Monday, July 7, 2014

LIINK Project: What is so difficult about change?

I have talked for a couple of years now about the need for more structured (physical education) and unstructured (recess) physical activity/play in the K-12 school setting. Children's brains need active, unstructured, outdoor time throughout the day to allow for several things: healthy social and emotional development, stimulation of brain activity, increased oxygen and glucose to fuel the brain, and continued building of highways where the retention of knowledge exists. The trend over the past two decades has been to eliminate recess in the schools in order to teach skills & strategies associated with literacy, math, and science. Furthermore, U.S. state and national policy makers and grant providers are beginning to emphasize a need for longer than seven hour school days that we have presently to increase school accountability, student testing procedures, and the belief that time could be better spent on academics.  In other countries like Finland, Japan, and England, recess is not only expected throughout the day, but in Finland, they even expect the school day to be much less time in the lower grades (K-2) than the middle schools (4.5 hours vs 6.5 hours) and still require recess every 45 minutes. Other countries get it, why can't the U.S.? This is a disturbing phenomenon for children to be required to sit in a chair all day and even withold recess from children who misbehave in order to teach them more curriculum. This phenomenon has no serious research to back it up, and is actually counterproductive to increasing the academic achievements of students (Skrupskelis, 2000). Professional organizations, educators, administrators, teachers, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned with this present trend. Even though we know all of this, we continue to give lip service to the idea, but no one in the public school sector is willing to go out on the limb to make it happen. Why?
A couple of thoughts we all need to consider.

One is that money allocated for schools from state and federal funds based on test scores and attendance rather than the health of our children drives educational decisions. If our children drove the decisions, then we wouldn't care what politicians, textbook companies, and educational agencies demanded and would create more chances throughout the day for unstructured outdoor play for children to explore, create, and socialize.  Research shows that the fundamental requirement for any child is to move. The brain will then work efficiently for learning to take place. Instead, these powerful entities demand that we extend the day, sit for longer periods of time, and continue to prepare for a test. So far, the test scores continue to lag, the children continue to burnout, and the spark of life continues to go out.

Second, we have become so consumed over the past 30 years with comparing ourselves globally to other countries academically, that we have lost sight of the fundamentals of life. It's really not all about a test score. Through teaching to a test, the children have lost the ability to critically think. It's bigger than a test score. We learn  much in life from social experiences, solving problems with different solutions, and making mistakes. We can not truly measure what children learn through a test score. We have a generation of children presently who are afraid to fail, have high anxiety and stress, cannot finish something they start, have no regard or respect for life or people, and want something for nothing.

The only way to change the educational problems we have is to trade quantity for quality of curriculum we try to cover in a year, allow students to explore through play, teach character development regularly, and redefine the rigidity we have grown to embrace in the classroom and on the playground to a more explorative environment. Language arts, math, science, & social studies should be balanced in a child's world with physical education, art, music, languages, and technology. All of this content is important, but more does not equal better in this case. As Aristotle states, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thinking that we have to have language arts, math, science, and social studies every day is the wrong way to think. The collection of experiences is greater than each experience alone.

We have the answer for changing the structure of the school to embrace unstructured outdoor recess, adding character development weekly, and backing off the amount of curriculum needed to be successful academically. It's the LiiNK Project. The results are in and they are very good.

Monday, March 10, 2014

LIINK Project: The first year has begun

The LIINK Project (Let's inspire innovation 'N kids) is up and moving in a good direction. We launched in September with two Fort Worth private schools. Starpoint is a lab school at TCU and the other is a K-12 prviate school called Trinity Valley. The goal this year was to collect baseline data on the K & 1 grade children this past Fall, train the teachers and administrators with the tools necessary to make some key changes in the school day by January, and observe behaviors in the classroom and recess arenas to make sure the observation instruments we developed were going to work. So, our goals have been met so far. We launched the intervention in January. The teachers are introducing Positive Action character development curriculum weekly and providing multiple recesses daily.

We have learned several things through this pilot study so far. We knew that parents needed to be part of the conversation from the beginning. What we didn't expect was the parents would be as supportive as they have been. Many of the parents, after hearing what we were going to do, asked if their children who were not K & 1 could somehow get similar experiences. The parents feel that their children do need more physical activity and breaks during the school day and especially when they raise boys. The research shows that boys need these breaks more than the girls at times which is showing up more and more with the discipline issues and lack of focus in the classroom. We have since decided that when starting this program in other schools, we need to launch it across all elementary grades even though we will only collect data on the youngest ones to begin. We still feel that all of the children will benefit from the program and the parents will be much happier as well.

Another thing we've learned is that the training needs to involve everyone who will be impacted by the character development curriculum, not just the homeroom teachers. This includes all teachers, administrators, parents, and staff who have any connection with the children learning the curriculum. A couple of funny things have happened to bring us to this conclusion. One is that the students were going home talking to their parents about castles, different fun characters, and keys to doors with the parents lost to why the students were talking about these things. We realized real quick that the parents needed to be aware of the types of things their children were learning for carry over impact at home. The other funny thing was that the children began using the concepts by role playing at recess. It was really fun to see the impact of a curriculum being introduced in a short period of time having that kind of influence on the kids. This is only the 2nd month of intervention.

We've also learned that this intervention is working faster than we thought it would. We are seeing some very good annectdotal evidence of positive changes in the first 6 weeks as a result of additional recesses daily and character development curriculum implementation and can't wait to see pre-post comparisons in May!