by Jai Flicker
Early on in my work as an educator, I recognized that to help my students truly thrive I needed to support them as individuals, not focus solely on helping them with academic content. It turned out that taking this humanistic approach not only came in handy when a student of mine would come in upset about something that had happened at school, but it also nourished my relationships with students. This, in turn, allowed me to better support them academically. As David Brooks recently pointed out in a NY Times opinion piece: "Students learn from people they love."
For the first several years of my career, I relied on a combination of intuition and common sense to guide my approach to working with students. This was fine, but as my staff at LifeWorks grew I found myself in the position of having to train others. When I went to try to explain what it was that I had been doing that has been working for me, communicating my approach turned out to be more difficult than expected.
Fortunately, it turns out there are brilliant researchers and theorists out there that have devoted their
lives to mapping the territory of human development. When I finally discovered some frameworks that
described in great detail the very phenomena that I had been witnessing for years it came a breath of
fresh air. These theories would help me put language to things that I had previously intuited but struggled to articulate. They helped explain why some of my favorite strategies worked, as well as why some of my less successful ones didn't. These theories mapped out the territory of the interior. Or, perhaps more accurately, they shone light on previously hard to see terrain.
One of the most illuminating theories I have come across is called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Its
name relates to the fact that one of the keys to motivation is allowing others to chart their own course,
to allow them to be self-determined. This theory has expanded and grown since its inception over forty years ago. Today, hundreds of researchers in dozens of countries contribute to the project of refining this framework, which at its core offers the following insight: When our psychological needs get met, we thrive. When our needs go unmet, we languish.
From F to A in Three Weeks
A student once came to me because, like so many students I meet, she was struggling with math. Her situation was more pronounced than most, but the general story was actually quite familiar to me: She was a bright girl who was struggling mightily in math, getting a string of D's and F's on her tests.
When something doesn't match up between a student's intelligence and his or her grades, it is usually due one of two things. The most common is disengagement. The student is bright enough, but lacks the motivation to follow through. I have come to see the ability to motivate oneself not as something that "lazy" kids simply fail to do, but rather as a skill that we all must learn at some point. I don't get mad at kids when they don't understand certain math concepts. I teach the confusing concept to them as clearly as possible. In a similar vein, when I see students struggling with motivation I simply work with them on learning to apply themselves more fully. But that wasn't this student's primary issue. There was something else in the way.
I knew this because this student was one of the deepest thinking, most philosophical students I had ever met. During our first session she talked passionately about her frustration with some of her classmates' views on issues of racism and sexism, for example. And yet she was struggling with medium level difficulty math. She was interested in politics and poetry and Eastern philosophy, but was basically failing Algebra 2.
I didn't know what the missing piece was at first, so I just started in on the content with her, breaking down each concept into as digestible pieces as possible so she could (hopefully) internalize it more easily. But I could see that something wasn't working. Usually, breaking complex concepts down in this way is enough when some baseline level of motivation is there. But in this case that was not so.
As I got further into the math with this student, I started to see that her real problem was that she was struggling to make meaning out of her math, on two levels. The first level was the more mundane. Rather than really understanding her math she was attempting to get through it using a purely rote approach. For example, during this first session, she was expected to learn how to do problems involving compound interest. She was struggling because rather than understanding what compound interest was, she was simply trying to remember a bunch of odd looking formulas. Without understanding what compound interest even was, how could she possibly know when to use which formula?
The other level on which she was struggling with meaning was more, well, existential. She, like so many frustrated students, didn't see the point of it all. This wasn't just about asking What is compound interest? It was also about addressing the deeper question of Who cares about compound interest anyway?
Rather than telling her about all the practical applications of compound interest (which she wouldn't have found satisfying anyway), I talked to her about meaning. Because this students was particularly philosophical in nature, I told her about the book Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In the book, Frankl relates how he survived the Holocaust, first at Auschwitz and later in Dachau, by figuring out how to make meaning out of the seemingly meaningless existence he repeatedly encountered. Those that couldn't make some kind of meaning out of their experience did not tend to find the will to survive.
The following week, during my second session with this student, I continued to emphasize the importance of her making meaning out of her math. In practice, this reminder had to do with school. However, because we had taken the time to explore the concept of meaning in a deeper way, when she returned to focusing on the math this notion of meaning held more meaning itself. As I worked with this student, I repeatedly emphasized the importance of letting go rote strategies and challenged her to make meaning out of each and every problem she encountered.
This approach, of course, took more work, so she was understandably resistant to it at first. Why should she expend more energy on something that she didn't care about in the first place? Helping her shift her focus from learning math for its own sake, to focusing on transforming her relationship with something difficult helped answer this question. But another, even more practical answer was that making meaning out of the math would make her more successful at it. She didn't have to change her approach once and for all. I just needed her to put in the effort to make meaning out of one problem. And then the next. And then the next. After she got each successive problem right, the small but important experience of competence would help justify the extra effort on the next problem. My job was to keep reminding her that her effort led to that satisfying result. At the end of our session, I urged her to continue to make meaning out of her math during the coming week.
When this student came in for her third session, I was blown away to learn that she had had a complete turn around. She had very much taken my advice to heart and worked hard in class to make meaning out of her math. After a string of D's and F's on tests, she brought in a near perfect score on her most recent test. I was both pleasantly surprised and impressed. She was beaming.
Not every student I work with goes from F's to A's in three weeks. But many students do struggle because they fail to make meaning out of math, or out of any subject for that matter. They get caught up trying to satisfy the demands of their teachers, or just wanting to get through their homework as fast as possible, or they simply don't understand the importance that making meaning holds. From my perspective, much of the responsibility for this falls on us educators. We have a responsibility to teach not only what to learn, but how to learn. Attempting to memorize and apply meaningless formulas on tests is not only a doomed strategy, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what math is and how to be successful at it. The fact that so many students demonstrate this same misunderstanding means we are letting too many of them down. The good news is that when we teach students how to make meaning out of their work in school, we can also change how successful they will be with it.
Parenting Pitfalls for Single Dads
by Daniel Sherwin
Single dads are often operating such a complex balancing act between work, parenting, and the many other adult responsibilities demanding time and energy that their needs don’t even measure on the scale. But solo dads need to prioritize their own mental, physical, and emotional health to keep everything else from weighing them down.
And, while it may be easier to ignore your mental state as a single dad or simply grab that extra cocktail to take the edge off your stress at the end of an evening, neither option offers an effective way to cope long term.
"The way we eat, drink, love, and cope with stress, depression, anxiety, and sadness all play a big role in the state our mental health is in,” according to DrugRehab.org. “Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing for you, and not the easiest thing."
Taking a step back is sometimes easier said than done, though, especially for busy solo dads. Moreover, one of the biggest challenges many single fathers face is a lack of contact with people in their position.
But single fatherhood is becoming increasingly common, with a record 8 percent of American households with minor children being headed by single men in 2011 compared with just over 1 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. So it’s easier to find face-to-face support groups and online resources that offer single dads valuable support and perspective on their situations. If you aren’t already involved in one of these groups, take some time to find one that fits your needs.
Single dads might find themselves addressing questions from their kids about why Mom isn’t around. No matter what the answer, it’s important to remain respectful of the other parent. If your child’s mother is actively involved in their lives, it makes sense to come to a consensus about what to tell the kids about the situation and when to tell them.
And, even if Mom isn’t in the picture, single dads should try to accentuate the positives whenever the kids ask about her. Keeping things positive and focusing on the good things about their mom will also help you let go of any anger and resentment you might have toward her. If the kids ask a difficult question, be honest to an age-appropriate degree but don’t frame it negatively. You might, for instance, explain that their mother loves them very much, but has made difficult choices and that one of these includes stepping aside so as to not interfere with their development.
Maintain Healthy Habits
It can be difficult to do all the planning, shopping, and cooking it takes to put healthy meals on the table every day. To keep yourself and your kids from depending on a drive-thru diet, consider scheduling multi-meal prep sessions for weekends. That will help you put together healthy eats on the go during the work and school week.
Combine exercise with family time by organizing activities you can all enjoy together. And, maybe most importantly, cut yourself some slack if you do order the occasional pizza -- especially if it’s after a week’s worth of home-cooked meals and active adventures.
Take Adult Time
Single dads often sacrifice their social life for the sake of their kids. But taking some time away to associate with other adults isn’t selfish. In fact, creating connections with others, whether they’re friends or romantic interests, is essential to maintaining mental and emotional health. So if a trusted friend or family member volunteers to babysit for you on occasion, take them up on their offer. Most likely, your kids will have as much fun as you do while you’re away.
Many of these challenges aren’t unique to single dads. Indeed, it’s common for parents to feel guilty about taking time for themselves or asking for a helping hand. But single fathers owe it to themselves -- and their kids -- to be the healthiest and happiest parent they can be.
Daniel Sherwin is a single dad of two and the founder of Dadsolo, a single father support organization.
by Jai Flicker and Dr. Jeremy Jensen, Psy. D.
The New SAT vs The ACT
In March of 2016, the College Board released a complete overhaul of the SAT, its first update in over a decade. Since then, many parents and students have wondered whether they should take the new SAT or to stick with the ACT. I have spent some time researching this, as well as discussing it with other test prep professionals, and hope to shed some light on this to help make your decision easier.
Interestingly, all of the changes to the SAT make it more like the ACT. There has always existed a fair amount of overlap between the two tests, but with this new revision that has never been more true. In a way, this makes deciding which to take harder because the tests are now so similar. On the other hand, it makes this same choice less consequential because the tests are now so similar.
That said, the larger test prep community that I am connected to has tended to direct students toward the ACT for the past year for one simple reason: there is much more test prep material available for the ACT than there is for the new SAT, simply because the ACT has been around for so much longer. The College Board (the company that makes the SAT) has only released six full length practice tests and only four of these are included in their new SAT prep book. That is down from ten full length exams included in their previous prep book. In time, the College Board will release more prep material and third party vendors will refine theirs so as to better reflect the nuances of the real test. Right now, the latter process is very much underway. This is why we currently point students toward the ACT.
The question remains: what are the differences between the old SAT and the new version, and in what ways does that make the new SAT more like the ACT?
Let's take a look at each of the major updates to the SAT to find out.
The SAT no longer assess a guessing penalty.
One of the biggest differences between the old SAT and the ACT had to do with the SAT's dreaded "guessing penalty." On the old SAT, wrong answers received a 1/4 point deduction. This was meant to discourage students from blindly guessing, but in practice it induced panic in many students. It would hang over their heads, causing them to overthink their answers. Many students preferred the lack of a guessing penalty offered by the ACT. Now neither test assesses a penalty for wrong answers.
The SAT now utilizes a four answer-choice format, down from five.
Another big change to the SAT relates to the number of answer choices each question includes. The SAT has always presented five answers to choose from per question, while most sections of the ACT present only four (the ACT Math section uses five). Trying to select an answer out of four instead of five is easier, especially when using the process of elimination.
The SAT now consists of longer sections, but contains fewer of them.
A notable difference between the old SAT and the ACT was the number of sections each contained. The old SAT was composed of 9 sections, most of which lasted 20 to 25 minutes. In contrast, the ACT is made up of longer sections, but contains only one section for each subject. The new version of the SAT adopts a format similar to the ACT. It now contains one Reading section, one Writing section, and two Math sections (one with a calculator and one without). The SAT also includes an optional Essay section (see below).
The Essay section on the SAT is now optional.
The SAT used to always kick off with an essay, which everyone had to take. This is not the case on the new SAT. They have made the essay optional and moved it to the end of the test. I generally encourage students to take the essay, although this advice varies depending on the student their unique situation.
The new SAT now includes science questions.
One of the biggest, most obvious differences between the old SAT and the ACT was the fact that the ACT includes a Science section. Contrary to how it sounds, this section does not test for deep science knowledge, but rather asks students to interpret data from charts, tables, and graphs. While the new SAT did not add in a stand-alone science section, it does include data analysis questions that are comparable to those found in the ACT.
The new SAT emphasizes content taught in school.
The math content in the new SAT is designed to be more representative of content taught in schools, similar to the ACT. In the past, the SAT utilized familiar concepts but presented questions that used these concepts in novel ways. The ACT math section has always been more reflective of what students learn in class. The new SAT has moved in that direction as well. The new SAT has also done away with analogy questions, which tested students on their knowledge of obscure vocabulary words.
As I said earlier, with this recent redesign there has never been less of a difference between the SAT and the ACT. One practical difference that remains has to do with timing. The ACT tends to offer more questions per section but designs each question to each take less time. The SAT provides more time per question, but they tend to take a bit longer to answer. Because the tests are now so similar, people often make a bigger deal out of this difference than is warranted. For some students this difference in pacing will matter, but most students that I have worked with don't notice it.
Hopefully this overview helps to illuminate the differences and similarities between the new version of the SAT and the ACT. If you have any questions or would like more information about test prep at LifeWorks, please visit our test prep page here.