Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

Smörgåsbord: Our prehistoric minds face the technological wilderness

“A Brook in the Forest” by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy of The MET.

Innovation is truly generated from infrastructure, standards, and contexts that are incrementally shaped by bureaucracies. Sorry, Steve Jobs idolizers.

https://aeon.co/essays/most-of-the-time-innovators-don-t-move-fast-and-break-things

What are the consequences of children interacting daily with AI voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home?

“There can be a lot of unintended consequences to interactions with these devices that mimic conversation,” said Kate Darling, an MIT professor who studies how humans interact with robots. “We don’t know what all of them are yet.”

I think the fears about transference of how kids talk to robots to humans is overblown here — after all, we all talk to our pets as kids but that doesn’t seem to taint our interactions with other humans. But definitely worth considering how these devices could potentially provide linguistic training and refinement of questioning as an educative tool.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/how-millions-of-kids-are-being-shaped-by-know-it-all-voice-assistants/2017/03/01/c0a644c4-ef1c-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html

Direct instruction in a “circle time” game could help promote self-control in children.

Researchers noted that “there could be educational implications to their results: ‘the irony may be that in devising strategies for parenting and schooling geared to a world of rapid technological change while neglecting the importance of traditional cultural practices, we may be contributing to a deterioration of young people’s attentive and inhibitive resources, thus promoting impulses toward instant gratification’.”

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/03/03/circle-time-rituals-help-children-beat-the-marshmallow-test-of-self-control/

According to an evolutionary psychologist, high school poses “an unprecedented social challenge to our prehistoric minds.”

Could just as easily switch the word parent to teacher here: “the things that the parent thinks that the child should be concerned with (preparing for a career and developing important life skills) and the things that the child is emotionally driven to actually be concerned with (being popular and having fun) are often at odds.”

https://qz.com/705770/an-evolutionary-psychologist-explains-why-you-will-always-be-haunted-by-high-school/

“indigenous people were gardeners and stewards of biodiversity.” Compare to us.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/its-now-clear-that-ancient-humans-helped-enrich-the-amazon/518439/

A little wildness and diversity can go a long way.

“In an Urban Forestry & Urban Greening study of vacant lots in Cleveland, Ohio, where economic impoverishment and a declining population have left some 27,000 lots to go feral, the ecosystem services provided by inner-city lots far surpassed those of carefully-tended residential and suburban spaces.”

http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/03/the-value-of-vacant-lots/

Brains as ecosystems.

“Critically, these cases began with studying behaviors that the animals naturally do, not those that they had been trained to perform.”

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/how-brain-scientists-forgot-that-brains-have-owners/517599/

This is a great idea: quiz commenters on articles to ensure they have basic comprehension before they can comment.

“If everyone can agree that this is what the article says, then they have a much better basis for commenting on it.”

Not only could this ensure more level-headed commenting — but it could furthermore serve as a reinforcer of key details.

http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/03/this-site-is-taking-the-edge-off-rant-mode-by-making-readers-pass-a-quiz-before-commenting/

Respect to Mike Rowe for keeping up the call for CTE.

“If you want to make America great again, you’ve got to make work cool again,” he said.

https://www.the74million.org/article/dirty-jobs-star-mike-rowe-stumps-for-career-and-tech-ed-as-house-readies-for-new-cte-bill

Busing is always the conversation killer on the integration of schools. But Hartford demonstrates that busing can be beneficial.

http://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2017/0225/Where-busing-works

An important reminder from Nikole Hannah-Jones what the word “public” means in the US — including both its dark side and it’s promise.

“as black Americans became part of the public, white Americans began to pull away.”

“schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public — and on ourselves.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/magazine/have-we-lost-sight-of-the-promise-of-public-schools.html

NY Teachers: Here’s a useful graph to share with students, courtesy of Achieve’s new report.

media-20170228

http://www.achieve.org/files/New%20York_2017.pdf

Success Academy’s Moskowitz gets called out by Politico

Suddenly, Moskowitz, one of the most vociferously and politically aggressive of education reformers, claims that “I … need to consider whether it is appropriate for me to use my position as the leader of a collection of public schools paid for with government funds to advocate politically.”

Hmm.

http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2017/02/success-staff-question-moskowitzs-ties-to-trump-109792

Though after some criticism from her own staff and from the exposure by that Politico article, it seems she suddenly re-discovered her voice.

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/success-academy-schools-support-transgender-students-article-1.2984127

Airplane wings that morph, inspired by birds

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/space/morphing-wings/

 

Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBChttp://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Ushttp://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/how-rich-people-see-the-world-differently.html

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilushttp://nautil.us/issue/31/stress/when-destructive-behavior-makes-biological-sense

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economisthttp://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/02/economist-explains-0?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/howtogetrichinamerica

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardianhttps://amp.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/feb/20/rags-riches-privileged-entrepreneurs-business-resilience-michelle-mone

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospecthttp://prospect.org/article/latino-flight-whiteness#.WKBUbz2F_l4.facebook

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearSciencehttp://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2016/11/05/scientists_suggest_doing_away_with_species_110078.html

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhackshttps://mindhacks.com/2017/02/07/sex-differences-in-brain-size/

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women. https://mindhacks.com/2017/02/14/sex-differences-in-cognition-are-small/

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardianhttps://amp.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/20/key-to-keeping-friendships-alive-different-for-men-and-women-scientists-say

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/each-tree-is-an-island/515583/?utm_source=twb

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographichttp://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/11/robert-berlo-map-collection/

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLabhttps://www.citylab.com/housing/2017/02/what-could-reverse-dcs-intense-school-segregation/516783/

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Edhttp://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/20/515359394/the-mile-high-promise-and-risk-of-school-choice

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Bookshttp://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/when-public-goes-private-as-trump-wants-what-happens/

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/02/the-voucher-paradox/516747/

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog: http://www.ascendlearning.org/blog/diane-ravitch-reply/

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/upshot/how-ben-carson-at-housing-could-undo-a-desegregation-effort.html?smid=tw-upshotnyt&smtyp=cur&_r=0

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific Americanhttps://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-diversity-create-distrust/?WT.mc_id=SA_TW_MB_NEWS

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilushttp://nautil.us/blog/can-training-help-people-un_learn-a-lifetime-of-racial-bias

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interesthttp://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/post-election-reconciliation/506027/

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog: https://behaviourguru.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/project-based-learning-id-give-it-five.html

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartzhttps://qz.com/901125/a-mathematician-has-created-a-method-of-teaching-that-is-proving-there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-bad-math-student/

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystemshttps://schoolecosystem.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/special-education-inclusion-or-specialized-intervention/

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBloghttp://www.spring.org.uk/2016/02/better-brain-training-oldest-technique.php

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThoughthttp://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/20-observable-characteristics-of-effective-teaching

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digesthttps://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/11/10/for-faster-learning-and-longer-retention-interleave-study-sessions-with-sleep/

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThinkhttp://bigthink.com/philip-perry/napping-just-as-good-as-cramming-before-a-final-study-claims

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBloghttp://www.spring.org.uk/2016/02/study-tests-whether-lifting-weights-running-grows-new-brain-cells.php

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Voxhttp://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2016/11/4/13510352/planting-trees-pollution-heat-waves

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographichttp://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/surprising-ways-green-buildings-improve-health-sustainability/

 

 

People in the United States Don’t Fund What They Value

pyramid 003

In a study released this month and conducted independently of the National Park Service, we sought to develop the first-ever comprehensive assessment of what the parks are worth to the public. We calculated that Americans put a total value of $92 billion per year on our national parks, monuments, seashores, and recreation areas. However, what we also concluded is that we are not funding the park system at a level that reflects its value.

—Linda Bilmes and John Loomis, “Americans Value National Parks, But Don’t Fund Them

Birds make us better

I’ve always loved animals–I grew up alongside a German shepherd, an Amazon parrot, parakeets, and cockatiels. The parrot, Vincent, is still with me today. Here’s my current little vibrant family:

20151119_193400-2

 

Birds are, in some ways, representative of humanity’s simultaneous fascination and awe of the natural world, as well as utter disregard. Many bird species are declining due to human activity, their diverse voices silenced. Many are killed by pet cats allowed to roam freely outdoors. In the past, tribal kings would kill hundreds of parrots to string their iridescent feathers into gaudy headdresses and capes.

These beautiful creatures possess an intangible intrinsic value that makes our world a better place to live. But as you will see in the following stories, they can furthermore provide benefits that are more tangible. Just like greenery, natural light, and other environmental enhancers, the sounds, visuals, and presence of birds brings greater vibrancy into our existence.

♥ In this first story of aging well, Bill Thomas, a professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, brings alive the concept that our environment has a tremendous impact on well-being. This story is not only about birds, of course, but birds are a part of the equation of what he terms the “Eden Alternative.”

“So he decided to transform the nursing home. Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids.

All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

He named the approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 U.S. states (the animal restriction in New York was voted down).” . . . 

He moved beyond nursing homes to set up small, intimate residences called Green Houses. With private bedrooms and bathrooms, they offered dignity and privacy. Their size had an unexpected effect.

“Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas said of one house. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big. . . . The buildings disable elders.”

—Tara Bahrampour¸ “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes” on Washington Post

Imagine if we had schools that were “Eden Alternatives”!

♥ In this next story on parrots and veterans of war, we learn that traumatized parrots and traumatized veterans can support one another in ways that traditional therapy may not always be able to address. According to the veterans, it has something to do with the nature of the birds themselves—something a bird lover such as myself can well relate to.

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’ . . . 

‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’ . . .

‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.

—Charles Seibart, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” on The NY Times Magazine

As we know from research on stereotype threat, our children are intensely aware of stereotypes and judgment. Unfortunately, not every adult who works in a school with children experiencing acute and chronic stress and trauma looks at our children without some form of judgment, however unconscious it may be.

Perhaps if we included birds in our schools, children would gain a similar benefit from the non-judgmental gazes of our feathered brethren that veterans can gain.

♥ In this final story, a former drug dealer from DC’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves.

“Rodney Stotts grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.”

—Ari Daniel, “Rodney Learns to Fly” a Podcast on Transistor

A world without birds would be an immeasurably poorer place to live.

Lessons for both liberals and conservatives from Flint

By abarndweller (AC Spark Plug, Flint Michigan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What happened in Flint is absolutely appalling.

Imagine the horror of a mother in Flint, knowing your child has been irrevocably poisoned. Poisoned as the direct result of the decisions of civic “leaders” whose very job, ostensibly, was to serve and protect you and your children. A poison, lead, that is insidious because it manifests in a slow and invisible devastation of decision-making, attention, and behavior that can all too easily be blamed on your child. And will be, because our society always blames the poor for their suffering. It’s so much more convenient to be able to dismiss someone’s suffering—their humanity—outright, without thought or empathy or even that moment’s worth of consideration, due to skin, or appearance, or where they may happen to live.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Beyond the inestimable human cost of the state’s failure, there is a damage that may outlast even the children whose bodies and brains have been poisoned. That damage is the fear and complete and utter mistrust of government that any family in Flint will never forget and will pass on to future generations.

When a community of people no longer can trust their government at any level, this is a damage that will not be fixed by an apology, nor by a formal indictment (and I sincerely hope that Snyder and his myrmidon are prosecuted for their crimes—especially in light of recent information), nor by any immediate action and intervention. What Michigan governor Snyder has wrought upon his people is criminal not simply for the poisoning of his constituent’s bodies and minds that he has been elected to serve, but furthermore for the stain he and his administration have left on civic institutions that his citizens can no longer trust. It will take generations to rebuild that trust.

In an article in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick squarely blames the Republican party, et al, for this crime:

“I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a [expletive] about poor kids as much as they give a [expletive] about the green of the bottom line.” [Edited for language]

I frequently have much the same reaction to the Republican party myself, yet I think it’s all too easy to lay the blame on a political ideology or party in such a knee-jerk manner. In fact, later in the very same article, Rodrick presents some evidence for liberals such as myself to consider. When describing the historical context for how Snyder came into office, he writes:

“There was a $20 million budget deficit, as Flint was having difficulties meeting the pension requirements of union retirees who had worked in a more prosperous time and with a much larger tax base.

I have the same urge to belittle conservatives and the austere and even inhumane policies they often seek to perpetrate. Yet I fear that liberals (well, really, any of us humans) can all too easily get caught up in a rapturous cycle of blame and shame, rather than acknowledging the complex, deeper, and ongoing issues confronting civic leaders and representatives.

The context for what led to the situation in Flint will continue to recur in other cities. As our elderly population increases, the financial burden for health care and pensions will also steadily grow, stressing already taut public budgets. As Robert Guest argues in an article in an article in the Economist on the “millenial” generation:

“Throughout human history, the old have subsidised the young. In rich countries, however, that flow has recently started to reverse. . . . Within families, intergenerational transfers still flow almost entirely from older to younger. However, in rich countries public spending favours pensions and health care for the old over education for the young. Much of this is paid for by borrowing, and the bill will one day land on the young. In five of 23 countries in Messrs Lee and Mason’s sample (Germany, Austria, Japan, Slovenia and Hungary), the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now heading from young to old, who tend to be richer. As societies age, many more will join them.” [Bold added]

At some point, something’s got to give. Many liberals dig in their heels against any consideration of cuts or changes to pensions or health care, or privatizing the provision of some public services, without considering how those amenities will be paid for, and by whom.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is decaying, most especially in older East Coast cities like Detroit (where schools are literally falling apart, such that teachers are resorting to “sick-outs” to protest the decrepit conditions), Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. But even in younger cities, such as Seattle, updated infrastructure to prepare for potential catastrophic earthquakes is needed.

At some point, something will give, as it has in Flint due to decaying water infrastructure and poor political decisions by state officials. Many conservatives dig in their heels against any and all investments in public infrastructure and the necessary regulations to provide accountability and oversight, without considering how a failure to make such investments will impact future generations.

So there are lessons to draw from Michigan for both conservatives and liberals alike which will be increasingly salient to our rapidly changing cities and states:

  • There are very real financial issues looming due to unsustainable allocations to pensions, health care, and other large administrations of public funds (such as education).
  • There are very real infrastructural and environmental issues looming due to a lack of long-term planning, foresight, and investment.

Pragmatic solutions do not frequently come from ideological partisanship. And yet, our country often appears unable to get beyond superficial political polarization of real issues, preferring, instead, to elect leaders who play into and intentionally manipulate our fears to gain power. Unless we can learn to take our civic institutions and responsibilities seriously, we may well witness more horrors wreaked upon our citizens as the result of unscrupulous governance in the oncoming decade.

Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.

Economic Opportunity + Education

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I recently wrote about the need to provide options for children and families living in communities impacted by poverty.

Sometimes it can be frustrating as an educator to talk about poverty, because there’s a tone in the sector that this is something we shouldn’t talk about. “Keep your focus in the classroom,” some people seem to say, “don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

Thankfully, there’s educators and activists out there refusing to keep their heads down and ignore the problems of the community they work within.

Here’s an example of a teacher, Stephen Ritz, who’s not only helping to educate his students in the South Bronx, but creating economic opportunities for them within their community. Take a look:

What’s intriguing is that Ritz presents us with a way out from the polarization of poverty vs. education: we can tackle both, and turn the equation into the win-win of economic opportunities + education.

This is the kind of innovation that I’d like to see more of. Because the children are learning skills and knowledge that will empower them with more options. They are gaining capital: social, natural, psychological, and economic. And that’s the kind of wealth that we need to cultivate in all our communities.

Check out the Green Bronx Machine for more on this great work going down in the South Bronx.

How to Fight Poverty: Play the Long Game

Yosemite

This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.

The development of more and better options certainly begins in each classroom, as RiShawn Biddle argued well in a recent post on Dropout Nation. Because the more that a child learns and gains knowledge, the more his brain is enriched with interconnections, helping to inoculate him against toxicity in his environment and ward off manipulation and illusions by others, and thus make better decisions.

And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.

But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.

To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.

Structural changes in a society seem to mostly occur after long periods of chipping away, when suddenly some invisible threshold is reached, and there’s an avalanche, a titanic shift in mindsets, culture, and policy.

The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?

It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.

Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.

Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.

A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.

For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.

A tree is an investment in a healthier future. A tree provides us shade, it cleans our air, provides a haven for birds, creates a buffer against noise and the wind, and even its simple presence, green, vibrant, and calm, can reduce violence and help to shore us up against the vicissitudes of life.

How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.

Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.

To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.

And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.

Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.

And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.

Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.

How to Fight Poverty: Provide Options

The Network Effect

Last week, Will and I took up the topic of poverty in response to an op-ed by Eva Moskowitz. Poverty is rightfully a major point of discourse in fields such as education, sociology, and economics, especially given the symbolic and vaunted “golden door” of opportunity for the “huddled masses” presented by the ideal of the United States.

For those of us who work in communities entrenched in poverty, we see firsthand the devastation that poverty and its associated ills can wreak on our children and their families. You won’t catch me blithely trumpeting “poverty doesn’t matter” anytime soon. Poverty matters. Which is another way of saying that capital—and who has an abundance of access to it, and who doesn’t—matters.

Optionality—or the Lack Thereof

I like to think of capital, or wealth, as optionality (with a nod to Nassim Taleb). In other words, capital is the possession of options, which can be social, psychological, physical, or otherwise, and not simply a matter of money. As an example, there are folks who may not have lots of money per se, yet are willing to take fairly large (calculated) risks and thus gain wealth. Such people most likely have access to other forms of capital, such as a solid network of family, friends, or other formal or informal sources of guidance and support. And as we know with capital, the more you have, the more you accumulate. This effect, known as the Matthew Effect, has also been much written about in education, especially in regards to vocabulary development.

Unsurprisingly, a child’s exposure to vocabulary corresponds very closely to the socio-economic status of his family.

There’s No Denying the Challenge

There’s a strong tendency in the ed reform crowd to present a righteously indignant insistence that poverty should not determine life nor career outcomes. It certainly shouldn’t. Not in a world that is fair. But it does. Research suggests that poverty can even have long-term consequences on brain development. In summarizing the research from a longitudinal study, Emily Badger on Atlantic’s CityLab said,

Poverty taxes the ability of parents to do all kinds of things, including care for their children. And the developmental challenges that children face in a home full of stressed adults may well influence the adults that they, themselves, become.

To acknowledge the impact of factors associated with poverty does not mean to give up, nor to suggest that our schools can’t do better. It’s rather to acknowledge the extreme challenges our children might face, as well as to acknowledge that such challenges extend well beyond the purview of the classroom.

By acknowledging these challenges and the stark reality that children and their family may face in fact validates yet more the tough work that educators do. It’s our job to provide an environment where our children not only will be challenged at the highest level, but furthermore provided extensive support, both academic and otherwise. A recent post by CJ Libassi on New America’s EdCentral makes this explicit, based on recent findings from a Mathematica study:

“To catch up,” the authors say, “high-risk children would need to make almost twice as much progress during kindergarten as low-risk children.”

Depressing as these findings may be, more discouraging still is the fact that exposure to risk factors that impede kindergarten readiness has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students. And, it may be getting worse. In the 1998-99 group, 58% of kindergartners had no risk factors, compared to the most recent cohort’s rate of 56% students with no such obstacles in their lives. Though we can’t be certain that the number of children experiencing risk factors is trending upwards, it is safe to conclude that the problem is at least getting no better.

Let’s Pull Up Our Big Person Pants

Rather than needlessly polarizing the issue of poverty in education by pointing to outliers, the real question is: how we can better serve communities entangled in poverty and seek to mediate the toxic effects?

Let’s go back to the idea of wealth and capital as optionality. We want to provide our children and their families with more and better options.

  • Having options means that you have some place to go to enrich yourself after school ends.
  • Having options means that you have some place within walking distance to obtain healthy food.
  • Having options means that you have access to different spaces of respite and serenity, places with trees, or water, or flowers, or scenic views.
  • Having options means that you can decide not to go to college, and still develop skills for a viable career.
  • Having options means that you can decide to raise a child before you’ve invested in a career or college, and still find support with child care.
  • Having options means that you can decide to start your own business, because you still have a savings or insurance to fall back on if you fail.
  • Having options means that you can decide to move to another part of town, because there will still be affordable housing options there.

It’s incumbent on all of us, as a society, to provide more and better options for each other. And while the seeds of change can be sown in the classroom, they are sustained and scaled by the overarching structures and policies of our economy and government. Our schools may be on the front lines in the fight against poverty, but the real battle occurs on each of our front lawns.

We’re all accountable for the poverty of communities in our nation. What are we doing to provide opportunities for children and families in those communities?

When framed in this way, we can acknowledge the opportunities that educators are providing without the need to denigrate them for political points. We can acknowledge, say, the great work that Eva Moskowitz’ network provides with Success Academy schools, while also acknowledging that it is simply not enough. We can appreciate the effort Geoffrey Canada has made to make a school provide more than just an education, while acknowledging that it’s still not enough.

And we can acknowledge the hard work that educators in our district schools are doing each day across this vast system, while also acknowledging—it’s just not enough.

In this nation, we’re scared of taking big and bold collective action and pulling up our big person pants. What do I mean by big and bold action? How about reparations for people of color? Or affirmative action? Or integrated and affordable housing? How about a global wealth tax?

Yeah, I thought so. Not in my backyard, right? To each his own. Too bad, so sad. The endless charade of American independence.

Since big and bold action is unlikely any time soon, and we know that simply throwing big money or big names at the problem isn’t effective either, fighting poverty is unfortunately about incremental change. It’s about playing the long game.

So, what’s the long game? I’m going to argue that it has a lot to do with trees.

To be continued in our next post. . .