I finally listened to this weekend's This American Life podcast. Even though it just became download-able, it still felt like "finally," because both Alex and my mother-in-law told me it was a great episode that I would love. And boy, did I! You can listen to it or download it here, and you better go and do so immediately!
It was a great episode about education. The opening story was a wonderful example about how test scores don't really measure everything that is essential, even though these tests and scores have become increasingly important. Test scores are tied to funding and ratings about performance for No Child Left Behind, and they are constantly being talked about as a way of rating teacher performance as well. But the problem is, those tests only measure concrete academic skills. So even if the test is perfect, and measures exactly what it intends to measure (math and reading abilities) and there is no possible test anxiety or outside factors that might make a person who knows those facts do poorly, it is still not measuring certain skills that are essential to success.
The podcast opens with an economist. This economist, upon hearing that many students who dropped out of middle school or high school were able to take a short-term course (an average of 32 hours study time) and then pass the GED (a high school equivalency exam), thought to himself, "Well, gee! We don't need high school then! If you can learn 4 years worth of material in 32 hours, wouldn't it be more efficient for everyone to just take the GED?" So he did a study, but ended up finding that when comparing people who graduated from high school with people who dropped out but passed the GED exam, the people who had GED's were much less successful as far as job rates, salary, divorce rates, etc. So even though, according to this test, the GED students had the same skills as the high school graduates, it wasn't the case as far as life success. So what are these skills that are apparently essential, but not measured on a standardized test?
In the podcast, they called them "non-cognitive skills" but also, personality, character, social skills, and executive functioning. As it turns out, being able to control your impulses, delay gratification, and persist in tasks lead to better success in life. (No kidding!) The crazy part is that kiddos who grow up in exceptionally stressful environments and who don't have great attachments to their parents are even less likely to be able to develop these "non-cognitive" skills, because their brains are all haywire, just trying to cope with the day to day stresses of life. Then, once the brain has made all those neural pathways for reacting to stress, it means that those reactions become the "go-to" responses to any kind of stress, even if it's, "Can you answer these math problems please?"
The lucky part is that the brain is plastic. We CAN re-train and re-wire the brain to create new neural pathways, new habits, new responses. It cemented my belief in the importance of my job as a school psychologist, and all people who work with kiddos, to teach them how to become successful human beings, not just successful test takers. And it cemented my belief in the importance of teaching kids yoga, as well as other coping skills and other "non-cognitive" skills. We actually CAN teach the brain to have a less "haywire" response. Through breathing and meditation, we can actually help train the nervous system, which is just so darn cool.
It was really nice to listen to a story on NPR about education and not want to rip out my hair afterwards. It actually made me feel hopeful.