81-Year-Old Man Working Towards Earning His High School Diploma

A photo of a high school diploma with a graduation cap laying on top of it.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Abdel-Qader Abu Ajameyah is 81-years-old, a Palestinian retiree with fourteen children and thirty-six grandchildren. At an age when most men begin to rest on their laurels, he is hard at work—at a school desk.

For five hours a day, Abu Ajameyah works towards earning his high school diploma, wearing a suit and tie to his studies every day.

In 1948, he was a student in a village near Ramla, which was at that time in Palestine. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out with the creation of Israel in that year, his family fled to become refugees in the West Bank, and  Abu Ajameyah soon went to work to help his family. For the next fifty years, he sold food and made a good life for his kin.

Today, with grandchildren reaching adulthood and great-grandchildren on the way, he says his goal is to be “on par” with those descendants.

“I want to set an example to generations—never stop learning,” says Abu Ajameyah.

A room has been set aside for him in a local schoolhouse, and an aid helps him by taking dictation, since a recent stroke has made writing difficult for the octogenarian. He took Israel’s national test for the first time last year, but failed to pass. He’s determined this year. There’s a family party on the line. The next exam will be in July.

He has hearty family support. His sons and wife are all working to make sure he can devote himself to his studies.

“We all encourage him and we are all very proud of him,” said Zakaria, one of Abu Ajameyah’s sons.

Abu Ajameyah also has community support—it’s a matter of pride. The illiteracy rate among Palestinian adults is less than 4%, one of the lowest rates in any Arab nation. Stats for Palestinians living in Israeli territory are less clear-cut.

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How Do We Combat “Alternative Facts” When People Won’t Listen to Real Facts?

A picture of a female teacher with her grade school students.

Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono at Flickr Creative Commons

Educators, more than anyone else, have a keen interest in tackling the issue of “alternative facts.” But it’s a tough issue to fix when it’s the U.S. government that is perpetuating it. Most of us are aware that study after study, fact after fact, have proven that many of the claims made by the current administration are blatantly false, and yet people are still buying into them.

And it seems like all the facts in the world don’t make a difference, as people carry on believing what they want instead of what is true. According to sociologists, this is steeped in a problem of which most of us are unaware. It turns out that exposing misinformed people to facts not only doesn’t usually get them to change their mind, but actually makes them reinforce their wrong beliefs.

Nobody is quite sure why this happens, though. And it’s possible, likely even, for some educators to question whether or not they and their peers might be to blame. Were these people failed by the educational system? What can we do moving forward to try and prevent such attitudes from arising in current and future students? Is there anything that can be done? Are these attitudes hard-wired or learned at home?

None of these questions have easy answers. The nature of the problem is one that will take a while to find an answer to. But researchers aren’t giving up; they are determined now more than ever to find the answers we’ve all been waiting for.

In the meantime though, perhaps the best that educators can do is continue to teach still-impressionable students the truth. A reliance on facts and critical thinking now, when kids are still learning, might be the greatest tool we have to keep people willing and able to learn in the future.

Teaching Students to Learn From and Acknowledge Mistakes

Three young boys reading a book in a classroom.

Photo courtesy of US Department of Education at Flickr Creative Commons.

Mistakes happen, but learning from them is an essential skill that many students aren’t being taught to use. As children begin to transition into formal schooling, usually around the age of seven, they general come in with one of two mindsets: growth or fixed.

A growth mindset assumes that people can get smarter with hard work, and these students tend to pay attention to and learn from their mistakes. A fixed mindset assumes that intelligence is static, and these students tend to ignore their mistakes because they don’t want to think about how they failed.

According to a new study from Michigan State University, this is measurable in brain activity. 123 children, split into groups based on the mindsets they had about learning, performed a computerized test.

Growth mindset children paid more attention after they realized they made a mistake, and then “bounced back” more than fixed mindset children. Fixed mindset children could learn from their mistakes, but only if they paid close attention to them, something they were less inclined to do in the first place.

The research implies that even fixed mindset children can learn from their mistakes, as long as they acknowledge and pay attention to them. These mindsets aren’t permanent but instead are—and can be—taught.

By addressing mistakes when they happen, we can help students to better understand the problems they face and find ways to overcome them and grow as individuals. By glossing over mistakes though, we’re doing students a disservice, and the earlier we ingrain such behavior, the harder it will be to change over time.

Teaching students that they can, should, and indeed must learn from their mistakes is an obligation that all teachers and parents share. To do otherwise, even with the best of intentions, is a disservice to not only the student, but to society as a whole.

In An Age of Technology, Does Handwriting Matter?

A close-up image of a young boy writing in cursive.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

If you’re on Facebook at all, you’ve probably seen the image of cursive writing that reads something like “In the future, this will be a secret code.”

This meme was formed in response to the removal of cursive writing from elementary school curricula when the Common Core standards replaced handwriting with a goal of competency in keyboarding rather than penmanship.

For those of us who grew up in a bygone era, learning cursive was almost a rite of passage: “grown-up writing” enabled us to write more quickly than standard printing, and it also, at least in theory, offered neurological benefits to those who learned it.

But is handwriting really necessary in an age of technology?

Anne Trubek, a self-admitted “left-hander with terrible handwriting” who watched her own son struggle with penmanship, argues that it isn’t.

“The desire to write faster has driven innovations throughout history: Ballpoint pens replaced quill pens; typewriters improved on pens; and computers go faster than typewriters. Why go back?” she writes.

Having seen some school kids practically standing on their heads as they attempt to hold a pencil or pen, we can certainly understand where the view of handwriting as an unnecessary struggle has its origin. But the fact is, at least one study has shown that learning how to write is crucial to learning how to read.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did functional MRI scans on children before and after they learned how to print. Before, “Their brains [didn’t] distinguish letters; they respond[ed] to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said. But after they were taught to print, they responded to letters differently and there was increased activation of an area of the brain responsible for our ability to read and process written language. Some experts also argue that cursive writing helps children learn how to spell and write better.

Ultimately though, even if schools end up focusing exclusively on keyboarding at the expense of teaching the ability to write quickly and legibly, the fact is that technology is not infallible and kids do need to learn how to write by hand. Whether that writing is in print or in cursive matters less than the fact that they know how to hold a pen and put letters onto paper. Being able to sign your name is also a good skill to have.

What do you think? Are you in favor of children learning to write cursive, or do you believe it’s an antiquated system of writing that isn’t necessary in today’s technological age? Let us know in the comments.

The Benefits of Classroom Laptops

A photo of school-aged children using a laptop in a classroom setting with a teacher supervising in the background.

The use of classroom laptops has proven to increase performance in reading, writing, and science.

These days, a good laptop like Google’s Chromebook can cost less than a new math textbook. So it’s no longer an extravagant luxury for schools to provide one for each student. And the potential benefits of such a supply are worth a good look.

Michigan State University is one of those doing the looking. In a meta-analysis led by Binbin Zheng, 96 independent studies into school laptop programs were looked at. They focused on programs that distributed laptops to K-12 students to use across all their school subjects. After narrowing their scope to 10 studies with statistics that could be charted against one another, they released their findings.

The main points boiled down to these:

Whether or not laptop distribution programs help to bridge the income-education gap is not clear. Poor students’ grades increase from being given a laptop more so than better-off students’ grades do, but the better-off students’ test scores still remain higher.

Students of all demographics show performance improvements in writing, reading, and middle-school science when participating in a laptop program.

Teacher participation in the laptop programs are vital. If the teacher is not engaged in teaching students how to get the most out of their technology, the programs fail. To bolster this, teachers must be given strong IT support and training and be included in the program. When teachers are engaged like this, teacher-student relationships also improve, which may account for a percentage of the improved test scores.

Students who participate in laptop programs were found to write more in and outside of the classroom than students who did not.

These results of the meta-analysis all echo a 2013 study also led by Zheng on one-to-one laptop programs in two low-income, primarily Hispanic school districts. That study also showed that at-risk students used their laptops more frequently than other students.

Study Shows Well-Defined Solutions Curb Creativity

LEGOs

A study in LEGOs looked at whether more or less instruction makes us more creative.
Image: simone mescolini / Shutterstock.com

A recent study using LEGOs implies that for adults, following careful directions to solve a well-defined problem can reduce creativity when performing subsequent tasks.

Groups were given LEGO sets and told to either build a specific thing, or to build “something” and, after that, were assigned another task, either ill or well-defined. The groups that tackled the well-defined tasks had a harder time with subsequent, ill-defined tasks, and tended to prefer well-defined task thereafter.

At first glance, the study seems to imply that, while LEGOs are good for teaching kids creative thinking, the building toy is harmful for adults. It is unlikely that this problem is solely one of LEGO, but of how adults think, especially in the workplace. As children, even when we aren’t expressly told be creative, we often “think outside the box” to solve problems because we haven’t learned rote methods to do so. As adults, however, we have had years of learning to figure out how we’re “supposed” to do something–that’s part of the goal of education, in fact.

In a work environment, adults are encouraged to follow specific guidelines in most cases, and they are even punished for not following them, which makes being creative in that environment difficult. This is essentially why progress and invention are so difficult; we develop a system that “works” and stick with it. In less rigid environments, wherein employees are given the freedom to be creative, they are more likely to do so and less likely to rely on rote method.

What the study is really saying is that we can’t have it both ways. Employers, teachers, and parents can’t demand creativity while expecting people to perform exact sequences. Creativity and ingenuity are common buzzwords in a lot of industries, but just throwing those words around doesn’t mean they’ll actually make an appearance. Creativity isn’t like Beetlejuice; you can’t just say it three times and expect it to show up. You have to let it grow naturally.

Test Performance Linked to Cortical Development, Income Level

Silhouette of child with colorful brain

A new study shows that income level can affect a child’s testing scores and brain development.
Image: Shutterstock

A recent study published in Psychological Science found a possible connection between cortical development in children and their performance on standardized tests. Children with thicker cortexes did better on these tests, and they were also from higher-income families.

Although the study did not explore the reasons behind these developments, there are a few possibilities. Children from higher-income families tend to have more educational support early in life and face less stress. Meanwhile, children from lower-income families tend to have more stress in their early life, less access to educational materials, and even less access to spoken language early in their development. All of these factors have been previously linked to academic performance, but they might be linked to cortical thickness as well.

In recent years, based on information form standardized test results, there has been a widening performance gap between high- and low-income students. This comes even at a time when gaps are narrowing along racial or ethnic lines. As an increasing number of families in the United States slip further down the economic ladder, this problem could be a growing one.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The authors of the study point out that the brain is quite elastic, and these structural differences are not permanent. Just because a child has a less developed cortex by middle school doesn’t mean that they’re stuck with that forever. Finding ways to help students continue to develop their abilities can offset the problem, and hopefully, those problems can be identified and addressed.

The authors are planning a follow up study in which they look at educational plans and programs that have successfully helped to close the performance gap between high- and low-income students. If possible, they want to try and trace cortical thickness as well and see if these programs, or others like them, can help to create some more parity in development.