Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book Review: Escaping the Endless Adolescence, Part II for Part II

Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow OldEscaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old by Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen

Click here to read what I thought of Part I. Click here to read my first post on Part II. I really hope I can wrap the book up in this one!

We're up to chapter eight, in which the authors encourage parents and teachers to provide two very important aspects of "real" life to teenagers: challenges and feedback.

The challenges don't have to be something truly amazing (like sailing alone around the world). They can be little things like scheduling a doctor's appointment and setting an alarm to get up in the morning (or getting yourself to school if you oversleep). The key is to slowly introduce teenagers to the tasks they'll face every day as adults. I thought of my own young adult years here and how I pretty much never filled the gas tank of our van. I was still nervous about putting gas in the car when we moved to Kansas five years ago!

Most of the feedback teenagers receive now is in the form of grades: little letters on a piece of paper. Of course we all know how important grades can be for a traditional high school student hoping to attend a prestigious college (though there's some interesting research on the "benefits" of attending such colleges), but those little letters seem hardly enough for the struggle, especially for students who know they'll never be up at the top. They're struggling for Bs and Cs. Video games, on the other hand, provide instant feedback for sustained attention.

One of the most important ways we can provide adolescents with real-world feedback is to let them suffer the consequences of their actions. A lot of this chapter reminded me of what I read in Parenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition) (or rather, an older edition of it which apparently I did not review on the blog). If, as mentioned above, a teenager oversleeps and misses the bus, they'll either have to walk (as long as it's reasonable), find a ride, or call a taxi (and spend their own money). No notes, no help from Mom, that's it. With some situations, of course, adolescents may need some assistance, but it should be the "scaffolding" mentioned earlier in the book, providing guidance so they can handle the situation themselves. (Even little ones can handle some real-world feedback, as long as the tasks they are set are within their capabilities.) Everyone learns better through experience than just by being told what will happen if they miss a deadline (or a bus).

In chapter nine, we begin to see what interested me most: a frank discussion on how high school can be modified to address some of the issues the authors have raised with adolescence in America.
Adolescents spend one-quarter of their waking hours in school, mostly in large classroom groups led by single teachers, yet we would be hard-pressed to find adolescents or adults who think the time is being particularly well spent.
Everyone talks today of how a college education is almost a necessity (though as the wife of a college professor I don't necessarily agree with that assessment). The authors point out some startling statistics, though, on just how poorly our current public schools provide the basic skills and motivation that will lead to a college degree:
For every 100 students entering ninth grade each year, only 68 will graduate four years later with a regular diploma...Of that group, only 40 will go directly to college, and only 27 will be in college the next year. Ultimately, only 18 of these initial 100 students will finish with an associate's degree within three years or a bachelor's degree within six. If we accept that at least a two-year college degree is going to be important to thriving in the workplace of the twenty-first century, then our current system is an abject failure for more than 80 percent of the teens moving through it!
The authors outline a number of characteristics of traditional high schools that contribute to the problems of adolescence. They cover a lot of ground in the chapter and it's an area I find fascinating but I'll try to limit myself.
In some ways it seems like the ultimate adult intellectual laziness to design a secondary school curriculum based only on a hypothetical vision of the knowledge one should ultimately acquire across a lifetime, without considering what adolescents are most and least primed to absorb during this phase of their lives. Teens have incredible capacities to learn complex material that they care about...We can argue over the relative merits of core curricula, cultural capital, or high-stakes testing, but if we have no way to engage and motivate teens in that learning, then these arguments are for naught.
Working with teachers and classrooms throughout the country, the authors are attempting to identify the kinds of coursework and interactions that engage students and keep them working toward the final goal (high school graduation, continued training or college).

I thought this quote was amusing:
And then finally we get to our toughest challenge, given the current structure of our educational system: How do we make what happens in the classroom seem relevant to teens' lives? The question itself illustrates the problem: What does it say about the material we're teaching our teens that making this material seem relevant becomes such a challenging task?
The authors discuss a few programs operating a bit outside the current system that seem to be working by addressing the specific challenges of adolescence as they've outlined them. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation makes an appearance, of course. You almost can't talk about education reform in America without talking about the Gates Foundation.) They don't mention my organization specifically, but a lot of the aspects of the programs that are working are already incorporated into career academies and small learning communities like those we support.

Interestingly, the authors do not address homeschooling at all (though one of their "composite" teenagers in the first part of the book is a homeschooled student). They were probably most concerned with a way to reach the greatest number of students and certainly a discussion of the traditional education system in America is a large enough topic. While tackling the problem of adolescence can seem overwhelming within the school system, it's a much easier task for a homeschooled teenager. Homeschooling provides the opportunity to shape the educational experiences directly to the student. While changing the requirements in a high school is difficult, allowing students to work ahead, to follow their own interests, to seek out apprenticeships and to interact with adults at least as often as peers are much simpler for the homeschooler.

So now I have to consider the possibility that we will need to homeschool through high school. I'm still not promising anything past first grade, though! One year at a time...(It strikes me as interesting that I always say that, and yet I've already justified investing in homeschooling resources for some subjects that we'll be using for years to come.)

The final chapter presents a nice summary, especially of five principles parents and teachers can apply based on the evidence and reasoning in the book. It's probably a better summary than I've given in my posts! It's not a difficult book to read and I definitely recommend it.

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