Learning is more than retaining information—how mentors make the difference

Two-thirds of the achievement gap for American children is due to the "summer learning loss". Here's how we fix that.

Karim Abouelnaga: The summer learning loss is a term that they use to describe the regressions that kids in low-income neighborhoods face relative to their affluent peers. So they say in lower income neighborhoods kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned during the school year over the summer, while their middle-class peers break even or even make gains.

When I first learned about the achievement gap I was a freshman in college and I wanted to understand what the causes of it were. And as I started to do my research I realized that there were a thousand different reasons why the achievement gap existed: everything from a lack of positive role models to poor health conditions in so many of these inner-city and low-income neighborhoods.

And then I found this startling statistic that said that two-thirds of the achievement gap could be directly attributed to unequal summer learning opportunities, or the summer learning loss. In low-income neighborhoods, kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learn over the summer from the school year, and so when they return to school they’re now two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months behind their affluent or their middle class peers.

Just to put that in perspective for you all: the school year from September to June is only ten months long. If a kid forgets two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned, that’s almost 25 to 35 percent of their learning. Teachers have then reported that they spend anywhere from a month-and-a-half to two months reteaching old material. So if you add that additional 20 percent you’re talking about 50 percent of a kid’s learning.

So we sit here and we ask ourselves, “Why does an eighth grader only have a fourth grade reading level?” and the truth of the matter is that theoretically speaking they’ve only been in school for half the time.

When I first learned about the summer learning loss I thought the obvious solution was summer school, right? If kids were in school over the summer then they couldn’t be regressing, they couldn’t forget what they were learning. And then I learned really quickly that summer school sucked; it was punishment for the kids and babysitting for the teachers. And I thought back to my own days when I was in summer school, and I didn’t like it—and no one does. There’s such a negative stigma associated with it.

When I was 18 I actually brought together a group of friends to start to alleviate some of the issues around summer schooling in general. I didn’t think learning had to be boring and so we started to think about how we could rebrand school and make school more fun. Specifically, we thought about what we wanted from school over the summer when we were kids.
So we created a multigenerational near-peer learning model that has sort of changed the way we interact with students and children to change their learning over the course of the summer. So we recruit and we hire near-peer mentors, kids who are just a few years older than the kids who we’re working with, to give them a positive role model in their neighborhood.

I used to think back to when I was a child. I didn’t do bad things because I wanted to be a bad kid—I did it because the older kids were doing it. So many times the older kids are the ones who are perceived as being cool, and kids are just looking for an opportunity to be cool and fit in.
We then paired them up with college students who are aspiring educators, giving the near-peer mentors a new role model to look up to. I remember for me it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I built a relationship with a college-age student. No one in my family had gone to college before, and so as you can imagine my college aspirations were stunted or limited because of that.

And then obviously for our college students—they’re looking for some meaningful professional development and growth as well, and so we hire teachers from the schools that we work with who can act as role models and mentors to our college students who one day want to be in the classroom and fill their shoes.

And so this model where everyone is sort of a participant but also a beneficiary creates this win-win-win situation for everyone, making summer school a lot more fun and exciting. When we first started our work it was very structured. We sort of said: this is what a six week program looks like in a low-income neighborhood or community.

We quickly realized that no two schools are the same, and it’s funny—we’re primarily based in New York City and as you think about like schools and school districts in that area there’s about 1.1 million kids and there’s 1,700 schools.

And so schools are co-located within the same building. And so schools are oftentimes serving the same exact population of kids with the same per-pupil spend or the same amount of funding, yet they have very different cultures, and they lead to very different outcomes.
And so one approach in one school may not work as an approach at a very different school. So I think one: we need to stay away from these overarching generalizations about “what’s good for one is good for all”, because that’s no longer the case.

As it relates to summer specifically I don’t think we need to get rid of the summer gap. I think there’s an opportunity to do something meaningful and different. I always think back to our own programs and what we do and I recognize that, if we didn’t come in there with a completely different approach to learning over the summer, that learning or extending the school year in that case actually may not make that much of a difference. You may not have regressions but that doesn’t mean you’re going to improve student engagement or help kids catch up.
And so I think the summertime is also an opportunity to help kids catch up to their other peers who may have retained everything that they needed to learn for the school year and probably won’t have a hard time continuing to be independent learners.

We know the status in so many of our low-income neighborhoods, where they’re being raised in single parent households or immigrant households—like in my own household, my mother not once picked up a book and said, “Hey, you should be reading this book, because it’s grade-level appropriate” or “Challenge yourself by doing this.” And I think some of it is that just she just didn’t know.

And so being conscious of the fact that there are certain disadvantages that kids of color or minorities exhibit or deal with—things that their more affluent peers just sort of don’t have to face—does create an opportunity for them over the summer.

I don’t think the solution is to close the summer gap all together. But I do think there are opportunities to maybe narrow it a slight bit. I know there are some states and some cities that have summer breaks that are as long as 14 weeks, which is way too long. I think a meaningful summer break is six to seven weeks. Even with our programs, our interventions now are anywhere from four to six weeks long and kids still have three to four weeks off.

Is America's achievement gap crisis caused by long summer vacations? "In lower income neighborhoods, kids forget anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months of what they learned during the school year over the summer, while their middle-class peers break even or even make gains," says Karim Abouelnaga, CEO of Practice Makes Perfect. This startling statistic is why he started a different kind of summer school, one based on a chain of near-peer mentors, where kids are connected with college students and college students are connected with teaching professionals. "This model, where everyone is sort of a participant but also a beneficiary, creates this win-win-win situation for everyone, making summer school a lot more fun and exciting." Why do some eighth grader students only have a fourth grade reading level? Theoretically speaking, they’ve only been in school for half the time, says Abouelnaga. To find out more, visit practicemakesperfect.org.


Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
  • The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
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Mammals dream about the world they are entering even before birth

A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.

Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
  • The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
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