Are Tights for Girls or Boys?



from AP images

Our fifth graders performed an excellent version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV today. It’s always impressive to see what students are capable of and how their teachers bring out the best in them.

When you think of Shakespeare, or at least look at the picture to the right, do you immediately conjure up images of masculinity? I don’t know if wearing tights, putting on make-up, or dressing in frills would be considered so today, but it certainly was a while ago. Even Marueen Dowd of the New York Times chimed in about masculinity in an opinion piece this past weekend.

Studies in gender differences, for many reasons can be quite controversial. These days, a lot is written and discussed about how best to teach boys or girls in schools. The more we learn about the brain, the more we are finding that there are measurable neurological differences between the genders. Many experts such as Dr. Larry Cahill who spoke to local teachers a few years ago have been working to understand these differences. Here’s a link to a 2005 Scientific American article Dr. Cahill wrote.

Some of the controversy lies in the potential to be sexist, to stereotype, and to forget that not all boys (nor their brains) are the same. Clearly, from looking at portraits of historical figures, the way we dress is influenced by society. What about the sports we enjoy or how we learn? I become wary when book titles generalize and make either/or statements or over-interpret results. As the information becomes more readily available, how it informs how we teach is incredibly important, however, we can’t just lump kids into one category or another. Each child is unique and the most important thing for an educator is to build a relationship with their student and learn how to serve each one best.

Recently, at edcampis, Rosetta Lee from the Seattle Girls’ School shared a great web tool called ‘gender remixer‘ that takes commercials of ‘boy’ toys and ‘girl’ toys and lets you mix the audio with the video. It’s actually quite fun (and disturbing).

Below is an example of one of the mash-ups. The question remains about gender differences: how much is neurological, and how much is environmental? 


Two Experts Disagree

I like dissent (assuming there are good arguments made on both sides) because it helps in the way I think about things. What I don’t like is dissent with no reasonable argument or logic behind it. “I disagree because I have a gut feeling about it” isn’t good enough. Describe that feeling and tell me why. I may change my viewpoint. Even someone who tends to be skeptical about a lot of things, I can easily be swayed by the voices I already have a bias toward. That’s why I found an article over the Thanksgiving break rather interesting.

The article titled “Willpower, It’s in Your Head” was co-written by Carol Dweck. She wrote this article disagreeing with social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and the New York Times science writer John Tierney who conclude in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, that willpower is biologically limited and relies on a replenishment of glucose. Dweck argues that you can develop willpower. Hmmm…I like both Dweck and Tierney’s writing, so who is correct? Both cite the marshmallow test in their research.

Perhaps both are right and that even though we may have genetic predispositions, there are many things we can become better at, including willpower. One neurologist I heard a few years ago said sometimes we have to develop new neural pathways. Old habits, impulses, and temptations will remain, but those new pathways will make it easier for us to resist those impulses. For now, here’s what I think: It is biology, but we have the capacity to change it.

Is Cursive Obsolete?

In the news this week, Indiana’s Department of Education announced that schools would no longer need to teach cursive penmanship in schools. They would, however, let schools decide for themselves. It’s part of the common-core curriculum to phase out cursive in favor of digital skills. I disagree.

According to the WSJ, which has a good piece on writing in cursive, it’s still an important and relevant skill. It’s even good for aging adults and helps with learning, memory, and ideation. Ironically, the article cites a study in favor of cursive writing from Indiana University.

There are several debates going on.

One is that teachers who do believe in cursive, have certain preferences as to what ‘style’ of cursive is being taught. Now that, to me, is simply a debate about aesthetic preferences. We do no write in the same script Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

The second debate is whether or not cursive writing itself is irrelevant. Some educators believe it should go the way of the dodo bird. Others, like me, believe it should be taught. I have no problems with children reverting back to printing later on.

For struggling writers, cursive allows them to be more fluent and thus lets their ideas flow on the page more readily. If you integrate penmanship with other literacy activities, the formation of letters really does make a difference in the way kids retain information. Even in a one-to-one laptop school, teachers ask children to write a lot by hand (journals, responses to prompts, note taking, etc.). My school is not a one-to-one school, and I don’t think it needs to be. Pre-K students do not need their own devices. The ‘worry’ about kids not being able to type is a silly one. I didn’t learn how to type until I was in college (yes, I know I didn’t need it in the era I grew up), but with a simple software tool, I taught myself and was typing about 90 words a minute in two weeks.

Sure, I barely use cursive now. Emails, these blog posts, report cards, texting, etc. are all part of today’s reality. And it depends on the situation. On my laptop, I’ll type. But even on my Ipad, I prefer using a stylus and taking notes by hand, even though my cursive (once beautiful) is barely legible.

Kids will drop cursive writing if they see its need go away , but that’s not the point. It’s what they’re learning simultaneously when engaged in learning cursive. Purposeful formation of letters has to have some intrinsic value, let alone stimulate all kinds of connections in the brain. When, for example, do we stop teaching kids how to tell time on an analog clock? Even though I haven’t worn a watch in the past 6 to 7 years, I hope the answer is never. If nothing else, reading dials is an important skill.

Will a simple handwritten note look like hieroglyphics to the next generation?

Are you a Believer or Skeptic?

I just read a great article in the nytimes titled “Your Brain on Computers” about the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, and for some, they feel that it affects (not necessarily in a good way) the way our brains work. If you’ve read the book, Brain Rules, you’ll know what local author and scientist has to say about that. For those of you with newborns and are fans of Medina’s work, his new book, Brain Rules for Babies comes out in October.

There seems to be enough evidence that multi-tasking (when those tasks require more than muscle memory) reduces productivity. As I write this, for example, I should ignore all email, phone calls, or anything that isn’t directly related to this post. There have been times when writing about one thing, I click on another and suddenly my attention to my original task is gone. What’s interesting for me, is I find that I am neither a skeptic nor believer. I am a huge proponent of technology, but recognize that it can, in fact take over if you let it. That is why it’s important to teach kids how to use technology responsibly. They need to know when to turn it off. Sometimes we get so consumed at what we’re doing we lose track of time. That’s a good thing if we have nothing else on our agenda and if what we are doing is constructive, relaxing, or something that brings us joy.

When we are reading the same news story from a fifth news source, scanning TV channels for more than 15 minutes, or reaching into our pockets to check emails on our phones every few minutes, that can be detrimental. Technology is a wonderful thing and I think all children should be exposed to it, taught how to use it in productive ways, and be resourceful about it. After all, the piano is a piece of technology. So is a kettle (whether you put one over a fire or use an electric one). We don’t use slide rules anymore, but those who remember them were probably glad they had that tool. What’s happening with personal technology today is that it is evolving at an impressively fast rate. It’s hard to keep up. I signed up for a twitter account about a month ago with the idea to learn more about teachers who tweet. I haven’t publicized it, don’t follow anyone yet (this will happen), nor have I even tweeted. Yet last week, I received my first follower.

What’s great about technology today is that you can modify a lot of things. For example, both at home, at school, and on my phone, I turn my email notifications off. There is no need to develop a Pavlovian response to email (especially since many aren’t even that important). You can set timers and limit yourself to the tasks you think you have to do. The same goes with kids. I would expect them read what they were supposed to read on their e-readers (resisting or disabling the buttons for other apps), and when it was time to go outside to recess, they would go, get fresh air, and interact with each other. After all, the traditional book itself is a piece of technology.

This past weekend, the weather in Seattle was around 90 degrees and I was fortunate to be out on Lake Washington on a boat. Once I changed into board shorts, I packed my phone away and after 8 hours did not reach for it once. I didn’t reach for it. There was a moment when I wanted to know what time it was, and since my phone is my timekeeper I had no idea. Rather than go retrieve my phone,  I instead decided I didn’t really need to know that piece of information. I could look at the sun in the sky, estimate, and relax.

Returning from a day on a friend's boat.

Brain Rules

Over the past decade, there has been plenty of research on how the brain functions in terms of learning. I’ve been to conferences and workshops that have shown how brains differ in gender, how brains are wired differently, how our brains remember things, and so on. Recently I read a book called Brain Rules by John Medina who sums up all of those findings neatly into 12 simple rules.

  1. Exercise boosts brain power
  2. The human brain evolved to survive (we learned to build relationships, solve problems, learn from our mistakes)
  3. Human brains are wired differently (we learn differently, at different rates, and have different capacities)
  4. We don’t pay attention to boring things and we cannot multi-task
  5. Repeat to Remember for short term memory. Repeating helps with declarative memory – things we can declare like 2+2=4. (Our short term memory only holds about 7 things for 30 seconds, if we want to remember it, we need to repeat it)
  6. Remember to Repeat for long term memory
  7. Sleep well, think well (the brain needs rest – Siesta anyone?)
  8. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way (there’s good stress and bad stress – long term stress is REALLY BAD)
  9. Stimulate more of the senses (those in multisensory environments always do better than those in unisensory ones)
  10. Vison trumps all other senses (use visuals when you teach)
  11. Male and female brains are different (a little too generalized in this book in my opinion)
  12. We are powerful and natural explorers.

The book’s an easy read with Dr. Medina’s suggestions for how these rules might be applied in schools and a pretty quick read. Even quicker you can go to his interactive website and explore the rules for yourself.

I think most of us are familiar with this, but the question that remains is: how does this inform our teaching? Have we made changes based on what we know?  Good food for thought.