“Square Peg: My Story and What It Means for Raising Innovators, Visionaries, & Out-of-the-Box Thinkers” by Todd Rose

1.) Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving thr world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.

2.) Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.

3.) Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances . Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.

4.) Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Listed above are Todd Rose’s rules for understanding the variables in all of our educations. Learning is, for each of us, a complex system with many factors at play. His thesis is that until this is acknowledged in the classroom ‘No Child Left Behind’ is a hollow sediment instead of a genuine call to action.

Square Peg is an autobiography of an education, a thoughtful memoir of the challenges involved in going from a high school dropout with a kid on the way to a Harvard-educated and employed education reformer.

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Looking back, I know there was no single intervention that turned my life around. No heart-to-heart talk with a great teacher. No perfectly tailored drug that helped me sit still and concentrate. I wasn’t “scared straight” by a probation officer. My parents never found a magic guide to raising me right. I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly turn over a new leaf.

Instead, my future emerged from a series of at first seemingly random, yet always interrelated, circumstances and events. These include, but weren’t limited to: my father’s professional promotion, which allowed us to move to a new town just when I needed a second chance; the patience of a socially skilled football player whom I decided to emulate; and a spring afternoon when I impulsively stole a textbook from a lovely high school senior. I can’t say for certain how my life would have played out in the absence of any of these or several other experiences. I simply know that I always had within me the raw materials for what anyone might suppose are two mirror-opposite paths: leading either to prison or to Harvard.

No matter whether your subject is an A student or a stink-bomb-throwing rebel, the perspective of complex systems will help you see that an individual’s behavior at any given time will depend on much more than that person’s genetic code or even his or her best efforts. Instead, all behavior emerges from the constant interaction between a person’s biology, past experiences, and the immediate environment, or context. These interactions happen through what scientists call feedback loops–powerful mechanisms that, if left unchecked, can kick-start a cascade of actions and reactions, in which small differences end up having an enormous impact on the outcomes.

Behavior isn’t something someone “has.” Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.

At this writing, more than a quarter of U.S. high school students–1.2 million at last count–drop out every year. That’s roughly seven thousand students a day–a day!–making our shameful rate one of the highest in the industrialized world.

The conventions prevailing today in most schools throughout the world, in which rote memorization is still, anachronistically, prized originated in early-nineteenth-century Prussia, where the compulsory school system was designed to churn out loyal and obedient soldiers and factory workers. The model was never meant to nurture individual potential or creativity, but rather to instill uniformity and compliance. This view of education is directly at odds with the foundational ideas of the United States of America, and it is woefully obsolete in an era where more jobs demand a high level of autonomy and the skill to manage a never-ending flood of information.

And indeed, most people who meet the criteria for ADHD usually have an extremely low tolerance for boredom. Alas, this neurological variability is usually perceived as a character deficit.

It’s not as if we restless types enjoy being bored, after all: boredom is in fact a downright painful mental state that is closely related to anxiety. Brain research has demonstrated that, contrary to popular assumption, boredom isn’t an inactive mind. In fact, a bored brain is quite busy, seeking stimulation wherever it can find it, sometimes in highly creative and positive ways (to the extent those avenues are available), and also sometimes through risky or provocative behavior such as drug abuse, or, as in my case, provoking my siblings and teachers.

Sometimes the most resilient square-peg kids will choose to be seen as rebels, rather than out of control and hopeless.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing biological is either good or bad, but context makes it so. It’s much better, therefore, to think about variability in terms of trade-offs. For most types of variability, in fact, I can imagine at least one context in which it’s problematic and one in which it’s beneficial.

“What is education really for?” he asks. “It shouldn’t be to make you behave and be obedient. It’s to help you do what you want.”

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” –Plato

When you’re growing up, everyone tells you, “Just be yourself!” So at first, copying Jimmy seemed like I’d accepted that I could never be liked for myself. Only later did I recognize that I wasn’t really changing who I was, but merely abandoning ways of behaving that had backfired for me for years.

Sure, bribes might have gotten me to go along with a few short-term objectives, like taking out the trash or finishing a homework assignment or two. But there was no way that money or promise of a fancy sports car was going to change my behavior in any serious or lasting way. It’s not that I was lazy or stupid, or even uninterested in money. the reason I didn’t care about my parents’ objective for me is that I was already motivated, just by a different goal.

Yet even then, I didn’t start trying to turn things around for the simple reason that I honestly didn’t believe i could.

Telling kids they’re smart but just need to “try harder” rarely if ever gets them to do that. In fact, it often creates a perverse incentive not to try. The child may well have already stopped trying because he has lost faith that he can succeed. So from where he sits, it is better to have someone think he’s smart and is choosing not to try rather than trying and certainly failing. If he tries and fails, he’ll have lost even that slim promise.

The researchers concluded that parents and teachers can be most effective when they praise kids for abilities, like effort, that are under their control.

A little stress can help someone learn, while too much stress prevents it. The optimal amount of stress varies from person to person.

“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” –Mulla Nasrudin

More impressive to me than anything either of them ever said was the way they had been living their lives, voting with their feet in favor of the value of education. This in fact is a common theme in the most positive relationships between parents and children: Good examples are always much more effective than words.

Rather than focus your energy on trying to stop the blunders, which is usually impossible anyway–at least in the short term–you can better help your child by encouraging him to be honest about what happened and to figure out what he can do to make things better.

For me, the hardest part of learning always boils down to figuring out why I should care. Other people’s expectations matter to me, but they rarely clinch the deal. I need to build up my own reasons to engage.

Students need to know when they’re making progress, and reviewing under some pressure is helpful, provided the assessment is focused on measuring learning, not ranking students.


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