Monday, March 5, 2018

Running Away from Mommy in Public Places

For a few months now I've been obsessed with learning all I can about media use and abuse--with understanding the fallout of the nuclear blast that has occurred within our society in the two decades since we all became connected on AL Gore's "information super-highway." I wanted to know what the latest trends are and what the studies show about those trends: the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a parent I want to know how best to deal with the challenges that technology places in the lives of my family members.

What I've learned is alarming. Many studies have been done showing ill effects on the minds and bodies of people with high technology use. Studies have clearly shown that the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to be depressed. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly. Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. Clearly this is not just a problem for youth. A study in 2011 reported that 15% of divorces are caused by men paying more attention to video games than to their spouse. But that’s nothing: 33% of divorced couples cited Facebook one of the reasons for their split.

The teens and adults just referred to have traded spending time in real-world interactions, which would hopefully be uplifting and positive, for social media vanity and video game violence. Many studies have shown poorer family functioning in households with high media use. Is it the content of the media that’s the problem? Or the absence of the family interactions that would have taken place if the power was out? Likely both.

Media addictions can easily develop now that technology has become so portable and powerful. Eighty percent of teens check their phones at least hourly, and many adults are not far behind. Studies have even shown that smartphones are distracting even when they’re powered off, as our minds wander and wonder if someone has responded to our last text or email or “liked” our status update.

Now, the elephant in the room, when you are talking of technology addictions, is how to prevent them in a world saturated with technology. Do we just say to our children, “Here’s your iPad, be careful,” and give no further guidelines? Would we hand our child cocaine and say, “Here ya go, be careful,”?

An iPad isn’t cocaine, but for some people it’s very much like it. We’ve known for a long time that some groups of people (Native Americans) struggle with alcoholism, and we’ve actually found the gene for that in DNA studies. It now appears that the propensity to addiction goes beyond just alcohol/drugs to behavioral addictions like gambling, eating disorders, and media addictions. There is some strong evidence that about 50% of the propensity to addiction is genetic, and 50% is poor coping skills. I have known families that allow what I’d call excessive amounts of technology use, and families that are extremely strict about screen time, and both groups have had some children who’ve struggled with media addiction and some who have not. Some success and some failure from BOTH types of parenting. Is it Nature or Nurture? It appears, in the worst cases of technology addiction, to be both.

Tough stuff. Not fun to deal with. When I was thinking about writing an article summing up my research, I remembered a time four years ago when we had just received our three now-almost-adopted kids into foster care. They were really wild and did not "respond to voice commands" very well. I was severely outnumbered whenever I went out with a 6, 3, 2, and 1 year old. I could get the 1- and 2-year-olds into the shopping carts with double seats, and the 6 year old would usually stay pretty close. But the 3-year-old was impossible. She wouldn't stay with me and was constantly in danger of getting lost or running into a busy parking lot. So we would stay home. I remember telling them over and over, "When you have learned to stay with mommy when we go out, we can go out more. But I HAVE to keep you safe--that's the most important thing."

Today we have an epidemic of children "running away from mommy in public places"--escaping from their parents' safeguards into the public places of Snapchat, Instagram, and numerous other amoral playgrounds. The risk of encountering bullying and sexualized content vary with each, and vary with the type of people your child allows to be their friends (followers, etc.). If a parent is strict about which apps are allowed, a child can simply download apps which are hidden underneath other apps--things that look like calculators or calendars. The draw for many kids is powerful enough that there is an increase in defiant or deceptive behavior to access them -- "everybody's doing it." The ironic thing is that it's usually done from their bedrooms--their mattresses have permanent depressions from their bodies where they lay all summer looking at their phones. But they are indeed running--away from the safety of their families into a jungle of fluff and filth.

And danger. Years ago I worked with a nurse in Utah who told me an alarming story. She had noticed that they were getting a lot of phone calls in which the caller would immediately hang up (this was in the dinosaur ages before caller ID). Sometimes her three-year-old daughter would answer the phone when the parents were busy and begin chatting and they would assume that she was talking to her grandma. But one day she overheard a man's voice on the phone with her daughter, and when she took the phone away from her and asked who it was, he hung up. She asked her daughter who it was and she said it was her special friend, and she talked to him all the time. When questioned she said that he had been asking her to tell him where she lived. Luckily she was just a bit too young to know her address. A year or two later and she'd have gladly related that information to her "special friend."

In the good old days, a predator had to go around the parent to get to the child, and that wasn't very easy because there was usually a parent at home with the kids, and there was one phone, connected to the wall, which anyone could answer. But now we are giving phones to our kids--my 10 year old says that most of the kids in her class have their own phones. Even if it doesn't have internet access, there are plenty of ways for predators to acquire your child's phone number and attempt to become his "special friend."

A woman that I know works in law enforcement and specialized in human trafficking. She works mostly with children and teens in the public schools here in Northern Virginia. She recently told me that there are hundreds of children trafficked for sex every single day in this county. While at-risk youth are certainly a target (foster kids are prime victims) many are "regular kids" trafficked after school before their parents come home. Sold to the highest bidder by gang members or punks who threaten their safety or blackmail them--the blackmail usually involves a sexting picture that they've been persuaded/coerced into doing. My friend who specializes in this problem (and helps to get the victims into treatment) says that this ALWAYS starts through their phones as they network at first with friends who may be safe but then soon are out of their depth--wandering technologically through a labyrinth full of Minotaurs.

So let's be careful. Here are some good comments from a couple of Mom forums I am in:

“Years ago we had a problem with one of our kids being threatened via social media. We only knew about it because we were proactive parents who checked our children’s social media."

“From your comments it seems you are starting to see a problem, and you are wondering where agency fits in. If your child was being unsafe and irresponsible with the car, would you let him drive? A cell phone is not a necessity. He is perfectly capable of growing up without one. Perhaps he is not mature enough to face this temptation right now."

But how do we prepare our kids for the day when they leave home? How will they be able to self-regulate and keep themselves safe if they've not had a lot of practice? A few things I’ve learned from working with my kids’ counselors apply here: 

**Be the parent. Know your children and let them know you. Develop, nurture and maintain the kind of relationship that will create the trust necessary for them to willingly let you into these parts of their lives. And also maintain the expectation that you, as the parent, be able to access their social media and all types of messages at any time. Trust, but verify. Talk with them. Teach them. Set boundaries and enforce consequences when when the boundaries are broken.

**Help your child improve his emotional IQ. "Are you feeling uncomfortable? Name your emotion (bored, lonely, angry, anxious, afraid, stressed, hungry, or tired), and name what you want to do to relieve it." “I feel lonely. I think I’ll call my mom.” “I feel hungry. I think I’ll have an apple.” Putting emotions into words will help you process your desires at the level of the thinking brain, rather than the emotional brain.

**Delay gratification You don’t need to stop at a fast food restaurant each time your child has a small twinge of hunger. Remind him of when he recently ate, and when he will eat again. Teach him to “sit with a feeling” which will gradually increase his tolerance of emotional discomfort. A person will become stronger to resist temptations of all sorts if he knows that he has some grit and resiliency.

There is no easy fix to this problem. We are very naive still in this infancy of the digital age, and I hope that we will smarten up before the burden and privilege of technology crushes us and our kids.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Are We Liber? Or Chattel?

Ancients drew a distinction between those fit to be free, to self-rule, and those who must have someone always supervising them. Liber, the former, were people of learning, people of the book, and chattel are the latter, those who must be controlled by someone. Race was irrelevant in ancient ideas of slavery. The key was whether you had an education--which idea unfortunately followed the slavers to America, and made educating a slave a criminal offense. 

Education is seen as crucial to success in life.  Today few Americans are farmers and ranchers, and even they usually have extensive understanding of the science involved in their trade and often employ accountants - they need an education too. But education in what? That's the part that no one can agree on. When we say "education" do we really mean "training"? Teaching reading, writing, and 'rithmetic--is that truly educating? What shall we read - trendy novels and magazines? What about computer programming, cooking, and comprehensive sexuality education (known around here as "Family Life Education")--do those count toward becoming an educated person?

In Climbing Parnassus, Tracy Lee Simmons says “Education, that vague and official word for what goes on in our schools, has been a trinket on the shelves of snake oil salesmen and a plaything for social planners in America for over a century. They have been driven by the spirit of ceaseless innovation. And we have paid a high price. The peddlers have shrouded the higher and subtler goals of learning which former generations accepted and promoted. These bringers of the New have traded in the ancient ideal of wisdom for a spurious 'adjustment' of the mind, settling for fitting us with the most menial of skills needful for the world of the interchangeable part. They have decided we are less, not more, than wiser people have hoped humanity might have become.  We are masses to be housed and fed, not minds and souls seeking something beyond ourselves.” 

I believe in the definition of education that was prevalent in the time of the ancient Greeks, that the purpose of education is to instill virtue in a person.  How is this to be done? Reading, discussing, writing, discussing, going deep into a subject, doing an internship or other hands-on experience, discussing, giving service, and discussing.  Why so much discussion? First, because (supposedly) you remember 80% of what you said in a discussion, and only 20% of what the other person said. And second, because it allows the person to process what they have just learned, to tease apart what may have been truth or error in it, and to formulate and defend their own ideas about it. Sometimes the mentor plays the devil's advocate, sometimes not, but either way a person is better prepared to meet the world after he has followed this process. In Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning" she says:

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education--lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.  

It makes me many of the PhD's out there would Ms. Sayers view as being susceptible to propaganda because they've not been through a process of learning to take a bird's eye view of an idea, then zoom in and examine if from all perspectives. This is hard mental work, and few are willing to pay the price, but rather will swallow the lamest sound-bite as if it were gospel truth. I believe this is one reason we as humans always return to tribalism, especially in difficult times. We've no time or patience to dig for truth, especially if it's on the other side of the fence from where we stand. We'll just go along with the herd, staying in the center for protection from the wolves.

Here's another viewpoint on that idea:
“One of the chief objects of education is to train flexibility of mind, to make a man quick to comprehend other points of view than his own. Obviously, no power is more necessary in dealing with men. To be able to discard for the moment his own opinions, and see the world through the eyes of other classes, races, or types, is as indispensable to the merchant as to the statesman; for men are hardly to be controlled or influenced unless they are understood. And yet no power is rarer. It is almost non-existent among uneducated people. A man who has not risen above the elementary school is hardly ever able to seize an attitude of mind at all different to his own; he may acquiesce in it because he trusts or respects the character of the person in question, but he does not understand it; he cannot perform the great feat for which our intellectual gymnasia train us, of being in two (or more) people’s skins at the same time. And this is not due to the absence of any organ from his body, but simply to the fact that he has never practiced the art.” Sir Richard Winn Livingstone, “A Defense of Classical Education” 1917

To sum up (sort-of) this idea of the reasons and major methodology to become an educated person, let me just say that at some point in this life or the next we must all face the fact that, though we know very little compared to God, we have a responsibility to grow our own intelligence through reading His words along with the best that has been written by members of the human race, and incorporating the principles that resonate with us. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Last thoughts on "Scaffolding Math"

I recently presented a class on math education during the STEM seminar at the Latter-day Saint Home Educators conference.  The transcript, handout, and PowerPoint are linked in the side bar, but I found so many great quotes (that I wanted to use but ran out of time) that I feel like putting a few of them up on my blog.

From the Mathematical Association of America website:
Japanese cognitive psychologist, Giyoo Hatano, gave the following five "characterizations" of long-term knowledge acquisition, with which, he felt, most cognitive psychologists would agree. And with which, most mathematics education researchers would agree.

Knowledge is acquired by construction, not by transmission alone. Compelling evidence for this is provided by the work on procedural bugs and misconceptions -- it is highly unlikely that students acquire them from direct teaching. For example, young children often make systematic subtraction errors, the most common of which is always subtracting the smaller digit from the larger, regardless of position, and many preservice elementary teachers believe "division (always) makes smaller." Surely, no one taught them this.

Knowledge acquisition involves restructuring -- not only does the amount of a person's knowledge gradually increase, it gets reorganized. Children do not think like miniature or incomplete adults. For example, in attributing unknown properties to animate objects, Hatano found young children rely on similarity-based inference, whereas older children and adults use category-based inference. He finds studies of conceptual change, both in the history of science and in cognitive development, especially relevant because fundamental conceptual change is perhaps the most radical kind of (mental) restructuring. [Cf. Carey, "Conceptual differences between children and adults," Mind and Language 3, 1988; Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970.]

The process of knowledge acquisition is constrained both internally, by what one already knows, and externally, by cultural artifacts such as shared language and notation. This explains, in part, why different individuals acquire similar, but not identical, knowledge.

Knowledge is domain specific. This serves cognitive economy -- in problem solving, one need only access relevant knowledge. However, what is acquired in one domain can be transferred to another (e.g., through analogy) or generalized to a variety of domains (e.g., by abstracting structural commonalties).

Knowledge acquisition is "situated," i.e., it reflects how it was originally acquired and has been used -- it consists not only of abstract rules, laws, and formulas, but also of personal experiences. Becoming an expert, say in mathematics or physics, may be a process of "desituating" one's knowledge to make it less context-bound, less tied to surface features.

From the Stella's Stunners website:
There are several reasons for students' resistance to problem solving. One is that some hard work may well be involved — how much is unknown. Students these days are typically overbooked, overscheduled, and caught up in the spell cast by e-mails, texting, Facebook, video games, and all of the other engrossing ways of spending time. Who wants to sit and stare at a problem, waiting for an idea to hit? Another inhibitor is that we simply do not like to be in situations where we feel frustrated and incompetent. And related to this discomfort, for some students, is the fact that hard thinking evokes other problems with considerably more emotional weight: "Why didn't Dad come home last night?" "What if Mom loses her job?" "What if I'm pregnant?" It can be difficult in such circumstances to entice students to engage in problem solving, thinking in ways not previously experienced, for an unknown length of time, and with no certainty of success.
But education is all about training minds to be imaginative, savvy, persistent, and resourceful — exactly the characteristics our public leaders say our students lack. Trudging through mathematics textbooks, year after year, is not in itself going to help students become the skilled mathematicians, scientists, technicians, or even literate citizens our global economy requires. It is the opportunity to grapple with and solve non-routine problems, problems that are not necessarily clearly defined, that provides students, our prospective adults, with the intellectual robustness that our country needs in its citizens.

From "The Teaching of Arithmetic I: The Story of an Experiment, by L.P. Benezet
I went into a certain eighth-grade room one day and was accompanied by a stenographer who took down, verbatim, the answers given me by the children. I was trying to get the children to tell me, in their own words, that if you have two fractions with the same numerator, the one with the smaller denominator is the larger. I quote typical answers. 
• "The smaller number in fractions is always the largest." 
 • "If you had one thing and cut it into pieces the smaller piece will be the bigger. I mean the one you could cut the least pieces in would be the bigger pieces." 
• "The denominator that is smallest is the largest." 
The average layman will think that this must have been a group of half-wits, but I can assure you that it is typical of the attempts of fourteen-year-old children from any part of the country to put their ideas into English. The trouble was not with the children or with the teacher; it was with the curriculum. If the course of study required that the children master long division before leaving the fourth grade and fractions before finishing the fifth, then the teacher had to spend hours and hours on this work to the neglect of giving children practice in speaking the English language.
...I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children through the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible need has a ten-year-old child for a knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years' study by any normal child.

And from an article in USAToday:
Math as rules starts early. Kids learn in elementary school that you can "add a zero to multiply by ten." And it's true, 237 x 10 = 2370. Never mind why. But then when kids learn decimals, the rule fails: 2.37 x 10 is not 2.370. One approach is to simply add another rule. But that's not the best way.

Common Core saves us from plug-and-chug. In fact, math is based on a collection of ideas that do make sense. The rules come from the ideas. Common Core asks students to learn math this way, with both computational fluency and understanding of the ideas.

Learning math this way leads to deeper understanding, obviates the need for endless rule-memorizing and provides the intellectual flexibility to apply math in new situations, ones for which the rules need to be adapted. (It's also a lot more fun.) Combining computational fluency with understanding makes for problem solvers who can genuinely use their math. This is what businesses want and what is necessary to use math in a quantitative discipline.

Here is what good math learning produces: Students who can compute correctly and wisely, choosing the best way to do a given computation; students who can explain what they are doing when they solve a problem or use math to analyze a situation; and students who have the flexibility and understanding to find the best approach to a new problem.

I thoroughly agree with all of the above--including the attempt to revamp math education in the U.S.--but with one caveat. It's impossible to TEACH math in a way that gets a GROUP of children to understand--to deeply rather than superficially understand.  Each person must build their own structure of understanding within their own brain--it cannot be mass produced. Sorry educators, you have good intentions, and the OUTCOME you're after is the right one. But it's not within your power to construct something in someone else's brain.
Individual tutoring was for centuries the education of rich men's children, and the results were and continue to be superior to teaching in groups. The human brain is the most complex structure in the universe, so finding even two children who are at exactly the same point in their understanding of math concepts, so that you can instruct them together, is fruitless. Even teaching one child is very hit and miss--you still must find a way to know exactly where he's at so that you can help him move his understanding of the topic along.
I strongly believe that when teaching DOES yield deep learning, it is a serendipitous combination of things that were happening in the child's real life (life outside of school is real)--problems he was faced with, things he was thinking about, etc.--together with just the right topic being presented at the right time with the right spin by the right person. Anything else leads to the "memorize, test, forget" cycle. Since all those "rights" rarely occur, most of the math understanding we move forward in our lives with is something we created in our down-time: playing games, building things, pondering on why numbers do this or that, etc.
As Lev Vygotsky said, “Practical experience … shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrot-like repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum.”

Teachers do a great deal of good in the practical day-to-day running of the world, but if schools were abolished, children would still learn. As Hugh Nibley said, "My only job as a teacher is to save my students time." In other words, a teacher is someone to point you in the right direction when you're on a quest to learn something. The key: it has to be the LEARNER'S quest, not the teacher's, or nothing of importance will happen in the learner's mind.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Christmas Kids

Once upon a time three small children needed a new home at Christmas time. They found a family with one small and several big children, and spent a lovely time with them over the holidays. Though there were a lot of things to recover from, they healed and relaxed and changed and grew. Nearly a year passed. Then it was time to go home again. 
The family missed them and they missed the family, though they were happy to be back with their mom. A few weeks after they went home, it was Christmas time again. The family was able to pick them up and take them to see the lights at the temple, and they had a grand time together.
Time passed--almost one year to be exact. They needed a new home again. God had been watching out for them, and this family was again ready to welcome kids into their home. So they came back, and the party commenced again! The whole community rallied around them, and many friends arrived with gifts for the children. 
On Christmas morning there were so many gifts under the tree that the children had to spread out into another room and make stacks of their gifts. The disembowling took over an hour, even at top speed! The kids had a long, fun day together, and are set to begin again to heal and relax and change and grow.

Thanks to everyone who helped make these kids super happy yesterday. We don't know the outcome of this placement--one never does. But the transition has been very smooth this time, and we don't expect things to be nearly as difficult (for them and us) as last time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Standing on One Foot

This has been a strange year.  My husband went back to work today for the first time this year.  He was laid off from his job right before Christmas (chief economist for the National Mining Association--Obama said before he was elected that he was going to kill coal, and his efforts in that department have had large ripples). The unemployment went on much longer than we had anticipated, and we'd have done some things differently if we'd known how long it was going to be.  But the most difficult thing about it was exactly that--the unknown. That's what made me feel as if I were balancing on one foot, just a bit unstable. Not knowing where the next step was going to be, so unable to set that other foot down anywhere.

The finances were a stress, but not a super big one since we had some personal savings.  Believe me, there's been many times in our marriage that we've been living from paycheck to paycheck, but (a blessing!) this wasn't one of them. For nearly the first 20 years of our marriage I worked to make ends meet while Paul was in school and internships, etc.  I hated being away from our kids, so I would just work enough to pay the bills, but no more.  So though we had retirement building up, there was nothing to carry us over speed bumps.  Having the savings available was a huge blessing when the paychecks stopped coming this time.

And speaking of time, it was wonderful to have my husband around!  I had always wondered if we were going to drive each other crazy when he retired; now I know that we'll be fine.  He spent his days applying for jobs, fixing the car, doing woodworking, fixing the lawnmower (again), doing family history and service projects for church, and applying for jobs.  And more jobs.  But we also played with our kids a lot--inexpensive or free stuff like hiking was great.  Paul was able to have that window of quiet in his life that I have had the last few years since I quit working (well, quiet is a relative term) to just enjoy being a dad to one cute little guy and four cute big ones.

So the real challenge was not the lack of anything in our lives, but the addition of something: uncertainty.  Would we move to Texas? To Idaho? Would we stay here but with less income so we'd need to sell (I made some home improvements this summer in preparation for that possibility).  Women like stability, so this was the hardest one for me.  I've felt happy, and calm, and grateful for blessings.  But whenever I felt that I could begin to touch the toe of the other foot to the ground--just start to be more stable--that ground would shift and I'd be left in the balancing mode. I couldn't make plans, and I love plans.

The worst indecision was feeling like maybe I should go back to work as a critical care nurse--just dive in and take care of our family. I could do it. I've done it before. But I have a four year old, and he's very attached to his mommy.  The biggest thing was that I knew if I went back to work, I'd resent it.  I'd resent Paul for losing his job.  I'd resent everyone who didn't keep NMA in a position to keep him employed there, and everyone who wasn't hiring him for every job he applied for.  I prayed about what I should do, and got strong promptings to keep the faith: in Paul that he'd find a job, in Heavenly Father that he would bless us. I would be willing to go back to work only if we had tried everything else, including selling the house and living on the equity for a while.  At least if that were to happen, it would buy me some more time in raising our little guy through these important early years.

We're still not "out of the woods" (though we can still live in the woods--our woods). This job is just a place-holder for a better one that will hopefully come along soon--it's in the works, but nothing is certain.  But I'm so grateful for a regular paycheck that I felt I should shout that to the world.  So I wrote a blog post about it. ;-)