School is a Prison and damaging our Kids – An article by Peter Gray

Yet another excellent research done on schooling. Many may not agree, but thats the first step to questioning the hegemony of schooling in our society.


Nurture Shock – Why Everything We Think About Raising Our Children is Wrong (Part 2 of 2)

(Part 2 of 2)

The Science of Teen Rebellion

Nancy Darling and Linda Caldwell from Penn State University conducted a survey among high schoolers. The topic was called “leisure time” which is something that the teens involve themselves in without their parents or any other adult supervision. Darling seems to remark that “when they are bored and don’t know what else to do getting drunk makes everything else very interesting”. Out of the 36 controversial topics that they asked of which 12 of them were something that they lied frequently. They lie about how they spend their allowance, their sex life, what clothes they wear outside home, which movie they go to and with whom. They also lie about alcohol and drug usage and how they spend their time in the afternoons when they are not supervised. Darling found out that 96% of the kids lied to their parents on these issues. They rarely outrightly lie sometimes to save them, but most of the time its providing them with half truths. Telling them only half the stories. Upon investigating the teens mentality many seemed to think that they lie only because they want to protect their relationship with their parents, they didn’t want their parents to be disappointed in them.

Some of the parents of these kids know that they are not getting to hear the truths so they begin to be permissive parents and avoid setting out rules. Darling and her team suggest that such parents don’t get to know any more. Infact the kids begin to see them as irresponsible and think of them as not caring for them and that “they hate the job of being a parent”. According to a Harris poll 78% of the parents think that their kids can talk to them about anything, however the kids disagree to that. From a teen’s perspective asking for help from the parent is an outright admission to not being able to handle the issue by themselves.

The kind of parents who enforce few rules consistently are the most effective. They seem to be more approachable and when they set the rules they explain the reasons behind them too. The kids may not entirely disclose everything but they have very few issues that they hide.

Can self control be taught?

In schools kids are subjected to many “well-meaning” training programs. Even though the school takes it on their onus to produce responsible citizens, they are not even merely effective. The teachers, administrators and parents love such programs but it hardly scratches the surface. Only a very few children seem to be have gained from it and long term improvement is even rarer.

This book talks about this amazing curriculum program called Tools of the Mind for pre-kindergarten and preschool kids. The teachers do things a bit differently in this program. The children make their own play plans. The teachers don’t actively interfere but nudge them when they get distracted. When children are given the authority to make their own play plans you are handling them maturely and it will sustain for a longer period of time.

According to Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at University of California Berkley, child’s regulation of focus is a kind of cognitive control. She researches a region called the rostral lateral prefrontal cortex in the brain. This is the part that is responsible to maintain concentration and setting goals. So when kids are given the authority to make plans for their play time they are actually developing towards making this region stronger. Cognitive control she says is something that the brain needs when it has to manipulate information, conserve memory and evaluate options. It also manages the process of getting bored or irritable because of lack of interest or anger.

Hence allowing freedom for kids to make their own decisions and not read instruction manuals on how to eat, when to sleep, what to do at what times gives them a chance to learn by themselves.

Why Hannah talks and Alyssa doesn’t?

This is a shocking finding and one of my favorite statistics that I love to throw at new parents. In November 2007, a journal called Pediatrics published a report by University of Washington which was about the so-called baby videos like Baby Einstein, Brainy Babies, etc. It was found that infants who watched them had a remarkably low vocabulary than those who had not. This report was like a slap on the face of the $4.8 Billion (annually) industry. Another research team started working on the efficacy of this report and called on hundreds of families who strap their babies in front of these DVDs. The parents were asked to complete a survey to figure out if this is making difference. They made a list of 89 common words that babies are known to know at this age. After they studied the responses they found out that every one hour of baby video watching every day the babies knew lesser 8 words of 89 words. For a typical 11 month old baby that might be 16 lesser words, might not be a big deficit but at that age every single word empowers them to express themselves precisely and clearly in the world surround by adults.

This is why language learning can not be delegated to watching DVDs. Majority of the times they learn to speak by lip reading. How a word ends and other begins is learnt by closely watching how the mouth and lips move. They learn also by the interactions that they have with the adults. In one study two kids of 9 months of age and same level of understanding, Hannah and Alyssa were compared in relations to their acquisition of language. Hannah’s mother rarely missed any opportunity to responded to her cues. She would constantly talk to her about the world around while she is walking down the road or shopping. While Alyssa’s mom did less than half. Hannah’s mom responded 85% of the time while Alyssa’s mom did so only 55% of the time. By the time they were 18 months Alyssa added on 8 new words while Hannah added a phenomenal 150 words to her vocabulary.

I have tried to gather all the key statistics and findings that I gathered while I read this book. While this book is much more than what I have described. It certainly is a revealing fact and an astounding find.

Nurture Shock – Why Everything We Think about Raising our Children is Wrong (Part 1 of 2)

This is a book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman first published in 2009.

Nurture Shock

This term simply means the state of panic that the new age parents have found themselves in. This new generation of parents have kept their instinctual knowledge and natural behaviours at bay. They are looking to tap into abode of knowledge that is prescribed in baby books and parenting manuals.

Nurture shock puts cold water on your face if you are one such parent. This book covers a wide range of topics from “brain fibre to moral fibre” and it is about children from toddlers to teenagers. There are specific chapters devoted to the importance of sleep, how praising is devastating, why children lie, the acquisition of language, learning self-control, aggression, gratitude and intelligence.

Why kids lie?

Dr. Victoria Talwar is one of the leading experts on children’s lying behaviour, has conducted various tests on children to understand their motivation to lie. She says that its the parents who corner them and give them no other option but to lie, they tended to test their honesty unnecessarily. She figured that talking more about lying and its ill effects is actually not helping in the outcome. 96% to 98% kids admit that they is immoral but 96% of them admit to have lied to their parents. Lying has been the most talked about topic in school and on the sports ground. In one of her tests she asked 5 yr olds if they thought lies were wrong, of which 92% agreed. Upon asking why they thought it was bad they all said that lying gets you punishment.

So they associate the two together in a way and think that they need to mitigate the risk of being punished when they lie. It takes years for them to understand the repercussions of lying in a social relationship context. Researchers found that kids who are under constant threat of being punished don’t lie less, infact they become good liars at an earlier age.

Talwar goes on to explain that its not actually being truthful that is challenging. Infact to lie one has to understand the truth and cook up or creatively weave an alternate scenario that is not far from truth but is believable. This kind of skill is simply not required if you have to say the truth. So she calls this as a “developmental milestone”!

The inverse power of praise

It might seem counter intuitive but when you read the logic behind is unbeatable. Parents praise their kids habitually some praise at every chance they get. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of Amercian parents think that its important to tell their kids that they are smart. These kids then are showered with compliments for almost every finger they move, ofcourse the right way. They are made to believe that they are innately great and they have it all. But a new study of the New York City public School system reveals a rather shocking reality. This study strongly suggests that by naming kids that they are smart you are actually not preventing them from underperforming but this might be actually causing it.

Dr. Carol Dweck is a faculty at Stanford University who is conducting a study on 400 fifth graders. Randomly the kids were divided into two groups. One group was praised for their intelligence and one group was praised for their efforts. The groups were given tests in two rounds. They were told their scores after the first round and one group was praised for their smartness, “Oh you are so smart!” the research assistants would tell them. The other group were also told their scores and appreciated like, “You must have really worked hard for this.” Then both the groups were given their 2nd rounds of tests. In this round they were given the choice for opting for a harder test than the previous one. Kids who were appreciated for the efforts that they have put 90% of them took the harder test. Majority of the kids who were praised for their smartness took the easy way out. Results of this test were even more amazing. The kids who were praised for their efforts did 30% percent better than their previous test and the ones who were praised for their smartness fell behind their performances by 20%.

Kids who are told that they are smart don’t know the reasons for their success, they just think that they have it in them and don’t put out the efforts. On the contrary if you praise their efforts they tend to think that the parameters of success is in their control. This effect of blinded praise effects every socioeconomic class and equally with boys and girls.

The common notion is that praising boosts the self esteem of children which is the key to successful performance. After reviewing some 200 studies from 1970 to 2000, Dr. Roy Baumeister from the Association for Psychological Science concluded that high self esteem didn’t improve grades, career advancement, any reduction in alcohol usage, and especially did not lower any violence.  Infact highly aggressive and violent people think very highly of themselves.

Dweck and her team says that to be effective, praise has to be specific and also sincere. Most common mistakes that parents make is that they praise only when they see things going their way. Children above the age of seven can scrutinize and figure out if the given praise is hollow or sincere.

The lost hour

Children globally in this age are getting one hour of sleep lesser than that they were getting about 30 years ago. 90% of American parents think their kids get enough sleep. Contradicting to 60% of kids in high school complain of extreme sleepiness in classrooms, where 25-33% of kids fall asleep during the class once in a week. Shockingly only 5% of high schoolers get on an average of 8 hrs of sleep. Majority of them get around 6.5 hrs of sleep.

Lack of adequate sleep impairs the child’s developing brain. The neurons lose their plasticity and become incapable of forming synaptic connections to encode a memory. These hindrances in the ability to learn during the day.

A study conducted showed that more than half of 100,000 car crashes that happen due to the driver falling asleep behind wheels are school children who rushed to schools by their alarm clocks. One such school in Minnesota, US delayed its school starting time by an hour and found startling results. Kids performed highly on their SAT scores and admitted to have better quality of life.

Rest of the review will be posted in part 2 of the blog tomorrow…

Two Answers to the Same Question

Rajitha Gopinath

The question is, what is the right way of parenting? When you read about successful people one thing that all of them refer to is the kind of childhood they had. Either they had motivated parents who laid a solid foundation or they had abusive or divorced parents that made their childhood miserable and the sheer vigor to get out of it made them successful. One thing is common among both and that is they didn’t have an ordinary childhood like you and me. Parenting has direct affect on how much successful you will be in your life. So, I turned to books of various kinds. For me reading parenting books turned out to be like therapy. Its less about children and more about parents.

I recently finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua at rocketing speed in 4 days. This is the best I have done…

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Current learning system has hung, its time to Reboot. MOOC is the future of Education!

Last week’s Mint newspaper featured an interview with Anant Agarwal, President of EdX. EdX is a joint venture of the MIT and Harvard University, it provides Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) which is essentially redefining how education is going to be imparted in future. Currently it has more than a million students enrolled on its website. It was founded in May 2012 with an initial investment of $60 million and did I tell you that its completely free!

MOOCs are various online courses that takes in huge mass of students from all across the globe. They offer courses from Justice, Technology, Statistics, Psychology, Mathematics, Engineering, Art, History….and on and on! They are launched by many of the elite institutions across the world like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, University of Toronto, University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, and many more are joining them. The materials contain video lectures, readings, quizzes and assignments. But the best are the student forums, where one can interact with students from all across the backgrounds and world.

I am a big fan of MOOCs and have completed a few and currently taking several courses. For a typical course the enrollments cross about 50,000. When I log into the website of Coursera I go hay wire, like how typical women goes hysteric during the Summer SALE. I feel I am only limited by my own curiosity and imagination. Since childhood I was fascinated by Brain, for the first time I pursued even though so late in life an interest that I had put in cold storage. No prerequisites, no entrance exams, the equation is between you and what you want to learn  and how much you want to learn.

Like this I have completed a writing course, almost finishing a course on public speaking (you might think how does that work in an online scenario, well it check out!). Just begun taking a course of History of Mankind, Modern and Post Modern writing, Understanding Beethoven, and will soon start many others in the coming months.

Again did I tell you this is for free!

Coursera is one such company which was founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University. It was founded in 2012 and has currently about 4 million users. It partners with several institutions across the world who use their open source platform to provide their courses. They started with 5 partners last year and currently they have about 83 partners world wide.

I recently came across Student Learning Network wherein students are responsible to generate the content and they share what seems is valuable to them. They organise their research contents, academic resources and also share with a larger community of students. This is mainly for science and engineering based learning.

Government of India too is getting into this arena and has set up a collaborative venture called The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). It is funded by the Ministry of Human Resources Development and in association with 7 IITs and IISc Bangalore. They have developed video contents and courses accessible via the web primarily focusing on enhancing the quality of engineering education. Approximately 600 courses are available as of now through the IIT Channel in Youtube.

Edx, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, Khan Academy and many like them are knocking down the campus walls. The world of education is becoming flat! The philosophy is pretty much learn anything, anywhere, almost for free. The world is changing and so is our perspective about it. How we interact and learn in a society that is unfolding at every beat is only to be seen.


I don’t want to go to School!

“I don’t want to go to School!”, protests my daughter with angst very morning. Like her many of her friends tell the same. She is 2.5 years old and this anxiety has nothing to do with age. I see my nephews climbing down the stairs every morning gloomily.

“Hey, will you take me to your football practice at the club today?” I try to cheer up the 4 yr old.

“He woke up so late”, says his elder brother, 12, making gestures with his eyes. He himself looks like someone put cold water on his face.

Growing up we all have wanted to not go to school, anyone wants to deny that? As I stand at my window and watch the school buses halting one by one. I see boys and girls with their shoe laces tied with two similar loops and their hair parted neatly, so unnatural of them. Mothers carrying their school bags and other paraphernalia in one hand and in other the child’s hand firmly. What if they run away seeing the school bus? The cross road would look like a merchandise sale with labels of Disney, Ben 10, Barbie, Doraemon, etc.

Back to the fundamental question, why do we need schools? Schools by itself is probably not bad. The thousand years old institutions and its philosophies have pushed us human civilization into advancement. Imparting education and storing knowledge generations after generations happened in these establishments. Questioning this hegemony would be radical but the wave towards changing them has already begun in the society. The pulse of society is reflected in how its accommodating this change within its institutions.

The current education system is known to be prevailing since the Industrial Era. Anne Knock says on her blog that we can not be critical about that education and its style then because it was designed for a specific purpose for which it was responsive.

People moved away from an agrarian society to cities where they began working as individuals. A more skill and community based working style was replaced by routine application of works in the machine run manufacturing. The biggest leap in population growth happened in this Industrial Era. The society began to consume and we became an economy that was consumer driven. In factories thousands of workers begin work at the horn of the siren and stop work at the horn. The workforce would stand in series and do repetitive works that was told to them, slowly replacing critical
thinking and self inputs. There was no opportunity to collaborate. Work was segregated and compartmentalized. And thats exactly what has happened to our schooling.

Our education is segregated and fitted in different subjects and time slots. Children are segregated in different rooms according to their age. What they do and how much they do through the day is predetermined. They will be tested at the end of the year, bad pupils will be reshuffled or discarded and good pupils will be put on further on the conveyor belt. If this looks like a job being worked on the manufacturing unit, this is exactly what has happened to all of us.
There is an interesting Ted talk by Sir Kenneth Robinson, educationist and advisor to various Governments, who says that schools kill creativity. He emphasizes that for the current education system to succeed they should foster diversity by offering a broad curriculum and encouraging individualization of the learning process; it should foster curiosity through creative teaching, which depends on high quality teacher training and development; and finally that it should focus on
awaking creativity rather than standardized testing, giving the responsibility for defining the course of education to individual schools and teachers.

John Holt, the renowned educationist, says that schools have failed us. In his books, How Children learn and How Children Fail, he mentions learning stops when you start school. This is a very powerful statement. He sat through classes of 5th graders and observed them. All of them day dream and their mind wanders to where they can freely think and be themselves. Children even of that age begin to think of strategies to avoid confrontation with teachers. The dogmatic, regimented and authoritative style of teaching leaves no room for individuality. According to Holt, the top 10%
and below 15% of the class do what they do for claiming their fame, to get recognition. The middle 75% of the kids in class keep their heads low.

Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy has written in his latest book, The One World Schoolhouse, “What I didn’t want was the dreary process that sometimes went on in classrooms—rote memorization and plug-in formulas aimed at nothing more lasting or meaningful than a good grade on the next exam”. Personally I think I have done this same thing. Sometimes I have not wanted to over or under perform to not get into the eyes of teachers and my parents. I just do enough so that they don’t bother me. The schools can’t accommodate the requirements or individuality of several kids in a class, so they create a production line and conduct tests to perform quality checking. Holt questions the concept of pre-announced tests and pre-decided sets of questions in the examinations. And why do we accept 80% correct answers and push the kids to the next grade.

All this states one thing and which is pretty clear. Schools are failing to deliver their objectives. They merely function as day care centers for the kids. But there is hope on the way! There are schools of very different kinds, even if very few in numbers, all across the world with a different philosophy. One such school is Summerhill which is an independent British boarding school founded in 1921. The underlying philosophy here is that school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others. One such other school is The Sudbury Valley School in New Hampshire, USA. This school operates more or less in the same philosophy as Summerhill. Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders, in his book Free at Last says that in their more than 60 years of running the school they have not encountered one single Dyslexic or Attention Deficient child, while the Dyslexia Research Institue
says that 10-15% of Americans are dyslexic.

My appeal to all the parents of this generation is to contemplate and open their minds to various possibilities and options. We are hundreds of years ahead of the Industrial Era, isn’t it time yet to look for the change in our education system which was founded then? The need today is to marry education and technology of the 21st century. Shantanu Sinha, COO, Khan Academy said in an interview that we need to give students the opportunity to take control of their own learning and
rediscover their natural curiosity and excitement. If we empower the people who matter, the teachers and students themselves then they may surprise us.

I wish that we open up a discussion and explore the opportunity to start a school like Sudbury Valley in Mumbai. Lets begin to argue and counter argue the possibilities of a likely alternative. I am passionate about this, will you join me!

Websites and Articles:
The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan
Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg
How Children Fail by John Holt
How Children Learn by John Holt

To Preschool or Not To?

After enough contemplation and deliberation, my husband and I decided to put our daughter in the play school. We debated endlessly hearing each other’s sides of argument, quoting researches which suited our perspectives. Finally we concluded that we are in it together. Until the school started.

The first two days were good because I accompanied her. I thought I would just be the fly on the wall. But it turned out to be an experience for myself. With 17 mothers, 3 fathers, 2 teachers and 20 two-something-year-olds, we were cramped in a room and were supposed to have fun. They told us to shake our bodies and wiggle our fingers to the tune of ‘boogie-boogie’. I couldn’t but steal a glance at the awkwardly standing fathers who seemed to be just filling up for the mommies. They stood there sheepishly looking at the teacher doing actions. The bubblier the teachers got, kids reciprocated with equal voice modulated howling.

Third day we were to leave the kids at the gate, just like you put vegetables in the basket. You drop them and walk away. “Don’t you look back, don’t make it difficult for her”, told my dear friend who has been sending her son since last year, who cried for three straight months.

My daughter has never stayed away from me and I have always been around. I mean physically majority of times within a radius of 40 feet. I am part of her landscape like a fixed furniture. I haven’t gone shopping, traveling, movie watching, dining without her, the plan has always been with her or without both of us.

So here I am marching up and down the entrance, feeling equally abandoned. She didn’t know what to expect, neither did I. She doesn’t even know how to be alone. What if she wants to go to the bathroom, at this thought I felt a sudden urge myself. Few mothers stood outside sobbing, some left the premises so they don’t live this moment. I couldn’t but question the whole institution. Why do you need a pre-school? Why can’t there be a better way of doing this? Haven’t they heard of gradual settlement? I began to march faster. I was twiddling the ends of my Kameez. My heart was pounding as I heard the kids howling in the choir with all the octaves placed in complete disarray. To add to the sopranos were the teachers who were determined to complete all the rain related rhymes before they set them free.

There weren’t pre-schools in my time. Kids directly entered the schools at 3.5 yrs. In our father’s time I guess they entered school at 5 or 6 yrs. I can’t make my mind if this is progression or regression. These days you will find mother toddler classes that start at 9 months, soon there will be something at 6 months. Guess the business idea is catch them young. Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby merchandise reorient the natural discourse of our attitudes of parenting.

Two hours passed and I can feel the heaviness in my head. As I stepped inside the gate, the watchman asks, “Madam, did you bring your ID?”.

“No” said I, waiting for his reaction.

“Madam, you should get your ID if you want to pick up your kid.” he blurted and I couldn’t believe that.

I thought of giving him my fist, but decided against. Instead asked him, “Did you ask for the ID when I came to drop her? Didn’t you see me waddling here for the past two hours? And didn’t I allow you to go take a chai break, while I guarded your gate?”

“No problem Madam, just bring it tomorrow.” His eyes looking somewhere else.

My daughter was the first of the nursery kids to come out. Got rid of her at the earliest possible chance I guess. I was devastated looking at her, my heart sank to the bottom. She was tired of crying and gasping for breath. Like her the whole league of howlers came out one by one. Their anxious parents waiting with open arms, seemed a little deceptive to me though, me inclusive.

As I began receding from the gate, I could not but wonder who these parents were? Equally traumatized and juggling with the work/life balance. Carrying big huge laptop bags, adorned in formal attire, buzzing in and out of the cars like a perfect clockwork. Like drones they hovered around at the gates at the right times. As I was looking at them I felt that they themselves needed a rehab. What is there motivation? What is it that they want for their kids? Admission in elite schools for their children? Polished and anglicized tiny ones? Or is this just a glorified day care for children, while they are at work?

I decided I will give it a month before surrendering. The next day I am completely lost to understand her reaction. She leapt into the arms of the teacher crying and saying that she wants to go to her class. Finish it off, get over with it, just do what you got to do kind of feeling I guess. I told her I am waiting outside and she had the “yeah right” look in her eyes.

Today is the end of the third week and things aren’t improving from here. I scour the internet to figure out if this trauma is going to be damaging. Dr. Bruce Perry’s research at Baylor University says that chronic stress over-stimulates an infant’s brain stem, which pumps out excess adrenaline. The portions of the brain that thrive on physical and emotional input if are neglected (such as when a baby is repeatedly left to cry alone), the child will grow up with an over-active adrenaline system.

What was I thinking?

Researchers at Yale University and Harvard Medical School found that intense stress early in life can alter the brain’s neurotransmitter systems and cause structural and functional changes in regions of the brain similar to those seen in adults with depression.

So, are the neural networks in her brain not going to connect properly? I am beginning to worry, cause she has become very restless and fidgety. She would not leave me alone, I have to also negotiate a pee break with her.

After a lot of lost sleep and residual droopy eyes. I don’t know what I am going to do. I have decided to wait it out for a month. Just hope my neural networks won’t go haywire in the meantime. Fingers crossed!