October 14th, 2009


Training Citizens in Science

Peachy: now we need to catch up to China and India. *headdesk*

Brigitte Perucca | "Training Citizens Who Are Well-Informed About Scientific Choices"
Brigitte Perucca, Le Monde: "An astonishing convergence: A great number of countries, from China to India by way of Europe, worried by the decrease in scientific vocations, have undertaken an overhaul of their teaching of the sciences. With a change in perspective, however. The primary reason invoked to justify these reforms is no longer economic competitiveness, but the necessity of recreating a sort of democratic contract between citizens and scientific development."

Half-Smart, Half-Stupid Post on Education

I was struck by the combination of common sense and bigoted stupidity in this post:

The Age of Stupidity
Zachary Christie, a six-year-old “A” student at John R. Downes Elementary School in Delaware, brought his favorite Cub Scout camping utensil (a combination knife, fork, and spoon) to school to eat lunch with it — he eats all his meals at home with it and saw no problem with taking it to school. That afternoon, Zachary was suspended from school and, according to the rules of the Christina School District’s zero-tolerance policy toward weapons in school, he faces a mandatory 45-day sentence in the school district’s alternative school — that’s where all the “bad” kids go.

There are a variety of problems afoot, including increased violence in schools, racism, and schools turning into prisons. All of these are serious concerns. And most "solutions" I've seen so far seem to address one or two of these related problems by blowing off the other(s). This does not work.

For maximum effect, discipline should start at the low end and work up to the high end:

1) Was the rule broken deliberately? Kids don't have the memory or judgement of adults. They may not know what the rules are, or if they heard the rules, may not fully understand them or realize that what seems like an innocent act to them is something they're actually not supposed to do. Most kids follow most of the rules most of the time. If you point out that they've broken a rule, discuss the rule until you're sure they understand it as best they can at their age, and then ask them to promise not to break that rule -- they will probably not do the same thing again. Problem solved, for about 80-90% of your student body. Cost: anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes of time from an adult who understands how kids think and cares about their success. This is more than some schools are willing or able to provide, which is pretty pathetic.

2) If the rule was broken deliberately, there are other considerations.

Is this a first problem, a third problem, or a thirtieth problem? A student who is usually well-behaved and makes an occasional slip or acts up is different from a student who habitually causes trouble, and if you have any sense at all you want that good student to stay good. Putting them in with a lot of bad students is counterproductive to that. So for students who rarely break the rules, mild to moderate punishments enforce discipline without causing damage: things like extra homework (for academic offenses), cleaning school property (for graffiti or the like), or after-school counseling sessions (for social offenses). Cost: 30+ minutes of discussion from a principal or counselor.

A student who misbehaves habitually and deliberately is looking for trouble -- and attention. Ideally, figure out what's gone wrong that makes them want to act like that. They may have a learning disability, domestic unrest, or simply be bored by work that is years below their capacity. Fixing the source usually causes the misbehavior to dry up, if not immediately, at least eventually. It's the difference between trying to stop the flow of water at the spigot or at the valve. But in the meantime, this is a place where more serious punishment such as suspension may be necessary. Cost: Hours or weeks of analysis and resolution, often requiring professional assistance.

How serious was the offense? Minor offenses should draw less punishment than major offenses. Otherwise, you have this problem:
"What's the penalty for rebellion?"
"What's the penalty for being late?"
"Death." "Well, guess what? We're late!"

Zero-tolerance, all-crimes-are-equal policies consistently raise the number and severity of crimes. Not every time, but in the long run they do, and it tends to get really ugly. Notice that none of the historic or fictional examples are considered heroic or even sane, except for schools.

3) Always have a diverse assortment of punishments available. These should be things that people dislike, but are not destructive to the person. Preferably the punishment should fit the crime and accomplish some kind of productive goal so it isn't simply a waste. Hitting kids is generally a bad idea; it teaches them that violence is acceptable, which is hopefully not what you want.

Kids know if you are just wasting their time, and they resent it; but if their punishment includes something productive, there is a non-zero chance of them appreciating that. Astute parents and teachers therefore keep a handy list of necessary tasks that are boring/unpleasant, to be assigned to mischief-makers.

Punishments that fit the crime are more effective than random ones. Frex, teasing the classroom pet could lead to cleaning out the cage (with the pet in the hands of someone more responsible). Children often have a hard time drawing connections that adults see easily; a close match here highlights the connection between misbehavior and punishment beyond the arbitrary "some grownup is mad at me."

Any offense that includes ignorance as a component is an ideal candidate for extra homework. Cheating, verbal abuse, bullying, etc. can be handled by assigning the student to research (preferably with supervision) that problem in the larger world; write a report about its causes, drawbacks, and solutions; then discuss the results with an adult. Students prone to physical and/or verbal violence might even be sent through conflict-resolution or anger-management training. Sometimes people do stuff because they don't know any other way; make sure they have those healthy options.

If you pay attention, you'll be able to tailor the punishment to the offender; this is crucial because some kids enjoy things that are supposed to be punishments. A kid who hates sports and loves reading will enjoy being banished to the library during kickball at recess; a kid who enjoys physical activity will not be dissuaded by running laps or pushups.

4) Don't forget the carrot as well as the stick. Schools have lots of privileges they can hand out to students who earn them, or take away from students who misbehave. High-end perks can include things like not needing a hall pass to use the bathroom, or being able to visit the library during recess, for trustworthy A students. Average perks might include fun movies or assemblies that all students routinely enjoy once a month or so, which can be revoked for troublemakers.

The end result of all this may take more time and attention from adults, but produces far more effective reduction of misbehavior.

Moving along ...

Both racism and school violence are social problems that respond best to social solutions. You need an adequate supply of well-trained teachers, with decent school supplies. This costs money, which people often begrudge. (Somehow they forget that jails are a lot more expensive than schools.) Plenty of programs are available to train staff and students in tolerance and conflict resolution. This requires an overall investment of time, money, and other resources to create a positive school environment. Most people don't want to do this kind of work either. They would rather blame young people for being "bad," since that's easier and gets them off the hook for having a school that's actually safe and effective. They're satisfied if students merely refrain from breaking the rules and failing the government tests.

If you want young people to learn, succeed, and thrive as decent human beings then they need an appropriate framework to do that. Why should you care? Because they'll be running the country when you are old and decrepit, and you will be in their power. If you have raised a generation or two of violent fools, you will not enjoy the results.

Time to Seal Drafts

Here is a good post about a fall chore, sealing drafts. It covers caulk and insulating foam. You'll probably also want some window putty, and maybe plastic film. Don't forget that door snakes or other cloth blockers are good for drafts in places that you can't actually seal, but can cover.

Sealing drafts makes your home more comfortable. It save you money. And it's good for the planet!

Poem: "The Swan-Children's Song"

This poem came from yesterday's Poetry Fishbowl, prompted and sponsored by synnabar. The tale of "The Children of Llyr" comes from Welsh tradition, and so I chose a Welsh form for this poem, the cyrch a chwta. It has very regular rhyme except for the end, where it doubles back on itself. I liked the way that echoed the twisting of time, memory, and body in this poem ... which plays on the image of swans as the animal of the soul, and how transformation can shake loose all sorts of unexpected things.

The Swan-Children’s Song
– cyrch a chwta (a Welsh form)

We are the Children of Llyr,
Cursed by our step-mother’s fear,
Turned into swans on the mere.
But she and our father dear
Never dreamed what we’d do here:
Recall lives of a lost year.
This is the thought that afflicts:
We were Picts, slain by Welsh spear.

New Verses of "The Cuckoo's Song"

I'm pleased to announce that "The Cuckoo's Song" has a new sponsor, dormouse_in_tea, and three new verses. You can read this fantasy ballad about a faery woman and her mortal husband on the original page, where verses are being posted one at a time as they are funded. Current sponsors are marina_bonomi, janet_miles, and dormouse_in_tea.

96 lines, Buy It Now = $48
Donations so far = $34
Amount remaining = $14

Now just to make things interesting ... I'll offer you a new option. The general donation fund currently holds $20. (It might get more, or might not, by the time I post the poetry selection poll.) You could finish funding "The Cuckoo's Song" and still have enough left for a short poem; or you could fund part of this one and have a little more for this month's poems. Voters, take your places!

Poll #1471441 Cuckoos or Werecritters?
This poll is closed.

Would you like to direct general donation funds toward "The Cuckoo's Song"?

Yes, $14. I can't wait to read the end!
Yes, $10. I want to have my cake and eat it too.
Yes, $5. Faeries, horrors, hard decision.
No thanks, I have my eye on something from October.