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My view: Use summer to reverse the damage of school

By Heather Staker

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Summer break offers a critical opportunity for parents to help their children rediscover the joy of learning.

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Poor school design causes many children to feel failure and boredom in class, and as a result, they lose interest in that class, or in school overall. Summer break offers a critical opportunity for parents to help their children rediscover the joy of learning.

Most children start kindergarten nervously excited about the idea of school. But over time, that excitement fades — if not for the entire experience, then for at least a subject or two. The complaint of “I hate math” or “I don’t want to go to school” sounds all too familiar to most parents. What parents overlook is that they have the power to reverse those self-limiting narratives that their children can develop, and summer provides a unique window of time.

For the most part, negative feelings toward school are not the fault of teachers. Most teachers work extraordinarily hard to improve their classrooms, in the hope that more engaging lessons and technology will help students love learning. Teachers in the United States work particularly hard. They devote over 1,000 hours per year to teaching, which represents more hours per year than in almost any other country in the world.

The problem arises at a more fundamental level. The basic architecture of the traditional classroom is poorly designed to instill joy. Today’s classroom model developed at the turn of the 20th century in response to America’s need for more factory workers. It drew from industrial factory design — a novel innovation in the early 1900s — for its blueprint. The idea was that by batching students by age in grades, placing them in a classroom with one teacher and standardizing teaching and testing, America could educate large numbers of students in an economically efficient way.

The shortcoming of the model is that it undermines one of the main drivers of student motivation. Research shows that a key factor behind love of learning is the ability for students to feel a sense of success and progress each day. Unfortunately, when it comes to delivering this motivator, the traditional classroom fails miserably. The main events embedded in the curricula that could help students feel successful — examinations — occur every few weeks. Students often wait days for feedback, and when the grades are eventually handed out, the privilege of feeling successful is reserved for only the best students. By design, the rest experience failure.

On the other hand, when students are freed to move at their own pace and demonstrate mastery on their own timing, they experience frequent, positive reinforcement, concept by concept. Some schools are reinventing their model to use online- and project-based learning to infuse this principle into their design. Innovations High School in Salt Lake City, Utah is one example.

Parents can reverse negative attitudes toward school by using summertime to expose students to the experience of self-paced success. Students who hate reading comprehension, for example, can discover that reading is in fact their strong suit, if they are afforded the opportunity to learn in bite-sized increments, interspersed with frequent victories, at their own pace.

One opportunity that epitomizes this idea is the Brain Chase Summer Learning Challenge, which begins on June 30, 2014 (disclosure: I am a co-owner of the venture). A few weeks ago a gold-plated metal sphere called the Globe of Magellan was buried in a remote location underground. In it is a key to the nearest safety deposit box, which holds a $10,000 college scholarship fund. The first participant to guess the location within a 2-mile radius gets to fly with a parent to dig it up and claim it. To help students experience the joy of daily success, Brain Chase developed a personalized online game board, similar to Candy Land. As participants complete online reading, writing, math and science challenges — customized to individual ability — they move forward on their board and unlock animated webisodes. With each daily victory, they unlock more clues to solve the mystery.

Students who hate a particular subject can switch to becoming passionate about it. The key is to use the motivating power of daily, right-sized success to help them rediscover the joy of learning. Even if the traditional classroom is not providing that experience, parents can.

Heather Clayton Staker is a senior research fellow for the education practice at the Christensen Institute and the co-founder of Brain Chase. She and her husband Allan are the parents of five pre-K and elementary children, and live in Austin, Texas.

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