Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Coloring Outside the Lines

I was immediately drawn to this book by Roger Schank upon reading its cover text: "If you want to raise kids with a passion for learning... don't confuse intelligence with straight A's. / don't let your kid become a homework machine. / keep your child away from tyrannical coaches. / don't assume the teacher is always right." This statement seemed right up my alley--a chaotic good approach to the educational system, which I always enjoy.

Well, it was fine, I suppose, just not quite up to the high standards I was expecting.

To begin with, the audience Schank had written for was definitively parents. Well, that's fair. A second look at that same cover text should have tipped me off. No big deal. I'll be a parent soon enough, anyway, and I can always use another resource to point parents in the direction of.

What's more, however, was what seemed to be a lack of content to spark my interest. To be fair, perhaps perhaps it was more groundbreaking when it was published in 2000. Fourteen years is not really that long ago, considering that last year I read The First Days of School, which was 23 years old, but still. And it's not that the age of the book was very apparent while reading (except for the chapter about computer-based learning and some comments bad-mouthing video games), just that most of the ideas he presented were things that I'd already considered or discussed, either here or in college.

But again, more resources to give to parents is always a good thing, so I kept reading.

Schank's main point throughout was to convey six character traits that "smart kids" need to develop while growing up: verbal proficiency, creativity, analytical skill, gumption, ambition, and inquisitiveness. He gives examples of how to bring each of these traits out. (He relies heavily on playing sports as an easy solution, though briefly mentioning how play and non-organized games do this better.)

He also makes a firm stance that parents of "smart kids" should not strongly enforce getting good grades at school, rather to find interests outside of school and pursue them in order to find an area of expertise and niche that will eventually become a unique career.

Here are a few highlights I made while reading:

If you want to know where your child's talents and interests lie, pay attention to his questions. The more questions he asks in a given area, the more likely that's where his passion is and where his career should be. -- p. 16

If you want to raise a smarter, more original-thinking kid, tell them the truth: School is a stupid game, but a good college won't accept you unless you take and do reasonably well on all these math tests even though you know you want to be a criminal lawyer when you grow up. So buckle down and get good grades. B's are fine. But don't think for a moment that your grades have much to do with how smart you are or how successful you'll be in a career. -- p. 19-20

The worst thing you can do to a child with an idea to express is to tell him to sit down and be quiet. -- p. 23

History is ... about putting kids in situations where they have to reason out complex issues and solve problems faced by people throughout history. Role playing and gamelike situations would be a much better way to teach the subject. -- p. 30

...I defined creativity as a willingness to come up with and pursue one hundred ideas knowing that ninety-nine of them are stupid. -- p. 33

Motivation is crucial to developing analytical abilities ... People learn from their mistakes in logic only when it's important for them to get it right. Only then does the analytical process they learn stay with them. -- p. 34

Communicate to your child that you only care about one grade. Tell her something to this effect: "I'm not particularly concerned if you bring home B's in most of your subjects or even if you receive C's in one or two of them. What I do care about is that you bring home one A per semester in the subject you really like." -- p. 39-40

My kids went to bed earlier than any of their friends until just before adolescence. ... This rule in our house ensured that they'd wake up early ... when my wife and I were still sleeping. They were not allowed to wake us up, but they were encouraged to do anything they wanted (except watch television). This gave them a few hours to themselves each day, and during this time they were tremendously inventive. Unable to call friends or play in a group, my children were left to their own devices. My son, who became an urban planner, drew cities. My daughter, who has worked as a professional writer, read books. Though they sometimes played together and acted out wildly imaginative scenarios, they often played on their own. -- p. 45

Learning takes place when people fail at something they're interested in, ask questions about it, fail again, ask more questions, and persist in doing it until they get it right. -- p. 51

Most children (and most people in general) don't ask questions to receive answers. They ask them because they're intrigued, puzzled, and provoked. They want the chance to bounce ideas off an expert, to get some guidance so they can find the answers themselves. -- p. 54

When they're faced with a problem or a challenge, they think, "I know what to do here; I've had this experience before." This cognition isn't always conscious; it's sometimes described as intuition or instinct. ... the more diverse your child's memories, the more likely she is to be reminded of the right memory at the right time. -- p. 64-65

...telling a story forces us to think more clearly. ... Verbalizing stories facilitates the mind's labeling and retrieval process. If we don't articulate our stories, they float unlabeled in the nether regions of our brain and are difficult to retrieve at appropriate times. If we do articulate them, we can readily retrieve an old story that's relevant to a new situation. ... what all children do when they tell these stories is make sense of their experiences. By talking about what took place in their lives--even when they embellish their stories or substitute what they wish would have happened for what really did happen--they acquire usable memories. -- p. 66-69

Older siblings often take the words right out of their younger siblings' mouths. They make it easy for them to talk, and this is one reason that the youngest child in a family is usually the slowest to talk. To counter this effect, spend more time alone with each child. This doesn't mean prohibiting them from playing together. But make sure you carve out time where you have conversations with each child independent of his siblings. -- p. 94

...our minds reflexively erase details when we don't talk about them. When we tell stories about our experiences, however, we embed them in our memories. In effect, we're talking to ourselves as much as to another person. -- p. 95

The philosopher Wittgenstein said, "All creative thought takes place in three B's: bed, bus, and bath." In other words, it takes place when our minds are not focused on an activity, when they're not consciously driving towards a particular goal. ... give small children something "mindless" they can do that will give them the chance to let their minds wander. ... give her a simple task, such as playing with blocks or cutting pieces of paper, that requires almost no thought. -- p. 118-119

Successful entrepreneurs, pioneering scientists, and other high-achieving professionals break the rules not because they're anarchists but because they feel the old rules don't work as well as the new ones they've created. They first evaluate the rules, decide which ones are viable and which ones are not, and invent new ones to replace the latter.  This is the process you need to teach your children... how to break rules intelligently. -- p. 141

...obsessive behavior may not make sense to parents or may seem a big investment in a trivial subject, but it's how kids develop expertise. The well-diversified child simply knows a little bit about a lot of things; the single-minded child becomes an expert. ... Expertise bequeaths self-confidence to kids. When they know a subject intimately, they're much more willing to take risks within that subject area, to speak their minds and stand up for themselves. -- p. 142-143's important to teach a child to aim high, but not too high. A perfectionist mentality doesn't allow for failure, and a key component of learning. ...model imperfect behavior. -- p. 156-157

One of the biggest complaints of graduate students is expressed this way:" The problem with this field is that all of the answers are known." In fact, there is plenty left to learn in most fields; they simply need to ask the questions from a different perspective. -- p. 173

Responding to an inquiry by telling him to come back later ... devalues a child's curiosity. -- p. 174 (emphasis my own)

Children should see life as a buffet and be encouraged to try anything that interests them. This philosophy helps children find their niche in the world and become an expert at their chosen profession. -- p. 177

What a young person chooses to read often provides insights into a future field of study or a career. -- p. 216

It's always interesting to look back and see what stood out most to me while reading. I really enjoy revisiting my highlights and notes, as it serves as a small window into what I, personally, found most striking about an article or book. (Hmm. This is a thought I've had many times before and might also be something I want to explore more thoroughly later on.)

One overarching concept that I kept pausing to consider throughout the Coloring Outside the Lines but not expressly shown in the highlights is that of expectation failure, the learning that occurs when something fails to meet our expectations. Schank illustrates this best with an anecdote of a small child filled with questions when he meets someone remarkably tall for the first time. This is a particularly enlightening story because the archetypal situation of being embarrassed by a child asking many non-politically-correct questions is so pervasive in our culture. Schank encourages a look into that child's mind. That man doesn't meet the standards of what I've come to expect. I need to ask questions in order to create a new set of standards which incorporates him. 

Also, because I'll be teaching high school English very soon, one passage was insightful to me:

...there's the argument that reading great works of literature elevates children's minds and helps them develop an aesthetic sense. That's true only if the books are germane to a child's life. It's difficult for a fourteen-year-old to appreciate the beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet if he views it as an artifact of Elizabethan England and can't see its relevance to the issues he's facing in his relationships. You can force children to read books, compel them to talk about the issues the books raise and write the proper words about these books on essay tests. But none of this is internalized, and it is forgotten as quickly as it is "learned." ...

Schools should allow each kid in a class to read a different book--a book that that specific child is excited about. The assignment would be for each child to excite his classmates about his particular choice. They would engage in one-on-one discussions with each other, write their feelings about the book for others to read, and so on. The literary qualitites of the book as well as the issues it raised would stick in a child's mind far better than a book chosen because it's a classic... -- p. 26-26
In fact, it ties in nicely with an idea I've been throwing around all summer about how I will teach literature next year. The ideas didn't match exactly, but it was helpful to play around with and encouraged me to make some definitive decisions. More on this soon!

And, finally, I was struck by some interesting concept ideas for schools. I'm very fond of dreaming up ideas like these, so I was impressed when I read Schank's:

The best models for schools are Ph.D. programs at universities. This is one-on-one education at its best, where professors guide graduate students, helping them pursue research on topics that the students have chosen and find fascinating. Rather than lecturing and forcing them to take multiple choice tests, these professors ask provocative questions, suggest different directions, provide feedback, and serve as sounding boards for the students' ideas. -- p. 41

If schools wanted to encourage natural ambition, they would allow children to set goals they really cared about. One student would spend the semester reading every James Bond book. Another would work at mastering a difficult Mozart piece on the violin. A third would spend months in the science lab attempting to produce a complex chemical reaction. A fourth would listen to every Beastie Boys CD and memorize all the lyrics. These goals all flow from a child's interest, and they would be self determined and largely self-achieved (with a teacher acting as a guide and mentor). -- p. 161-162

Ideally the school day would be equally divided into three segments. After working at the computer, the kids would meet and discuss what happened during their simulations. This discussion is important, not simply because it conforms to our learning model (telling stories about one's experiences) but because it can help kids develop new interests or take their own interests in new directions. The one-on-one exchanges between peers--with the teacher acting as a facilitator rather than the font of all knowledge--capitalizes on children's innate desire to talk about what excites them. The final third of the day would be devoted to a real world activity that parallels the subject of the student's computer simulation. If someone did a simulation related to building things, the activity might involve spending some time as an intern in an architect's office. -- p. 227-228
What neat ideas!

In conclusion, Coloring Outside the Lines did provide me with a bit of insight, though it wasn't as full of it as I had hoped. Mostly, it will be a resource to provide to parents. Schank has a number of other projects that might be interesting to look through, including Engines for Education, "story-centered curricula" (computer simulations) for high schools; Socratic Arts, computer simulations for businesses, government, and post-secondary schools; and Alternative Learning, what appears to be a PBL curriculum for elementary schools. More stuff to explore!