It’s the Parents
July 22, 2013 § 21 Comments
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.