Event Recap: Dr. Denise Pope on Raising Healthy Adolescents

Last Wednesday, we were thrilled to host Dr. Denise Pope of Stanford's School of Education for a talk on raising (and schooling) healthy adolescents. The Bay School generously offered us their Great Room for the talk, and 130 parents from all over the city joined us with terrific engagement and questions. 

At the heart of Denise's talk was a question: What does success really mean? She began by describing large-scale research asking parents and students for their definitions of success, and the paradox that was revealed. When parents are asked what success means in the long-term for their kids, they describe things like enjoyable and important work, strong relationships, happiness, etc. Yet when adolescents are asked the same question, often the kids of those same parents, the #1 answer by far is: money. Followed by fame or popularity. The paradox is this - many parents want their kids to have a life driven by intrinsic motivation, with curiosity, meaning, purposefulness at the center; whereas kids seem to be absorbing the message that it's all about extrinsic rewards. How much money can I make? Will I be respected and gain social status for the choices I make?

The crux of it is, as parents, we often say one thing - we want our kids to be happy, curious, passionate - but then fill their lives with so many activities and so much pressure to perform that we end up eliminating the time kids need to figure out who they are and how to pursue their passion in life. Meanwhile, as educators, we say we want intrinsic motivation but often run schools that are rigidly organized, with little room for student input and direction, and extensive sticks and carrots through grades and other means to keep students performing according to our definition of success. In short, we risk squeezing the natural zest and motivation out of our kids. The recent series of tragic student suicides in Palo Alto, driven by the culture of intense academic competition at high school, illustrates how serious this problem is.

Fortunately, after explaining the challenge we face, Denise went on to offer a more optimistic vision of what can be done differently. She uses two sets of essential, evidence-based practices to create healthier environments for kids:

  • PDF: Playtime (which needs to be unstructured), Downtime, and Family Time. The latter is the strongest "protective factor" in research drawn from tens of thousands of families. Those that spent at least 5 "family sessions" per week of at least 25 minutes, involving any time together when the family wasn't distracted by devices, had a major positive effect on kids' well-being. In a word, they feel seen. Meanwhile, the unstructured time by themselves and with friends gave kids a chance to exercise their imaginations, develop social intelligence, learn how to structure their time when no adult is guiding them, etc. 

  • SPACE: This is Denise's recipe for healthy school environments. There's a great deal of depth here, more than a blog post can fit (hence Denise's upcoming book), but in short it is: S for healthier school schedules, with time for deeper inquiry, and less extreme homework load. P for project- and problem-based learning. A for alternative and authentic assessments, e.g. narratives and presentations of learning, going much deeper than traditional letter grades. C is for a "Climate of Care," built around social and emotional learning and strong advisory systems. Finally E is Educating Parents, Students and Faculty on the research around student well-being, and the deeper question of what success really means.

Denise's research, and that of the organization she co-founded, Challenge Success, is a formative influence on our design at Millennium. Middle schoolers must be treated as a unique developmental group, not "little high schoolers." For their developmental phase, it's essential that we preserve their curiosity as they transition to adulthood; that we give them time to discover and shape their identity, learn how to relate to others, and begin exploring what topics and skills are most fascinating to them. Fundamentally, it's a time when we can take the intrinsic motivation they start with naturally, and protect it by helping them form an identity that loves learning, that is unflustered by the idea of launching a company, starting a major art project, or changing an unfair city law. That's the kind of success we believe in: students who know themselves, and know how to apply that insight in the real world.