Thursday, February 06, 2020

What To Do About "The Parents"

For the past couple days I've been writing about the need for a transformation in America education, one that replaces "school" with evidence-based, child-centered learning. You'll find parts one of and two of this series here and here.


If I go into Nordstrom and tell the shoe salesperson that I want high heels, their job is to say, "How high?" because the customer is always right. When I go into my doctor, however, and tell her I want Medicine X, her job is to say, "You might want Medicine X, but what you need is a splint."

In education, too many of us act like shoe salespeople when really need to start being more like doctors.

I've had the opportunity to visit schools in a dozen countries, on four continents. I've been to schools in most of the Canadian provinces and half the US states. I went to each of those places to talk to teachers and administrators about play-based preschool education. And everywhere I've gone, I've been generally well-received. Indeed, most of the time, those education professionals already know most of what I've come to talk about, yet I'm there because despite being knowledgeable, skilled professionals, many of their schools are still struggling to implement play-based education and I'm there to provide a nudge in the right direction. Some schools I visit are already fully play-based. I'm invited to those schools, to inspire educators to keep up their good work. They need the boost because most of us work in bubbles and even as we do the right thing, we find ourselves under constant pressure to introduce "just a little" developmentally inappropriate literacy instruction or add a tad more rigorous grading or homework or whatever. Play-based education, despite the overwhelming evidence to support it, is always under attack, even in the most friendly place.

I often ask my fellow early childhood educators about the barriers they face. Sometimes they blame regulations or their government's standardized curriculum. Sometimes they grumble about this or that administrator who refuses to look at the evidence. Sometimes they even blame corporations who are earning billions on the unmitigated disaster of high stakes standardized testing and various curriculum-in-a-box scams. And invariably, among the challenges these educators say they face are "the parents."

It seems that too many parents have come to see their children's schools as a kind of department store where the customer is always right. They've bought into the fear-mongering about "school readiness." They've heard about the higher reading scores at the school down the street. They've seen movies about the no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold who whips those kids into shape. They've watched online videos about the importance of "grit" and "a growth mindset" and "accountability," and even if it's all a little mixed up in their heads, they know they want that for their kids. And, of course, they've all been to school, so naturally they know a thing or two about a thing or two. Not all parents, of course, but enough that time and again "parents" show up as barriers. And all too often, it seems, professional educators find ourselves in the role of shoe salesmen, giving them what they want, or at least making them think they're getting what they want, even if we know that the shoe they're insisting upon will eventually cripple them.

Now, I'm not insensitive to the parent's plight. Most of us aren't professional educators. How can we be expected to sort through all the nonsense that's out there, not to mention the societal habit of traditional schooling, one that will likely take a generation or more to kick even with the right motivation. And yes, these are their children, the most precious thing in their lives: of course we must listen to them, consider their views, and accept that they are at least in part driven by fear. At the same time, education professionals are professionals in the way that doctors are. It's not our job to just give our customers what they want, but rather to help them understand what it is that their children deserve.

From a teacher's perspective, perhaps the most important parts of the cooperative model of early childhood education is that parents are not just invited, but required to work in the classroom alongside the professionals as assistant teachers. There is nothing like being on the inside as a kind of apprentice to really understand how much they don't know, but how much they didn't know they didn't know, not just about their own child, but about children in general. Over the past couple decades, I've watched thousands of parents become educated about the kind of evidence-based learning that is characterized by play-based education. They've come to understand not only is their child a genius, so are all the others. They see that their child might be "behind" in some areas, but so are all the others. And they have front row seats to the incredible natural development of young human beings that takes place when we stop doing school to them and instead allow them to ask and answer their own questions in a beautiful, varied, and loving environment.

In our cooperative, parents rarely show up as barriers. In fact, the opposite is true: more often than not they are champions and allies, sometimes poking at sore spots or pointing out challenges, but always knowing that they must also take an active part in the solution.

Sadly, many American children are growing up in preschools and child cares, places to which their parents are connected primarily by email, the occasional phone call, and the quarterly parent-teacher conference. If we are going to truly transform education, this is something that must change. As it now stands, most parents are being educated about education by non-professionals: policymakers, journalists, and corporate hacks who haven't spent a day in the classroom, but who control the message nevertheless. They get elected on rhetoric about how our children are falling behind. They earn money by kindling the fear of missing out. They attract eyeballs with alarmist headlines. And the consensus of these education dilettantes is that some version of habitual schooling must continue, albeit with these extra grindstones added. Is it any wonder that parents show up as barriers to evidence-based education, which is to say play-based education, because they've been very poorly educated about education.

One of the primary projects of every human society is to care for children. For some ninety-nine percent of human existence, we understood this, which is why children always stood at the center of life. Today, in our wisdom, we have farmed this essential human activity to the fringes. Those who care for and educate our children are low-status, low-paid, and scarcely afforded the respect a professional deserves. We wonder what's wrong with modern society, well I'm here to argue that when we removed the care of children from the center of our lives, we removed the heart of community. We will continue to be "sick" as long as we keep insisting on Medicine X when what we really need is to bring children back into the center of our lives.

One of the ways to do this is to bring parents into their children's classrooms in a meaningful way. People will argue that I'm taking a privileged stand here, that too many parents find themselves too burdened with multiple minimum wage jobs to find the time. I can't imagine a better use of our education dollars than to then to simply pay these parents for their time.

People will argue that employers will never give parents the time off to attend preschool. Right now, that might be true, but here in the Pacific Northwest where there are thousands of thriving cooperative schools, many employers do make these allowances, often motivated by their own memories as co-op parents.

People will argue that employers will fight against us, fearing that having children at the center of their employees' lives will be too distracting. It sounds to me like these employers need to be educated, because whether they know it or not, parents are already distracted by being parents, not to mention the extra guilt and anxiety that comes from having their beloved children so far from the center of their lives. I would argue that employers who can be made to see the light will find that this transformation will result in happier, and therefore more productive workers.

For every objection, there is a solution, but the only way to find it is to keep talking about it. Again, I'm not saying that this is a silver bullet, but there is a lot we can learn from the cooperative model and it's commitment to educating not just children, but entire families.

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