Sunday, September 8, 2013

LIINK Project: What is it?

Many different strategies have been tried at different levels of U.S. schools over the past 20 years trying to increase children's ability to learn. Some of these strategies employed have been increasing the number of hours students go to school each day, increasing the number of hours the students sit in a desk to take in more content, decrease the number of minutes in a day the students are participating in physical activity or unstructured break times, increase the amount of homework students have to do each night, and increase the emphasis on teaching to the standardized tests per grade level. These strategies are not working.

The LIINK Project (Let's inspire innovation 'N kids) is the development and implementation of a four part intervention inspired by the Finnish education system and some bright spots in U.S. programs to improve academic achievement and the school/classroom environment which are very different than the above strategies. One evolving U.S. strategy, recognized for quite a few years now in state legislations, that needs more attention and a different way of putting it into action is character development.  48 out of 50 state legislations have either mandated or encouraged character development since as early as 1995. Each of the states has varied the instructions given to schools from implementing bullying curriculum to implementing no less than 10 minutes of instruction focused on character qualities to emphasizing principles of morality, truth, justice, & true comprehension of American citizenship. None of these mandates or emphasis has explained how to make this happen so many schools use more of a philosophical emphasis in the schools rather than a curriculum driven emphasis. Finland, on the other hand, has mandated religion or ethics as an independent course in the curriculum for at least an hour a week  per week of the school year per school year from the time they enter school at 7 years of age until the time they leave middle school at around 15 years of age over the past 20 plus years.

Some think, including me, in order for the school environment to be more conducive to learning, a structured character development curriculum as a designated content piece needs to be implemented from the time students begin school at 5-6 years of age through at least middle school.  High school should continue to build on character development as well, but I feel that our high schools need to be overhauled and this would be a standard content piece to consider when the restructuring begins. Therefore, one of the four parts of the Liink Project intervention is to add character development as a content area to the curriculum every year. A second part of the intervention is to add multiple recess periods throughout the day at 15 minutes per session. The third and fourth parts will be implemented as school districts are ready to move to those next two steps. The third part is to change from standardized testing to developmental assessments through 5th grade. The fourth part is to restructure the school day so the young children experience more play and creativity than academic content in the early years and develop more academic content as they mature in later elementary years through middle school.

Liink Project has launched as a pilot program in two Fort Worth area schools this Fall. Trinity Valley School, a private K-12 school and Starpoint School, a grades 1-6 lab school have collaborated with TCU to train and implement character development as a content area and add a designated number of unstructured, outdoor recesses daily. This first year will be used to figure out the different pieces such as training of teachers, scheduling of character development in the classroom and extra recesses throughout the day, as well as make sure the schools have smooth transitions from what they have done previously to this new format. Then next year we will launch this model in at least one public school district and try to add at least one of the last two parts of the intervention to the schools we are working with this year. This year and in future years, we will begin with the youngest children and add a grade level each year until all students are involved in the intervention from the pilot schools. We will be assessing several psychological and physical areas of development in children. I'll keep you updated on how the pilot is moving along.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ethics in public schools

One of the topics I think needs to be included in the public schools from the time a child enters until he/she exits is ethics. Ethics is something that I think is really lacking in our U.S. culture at this point. I talked about ethics and religion in an earlier blog while in Finland so I won't go into more detail about the differences. As I stated in that blog, religion in the U.S. public schools would not work because of separation of church and state. Ethics would. I define ethics as the rules of human conduct with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions. I feel that our culture has come to a place where if you are wrong, well it's not as bad as it could be, so let it go. This has happened in our schools repeatedly. It started at least 20 years ago when I was still teaching at the high school level. I remember teachers sending students to the office for breaking rules, but the administrators sending them back to class stating that there were far more critical issues going on and these rules being broken were not critical. We just needed to do a better job of managing our classes. I've seen it in police work as well. They will state that they would rather turn their heads for some issues and go after the more critical laws being broken. There is an unhealthy perception around actors/actresses, politicians, athletes who break the law but have less harsh consequences for their actions than the general public. The general public thinks, at times, that if the famous can do it, why can't they? As a result, our culture has become very muddied about rules and consequences, about respect, about right & wrong, about personal responsibility. We no longer hold ourselves accountable. If someone else doesn't catch us doing something wrong, then we continue to push the limits.

In our society, children watch athletes, actors/actresses, politicians for what is right and wrong; for the ethics of life. Many believe that these individuals are children's role models far more than parents or guardians, so when they do something wrong and punishment is minimal, children think it's ok. Let's consider some of the individuals who children have placed their trust in and set their actions in motion to be like over the past few years: pro men's golfer, a past U.S. President, numerous senators/representatives,  pro football players, 7 time winner of Tour de France now stripped of his titles. The list goes on and on. It's time for the pendelum to swing back to a place of intrinsic drive. Do the right thing because it makes us feel better. Children need to know what is right and what is wrong. They need to know that failure is part of the process to succeed. They need to experience failure so that they will get back up and try again. They need to realize that their actions have far reaching consequences. Our children today are a product of what we have trained them to be over the past 20 years. Many of our young adults don't stay with something if it gets too hard. They try to shortcut the system and want more pay for less work. They break the law through social media outlets because they don't think about the consequences. The moral compass needs to be strengthened if the majority of our children are going to be better citizens and contribute more to our society as a whole. 

If ethics were brought into the schools as a content area, children would develop a stronger sense of what is appropriate in such areas as character, personal responsibility, intrinsic motivation, bullying, cheating, lying, and an area that has really mushroomed, social media. The curriculum will have to be written for this content area, but this is a content area already being taught in Finland and other countries, so we can develop our content from what they have started. We will have to make sure that we teach the topics that reach our kids in our fair and unbiased way.  Teaching our children about these issues early on and continuing throughout their adolescent years should create a much more responsible adult who makes much wiser choices based on how they feel intrinsically instead of whether they will get caught or not.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg coming to Fort Worth

The last time I wrote was when I returned from Finland where I learned about how the U.S. might learn from the educational successes of their country. One of the individuals who helped to create the success that they have today is Dr. Pasi Sahlberg. He is the Director General of CIMO (National Center for International Mobility and Cooperation). This position affords him the ability to promote internationalization and tolerance, creativity, and global ethics in the Finnish society through mobility and institutional cooperation in education, culture, youth, and sport. He not only promotes educational changes in Finland, but also across the globe. His most recent book entitled, "Finnish Lessons" has been instrumental in changing the way people think about education globally.

As a result of my visit to Finland, I have been able to invite Dr. Sahlberg to TCU in Fort Worth as our Kinesiology Green Chair Lecturer this spring. He has agreed to be here this next week, March 19-21 to talk about four very important topics that I believe, as a result of my intensive observations in Finland, have led to their educational successes. I do believe these four issues are pivotal to the kind of change we need in the U.S. They are ethics, restructuring the school day, more physical education and recess per day, and removal of standardized tests. I will cover what each topic area includes but will feature each topic in separate blogs this week.

The first topic that Dr. Sahlberg will discuss this next week, ethics, will be focused on how it should look in the schools. Finland has introduced it as a separate content area in their schools. I feel that we should focus on ethics similarly in our schools. In order to do this, we would have to see ethics as a content area. Public schools would need to identify which content areas would be represented in the K-8 curriculum (scope & sequence) and then decide how many hours per week would be dedicated to each of these content areas. For example, if a school district wants to stress reading, writing, math, science, music, art, physical education, ethics, and crafts in grades 1 and 2, then those content areas would receive a dedicated number of hours per week. As a student develops and matures, the types of content, the number of hours per content, and the variation in topics per content area would adjust. Ethics would stress lessons on personal responsibility, respect, kindness, patience, bullying, social media, etc. The lessons would only be 15-20 minutes per day, but would infuse the complete development of the child that is needed so desparately in our children today. We can't watch children in everything they do. They have to know enough about right and wrong, good and bad, to be able to make some responsible decisions and feel good about making those decisions.

The 2nd topic that Pasi will discuss is restructuring the school day. The K-2 children only go to school for 4 1/2 hours in Finland and 6 hours for grades 3-6, while the U.S. children go to school for 7-8 hours daily no matter what age they are. The U.S. is pushing to extend the day that children go to school to be longer whereas the Finns continue to maintain shorter periods of time for the younger children. The Finns are beating us in reading, science, and math. Pasi will address our cultures and how we can make a difference with shorter days for our younger children.

The 3rd topic is more physical activity/recess in the schools. This is, to me, the easiest piece to implement in the public schools. In Finland, they structure their elementary day around 45 minute content lessons just like the U.S. One major difference exists between the two countries. The Finns then take a 15 minute recess outside before beginning another content session for 45 minutes. This happens every hour in Finland. 45 minute content followed by 15 minute recess throughout the day. We treat recess as a one time event, if that, and think that one 15 minute break is all children need. Adults forget what it's like to sit in a chair for hours on end before getting to move around again. We forget that children will learn more when allowed to have more physical activity breaks. We have become so fixated on being better on tests, that we have compromised the essential part of our beings: movement. This has compromised our metabolism and our brain function. Dr. Salhberg will address different strengths of recess and physical activity in the schools.

The 4th topic is the removal of standardized tests. The Finns don't take any standarized tests. They believe that children should have the flexibility to learn without pressure of standarized testing. Developmental evaluations are much more important to the Finns than standardized tests. They do not grade the children at all until the completion of the 5th grade. Until then, they send home a formal developmental evaulation for each child at the end of the fall and at the end of the spring semesters. Their semesters are equal to ours. They have the same summer breaks and similar holidays throughout the year as we do. Dr. Sahlberg will address assessments and what we should do differently if we're going to be successful in the U.S.

I'll address all of these topics in more detail in future blogs. Anyone who reads this blog and is able to come to the workshops & lecture next week is welcome. He will work with university faculty next Tuesday, March 19th on these topics and then K-12 leaders on Wednesday, March 20th. That evening he will address educational reform as an open lecture. For anyone interested in attending any of these workshops or the lecture, go to for more information, Pasi's bio, and the schedules for each event.