(On embracing failure, the genetic intelligence fallacy, the ‘rigor’ miscorrelation, Twilight, integrity and similar things…)
Thank you so much for trusting me with your children’s minds. I hope to give them back to you in a few years time vastly sharper and more capable than when you lent them to me. There are a few things you must be aware of though. Please read through this list carefully. I will be able to do my job far better if you support me on these matters than if you just ignore me. And because both you as parents, and we as teachers have one single purpose at the end of your child’s education: nurturing well-adjusted, motivated, happy and self-confident young adults ready to take on the world, missing the following points might just put your child’s future at risk…
10(ish) Things Every Parent Should Know About Education
1. Learning is a process
Just because they are not achieving well now, doesn’t mean they don’t ever stand a chance. The school year is long and students will have many opportunities to improve their knowledge, skills and cognitive abilities. Doing well requires a growth mindset, not an aversion to failure. Failure can be incredibly positive – seen in the right light – and incredibly negative seen in the wrong one. Don’t protect your kids from failure, show them how to learn from it and turn it into something positive. Guide your child in setting personalized ‘improvement targets’ rather than disembodied ‘achievement targets’. This kind of targeted attitude towards learning from failure and constantly trying to do better than his or her own personal best will serve your child well in life. It encourages life-long learning, the ability to reflect meaningfully and the authentic acquisition of knowledge and skills. Moreover, it makes their desire to learn intrinsically (self) motivated, rather than extrinsically forced.
2. What You Think You Know About Learning and The Brain Is (Probably) Wrong
I have some big news for you: intelligence is not genetically inherited. No really, it isn’t. By far and away the two biggest factors determining intelligence are environment and hard work. Numerous studies have proven this to be true. The ‘genetic intelligence fallacy’ may be an awfully big shift for some of you to make – for some it might be mildly traumatic, for others it will be a relief. Either way, what this says is that your responsibility for your child’s mental ability did not end at conception – it is an ongoing task. More than this, brains of any age, including ours, are capable of physically changing with prolonged practice and targeted focus. Neuroscientists call this ‘brain plasticity’. Many Asian cultures already know this, and they see underperformance as being due to a lack of work, support and stimulation, not as a genetic trait. Any responsible parent needs to keep abreast of the latest in neurological and cognitive research and use it to inform how they keep kids’ brains switched on at home. And please, for the sake of my sanity, stop telling your kids what their limits are because you think that their cognitive ability is inborn. This a reflection of your own stupidity, not your child’s. Happily, both can change.
3. Maths and Science
I love what Maths teaches you about problem solving and independent reasoning and I am a great believer in the scientific method and perspective. But know this: Maths and Science are not superior to the Arts and Humanities. ‘Rigor’ and ‘difficulty’ are not always an indicator of a subject’s value to an individual child. Not every child wants to be a scientist, an engineer or an accountant. In fact, very few do. And even those who do, could use a bit of what the humanities and arts have to offer. Moreover, the world needs artists, thinkers, social workers and dancers as much as it needs nuts and bolts types. Guide them very carefully in choosing subjects in the senior grades which will nurture their strengths and maximize their own particular blend of interests. And help them to understand that just because they do well in a subject, or like the teacher, doesn’t mean they should choose that subject. Finally, please remind them that school isn’t about preparing kids for a career, it’s about preparing them for life.
4. There is no formula for success
I’ll say it again: There is no formula for success. Success means different things to different people, and their means of getting there are all so wonderfully different. Studying hard, getting good grades, getting into university and getting a good job is not the blueprint for success it once was. Just because it might have worked for you, doesn’t mean it will work for them. The world is a different place to when we grew up. Let them find their own path.
5. Be wary of homework
Please refer to this post on the evils of homework. If your child is getting too much of the wrong kind, put your foot down!
6. Let them read
Let them read. Let them read anything. ANYTHING! As long as it is appropriate content, if they are reading, they are learning. With the ubiquity of digital reading matter these days it makes no sense to confine a child’s reading to something which bores them or to which they do not relate. There will be a time for Shakespeare and Dickens – and many wonderful lessons will be learned from reading ‘High Literature’, but to get them reading and thinking and enjoying both, Sports Illustrated, Twilight and World of Warcraft dialogues are indispensable.
7. Assessments should challenge kids to think
No, tests and exams and any kind of assessment are not about regurgitating facts. And although I acknowledge that there are massive problems with any kind of standardized assessment, they do have a purpose. And that purpose, yes, partially involves remembering facts – but only to a small degree. A well-set assessment will demand equal amounts of content regurgitation, AND understanding AND independent reasoning. Fully two thirds of any well-set assessment, then, will demand that your child displays an ability to understand, analyze, think, evaluate, substantiate and even create solutions. The same is true of any project. If your child is not used to this way of doing things, please address your complaints to the teachers who only seem to encourage knowledge aquisition, not towards those of us who actually ask them to think.
8. I am a professional
I am a professional. I am good at what I do. I keep my skill base up-to-date and my methodology sharp. Please think carefully before you accuse me of favoritism or of picking on your child. I make mistakes, and these I will acknowledge, but there is a reason behind the overwhelming majority of what I do. I do not allow my professional integrity to be impinged upon. That said, if you do have a concern, please take the matter up with me directly and immediately. I will be happy to set your mind at ease. This is, after all, the second most important thing I do.
9. What you do at home has the greatest impact on your child’s learning
If you tell you child that school and learning are not that important in the grand scheme of things, and if you are never curious about anything, and if your entertainment choices include more mindless television than enlightening reading, and if you close off avenues of thought for your kids through your own narrow-mindedness, and if you are bigoted and biased – how can you expect me to broaden your child’s mind? Your sons and your daughters learn more from you than they ever will from me – and if you don’t model intelligent curiosity, critical thinking and divergent problem solving, you can’t expect me to get it out of them. I work many miracles every week, but this one is beyond even me. Help a guy out: be the kind of student you want your child to be. It’s never too late.
10. Stand up when things are not right
There will be times when things go wrong for your children at school, and they are not to blame. When this happens, take the school on. You would not accept inferior service anywhere else, why accept it where your flesh and blood are concerned?
10.5. And one more thing…
Please encourage your kids to be involved in after school activities. Allowing them not to be involved (or not allowing them to be involved) deprives them of so many meaningful learning opportunities. And keeping them away from these activities to focus in their ‘academics’ is as silly as taking away a car’s wheels to focus on the engine. Invariably, the top achievers in a school are always the most involved in extra mural programmes.
10.9. Wait, just one more…
Think very, very carefully before you stick your kids on ‘concentration’ medication. ADHD is a very real, and very serious condition, but it is also the most misdiagnosed childhood ailment. Only accept a prescription from a very well qualified psychiatrist. Not a psychologist. And only very carefully from a medical doctor. Unless you’re happy to trade away a piece of their souls for a slightly smoother ride…
Thank you for your attention.