Back-to-School Time: Have You Nurtured Your Student’s Curiosity Lately?

96497_Kubitz_cvr.inddYes, it is back-to-school time for many of the world’s youngsters. In America, late August and early September is when students return to school to meet new teachers who will be entrusted by parents to help educate their children.

Have you, as parents, guardians, or mentors nurtured your student’s curiosity this summer? My book on education, learning, and mentoring suggests that successful learning and top student performance stem from a healthy curiosity – the desire to know and understand the world around us. Such a “learning attitude” (or lack thereof) is influenced primarily by the home environment and the adults at home – not by the students’ school and teachers. Equipped with a good “learning attitude” acquired in the home, students prosper at school; without a proper attitude, many disinterested youngsters flounder in class while being easily distracted by social media and the associated electronic connectedness so prevalent today.

Sadly, many of these children will, in the course of their schooling, waste the most precious opportunity that society will ever offer them – a good education and a pathway to lifelong learning. It need not be that way, however.

My book is a hands-on, how-to manual for parenting/mentoring with the end goal of insuring school success for students – especially in science and mathematics.

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning, is available from Amazon for $14.95. This link will take you directly to Amazon and the book.

www.amazon.com/

The Most Important (and Challenging) Job of All?

If you said President of these United States or CEO of the most iconic and “valuable” company in the world, Apple Computer, you would be very wrong. “Most powerful” or “most influential” might apply, but not “most important.”

PARENTING

The most important job in the world, by far, is birthing, educating, and responsibly raising children to grow into accountable, productive citizens of this planet. Parenting/mentoring is the most important job of all!

Most people pondering the question just posed would likely agree with the above answer. We are accustomed to the expression, “grass-roots movement,” a phrase prevalent in today’s news, particularly when applied to forms of social protest. Having spent seventy-four years plus as a member and active observer of the SHB, the Society of Human Beings, I conclude that the majority of mankind’s domestic and global ills can only be cured by administering a strong dose of self-help…at the grass-roots level.

With society and government so immersed in top-down solutions to our economic, social, and personal problems, it is refreshing to encounter people who feel that, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” My message has nothing to do with tea-party politics or any other kind of party affiliation. I am speaking to the need for a more enlightened, educated, and responsible citizenry as THE long-term solution to so many of the problems which, today, we attempt to legislate, regulate, and subsidize away.

Just as I believe that education in America will best be served by “better students” arriving in our classrooms as opposed to “better schools” and “better teachers,” I propose that society will best be served by nurturing “better citizens” for the ranks of society and not by “better jobs” and “better opportunities” from our industries and government.

And just how is such a grass-roots effort of that magnitude going to occur? The unavoidable, but correct answer is: One very young person at a time….and it will take time, a lot of time. The key to it all is responsible parenting/mentoring of our very young.

The two-adult, intact family unit – a household in which children are raised by two mature, responsible adults is the best vehicle for achieving the stated goal. For you successful single parents, note that I stress the word, best. Obviously, there is a CATCH 22 involved, here: Before mature, responsible children happen, there must be mature, responsible adults to enable them, and those adults in charge were once malleable young children themselves, also vulnerable and in need of wise adult guidance. Yes, this represents a stiff challenge, but a way must be found to break into the endless circle of poor mentoring and poverty which, today, seem to be driving our society into a downward spiral.

An Interesting Experience at the Front Door

The other day, my doorbell rang. I put down my book and opened the door to find a middle-aged black man, nicely dressed in casual clothes and with magazine subscriptions to sell which could help his personal cause. He had quite a line of patter which hinted that he had come up the hard way and was now making a better life for himself – very laudable. As part of his pitch, he asked me if I ever had to go door-to-door like he was doing. I thought for a moment and truthfully replied, “Yes, when my company had been “downsized” and I was out looking for a job!” Once or twice over the years, my knocking-on-doors job search was accompanied by a palpable sense of desperation when the economy was really tight, no one was hiring, and our savings account was rapidly being depleted.

The man asked if I were aware of poverty areas in the greater San Francisco Bay Area – places like Oakland, CA., and I assured him that I was quite aware. He commented on the lack of youthful opportunity in those areas, and asked, “What do you think is required to remedy the situation?” My initial reply: “The situation IS complicated.” I thought for a few moments and then added: “Since you have asked for my opinion: I believe that one of the major problems faced in some regions of Oakland and other major cities with poverty/crime problems is the predominance of one-adult households raising multiple children – usually a mother with no father.” I suggested that, “The positive influence of the intact family unit is THE ultimate gateway to youthful opportunity – for any youngster, anywhere.” I was giving my honest reply to this man’s direct question – a reply which reflects my long-held belief that the combination of poverty and insufficient adult supervision and mentoring is an untenable combination, especially where that is the norm in any neighborhood.

I told him that, being retired, I could not afford a magazine subscription that I do not want, but that I would donate five dollars to help him out. It was an interesting and clarifying moment for me and well worth the donation.

It (the Situation) IS Complicated! Some Statistics

The circumstances surrounding high poverty/crime areas are varied and complex, but statistics shine a glaring spotlight on the positive influence that an intact, loving family has on the future prospects of the children. 8% of children raised by married couples live in poverty compared with 40% raised by single mothers. Within those statistics exist plenty of single moms (and dads) who are doing an exemplary job raising kids under difficult conditions: Statistics deal with trends, not with individual cases, but the trends are quite clear.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial observed the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial report issued while he served as an assistant secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department. Moynihan’s study which focused on the black family and the increasing number of fatherless homes determined that, “The fundamental problem is that of family structure. The evidence – not final but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Moynihan was vilified by many liberals of the day for his report. The response of the Great Society in Washington was to penalize marriage and subsidize single parenting, and that is a typically top-down Washington “solution” which so often actually makes the problem worse.

The Journal article goes on to cite these more recent statistics: At the time of Moynihan’s report, 25% of black children and 5% of white children came from a fatherless household. Today the numbers are 70% and 35% , a startling increase, particularly within white families.

Raising responsible, accountable, and productive children is very difficult in today’s demanding society, both in black communities and white enclaves – even in two-parent families. When only one parent is present to shoulder all of the attendant responsibilities, the task becomes overwhelming with the additional burdens imposed by widespread poverty in the environment. Such conditions make breaking the vicious circle of poverty doubly difficult.

Although I believe in marriage as the best alternative, that, for me, is not the heart of the argument, here. The real issue has more to do with two adults entering into a long-term compact of mutual commitment and responsibility with a strong focus on the welfare of their children. Ideally, such a mutual commitment is accompanied by an honorable and sincere desire to provide a better opportunity for their kids than they themselves experienced – even though considerable self-sacrifice is required.

When these attitudes begin to take hold in our society, we are on the right track. I believe that WAS the way it was, and not that long ago in this country. It would take a few generations for such a grass-roots effort to show positive results, but don’t count on government solutions alone to solve the problems we experience any time soon.

Recently, the great astrophysicist, Steven Hawking, was asked what human trait he would like to see modified or eliminated: He replied, “Aggression.” While I agree with him, I would add, “I wish to see restored the once prevalent notions of personal honor and integrity… and parental accountability.” I continue to hope.

Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters

Yesterday, on Facebook, I learned of yet another student suicide at one of our local public high schools, Gunn High School in nearby Palo Alto, California. I am very familiar with Gunn and its outstanding academic reputation thanks to faculty contacts. There have been several suicides by Gunn students over the past few years. The school and the school district have been very proactive with new student-help programs, as a result. As evidenced by one Palo Alto student’s open letter to parents, published yesterday in the Huffington Post, high expectations and parental pressures are often part of the problem. More on that letter, in a bit.

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How does one make sense of a (usually) promising young man or woman who is so distraught as to take such a drastic, final step?

I have no degree in psychology, but I am a retired electrical engineer who has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years. I do know something about the culture and attitudes, here. Although each suicide and every distraught student has a unique personal profile behind his or her problems, there are some common denominators which become apparent to those of us who have lived here, worked here, and raised children in this valley.

I have alluded to the culture of this place numerous times in past blog posts. For the uninitiated, Palo Alto is the focal point of the phenomenon known as “Silicon Valley,” and it is also home to Stanford University. There is little argument over the contention that this valley is the technology capital of the world…yes, I do mean the WORLD! I emphasize this because few such statements can survive the test of scrutiny and counter-claims – this one does. Why is that important? Because this region is different; Silicon Valley and its denizens are immersed in a lifestyle which can rightly be called driven and success-oriented. At stake for many of the adult parents who live here are huge financial rewards and ego-gratifications which are available nowhere else to this degree in the world of technology.

People here are high achievers in their fields. You do not hold a “significant” (the term subject to definition and scrutiny) job, here, for long if you are not motivated and capable, and this can be a source of considerable angst for children of such parents. Not surprisingly, youngsters feel academic/parental pressure to “succeed,” here. At the same time, quality time with very busy (often two-income) parents is in short supply. “Quality time” between parents and student is often limited to frequent chauffeuring between various sports and activity venues.

In discussing the growing desperation of today’s students, there are no absolutes – no “always the case” scenarios, but there are trends, and identifying these is key to understanding the problem of distraught students.

Here is my list of “givens” as I see them:

-Student suicide is related to many factors – for example: Inherent mental illness, lack of love and attention at home, disturbing relationships with fellow students, bullying, and possibly school policies which stress students with excessive homework, etc. Each student’s situation is unique.

-Attending school with classmates who are uniformly gifted and driven is bound to be a source of added pressure. It is not about getting decent grades, here in this valley; it is about getting top marks – good enough to get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or UC Berkeley.

-Parents who desperately want their child to reach the highest pinnacles of success (starting with admission to a prestige college or university, as an example) can have diverse motivations – from those who are genuinely motivated to help their student reach what seems their inherent potential, to those who relish living vicariously through their student and their student’s achievements.

-Even parents genuinely concerned for all the right reasons about their student’s future prospects have different motivations based on the parents’ personal concept of “success” in life. If that concept minimizes the importance of a student’s emotional well-being and happiness during the formative years in favor of  emphasizing efforts to gain all the advantages and trappings of  “success,” there will be problems.

-Students who strive for top grades primarily to please (or appease) their parents are the most vulnerable to severe discontent or worse. Wanting to please one’s parents is an admirable trait and a healthy motivator as long as parental love and affection do not hinge on the student achieving “success”… as defined by the parents.

-The fortunate students are those whose parents demonstrate unconditional love for them at all times, despite the inevitably necessary “motivational discussions” regarding attention to studies and homework.

-The most fortunate of youngsters are those whose curiosity and hunger to learn about and “know” our amazing universe drive them to work hard in pursuit of their passions. Parents of such students have typically instilled these “learning attitudes” in their youngsters at a very early age. These are parents who truly value education (not merely grades) and respect the power of knowledge – prime attributes of a happy, mature, and well-adjusted person…and the youngsters follow their lead.

It is true that no matter how dedicated and genuine the efforts of parents may be during this process of raising and educating children, things can still go wrong in young lives. I do think that parents in a success-oriented region like Silicon Valley are well advised to sincerely evaluate their own priorities and value judgments concerning education and “success” in life. These parental priorities will have a direct influence on their student’s attitudes and well-being.

As for “success,” money is no guarantee of happiness, and money is but a marginal indicator of  meaningful success. As a parent with genuine motives, one can only ask of students that they truly try their best at school – with knowledge and wisdom as goals rather than letter grades.

The aforementioned open letter to parents from a Palo Alto student which was published in the Huffington Post on January 27, 2015 stressed the generalized concerns of students:

-“It is our relentless schedules, a large range of social issues, personal horrors I can’t think to relate, and our terribly unforgiving parents. Good God, the things you put us through. It’s AP classes, it’s SAT prep from day 1, it’s punishment for less than a 4.0 GPA, and it fuels the tears that put us to sleep at night while you rest soundly. So many students, if not the majority, are the embodiment of pure stress.”

-“We are always in this loop of what-if’s, worrying we will disappoint our unsupportive parents who, quite frankly, deserve no part in our future, “successful” or otherwise.”

-“Suicide continues while our parents value wealth and success over our lives. We cannot wait for change. We need it now.”

These are powerful messages.

It is so important for parents to pay close attention to the emotional needs of their students as well as to their “success” track in school.

I can speak from experience to the fact that there is too much emphasis, especially in Silicon Valley, on the near-perfect grades necessary to gain admittance to prestige colleges and universities. A strong “B average” at Gunn High will not get you into Stanford or even into UC Berkeley, and I say, “So what?” It will gain entrance to many other fine state universities and private colleges, where a good education is awaiting those willing to grasp it. I would much rather see a student commit themselves to serious study in high school because they are genuinely curious about the world in which we live as opposed to striving for a GPA which will gain them entrance into top-tier schools. It is truly what you learn and what you know that will count down the road, and that is not necessarily reflected in a student’s “A” course grade or a degree from a prestige school. There are many fine schools to choose from which offer excellent educations and which rarely demand “perfect” academic records.

School Seals_2

The comforting truth for both parents and students is that future employers (beyond the first) will be far more interested in your past employment record and your job interview than what school you attended. That should be cause for all parents to relax a bit about the occasional “A” grade that got away in high school; it is not the end of the world.

Postscript: I have written several germane blog posts on education, colleges and universities, and student learning. These can be found in my blog archives (go to the “Home” page of my blog and click on “Categories”/ “Science/Math Education” in the right-hand column). Also see my newly published book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning which deals with many aspects of the above discussion – especially parenting skills.

What’s Gone Wrong at Our Schools? It’s Not What You Might Think!

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So much has been written in recent years about “problems in education” – especially in California given its very low ranking among the fifty states. Statistics cite student achievement in the United States at the national level as inferior to that of many other countries, particularly in science and math. The trends behind the statistics are relatively recent, spanning perhaps only three or four decades.

 The causes for such flagging performance are endlessly debated in print and on the internet, and the two most-often cited “reasons” are: Poor schools and poor teachers.

 I beg to differ. From my perspective, the central and most important issue at play is not the schools or the teachers; here is the real problem:

 The home-preparedness of many students and their eagerness to learn is sorely wanting; the necessary remedy is best summarized as “positive student attitude.” Too many children are sent to school ill-prepared to be “receptive” learners in a classroom environment. Short attention spans are both symptom and cause.

 Who is to blame for that?  Today, the answer is: “The parents or the guardians” of the children. The rarely-spoken truth is that student nurturing begins not at school, but at home – even before kindergarten – and support from home must continue throughout the student’s early education. To the many adults who find themselves guardians of someone else’s biological children, I say, “You are to be commended for assuming the responsibility of raising these children and taking on the added burden of nurturing their education.” Clearly, the sizeable increase of incomplete or broken homes with single parents or grandparents at the helm has had its impact on the schools, but the message applies equally to intact families which are not instilling a respect for learning and knowledge in the children at a very early age. This is so important to fostering a positive “student attitude” in the classroom, which, in turn, drives teaching effectiveness!

 I watched an excellent PBS news story last night on the Chicago school system where 50% of new teachers leave within three to five years – many burned-out and devastated by their experience. Chicago has some unique challenges, but similar situations exist elsewhere. The message, here, is not tailored to Chicago or any other specific locale. I believe the problem of ill-prepared students (from home) is, today, endemic to all areas of the country. There are many layers to the education-problem onion, but what is resoundingly clear is that teaching is no longer the attractive career it once was for recent college graduates. The growing scarcity of seasoned-veteran, effective teachers throughout the nation’s schools has not been the cause of our educational dilemma so much as it is a result of problems in today’s classroom which discourage the best and brightest from entering the field. There are, indeed, some faults in the educational establishment, but in continually rehashing these, we persist in ignoring the issue of “student attitude” and its importance in the success of our schools. Perhaps worst of all, we miss the explicit messages sent about the priorities and attitudes of today’s go-go society and their effect on our students.

How Do We Solve the Problem?

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-Instill genuine curiosity, a love of learning, and a respect for knowledge in children before they arrive at kindergarten – and continue the nurturing and support from home throughout their early school years.

 -Realize that the technology behind the internet and the pocket-electronic marvels we all carry represents a double-edged sword that cuts two ways: Use it judiciously, and it can further your noblest aims; use it frivolously, and it will waste precious time on purely temporary diversions. Regulate your children’s use of these devices! Accumulating easy-to-grab “factoids” from the internet is no substitute for genuine curiosity about our world and the in-depth critical thinking skills necessary to service that curiosity… and open yet new doors for investigation. 

-The best advice of all to parents: Bring back the dinner table, where the entire family assembles at a regular time and place, ready for food and stimulating verbal conversation, cell phones and television OFF. The family dinner table is the crucible for instilling curiosity and a positive “student attitude” in our children. 

Sunday’s 60 Minutes television program highlighted author/historian David McCullough – a wonderful look at a fine writer and a man of common-sense. In the interview, he bemoaned the historical illiteracy of today’s students, recalling one mid-western college student who came up to him after his talk stating that she never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the east coast!

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McCullough ultimately blamed “the parents” for such shortcomings on the part of today’s students. He, like me, views the family dinner table as the starting point and ultimate tool for the education of our children. Bring back “the dinner table,” he beseeched. Alas, such notions have disappeared entirely from so many households, in today’s go-go society.

 My Second Book, Forthcoming – On This Subject

 I am nearing completion of the manuscript for my next book which will be based on the subject matter contained in this post. In its pages, much more detail on the material will be forthcoming. It will further amplify the contention, briefly stated here, that the foundation for the successful education of our children is wise and active parenting/mentoring. Without it, the schools will never be as effective as we would like them to be.