Beyond Measure: Vicki Abeles
January 14, 2016
Book: Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation
Author: Vicki Abeles
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction
Beyond Measure is a new book by Vicki Abeles, a mom and former Wall Street lawyer who created a documentary called The Race to Nowhere, about problems with the educational system in the US. In this new book (there is also a new movie called Beyond Measure), Abeles shares ideas and solutions for parents and educators that she has distilled from talking with people around the country (including at community showings of Race to Nowhere). The idea is to build something of a grassroots movement to fix problems in the system, such as excessive homework, excessive testing, and hyper-competitive college application processes.
For me, Beyond Measure was the right book at the right time. Over the past couple of years I've read a number of books that Abeles references (Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Excellent Sheep, Mindset), and others that touch on similar issues (Why Don't Students Like School, The Me, Me, Me Epidemic and How to Raise an Adult). I've been giving a lot of thought to how children learn and become capable adults.
I've also been struggling with the fact that my five-year-old daughter, one trimester into kindergarten, is already complaining about certain aspects of school. I know that some degree of complaining about school is normal and inevitable, of course, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so soon.
I've also been in need of a new direction for my blog, and had already decided to try to put more of a focus on the joy of learning. Beyond Measure was the first book that I read after deciding on this path, so I flagged a lot of passages. It is basically a call to arms to remake, in ways small and large, the US educational system, to turn out kids who are creative problem-solvers, rather than robots who can spit out rote answers. It's also a defense against school and community pressures that are making kids sick from stress.
Rather than attempt to review this book, what I'll do is summarize, and share some of the passages that I highlighted from each chapter. I hope that these passages will inspire some of you to pick up the book yourselves.
Chapter 1: Sicker, Not Smarter (on how academic stress is making kids sick, and how kids need positive environments and novelty for proper brain development)
"So, by emphasizing quantity over quality, and content over mastery of complex skills, our traditional educational model is missing crucial opportunities to enhance brain maturation at a critical time."
"We have, without really meaning to, transmitted to young people the idea that academic achievement is the most important way to measure their value as people, and that success in school exclusively assures success in life. Yet the Novel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has decisively put that notion to rest. Analyzing thirty-five years of data that chronicled children's lives from preschool into adulthood, Heckman and colleagues demonstrated that character makes more difference than IQ for economic and social success."
Chapter 2: It's About Time (on how necessary it is to give your kids unstructured time, and not give in to community pressures for overscheduling)
"We forget in the push for productivity that much of what is lost is what happens below the surface of free time. Building a fort, daydreaming, or inventing a game might seem like dreamy luxuries--but these idylls of childhood are far from idle. It's in these unstructured moments that children develop essential capacities for reflective thought, creativity, social skills, and self-control."
"To survive as an underscheduler in an always-busy world, you have to keep faith in the value of space and time, of allowing a child to explore the new interests to which an unplanned afternoon may lead."
Chapter 3: Homework: Take Back Our Nights (on how excessive amounts of homework, starting in elementary school, leave kids with too little time for play and family - Abeles is quite vehement on this subject)
"This supposedly wholesome practice--which has spiraled to such extremes that it shreds family life, steals children's chances to explore and play, and deprives growing minds and bodies of essential rest--does not even help students learn."
"As Race to Nowhere screened in communities across the country, parent after parent stood up and identified homework as one of the most malignant aspects of the race. They worried about how to get their teens to go to bed before one a.m., or grew heartsick watching the spark of curiosity fade from their kindergarteners' eyes."
"For those who want to truly reinforce learning, the best practice is to prescribe as little as possible--only occasional, personalized assignments that involve experiences that can't happen at school--and to allow the student's brain ample time to explore fresh ideas and absorb and process what it has learned that day."
"Finally, and perhaps saddest of all, I have seen over and over again that homework overload steals from young minds the desire to learn."
Chapter 4: Testing: Learning Beyond the Bubble (on the drive toward ever-increasing numbers of standardized tests, and the amount of classroom time that is spent preparing for them, with comparisons to Finland)
"America now faces a choice. We can break the chains of standardization and embrace a kind of education that nourishes the creative thinkers and compassionate leaders of tomorrow. Or we can keep insisting on the same outmoded protocol, trying to quantify all knowledge and churn out "educated youth" like uniform items on an assembly line."
Chapter 5: College Admissions: Break Free from The Frenzy (on the levels to which students and families go in the quest for admission to a small set of elite colleges, and the role that colleges could play in improving things)
"A good life does not depend on a brand-name alma mater, nor is one guaranteed by an Ivy League acceptance letter. Either way, we're losing too much in its pursuit... The college admissions process is a Darwinian and soul-bruising contest that represents nothing of the great leap toward autonomy, independence, and adventure that it should."
"College professors widely report that too many freshmen arrive on their campuses profoundly averse to risk, not daring to try new subjects or endeavors that they can't be sure to ace. The traditional treadmill has stripped them of their spark."
"The greatest myth of all is that only a tiny handful of colleges are worth attending. And once you stop believing that, you can also stop believing that you have to kill yourself to get there--because the vast majority of schools out there truly want a diverse set of students, including interesting kids with Bs and Cs." (This point is also made, extensively, in How to Raise an Adult.)
Chapter 6: Teaching and Learning: This Way Up (on small-scale ways that schools could be--and are being--changed to better prioritize kids' health and learning)
"What would the ideal school look like? A kind of school that goes deep instead of wide, that capitalizes on children's particular strengths and tends to their weaknesses rather than putting them all through the same paces, and that asks every student to cultivate truly original ideas instead of mere right answers?.. Ultimately, a school focused on learning through vigorous, genuine inquiry would grow the kind of inventive thinkers and keen communicators that our children's futures will demand."
Chapter 7: First, Be Well (on higher level ways that school policies could be changed to better serve the overall wellness of students, such as later start times for high school, more in-school advisors, and less reliance on technology)
"(Palo Alto school board member Ken) Dauber advocates loudly for reduced homework, and also wants to see the schools change their schedules, complete finals before winter break, provide lessons in social and emotional skills, and more closely align the standard curriculum to individual students' needs."
"I have come to see that this problem (maintaining balance), like every problem we've examined in this book, stems from twin plagues: our twisted vision of success and, related, a culture of busyness that has become synonymous with success itself... As we being to redefine success--for our kids and for ourselves--we must place wellness at its core... As parents, it is also time we reclaim the definition of successful parenting with wellness ranking first. "
Chapter 8: Action: How You Can Replace the Race to Nowhere (basically a summary of actions to take at home and in one's community to deter the "race to nowhere". If in a hurry, one could probably just read this chapter and get a lot of the meat of the book. It is a bit repetitive having just read the of the book.)
"Prioritize kids' social time. Time with friends--play for younger children, and hanging out for teens--is as essential to healthy growth as food and water. Protect social time from the myriad other "productive" obligations that would crowd it out."
"You, along with your fellow parents, students, educators, and community members, are the advocates the next generation needs."
There are lots of examples in the book of individual schools and educators that have had success with various changes, such as eliminating homework at least some of the time, grouping kids of different ages in classrooms, and giving kids project-based assessments rather than focusing on tests. For me, things that I would like to work on at home that were reinforced by this book (these are generally things I already wanted to do -- that's how taking advice works, I think):
- I want to protect my daughter's unstructured time as much as I can, including pushing back on busywork-type homework if this becomes necessary in later grades, and limiting her number of scheduled activities.
- I want to try to keep my family off of the elite college application process rat race as much as I can.
- I want to support ways that my daughter can keep her spark of learning alive, by helping her to research the things that she's interested in, by potentially keeping her out of standardized testing if it becomes a problem, and by paying attention.
I am sure that I will be talking about these issues, and others, as I go forward with my blog's new Growing Joyful Learners direction. I also plan to go back and share notes from some of the other books mentioned above, which I've been reading over the past couple of years.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Source of Book: Purchased
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