Thursday, April 29, 2010

Some Thoughts on Where We Are...

Life right now is, in a word, interesting, is it not? The world keeps going 'round, the sun comes up in the morning and sets in the evening, and here in the Midwest we have actually had quite a nice spring thus far. I noticed a truly beautiful sunset this evening, after helping coach my son's first baseball practice of the year. What a way to get some perspective, to remember what is important in life, to see the boys out there getting dirty and having a truly enjoyable time playing a great game, with my daughter and countless other children playing in the background in a park.

I think we adults around the country need to enjoy such moments more frequently, take a deep breath more frequently, and remember what it is like to be caring, thoughtful, responsible, passionate as well as compassionate, and even a bit civil towards our fellow men and women in this country, as we consider, debate, and contemplate where we are as a country. Never in my life, which began in 1968 at the height of civil unrest with Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and shortly thereafter Watergate, have I seen so much of the polar opposite of what I just mentioned amongst adults. I've been relatively quiet on this blog about current events and politics, mostly because of a complete absence of time to dedicate to writing, but also because I am near speechless about the extent of incivility, irrationality, utter partisanship, and downright, for lack of a better word, hatred so many Americans have been showing towards each other in our body politic. As I say so many times to students as well as other adults who know me, we are in a greatly extended period where emotion seems to outweigh logic and honest debate of issues, regardless of one's political slant, ideology, and opinion.

We are in a time when the extremes of both the right and the left have forced themselves to center stage and have the microphone, throwing around accusations, blame, and doomsday rhetoric about our country. We see so many arguing the talking points that feed on emotion to try and drive the masses into a frenzy, never mind facts and evidence that inconveniently get in the way.

We see a time when decades of neglect and inaction on many fronts have finally managed to converge on us all at once, which has developed an environment where emotion is able to trump logic and common sense because of the scope and magnitude of the issues we now face simultaneously. There is an interconnected set of problems that need to be solved, some time very soon, if we are to avoid near catastrophe as a nation. And I do not want to be seen as being nothing but a partisan when I say this, because I truly say this in all sincerity and with as much an open mind as I can - President Obama is the only major player and person in a position of power I see who seems to understand the scope of interconnectedness of the many major issues we face. Think about it - who else has given speeches that go beyond one or two points? Who else makes a case for any sort of political solution to a problem without mentioning how it is related to multiple other problems and issues? I try to think of others who do this consistently, on either side of the aisle, but cannot think of anyone else (Bill Clinton comes to mind, but he is on the sidelines).

The economic collapse of the past couple years. Health care. Social security. Jobs. Energy policy. Climate change. Foreign policy, national security and two wars. The state of education. Immigration. Budget deficits and national debt. Tax policy. The role of government. National infrastructure. The American Dream and our standard of living.

This is all heavy stuff, each one being a major problem that requires serious discussion, debate, compromise, and both short- and long-term solutions. For any administration, taking on any single one of these over the course of a year or two and getting any sort of major deal on it would be a huge accomplishment. Well, having ignored just about every single one of these issues for multiple decades, there is a logjam on the presidential and congressional plates. We have someone who is willing to take on the political risk to actually confront them. Not because he necessarily wants to...but because he necessarily HAS to. And tough problems that require enormous amounts of work and effort and thought make the average person twist in the wind and want to run and hide. Tough problems we do not necessarily like to think about, precisely because they are tough, make many of us mentally adn intellectually shut down. Do you remember being a student in a math or science class, or some other subject you may have struggled in a bit, and you get to a topic or problem that simply does not make any sense when you first see it? What is your instinct? As a teacher, I see this most days of the week with a number of individual students...the tendency of many, perhaps most, is to step away and resist having to work on it. Serious thought...I am talking about the wrack your brain over a number of days or weeks thought about a single tough utterly exhausting. It can be entirely frustrating. It can lead one to want to quit altogether. It can lead to anger and emotional outbursts because it is easy to feel utterly stupid and inadequate when a solution continues to hide in the dark, and you are without a flashlight.

This is where we are with the problems we face, and the ugly side of problem solving is upon us. Emotional outbursts and anger have arisen from the collective 'wracking the brains over extended periods of time.' The issues are terribly complex. There are no easy solutions, period. Sorry to say, but "Drill, baby, drill!" really will not solve our energy crisis...simplicity, while desirable, is nothing more than wishful thinking and allows us to create catchy, folksy, bumper sticker quotes that dangerously puts the uninformed and short-sighted thinker into an emotional frenzy. Simply saying "Deport all illegal immigrants!" is not a real solution to our immigration woes. Nor is it practical...good luck hunting down 13 million people living in the background and shadows covering millions of square miles. Think about how hard it has been over a nearly ten-year period to hunt down just one person in a vastly smaller area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As much as I, too, am not thrilled with all I pay in taxes, simply cutting taxes is not the solution to our jobs and fiscal problems. It is just a tad more complicated than that.

Thinking in terms of the ten-word phrase found during political campaign season is dangerous, because it completely masks the complexity of the serious issues facing the nation. An example is energy policy. What you do with energy affects infrastructure, which affects the budget, which affects tax policy. It affects industry and the type of manufacturing that will take place in the country over the next few decades. This affects jobs. The nature of those jobs affects the type of education we must provide to our children, who make up the next generation of the workforce. What we do with energy affects global pollution, our standard of living and climate. The nature of pollution from energy production and distribution affects health care (for example, as I point out to students when they asked about Obama wanting to begin building new nuclear power plants, no one in the US has ever died from us using nuclear power over the past five decades...but tens of thousands become sick and die from the pollution of coal, oil and gas power plants each year...not sure why this is never pointed out in the media). What we do with energy affects foreign policy and national defense.

This is why I say "Drill, baby, drill" is nothing more than a catch-phrase for the masses you want to emotionally charge up and fool into thinking that this is a serious policy statement. Nothing more ever follows those three words in terms of anything that resembles a solution to a tremendously serious, complex issue that is interconnected and intimately related to numerous other serious, complex issues. This is why I say Pres. Obama, whether you agree or disagree with his politics and proposals for issues, is the only one I see out there even attempting to seriously recognize the complexity and severity of the nature of the interconnected problems.

By the way, so you know I am not a complete partisan who thinks Obama can do no wrong, I am disappointed that the President recently authorized new offshore oil drilling. The right keeps saying that with modern techniques and technology, this is a safe endeavor. Tell that to the people on the Gulf Coast, as we have a new disaster in the making from the offshore platform that exploded and is now causing a natural catastrophe of much of the Gulf ecosystem. As bad as this is going to be in terms of environmental damage to all sorts of species, I kept arguing during the campaign when McCain proposed all sorts of new drilling that, when you consider the long-term, this is going to also be our drinking water. There is an impending shortage of clean, potable water in many parts of the US (as well as many parts of the world), and we will have to begin using ocean water some day (sooner than we might think)for our own survival. But no one likes thinking about this issue, so it has been put on a back burner, just like we have done with health care, social security, energy, infrastructure, immigration, and so on. We are paying a heavy price right now for that lack of action and foresight, and we will keep being shortsighted with issues like off-shore drilling and the interconnectedness to other issues like drinking water. History does repeat itself; this is a cliche for a reason.

I am frustrated by the majority of our elected officials who are in campaign mode and who are, perhaps, incapable of thinking about more than one thing at a time. I am worried that short-sighted, emotional outbursts are drowning out facts, evidence, expert opinion and proposals to serious, complex issues, that quite frankly the average person may not be able to comprehend, nor wants to make an effort to understand. I worry about those who resort to name calling and who attack another person's character and integrity if they do not agree with one's own opinion or political slant. It does not make you a 'traitor' or unpatriotic if you do not agree with me. In my mind, if your intent is to help solve a problem and make our nation better, that makes you a patriot, plain and simple, whether I agree with you or disagree with you! Being able to peacefully disagree with each other is largely what makes America unique and great! Why do we want anything less than this? This is why a blanket philosophy of "You are either with us or against us" is so terribly dangerous and UN-American. This is where many Americans are on both the left and the right. My kids' future is up for grabs right now, and I desperately yearn for a day, very soon, where facts and evidence are valued, and where serious and rational thought, debate and compromise will show its face and put this emotionally, partisan-driven nonsense in its grave.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rest Before Mental Work a Plus

The Drs. Eide had a brief post about the positive effects of taking a nap prior to doing mental gymnastics that relate to memory and learning. A UC-Berkley study showed a significant gain in learning for those who nap/rested prior to doing the mental activity compared to those who did not nap.

I like the example they use where, at Google, employees have access to what are effectively napping modules (nap pods) that block light and sound. By resting for, say, 30 minutes or so, worker productivity, innovation and creativity should be enhanced by being able to take that quick rest period, particularly if it is just prior to a working group meeting or research period. The brain literally has a chance to reset and blood flow to the hippocampus increases, which is good preparation for the parts of the brain where learning and memory physically take place.

This has implications for education. If there is a more intense period of learning planned towards the end of a class period, where students have already been working for some period of time, a brief few minutes to rest may in fact enhance the learning immediately prior to the more intense learning period. Many teachers, myself included, know that using something like a 20-5 strategy works with students (meaning 20 minutes of activity followed by 5 minutes of practice/rest) seems to be effective for many students. This type of research helps explain why such strategies work, and suggests we should do more of work-rest periods in the classroom help our students maximize what they get from a lesson or activity. A detailed article about what is happening with the brain can be found here.