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Five Lessons About Old People that Apply to Adolescents.

posted on May 28, 2017 by

5How would you know a “mindful” school if you saw it? I recently read Mindfulness by Ellen Langer and I was struck by the parallels between nursing homes and high schools.  They may serve opposite ends of the age spectrum, but they do it in remarkably similar ways.  Dr. Langer is a renowned psychologist who has studied mindfulness through a scientific lens.  She has found that the more control you have over the every day interactions in your life, the healthier and more successful you will be.  In a break through study of nursing homes she found that they actually accelerate the decline of their patients by robbing them of their independence.  For example, choosing between orange and green jello is a mindless act.  However, making your own desert is a lot more engaging.  And, it will make you live longer!

Our typical high schools are also remarkably mindless institutions.  She labels students as “docile” when she describes schools.  I believe its because they are highly structured and they don’t allow for variation or meaningful choice.  Students spend six hours a day experiencing learning in 50 minute segments.  They are spurred to go from Math to English by a bell that signals when they are late as if they can’t tell time.  Selecting between Biology and Chemistry isn’t really a choice because both are taught by a teacher in a classroom located in a school.  While disengagement causes decline in old people, it stunts the growth of young people.

We have been experimenting in Albuquerque with new school designs like the Leadership High School Network that are created to encourage engagement and mindfulness.  There are also lessons to learn from others outside New Mexico like the Big Picture Network which is focused on learning through internships rather than classrooms.

Below are a few attributes that of a new school design that would move us in that direction:

  1. Students would learn outside of school by experiencing the real world and making sense of it. This helps them learn about themselves and their passions.  There would be no course catalogue of predetermined choices.  Instead, there would be fashion shows to curate, oral histories to document, and rivers to restore.
  1. Students would be self-directed, confident, and engaged. They would get lost in their work rather than waiting for the bell to ring.
  1. Teachers would give up “control” over their students. They would welcome autonomy and reject well-meant, but harmful, protectiveness. They would realize that their instincts undermine a young person’s ability to learn for themselves.
  1. Students would stretch beyond their comfort zone and they wouldn’t wait for their teachers to make decisions for them. Teacher’s would move from “expert” to “coach.”  If a young person wants an internship at Sandia National Labs, the teacher’s job would be to help them practice for the interview.
  1. Schools would know that helplessness is a learned condition. Ellen Langer’s research about old people applies to adolescents, “When the will to act is thwarted, it atrophies into a wish to be taken care of.”

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