THE BLOG
04/09/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Students Need Push Time and Pull Time

You've probably read how American students continue to fall behind their international peers in many academic subjects, especially math. In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students ranked 26th out of 34 countries in math. Many assume math isn't our students' strong suit. I don't believe it. I simply believe we have not developed them well.

Students are Underestimated and Under-Challenged
New research from April's issue of the American Educational Research Journal finds kindergarten students learn more when they're exposed to challenging content -- even math -- that is typically reserved for later years. In turn, elementary school students who were taught more sophisticated math experienced bigger gains in mathematics, reported the study's lead author, Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago.

Normally, educators try to improve our students' scores by lengthening the school day or the class size, but rarely do they adjust the level of challenge in the content. Schools in Asia challenge students by building into the curriculum topics like perseverance and resilience. These students are learning both hard and soft skills, and as a result are performing better.

Dr. Claessens and her colleagues also relay that students do not benefit from basic content. All of the kindergarteners in the study, regardless of economic background or initial skill level, benefited from exposure to more advanced content. Hmmm. Very interesting to me.

We Need Push Time and Pull Time
Students need stimulating challenges. We all do better when teachers or leaders call out the best in us. I am not suggesting overwhelming students, but rather challenging them to think and try hard. This prevents both boredom and bullying.

In addition, they need down time where they have time for their own refueling and get to choose the agenda, whether it be playing with friends outside or playing video or board games. The key is this -- they need "on their own agenda" time.

I write frequently how students today are overwhelmed. Part of the reason is that adults so control their lives early on, to the point that they never feel like they got to be a kid. In fact, I believe this is part of the reason they want to remain adolescent-like well into their twenties. We have over-programmed their lives to the effect that they don't know how to do it themselves when its time. We "push them" so long and so hard that they don't learn how to "pull out" their own personal growth. They are ill equipped for freethinking time.

We All Need This
I actually believe this is not just for kids, but for all of us. For years, 3M has allotted 20 percent of every week to work on whatever the employees want. They explore ideas and create new projects, and it's completely their agenda. Google does the same thing. Friday is the day where team members make up their agenda. Call it both PUSH time and PULL time. I believe this is part of human development:

PUSH TIME. We need time where we are challenged. We grow best when someone is challenging us to perform at our best.

PULL TIME. We need time where we are playful. We grow best when balanced with time for our minds to choose the agenda.

Frankly, I believe American adults get this wrong with students. We over-do the pushing, then feel guilty and over-do the play time, and find kids haven't learned to navigate that time on their own. We've not taught them.

So is there a way to have both challenging time and play time since both are important to kids? The researchers note that time for such activities could easily be preserved by replacing instruction on basic math concepts with the teaching of more sophisticated ones -- especially when finding students aren't benefiting from such basic coverage. Kindergarteners could be tackling more challenging math ideas while still spending plenty of time in the blocks corner and the dress-up closet.

So here's my question. How could you adjust the day's agenda to include both appropriate PUSH TIME, where we engage students with the toughest of challenges, then balance it by equipping them to lead themselves with PULL TIME, where they choose the agenda and use another part of their brain?