Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Your mind is a web, not a stack of bricks — Let’s take stonemasonry metaphors out of learning

As a mom who has helped her kids depart occasionally or permanently from school around age-12, I get a lot of flack from family. I come from a highly-educated family myself, so the criticisms are easy. Aren’t I denying my children the opportunities which I enjoyed? Aren’t I setting them up for failure? The day-to-day judgments vary--if one is pricing financial derivatives or building a model engine, it’s all praise; if one is dancing or making an iphone documentary on our street, it’s distress.

We are all op-ed-reading, self-proclaimed consciousness-raisers, til the threat of an irregular income, out-of-pocket healthcare, or an itinerant lifestyle comes up. Then I’m a negligent parent, and we’re back to stonemasonry metaphors. You’re denying your teenagers the building blocks! The foundations! The cornerstones! 

As best I can figure, the argument goes: if my teen will memorize fast and replicate math and science concepts sooner than his age-mates along a linear vertical (e.g., organic chemistry at 14, multivariate calculus at 15), then I am assured that all bricks have been stacked, with the ego-boost that my kid stacked his sooner. Future learning will make sense, future gatekeepers will open privileged doors, future employers will give the secret handshake... right? 

I can tell you’re wavering. There’s a bit of bricklayer in all of us. Yes, gatekeepers will look for algebra and geometry and trig, because that’s what gatekeepers are programmed to look for. State education officials and community colleges and core-curricula-makers at universities will all call for a very similar vertical. Maybe bullshit. Maybe so watered-down that it’s hardly meaningful. But the same vertical nevertheless, so that boxes can be ticked and diplomas produced. And yes, there are many employers who will look for those ticked-boxes and diplomas. 

But there are neurological and social and practical reasons why our brains don’t stack bricks, and the whole stonemasonry metaphor is a fiction. 

Variety of dendritic trees, Source: Koch and Segev, Nature Neuroscience, 2000.
The shape of learning is actually more like a tree, or rather an interconnected forest of dendritic-trees, than a vertical stack. Healthy neurons connect to numerous dendrites, tree-like projections with small, bud-like extensions, the sites of protein synthesis and memory formation. The length, shape, and density of dendritic branching contributes to the brain’s signal integration and propagation. Dendritic trees are dynamic not only during early neural development, but throughout life, pruning away unnecessary extensions and creating new branches continuously.

This might lead core-curriculum apologists to counter, Well, couldn’t those synapses be engineered into place according to a scholastic plan? Couldn’t we set about to input a hierarchy of content into a population’s minds through daily repetition and practice? Surely, the base of long-term competencies, such as fine motor skills, language, and socially-patterned behavior comes from daily repetition. But the mechanisms for strong memory-formation don’t turn on and off with a switch (or rather with a school bell, homework and tests). When “learning” becomes a laundry-list of arbitrary content, as it does after kids master literacy and numeracy and head into adolescence--that is, five features of igneous rock, seven facts about Mesopotamia, three bullet points about Roman aqueducts, why Separate Peace is a good book, the formula for a parabola, and six policies related to the New Deal--then the expectation that teens’ wildly branching dendrites should neatly cement together according to a common plan becomes ludicrous. Two key conditions are usually missing: emotional connectedness to content, and ready, continuing application. To frustrated parents and teachers, this is: he’s not motivated!

When we push a teenager to stack bricks, we’re channeling his time and energy away from opportunities to get really, authentically excited. We’re also missing the social phenomenon that would happen if he found and spent more time with other people who got excited about the same things. That’s missing both the cognitive boost associated with intrinsic motivation (see the extensive work of neuroscientist Johnmarshall Reeve), and the learning-accelerant of shared-focus enthusiasm. It’s the double-whammy of being bored among bored people. (And beware, performance-parents, of being cynical among cynical people!

There are also practical reasons why we don’t stack bricks. Concepts connect and form memories when we have ready and continuing need to apply them. In the development of BreakAway, I worked with MIT Computer Science and Mathematics graduates, two over-cynical young guys who seemed depressed about the 16-year educational process from which they had just emerged. “I don’t think I ever really made a choice since the second grade,” one told me. Aaron had been a contributor to ArtofProblemSolving, a problem-solving start-up created by Bay-area math-lovers. But he himself was crammed through a relentless linear pathway of math and science classes, most of which he found unmemorable and useless. Time-waste and irrelevance was a common theme in their educations, both coming from super-high-performing high schools and rigorous MIT curricula. It came from the vertical stack, they said, the notion that one textbook or course must precede another. Both found that they plodded through thousands of hours of disjointed mathematical concepts with anxiety and fear. The really fun “a-ha!” moments happened idiosyncratically when they dove into problems that caused them to connect old and new concepts in novel ways. When need and excitement and personal investment came together, either of them could absorb volumes in a few days. But instead, years of their childhoods seem to have been misallocated. 

I’ve been beating my head against the bricklayer metaphors time and again over years of defending my teens’ right to their own choices in learning. Last week I was panel-interviewed by secondary-ed administrators at a school in Mumbai that our fourth child wants to attend sporadically to make more friends. Despite posturing to “work together as a team,” to understand “individualization” and “learning pathways”, they showed their cards when they handed me a block schedule of “cornerstones” and “foundations”. It would be impossible, it seems, to spend daytime hours pursuing his interests; the “building blocks” have to come first. How has this metaphor become so pervasive?

Maybe the metaphor is not all bad. Maybe there is something we’re longing for that we can’t describe. Something solid and respected and important to pass from one generation to the next. That’s how I felt about going to church on Sundays when we tried for a few years, then caved to sleepiness and kids’ resistance. That’s how my husband feels about football, being signed up by his dad without any questions, pummelled and coached, and winning. That’s how my grandparents felt about sacraments. How my dad feels about the Bill of Rights and visiting Washington. How my mom feels about reading good books and knowing how to cook. If every one of us is atomized-- self-optimizing and self-satisfying--without these bonds cementing us to history, to our towns and our grandparents and our beliefs, then what have we become? 

Maybe it’s our anxiety about having forsaken those real foundations that makes us so credulous about bureaucratically-determined foundations. If not First Communion or pot roast, then parabolas and the promise of an MBA. 

We are right to want cornerstones and foundations. We are right to want rhythm and continuity in raising children. But let’s be careful how we trade family, spiritual and community-based foundations for state-sanctioned gobbledygook. Those block schedules are not cementing anything in teens’ minds. They are wasting opportunities when real, personal webs could be woven.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

You’re a great manager, but with your teen you’re pretty lame

Middle-aged parents who self-identify as highly-educated are a pretty monotonous bunch. Get one pregnant, and she’ll overhaul her diet. Deliver a baby and they’ll obsess over neurological development. Grow a toddler and they’ll research five-figure preschools.

It was among this group that I once thought I could find kindred spirits to help teens renounce high school and blaze their own complex pathways. I tried economic arguments about debt and future markets. I tried philosophical arguments about agency and individualism. I tried forming a learning coop in our building, rallying carpools to local expert talks, mobilizing friends’ kids to foreign language chat groups, maker-spaces, and robotics labs. (To be clear, I was talking about extended hours, weekdays--real time--that comes from heart-and-soul commitment, not here-and-there visits after school). Maybe that was the kicker. Or maybe folks don’t like so many moving parts--set-ups, fee agreements, transport, logistics. I would have thought that the big guys I work around, who consider themselves pretty competent, who manage multiple projects with large budgets, who adapt to dozens of complications each day, have the skills to manage this kind of project, too.
But over years of attempted conversations, their replies have dimmed my hopes. Seems like when the age of aspirational breastfeeding and transcendental preschooling passes, parents of teens become more conformist than ever, content with the state-validated Velveeta cheese glob served up by zip-code with free transportation. Get the GPA, keep up the sports, record the so-called leadership. It’s the kind of scorecard only a blockhead-manager would apply. This leaves me scratching my head, because the same parents seem pretty well put-together as leaders and risk-takers. 

Between rejections, I have given some thought to what makes my friends and peers so lame when it comes to managing their teens:
  • An if-it-aint-broke decision-making model: I have enough on my plate as it is!
  • A lazy approach to complexity: I just don’t have the mental space for that!
  • A nano-manager’s approach to task ownership: I don’t want to be wondering what she’s doing!
  • A padded playground approach to risk: What if this doesn’t work out? 
  • A Victorian view of class-ambiguity: She’d be cut off from the system! ...Then she’ll be paying the price one day…
  • And an arranged-marriage approach to teen agency: She still has to get into college!

You see what I’m up against? From the looks of things, these folks ought to have the greatest resources to throw at teenagers, if only they weren’t such blockheads. No wait, I shouldn’t say that. These guys are my best chance for allies, after all. 

OK, I’ve written about how we get addicted to school as childcare solution and then hang on too long, how middle and high-school brainwash teens into seeing the future too narrowly, how high school’s college-obsession drives perilous debt-taking, and how by unbundling learning teens can invest intensively in what interests them most. But teens are still stuck behind parents. And it is this class-anxious, risk-averse, nano-manager parenting that stifles teens from discovering their voices. Can I offer some advice?

Decouple learning from childcare. When young people self-select into opportunities to chat with experts, hack with friends, build, break and design with mentors for hours on end, they are operating at a level that cannot be achieved in an everybody-together, requirement-driven, behavior management system. When parents assume their teenagers need heavy-handed behavior-management, they may be inhibiting the growth of self-motivation and self-discipline. And as our culture trends toward zero-risk/tolerance, we’re missing important developmental opportunities to fool around, slack-off, mess up, and learn. Good managers know that task ownership and empowerment enable productivity; second-guessing micro-management demoralizes teams.
Take deliberate steps to welcome uncertainty and risk. I know it sounds like horrible parenting to not know where your 16-year old is, but that was the norm when we were kids. How did we get here? Find day-to-day opportunities for your teenager to speak for herself with strangers, navigate your city, manage payments, and find her way home from new places.
Ask her what’s interesting. And be prepared to listen. It’s a challenge not to frame this question around traditional education subjects, and teens just escaping from the conveyor belt will think that’s what you’re asking for. It takes time and patience and many iterations to start hearing things like I wonder why old people are so lonely? or What goes into my shampoo? or Do you think we’re being spied on? And rather than reverting these ideas to the boxes of traditional school subjects, think with her about the trajectories these concepts could launch. I wonder about that, too. What happens to our minds as we get older? Does talking and meeting people make us healthier? Which part of the brain gets engaged? Is it a good idea that older people often live so far from their families? How could they maintain feelings of independence but benefit from more interactions? Every one of these questions is a legitimate springboard to so many more articles, books, lectures, and business case studies. And if her room starts to look like a mess of clipped articles and diagrams, she is chatting with different people and visiting places around town, then you’re making her comfortable to explore.
Get comfortable with dropping “foundational” content. This is how we hobble teens’ emerging interests and re-allocate all their potential energy. It’s based on some visual of building-blocks, cornerstones, and other bricklayer metaphors. Chronological history. Transcripts. The relentless sequence of math textbooks. In our own lives, we would never approach problems this way, but we’re remarkably stubborn with our teens. Get outside the bricklayer metaphors, and think about ideas as complex webs. The threads will grow where there is intrinsic curiosity, and stay strong where knowledge loops to emotion and experience. Maybe that polynomial equation will loop in, or maybe it won’t. There will be millions of unexpected threads, and you don’t have to put them there by force. She will find them when her curiosity and motivation are authentic.
Encourage her to write goals and make graphic representations of her progress. This will be good practice for managing herself, and then mobilizing and managing others. What is her vision? How does she communicate it? What is she aiming for? How can she document what she’s doing? Remember, this is a work in progress. She’s learning management skills by doing them, and she’s implementing a project that changes as she goes.
We can get comfortable with uncertainty and moving parts. Teens in pajamas all day. Or commuting around town til late. Great books read with no reports. Discussions on WhatsApp. Half-completed Courseras. Showing up at places where cool people are doing cool things… hoping one day they’ll pay her. Shoeboxes of circuits and wires, shoeboxes of leotards, shoeboxes of tempera paints. Facebook and Skype networks of tutors and mentors. Pencilled schedules, constant changes. Dozens of micro-payments.
Comfortable, right?
You’re squirming, I know. This sounds messy. And you’re going to give me one of the replies I told you about, because somehow your manager-brain isn’t working with your teenager.
Squint your eyes. Try to see your 15-year-old as a 25-year-old. You’re smart and take risks and manage people. Help her to start doing the same.