I read Ross W Greene’s classic piece Lost at School and I was very inspired by his ideas. He writes that it’s easy for us to think that children act correctly and behave well if they just want to; that acting correctly and behaving well only depend on the desire to do so. However, that’s not the case. Children act correctly when they have sufficient skills to do so.
I find this revolutionary, because it obviously challenges the general attitude towards “troublemakers” and other “misfits”.
I was recommended to read Greene’s book by a teacher who teaches children with special needs. Kaisa Vuorinen had noticed that many of children with special needs have received so much negative feedback that we should change direction and start supporting what is positive in them. They certainly need strong guidance and someone to show them how to regulate their emotions and behavior. I had a chance to follow Vuorinen’s teaching in the classroom and saw in practice how she works with children. She has developed with her colleagues new ways to encounter children. She used new ways to teach them skills to learn and regulate their behavior. I got a good lesson on how to strengthen child’s perseverance, self-control and courage among other things. This visit to school changed my interaction with my own child. I realized that perseverance, self-control and courage are skills that can be taught.
If you want to take a closer look at my visit to school, you are welcome to download the reportage as a PDF-file by clicking the image of the book cover beside.
A Silicon Valley entrepeneur Jyri Engstrom has something to say about learning and zest. I met him in his lovely summer paradise in Helsinki. But let me introduce him first. Engstrom has made his career in USA, Silicon Valley creating social media platforms – Jaiku (acquired by Google) and Ditto (acquired by Groupon). He now works as an Entrepreneur in venture capital firm that has invested in technology companies. Together with his partner Caterina Fake he runs Sesat School, a micro-school in San Francisco. They have three children and as a hobby they run together a coffee shop nearby their Helsinki home.
According to Jyri Engstrom children are attracted to the virtual world because there they have more agency, they can manipulate things the way they are not allowed to do in the real (adults) world. The virtual world expert throws a question: how to expand children’s agency and improve their zest for learning in the real world?
I am meeting my friend over coffee when she opens up to me about an exhausting battle of wills she has had that very morning with her 7-year-old son. The boy had gotten a new pair of sneakers, and of course he immediately wanted to wear his new shoes to school the next day. However, the weather had cooled down a great deal during the night, so my friend had offered him winter shoes to wear. This didn’t sit well with the owner of new sneakers. A quarrel ensued, and in the end, both mom and son left home in a huff. I nod empathetically at my friend’s story, remembering similar situations with my own kid. Where does this stubbornness come from? It’s pretty clear that if the situation changes, then the plan has to change, too! “The explanation for the child’s conduct may lie in the actions and examples of adults,” says Liisa Ahonen, a new Ph.D. in Education from the University of Tampere. She has studied the working culture of day cares (the same is true for schools) and has noticed that a general mistake of teachers seems to be a lack of flexibility.
A common situation is, for example, that a teacher has planned out the day and now thinks, “Today, math skills are being practiced.” However, the group is restless, and there are clear signs of the fact that concentration is difficult.
In this scenario, a skillful educator acts according to the situation. Math tasks do not sink into the minds of restless, tired children. Therefore, s/he needs to come up with something else; a Plan B. “Quite often the children’s clear messages aren’t heard, and instead the teacher sticks to the original plan,” Ahonen says. However, at the same time, the teacher is modeling inflexibility to the children. A similar type of inflexibility is also practiced by parents at home. Why is this? Is it because we want to be consistent as child raisers, and not change plans according to a child’s every whimper? Ahonen points out that consistency and awareness of the negotiating situation aren’t mutually exclusive. The teacher could change the situation described above in this way: “I notice that you are tired now; today it’s not worthwhile learning math, and we could practice it tomorrow. Let’s just relax now! I can read some fairy tales to you.”
Liisa Ahonen thinks that children who have a lot of defiance and hostility experience difficulty in operating flexibly. They haven’t learned to be resilient. “They express anger and frustration if things don’t go according to plan. It’s as if they are trapped in those thoughts and feelings,” is how Ahonen sums it up. Mental flexibility, or resilience, is considered to be one of the most important factors for human well-being. American psychiatrist Peter Kramer writes that the opposite of the depression is not happiness, but resilience: the ability to cope with the adversities and frustrations of life without falling apart. An open, adaptable mind sensitive to different situations does best.
Liisa Ahonen provides the following tip: “Flexibility cannot be taught to a child in ways other than by one’s own example, by being resilient oneself when the situation calls for it.” The ability to recover can be explained to a child with the aid of a rubber band. In a normal situation during the school day, the rubber band is loose and relaxed. When the child encounters negativity, threatening situations or stress, the rubber band will stretch, often to the max. But it doesn’t break, because it is flexible. The rubber band bounces back to its original state after the stress has dissipated. This also occurs when a child has learned flexibility.
“Creativity belongs to everybody!” declares education guru and creativity researcher Kari Uusikylä. His words strike home with his enthusiastic audience just like a knife sinks into melted butter. The crowded auditorium frequently bursts into applause. The year is 2007. I was there as a journalist, listening once again to another view as to why Finland had surprisingly leapt to the top ranking in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which measures children’s educational knowledge. The international recognition of the excellence of the Finnish school system was welcome, and in part explained Nokia and other success stories in Finland.
Equal, high quality, and free education for everyone. As you might guess, it’s quite a rare phenomenon.
In listening to Uusikylä’s views, I understood that I’m also a major beneficiary of the school system. As a single parent, my mother could hardly have offered her three children a quality tuition-based (private) education. Free schooling and quality teaching have opened up doors to me, and I have reason to be thankful for that. I’ve worked for almost 20 years on television as a news and current events reporter; and have directed, scripted, and produced documentaries, science programs and TV series. My years as a reporterand managing editor of Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Teacher TV have given me a vantage point onto educational developments and scientific research on learning. In my work, I’ve often seen teachers enjoying their work and have been able to interview “hero teachers” who try out new things in the classroom without prejudice and are enthusiastic about their job. Oftentimes I’m surprised by how skilled, dedicated, and highly educated many of them are. It’s not rare for a primary school teacher to be working on a doctoral thesis on top of his or her work and then to put new insights from the research into practice in the classroom. I myself also have gigs as a substitute teacher in schools in the Helsinki metropolitan region and have noticed that both the world and schools are changing rapidly. “It could be that the profession doesn’t even exist yet,” answers my 12-year-old son when I ask him what he dreams of becoming. He may well have hit the nail on the head. What kind of world will it be when they are adults? And what kinds of skills will they need in order to succeed? Learning visionary Kari Uusitalo sensed today’s challenges already ten years ago. He has said that he detests the fuss around the school rankings and the focus on being “top performers.” For him, the school’s most important job is safeguarding the mental health of students. Of course, this wasn’t a particularly fashionable opinion at a time when everyone was excited about the knowledge possessed by Finnish children. People have quickly realized, though, that a child doesn’t reach his or her full potential just by studying for tests. Therefore, the study of self-knowledge or of, for instance, empathy skills, is nowadays considered to be an important guarantor of mental development and key to the achievement of a superior skill level. Creativity grows and learning progresses when the mind is balanced, self-esteem is healthy, and social skills are in hand. I’m continuously inspired by scientific research into the human mind and teaching methods. Along the way, aha moments have shaken up my preconceived notions and enhanced my identity as a grown-up and parent. My intent is to share these revelations, tips, new perspectives, and scientific results from learning and a good life.