10 Things I Want Parents To Know About School

(On embracing failure, the genetic intelligence fallacy, the ‘rigor’ miscorrelation, Twilight, integrity and similar things…)

Dear parents

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.

You can find some useful resources on learning and the brain here and of course on my Twitter feed

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 acquisition, 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.





  1. Agreed. In an ideal world where education is as you and I would like it, medication would not be necessary. Sadly until then, if our kids who DO HAVE ADHD want to survive, medication is helpful. It is only now that I realised that I survived school with my ADHD by swimming before school, walking several kms to school, pacing the corridors at break etc. My Mom bless her heart also fed us properly especially breakfast – porridge with milk, bacon eggs etc. However I still learnt by rote and most of the time was clueless about why I was learning. I don’t know if you saw Dave’s article – http://www.ladd.co.za/adhd-treatment/medication/112-medication-is-only-12-5-of-the-optimal-adhd-treatment-plan


  2. Excellent piece, Sean.

    I studied half an engineering degree. And spent some of my free time going to random humanities lectures that I simply wandered into to get a sampling of what the world was about. I ended up going to a few philosophy lectures, some English lectures, some sociology. I’m very glad I did.

    Those tastes I got allowed me to leave engineering when I realised that it wasn’t the correct vocation for me.

    And now, I use the stuff I learned in engineering every single day of my life. But the humanities ARE my life.

    On your point about Ritalin… I think it’s a dangerous thing to militate against it. Aside from that sort of raging being what Scientologists do, too many parents are terrified of Ritalin. Jennifer teaches 10-year-olds. And several of them over the years have NEEDED Ritalin. They DOOOO have ADHD, and the Ritalin DOES NOT SAP THEIR SOULS! Without the Ritalin, they lose out on education. They are unable to process instructions, and they’re unable to focus on concepts. They end up either glazing over into an understimulated zombie space without it, or they zone out into an overstimulated anxiety space, where they can’t think because the anxiety takes over.

    When kids who SHOULD be on Ritalin ARE on Ritalin, their lives improve. When parents try and ‘test’ things, by leaving the kid off Ritalin for the weekends, it takes them until Wednesday before they become productive members of Jen’s class.

    And Jen’s class isn’t ‘about the academics’. She teaches towards whole-child enhancement. For instance, she has a jobs board. Every week each kid is assigned a new job at random, using a bingo ball machine. The kids who don’t need Ritalin do their jobs well. The kids who are on Ritalin and need it do their jobs well. The kids who need Ritalin and ARE NOT ON IT are incapable of doing their jobs properly, nor with self-satisfaction.

    When your brain chemistry is ‘out’, it NEEDS chemicals to sort it. I am a depression-sufferer. I spent the better part of 30 years fighting against the idea that psychiatric drugs might actually help me. I had the fantasy notion that I’d become a zombie, that my creativity would suffer, that I’d become a sheep. Eventually, the depression got so bad that I decided to deal with it. And I’ve been on Zoloft for about a dozen years now. And it’s made me MORE me than without it. Now the brain works the way it’s supposed to work.

    I’m MORE creative, able to concentrate extremely well. My sense of humour is intact. My reasoning ability is intact. Nothing’s really changed except for the removal of the black dog, and the anxiety.

    What you ARE right about is that it shouldn’t be a GP or psychologist who prescribes Ritalin to kids. It should be a top pediatric psychiatrist OR a pediatric neurologist. Any other person prescribing psychiatric drugs is at best a dilettante, at worst, a criminal. But any parent who refuses to have their child assessed and medicated when it’s needed is failing their child profoundly.


    • Hi Roy. Thanks for your heartfelt and honest comment. I agree that the right medication for the right malady is a life changer. But Ritalin is so often given when it is not needed, just because a teacher thinks a kid cannot sit still or spaces out. My point was that parents need to be very careful before medicating against a problem which might be environmental, not chemical. I have seen people on the wrong medication (for the wrong reasons) losing their depth. I have, in fact, been one of them.


    • Great post but will disagree with you on the last point. Do not always say no to Ritalin. That comment is as dangerous as saying yes to Ritalin when children have been diagnosed with ADHD but don’t have it. Far too often teachers are making/not making this diagnosis. It requires a careful and comprehensive assessment by a psychiatrist, paid, neurologist, GP who has done special ADHD training or a trained psychologist….. Not a teacher. Medication is an important part of a multi disciplinary treatment programme and must be carefully monitored.


      • Hi there. Thanks for the informative comment. I do think we agree on the fundamentals. A great deal of expertise and care are needed in both the diagnosis and prescribing of meds. However, I am convinced that prescribing a dangerous medication where it isn’t needed IS far more dangerous that not prescribing it when it is. Especially with Ritalin. It’s seems to me that it is easier to convince many parents to think that there’s something wrong with their child than it is to convince them there’s something wrong with the system. Where there is a real problem, Ritalin and similar drugs are helpful. But most teachers, parents and even many medical professionals have only a perfunctory idea of what real ADHD involves, and seem all to ready to rush to prescriptions. And to kills young spirits.


    • Psychologists are not allowed to prescribe. We do have a shortage of psychiatrists with waiting periods of several maths. However Prof Andre Vented the number 1*ADHD prof in South Africa and in the top 10 in the world runs an excellent course for GPs. We work with a number of excellent GPs who have done his course.

      80% of all addicts have ADHD because they self medicate. The group least likely to become addicts are optimally medicated ADHD children between 6 & 12. Even less likely than non ADHD children.


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