Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recent reading

This past summer, as part of my preparation to assume a new role (Principal of J.N. Burnett Secondary School), I decided to expand my reading repertoire.  For several years, I have never given myself enough time or felt it important enough to delve deeply into literature that could help me improve my practice, or even become more aware of different ways to do or think about things.  I will admit to having been little more than a magazine reader (Sports Illustrated, most often), with the occasional biography or sports-related story (Andre Agassi's Open, Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture and Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie as examples) thrown in during infrequent family vacations.  Thanks to my recent involvement with Twitter, I have been inspired to read several excellent books by accomplished authors, many of whom discuss valuable ideas around education and working with young people.  Among the most thought-provoking that I have read over the past few months include:

The Element by Sir Ken Robinson

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Drive by Dan Pink

Childhood Under Siege by Joel Bakan

and most recently, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Each provided me much to consider.  I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what Dan Pink articulated, since I have long felt as an athlete I never had "Drive" for an extrinsic reward, but rather because I enjoyed seeing improvements from hard work and I wanted to continue making those gains.  I struggled with some of what Sir Ken Robinson suggested, perhaps because his stories all profiled extreme examples of high achievers, and society is comprised of people with widely diverse work ethics, backgrounds, experiences and attributes.  He never discussed 'how-to' achieve the "Element" and I feel that the 'way-of-the-world' will make it hard for many to find theirs.  Malcolm Gladwell's book dove-tailed nicely with Robinson's, better exploring the reasons why "Outliers" were successful (10,000 hours, opportunity, luck, culture etc).  Gladwell also wrote specifically about education and attempted to explain the Asian affinity for Mathematics.  His examples made some sense, and caused me to think about what happens in schools like the one I work in.  I was impressed by the research poured into Joel Bakan's "Childhood Under Siege", but surprised by the American angle it held, especially since he lives next door to my parents in Vancouver.  Also, while I appreciated much of what he wrote, I felt the conspiracy theories he discussed resulted in too paranoid an outlook, despite his concluding statement that he was optimistic because of his faith in our youth. 

The work most thought-provoking for me, however, was Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" (which I just read this weekend).  Full of sweeping over-generalizations about "Chinese" and "Western" parenting styles, despite being somewhat self-deprecating and humorous, the book can be seen as inflammatory.  All of that aside, what the author made me consider are the dangers and benefits of two opposing styles of working with young people.  Chua is a demanding perfectionist who can be described as micro-managing her children's lives.  She recognizes this and attributes it to her Chinese heritage.  She also wrestles with her idea that this a better way to raise children than the more "Western" traditions of play, freedom, self-discovery.  As even Chua notes, there are countless parents, regardless of cultural background, who fit into either style (more often defined as 'traditional' or 'progressive') and I have seen both types within the same cultures in my own school community. She claims to favour her style, stating that "Western" parenting is the "path-of-least-resistance" and does not teach the values of perseverance and the confidence that comes from hard work.  Her strategies have led to great successes for her children, but at times have sabotaged her relationships with them.  Despite those drawbacks, much of what she does echoes what is profiled in Gladwell's "Outliers" (hours of opportunity, cultural traditions, work ethics etc.) and while she subscribes to reward techniques that are not always aligned with Pink's theories in "Drive", she argues, somewhat compellingly, that her hard-driving style is helping develop a self-confidence in her children that will serve them well, wherever life takes them (though she seems to be attempting to make the choices for them on where their lives will go).

I highly recommend each of these books for anyone interested in expanding their thinking and reconsidering what parents and schools must do to better equip children for the future.  The common thread running through each one (with the possible exception of "Childhood Under Siege"), whether you agree with the author's position or not, is that confidence plays a huge role in learning, discovering passions and feeling successful.  The question raised for me following all of this reading is, "how do we help instill that confidence in our learners?"  I do not have all the answers, but with the BC Education Plan we need to keep in mind that sometimes the pendulum of change can swing too far, and we can lose sight of the many great things we have done in education in this province as we search for something new.  We need to create learning environments that develop a sense of confidence where we blend some of the traditional "Chinese" elements of work ethic, discipline and  perseverance (as celebrated by Amy Chua), while still encouraging more progressive "Western" ideals of self-discovery, social interaction and pursuing passions.  I am not suggesting that one style is better than another (though I consider Chua's efforts far too extreme for most parents and children), but there needs to be an awareness of the benefits and shortcomings of each, and, as Chua herself admits as her story continues, a willingness to incorporate aspects of each style when working with children.  Doing so will lead us to improve upon an already exceptionally strong education system.

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