The Parents Council of Washington presented its Speakers Event “Raising Successful Learners” on the evening of November 2, 2011, at the National Cathedral School. Parents from the 53 Parents Council member schools were invited to attend, along with other interested parents from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The event featured Mr. Ned Johnson, President of PrepMatters, and Mr. Robert Kosasky, Head of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. Kristin Huffman, PCW Event Chair, welcomed the speakers and all of the participants and thanked the National Cathedral School for hosting this important program.Ned Johnson is the founder and President of PrepMatters, a Bethesda based firm which specializes in standardized testing preparation and educational planning services. As the parent of a 2nd grader and a 4th grader, he has firsthand experience as a parent as well as an educator. He began his remarks by presenting a pop quiz to the audience. He asked the parents to read through the following paragraph together and then review it quickly and count the total number of “F’s.”
“How many F’s did you get?” The vast majority of the attendees indicated three. Some of the participants counted four and even fewer said they found six. There are actually six F’s contained in the paragraph, however the adult mind will only count three. Mr. Johnson explained that brains work differently at various stages of life. Adults will generally focus on the most important words in the paragraph and skip over the others. On the other hand, very young children will focus on every single word and are most likely to identify all six F’s. Mr. Johnson cautioned parents that we often bring adult tools to young minds, which are not prepared for these tools. We need to discover which methods work best for us and also realize that our methods may not be our children’s methods. What works for us may not work for them. Parents often mistake a child’s lack of knowledge or skills as a lack of motivation or desire. Mr. Johnson recommended a diagnostic tool to help identify these issues and suggested it may instead be a lack of knowledge or skill to complete a task or homework assignment. We as parents cannot assume that our children know the necessary skills, or even that the skills are age appropriate. If we know that they have the knowledge and the skills, then we can explore the motivation piece. Why are they underperforming? This is a concern that needs to be addressed as early as possible in a child’s academic career before failing becomes a larger issue and there is much more at stake.
Mr. Johnson posed the question, “So how do we help motivate our children?” He offered some important tools for parents to use to help motivate children at any age. He recommended that we be mindful of how we talk to our children, not just what we say but how we say it. It is important to validate and encourage, keep our emotions in check and to be respectful. What we say to our children is not always what they hear. The majority of what another person hears is represented in the tone of our voice and our body language rather than in our words alone. Are we really asking them a question about their homework, or if they are ready for a test the next day, or are we really saying, “Why are you goofing off when you should be studying” and “you’re up way too late and you’ll fail if you don’t get to bed!” Understand that our approach can be more encouraging, “I notice you’ve been studying for several hours and it looks like you’re really committed to doing your best. I think getting enough sleep will make a difference too, and do you think you could go to bed in an hour?” We also need to understand that our methods of learning may not be the same as theirs. Being mindful of our communication and perhaps changing the way we talk with our children – by asking more questions, noticing the details, and celebrating the smallest victories – will improve our interactions and relationships. So how do we ask, “What happened?” without sounding accusatory? Try not to ask why your child only earned an 85% on a test – instead, talk about what they got right and what do they think they learned. And, if they are not happy with an 85%, then what do they think they could do differently the next time? In addition, we need to understand what inspires them to do their best – what is the one thing that they look forward to everyday at school. How do they convince themselves to get through Math, for example, if they are struggling in Math class? Maybe it is by looking forward to Band or to English class, or even soccer practice or the school play. The reality is that a discouraged child will not be a successful learner.
Ned Johnson shared his views on the important topics of sleep, sleep deprivation and study tools. Parents must make sleep as important a priority as other activities in a child’s daily schedule. Both children and adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night in order to function at their best. Mr. Johnson encouraged parents to establish a consistent bedtime and wake-up time and to set goals and deadlines, such as all homework must be completed by 9:00 p.m. His study tools involved mnemonics, or memory prompts that may be visual,kinesthetic or auditory. The best practices for reviewing are, “one hour later, one day later, one month later” and “Learn it. Do it. Teach it.” Lastly, he recommended that students should “mix up” studying as a way to maximize overall retention.
Robert Kosasky, Head of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the parent of a 4thgrader and a 6th grader, also began his presentation with a test – Parenting 101 – The Final Exam. The test included only one question – Choose the one right answer: “I want my child to: be happy in school, learn a lot, or get into a great college?” The answer is all of the above. Mr. Kosasky strongly believes that joy and learning are complementary and resiliency is key! The school’s most important responsibility is to know a student as a person and as a learner. In order to accomplish this goal the student-teacher relationship is essential. Teachers must assess how learning actually occurs for each student so that the child can truly reach his or her individual potential. Mr. Kosasky suggested that schools, as well as parents, allow students to “fail” the right way to help build their resiliency. Students must learn the important difference between failing versus not trying. Not trying is the real failure. “After all, it’s what you do after you get back up that matters!”
In a school’s academic environment, nurture and challenge are also complementary. Mr. Kosasky noted that “rigor does not need to be fatal.” Yet, we all make a conscious effort to perform well at those tasks we enjoy and to avoid doing those that we dislike. Mr. Kosasky described two schools as examples of differing learning environments. School A is loving, relaxed, joyful and sometimes overly protective of allowing students to fail. On the other hand, School B is rigorous, stressful, focused on getting into a good college, assigns too much homework and conveys a “sink or swim” mentality. He believes that parents should not have to make a choice between these two academic environments. In summary, we want our children to be happy, healthy and successful learners. In addition, we also want our students to be confident, curious, collaborative, accepting, self-aware, independent and resilient.
Mr. Kosasky presented the topic of metacognition – the knowledge of how we learn and process information, as well as knowing our own learning processes. For example, you may know that you need a very quiet space to study rather than in the busiest room in the house with its many distractions. We need to emphasize learning as the goal, not necessarily grades, and not “good” and “bad” subjects. The primary focus should be on learning to think rather than simply memorizing for a test.
A parent in the audience raised the topic of standardized tests and why memorization is often said to be the key for success. Mr. Johnson stated that it is predictability that helps best prepare the students for these types of tests. We understand what kinds of questions will be asked; therefore we can prepare students because the format and types of questions are predictable. The standardized test is learnable. It is the unpredictability of upcoming tests that causes stress for students and subsequently these students do not perform well when under stress. Mr. Johnson recommended that students “prepare for the predictable.”
The participants discussed how the military has a different way of teaching that seems to work well and it is not traditionally nurturing. What is best for our students? There is still the element of teamwork in the military. Members of the military have made a conscious choice for that type of lifestyle. Being of service can be very empowering. In addition, the military is starting to change by allowing individuals to make mistakes and to reduce the overall level of stress.
Students take tests and write papers and both are returned by the teachers with their comments, but it seems as if there is not enough time in the school day schedule to review and follow-up on these comments. Schools are moving in the right direction here. Teachers are now spending more time with students discussing books they read and not focusing primarily on completing the assigned reading list. The reflection piece is a very important part of learning.
Mr. Kosasky answered the next question, “How do we start at the earliest age to nurture independent thinking or thinking outside-the-box?” His advice is to allow children to struggle and then allow them to use their own critical thinking. In some instances, a child may struggle and fail, but they will learn from their mistakes through “supportive failure.” Give them the opportunity to “work things out the way they work it out, without imposing our way of resolving things.” He cautioned parents that our children “will make messes and that’s okay.” It is essential to allow children to explore and to learn on their own. It is also helpful to ask questions and resist the urge to lead them to the answers you want. Mr. Kosasky recommended allowing a nine-year-old brain to work like a nine-year-old brain and that parents not try to force adult methods and ideas on them.
The speakers shared some insights on fostering resiliency in our students. It is important to not convey pity but instead to understand their situation and express confidence that they will be able to work through the problem. Use encouragement instead of empty praise and notice progress not just successes. Admire how a child has picked themselves up after a challenge. “A happy childhood is a poor preparation for life – Teach them to be able to handle the worst of things and let kids make their own mistakes and learn from them.” In addition, parents should try to control their emotions, such as anger, fear or even hurt feelings. Parents should lead by example and demonstrate to their children that they are resilient.
The question was asked, “What do you see as the role of a tutor and why are we paying for tutors when we are already paying tuition?” Ned Johnson, a self-described tutoring Geek, answered this question. First, he recommended that before enlisting the help of outside tutors, parents should consider all of the resources that your child’s school has to offer. Students should reach out to their teacher first for help in the coursework. Tutors may be helpful to families when the relationship between the parents and the student “is all tapped out.” He said tutors may have an advantage over parents, whether it is the content or the attitude of a teenager! Ideally, a tutor’s job is to make him or herself irrelevant. A good tutor should help the student discover his or her own personal learning style. Once a student understands how they learn best, the tutor can work on content and then encourage the student to go back to the teacher for support. Tutors should be short-term rather than long-term solutions. The worst scenario occurs when a family develops a dependency on tutors, and uses tutors as a crutch and in some instances hires tutors before classes even begin.
A member of the audience raised a question about “growth years” or the practice of holding children out of kindergarten until age six, especially boys. Mr. Kosasky suggests that for a small number of children it may be more of a social issue rather than a cognitive one. A young child may not be emotionally or socially prepared for the classroom setting. Waiting for a specific chronological age before enrolling a child in school should not be the standard rule. In some cases, especially for boys, these students run into difficulties in high school because they are socially beyond the level of the peers. These situations sometimes result in behavioral or emotional problems, for example the challenges faced by a 19 year-old high school student who is significantly older than his classmates. Another contributing factor to holding students back is the increased emphasis on highly competitive sports at an earlier age and the trend for schools to raise the standards for participation.
The topic of homework load was the subject of several questions from parents. A heavy homework load can be especially challenging for students who are very involved in athletics, performing arts or have jobs outside of school. Mr. Kosasky spoke of his experiences at his school, the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, “If an assignment does not have intrinsic value, it should not be assigned, period.” Some schools do not allow students to enroll in too many AP classes because they want the students to maintain a balance between academics, athletics, music, etc. They want to students “to stretch but not overwhelm.”
This discussion led to a revisited conversation on sleep deprivation and the possible dangerous side effects. IQs are proven to drop after three nights of less than six hours of sleep. A lack of sufficient sleep, seven to nine hours a night for high school age children and eight to ten hours a night for upper elementary school students, leads to loss of emotional control, loss of verbal retrieval and can even lead to depression. Studies indicate that the depression linked to sleep deprivation in children is not just episodic, but may set the brain on the path for life-long issues with depression.
The last question focused on the topic of how you help students with different learning styles take standardized tests. First, it was noted that most of the information contained in these tests can be learned. The speakers recommended knowing “what you are getting into, be prepared and eliminate stress.” Use copies of previous standardized tests as practice tests. It is important to not overemphasize these tests by telling your child that they will not be accepted into a good college unless they score well on the SAT because this creates too much stress on the student.
Suggested Follow-up Readings from our Speakers:
MINDSET by Carol Dweck
CHOKE: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock
WELCOME TO YOUR CHILDS BRAIN: HOW THE MIND GROWS FROM CONCEPTION TO COLLEGE by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang
A MIND AT A TIME by Mel Levine
THE THIEF OF TIME: PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS ON PROCRASTINATION by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White
SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT: AN INQUIRY INTO THE VALUE OF WORK by Matthew B. Crawford