Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pass or Fail: Is Student Motivation a Spiritual Problem?

Researcher Michael Zwaagstra from the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies in PEI is criticizing what he calls the blanket policy of promoting students to the next grade regardless of a passing grade.  He comments: 
"this practice of grading students regardless of their performance, known as social promotion or placing, has become a blanket policy in many school districts across Canada, including P.E.I."
"Certainly we should start from a basic premise that a pass should be earned, that if you're going to move from one grade to the next you have to be at least at the level where you have mastered at least most of what you need to master"
He is talking about middle school but presumably if a student is pushed through at the lower grades then the problem is inherited by high school teachers. For me, the question revolves around ability and motivation. Speaking as a high school teacher, if a student has a cognitive learning disability then it is unfair to expect an equal level of performance to a peer without that difficulty.  However, if the issue is related to low motivation and behavioural issues, then in general I believe I'm not doing a student a favour by simply giving them a pass. 

In teaching we talk a lot about motivation. We can see when students are not motivated or when they would rather be anywhere else but sitting in class. Motivated students pay attention. They want to learn and are eager to do well. Having motivation is at least as important as aptitude or ability. The most important sources of motivation are internal and come from passion and interest, instead of external threats of failing or keeping one's parents of your back.  It is aided especially when the lesson is seen as relevant to ones life. For each person this motivation is variable. Students constantly ask me about their marks especially close to report cards. Often they will ask me: do I have a good mark? Before I answer I like to ask them what their idea of a good mark entails. For some people its a 90 while others are ready to high five if they get a 70, and a select few are satisfied with a 50. The mark speaks to their motivation and it also tells me what I can expect from them in terms of effort. There is no point expecting a 90 from somebody who is perfectly happy to go home with a 50 unless for some reason their motivation levels change.

There are students who do not have even the basic motivation to make the bare minimum of 50, or they try skating so close to minimum effort that in the end they fail.  Passing students in this situation is not helping them.  Maturity is a process of coming to terms with reality.  Passing a student who has not earned the grade allows them to continue in an unreality that says their behaviour does not matter. 

All behaviour is spiritual.  What do I mean by that? Human life is a process of adapting and growing in our behaviour to meet the conditions of reality. The basic spiritual principal of you reap what you sow makes a connection between our behaviour and the result.  Low motivation can reflect a spiritual condition in the student in which they believe you can sow minimum effort without reaping a negative consequence. This is simply not true. In the short term, it may appear this way to the student if they are simply given a pass, but they will reap a higher price later by not developing this basic maturity skill. Therefore, failing a student can be a corrective message that teaches a deeper lesson about the nature of life.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The US Border Crises Is A Family Crises

Steve Stockman, R-Texas, a 13-year Border Patrol veteran revealed many in the recent surge of illegal immigrants, including unaccompanied minors, are coming prepared to game the U.S. immigration system, even repeating the mantra, “Obama will take care of us.”
The current story of the US border crises makes me think of difficulties encountered in managing children in the classroom. First, the authority figures, in this case the border guards, must face the steep challenge of trying to manage and monitor so many children. Without systems in place this is an overwhelming task. In the classroom, some kids will tell you just about anything to escape into the hallways for a brief rendezvous with their friends or a trip to the smoking area.  In the current crisis, the guards are faced with children claiming to have family connections in the USA. With the large numbers being processed they simply do not have the resources to track and verify the information for each child.  The contacts could be false, or even dangerous criminals, but once the child is admitted into the country the resources to monitor or assess that situation simply don't exist.

Secondly, a key rule in managing the behaviour of children is:  you always get more of what you allow. The role of authority is to permit certain behaviours or disallow them. The mindset of children is to look to authority figurers to be taken care of. Allegedly, those coming over the border are saying, "Obama will take care of us." The word is obviously out that it's open season on entering and without a strong demonstration of authority to shut down the border, children will just keep coming and overwhelming the US border system. Whatever the political motivation, perhaps future votes or cheap labour, the choice to allow so many children to enter the US without knowing where they will end up means the delayed cost of at-risk teens.

I personally do not pretend to know the right thing to do in this situation and I cannot imagine how difficult life must be in those home countries that parents are willing to risk their children's lives on the dangerous journey to America or what that loss must be like. What interests me about the crisis is how it relates to parenting and family.  When parents fail or abdicate in the process of parenting children, for whatever difficult reason, then some other surrogate parent(s) will be required to step in. While many of these children will hopefully end up with better lives and good surrogate families it would be foolish to believe that this will be true for all these children.  Some will likely be recruited by an other form of surrogate family, gangs, and reports suggest MH-13 is already trying to do this, and many will eventually end up in prison, an institutional surrogate for failed parenting.

As it stands, the border crisis is really a family crisis.  While there will be a high cost for those left holding the bill,  an even greater cost is being paid by the original families and their children.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

On the Death of Peaches Geldof

In my teenage years The Boomtown Rats song “I don’t like Mondays” was a favourite anthem and singer Bob Geldof was well known for his visionary leadership of the 1985 Live Aid concert which raised millions for the relief of starving children during the Ethiopian famine.

However, despite both his celebrity success and moral influence (even being knighted by the queen), tragically both his wife, and now his daughter Peaches, have died as the result of a heroin overdose. Although I know nothing of his parenting style or the challenges his life presents, as a father I can only imagine the immense pain and loss he now faces.

Today it is popular to believe that faith in God is merely a bet you place for when you die and has little to do with real life. In contrast, I believe most of what Jesus taught was about an imminent reality that is already here now. Every human experience, behavior, and thought has spiritual impact and unless we understand this we may tragically miscalculate the true risks and challenges of the choices we make.

Most people would covet the wealth, celebrity and connections that Peaches Geldof inherited yet none of that is a guarantee of a whole and healed life. Jesus put it this way: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Matthew 16:26. These are not words merely about what happens after death but speak to life now.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Walking Dead: Matthew 24

Recent episodes (season 4 episode 10 in particular) of the Walking Dead have some  intentional symbolic connections and overtones to Matthew 24. Historically, Matthew 24 is linked to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in AD 70 which led to the dispersion of the early church and the spread of faith in Christ. Now we see the dispersion of the prison community after the devastation caused by the Governor. The question is: What will the destruction of the community mean in future episodes?

The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times (Matthew 24)

1Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2“Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
4Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
15“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’a spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.
22“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25See, I have told you ahead of time.
26“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Saved by the Bell?

One of the most difficult aspects of teaching is managing student behavior, a critical component of which is initiating classroom structure and rules (guidelines) that everyone is expected to follow. The high school bell is a notable example. When students hear the warning bell they are supposed to head quickly to class before the final bell rings. I would categorize student responses into three general types, the early birds who arrive several minutes early, the just in time people who surf in as the bell rings, and the minority who are professionally late on a regular basis.

Now while most students choose to be on time, I’m under no illusion that many of them would prefer not to be. Instead, they comply to avoid the negative consequence of being marked late. If the teacher were to stop monitoring, the likelihood is that the number of late students would increase. Speeding tickets are the obvious adult version. In contrast, those who are late are betting that the consequences will not be that great, and that any supposed rewards for being on time are also probably not that great.

As students mature, the goal is for them to be on time out of choice because they recognize the value of actively engaging in their own education and growth. Learning to show up on time - not just because someone is checking on you but because you have matured to the point where you get the basics of delayed gratification - is basic moral character development. In the real world, failure to learn and apply this skill leads to unemployment, broken families, addiction and a host of other problems. You could call these consequences, the judgement that naturally results from failing to develop moral character.

Fortunately we are not stuck there. Grace is available for all of us who struggle to be on time in developing the moral skills and behaviours that bring life. Yet to be able to receive grace we must have a favorable picture of God. If we see God as an angry judge waiting to punish infractions or a task master monitoring and keeping check of our daily missteps then we will probably prefer to skip all together.  The bible teaches that  “the law was our guardian (teacher) until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:22).  In other words, in God's classroom the rules were put in place to help us mature until we were ready to choose faith in Christ.  Rule keeping does not change people. A shift in understanding and an opportunity to learn does. Sometimes to make that shift will require  consequences (judgement) as a wake up  call to reality, but it’s far better to learn the easy way. What kind of student are you?