Teaching To Excellence

I had been thinking about such a topic before but, conveniently, there is an article tapping into a similar idea (at points) here.

Ignore the gender gap bit, that is a different conversation.  Instead, focus on this paragraph:

SMPY and numerous other studies have provided large-sample evidence that appropriate acceleration benefits the vast majority of gifted children. In a comparison of grade-skipping students with a control group of equally smart students who stayed with their age groups, the grade-skippers were more than twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. in science, math, or engineering, and had more patents and publications at mid-career. Even modest interventions, such as access to Advanced Placement courses or self-paced instruction, give students demonstrable advantages that continue through college and into the workplace. Conversely, exceptionally gifted students who remain with their age peers typically underachieve and experience negative effects on motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety.

“…exceptionally gifted students who remain with their age peers typically underachieve and experience negative effects on motivation, self-esteem, and anxiety.” Yet, we continue to make these gifted students sit in these classes that they can sleep through and still pass with flying colors.  Meaning that they lose motivation and disengage while waiting for those who are not as gifted to come along.

What sort of situation does this put the teachers in too?  How does one teach to a class of 20-30 students of a similar age group but with say, a 5 year difference in abilities?  They can either spend time on the higher end and keep going or, in order to make sure standardized test scores are met, spend all of their time on the lower end while receiving pressure from those doing better.  I had to do this for a single sort of project with only 7 students and I was stressed out by it, doing something like that day in and day out for years sounds impossible.

So, what if we did bring “grade-skipping” back or, started separating classes into different levels by ability and NOT by age solely?  Sure, sounds like we are becoming elitist but, is it really elitist to simply try to make sure everyone can achieve their best at their best level?  Instead of relying on huge amounts of statistics that say “generally, a student at age 10 can do x,” and operating off of that assumption only, what if we started to use the “local data” of the individual student and adjusting accordingly so that they can be taught to the level of excellence that they are capable of handling.

Also, think about how much better every student would be able to do surrounded by peers at their own level and who they can connect with and with a teacher who can devote the time required to help them.  Next, how about the potential of building an “advancement” type of carrot system too into education, instead of moving forward inevitably happening simply due to the passing of time, a reward system of achievement could be built in.  Something like Boy Scouts, only by reaching a certain level do doors open  up which can let the boy do some of the cooler stuff, that may help inspire some students (especially in a much more supportive classroom environment) to reach further than they usually would and achieve more than they seem capable of.

The other side of this would be to not hold those “higher achievers” up so much.  Separating by ability not by physical age would then mean that these higher achievers end up being “average” by the standards they are surrounded in, probably a humbling experience for them and helpful because that means that instead of constantly being held in the limelight and receiving all of the awards those in other groups will not feel so disconnected so, separate from those.  This would also end up working against the culture of “everyone receives a trophy.”

I typically hear complaints about that sort of idea how everyone gets an award for participating instead of actually receiving awards for excellence and capability.  Separating out by abilities can help to limit that and promote healthy competition between competitors who are actually equal.  Those who would always receive recognition would be put into a cohort of similar people and not constantly receive recognition when compared to others of a similar level, while those who would suffer low self-esteem due to no recognition might actually achieve a level of recognition since they are also with a group similar to themselves and be able to outshine them in some aspect.  But, since they are being compared to a similar group those peers can feel like they might make it some day too because they identify with the recognized individual.

In short, what if we taught to the highest abilities of all students instead of only the lowest common denominator?  Teaching towards excellence for everyone with high expectations at their level instead of teaching towards everyone getting above a minimum hurdle.  Set the bar high enough to be met but outside of comfort zone, I bet all students would start doing better.


Small Town Talent

Small towns are generally trying to figure out how to get and keep leadership, promote entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.   Yet, all their “talent” leaves town and never really comes back to stay.  No one really seems to ask why though, they just simply sit and wait for some new people to come by then pass the buck onto them, whoever they may be.  Those of us in that position get frustrated and, well, leave too. Why?

Perhaps one thing for people in these small towns to consider is how (un)reliable they are; this even extends into life in university for those who leave but then come back.  I say this regarding three entirely separate cases of small, rural towns that I have had to deal with and one consistent problem in all of them: communication.  More specifically, the lack thereof.

For example: trying to contact one single individual through email, text messages and phone calls and still never getting any response after several days; this sort of culture is the antithesis to accomplishing anything or trying to make improvements which then limits these small towns, leads to frustration and moving away.

Another example: many times, when trying to put on an event of any sort, there is complaints of not many people coming or only the same people coming.  One thing one never really sees online in any format or physically throughout the town is advertisements for different things.  How is a newcomer or someone outside of the usual circle to know that there is a benefit dinner happening this Friday if it is not actually announced?  I must say, it is pretty amazing how many people turn out for something if signs are put up everywhere a month in advance of the event, in my experience anyway.  Also, the internet is a thing; small towns could leverage that a lot more than they generally do.

Next, some personal responsibility would help a lot.  I mean this on an individual basis and a societal one for these small towns.  Instead of simply complaining about how “the state/federal government does not send us any money to do x.” Try using the internet to find some grants for the project or, as is the case for older farming communities, recognize that money you are sitting on will not follow you to the grave and maybe spend some of it.  In a less offensive word: recognize that in order to get something out of an investment, you usually have to put something into it too.  Spend some time working on making the community a place you want to live, it will probably help convince other people to live there too.  Also, maybe, just maybe, release some farm land for a new farmer to buy and use, perhaps consider that the world has changed even if it is not easily visible in these towns, it has.  People want different things in life now and have different expectations and different types of jobs: figure out how to welcome those types of things and people may follow.  Responsibility, if cultivated and supported for all citizens in the town would help, in all of these small towns there is a small cadre of movers-and-shakers who are, essentially, trying to drag the rest of the several hundreds or thousands along.  That much effort for so few gains leads to burn-out, but, many hands makes light work, if you would take responsibility for your own community and for answering your phone and then carrying out whatever task you agree to, these small towns could make leaps and bounds.

These are just two of the major areas I have seen in my experience of small towns, it has been two of my own personal issues too partially stemming from growing up in such an environment.  If small town leadership and small town individuals would start working on trying to improve these two spots, I think it would greatly improve their ability to get/keep younger people who are able to start changes and actually improving the region(s) they are in.  But, this would take a level of commitment to self-improvement across individuals and the town; something not generally supported anymore in these areas.

Asking the Right Questions

That idea, asking the right questions, needs to become a research topic for social sciences/business/government/anything that uses statistics (meaning: everything).

As an example, I am working with an organization that is attached to a national level organization.  The national level has a survey for the individual organizations to fill out which asks about various aspects of the organization.  Filling out this little survey though gives the specific organization I am a part of a pretty bad grade though because this survey fails to ask whether the organization has it’s own building, where the organization is geographically in reference to military and/or minority groups.  Pretty important things that will not be taken into account when filing the paperwork I am sure.

Take a look at grant reports for development work world-wide too;  they bring to mind a phrase I heard once, “Development projects never fail.” None of the grants will ever report a failure although, if you return to those project sites maybe a year later, it will be awfully difficult to find a success.  Take a closer look at the reports though and the things they ask for are “how many individuals are taught x?”; “how many x were built?”; “how much money was made through x-technique?” All factors in a successful development project but certainly not the final factors and, I suspect, not even the most important factors.

This was the strength of journalism: helping show the details lost in the statistics; but, we all know where that discussion goes at the moment.

So, if these questions are unfair, asking the wrong questions or not actually help improve what is going on, it would seem that we need to learn how ask questions properly.  What these questions are, I am not sure yet.  I will state that the questions are not nearly as easy to ask or measure though looks like we might have to step back from our love affair with numbers or, at least, recognize that they are representations of a much more complicated world.  Maybe the first question to ask, what is the specific situation of x in comparison to other places we are measuring?

Growing Up A Boy

What if our society worked to raise men, instead of just boys?

What if boys were also given truly positive role models for what to try to become and were allowed to be boys?

Coming from a position of the generally “nice guy,” you know, the one that finishes last all the time, I know having to sort all of this out relatively alone and without any reference sucks.

Where I am right now highly esteems sports across the board so I will be referencing that since I am somewhat lazy like that.  Imagine being a boy in such a world that focuses on sports of all sorts for males: football, basketball, baseball, hockey.  All the while going through a school system that ends up having “introduce a girl to engineering,” “women in STEM,” etc. (interestingly no one does a “introduce a boy to art/dance/reading” the more female dominated side) programming, girls being the leaders of various organizations because of wanting to empower them/they can do it since the boys are too busy being preened for sports.  All of this, it would seem, begins to tell the boy(s) that they are not really useful for anything except for sports and/or playing video games.

Then, look at our sports figures and video games; I challenge you to find positive role models.  Mix this with being in a single-parent home for a good portion of boys: I foresee some issues in the future especially if the boy does not fit the mold of being a good all-around athlete.  That would leave video games as the main place to learn about things which, I think, most everyone generally agrees probably is not the best place to go.  Where else do they have though?  Boy Scouts is losing membership, (2014 annual report claims 885,000 boys 11-17, 2015 claims 840,654 while back in 1997 there was over 1 million ) and, well, there is no other program specifically targeted at boys that I can think of or really find from a brief online search.  There are combined programs yes but, I am willing to bet that those programs are going to generally be led and geared towards girls still.  Yet, there seems to be some confusion as to why boys are not growing up, participating in society and in general, not seeming to be adjusting well.  Perhaps teaching to the whole boy just like we try to teach to the whole girl could be beneficial?


Reading Questions

I am currently reading The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, one of the more important political/economic treatises since World War II I think.  (It is certainly up there if not that high.)  In the book, Mr. Hayek is arguing against socialism of the era in the form of an entirely or mostly planned economy which he saw coming to power in England and already holding power in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist Russia.

Essentially, planned economies take away individual liberty according to his argument.  I am not here to analyze that part though. Instead, what if we are going towards a planned economy regardless of our politics through something that Hayek may not have foreseen?  The new thing is technology and this advent of big data and wearable technology etc.  We are slowly gaining the ability to get data on practically every moment of our days.  I do not think that Hayek foresaw such an occurrence while writing and I wonder what he would have to say.

In short: are we building ourselves into a planned society without even intending it?

Regardless of what we do economically/politically, technology is becoming wearable, mobile and ubiquitous.  Ubiquitous technology generally tends towards ubiquitous data as can be seen with our “Big Data” issue coming up and as the smart city movement gains momentum towards measuring everything.

The problem with all of this is it is data from measurable things only, technology cannot make value judgments it can only take in what it is told to take in and focus on that information in whatever measurable way it is told.  There are severe limitations in that.  This ability to change values was one of the strengths of money, an individual could use their money in ways that aligned with their individual values (thanks, Hayek!),  instead of being limited to what was deemed “worthy” money could be used in multiple different ways by different individuals because the money earned did not already have a value judgment built into it and was not limited in measuring like data is when it is being gathered. Technology and data, instead can only focus on view things and generally that information is used to increase “efficiency.”  So, the information gathered, especially in reference to time, can generally be used to increase productivity but it becomes harder to use it in other ways.

So, in essence, technology measures productivity and nothing else.

The problem is, as humans, sometimes the lack of productivity is the most productive thing to do.  Meditation as a contemporary example, the day of rest as a biblical one, sleep as a fact of life one. Also, productivity, as we all know is NOT necessarily quality.  Producing millions of cheap plastic chairs may be producing “more” in a measurable way but it is not the same as a craftsman finding wood, carving it and putting it together into a rocking chair on their own.  Money helps us show that difference through the different price tags I believe.  But, our data, as compared to time, would still probably find it more “efficient” to produce the plastic chairs instead and that would lead to a higher profit margin.  I would argue that, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, these sorts of value judgments are going to end up happening without us necessarily realizing it.  Meaning we could end up with a planned society based on efficiency without ever actually intending it.  Especially as we slowly let our human ability to decide value languish thanks to those decisions being made outside of ourselves.

I simply wonder, what does Hayek have to say in response to this?

Small Town Economics

As I spend more time in a small town and compare it to my experience(s) in cities and even just regions closer to larger population centers, I am starting to learn one of the primary problems in small towns: lack of competition.

I mean lack of competition in an individual sense.  There is no need for self-improvement or even, maintenance of quality in small towns for many positions just because there is no one else to take that place if it is an essential job.  For example: middle management of any business.  Once an individual gets into that sort of position in a business that stays stable within the community and can get comfortable, they really have no need to improve themselves or the business really.  No other business will likely move in due to it being prohibitively expensive to move in and start a new business and there are not many new candidates moving into town to cause competition in the field itself for promotions etc.  So, it becomes very easy to fall into a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude about everything.  This hurts small towns most when it comes to leadership.

Having dynamic leadership is one of the best ways to promote expansion, development and improvement I think, having managers/mayors who are always willing to try new things and help those below them become more capable.  Dynamic leadership happens when non-dynamic individuals filter down/are limited in their promotion abilities because of competition or cannot get into higher levels due to a lack of initiative.

A mayor and/or board which is not dynamic, not curious and willing to look into new ideas and not really in competition because of no one else running for those elected positions ends up leaving a town stagnant.  The stagnant individuals essentially create a ceiling of potential and end up pushing those with more initiative, abilities or curiosity out and away (this tends to be associated with the younger generation) which then means that there are fewer opportunities which leads to even more people leaving essentially filtering down to those with the least amount of dynamism or initiative so that those who stay end up being the people who get up, go to work, come back and just sit in front of the television and doing nothing really at all with their spare time and becoming unhealthy and disconnected.

The question then becomes, how can small towns reverse this cycle now that it has generally started?  The obvious solution is to get more people coming to promote competition but, they need to be able to have a viable life there, which is very hard to do since it seems that most of the possible work in small towns is either healthcare or construction related, with the latter requiring driving where it could be more efficient to simply live closer to the worksite.  Thanks to cars, small towns are not self-sufficient anymore with small stores employing small amounts of people in the town to service everything unless they have some major industry which has yet to move away or is not mobile.  The problem with those industries is that if they could move they probably already have at this point and those that are not mobile tend to be seasonal (agriculture, waterways, tourism).   Seasonality does not make for a stable life, especially without being able to get land for oneself either.  The other job industry growing right now is technology.  Technology requires infrastructure which, sometimes, does not exist in small towns or it is not up to the requirements of the technology yet.  The only way to improve that infrastructure though would be through an increase in funding which would only happen if, instead of shrinking and aging, the population of small towns was growing and younger.

We come back to, how does one stop this cycle?  It seems that the most effective way would be for leadership to recognize its own failures – something that only happens through competition.  Not to mention, recognizing the problems, which is another major issue for most of the small towns I have seen; they simply cannot recognize that there is a fixable problem that could benefit the town often because, no one wants to change at this point and everyone is afraid of dynamism.  People want the same things that have worked for their entire lives to apply in the exact same way to everyone else and then magically everything will be dandy.  Quite an interesting world those people live in so, next time you’re listening to a small-town friend of yours complain maybe just ask them, what have they done to help their small town besides simply existing in it?

What Causes Poverty?

This week two questions were asked: “what is poverty?” and “what causes poverty?”

My knee-jerk, smart-ass response to that was: Poverty is caused by sitting around asking these questions.

Talk about the kettle calling the pot black being a philosophy major. Meaning I specialize in asking questions and not going much further than that.

But really, it is an interesting topic to an extent.  Also, I have to react in some way to someone who wrote “capitalism” as the thing that causes poverty.  I intend to start with “what is poverty” though, I am a philosophy major, defining words is my thing.

Poverty, I think, is instability if one goes to the very root of poverty although I think the better phrasing is “lack of stability.”  (Yes, I do in fact enjoy going that deep into phrasing.)

I say this because lacking stability leads to a feeling of no control and probably a relatively poor environment (physical, emotional, psychological).  These things then cause some form of hopelessness meaning no planning for the future or minimal planning for the future.  That leads to certain mindsets which just continue this terrible cycle.  I like plant analogies so, in this situation, poverty would basically be lack of stable soil/water/sunlight for a seed.  Take those things away and a seed probably will not grow and, if they are of poor quality, that seed may grow but not to its full potential.

I say this because, without some sort of stability, some sort of solid ground, it is impossible to make any leaps, any leaps of faith.  Those leaps of faith are the things required to be and feel successful (just run with me on that for sake of argument please).  Think of all of the assumptions made on a daily basis by an individual 1) there will be a tomorrow that they will wake up to 2) their living shelter will still exist and still be theirs 3) they will wake up in good enough health to get to work 4) they will still have work to go to or have the ability to find work 5) they can or will get some sort of food/nourishment.  The alarm has not even been turned off yet and we have 5 assumptions!  Plenty more get made once you sit down and think about it.  Not being able to make these fundamental assumptions leads to instability and loss of control which, I think, leads to a cycle into the usual sort of poverty of lacking money etc.

The problem is, how do we promote that stability required without simply hiding poverty?  As in, how do we create something that helps someone create their own stable environments without simply creating a fake stability and thus helping to create a reliance on the help and then generational poverty?  Somehow we have to figure out how to help someone build their own permanent stability where there is none or very little to start out with.

STOP what you’re thinking.  This is not a critique of current programs that exist or anything, I am simply pursuing a line of thought that is not often discussed openly (at least not in the circles I frequent).  Instead of critiquing government etc., what if I threw the responsibility back to you, as an individual and member of society?

Instead of waiting for a government program to come and help solve poverty without you, as a citizen and possibly neighbor to someone needing help, doing anything, maybe it is time to think about how you, since you are right there, can help create stability for your neighbor.  You, as the person on the ground, can actually see where stability is most lacking and are closest at hand to help that other person actually begin to find stability or create stability.  As an actual face too, that person is less likely to become reliant on you because humans are proud individuals and having to look at someone constantly that they owe will help them want to get free of that “owing” and return the favor in the best way that they can.  Not saying you ought to look for something from that person but, their want for their own individual pride, can help make sure they do not become reliant on you for stability; something that a vague program simply cannot do.  Just saying, next time you want to critique a vague program of any sort: what part have you had with it and what are you doing to fix those problems you are critiquing?