It’s the Parents

July 22, 2013 § 21 Comments

The boys built a cabin. Penny and I had almost nothing to do with it.

The boys built a cabin. Penny and I had almost nothing to do with it.

Yesterday, I spoke to a small gathering of educators from a well-regarded private boarding school. They’d convened not far from here to discuss ways in which to implement concepts and practices of sustainability into their curriculum, and they invited me with the intention of discussing issues relating to food. I’d originally been scheduled to talk for about 40 minutes; ultimately, we ended up engaged in a two-hour conversation, with perhaps a total of 30 minutes devoted to food.

And what, pray tell, did we do for the remaining hour-and-a-half? Mostly, we talked about how messed up school is. That’s a bit flip, of course, but it’s fair to say that the conversation centered on the issues of how kids learn best, and how these educators’ observations of how kids learn best so often contradicts the expectations of the institution in which they teach, and those of the parents who pay $50k per year (!!!) to send their children there. As one of them put it (I’m paraphrasing a bit, because I didn’t actually write down the quote, but I’m close enough): “I feel as if I can’t give my students the freedom to learn the way I know they learn best, because the parents are pushing me for results that are rooted in the ways they don’t learn best.” In other words, because the parents of this teacher’s students demand a particular type of “success” that’s based on tests and GPAs and admission into prestigious colleges (this school claims a 100% college placement rate), the teacher can’t do what she knows is best for the children in her classroom.

Now, to the enormous credit of the teachers and staff gathered in the room, they were extremely interested to consider how they might implement more self-directed learning in their classrooms. They were genuinely curious regarding what I observe in Fin and Rye, whose learning is almost entirely self-directed. And when I talked about my observations, how I see that the more freedom we grant our sons, the more messes we let them make and failures we let them have, the more creative and resourceful they become, I saw heads nodding. These teachers get it. They get that children are inherently curious, that they are born with the desire to learn. They know that the more top-down education becomes, the more it becomes about grades and achievement, and the more children are protected from failure, the less confidence they have in their abilities. They understand that the more we make learning feel like work, like something that only happens in the classroom, the less children are inclined to learn on their own. That innate joy of learning flickers and dims, because learning, they learn, is about stuff they have little interest in. It’s about the stress of getting good grades and the competition to earn admission to a good school. It’s about recognition and advancement. These teachers know these things because they’ve seen it, and they feel trapped, because they cannot act – or at least, they cannot act as fully as they would like to – on their observations. Because if they do? Well, they probably won’t be teaching for long.

It is encouraging to me that these teachers are thinking critically and are willing to question their role in the educational process. But I’m saddened to hear that some of them feel hamstrung by the expectations and assumptions held by parents.

I’ve long thought we need to reform our schools to allow for more self-directed learning. But now it occurs to me that it’s not the schools that need reforming; it’s the parents.

§ 21 Responses to It’s the Parents

  • Toni says:

    Amen again!

  • Kent says:

    It’s true we learn more from our mistakes than from our “successes.” Perhaps parents need to encourage “mistake-learning” (within the bounds of safety) for their kids as well as traditional didactic processes. (Kids don’t need to be protected from failure . . . only from unacceptable safety hazards.)

  • sally p. says:

    YES. This. As an unschooling parent, I can’t wait to read your future book on learnin’. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Believe me, I’m working on it!

      • Dawn says:

        Yeah! I was hoping this would be a topic for an upcoming book of yours. My oldest turns 2 on Friday and I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from like-minded folks such as you who are a little ahead of me in the parenting journey. Researching how to best help my children love learning for a lifetime is, by far, the most exciting thing I have ever done. I’ll bet you made a real difference in those educators lives and some of them may be inspired to try to change the system from within, as much as possible.

  • alicia says:

    I’m now feeling a bit ashamed that I transferred my 9year old from a waldorf school when his reading was slow to develop. The teachers kept telling me to give it time, he will read when ready; I now think they were right and the public school testing and extra help may have been unnecessary.
    Alicia

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      I certainly didn’t intend for anyone to feel ashamed!! We’re all doing the best we can with the information we have.

  • Jennifer says:

    I couldn’t agree more. My husband, my sister, my mother-in-law, and my mom are all public school teachers and all work very hard within a very limiting system to let kids be more self-directed and cater to different learning styles. It’s refreshing that you recognize that it’s the system that is troublesome, not the people within it…. it’s not even necessarily all the parents’ fault.

    My kids are in public school but we work very hard to provide lots of opportunities at home for them to explore, be bored, etc. My daughter has spent hours observing and naming every milkweed beetle in our garden this summer, and she’s happier for it.

  • Mary Ann Cauthen says:

    Good writing, & I wonder when in the world the government & school systems will wake up to the mess they are making. My homeschooled daughter is now 38 years old, & she is the most creative, unprejudiced, independent, musically talented, self-sufficient of my four children. She now has a masters degree in music ed., & bucks the system every day. She called her education “organic learning” – based on what her interest s were. Keep at it!! Mary Ann

  • Jen says:

    The message I get from your blog is that there is only one way to do a particular thing (your way). It’s simply not true. To quote Daniel Quinn “There is no one right way to live.” Agreed that across the board I feel there is too much effort on the parents’ part to make their kids wildly unique through the 4.5 GPA/early entry into college but believe me there are plenty of young people doing that for themselves-they are wired that way. Just because your situation works for you-doesn’t mean (a) it will work for all and (b) it’s what everyone else wants to do. Long live diversity.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Hi Jen,

      I’m sure what you say is true, at least to an extent. However, I would like to point out that this blog is called benhewitt.net, not allpossibleviewsexperiencesandopinions.net. Truthfully, I really only feel qualified to write about my experiences, what works for me, and what I’m thinking about. If it’s offensive to you in any way, I’d highly recommend not reading it!

      Take care, Ben

    • Chris says:

      as long as there is one brain thinking then there is one right way to live. that right way may change according to that one brain. the thoughts and opinions of others may sway thinking. many brains may agree on one right way to live. alternatively, there may be a collective consciousness, in which case you already know what i’m talking about.

  • Audie Jean says:

    I could tell you a lot about expectations from parents! I taught English as a second language for 22 years in a private high school for girls, and heard many variations of this question every year: what can we do to help our daughter get higher marks? She usually had 93% or even higher!

  • Audie Jean says:

    In response to Jen’s reply above: “The message I get from your blog is that there is only one way to do a particular thing (your way),” please remember, Jen, that one’s blog, by definition, represents one’s personal views.

  • Katharina says:

    Yes. Whe Sartre said ‘l’enfer, c’est les autres’ I’m fairly sure he didn’t mean other people, he meant the other parents :)
    It was particularly scary after the events at Sandy Hook hearing parents discuss what our reactions should be… And curriculum is no different. Parents want to check boxes, neatly, for each accomplishment by their precious child. It makes for better bragging rights and is mentally easier when asking ‘how am I doing as a parent’. Sadly. The other ways take mire time and thought…

  • Kelli says:

    HI Ben,
    I have not long been reading your blog and enjoy it immensely, thankyou.
    As a homeschooling parent, predominently unschoolers thanks to my wonderful children who teach me so much everyday and have continually pulled us in that direction which only makes complete sense to us, i was wondering if you ever have those moments of doubt ‘oh are they going to learn what they need to’ say in regards to maths? How do you go about reigning in those fears? We are the only unschoolers i guess youd say in our homeschool group and i suppose im just reaching out to like minded individuals who seen to be following a similar path to us. Thanks for you time.
    Kelli

    • etcfarmsblog says:

      Yes, I’d love Ben’s and anyone else’s thoughts on how to control the “But, what if it’s not the right path?” nagging thoughts. I’m very interested in unschooling, but worry because my child (she’s only 4, so I’m trying to keep some perspective) will opt to just watch movies for hours on end when allowed to make her own decisions. How do you handle those fears?

      P.S. I just finished Making Supper Safe. I also eagerly await your book on education!

  • ali says:

    I am not an unschooler, I follow a more classical approach to our home education, but I think it stands for all those not following a normal public school/private school approach, we live in an environment that doesn’t want us to trust ourselves or our children for that matter. I agree with Audie Jean, our children’s education should not be about parental bragging rights! I don’t want my relationship with others to be a checklist of what they think I accomplished, I want deep appreciation for the individual I am, and I think my children deserve that. I think children go a lot further and will contribute that much more to society when they feel completely and utterly supported, even if they only make it as far as being a rag-picker, rather than attaining some initialed job title.

    Frankly, I feel sorry for most public school kid parents. They believe the lie that their children are better off in the care of someone else…

  • Dawn says:

    We live in a world where everything is outsourced including the education of our children. I realize that there are some parents who cannot educate their own children exclusively so improving public education is a must. It would be nice, however, to see public school or any institutional school, for that matter, make efforts to have learning more self-directed and interest-based. Part of that would take societal change and support, too. I remember growing up that the kids who took the vocational track were looked upon by the college-prep track kids as losers. But, as the saying goes, not all plumbers will need a lawyer but all lawyers will some day need a plumber. How I now wish I had taken home economics but my peer group thought that was very old-fashioned and “un-liberated.” I just didn’t have the courage to go ahead and push past the peer pressure, I’m afraid. The main thing I hope my children will get from home education is the confidence to do whatever they are passionate about without fear of breaking from the herd.

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