Thom Markham

Connecting the Dots to Whole Child Education

Yesterday's date: April 1, 2013.

Yesterday's lead education article: How should we handle homework?

Yesterday's lead statistic: ADHD diagnosed in 11 percent of U.S. children.

Today's question: Can we connect the dots?

No, this was not an April Fool's question. It's a simple scattergram, a graph of disparate facts and headlines arranged into no particular pattern—until you begin to probe and ponder.

It's possible to see no pattern, like the pictures that are supposed to show two different faces depending on your perspective, but you can never see the second one. From this perspective, the fact that 11 percent of our children have been diagnosed with dysfunctional brains is a shame. How sad that so many fine minds have been damaged by media, bad parenting, toxins, or other unknown causes. How difficult that makes our jobs as educators, as we're forced to contend with inattentive students, outbursts, lack of self-control, and other disruptions to our routine. How are we ever going to get these 11 percent to do their homework?

Which brings us to the next dots. Why, in 2013, do we still discuss homework framed by arguments and ideas from 1995? How much homework is appropriate? Is it feedback or practice? Should it be graded? Should students even be assigned homework? For these kinds of questions, we don't need new articles. Just use reprints.

But let's probe. Why, with 13 percent of the 21st century nearly gone and 11 percent of our children diagnosed with bad wiring, do we still believe that getting homework right might solve our problems? Is it a sign, possibly, that our minds are more dysfunctional than our children's? I don't mean this facetiously. They're born into a nanosecond world, with digital tools to match, their brains in constant adjustment to a novel environment, their neurons creating every possible new network to contend with bombardment—yet we focus on rearranging the deck chairs of a system designed to operate at the pace of a number two pencil. Educators love children. But the system we impose on them still focuses on conformity, control, and outcomes framed by the strict parameters of standards. If I were 15, in too many schools, I would need a pill, too.

In other words, connect the dots. We are, to some degree—perhaps more than we want to admit—responsible for this 11 percent disaster.

The fixes are beyond the scope of this brief outburst. But once again, let's extract the essentials from the contemporary debate over the future of education. If we want to get this 11 percent down to a respectable number that reflects the true percentage of children who really need help, then every educator must commit to a deeper vision of education that eventually will make homework discussions sound like arguments for and against the War of 1812. In my view, True North lies in this direction:

  • Whole child education. Neuroscience is getting very clear on a fundamental fact: The brain changes in response to environment. Every message from the outside registers as a shift in neural networks, more myelinization, and alterations in the expressions of DNA in neurons. Further, the message of care is a powerful means to move brain activity out of the hind brain and into the frontal cortex. The brain is not a cognitive machine designed exclusively for geometry problems or increasing vocabulary. It is a stabilizing, holistic organ that works in concert with the heart to keep us calm, focused, and able to look ahead. Every interaction between a student and a school should be filtered through an initial question: Will the student feel cared for so he or she can perform at their best? When care is a true guideline, it's a system buster, affecting testing schedules, school and class schedules, instructional strategies, teaching methods, and curriculum. But that's the challenge.
  • Fewer standards. The Common Core State Standards are a sincere attempt to overcome standards madness. They will work, for a little while. First, expect a heated debate over implementation. Are they a curriculum or a set of holistic guidelines? Only the latter interpretation takes us forward. But as fast as we invent better standards, the faster the world moves. It is, in fact, a losing game. At the end of the day—whenever that is—there will be a set of simple standards that revolve around the student's ability to learn, not to reproduce. Those standards will look something like the four principles floated by Mark Prensky in the March 2013 issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership: Effective Accomplishment; Effective Relationships; Effective Thinking; and Effective Action. Here's the basic point: simpler standards focused on student-centered outcomes are a form of care, a way to honor the learner.
  • Digital tools. This is the closest to becoming reality because the pace of change is out of our hands. The good news, as I see it, is that the tipping point has arrived. The tools coming online, such as Google Hangout or Edmodo, are too pervasive, too easy to use, too natural for students, to avoid any longer. The good news, also, is that the tools have hit the classroom, and the stories of joyful exploration and accomplishment coming out of those classrooms are a terrific antidote to the 11 percent story. But the bad news is that digital tools disrupt scripted outcomes. Most of the tools focus on collaboration or invention; neither of those fits well with a controlled environment, and most of the teachers who use them with students gravitate to the fewer standards side of the ledger. They have to. These tools are designed as extensions of the mind; they take a student into cyberspace and across the planet. That's a big world, and it doesn't fit into a pacing guide. But the ultimate form of care is to prepare children for their world, not ours.

Patterns often emerge after a few moments of reflection. As you look at the dots, and then at your school, do you see connections? If more of us can see the emerging picture, then more of us will begin to draw something new.

Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K–12 Educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The Return of the Heart. Download tools for project-based learning on his website,, or contact him by e-mail at

Comments (1)


April 4, 2013

This article has been too useful and effective for me thanks for sharing.

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