Chapter One Get Your Bearings
If you're a parent of school-age children this book is for you. My aim is to help you get them the education they need to live productive, fulfilled lives. I've worked in education all my professional life. Along the way I've had countless conversations with parents about school. I'm a parent too and know firsthand that being a parent is a challenge as well as a pleasure. It gets more complicated when your children start school. Until then, you've been mainly responsible for their development and well-being. Now you entrust a major chunk of their waking hours to others, giving them enormous influence over your children's lives during their most formative years.
Seeing them go to school on that first day brings a suite of emotions. You hope they'll be excited about learning, make good friends, and be happy and inspired at school. At the same time, you probably feel a good deal of trepidation. School brings a whole new set of relationships. How will your children respond to their teachers? Will the school see what's special about them? What about the other parents and children? Will your child rise above the new social hurdles or trip over them? As your child heads into school for that first day, it's no wonder you feel a catch in your throat. You think things will never be the same. You're right.
Emma Robinson (no relation) is a teacher in England. She's also a parent and knows how it feels to leave your child at school on that very first day. She wrote a poem called "Dear Teacher," which has since been shared by thousands of other parents. Here's an extract:
I know you're rather busy
First day back, there's just no time
A whole new class of little ones
And this one here is mine.
I'm sure you have things covered
And have done this lots before
But my boy is very little
He hasn't long turned four.
In his uniform this morning
He looked so tall and steady
But now beside your great big school
I'm not quite sure he's ready.
It seems like just a blink ago
I first held him in my arms
It's been my job to love, to teach
To keep him safe from harm.
I know as I give him one more kiss
And watch him walk away,
That he'll never again be wholly mine
As he was before today.
Parents have always worried about handing their children over, but these days they have even more on their minds about school. Many are exasperated about what's happening in education. They worry that there's far too much testing and stress at school. They feel that the curriculum has become too narrow because of cuts in important programs in the arts, sports, and outdoor activities. They're concerned that their children are not treated as individuals and that schools are failing to cultivate their curiosity, creativity, and personal talents. They're anxious about how many young people are being diagnosed with learning problems and being medicated to keep them focused. They worry about potential bullying and harassment. If they have children in high school, they worry about the rising costs of college and whether their children will be able to find a job whether they go to college or not. More than that, they often feel powerless as parents to do anything about it.
Anger and Anxiety
Recently, I asked people on Twitter and Facebook about their biggest concerns in educating their children. In less than an hour, hundreds of people from all over the world had posted responses. Bec, a young mother in the United States, spoke for many when she said that children's "strengths are not valued and their weaknesses are magnified. Their grades are more important than their sense of self." Kimmie, another mom, asked, "Will my children discover their true potential and be guided to a career that they love and are passionate about." Conchita wrote, "I have all sorts of worries about my two daughters. I feel the current system will not let them shine and my ten-year-old may not get what she needs to overcome her learning difficulties and anxiety."
Jon is worried that children "are gradually being taught to not enjoy learning: that it's somehow an arduous rite of passage we're all forced to go through with no solid reasoning. It's a constant battle to keep that spark of curiosity and delight about learning alive when the system packages it and sets narratives about education the way it does." Karin said, "Education is broken. There's too much pressure, too many tests, too many demands, too much assembly line. How can we reboot? How can we prepare our kids for a radically different life from the one the current system prepares them for?"
Carol was concerned that the "one-size-fits-all approach, orchestrated by individuals that have no business dictating educational policy, is producing students who have no ability to think for themselves and an absolute fear of failure." Another mother's top concern was whether schools "are teaching kids to be creative problem solvers. Testing doesn't teach kids to be versatile thinkers." Tracey points to a deep worry for many parents: "I'm most concerned with the fact that policy makers seem to have little regard for parent voices. The culture around parent voices is dismissive at best and those who make decisions about kids haven't a clue what actually goes on in classrooms." These are all legitimate anxieties and if you share them, you're right to be worried.
Education is sometimes thought of as a preparation for what happens when your child leaves school-getting a good job or going on to higher education. There's a sense in which that's true, but childhood is not a rehearsal. Your children are living their lives now with their own feelings, thoughts, and relationships. Education has to engage with them in the here and now, just as you do as a parent. Who your children become and what they go on to do in the future has everything to do with the experiences they have in the present. If your children have a narrow education, they may not discover the talents and interests that could enrich their lives in the present and inspire their futures beyond school.
How Can This Book Help?
So how can this book help you? I hope it will be useful in three ways. The first is by looking at the sort of education your children need these days and how it relates to your roles as a parent. Parents often think their children need the same sort of education they had themselves. It depends on what sort of education they did have, but in general that's probably not true. The world is changing so quickly now that education has to change too. The second is by looking at the challenges you face in helping them get that education. Some of those challenges have to do with public policies for education and some more generally with the times we live in. The third is by looking at your options and power as a parent to overcome these challenges. Let me enter some caveats right away.
To begin with, this is not a manual on how to be a good parent. I wouldn't have the nerve. I'm sure this comes as a relief, because seemingly everyone else does. From Dr. Spock to the Tiger Moms, you already face a fire hose of advice on how to raise your children. Apart from the unsought advice of friends, relatives, and probably your children too about how to be a better parent, there are more than four million mom blogs on the Internet, and the online bookstores list more than one hundred fifty thousand books in their parenting categories. I don't want to add to the clamor.
My wife and I have two grown children and many relatives and friends with children of their own. We've been through many of the challenges we discuss in this book. So has my writing partner, Lou Aronica, who has a large family of his own. We know that the pressures on parents never ease up. You're going to be worrying about your children and trying to help them navigate through their lives forever. Parenting is a lifetime assignment. It can be hard work at times, and the hours are dreadful. Consider this book to be a respite from some of that pressure. We're not living in some lofty alternate reality where everyone is having a better time than you. I do want to suggest some principles of parenting that are relevant to education and are widely supported by research and experience. In doing that, let me assure you that I'm here on the ground with you, and the advice I'm offering comes from the perspective of those who have missed the mark on more than one occasion.
This is not a good-schools guide either. I'm often asked about specific schools or systems and whether I'd recommend them. All schools are different. There are great and poor public schools, and great and poor charter, private, and alternative schools too. My answer is always to go and see the place for yourself and get a sense of whether it would work for you and your child. To do that, you do need some sense of what counts as a good school, and that's what we will be looking at.
I'm not suggesting a one-size-fits-all solution. On the contrary, no two children are the same and yours are no different, as it were. Your parenting choices and priorities are naturally affected by your own background and circumstances. If you're a single parent living in a poor neighborhood, your choices are different from someone with paid help living in a wealthy suburb. You may be in a position to choose the school you want for your child. Most parents are not. So you just have to play the hand you are dealt, right? Actually, no. You do have choices and we'll be looking at what they are.
Overall, my aim is to offer some advice on what counts as a good education and what you can do as a parent to make sure your children get one. That includes how to support them through the current education system, or outside it if you choose. These are some of the options available to all parents.
You can enroll your child at the local school and leave the school to it.
You can become active in your child's education by building relationships with his or her teachers and through the support you provide at home.
You can become more involved in the general life of the school.
You can influence school policy making through the local school board.
You can campaign for change with other parents.
You can look for another school.
You can homeschool or unschool your child.
You can use online learning opportunities.
If you do have a choice of schools, which one should you choose and why? If you don't, what should you expect from the school you have, and what can you do if it falls short? Deciding which way to go depends on several themes, which we'll look at in the chapters that follow. The first theme is your roles as a parent in general and how they relate to education. The second theme is the overall development of your children from birth to early adulthood. It's important to have a sense of this so you know the sorts of experiences you and the school should offer your child and why. The third theme is the importance of recognizing the talents, interests, and character of your own child. The fourth theme is why the education your children need now may be different from when you were at school. The fifth theme is why so many schools are not yet providing that sort of education and what you can do as a parent to change that.
Learning, Education, and School
Before we get into this, let me distinguish three terms, which will keep coming up: learning, education, and school.
Learning is acquiring new skills and understanding.
Education is an organized program of learning.
School is a community of learners.
Children love to learn; they don't always enjoy education and some have big problems with school. Why is that?
Learning is natural for children. Babies learn at a prodigious pace. Take language. In their first twenty-four months or so, they go from being inarticulate bundles of cries and gurgles to being able to speak. It's a remarkable achievement and nobody, including you, "teaches" your child how to do it. You don't because you couldn't. Learning to speak is far too complicated. How do babies learn to speak? They have a natural capacity for it and they love to learn. How do they do it? By listening and by copying you and the others around them. You encourage them with your smiles and delight, and they encourage you with theirs. They learn to speak because they want to and they can. As they go through life, they'll pick up all sorts of other skills and knowledge just for the love of learning: because they want to and they can.
Education is a more organized approach to learning. It can be formal or informal, self-directed or organized by someone else. It might be at home, online, at work, or somewhere else. Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn. Children, he says, "are beautifully designed, by nature, to direct their own education. For most of human history, children educated themselves through observing, exploring, questioning, playing and participating. These educative instincts still work beautifully for children who are provided with conditions that allow them to flourish."
A school is any community of people who come together to learn with and from each other. I was asked recently if I thought schools are still a good idea. I do, and the reason is that most of what we learn in our lives, we learn with and from other people. Learning is as much a social as an individual process. The real question is what sort of schools help children learn best? Many young people are turned off education not because they don't want to learn but because the rituals and routines of conventional schooling get in the way.
For most of us, our main experience of formal education is grade school. What images does "school" bring to mind? If you think "high school," you may picture long corridors and lockers, classrooms full of desks with blackboards or whiteboards at the front, a hall with a stage, a gym, science labs, maybe a music room or art studio and a sports field somewhere. What about what goes on there? You may think of separate subjects (some more important than others), fixed schedules, bells and buzzers, students streaming between rooms in age groups, assignments, tests, and after-school programs. What about preschool or elementary school? Whatever your own feelings about school, the fact is that if you passed out somewhere and woke up in one, you'd probably work out quickly where you were. Since the introduction of mass education in the nineteenth century, schools have become recognizable places that work in typical ways. Many of the rituals of schools are taken for granted largely because school has been like this for a long time. Not all schools are like this, and schools don't have to be this way at all. The fact that so many are is a matter of habit, not necessity. We'll be looking at different ways of doing school and at how the best schools create conditions in which young people enjoy learning and want to achieve at their highest levels. It's important that they do enjoy education, for them and for you.
Copyright © 2018 by Sir Ken Robinson, PhD. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.