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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why does 2 hours of homework take 8 hours to finish!?!

My 8th grade son has a MacBook for school. It is required for all middle schoolers so he has had it now for 3 years. Since he is going to be using a computer in his future career I think it is OK that he has a head start although, to be fair,there is research to the contrary. Being able to type, find one's way around an excel spreadsheet, and create a PowerPoint presentation are skills that will help in school as well as work. This view was reinforced recently by my friend who teaches at a public school in the US. His students had to take a standardized assessment test. Unlike the tests I took as a kid with little circles and a number 2 pencil, these tests were administered via computers in the school computer lab. It certainly makes it easier to grade the tests but as several of his students were from poorer households, they had never used a mouse before. There were questions on the test that required the students to rotate drawings and drag items from one part of the screen to another. If your kid's entire experience with technology has been limited to swiping on a 4 inch screen, then he is going to be at a disadvantage when taking this test. The resulting low scores were not surprising. But I digress, this article is about distraction. For my son, the computer is both a boon and a constant distraction. He has become so adept at swiping between screens that I can no longer catch him when he is playing games instead of doing his homework. With those quick fingers he may have a career as a magician (or pickpocket!) ahead of him.

Aside from my frustration with his playing games when he should be doing his homework (we never played minesweeper or solitaire when we  were supposed to be working...) there is also the delay that occurs when humans switch between tasks. Unfortunately, that fraction of a second for the swipe on the touch pad is not the total time lost.

Multitasking is a hoax. There is enough research now to suggest that when we are multitasking, we are actually doing one task, then moving to another task rather than doing both simultaneously. In addition, there is a lag with each switch before we become productive again. According to this study, if my daughter has an hour of math homework and an hour of history homework, it could take her 2 hours and 10 minutes to complete IF she completes one subject before starting on the other. The 10 minute addition is the switching time her brain needs to adjust to the new subject and become productive. If she tries to do both, switching back and forth, each change could cost her another 10 minutes or more quickly adding up to a lot of wasted time. Now add in Facebook, Instagram, text messages, email, etc. In my son's case, 2 hours of homework unbelievably becomes 8 hours!

Based on this research, the kid's learning how to navigate a computer screen at the same time (not really the "same" time since there is no such thing as multitasking) they are taking a timed assessment test are always going to do worse than the kids who handle the mouse without thinking.

It is always difficult trying to teach my kids something that I have yet to master myself. Avoiding distractions and focusing on a task until it is completed is extremely difficult. Fast Company published a survey on workplace distractions back in 2011. The estimate of up to one lost hour per day due to these distractions seems likely to be higher in reality. I can only assume that the number of things competing for my attention has increased since then. So what can I do about my kids? The physical actions are easy enough, take away the iPhone, make him sit where I can see his computer screen, check on him every now and then (in a non-distracting way). But I also want them to have the discipline to stick to their work and the understanding of why they should not multitask when I am not around to look over their shoulders. Teaching by example and explaining how our brains work will hopefully do the trick. Perhaps when he is sitting at his desk in college and knows he has a long night ahead of him, he will remember Dad's explanation about the myth of multitasking. He will then turn off his phone, close whatever social media site is popular at the time, pick one subject to plow through, and finish his work in time to get a couple hours sleep.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ten books your kids should read to help them with their career.

I could not resist. Growing up with David Letterman's weekly top ten lists combined with what seems to be the increasing number of websites and articles devoted to lists of all lengths and topics I decided to share my own.

I limited my choices to books that I read when I was a kid. There are certainly newer ones available (see Lawn Boy) but then I would be evaluating them based on reading them as an adult and I wanted to come up with a list of books that had an impact on me earlier in life. I tried to limit my choices to books that encourage the attributes employers and colleges are looking for in our kids. Things like: problem-solving skills, confidence, teamwork, motivation, communication skills, and discipline.

I realized as I was trying to recall all the books from my childhood that the memories of the preschool level and early elementary books had more to do with feelings about Mom or Dad who read them too me rather than the books themselves. Reading to our kids (regardless of which book) is worth the effort.

It was too difficult to choose which of the following books was better than any other book so I have not prioritized them.

The List
  • The Mad Scientists' Club and The Three Investigators - These two series had much in common. Both involved groups of kids working together (teamwork) to either solve mysteries, build cool things, or help people. Nobody had any super powers and there was not a single magic wand to be seen. This made it seem that achieving great things was possible, even for a normal kid (a muggle?). 
  • Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective - Similar to the Scientist and Investigator books, Encyclopedia also was based in reality and solved mysteries that even the grown ups could not figure out. He was analytical, confident, and was cool because he was smart. He occasionally had help but he often succeeded on his own.
  • Why Are There More Questions Than Answers, Grandad? - This one is out of print but a few years after my first child was born I found a used version and bought it for him. I love this book. By the end, you get the message that it is OK to ask questions when you do not know something but also that even a little kid can sometimes solve his own problems.
  • Treasure Island - Work is called work for a reason. Even jobs we like can sometimes require discipline and even courage to get through a tough day. 
  • Horton Hatches the Egg - Trust, responsibility, commitment. What employer would not want to hire Horton after his achievement and impressive display of loyalty to his job? 
  • What Do People Do All Day? - Sometimes I think that this book should be required reading for all High School seniors. At least they would have a broader view of what jobs exist in the world before they head off to college to "find themselves".
  • Where the Wild Things Are - You can always come home. Taking risks is easier when you know that there is a safety net.
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Listen to your mother!
  • White Fang (Great Illustrated Classics) - I must have read this one a hundred times. It had all the right ingredients; adventure, fighting, camping, dogs and wolves. Since it was also in comic form it was more accessible to me at a younger age. There was a happy ending but it did not come easy and similar to Treasure Island, the message that life can be hard and persistence and hard work are necessary is a good one.
Which books would you add to this list?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Kids who play outside are more likely to get a job right out of college, or are they?

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A friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of her son climbing a tree with the caption, "I rather want him playing outside." It got me thinking about whether it makes a difference in our kid's future career if they spend more time in the trees, grass, ocean, etc.

I should say first that I think playing outside is great for kids. But, if I look at the benefits strictly from a Headhunter Dad perspective it is not so clear that swinging and jumping and running is going to help them get into college or get a better job.

So, what are the benefits from playing outside?
  • Exercise and health are certainly linked to physical activity. This is based on the assumption that kids will naturally move around more outside as opposed to inside. Looking at my own kids they seem to move around an awful lot inside as well!
  • Vitamin D (sunlight). Can't argue with the body's need for this critical ingredient.
  • Interaction with the natural world. Maybe only if you live out in the country as opposed to the center of Manhattan or Tokyo.
  • Distance vision is better for kids who spend more time outdoors (see study).
  • Another study seems to indicate that playing outside (in green spaces) increases your child's attention span. Also related to getting out in the woods and on the grass is lowered stress.
What are the detriments from playing outside?
  • If our kids are outside, then they are not likely to be doing homework (reading, math, history) or working in internships, or playing piano, or practicing for their upcoming SAT exams.
  • While it is healthy to run around, it is less healthy to break an arm falling off a swing; potential injury could be considered a downside.
  • Sunlight (skin cancer, sunburn...)
I also came across several suggested benefits that I could not entirely agree were exclusive to being outside:

  • More opportunities for creativity and free play. I don't think our kids need to be outside to be creative. I spent hours and hours building mutant football stadiums with legos when I was a kid and think that the 6 arm wide receiver I came up with was pretty creative.
  • More social interaction with their peers and therefore more opportunities to learn social skills. I guess this applies if you are not allowed to have friends inside the house. Does online gaming count as interaction with peers?

Speaking with the Headhunter Dad's Dad the other day about this topic he commented that his normal routine after school was to rush through his chores and then head outside to play with his friends until it was time to wash up for dinner. He will be 80 next year so that puts him at 18 years old in 1954. He went on to earn a Phd and had a very successful career in a multinational company without worrying about internships in HS, volunteer activities, AP classes, SAT scores, or extracurriculars. I have my suspicions that the competition to get into good colleges in 1954 was... well, less competitive. Harvard received a record number of applications that year, 4,000 of which they accepted more than 25%. In 2014, Harvard received 34,295 applications for their freshman class. They admitted, 2,023 a drop down to 5.9%! If it has gotten more competitive to get into the top schools and and top companies are we hurting our kid's chances by encouraging them to play at the park?

Colleges and companies are (generally) not judging our kids by their physical health or how tan they are. Even the jobs related to natural sciences will prefer the bookworm with a published research paper as opposed to the kid who spent her time running through the woods.

Should I be relenting more often to my daughter's pleas to take her to the park? Will it help her get into the college of her choice and subsequently result in a job offer?

Just playing outside does not seem to offer any particular career benefits for our kids. However, if we add a few parameters to their outside adventures, we do start to see results. Playing outside with lots of other kids helps them to develop better social skills. These skills are valuable for both the college and job interviews. Creativity and problem-solving are both high on the list of requirements for new grads with most companies. Our kids can develop these outside but we parents need to step back and give them some room (like pretending you don't notice when they walk past the window with a shovel and hose towards your flower beds). However, I believe that the world has changed from when my Dad was a kid and an understanding of the current college requirements requires some balance. So by all means, send your kids out to the playground but make sure they have time to practice that violin as well!