Is Kindness More Important than Grades, and If So, Can It Be Taught?

The past year has been a big one for kindness, as noted in a recent New York Times article.

The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, developed the Kindness Curriculum, in which preschoolers are introduced to a potpourri of sensory games, songs and stories that are designed to help them pay closer attention to their emotions. Since the curriculum was introduced in August, more than 15,000 educators, parents and others from around the world have signed up for it.

Sesame Street, which consulted with the University of Wisconsin team, made kindness the theme of its latest season.

There are other programs that have been around longer which also focused on kindness.

The Los Angeles-based “Kind Campaign,” founded in 2009, organizes middle and high school assemblies that target the problem of bullying between young women. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation developed lesson plans for all age groups through high school. Students are guided in classroom discussions and asked to come up with positive actions.

Ellen Degeneres ends each of her shows with the phrase, “Be Kind to Everyone.”

So the kindness movement is having its moment, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I can’t think of anything more important for children and adults to learn than how to be kind, to themselves, to each other, to animals, and to our planet.

Some people may be concerned whether there is any value in having kindness taught in school, arguing perhaps that doing so should be done at home, and school should concentrate on academics.

Research by clinical psychologist Lisa Flook has shown that youngsters who received the Kindness Curriculum training become more altruistic in tests that measured their willingness to share with others. It also strengthened children’s ability to focus and modestly boosted their academic performance.

Advocates of this approach say that the cooperative emotional skills enable learning, and learners, to flourish.

Another study that tracked kindergartners to young adulthood found that individuals with good prosocial skills — behavior that is positive, helpful and friendly — tended to be more successful as adults than those who did well in subjects like reading and math but lacked the ability to get along with others.

In a national survey conducted by Sesame Street of 2,502 parents and teachers, roughly 75% percentage said that it was more important for children to learn kindness than to get good grades.

Others have pointed out that preschool is a critical time to learn about kindness, but the lessons need to be reinforced as the students get older.

However, for any program to reach its potential, the teachers must be role models of kindness as well.

I’ve written about kindness multiple times, so it’s nice to see it getting the attention it deserves, and that our world needs.

But working on your kindness skills shouldn’t end when you are finished with high school; it’s a life long process.

Perhaps we should all spend a little bit of time each day watching Sesame Street, and then practicing what we learn.

Can you imagine what the world would be like?

I Turned the Corner and Entered a World of Which I Am Not a Part

We were strolling around Piccadilly today, the only item on our agenda to stop in at Crosstown Doughnuts where they have some of the best doughnuts I have ever tasted, including vegan ones.

Anyway, it was a bit of a rainy day so we took our time finishing our tea and doughnuts, and then headed across the street to Waterstones, the largest bookstore in all of Europe. I got lucky; I found a copy of a Harlan Coben novel I had not read, and a nice comfy chair, and settled back to do some reading. After a bit, it seemed like it had stopped raining, so we ventured back outside.

Mary decided to browse around Fortnum and Mason, an amazing hamper and tea store (and so much more), but Pat and I decided to keep exploring the neighborhood.

We took a turn down a little alleyway that was lined with high-end men’s shops, and then we reached Jermyn Street, which I had never heard of, but it looked interesting, so we took a right turn, and it took less than a minute for me to realize that this was a world I was not a part of.

Here’s what the Jermyn Street web site had to say about itself:

Jermyn Street dates back to 1664 when Charles II authorised Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, to develop an area close to St James’s Palace. It has flourished ever since and holds a worldwide reputation for high quality British artistry and craftsmanship. The street is home to London’s finest men’s tailors, shirt makers, suppliers of leather goods, food and wine merchants, restaurants, hotels and art galleries.

We passed one men’s clothing store after another, each one trying to outdo its neighbors. I figured there was no point going in these stores for a few reasons:

  • I had no interest in buying any of the clothes I saw
  • the prices were OUTRAGEOUS (that’s right, I knew that, even without stepping foot in the door)
  • we would have stuck out like a sore thumb

However, when we reached the end of the block we saw a cigar store, Davidoff London. We don’t smoke cigars, but we thought it would be fun to go in and check it out.

Talk about another world.

We saw a cigar box for over $4,000. We saw a bottle of Japanese liqueur for nearly $6,000, and a cigarette (well, I guess they call it a cigar) lighter for over $1,500. I didn’t dare ask to take a look at the special room where they kept the cigars. As I walked around the store I wondered what kind of people buy this stuff?

When we were finished at Davidoff’s, we crossed the street and saw what appeared to be another men’s shop, so we thought we have to stop in at least one.

Well as it turned out this was the Beretta Gallery – Beretta as in the gun company. The ground floor had men’s clothing, that is why I assumed it was just another outrageously priced men’s clothing store, but it was so much more.

The next floor up had a huge collection of knives; I think the most expensive one we saw was close to $6,000. Once again I was left thinking who buys this stuff.

We then made our way up to the top floor, where the door was locked but we got buzzed in. This is where they kept their rifles. We saw several rifles in the $2,000-$3,000 range, and then we saw a $72,000 rifle. I had to ask the salesperson what the difference was, and he talked about the materials and the craftmanship, and that it would take more than two years to receive the $72,000 rifle if I were to order it today. I thanked him and said that would not be necessary. We then checked out a few more rifles and saw one for $172,000!


We then headed back to find my wife; she had found another bookshop, Hatchards. I think this is the nicest bookstore I have ever been in, and I look forward to visiting again. It’s been nice to see that bookstores are alive and well in London (at least the chain stores).

We then ended up back at Fortnum and Mason, where we discovered that the top floor was a men’s clothing and accessory floor, along with a bar, for tea and beers. As I took a brief look around the lounge, I realized that the people sitting there with their whiskey and scones came here to probably get away from people like me dressed in Villanova hoodies. We also checked out where they have their afternoon tea (which we hope to partake of during our visit – they have vegan options!), and there was an ice cream parlor on the ground floor.

Anyway, we took in a few more shops (one of them was Lillywhites, one of the most amazing sports apparel stores I have ever seen), caught some of the Lumiere Festival taking place in Piccadilly, and then headed to Kings Cross for dinner and to check out their Lumiere lights.

We finally headed home via the tube, which was packed because of the Lumiere festival. As we were heading home, I remarked that even if I won the lottery, I would have no interest in going back to any of the men’s clothing stores I had just seen and buying anything they had for sale. It’s not me, and I have no plans to change.

I’ll admit that the clothes look great, but I’m happier, and much more comfortable in my hoodie and blue jeans.

Neil Diamond would understand.

Banning Books in Prison? You’ve Got to Be Kidding!

Quartz had a story this week about prisons that ban books, looking at the differences from state to state. The story then offered a closer look at the process used by Pennsylvania to decide whether or not to ban a book, and the reasons for such decisions.

I don’t understand why there is a process at all – to me no books should be banned. If someone did somehow abuse his or her book reading privilege, then it seems like it would be much easier, and much more effective way to deal with the problem. Why punish the entire state prison population for the behavior of one or a few individuals.

The story noted that New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would suspend a pilot program that would have severely restricted books in state prisons and left 50,000 inmates in veritable information darkness. The result would have been very few books on topics outside religion and puzzles.

Here were some additional tidbits from other states:

Prisoners in Alabama are banned from being in book clubs. In Michigan and Ohio, prisoners are barred from reading books that teach computer skills. In Michigan, the computer programming manual C++ For Dummies was kept out of a prison in 2012 because it posed a “threat to the order/security of institution.” The same reasoning applied to a book about Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On the list of tens of thousands of books Texas has banned in its prisons are The Essential Gore Vidal and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Last week, following reports that two New Jersey prisons had banned Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the state quickly reversed the prohibition.

I just don’t get any of these restrictions.

I would think books could play a key role in the rehab process of prisoners, so instead of banning them, I think they should have full access to all books.

And why not offer book clubs? Perhaps giving prisoners a chance to share their thoughts with other people could change the dynamics, even just a little, to a more positive one within the prison.

And who knows, as a result of such reading opportunities, people may leave the prison and hit the ground running as programmers, paralegals, or wanting to pursue a college degree.

And aren’t such outcomes what we are looking for from our prisons?


London – City of Lights

We are fortunate to be in London for Lumiere London, a world-class light festival that takes place over four evenings, from Thursday 18 to Sunday 21 January 2018. We are doubly fortunate that some of the major exhibits that are part of the festival are a two-minute walk from our flat.

So tonight we took a stroll along the Thames River, where you could see many of the exhibits. I thought I’d share some of the photos we took, as well as a video of one of the main attractions.

But first, a little about London Lumiere, from the great web site,

Lumiere showcases the capital’s spectacular and iconic architecture and streets, with more than 50 works created through the vision of leading UK and international artists.

The free outdoor light festival is the biggest festival of light in London to date. It returns to London for the second time following the success of the first edition in January 2016, when it attracted an estimated 1.3 million visits over four nights in London’s West End, Mayfair and King’s Cross.

The 2018 edition has an expanded footprint extending north to south, from King’s Cross, through Fitzrovia, Mayfair, and London’s West End, to Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Victoria, South Bank (this is where our flat is), and Waterloo.

So the following video and photos are from our walk along the river on the South Bank. There’s a few other photos from outside the South Bank, but the views  just seemed too good to pass up a photo opportunity.

Here’s a video of the walk through the “The Wave”:

Here’s a picture of the London Eye, with its usual red lights changed to red, white, and blue (the lights kept changing color):

Here are photos of some of the buildings that were lit up (not really sure if this is part Lumiere or not, but it looked great):

Here’s a guy doing some sand sculpting (the Thames has a beach area!):

And finally here are some shots of the city of London from our side of the river:

We feel blessed to have this opportunity to be here; London is a wonderful city, and we keep discovering something new every day that makes the city even better.

P.S. The picture at the top is part of the Lumiere Festival, but it is not one I took; I found it on the Visit London web site. It was taken at Westminster Abbey, and we are hoping to visit that exhibit int he next couple of days.


You Wouldn’t See This in the U.S. (Well at Least Not in Philly)

The photo above is an indication of how passengers were greeted as we emerged from the Waterloo Underground – a free 5-ounce can of Heineken (alcohol-free).

Of course, my wife, son, and I had to accept the offer, it would have been bad taste to refuse such a gift.

I could not tell what controls the two Heineken folks had over how many cans a person might take, or if the age was of any concern since it was “alcohol-free” (the drinking age here is 18). However, from my brief observation, everything seemed to be working fine, and no one seemed to be abusing the process.

As I stood there watching I tried to imagine such a scene in one of Philly’s subway concourses. As much as I love Philly, I think such a marketing promotion could cause a near riot, even if it was alcohol-free beer. At some point, someone would try to grab a second or third one, someone might try to take off with the whole cooler of beers, or someone might use one of the cans as a weapon at the Eagles playoff game this weekend.

I’ve noticed a few differences between the U.S. and the U.K., and I’m planning to write a future blog about those items, but I found the beer giveaway so intriguing I couldn’t wait.

Proost! (That’s ‘Cheers!’ in Dutch).

Hamilton Lives Up to Its Hype

We were fortunate to have tickets for tonight’s London production of Hamilton, and it was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

I didn’t really know much about the play, except a little bit of Hamilton’s background, and in particular his duel with Aaron Burr.

As we sat there and watched the play unfold I kept thinking about what a creative genius Lin-Manuel Miranda is, coming up with the lyrics for every song in the play. And every song was great; It’s Quiet Uptown had me in tears.

Every performer seemed just right for the role he or she played, and the theater is beautiful. It was completely renovated and Hamilton is the first play to be performed there since completing the renovations.

Here’s a full picture of the outside:

and here’s a picture of the stage from our seats:

I don’t think there is a bad seat in the theater; we were in the 17th row, and I think there were only a couple of rows behind us. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever been to the stage at a major play.

There were also seats in the balcony, which again, seemed to offer great views of the stage:

So a big thank you and congrats to Mr. Miranda and to the entire London stage and crew for such a wonderful story and performance. My wife, son, and I were thoroughly entertained, and informed.

Here’s the song It’s Quiet Uptown:

MLK Day in the UK

While MLK Day is a federal holiday in the U.S. (and rightly so), it’s just another Monday here in London.

I did try searching to see if there were any events commemorating Dr. King around town, but I could not find any. I did come across events from prior years, but nothing for today.

Fortunately, he is not completely forgotten.

The Evening Standard, London’s dominant daily newspaper, did have a profile in today’s paper, offering a brief background on MLK, and then sharing some of his more memorable quotes.

I thought it would be nice to give a little non-U.S. perspective on MLK, so here are the excerpts from the article:

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day – a paid public holiday in America used to honour the former leader of the Civil Rights Movement. First announced as a holiday in 1983, the then-president Ronald Reagan officiated that every third Monday in January would be used to honour the former leader after millions of people all across the States petitioned for it. Thirty years since his death, his legacy is still very much alive and he’s still regarded as one of the most important figures in history throughout the world. Born on January 15, 1929, today would have been his 89th birthday.

It’s nice to see that it’s not just in the U.S. that King is revered, but around the world.

And here are the quotes that the Evening Standard shared, one of which has a Philadelphia connection:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – from Strength to Love, 1963

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – from Strength to Love, 1963

“The time is always right to do what is right.” – from Oberlin College Commencement speech, 1965

“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.” – from speech before a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, October 26, 1967

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” – I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, 1968

“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.” – Origin unknown

“Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter” – “The Most Durable Power,” excerpt from Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on 6 November, 1956

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – I Have a Dream, 1963

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”- Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 1963

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Origin unknown, 1967

The article also has a great slide show of some memorable photos of MLK.

I’m sure it was a great day in the U.S., with lots of service being performed in MLK’s name. Perhaps one day there will be a global day of service in his name…

Walkstorming – Scientific Evidence That Going for a Walk Improves Brainstorming

Based on this research, my brainstorming capabilities should be at an all-time high.

Behavioral and learning scientist Marily Oppezzo, who studies how the movement of the body can affect the movement of the mind, found that getting up and going for a walk might be all it takes to get your creative juices flowing.

Oppezzo, along with Dan Schwartz, Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, looked at the impact of going for a simple walk as a way to improve the creative process. Such a process consists of several stages, but their research just looked at the first stage of that process, the brainstorming phase. While many people have given anecdotal evidence about the creative benefits of going for a walk, from Aristotle to Steve Jobs, this study is the first to offer scientific evidence for such a hypothesis.

The study asked participants to come up with novel uses for an object, and then the researchers would count the use as creative or not. The definition of “creative”  used in this study was “appropriate novelty.” For something to be appropriate, it has to be realistic; for it to be novel, a use could only have been mentioned by one person.

The participants were then broken into groups; some were asked to come up with ideas while sitting; others were asked to come up with ideas while walking on a treadmill.

The results showed that the group that walked on the treadmill came up with nearly twice as many appropriately novel uses for the object, compared to the group that sat.

Oppezzo and Schwartz offered five tips to get the most impact from your walk:

  • First, you want to pick a problem or a topic to brainstorm.
  • walking at a comfortable pace is a good choice; you don’t want the physical aspect to take a lot of attention.
  • Come up with as many ideas as you can.
  • Speak as many ideas as you can, record them, and think about them later. Don’t worry about writing the ideas down.
  • Don’t do this forever. If you’re on the walk and that idea’s not coming to you, come back to it later at another time.

So if all of this is true, then I need to come up with some topics to brainstorm about. My first week in London, I walked 104,000 steps, and so far this week, in four days, I’ve walked 47,000 steps.

You’d think I would have come up with a few good ideas by now, but the best I could do was come up with a name for this phenomena: walkstorming.

I’m thinking it has a chance to be the word of the year for 2018. Remember you heard it here first.

By the way, here’s a TED talk by Oppezzo’s where she shares the results of her research:

Perhaps There Is a Method to the (Tootsie Roll) Madness at Planet Fitness

One of the things about Planet Fitness that I find interesting is that there are always little tootsie rolls on the counter, presumably for when you have finished your workout and you are on your way out the door. (not to mention the free pizza the first Monday of each month and the free bagels the second Tuesday of each month).

To me, those tootsie rolls/pizza/bagels seemed to defeat the purpose of why you were going to the gym. (And I know people were eating the tootsie rolls because I would see the wrappers on the stairs leading out of the gym; I guess the people eating the tootsie rolls were too exhausted from their workout to bend over and pick up the wrapper.)

Bu then I thought; what a clever move by Planet Fitness. If people eat those snacks, then it sort of cancels out the benefits of the workout, and keeps people coming back, since they are not losing any weight.

Well as it turns out, there is some research that may support an even more subtle benefit to offering those snacks, based on a phenomenon known as the “peak-end rule”, which shows that when people evaluate an experience, they pay particular attention to the end.

Dan Ariely, along with two co-authors, showed that when people ramp down the intensity of the exercise at the end, they feel happier after the exercise session and expect to enjoy future exercise more. So, when an experience ends on a more positive (or at least a less negative) note, we remember the whole as better and are more likely to want to repeat it.

So perhaps those snacks are a way of having the visit to the gym end on a positive note, making it more likely that an individual will return to the gym again.

Did Planet Fitness hire Dan Ariely to come up with such a brilliant plan?

And they talk about how social media is using mind-tricks to keep people addicted…

Would Cloning Make the World a Better Place?

What if there was a way to level the playing field for low-income black and Hispanic students relative to their white or wealthier counterparts, so much so that gaps in language comprehension and numeracy can often disappear by the start of kindergarten?

What if there was a way of increasing the rates of high-school completion and college attendance, and reducing the incidence of teenage parenthood, welfare dependence, and arrests.

There is a way, but it is often ignored and unappreciated.

A growing body of research suggests that when done right, preschool can achieve such lofty goals.

According to a New York Times magazine, the idea that we can deliberately influence the cognitive and social development of very young children is a fairly new one. In the early 20th century, some doctors considered intellectual stimulation so detrimental to infants that they routinely advised young mothers to avoid it. At the beginning of the 1960s, the prevailing wisdom was only slightly less dire. Trying to stimulate a very young mind wasn’t considered dangerous so much as pointless, because 0-to-4-year-olds were “concrete thinkers,” incapable of theorizing or abstraction.

But such thinking began to shift with two seminal preschool experiments: the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which began in 1962 in Ypsilanti, Mich., and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which began in 1972 in and around Chapel Hill, N.C.

Decades later, however, when researchers went back, they found a surprise. At age 21, the Abecedarian children were half as likely to have been teenage parents and 2.5 times more likely to have enrolled in college than the control group, who did not attend preschool. At 40, the Perry children had higher median incomes than their control-group peers; they were less likely to be on welfare and less likely to have been arrested.

Both programs appeared to have affected the children in ways that could still be seen in adulthood.

In the decades since those results were published, the biological and social sciences have radically altered our understanding of early-childhood development. We now know that infants and toddlers have the capacity for complex thought. According to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, they can understand other people’s intentions, reason about cause and effect and intuit the more basic aspects of addition and subtraction. We also know that the earliest years are a period of intense and rapid neural development — M.R.I. studies suggest that 80 percent of all neural connections form by age 3 — and that a child’s ability to capitalize on these years is directly related to her environment.

Scientists and educators have begun to build on this new understanding, creating pedagogy and designing curriculums around the needs of our earliest learners.

However, despite such realization, the benefits of a preschool education tend to manifest unevenly. Amid that uncertainty, though, at least two things seem clear: Children in low-income and minority neighborhoods stand to gain (or lose) the most from whatever preschool system we ultimately establish. And the one-on-one exchanges between students and teachers — what developmental psychologists call “process quality” — may well be the key to success or failure.

But if teachers are crucial to high-quality preschool, they are also its most neglected component. Preschool teachers earn as little as $28,500 a year on average, well below K-12 teachers, who, according to the most recent national survey, earn roughly $53,100 a year.

In the United States, the care of children who have not yet aged into public school has long run on two tracks, separated mostly by household income. The upper-and-middle-income track was designed specifically to engage and nourish young minds at their ripest juncture. The low-income track originated in the social-welfare system; its programs were created not just for children but also for their mothers, who needed to work. As such, they tend to be larger and staffed by teachers with high-school diplomas. They also tend to be chronically underfunded.

Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, notes, that “there’s specialized knowledge that preschool teachers need that’s different even from what kindergarten and first-grade teachers need”, and believes that the ability to guide preschoolers through this stage of development takes a college degree.

But many current preschool teachers could not afford to get a college degree, so it creates a funding dilemma.

One of the reasons I am a fan of Philly’s soda tax is that a significant amount of those additional proceeds are going to preschool. That seems like a perfect use of such funds.

A successful preschool teacher needs to make her students feel safe and help them understand their emotions and regulate their own behavior. Creating such an environment is difficult if there is a lot of staff turnover, which is the norm for preschools.

Fortunately, there are many experiments taking place around the country, both in terms of teacher preparation as well as teaching methodologies.

My wife is a preschool teacher, and she is the type of teacher who makes her students feel safe and help them understand their emotions and regulate their own behavior. My wife also went through a post-bachelors degree program to prepare her for teaching young children.

And through my wife, and many of her teaching colleagues, I have witnessed the benefits of having a knowledgeable, caring preschool teacher.

But my sense, after reading this NYT Magazine article is that there are not enough teachers that have the educational background and personality of my wife.

So if the above initiatives don’t pan out, then I have another suggestion.

Look into cloning my wife. Young kids, and eventually, our country, will be better as a result.