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Wednesday
Sep152010

The real learning experience of school

Scott McLeod poses an interesting question: Are we edubloggers too harsh on our kids' teachers? and cites a number of recent posts that seem to indicate that progressive thinkers/writers about education may be disappointed in their own children's teachers. Audrey Watters at Hack Education reminisces about her son's difficult journey through school

My kids, like most, had some superb teachers and some duds. While my daughter seemed to thrive on traditional education, my son did not seem well-served by many of his classes. As a parent (and as an administrator in the school district my son attended), I had to carefully choose if and when to intervene when he was struggling in school.

After a little reflection and considering Scott's question, I'd suggest:

  1. One of the toughest but most critical lessons children and young adults have to learn is how to develop real-world coping strategies. As a parent, I understand completely how much we want to keep our children from stress, from boredom, and from any sort of emotional or physical pain. But I also asked myself that if by intervening in my chlldren's problems if I were not depriving them of some necessary experiences in which they could develop the whole-life dispositions of patience, adjustment, subversion, recognition that the world is sometimes unjust, and discrimination of the important and unimportant. Children raised as "hot house flowers" by parents who step in at the first sign of problem may well fall apart when encountering the first college professor or supervisor who is challenging to work for. Self-reliance is a lovely attribute too often acquired through ugly experiences that are hard for a parent to watch.
  2. As parent educators we need to carefully discriminate between a bad teacher and a teacher with a different educational methodology/philosophy. Not every teaching method works with every child, but I would argue that all pedagogies meet the needs of some children. A disagreement does not mean the teacher with whom one differs is incompetent. Keeping one's ego in check about always being confident of having the right answers to all things educational is tough.
  3. We need to know how to constructively intervene if problems that call for parental intervention do arise. When grandson Paul was not well-served by his school library program, his parents made sure he got to the public library. When my son struggled with a project, I would ask for the instructions and assessment tool so I could provide guidance and "quality control." Good parents use parent-teacher conferences, parent web portals to teacher gradebooks, and class websites to partner with the teacher in assuring their children's learning. And increasingly for many parents, choosing alternative educational experiences for the children might be the best thing to do - enrolling them in a magnet school, a constructivist-based school, an online school or home schooling or just making sure that their children are involved in extra-curricular activities and organizations (Scouts, 4-H, church, etc) that provide meaningful learning opportunities.

My heart goes out to all parents who feel their children are not getting the best educational experience possible, especially those visionary parents who dream of what schools could be. But let's all be careful how go about "improving" our children's schools - and our children's lives.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am a little wary at saying the following, but I sometimes feel that I have learned more about how NOT to be a parent from other parents that what I should be doing. I have wondered how different some of the parent / teacher / admin meetings may have gone if the parent would have come in with possible solutions to the situation.

The "hot house flower" analogy reminds me of two other names I have heard...the "helicopter parent" (always hovering) and the "stealth parent" (comes out of nowhere with a surgical strike).

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

I have been having multiple conversations on a few points brought up here as of late. In a recent interview ( for a eLearning pilot project I am a part of), the topic of young people learning to "cope" with the many facets of the traditional school came up. "How will these students learn to cope in the real world", was a theme of one question and a position in this post. I would argue that "Dealing" with professors, colleagues, and peers outside of the "school" will entail freedoms that the traditional school does not allow. In so many ways the school strips the power of young people away and then expects them to "deal" in there subaltern group. Coping then becomes at best harmful to practicing things like deliberation (where young people to world leaders find themselves most empowered to learn, fail and imagine the better with peers) and democracy, and at worst psychologically damaging to the self determination of young people. We must stop blaming young people for the archaic power structures and norms of the 20th century and look to new ways of engaging young people. Learning is what we care about as educators, not controlling or shaping the young. They deal with the people outside of school all there lives, and learn to navigate (even if sheltered). Why do we not look at our traditions, many irrelevant to young people (over-"parented" or not) and seek to construct spaces for learning that have learning at heart, not acculturation in the 20th century managerial structures they will not likely encounter in the information economy.

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Steele-Maley

I agree with some of what you say here. But I think you also have to be wary of the the argument that we should leave kids in bad situations because it will teach them how to deal with bad situations. It just too easily becomes an excuse for not remedying things that can and should be remedied, and can ultimately end up just modeling passivity.

I think it's easy to overestimate the prevalence of helicopter parents because they are more noticeable, especially if you're a teacher. As a parent, I know far more parents who would never consider intervening in their kids' classroom situation than parents who would. It seems like a lot of people who talk about the need to "pick your battles" end up not picking any. I guess I'm afraid that, rather than encouraging the child to learn to cope with imperfect situations, that parental strategy often ends up encouraging the child to deny that there are problems at all, to blame him- or herself, or to become passively resigned to the futility of trying to change anything.

It's also worth asking what coping strategies, other than passive acceptance, are available to a student who has a justifiable complaint about how he or she is being treated. It's certainly worth encouraging the student to raise his concerns with the teacher. But then what? Schools are notoriously not democracies. I wonder what lesson really gets learned from such an encounter. Is it really about the value of self-reliance? Or is it that resistance is futile? My sense is that the system is working pretty hard to teach them that lesson already, and doesn't need any help from me.

The examples you give of constructive intervention in paragraph 3 seem to be largely of the "love-it-or-leave-it" variety. Isn't there sometimes value in confronting the institution and arguing that it should change? As a parent, isn't it important to at least sometimes model that behavior? For all the talk about helicopter parenting, the idea of actually complaining about what goes on in the school to a teacher or principal -- public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love -- seems to strike an awful lot of people as an unpardonable breach of etiquette and decorum. Who is the hothouse flower in that situation?

(For the record, I seldom have any gripes about my kids' teachers, who I think are doing their best to treat kids well in an institution that doesn't always make that easy.)

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Hi Kenn,

I've worked with a few parents that were a little irrational in my classroom days as well. Never an easy balance between my dad's philosophy of "what ever you get at school you get double at home" and too many of today's parents' philosophy that "my baby is always right."

Quite a challenge!

Doug

Hi Chris,

Wonderful POV. Thanks for sharing you comment.

Doug

Hi Thomas,

I appreciate your humanistic approach to this. In an ideal world, schools, workplace and societies would indeed allow freedoms for everyone that would eliminate the need to develop coping skills. And maybe that day will come. But in the meantime, I want my kids to know how operate successfully in the real world.

Acknowledging reality is not the same the same as condoning it.

All the best and thanks for the comment,

Doug

September 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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