person in 1917 would amount to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half the population of 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s measurements, Professor Nisbett says.
Good schooling correlates particularly closely to higher I.Q.’s. One indication of the importance of school is that children’s I.Q.’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).
Professor Nisbett strongly advocates intensive early childhood education because of its proven ability to raise I.Q. and improve long-term outcomes. The Milwaukee Project, for example, took African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation and assigned them randomly either to a control group that received no help or to a group that enjoyed intensive day care and education from 6 months of age until they left to enter first grade.
By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group. Even years later in adolescence, those children were still 10 points ahead in I.Q.
Professor Nisbett suggests putting less money into Head Start, which has a mixed record, and more into these intensive childhood programs. He also notes that schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program (better known as KIPP) have tested exceptionally well and favors experiments to see if they can be scaled up.
Another proven intervention is to tell junior-high-school students that I.Q. is expandable, and that their intelligence is something they can help shape. Students exposed to that idea work harder and get better grades. That’s particularly true of girls and math, apparently because some girls assume that they are genetically disadvantaged at numbers; deprived of an excuse for failure, they excel.
“Some of the things that work are very cheap,” Professor Nisbett noted. “Convincing junior-high kids that intelligence is under their control — you could argue that that should be in the junior-high curriculum right now.”
The implication of this new research on intelligence is that the economic-stimulus package should also be an intellectual-stimulus program. By my calculation, if we were to push early childhood education and bolster schools in poor neighborhoods, we just might be able to raise the United States collective I.Q. by as much as one billion points.
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