Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Big Education Shift -- Are You Ready?




"The whole structure of education 
is shifting beneath our feet."

-- Sir Ken Robinson




In a 2007 TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson delivered this quote about the shifting structure of education, but I'm not sure that many people then (or now) appreciate the magnitude of this shift. He made this comment in the context of a point he was making about how college degrees are less valuable now than they used to be, and how they will be even less valuable in the future as the population grows and as more people gain access to education through rapidly-developing online portals. In short, his view is that given the "shifting structure of education", we have not just the opportunity, but the imperative, to rethink how we are educating our children.

It doesn't take much effort, especially for those of us with school-age children, to notice that the educational system in the United States is indeed experiencing some significant shaking, and I don't believe anyone would say that the resulting changes over the past few decades have been positive. Effective improvements may come in time (I hope), but in the meantime, many of us are looking for better alternatives for our kids right now -- we don't have years or decades to wait.  So, a growing number of parents are making a similar choice -- to educate our children at home. 

"Home schooling" was not a concept I ever heard about when I was growing up.  When I became aware of it in my early adulthood, it was something only extremely religious families did. Now, as the recently-released National Center for Education Statistics survey reports, almost two million kids are educated at home, and this doesn't include the rapidly-growing number of K-12 students enrolled full-time in online schools (many of which are publicly funded). When you include all "off-line" and online home-educated students, the number is closer to five million and projected to reach at least seven million (8-10% of all K-12 students) by 2016.
 
This is not just a small shift -- this is a tectonic shift.  So why are so many American families making this choice? It's not primarily for religious reasons anymore.  According to the same NCES report mentioned above, 91 percent of home schooling parents report that they are doing so based on their concern about the environment of schools -- a higher percentage than those who cite "religion" as their primary reason.  Other non-religious reasons parents driving parents to this decision were "a dissatisfaction with academic instruction" and "a desire to provide a nontraditional approach to child’s education."
 
Secular home schooling is becoming main stream.  And this trend toward more flexible, personalized education doesn't end when students graduate from high school.  According to research organization Ambient Insight, as of 2012 there were at least 15 million American higher education students taking at one or more of their courses online.  So where will this lead us?

The short answer is that nobody really knows, but certainly all aspects of education and career-preparation will be impacted.  Recently I've noticed that local organizations have moved quickly to accommodate the homeschooling community in my city of Portland -- age-based and interest-based classes, activities, and co-ops have grown from a handful three years ago (when I first started home schooling my sons) to so many that I can't keep track of them anymore.  And we're not limited to activities within driving distance, either -- secular core curriculum and enrichment options available online are too numerous to list.  

We don't need a crystal ball to predict that students who grow up learning outside of a traditional classroom, who are accustomed to making more choices about how, when, and where they learn, who value experience and hands-on learning, will bring different expectations and skills to their college or professional training, and then to the workforce. This is a fantastic example of how true change happens -- from the bottom up, individual by individual, and the possibilities are truly exciting to contemplate. Are you ready for the change?

 


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Surf's Up!

 

If you've ever lived in or visited a beach town in Southern California, you may have noticed that some stores occasionally, and quite unexpectedly, close in the middle of the day.  Well, unexpectedly IF you're not paying attention to the surf report. And I rarely did, even when I lived a mile from the beach.  So, finding a store suddenly closed during normal business hours was a fairly regular experience, the store keepers having grabbed their boards, locked up, and headed to the beach.  Even in the midst of my annoyance at this sudden inconvenience, though, this interruption in the momentum of my day, it was genuinely hard not to admire people who so unapologetically put "pleasure" at the top of their "to do" list.

I haven't lived in Southern California for quite a few years now, and I have never been bold enough to suddenly hang out the "closed" sign in the middle of the day, until recently that is.  A few months ago I began experiencing the kind of down-to-the-marrow fatigue that cannot be ignored. It didn't take much thinking to understand where it was coming from -- once again I had taken on too much, said "yes" to things that I should have thought over (and then said "no" to), and generally stepped right back on the treadmill of busyness that I have sworn time and again that I would avoid.  This time, however, instead of feeling discouraged, I decided to see this as progress -- I'd noticed the situation earlier this time, and knew that "pushing through" (as I've done so many times before) was not the smart choice.

So, I followed the lead of my former ocean-loving neighbors and decided to take some time to surf, to close up shop for a while and find some flow.  My version of surfing, though, does not require hefting heavy boards and running over wide stretches of sand, but rather curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book and a cup of tea.  The result is that I've made an impressive dent in my stack of books, and have gained some insights into my relationship with work and the true impact other people's energy has on me.  Now, feeling recharged and refocused, I'll be writing here more regularly again.  The shop is now open -- at least until the next set of waves starts breaking...


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful


I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 
  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in "Mindset, The New Psychology of Success", Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
  • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in "Why Don't Students Like School?", and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
  • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book "The Power of Habit", Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
  • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in "The Whole Brain Child", the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.


(Note:  This is a repost from April, 2013.  Given all of the recent public discussions about this topic, I thought it would be relevant for my newer readers to see.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Does Meditation Stress You Out?

You know how sometimes you feel like you're the only one struggling to do something that's good for you, something your doctor, dentist, psychologist tells you to do?  Like flossing your teeth after every meal, or drinking a gallon of water every day, or getting up at the break of dawn (or earlier) to run five miles.  So you don't talk about it, right? You just pretend you do all of these things because that's what everyone else does, and you don't want to look like an unhealthy slacker. Sound familiar?

Well here's some breaking news:  nobody does all of the things we're supposed to do to be healthy.  If we did we'd blind each other with our glaringly white teeth, and the part of the day when we weren't running we'd be in the bathroom ridding ourselves of all the excess water.  We'd have no time for anything else.  But even though I think we all recognize, at least on some level, that it's impossible to do everything right all of the time, we still feel bad about it.  Take, for example, meditating.

Meditation is getting a lot of coverage these days, and everyone seems to be talking about it.  I've been struggling with some health issues these past few months, requiring many trips to various health practitioners, and without a doubt (and regardless of the diagnosis given, which varies wildly from doctor to doctor), the one thing they've all been consistent about is telling me to meditate.  I don't disagree that meditation can have health benefits -- I've read the research and know first-hand that I feel better, mentally and physically, when I meditate regularly. But I think we need to be careful about latching on to meditation as the "silver bullet" for whatever ails you.  In fact, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, The Stress of Not Meditating, telling someone they need to meditate can actually cause them stress.
 

"Nothing’s more stressful than hearing about the advantages of something you’re not doing."


So, if you are one of the many who wants to be "calm and happy and live in the now" but who also has a mile-long list of things you can accomplish with that extra 15 minutes, you are not alone.  If you are feeling stressed because you know you should meditate, your doctor, yoga teacher, or best friend has told you that you need to do it, take heart in knowing that even the person recommending it to you probably doesn't do it, at least not regularly (although they might not admit it). 

So should you give up on the idea entirely?  Well, that's up to you.  But before you do, consider this:
  1. Meditation is only one form of mindfulness practice.  If sitting on a cushion for thirty minutes a day isn't something you want to do, there are other options.  You can breathe deeply and mindfully at stop lights, or spend the first 10 minutes of your lunch time eating slowly and quietly.  The idea is to incorporate small mindful moments into activities you do regularly; anything that brings on a relaxation response counts.
  2. You may already do things that approximate meditation.  Many activities like gardening, hiking, or playing music bring our brains close to a meditative state. In short, if you lose track of time doing a favorite activity (i.e. reach a state of "flow"), you're receiving some of the same physiological benefits as you would get through meditating on a cushion.
  3. There are no rules. There are many types of meditation, so you should explore the options and choose something that works for you.  Also, starting slowly is perfectly acceptable -- if five minutes on the cushion (or chair or bed) is all you can or want to do, just do that.  The meditation police will never know and, even if they did, they don't write tickets.
So whether you decide to jump on the meditation bandwagon or not, I think the  healthiest choice any of us can make is to be honest with ourselves and everyone else about what is important to us and what we value.  We are free to make our own choices, free to decide what works for us, and also free to release the guilt, shame, and fear about all the rest.  "Seek the middle path" as Buddha advised -- it's all about balance, not perfection.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

If You Could Write Your Own Prescription...

In May I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about meditation and other mindfulness practices, and toward the end of the last post, "Minding the Gap", I introduced the idea of self-compassion because I know most parents are very hard on themselves -- worry and guilt seem to play a big role in this job.  It's true that there's a lot of responsibility that comes with raising children, which is why we feel so much pressure, and it's also true that we're all trying to do the best we can with the time, energy, and other resources we have available.  It's easy to forget.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't continue to try to do a better job, however.  We can simultaneously hold the ideas that we are "good enough", while at the same time knowing that we can do even better.  To really rise to our potential, to enjoy this process of raising children, learning and growing are key.  And in order to learn and grow, we need to take care of ourselves.  It's the familiar "put your oxygen mask on first..." concept.  Which makes sense and sounds great, but can be so hard to do in the midst of working, laundry, and shuttling kids around.  So here's the deal -- we need a plan. 

As a crazy coincidence, as I've been thinking about these ideas of self-care and self-compassion this week, I happened to be listening to a recorded conversation between two authors, Lissa Ranking and Brenee Brown, and they touched on this very topic of taking care of themselves.  Here's what they both said:  they have written themselves their own health prescriptions. They have these prescriptions written on pieces of paper that they carry around with them.  On their lists are things like how much sleep they need, foods they avoid, exercise schedules, and other items that fall into the category of "sanity maintenance", like limiting work hours and getting comfortable with saying "no".

Before this, I hadn't really thought about how I take care of myself as a "prescription" before, but the idea really resonates with me.  Without knowing it, I would say that up until now my prescription has included: 
  • 9 Hours of Sleep:  I'm a sleeper -- always have been, always will be. For years I've envied those who could get by on seven hours or less (my uncle is a four-hour per night person), and tried to get by on less myself for a while, hoping I could train my body. Nope. So finally I've accepted it -- I'm a sleeper.
  • Daily Meditation.  I've written a lot about this recently, so will only say that I'm on my cushion for 30-minutes a day.  When I miss a day, my emotions and energy suffer.
  • Sooo fresh -- we picked them ourselves!
  • No Sugar or Flour.  I started following the Paleo diet when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and it has made a world of difference for me.  I have almost no inflammation in my body, and have much less pain than others who have the same health issues I do.  The first weeks coming off of sugar were tough, I can't deny it, but they were totally worth it.  I eat protein, vegetables, and some fruit (low glycemic, primarily apples) and have no sugar cravings.
Now I'm thinking about adding to it, and have had a lot of fun the past couple of days just thinking about what I will include.  I want my prescriptions to be realistic and sustainable -- daily massages would be wonderful, but just won't happen. Maybe a monthly massage, though?  And I love having fresh flowers on my desk, so maybe a weekly purchase of fresh flowers?  The possibilities are endless, and soooo much fun to consider. So I'm curious to know -- What's on your personal prescription list?  What should be on it?  Any good ideas?

"Enjoying a life of extreme self care means living and working in a soul-nurturing environment; developing a greater appreciation for, and connection with, nature; doing work that provides an opportunity to express your greatest gifts and talents; and caring for your emotional, physical, and spiritual health in a way that's aligned with who you are and what you most need."
 - Cheryl Richardson, Extreme Self-Care



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Minding the Gap




Meditation, Week 4


The previous posts this month have all focused on the benefits of regular meditation and mindfulness practices and how, even when we are aware of the physical and psychological benefits of these practices, it can still be difficult to make time for them.  So if it's difficult to be mindful on a typical day, what about the days and moments when we really need them -- moments of extreme stress or overwhelming emotions?  What then?


This is how a mother of a young son described her situation after reading my last post, Mindfulness Blooming. She wrote that she would like her son to:

"...think it through before he says things that he knows is wrong or mean. 
I like the whole approach about 'choice' - make a good choice or that 
was a good choice. But his bad behavior is getting very, very repetitive 
and frustrating because he's so impulsive."

Anyone who has been a parent of young children can certainly relate to this and, if we're being honest, we must admit that even as adults we have impulsive moments when we react unconsciously and say or do something we later regret.  How does mindfulness come into play in these situations?

The short answer is:  by creating space.  Mindfulness is the process of creating a moment of space, a gap, between when we experience an emotion and when we choose a response to it.  The trigger for the emotion can be almost anything:  something we see, something someone says or does to us, or even a thought we have.  No matter how hard we might try (and believe me, I have tried!), we cannot control what other people do, nor can we control our emotional response to it, but what we can control is how we respond. 

  • First, we need to name the emotion, and often there are more than one. This may sound simple, but when emotions are strong and mixed together, it often takes some time to untangle them.  And there is science that supports how important the naming process is -- just saying to ourselves "I'm angry" helps our prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain, begin to "unflood" so we can think more clearly.
  • Next, we need to focus on our bodies.  Again, this sounds easy, but as we all know, pausing in the heat of the moment long enough to notice what's happening in our body can be tough.  If we pay attention, though, there are often physical cues that go along with an emotion that can eventually be "early warning" indicators as we become more aware.   

For kids the "minding the gap" process is the same, we just need to coach them through it gently and patiently.  I describe one of the first times I did this with my son, Ben, in an earlier post Developing Minds.  Since that event, I've also noticed that sometimes I can tell even before my boys do that something has affected them -- with my older son, Sam, it's often a particular look in his eye that alerts me, and I can then ask him how he's feeling, which helps him in directing his attention.  

Finally, there's another aspect of parenting mindfully that I don't think is addressed as frequently as it should be, and that is "self compassion". I was first introduced to this idea at a meditation retreat, and it deeply resonated with me.  As parents, we work hard to raise our children and provide them with everything they need, and its easy to blame ourselves or feel discouraged when our kids don't behave in the way we would like them to, when they continue to struggle with particular issues.  We need to be patient with them and with ourselves.  For me this can be difficult sometimes, but I find that trying to look at myself from the perspective of someone who loves me helps, as does including myself when I do lovingkindness meditations.  We can all benefit from a little extra compassion from any source. So this week, practice saying to yourself...


May I be happy,
May I be well,
May I be free from pain and suffering.


Activities for Meditation, Week 4


This week's activities have been selected to help you:
  1. Consider ideas for parenting mindfully,
  2. Find emotional and mental space in everyday moments,and
  3. Have some fun with your kids doing random acts of kindness.

  ___________________________________________________________

When you have five minutes...


Watch this 2-minute video of Dr. Christine Carter talking about mindful parenting:  


What can you do this week to be a more mindful parent, and create space between your emotions and your actions?

____________________________________________________________

 

When you have 15 minutes... 


Notice the "wallpaper" in your own mind.   This mindfulness practice comes from Rick Hanson, and is something you can do standing in line at the grocery store, or any time you have a few minutes this week.  Here's how:
"Enjoy emptiness in the forms that speak to you: perhaps the quiet at night 
when everyone's asleep but you, a blank page in your journal, a friend's 
receptive listening, an open counter as you begin to cook (love this one myself), 
a hole in your schedule, the space between thoughts 
as your mind calms and becomes still, or a Saturday with no plans at all." 

_____________________________________________________
  

When you have 30 minutes or more... 


Do random acts of kindness.  Here's a list of ideas to get you started, but it will be especially fun if you and your kids add your own ideas that are especially meaningful or enjoyable to you. 
  1. Take food to the food bank.
  2. Leave flowers on the doorstep of someone you sense might benefit from some extra kindness this week. 
  3. Offer to babysit for someone with young kids.
  4. Pick up trash in a neighborhood park.
  5. Write a thank-you note to someone whose work you appreciate:  the local police/fire department, a teacher, your mailman...