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What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Kids

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New book explores the six skills two renowned education professors say will help children become the thinkers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

ABCs and 1,2,3s are the some of the first nuggets of knowledge children pick up. From the start, one University of Delaware professor says, teachers and parents should be place emphasis on a single number – six – and letter – C.

The 6Cs stand for collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and confidence, as well as the skill most heavily emphasized in schools today – content.

In their new book, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor in University of Delaware’s School of Education, along with co-author Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University, focus on the six skills they say will help children become the thinkers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

They argue that the American educational model is not adequately preparing its tiny citizens for success in the 21st century. Today’s kids need well-developed “soft” skills to thrive in the global workforce. In fact, these so-called “soft skills” are anything but; they are foundational to children’s success in the workforce as well as in their personal lives.

Especially since the advent of high stakes testing under No Child Left Behind, schools rely largely on the “font of wisdom” model where a teacher talks at the class for the bulk of the day. Yet, the authors say, research doesn’t support that kids learn best this way. Studies suggest kids flourish when they are more actively engaged in learning.

Q: What should change in today’s classrooms?

Golinkoff: There is a quote in the book by Ben Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Boy is he right! One of the things we have learned from the science of learning is that we learn more when we are active than when we are passive. In schools today, children are in many cases “receiving” as opposed to “putting out.” We want children to have to think and take their thinking to new situations and new problems so we know that they really learned something because they can apply it in new ways.

If we emphasize bubble [multiple choice] testing, we are discouraging children from thinking about alternative approaches to solving that math problem or alternative reasons for why the Civil War might have occurred.

We really want to get kids thinking and fighting about ideas.

Q: Fighting?

Golinkoff: You can’t be a good collaborator if you can’t communicate your ideas persuasively. So that means you have to be able to speak and make an argument and you have to be able to listen – a lost art – and to write well. These are the kinds of communications we all need to be able to use in our daily lives. Collaboration and communication are crucially important in our interpersonal relationships as well.

Q: In the book you discuss these two different sorts of learning – collaborative learning and competitive learning. What’s the difference?

Golinkoff: Competitive learning is kids vying against each other for the best grade. There can only be one winner. Many of us grew up in educational systems like that and if it happens all the time, it gives you the impression that it’s “me against the world.”

We are worried about what goes on in school from a competitive standpoint. When there is only one winner, children may not feel motivated enough to keep working. Research tells us when we evaluate children based on scores, it is not as effective as when we tell them “you tried so hard, that was great!” When we praise children for effort, they are more likely to try and solve new problems. We don’t want kids to give up when they fail. You learn so much from your failures.

Collaboration isn’t used enough in our schools today because children take tests as individuals. You can’t work with your group on the test, so that’s why group learning is discouraged. But, think about what happens in life. People are collaborating now across international boundaries with people they have never met. How does this happen if we continue to make children work as individuals in the schools as opposed to encouraging them to learn the skills to work together?

It’s in collaborative learning that you learn to compensate for your own weaknesses, that’s how we work in teams. You also learn to control own impulses, to listen to others and to compromise. In collaborative learning, in some cases, you learn a bunch more because you hear the ideas of others and have to figure out how to accommodate them.

Q: The chapter in the book dedicated to content is titled “Toppling the King That is Content.” But, still you include content as one of the 6Cs. Why is it essential? And, what needs to change about its instruction?

Golinkoff: You must know content. If you want to make a contribution in a field, you have to know something about that field. If you want to work in accounting, you have to know something about accounting. The problem is that we have made that the most important thing we teach kids.

Content is king. It’s time for a revolution. But it doesn’t mean that we throw over content. Children must have the basic skills, but that’s not enough. We are teaching the basic skills in many ways today like a throwback to the 19th century with memorization. So we have to teach children in a way that they can use the knowledge, that they can take it to new problems in the world, that they can “transfer” it. That’s the fancy education term for it, meaning you don’t just use it inside the classroom; you use it everywhere. And the way that happens is by using authentic problems with children – problems that really happen in the real world.

There’s research that shows that social interaction spurs children’s learning. It needs to be more than worksheets, more than just drill and practice. A certain amount of drill and practice is essential, but even that can be done in a fun way. When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher gave us stopwatches in groups to time ourselves reciting the multiplication tables and see if we could beat our own times. I loved that! It was so much fun! Even drill and practice can be done in a way that makes children joyful and excited. I worry children are not experiencing enough joy in school. The more the wheels turn [gesturing to head], the more they learn. They have to be active.

Q: What about creativity? How can schools and parents better foster it?

Golinkoff: CEOs of corporations have complained that their employees lack creativity. Some of that comes from schools that have a lot of bubble tests where there is one right answer.

We visited a school in Pennsylvania in which they were teaching the theme of flight. They had the room decorated with things that fly, maps on the wall with destinations marked. They had to do math in the context of flight and did science in the context of flight, and read stories about flight. This is the kind of thing that really gets kids going!

This project-based approach integrates the learning and makes it all seem worthwhile. It helps a child realize why they are learning these things. This approach can also feed into children’s imaginations and we shouldn’t neglect that. Stories that are fantastical engage children more and yield more learning than stories that are realistic. And, nurturing imagination feeds into creativity.

Q: What can parents do to strengthen the 6Cs in their kids?

Golinkoff: At the end of every chapter we talk about things that parents can actually do in their own homes and in their own lives to increase their children’s abilities as well as their own.

There are all kinds of things you can do with your child outside of school, things that often don’t cost a penny, that will help your child build these capabilities. For example, say you go out to dinner. Empower your children to collaborate to make a decision and make an argument to you as the parents about where they want to go to dinner and why. It gets the children talking to each other, critiquing each other’s ideas. It can be very powerful for creating children who learn to represent their own feeling and beliefs, and yet, take the perspective of the other.

If you have a household problem, share it with your kids. Say, “What do you think we should do about this?” You might be surprised at the kinds of solutions that your kids, who are not yet jaded and don’t know what the typical solutions are, will come up with for you.

There are ways in which you can engage in these skills in everyday life that will encourage your children to engage in the kind of thinking that they may not be urged to do in school.

Q: Why did you and your co-author write this book?

Golinkoff: I don’t want to make this a negative message. There are teachers out there working really hard to do what’s right by kids and there are really good schools out there too. But, you never know where you are going to end up.

Our book’s mission statement captures it – Society thrives when we craft environments, in and out of school, that support happy, healthy, thinking, caring, and social children who become collaborative, creative, competent, and responsible citizens of tomorrow.

It’s not all about achieving success in the school or in the workplace. It’s about becoming a good person and a part of a community.

These 6 Cs are extremely important both for a child’s individual success in the workforce and for a child’s individual success in life. What good is it if nobody loves you? So, these 6Cs help you find personal as well as occupational happiness.

You can read more about the authors’ thoughts on re-imagining education on the Brookings Institution’s website.

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