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My Child Needs Help With…

THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION: ISSUE 5, March 1, 2017
James Cunningham PhD

Usually, when parents call my tutoring service, they say their child needs help with a particular subject or set of subjects. The subjects parents most often identify are English, Math and Science.  There are many reasons why students should be having trouble with these three subjects.  Only one reason concerns me, here.  My experience tells me, if parents are seen to take an interest in an activity when their children are young – better still, if parents include their young children in activities of parental interest – then their children will pursue the subjects connected with these activities with interest and relative ease.  Of course, my experience also tells me that the converse is true.

When first introduced to a student having problems with English, I ask the parents how many books they have in their home, whether on not the books they have are displayed for easy access to children and how many of their books are age appropriate to children.  I also inquire as to whether or not weekly visits to the public library are part of their family activity. Almost invariably, the answer is that their home has few or no books and that trips to the library are not a family tradition.

When asked, parents whose children are having difficulties with science allow that there are no books about science in the home, that they do not watch science programming with their children on television or the internet, and that they don’t take their children to the local museum, science centre, public aquarium or zoos.  Likewise, I learn that children having difficulty with math never see their parents express an interest in mathematics. Neither are these children included in activities requiring that their parents do math (as when parents tally or pay monthly bills).

Long before Maria Montessori incorporated the insight into her pedagogy, educators knew already that children are highly motivated to do what their parents do and to be included in adult activities. It has also been evident to educators down through the ages that when children are not allowed to participate, over time, their motivation diminishes. If parents do not engage in an activity or do not allow their children to engage in it with them, the likelihood is that their children will not become interested in it and will engage with it (say, at school) only with difficulty.

My point is that, for the most part, a child’s education requires parental participation.  In traditional societies, this point is taken for granted. As a matter of course, many societies see girls as young as four joining their older female relatives in the performance of the most difficult and intricate of domestic tasks.  In many of the ancient Greek city states, it was a common place for boys, from the age of seven onwards, to accompany their fathers through every aspect of their working day, participating when instructed to, always watching to learn how to do what they saw the adult men doing.

The facility of this traditional principle of child education is equally evident today.  If parents want their children to read well, they should be seen to read themselves. Parents should make reading materials readily available so that picking up a book or magazine becomes a common place of the household.  Most important of all, parents should read to their children and listen as their children read to them so that their children will experience reading as an adult activity in which all family members are included.

For math and science, the same practice should apply.  When my grandchildren come to my house, the eldest, who is eight, demands my math notes for tutoring university students so that she can copy the formulae from them on the white board in my office.  That my granddaughter does not understand what she is copying is beside the point. What is significant is that she sees the mathematical symbols as part of an adult activity and feels that she can share in that activity and its importance. After Sunday dinner, the same granddaughter takes me into the laundry room where we make chemical concoctions using laundry soap and fabric softener. Of course, we are only playing at chemistry, but play sparks real interest. Lately she has been asking if we couldn’t set up a science room with a dedicated shelf and workspace for “real science stuff.” Obviously, a trip to Mastermind is in order.

Your Children can be Engrossed in their Homework

THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION: ISSUE 4, FEBRUARY 1, 2017.
James Cunningham PhD

When watching television, it has been my experience that it takes very little time before I have lost all awareness of the edge of the television screen or even of the screen on which the image is produced.  For me, then, there is only the image and its sounds which seem as immediate to me as the room in which I sit.  My experience, I suppose, is of having fallen into the image which I inhabit in the form of invisible spectator or voyeur: an state of consciousness absorbed into and with the televised image.  In the meantime, all that surrounds the image fades into a kind of background outside of consciousness but not beyond conscious reach.  I may recall it at a second’s notice and, if need be, it may recall me.

I know that my experience of television is a common one: the power of television to engross viewers is well documented. Neither is the experience of being engrossed special to television viewing.  Indeed, we may become engrossed in almost any activity. Unlike watching television, which is peculiarly seductive, however, many activities require that we get used to attending to them before they can captivate us as television does. 

At one point in the 1950s, the suggestion was bandied about that European concert halls should be darkened in the manner of theatres, lest audience movements should distract listeners from the music.  In reaction, famed musicologist and philosopher, Theodor Adorno, sniffed that the audience should be so engrossed in the music that any surrounding activity must be beyond their notice.  I think Adorno has a point, one that is pertinent to our children’s education.  Notice what Adorno’s response implies: that   audiences “should” be engrossed in the music suggests a duty on their part to give the whole of their consciousness to the music. This duty derives from music’s having a value that merits our full attention; also from our being able to grasp its value when we allow it to capture our attention fully.

I’m going to assume, at this point, as an uncontroversial given that there are educational subjects and activities which have the kind of value Adorno attributes to the music of the concert hall.  As such, these activities can legitimately require as a duty that we be engrossed in them; that when we attend to them they become the sole objects of our consciousness to the extent that the rest of our surroundings retreat into an unconscious background.  A worthy educational goal some might say, maybe even a necessary one, but how are we to achieve it?

I am reminded of a song by the satirist, Spike Jones, about two yokels who wander by mistake into a performance of the opera, Pagliacci.   The yokels’ lack of familiarity with opera or anything like it ensures that their listening to Pagliacci will be a cause of discomfort impossible for them to ignore: they sing, “When we listen to PAL-YAT-CHEE we get itchy an' scratchy.” Engrossment in Pagliacci is impossible for the yokels and they attend the performance only under compulsion: “We hate to go back but we can't git our dough back.  There ain't no use complainin' 'cause outside it's a-rainin'.”  Ultimately, becoming engrossed in educational activities is something for which students must be trained, and training begins most easily at home.

Elsewhere I have advocated for students doing their homework at the kitchen or dining room table amidst the comings and goings of family members engaged in household activities.  The rationale I gave was that familiar household noises by family members serve to counter the isolation which otherwise accompanies individual study. Being familiar they act as company for the student as a member of a household where everyone operates in a common space.

But the noises family members and their activities serve another pedagogical purpose, as well; one that is in aid of the student’s becoming engrossed in their homework.  Being familiar, they serve as the comfortable background capable of supporting the student’s attention to difficult material even as they retreat beyond the student’s conscious notice.  Like the television, the student’s domestic background becomes the transparency through which they gain entry into their subject of study.

If the sound of domestic family life which supports the student’s engrossment in their studies comforts the student by virtue of its familiarity, it does so, as well, by virtue of being a mild stimulant.  The need for this type of background stimulus as a necessary condition of deep concentration is what drives would be authors to write in coffee shops.  Compared to the coffee shop, the empty apartment is a sensory deprivation chamber: one has to move around in it to distract themselves from a restlessness born of a profound sense of emptiness. Theirs is the restless activity of a person seeking reassurance about their own existence.  In the coffee shop, by contrast, the sense of one’s existence is guaranteed by the stimulating bustle around them. Assured of their own existence, the author/student is freed to lose themselves in their writing/studies.

As well, sitting, the necessary posture for engrossed study, takes training. This is why students are required to do so much of it at school.  Montessori was the first educational theorist to realize the importance of training students to sit well.  The goal is for sitting to become so familiar as to be the comfortable position from which the student can give their full attention to their studies.  With time, sitting will always become tiring, it is true. With training, however, sitting should become only so tiring that it stimulates in the student a sense of self capable of enjoying time well spent.  For example, I once attended a lengthy concert of Brahms impromptus, during which I became aware that my bodily feeling of being seated had become indistinguishable from my feeling of pleasure at being in the presence of music making so great that I did not want it to stop.  In effect, my sitting did not interrupt my being engrossed in the music so much as become an appreciative condition of that engrossment.

The value to students of doing homework in the midst of family life, as with individual study time in the midst of a crowded classroom, is that it teaches them to become engrossed in study on the understanding that learning and appreciating the objects of study requires that students become engrossed in them.  True engrossing takes place in and against, and not divorced from, the background of familiar human doings.  That is, if students cannot concentrate except when isolated from background distraction, then they have not learned how to respond to the demands of their studies as any competent scholar must.

And so, I end with this warning.  Studying with earphones is NOT appropriate to scholarly concentration because it takes what I call the “scuba diving” approach to study. The assumption of the scuba diving approach is that, just as the scuba diver needs a breathing apparatus to survive in an aquatic environment alien to the needs of human respiration, so does the student need earphones as a “coping apparatus,” lest study be impossible in a world whose bustle renders it alien to human requirements for concentration.   In reality, the world is not toxic to study. Rather, it is study’s natural environment.  But even natural environments require training if we are to abide in them. It is, therefore, a primary activity of education to prepare our children to inhabit the world as the environment which breathes life into their studies.  The alternative is that our children will find their own intellectual atmosphere toxic, and the human condition one from which they have been alienated.

Just a Little Peace and Quiet: A Gentle Reminder of What it is to be a Parent

THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION: ISSUE 3, DECEMBER 1, 2016.
James Cunningham PhD

Not all parents want to help their children with homework. But many do, or feel they should. For these parents, sitting with their children as they struggle through their homework – often as if it were a form of aversion therapy – can be frustrating to the point of infuriation. After all, where is the joy in trying to help a child for whom the act of writing even a five-word sentence seems to be a special type of torture? The exercise becomes an exhausting one for parents: just one more chore on top of a long work day followed by a long and stressful commute; something begrudged. As a result, parents must be careful lest helping their children morphs into impatient correction, even punishment. At the root of the problem, here, are parents too fatigued and/or stressed by their workday to appreciate what time with their children (even study time) really is.

Some years ago, I was teaching a business ethics course and had occasion to point out how parents have a duty to ensure that the demands of work do not unfairly take precedent over their children’s need for parental participation in their lives. One middle aged student became quite exorcised over my comments responding emphatically that she worked hard all day. Didn’t she deserve some peace and quiet? I suspect that the student was equally emphatic in demanding peace and quiet from her children, as well, and wonder if what she described as a little piece and quiet didn’t last until bedtime.

It seems to me that the student’s response was grounded in two unstated assumptions. First, since the student worked hard to support her kids, they owed her time by herself once she got home. Second, work was frustrating enough. How could the student be expected to bear the extra frustration that comes of trying to help with assignments neither she nor her child can understand?

Personal experience compels our sympathy for this student – there have been evenings when we have all parented as if we were “dead men walking.” I cannot help but wonder, however, if my student had not lost sight of the reasons for having children in the first place, the first of these being to enjoy them. To remember our children are to be enjoyed is to acknowledge that a life which renders us too fatigued and alienated to enjoy our children must be something of a failure.

Predictably, my student’s children will take her demand that they leave her in peace as role modelling. From her, they will learn to feel both overwhelmed by their school day and entitled to retreat from it into the solace and solitude offered by electronic nets and webs. Then, should my student demand that her children do homework, it will seem to them like an unwarranted intrusion on their peace and quiet! In that event, my student can expect mutual screaming matches followed by the hysterical exchange of threats rendered empty by the need of mother and children to retreat into their respective spheres of quiet … if not of peace.

As parents, we should enjoy our children because it is what our children want of us. They want us to enjoy their accomplishments, their activities, their progress and they want us to enjoy our participation in what they do. In nursery school, kindergarten and the early grades of public school there is the recognition, both by parents and educators, that time must be allowed for “show and share” (in my day it was known as “show and tell”). Show and share goes beyond the child’s standing up in front of the class and showing off her favourite toy or book. It extends to the child’s desire to show her parents what she has done at school on the expectation that they will praise and appreciate it. The child expects the opportunity and prompting which will allow her to explain what her work is about and what she is expressing in it.

Sadly, by about grade 4, the child’s need to show and share, especially with her parents, starts to get less attention. By grade 6, the child’s showing and sharing is often a thing ossified within the rituals of sporting events or Christmas and spring concerts – and then only for children who are lucky enough to participate. This is a shame. For it is in the child’s volunteering to show and share their school work with parents that the template for effective parental participation in a child’s homework is presented.

So, how do we, as parents, get our children to show and share with us at homework time? We start by finding time after work to sit with our children and give them our undivided attention – after all, children learn to concentrate by watching us concentrate on them. Once they have our attention, we should ask our children how school is going. And then we should listen – even when our children tell us what they don’t like about school. Listening to what a child does not like requires that we not rush to judgment of either our child or of the school. It does require that we ask them to elaborate. Also, we should empathize, telling similar stories from our own experience if we can. Above all, we should be reassuring, letting our children know that problems will get solved and its not the end of the world if they don’t get solved today. Remember, it is not a rule of listening that a problem be solved on the night that it is introduced. Listening allows both the child and parent to go away and think about what they’ve heard so they revisit it more thoughtfully another day.

A second part of listening requires that we ask our children about assignments on a regular basis. We begin by getting our children to explain what they have to do and what they have done so far, an exercise that will necessitate leading questions on our part. When listening, its always important to compliment our children on their efforts and insights. Its also a good idea to make suggestions (to be written down by our children) on how they might proceed, but only if suggestions are needed. When our children are ready to start an assignment or exercise, we can work to insure they understand it. Once they do, however, we must leave them to do it themselves. Likewise, when working with work sheets or problem sheets, our job is to ensure that our children understand the instructions and the steps involved in solving the problems assigned. After that, they should be on their own. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be physically present while our children are working. An especially good environment for homework is the kitchen table whilst other family members are engaged in after dinner chores. However, once we have let our children show and share their homework with us, we should be confident that they can finish it on their own.

Why Are You Making Your Child Study Alone?

THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION: ISSUE 2, OCT 1, 2016.
James Cunningham PhD

A contemporary complaint by parents is that their children have too many distractions at study time. Images are conjured of the typical student: exiled to their room, they skim over their assignments; their ears microphoned; their eyes on the lookout for text messages from smart phones and Facebook posts. It becomes a fool’s errand: children thinking they can study adequately in the midst of so many distractions.

For their part, children, when they deign to address adult queries on the subject, are often adamant that study is impossible without the accompanying counter reality created by their devices. This, they argue, is where they live; where they prefer to operate. To suggest, even for study sake, that they exist without the companionship of their smart phone would be akin to demanding that they should labour in an environment without enough air.

The kids have a point. In the main, it has been hard for children of every generation to study alone. Yet parents continue to expect that, without instruction, children will be sufficient company for themselves as they try to make sense of home work that seems often to be unintelligible and, if not unintelligible, then so lacking in interest as to be pointless. As well, it is too often the case that the children who do master the art of individual study are those who are driven to seek in their school books and work a refuge from home environments too insensitive, punitive, neglectful or rejecting to bear.

So, yes, if our children comfort themselves with the manufactured stimuli provided by their favourite version(s) of reality, they do so out of the very natural desire to escape feelings of loneliness and abandonment as well as from their own limitations as thinkers and learners. At least, then, children can bear themselves long enough to get some homework done.

Having graded and commented on thousands of assignments, I have come to see study under current conditions of persistent distraction as a problem. The work it produces is almost always, at best, sloppy; at worst, totally incoherent. Teacher feedback indicating suggestions for improvement is often met with incredulity, the type best articulated in the question: “what do you want from me!?” I cannot think, however, that there is any point in “taking the kiddies’ toys away”, unless they are to be replaced with some palpable instruction/education in the art of getting along productively with oneself. I am also convinced that there are better teachers of independent study than the caustic home environments mentioned above. So, what are they?

Like any good schooling, education in independent study requires good teachers and, here, we have reason for optimism. Initially, at least, parents and family members can be effective in this role. In upcoming entries, I will be writing about positive ways of helping your children with homework. Such help, if it is to be worthy of the name, is often not a matter of you, the parent, explaining or correcting child’s work but simply an expression of your interest (and enjoyment) at being with your child when they study. To that end, you can be most helpful if you let your child know you are there because you want them to show you what they are doing or have to do. Take an interest in what they show you by asking questions that will get them to talk about it. Listen carefully to what they say. Say that you appreciate their effort and, when you say it, mean it.

I’ll also be writing about how it takes an entire family to teach a child to study. But this is something the family can do, only if study time is spent at the dining room or kitchen table as opposed to the bedroom with the door closed. It is in the midst of family bustle, the ordinary comings and goings of family members who, while not on tiptoe, conduct their business in a manner that is respectful of what other family members are doing, that children start to experience study as a way of being in the family’s supportive company. As such, surrounding family activity becomes a catalyst in the weaning of children from their dependence on electronic devices. How so?

Electronic toys condition children to look to iPhone messages or texts as welcome distractions from the onerous effort of concentrating under conditions of loneliness. By contrast, surrounding family activity acts as a comforting and companionable background which swallows up loneliness and with it, the need for distraction. Against the familial background, concentration becomes a natural outcome of hitting the books. Thus, while electronic devices feed the child’s desire for distraction, family activity becomes the distraction which liberates the child from a need for distraction and renders them self-sufficient to the task of concentrating on their studies. The problem of students whose studying is inhibited by electronic distractions sought out of loneliness will only worsen with each passing school year. It is the responsibility of those generations who can recall a time before the proliferation of myriad electronic distractions to cultivate and encourage self-sufficiency in the present generation of students.

Why do we send them to school?

THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION: ISSUE 1, SEPT 1, 2016.
James Cunningham PhD

When my son was four, his kindergarten teacher complained that he didn’t listen and seemed to want to spend all his time socializing. My wife asked him if he knew why we sent him to school. I thought his reply, “No, I have no idea,” quite sophisticated for a four year old. Still, we had our reasons for sending him. So do most parents. As a lifelong educator teaching public and post-secondary students, I have heard many such reasons. Parents want their children to get a good education. They want their children to succeed at university and careers for which university is requisite. They want their children to have opportunities to be creative, to have fun, to learn new and exciting things. They want their children to be disciplined and diligent in their studies and respectful of others. For their children, parents want a lot from school. Chiefly, parents want school to give their children advantages they couldn’t get elsewhere … and that’s great, because, at its best, that’s what school delivers. How do schools do this? By being the place where students do things they will do nowhere else.

Only at school are students required, on a daily basis, to put aside other concerns and concentrate on academic subjects for more than a few minutes at a time. To help students meet this requirement, schools are avid in their pursuit of the curricular sciences. For instance, schools put a concerted effort into what reading is suited to each student’s level of development and how best to teach students to understand and appreciate what they read. Lots of children’s lit marketers advertise to target audiences and, like them, schools meet students where they are. Schools don’t leave them there, however. Only at school is each student observed with an eye to what they should read next. The school’s concern extends beyond what students like to what educated readers can and should appreciate.

Outside the school, the world is rife with the promotion of the latest electronic delivery systems for text and literary education. The emphasis is always on making reading and learning more user friendly. Some of this makes its way into the schools. There is a great deal of pressure – commercial, institutional and political – for the schools to take more. While this trend to the use of more gadgetry is all well and good, to a point, schools are to be commended on the extent to which they continue to expose students to text by way of the printed page and its organization into books. Aside from the mysterious contributions, both to the learning process and the love of learning, made by students’ tactile interactions with the illustrated and printed page, there is the fact that the printed book remains probably the most accessible delivery system for text ever invented. With the book, no knowledge of operating systems is needed. If the student can turn pages, the student can access at least some of what is in the book. On a more sophisticated level, the book’s pages can be dog eared and highlighted by the student to suit their own study habits and priorities. Also, the book’s many points of entry, every page is an entry point, allow the student an almost effortless and instantaneous access to any part of the text. In no other system do so many entry nodes wait so patiently to be points of instantaneous access: their availability encourages the reader not only to read but to reread, and to begin anywhere so that, in effect, the reader becomes both co-editor and co-author of their own reading. Schools ensure that book learning is open to all students, even the many who fall prey to media hucksterism proclaiming the death of print. Print will never die because it brings reading alive in ways that nothing else can. If any environment remains to acquaint students with print’s undying authority, it will be the schools.

It is and will be the schools that teach almost all students all of the math they will ever know. I have heard many students wonder aloud why they have to learn a math skill that they will never use once they leave school. The answer to their concern is in two parts. First, students can’t be sure what they will use once they leave school. Second, they learn math skills at school precisely because they will not encounter them anywhere else. As such, school exposes students to ways of thinking that are novel to them. Also, school exposes them to the opportunity to master difficult concepts and to develop the study and learning habits that makes such mastery possible. The math students learn in school teaches them to think with greater precision and discipline, and that is thinking which is useful anywhere.

Of course, there are a great many other things besides book learning and mathematics that students learn at school that they will not learn elsewhere. When I was walking through Robarts Library at University of Toronto some years ago, I saw a student reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. That is, her book was not about hieroglyphics, it was written in hieroglyphics, and she knew how to read it. I thought, what a marvelous place is this university. People can do anything, here. Chiefly, what they do at university is participate in the only real progress society ever evidences; that is, progress in the sciences, the arts and the humanities. Thus do students become part of a civilized minority that provides the only antidote society has to mob rule. But they can go to university only because their schools prepare them as no other institution can.