Tuesday, June 11, 2013

7 Reminders for the New School Year

As a professor and educational psychologist, I am asked the same questions every year. I have also observed patterns in behavior. Here are a few reminders to parents, teachers and students. (See also “Eureka!”)

1. Hard work is good, but it is not the only factor.

Hard work is important and, in most cases, the simple solution to a problem. I believe in hard work. But if your kid has spent hours on a subject for an examination and still cannot accomplish what other kids can do in less time, please spare your children further frustration.

Children are not born equal.  Some are brighter, others are slower. Genetics is not fair, same with intelligence.

Parents, try to appreciate your child’s strengths and remedy his/her weaknesses. Do not add to your kid’s misery by demanding that he/she  become like other children.

2. School is not the be-all and end-all.
Some parents desperately want their kids to get into “brand schools.” By hook or by crook, they send their kids to a  particular school because so and so endorses it  or it is   a status symbol. Never mind the distance or the cost.

Sadly, many of these schools, like designer bags, are a facade. Or, worse, fake! The content is more important than the bag. An exorbitant price does not always translate to excellence.

Being with rich kids all the time is not the best kind of education. We do not want kids to become spoiled brats—
narcissistic, entitled and unaware of the larger and harsher world.

Exposing kids to peers from different social economic strata will teach them respect, tolerance, gratitude and compassion.

The school can never replace the family nor substitute for the parents. Irresponsible parents cannot expect a responsible school to do what they should be doing. The school is not a rehabilitation center. Character formation starts at home.

3. Teachers are not supposed to be tyrants but neither are they slaves.

A survey asked kids who had just started school whom they feared most. The answer was “teachers.” More than monsters or ghosts, kids feared teachers. Yes, teachers—even the best ones—are not usually appreciated.

But serious teachers do not have to be tyrants, scaring off students by abusing their authority. Neither should they be slaves, constantly and blindly following fads and whims dictated by administrators and parents.

As one teacher in a very expensive school said, “We are not the glamorized yaya of these rich kids.”

Parents should not ingratiate themselves with their child’s teachers and should not look down on teachers, even if they are younger or poorer.

Teachers should maintain professional distance, have self-respect and carry the integrity of the profession.
As for principals, you should realize that teachers, who are your best assets, have a clear job to do. Love them and keep them!

4. Prevention is always better than cure.

Class management and home management mean setting rules and communicating them well. It is always best to set limits first to prevent problems later. Rules have to be clear, reasonable and enforceable. Principles are few; foremost are respect and responsibility. If these two are instilled in students, we can expect an easier, lighter load as teachers and parents.

Prevention means preparation. Anticipate problems. Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Many failures in schools—of teachers and students—stem from overconfidence and laziness that make one believe he/she can bluff through an exam or a lecture.

Parents should nip in the bud mischief or bullying behavior the moment they see it.  Denying, prolonging or defending it will make it worse.

5. Consequences are required for students, teachers and parents.
In a country or a school that does not do a very good job of enforcing rules and demanding consequences, citizens and constituents are wary of rules and become experts in finding excuses.

Behaviors are shaped by consequences. Many of our best professors, even at state universities, are not reprimanded nor penalized for their absences or for not submitting grades on time, if at all.

I am dismayed at teachers who grant extensions to students unable to beat the deadline. This encourages students not to take their professors seriously and to procrastinate, cram, deceive, cheat or find an alibi for irresponsible behavior. 

Parents who write false excuse slips should also be ashamed of themselves.

6. Learning is its best motivation.

Parents often ask if it is OK to reward kids with material things. My answer? No. Extrinsic rewards are short-lived, not universally appreciated, can become manipulative and may stifle real learning.

Learning is intrinsically motivating if it arouses curiosity, is novel, shows progress, encourages mastery, and widens one’s view. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches about “flow” when, in doing something, one loses one’s sense of time and space.

This happens when our optimal skills match optimal tasks, so that our attention is fully invested and our skills fully utilized. We can see immediate feedback and feel in us the “flow” of being in the zone.

Problems happen when a task is either too easy for someone with higher skills or too hard for one with lower skills. 

One becomes bored in the former case and anxious in the latter. When one loves learning for its own sake, the goal is to learn, not just to get good grades.

I encourage parents to “buy experiences rather than material things.” Traveling, not a branded bag, facilitates further learning.

7. Buy books, not notebooks.

Two weeks before school opening, television news is all about buying notebooks and uniforms! If the station uses last year’s footage, no one will know the difference. Does education boil down to notebooks and uniforms?

People now go to bookstores to buy anything but books.  When I see a book I’ve purchased abroad in a local bookstore or book fair, I excitedly inform my students.  But they complain that books are expensive. Yet they spend money on fancy stationery or expensive gadgets.

Students and teachers who do not read should not be in schools and universities. I am appalled by the lack of reading among my students who are training to be teachers. And if they do read, their sources and titles (if they do remember) are way below what are expected of scholars.

There is a  saying: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” What are our students reading? Where and with what do they spend time building and using their minds?

I endorse the Great Book Approach. This movement, found in many great universities, requires a student to read at least five to 10 of the best literature (from a list drawn by the General Education or Liberal Arts program) to be eligible for graduation.

On the first day of several of my classes—all graduate level—I ask my students to list down the books they have read. If they cannot come up with 10, the assignment for the next meeting is to list down what they will read in the next three to four years. This is my advocacy.

There is no excuse for knowledge workers not to read considering that many books are now in public domain and downloadable. If only they know how to make better use of their gadgets!

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