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Is Digital Media Producing a Less-Empathic Generation of Young People?

There is little doubt that we have entered a wondrous new age, one where every facet of life is evolving and generally doing so in ways we could never have anticipated. As we make our way through what is now dubbed the digital era, early assessments have many concerned for our young.

There are those who see the digital age as creating a group of youngsters with the shortest attention spans in history. Still others express concern that the digital age may actually be interfering with the intellectual development of young people.

iStock_000004111604XSmallIn fairness, there is another group that sees the developments positively and believes that a new, wired generation is able to do things we older folks could never have dreamed up. Those with such a view throw around the new term, multi-tasking, and refer to today’s young positively as digital natives.

However, the alarmists seem to be winning out. And a new study released late spring added one more layer of concern for those who work with children.

The Work of Sara Konrath

One of the disconcerting developments involves a three-decade analysis of prior research conducted by Sara Konrath, a professor affiliated with the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester. Also a researcher for the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Konrath found that today’s college students are not as empathic as those of prior generations.

The professor arrives at her conclusions after reviewing 72 studies measuring this specific personality trait conducted over a 30-year period (1979-2009). When college students are compared with those from the late 1970s, Konrath found that today’s college students were “less likely to make an effort to understand their friends’ perspectives,” or to “feel tenderness or concern for the less fortunate.”

With the most significant drop occurring after the year 2000, Konrath found that “kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” These findings mirror the concerns of those who see today’s young as being extremely self-centered, an attribute that has some folks calling today’s youngsters Generation Me.

Digital Media Responsible?

The alarming development could result from a number of factors though it is clear that Konrath believes the largest culprit is digital media. And when she places the blame, she hits on virtually every one of the concerns often expressed by others.

“In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games,” she told US News. “And a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.”

Konrath goes on to point fingers at another popular phenomenon, social media. The professor theorizes that a shift towards online friendships provides youngsters with the ability to “tune out” when they wish. The ability to tune out when conversing online could then spill over to the point that students may tune out even when peers are expressing themselves in face-to-face settings.

This raises new flags and throws a bit of a wrench into the growing sentiment that social media can play a positive role in the education process of young people.

While focusing primarily on the role of digital media, Konrath did speculate that our hyper-competitive society and its unbridled focus on success could also be playing a role. In some cases, it could be the cutthroat nature of such a lifestyle, but it could just as likely be that our fast-paced world prevents us from being able to tune in to the needs of others.

Educator Interest

togetherFurther review of the professor’s work reveals a very interesting assessment of what constitutes a healthy self-focus. By the term healthy, Konrath talks of a youngster developing a strong, confident sense of self, referred to as individualism. This contrasts with unhealthy self-focus that is so inflated it borders on narcissism.

What is also of interest is the professor’s view that self-focus can develop alongside other-focus. Most importantly, in her view, positive levels of individualism can develop alongside collectivism and empathic behavior if nurtured properly.

Such a theory means that people can actually be high in category and low in the other, high in both, or low in both. Konrath has developed a theory around the consequences of an excess in self-focus without a simultaneous focus on others, a situation the researcher calls “social atomization.”

“Socially atomized people have difficulty considering the larger web-like social context in which all humans are embedded,” notes Konrath. Yet another interesting development in those with excessive narcissism is a certain level of aggression.

Konrath’s work could have enormous implication for teachers moving forward. If indeed our digital culture is rendering a generation of self-centered individuals, it will likely fall on schools to construct educational opportunities to combat this negative trend.

October 17, 2010   1 Comment

Parental Steps to Helping a Child Deal with School Bullies

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

That was a phrase I heard many times over as a child – I have to say I wasn’t sure that I agreed with it then and certainly don’t now, but the message was unequivocal.

The idea, of course, was that the verbal teasing could get under your skin only if you let it do so. The message was buck up, believe in yourself and hold your head high despite the mean-spirited critics around you.

iStock_000002634427XSmallFrom my memories as a child growing up, I can attest to the fact that bullying and hard-core teasing were concepts we dealt with on a daily basis. I can say from a voice of experience that those who insist that the issue is unique or somehow worse with today’s young people are flat out wrong.

Four Bullied Teens, One Ohio School

Memories of mean spirited classmates came flooding back to me when I read Meghan Barr’s piece on the tragedies that have befallen one high school in Ohio. Four teens, all with one commonality, bullied by their peers, have ended their own lives in the last two years. It was a striking article as I cannot comprehend anyone taking their own life for any reason.

Barr goes through each one’s story in candid detail. Sladjana Vidovic, a 16-year-old native of Croatia with a very thick accent, hung herself. Eric Mohat, a flamboyant young man who preferred to wear pink most of the time, used a gun to take his life.

Three weeks after Mohat ended his time, Meredith Rezak, 16, also shot herself. Jennifer Eyring, an accomplished equestrian who had a learning disability, died from an overdose of antidepressant pills.

Two of the parents are currently suing the school for not taking action to stop the harassing behavior. In Meghan Barr’s story, one national anti-bullying expert placed the problem squarely with the school.

Barbara Coloroso told Barr that the school ‘is allowing a culture of mean to thrive, and school officials should be held responsible for the suicides — along with the bullies.’

“Bullying doesn’t start as criminal,” Coloroso is quoted. “They need to be held accountable the very first time they call somebody a gross term. That is the beginning of dehumanization.”

Whether the school is at fault or not, we cannot say. But we can say that there are concrete steps parents can take to help their child deal with such behaviors when they witness them.

What’s a Parent to Do?

If you take the time to read the article we have mentioned, you will no doubt be fearful of how your child may be treated in the school setting. It is important to note that the vast majority of students make it through the school years positively with most indicating the school years were a good experience overall.

Left OutSimply stated, preventing your child from ever being harassed or bullied is not a reasonable expectation. There are people, who by their very make-up, will seek opportunities to bully and harass others.

Parents must take the steps to help their child reduce the possibilities of being mistreated as well as teach them how to deal with the issue when it occurs. In doing so, we do not recommend using the proverbial line of old, sticks and stones…..

The first step is to help your child build a core group of friends early on in life that he or she can rely on at school. Beginning with any form of early organizational activities, from T-ball to dance class to time at the Y, getting your child into activities develops interests where they meet and develop relationships with others.

Next, having other early social opportunities such as birthday parties, playground picnics, and other such low-key events is a great way to help your child learn to socialize. These events, organized and unorganized, can help create an early peer group of youngsters that hang together. These youngsters will then tend to look out for one another when they get to new settings or uncomfortable developments at school.

The second step is to make your child aware that this type of behavior may occur and prepare them for the possibility. All too often, parents hope for the best and then try to react when a situation develops.

Educating your child that there will be some people who will exhibit this behavior and then giving them concrete strategies for dealing with it is essential. The first step is to insist that your child not follow along when someone is being teased, that you will not tolerate them mistreating others. In other words, they must understand that the behavior is wrong and that they are never to be involved in such behavior.

While we might want our child to stand up for the one being targeted or to the bully targeting them, the simplest step is to have the child remove him/herself from the situation. If they have developed a core peer group, they can encourage that group to also remove themselves.

A collective stance is far easier to take. Most importantly, they, as a group should alert the adult caregivers of the situation whenever it occurs with others, not just when they are recipients of the harassment or bullying behavior.

Ongoing, Abusive Treatment

Lastly, if your child falls victim to serious harassment or abuse, you must take the step of meeting with all of his or her teachers and school administration. By the term victim, we are not referring to someone looking cross-eyed at your child or refusing him or her a certain place on the playground or in the lunchroom.

But if your child is called vicious names and is the victim of taunting and teasing, you must alert school officials as to what is taking place and where. In doing so, avoid the fist-pounding and the threat of lawsuits befalling the district if they don’t get a handle on things.

iStock_000000394126XSmallInstead, discuss calmly and rationally what is taking place and then develop a concrete plan for how your child will alert school officials when the behavior is an issue. At the same time, ask teachers if they will kindly look out for your youngster, to keep an eye on the areas where issues have developed in the past.

Seek a commitment from them that they will watch but at the same time empower them to call you the parent, if by chance your child is the responsible party when a situation develops. Such an approach will demonstrate that you want the behavior to be limited so that all children have a positive school experience.

Bullying Will Always Be an Issue

To be frank, bullying and various forms of harassment are certain to occur to some extent even in the best schools. The difference is that the schools that take the issue seriously will respond and respond strongly when they become aware of the problem.

Most schools today take a very active approach and offer a general education anti-bullying component. We are not sure what is taking place at the aforementioned Ohio school but most take the issue very seriously.

Clearly, given what has happened in Ohio, parents also need to take the issue seriously as well. In fact, it is imperative that you give your child the tools to handle the challenges – it is easily the best step one can take.

October 10, 2010   No Comments

Helping Student in Need Gets Coach in Hot Water

Doing the right thing by kids.

The story of the Florida high school coach suspended for housing a homeless student has a lot of folks talking and most raising an eyebrow, at least initially. One major network hit the nail on the head with its assessment of the situation.

Fox Sports writes:

In the movies, taking in a homeless high school kid who turns out to be a heck of a football player makes for a heartwarming story.

In real life … not so much.

iStock_000006877044XSmallOn the surface, it appears that a coach with a humanitarian streak was suspended for trying to help a kid in trouble. The reports from the Orlando Sentinel indicate St. Cloud High School coach Bill Buldini sat out his team’s most recent game with Edgewater after the school self-reported a violation of Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) code that is theoretically designed to curb the recruitment of athletes.

The rule that was broken is pretty clear – it states that school employees or representatives of the school’s athletic department cannot provide or promise free or reduced-cost housing for a potential athlete in their program. The apparent issue also seems clear, the coach provided housing for a player who had become homeless.

Of course, there are two distinct ways to view the issue. One is that an adult with connections to a teen learned of his negative circumstances and stepped in to help someone in need. That is the good Samaritan angle and the one we hope tells the true tale.

The second is that a football coach, fearful that one of his players might not be able to play football, ensured his continued participation and thus the potential continued success of his program. This angle gains significant consideration if the young man just so happens to be one of the best players on the team.

At this point it is not clear if the second view is pertinent in any way. The student’s name has not been released for privacy reasons so it is unclear if he was an impact player or just one of many boys participating in the program.

Interestingly enough, the violation of Florida athletic code did not mirror district policy regarding employees though news sources indicated that district “regulations call for the district to work with homeless and dispossessed students directly rather than rely on its employees.” If the district felt that the coach had acted inappropriately they certainly did not indicate as such. After sitting out one game, Buldini has been reinstated to both his coaching duties and day job as a social studies teacher.

iStock_000002103737XSmallBut according to new sources, the FHSAA is continuing to look into the matter. And if they find he has acted against Florida regulations new sources indicate the association could fine the coach monetarily and also act so as to vacate some of the team’s victories.

Unlike the college athletic environment where coaches are paid millions, Buldini is paid a $3,850 annual stipend for serving as the football coach. Clearly his actions, even if they were to help keep a valuable player in the program, are doing little for his financial future.

But the school has taken the step of holding the player out of practice and games for the time being. This step of course eliminates any potential conflict of interest and ensures that the humanitarian effort is not about winning football games.

While a logical step, those who work with high school students know that athletics actually keeps many kids in school. Without the chance to participate, that could well be the eventual outcome here.

It is a challenging situation and mirrors the complexity of today’s world. Sadly, it is a situation that furthers the view among our young people that society isn’t about helping them.

But there is one clear lesson here. Too many of our adult rules work against people trying to do right by kids.

October 2, 2010   No Comments

Of Values, Paying it Forward and Why American Test Scores Are So Low

I am a Tom Friedman fan and have been for quite some time. The New York Times columnist and best-selling author is an ideas man with an ability to connect the dots.

His book The World Is Flat is a great example of his ability to see things in ways others do not. And his more recent, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, utilizes the most important word, the real pink elephant in my mind, when it comes to the future of our country and our world: crowded.

In contrast, Michael O’Hare has been and continues to be relatively unknown to me. But he too seems like an ideas man with that same ability.

I became aware of the professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, only by virtue of a piece he recently published, A letter to my students.

He, along with several other professors, blog at The Reality-Based Community. The blog has a most provocative subheader, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

More on Friedman

My infatuation with Friedman comes in great part from his books but it also comes from his occasional column on education. His essay entitled “One Great Teacher” remains one of my favorite educational stories because it serves as a reminder that the best educators have a sense of presence as well as an ability to set high expectations for students.

In his recent column We’re No. 1(1)!, Friedman weaves together a myriad of ideas as he tackles one of our continuing problems: poor student test scores despite spending gobs of money on school reform. Friedman begins by noting the recent Newsweek list of the best 100 countries in the world and the disappointing revelation that America is not even ranked in the top 10.

The New York Times columnist moves on to discuss another article, this one by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. In it Samuelson conjectures that the issue with schools might actually transcend the buildings, teachers and administrators. The idea of school failure could well reside with “shrunken student motivation.”

Friedman quotes Samuelson thus:

“Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.

“Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

The words of Samuelson echoing, Friedman notes what may well be the biggest issue schools face today.

“We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

America’s “Greatest Generation” is revered, notes Friedman, because they faced extraordinary problems (Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism) and solved them. And they did so by asking people to also do hard things: to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country.

“Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation,” writes Friedman. “Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ All solutions must be painless.”

Friedman further insists that he “would get excited about U.S. politics when our national debate is between Democrats and Republicans who start by acknowledging that we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when — who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years — who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.”

More on O’Hare

The issue of our current generation’s failure to live up to the standards set forth by its predecessors is also the focus of O’Hare’s letter to his student. O’Hare begins:

“Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.”

The positive spirit and upbeat persona end after this single opening paragraph.

“That’s the good news,” writes O’Hare. “The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine.”

“… they agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

“…this deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves.”

After further taking the current leadership to task, O’Hare arrives at a similar conclusion to Friedman in relation to our political leadership.

“We can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.”

And that is not the only fault he finds with parents.

“Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning,” writes O’Hare, “or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in. They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.”

A Need for Values

While many will find fault with O’Hare for his support of greater educational spending (just throwing more money at the problem they say), it is difficult not to begin head nodding as you read. In essence, he is, in his own way, talking about the current generation in the same manner as Friedman.

But one of the reasons I enjoy reading Friedman is that he goes beyond characterizing and describing an issue to actually proposing some solutions. As he winds down, he gets right at the heart of why America may only be the 11th best country in the world.

Friedman notes that the countries on the rise have “values like our Greatest Generation” had. They have the ability and the “willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.’

No it is not about cheap labor or the chance at a free enterprise system alone. It is about what people have inside of them.

“In a flat world where everyone has access to everything,” writes Friedman, “values matter more than ever.”

Collectively these two men offer a similar vein – improving schools, and ultimately, restoring America’s place in the global order, will come only when we see a cosmic shift in societal attitudes and values.

Perhaps those low test scores are indeed a function of more than just what goes on within the walls of the schools themselves.

September 20, 2010   3 Comments

Education in Maine at a Pivotal Crossroad

I cannot say that I am a fan of my local newspaper the Kennebec Journal. Like most citizens, I subscribe and I dutifully work my way through it on a daily basis.

But it doesn’t take very long to do so. In fact, it seems with each passing year the time spent reviewing the document has dropped significantly.

One reason is that it is no longer truly a local newspaper. Instead, so as to cut costs yet provide a product, several dailies in Maine are now under one umbrella where the content is written once yet printed multiple times across the state.

A second reason is the lack of timeliness with so much of what is published. So many of the printed articles used are available on the web for reading the evening before making what appears in the paper truly seem like old news.

Then there is the editorial board, the one that has delivered so much support for our current Governor (particularly his school district consolidation proposal) pointing out the obvious to us. Sadly, given the state of education in Maine those in the field could not come together in support of a government application seeking federal “Race to the Top” funds.

I am still waiting for this board to question what has happened since Governor King left office. To ask aloud how the state has moved from a position of leadership and high educational performance (one of the nation’s highest performers in fact) to its current position where it is seen as out-of-touch with current reform measures being discussed.

4147973284_f9c68108b8But once in a while the paper does seem to get a piece of the puzzle right. Of course, this time it is yet another case of one editorial being written and resold (in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel) but at least there is some merit to the main discussion point.

In this instance, the editors were discussing the upcoming visit of Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Portland. They nailed the title:

Our View: Duncan delivers dual message to teachers

Because the message being carried from the nation’s capital is one of educational change, the natural tendency is to assume the work teachers have been doing does not measure up. The editors note:

The secretary of education says he supports their work but also asks them to change.

They then correctly point out what is an amazing dichotomy – that educational leadership “must enlist teachers to bring new ideas into the classroom” yet the teacher’s union is opposed to so many of the reform measures being proposed: the expansion of charter schools, tying pay to performance and evaluating teachers by measuring student progress.

How well Duncan can strike a meaningful balance in this arena is critical. It will take enormous skill to walk this difficult line and we will see over the next few years whether Duncan possesses the talent to bring about some much-needed change in our country.

But it will be next to impossible to do so here, in our home state, given the current environment. To get teachers on board, Duncan will first have to overcome the current ill will that transcends the classroom, the pervasive negative spirit that is in place due to a school consolidation manifesto that unfairly targeted rural and less affluent communities, and has been subsequently fueled by deep budget cuts that have made the daily working lives of educators ever more difficult (if not downright impossible).

Sadly, after expressing the challenge so well, the paper rears it lack of understanding. They write:

Duncan’s programs are seen by some as anti-teacher, but they are not. Recognizing and rewarding the highest performers, while weeding out the ones who are not getting the job done, Duncan is betting that schools will be able to decrease the gap between rich and poor.

Furthermore, the issues, according to these editors, must be placed firmly at the foot of those currently in the field and their union leadership:

The onus is now on Maine’s teachers and their unions to explain why continuing to operate under current rules will do more to give children the tools to succeed than Duncan’s data-driven attempt to make room for innovation and elevate the teaching profession.

What a crock of …….

The editors demonstrate a complete failure to comprehend the individuals who have toiled so long in what was once a proud profession. The idea that teachers are not interested in giving children the tools to succeed can only come from people outside this traditionally people-focused career.

Instead, those in the profession are concerned that this rush to improve test scores will in turn lead to fewer students graduating. The concern is always that school is about children first and foremost.

Of course it is highly possible that education can have both. New, innovative methods and different school structures could well mean improved student performances and improved graduation rates (i.e., that what is being proposed is good for all children from all of Maine’s diverse communities).

4854671511_47609ebbb3But leadership must convince the profession that the changes are not analogous to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Leadership must help staff transition to a new era where teachers are in fact paid different amounts based on what they teach and how well they do it.

Those who have worked diligently for 20 plus years to ensure that no child is left behind cannot fathom a model where student performance becomes the one driving focus. Not when their experience tells them that nurturing is a far more important focal point for children from homes where such an element is missing.

No, it is not the teachers that must convince anyone. I would contend that leaders are called leaders because it is their job to help subordinates through challenging times. Even more importantly, leaders are called leaders because of an ability to inspire others to do what is right for the greater good and to put self-interests aside.

Once upon a time Maine was an educational leader – its test scores were among the best the nation could offer and its educational system held up as an innovative model for others.

To get there once more, I contend that the state will need some real leadership once again. It will begin in the Blaine House and spill over to the state’s next Commissioner of Education.

In fact, with the right people at the helm, this incredible dichotomy facing the field just might become manageable.

Flickr photos courtesy of American Progress and jimmywayne.

September 1, 2010   No Comments

College Athletics – One Shining Light Amid the Darkness

I have noted in the past that athletics can serve as a great teaching tool for young people as it provides lessons that cannot always be learned in the classroom. Amidst the competition and physical demands, great coaches can teach youngsters about what it means to collectively strive for a team goal while sacrificing individual gain and even more importantly, how to dust oneself off when he or she falls short of the expectations they have placed on themselves.

But the sorry state of Division I college sports, from the poor graduation rates of athletes to the salaries being paid coaches who have a record of NCAA rules violations to game forfeitures in the name of money, has become nothing short of mind boggling.

A focus on money has led many institutions down a path that teaches nothing about the essence of athletics. Instead, at too may institutions, Division I athletics is about winning at whatever cost, a mindset that has college athletics selling its soul to the highest bidders.

One Shining Light

But at some schools there are still coaches who understand that there is more to athletics that winning and losing. Indeed, there are many individuals who no doubt understand that their leadership can help their young athletes become better people in addition to making them better players.

Holding a swabAndy Talley, the head football coach at Villanova in Philadelphia represents just such a man. Talley was reportedly so affected by a radio show nearly 20 years ago that promoted the dire need for donors of all types that he instituted a bone marrow donor program on campus.

As for his football players, Talley makes participation as a donor a part of his greater football program. His efforts to get a program started has led to nearly 20,000 potential donors who have been tested and entered into the national registry.

Those efforts have led to at least three of his tested players over that period becoming donor matches for someone in need. It is the story of one such donor this past year that demonstrates the difference a coach can make in the life of an individual.

Star Athlete

One of Talley’s most talented athletes, Matt Szczur got his cheek swabbed when he was a freshman as part of the coach’s marrow donor program. Szczur was not a highly recruited football player but the young man had demonstrated incredible talent on the baseball diamond – so much talent that he was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But instead of the world of professional baseball Szczur opted to attend college where he wanted to play football and baseball. He was such a strong athlete that he worked his way onto the football field as a freshman before settling into his main sport, baseball.

The hard-working athlete soon became a star, a legitimate two-sport professional prospect, for the Wildcats programs. But as rare as two sport athletes are, Szczur was actually rarer still.

Because he learned that despite there being just a 1 in 80,000 chance he’d be a match for a stricken patient he was in fact a match for an infant girl. And once he found out, his response was truly something special.

“As soon as I heard that, I was so excited,” Szczur reportedly told Dan Gelston at the Associated Press. “I was so pumped. My roommate was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s like you were drafted or something.’”

Initially, the donation was to take place during the team’s postseason football run. Both Talley and Szczur deemed the chance to help save the life of a little girl to be more important than winning a football title.

iStock_000013986758XSmallBut as luck would have it, medical scheduling changes allowed him to play and help his team to the national title. For his part, he was voted the Most Outstanding Player in the FCS National Championship game.

Instead, the procedure was moved to May where he ended up missing 10 games out of the Wildcats’ baseball season. Those missed games came right before the Major League Baseball draft.

Confidentially rules prevent Szczur from knowing who he specifically donated his stem cells to. He does know the little girl is between 1 and 2 years old and that a year from now he can be told who she is. At that time he could also be given contact info so as to be able to get in touch with her.

There is much more to the Szczur story including his being drafted again, this time by the Chicago Cubs, the bonus he received and his playing minor league baseball. His first major purchase with his baseball money was a necklace for a childhood friend who has also been battling leukemia, a young lady who has been in remission for five years.

He purchased the chain with a dove (representing faith) on it at Tiffany’s. And if he should have the chance to meet one very special youngster next May, it is his goal to deliver a similar gift to her as well.

A Team and a Coach Worth Rooting For

This incredible young man has since returned to Villanova for the upcoming football season (NCAA rules allow athletes to play professionally in one sport while remaining an amateur in another). He, of course, will be playing for Andy Talley, a man who understands what it means to be an educator and leader.

It needs to be said that for his part the coach was presented the Person of the Decade Award by the Temple Bone Marrow Transplant Program of Temple University Hospital last spring.

And after winning one championship last year, his team is ranked number one for the upcoming season in a number of FCS preseason polls.

Both are truly more significant forms of recognition than I could ever offer. But one thing is for sure, this native Mainer has found one college program he can root for come fall.

August 26, 2010   No Comments

Book Learning vs. Wisdom – Where to Place One’s Emphasis

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education – Mark Twain.

Our new, wired world has brought forth many positives. One of the simplest, yet powerful, of the new tools available is the ability to bookmark worthy Internet materials for future use.

Even more powerful is the ability to share those materials indirectly through the use of sites like Delicious. We subscribe so as to have the most popular education bookmarks forwarded to us on a daily basis.

iStock_000002953485XSmallOver the last few days, two noteworthy pieces have proven most popular. The first is a copy of a speech given by a teenager at her graduation. The class valedictorian’s address essentially articulated that famous quote from one of America’s most celebrated writers, Mark Twain.

The second piece drawing extensive attention involved a visual representation of what it means to study for a Ph.D. While far less incendiary, it nonetheless gave this reader some very negative vibes.

But the two in total offer a very important lesson for those who work with young people.

The Speech

The valedictory address from Erica Goldson begins with this simple little story:

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years ” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”

“But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student.

“Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

Offering rare insight for one so young, Goldson acknowledges that book learning is not the same as wisdom. The valedictorian notes that her position at the top of the class is not as meaningful as most would have it.

“…in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. … I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.”

Of course, what makes the speech so impressive is how unassuming this young thinker is. Yes it is a scathing rebuke, but it is clear that this young lady is someone of merit, even if she wants to toss her class ranking on the scrap heap. She clearly did more than learn how to regurgitate facts, developing some incredible thinking skills along the way.

iStock_000003015755XSmallIn mid-stream, she further displays wisdom beyond her years as she turns to those who helped shape her education over the last few years:

”For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.”

And most notably, she in turn gives thanks to her classmates for the role they played in who she has become to date:

“So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.”

Everyone involved in the field of education should read and contemplate the content put forward in this magnificent speech.

The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

Biased to a fault, I think educators are a special breed of people. One of the strengths the best teachers display is the ability to break down sophisticated ideas into easy to assemble chunks.

Such is the case with the second piece earning so much attention, Matt Might’s post. In it the assistant professor in the School of Computing at the University of Utah shares with readers a presentation he uses each fall to explain to first-year Ph.D. students just what a Ph.D. is.

Given the challenges of articulating such a concept in words, Might uses a great set of visuals to express the concept concretely. The visuals represent another element that great teachers consistently employ, the concept of modeling.

The model in fact may do the job too well. By the time his concentric circles and protruding radii reach the outer point where the Ph.D. appears, the bump that forms represents yet another analogy we have heard all too often (something about the pimple on the behind of…).

PhDKnowledge.010Indeed, while the presentation completely expresses what it means to earn a Ph.D., it does not conjure up positive educational thoughts for this writer. Instead, it reeks of what the young lady so artfully railed against, book-learning versus what we might call wisdom.

Even the bachelor’s degree imagery is less than flattering to this reader. My guess is it would reinforce the notion of those who see a college degree as a waste of time for so many students.

And the final image? Well it articulates that pimple analogy far too well.

The Educational Challenge

In a nutshell, these two pieces represent the challenge teachers and professors face as they seek to motivate the next generation. There is little doubt that pure knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing – not for individuals and certainly not for society as a whole.

But the world will move forward only when knowledge is combined with that element we have come to call wisdom. As educators, our task is to understand this critical difference, to be certain that we instill in our charges an understanding that there is a difference between these two concepts.

Perhaps our system does promote one without the other – after all we do seem to place so much emphasis on the accomplishment (high school graduation, earning a Ph.D., or becoming class valedictorian) that we have little opportunity to recognize the process. But that is where individuals can and should make a difference.

The question is – what do you place the greatest emphasis on with the students in your classroom?

August 16, 2010   2 Comments

Five Free Open Source KeyBoarding Modules

Are you interested in giving your children practice time on some of those all important keyboarding skills? At the same time, have you made the move to support the open source movement and left those from expensive proprietary operating systems behind?

iStock_000006348525XSmallToday you can easily accomplish both as open source modules continue to explode. If you are operating in a Linux based environment you can offer your kids any one of these five free keyboarding/typing modules to help him or her develop those 21st century skills.

GNU Typist

GNU Typist or gtypist offers a number of typing exercises that will help your youngster learn to type correctly. It has typing tutorials in Czech, English for both the Qwerty and Dvorak keyboard, Russian, Spanish, German, French and Norwegian.

The software allows for the modification of existing tutorials and the ability to create new ones according to your child’s needs and your skills.

TuxType

Designed with elementary students in mind, TuxType is great for helping inexperienced youngsters navigate their way around the keyboard. Offering basic typing lessons as well as a couple of typing games, TuxTyping actually will work with both Windows and the Mac OS X software in addition to Linux.

Klavaro

Klavaro is another free touch typing tutorial that is both keyboard and language independent. The site notes that such a step saves computer memory in addition to time and money.

The latest release offers incredible internationalization: English, Bangla/Bengali, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, French, Galician, German, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Urdu and Vietnamese. It also offers the following keyboard layouts: Qwerty, Dvorak, qwertz, azerty, jtsuken and AlphaGrip5.

A basic type of course is available for memorizing proper finger positioning on the keyboard in addition to other exercises that focus on adaptability, velocity and fluidness. To be sure to appeal to the competitive nature of children, progress charts and scoring schemes are available.

Though the software works with both Windows and Linux operating systems, it does not feature game formats, something we think appeals more to youngsters.

TypeFaster

This free typing tutorial comes in three separate versions: Standard, Accessible and Spanish. The site notes that the program focuses on teaching students how to touch-type.

Once again, this free open source option supports multiple keyboard layouts including Danish, Finnish, French, French-Belgian, German, Hebrew (no lesson files), Italian, Norwegian and Portuguese, along with UK-English, US-Dvorak and US-English.

Also featuring a 3D typing game, TypeFaster can score progress and features an option that allows for the practice of the least accurate or slowest key uses. If you want to get the whole family involved, check out the multi-user option that allows each family member their own login which then stores the progress of each user.

TypeFaster also operates on both Windows and Linux operating systems.

KTouch

KTouch is yet another option that focuses on touch-type. Claiming to offer an easy way to learn to type quickly and correctly, the software begins by honing in on a few keys at a time.

KTouch features the keys to press as well as the appropriate fingers to use to hit a specific key. KTouch is part of the KDE-EDU package and is included in most linux distributions that include KDE.

August 3, 2010   No Comments

Paywalls – Some Newspapers on the Wrong Track?

Our mantra is free education for all.

So we are extremely partial to the resources that readers can access without shelling out their hard-earned cash. For that reason, we have watched closely, and with subsequent disappointment, the folks at the New York Times who appear destined to begin keeping some of their highly-valued content behind a paywall.

It seems that the Times might want to rethink that decision based on the recent data coming out of Europe and a similar step being taken by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

The publishing titan and mastermind of the immensely popular Fox News recently began placing the London Times behind such a paywall and the results appear to be extremely negative. According to the Times arch-rival, the Guardian, Murdoch’s paper has “lost almost 90% of its online readership” since February. The site made registrations mandatory in June.

iStock_000009137974XSmallThe Murdoch process works this way: if you are not a registered user of the Times sites, you are “bounced” to a membership page where the reader must register to be able to view the content. According to published reports, just one in four readers bounced to the membership page proceed to sign up. The remainder take their curiosity and their interests and head for other media sources.

Overall, visits to the Times site have apparently fallen to 4.16% of UK “quality press online traffic.” Prior to the mandatory registration, the site saw a 15% visitation rate but sources indicate a “93% fall” in visits when compared with May.

Perhaps most importantly, 15,000 registrants have agreed to actually pay money. Contrast that number with the published stats of 1.2 million online unique visitors a day.

In simplest terms, experts predicted that readership would fall off by about 90% when the site moved to a paid-access model instead of free access. And the results appear to back that up.

Furthermore, there are approximately 150,000 Times print subscribers who receive an online registration free. That would mean a total subscription level of about 165,000 in total, again a far cry from the 1.2 million claimed.

With advertising sold on the basis of x number of viewers, it will be interesting to see the overall impact of the paywall experiment. Will the new revenues generated offset the loss in potential advertising rates based on only 165,000 potential unique visitors a day?

And what of the future? As some writers immediately postulated, the first wave of registrations “are likely to be the biggest burst that the paper gets.” In other words, it is likely all downhill on those numbers as the days progress.

In addition to the negative impact on ad rates, we have also noted that such firewalls will have a disastrous effect on blogging references. If we bloggers are unable to cite an article that our readers can further access, then we will simply will not be linking to it. And given that links represent the fuel that feeds any internet site, the paywall experiment could prove to be a dismal failure.

Yes we are biased – but it is with a sense of satisfaction that we note that charging for online news appears to be a thing of the past.

July 22, 2010   1 Comment

College Costs – Higher Education Failing our Students

For a number of years there has been a growing consensus that we need to find ways to assess educational progress. That demand for accountability began initially in American public schools, but in recent years, there has been a much-needed push to shine a lens on higher education.

Unfortunately, whereas we once viewed American colleges and universities as exemplars for the entire world, in recent years the sheen has begun to erode. First came those reports of a system that was accepting only the best and brightest students yet was only graduating those students at rates that we will not accept from our high schools.

iStock_000007901834XSmallIn recent times, there has been a shift towards an examination of the extraordinary costs associated with earning a degree and the mountains of debt students have taken on in their effort to earn that coveted diploma.

New Online Tool

In regards to the latter issue, those interested in examining the cost-effectiveness of higher education now have access to a new cost-comparison tool. Thanks to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, it is possible for analysts to examine how thousands of the nation’s colleges and universities are spending their resources.

The Delta report – Trends in College Spending 1998-2008: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go? What Does It Buy? – focuses on the period from 1998 to 2008. Using that accumulated data, the folks at Delta have created TCS Online, a web-based application, that allows individuals easy access to individual institution details.

As for the soaring rates in tuition over the past decade, the Delta Project reveals some very important insights. Sadly, the results reflect poorly on our priorities as a nation and the priorities in place at our colleges and universities.

Those Ever-Rising Costs

One significant factor in the overall increase in costs centers upon the chase for students. According to the report, “sharp increases in spending between 1998 and 2003 by a handful of colleges and universities” created “competitive pressures on spending everywhere.”

But in most cases, college tuition is “not increasing because spending is going up. They are going up because of cost-shifting—meaning that instead of cutting spending in the face of revenue declines, institutions consistently shift to higher tuitions.”

To get at some hard numbers, “at public research universities, nearly all of the revenues from student tuition increases from 2002 to 2006 (92 percent) were used to offset revenue losses from other sources, primarily state appropriations.” Over that same period “the share of educational costs represented by student tuition rose from just over one-third to nearly one-half at public four-year institutions.”

It is important to realize that while our politicians, from President Obama on down the line to our local state representatives, pronounce their support for higher education, their actions speak differently. The findings of the Delta Project reveal a “shift away from public funding of institutions” meaning that new money to pay for increased costs must come from “tuition and fees, private gifts, and grants and contracts.”

Private universities are said to be doing better because they have actually decreased the percentage outlay for students. While still a positive step, students are paying between 75 and 85 percent of the full cost of their education at these more expensive institutions.

Wrong Priorities?

Sadly, while costs to students continue to escalate, “the share of educational spending dedicated to classroom instruction declined at all types of institutions from 2002 to 2006. The share of spending going to pay for instruction has consistently declined when revenues decline, relative to growth in spending in academic and student support and administration.”

Even more disappointingly, “this erosion persists even when revenues rebound, meaning that over time there has been a gradual shift of resources away from instruction and towards general administrative and academic infrastructure” including general academic support, student services, and maintenance.

As for those extra dollars helping more students, there seems to be one positive. Over the past ten years “spending per completion (certificates or degrees) has remained fairly steady at public colleges.”

Still, it is alarming to note that the student services category includes such items as intramural athletics and student centers. Here again, the dollars are instead chasing the students in the hopes of increased enrollments.

iStock_000011382993XSmall“This is the country-clubization of the American university,” Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education, told the New York Times. “A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.”

Better Education?

There is little doubt that the United States has the world’s wealthiest postsecondary education system. According to the research of Delta, American institutions spend on average about $19,000 per student. That is more than double the $8,400 average cost of other developed countries.

Furthermore, community college costs average about $10,000 per student while private institutions average $35,000. Such numbers make it easy to see that our current system of higher ed is also perpetuating the stratification of our society.

The Delta report does not get at the heart of the quality of the educational product. But it does clarify that we have real problems embedded within our current system, especially if our goal is to help provide students from all walks of life a chance at a college degree.

Our politicians need to match their actions with their rhetoric and ensure adequate funding for our public colleges. But at the same time, those institutions of higher education need to find ways to cut costs that ultimately do not directly affect classroom academics.

July 13, 2010   6 Comments